Dr. Mike T. Nelson: The Truth About Changing Your Metabolism

Dr. Mike T. Nelson is one of the most knowledgeable people in human performance, and he’s got the resume to prove it. Dr. Nelson joins us to talk about metabolic flexibility and how to determine whether your body is more tuned to utilize fat or carbohydrates for fuel. He also discusses the most ignored metabolic pathway for top athletes and tells us what many aspiring CrossFit Games competitors are still getting wrong. 

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, guest Dr. Mike T. Nelson and host David Thomas Tao discuss:

  • Mike’s initial interest in performance — and how a lack of musculature motivated him toward fitness (2:30)
  • Why it took Mike nearly 4 years to gain 30 pounds of muscle as a beginner (4:40)
  • Early mistakes in Mike’s fitness journey (5:10)
  • Transitioning away from biomedical engineering (8:30)
  • Defining HRV and metabolic flexibility (14:50) (for more context, check out our podcast with WHOOP CEO Will Ahmed)
  • How the body balances energy from fat vs. carbs, and how pros like Mike can measure which you’re using more efficiently (17:00)
  • A quick at-home test to see if your body utilizes fat or carbohydrates more efficiently (18:10)
  • Tips for optimizing diet for your body’s energy preferences (20:00)
  • How stress impacts recovery across multiple systems (23:30)
  • A high-performance athlete feels sluggish, brain fog, and plateauing progress: What’s wrong when everything should be going well? (25:00)
  • Testing your personal aerobic capacity and estimating your VO2 max (26:10)
  • Why aerobic capacity is so underrated (and often ignored) among elite athletes (27:00)
  • Why adding more metcons isn’t always the answer for top CrossFit athletes (32:00)
  • How ego gets in the way of client progress (35:00)
  • Why top CrossFit athletes are winning both aerobic and anaerobic events (36:40)
  • Advice for powerlifters taking performance to the next level (39:05)

Relevant links and further reading:


Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

 …because they’re so used to just adding more metcons. Then they’re like, “I can’t figure out why I still feel like crap. I’ve added more metcons. I kind of initially got better at metcons for the first four weeks. Now I’ve plateaued on those too, and I’m just trying harder all the time and I feel worse. I can’t figure out what’s going on.”

They’re adding more stress on that anaerobic system, but the recovery of that — so the ability to get your body back to your homeostatic baseline — that’s all primarily driven by your aerobic system.

If that’s lagging behind, it’s going to take you quite a while to recover from those higher-intensity sessions.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the BarBend podcast, where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

Today, I’m talking to Dr. Mike T. Nelson. Dr. Nelson’s resume is one of the most impressive of anyone in sports performance, he’s a PhD in Exercise Physiology, a BA in Natural Science, and an MS in Biomechanics.

He’s also an adjunct professor and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine. The first part of our chat focuses on Mike’s educational background.

A little later on, we get into the nitty-gritty on metabolism, tweaking diets, and how your individual metabolic profile can impact performance. It’s really interesting stuff for athletes and, honestly, people of every level.

It’s something I think most strength athletes in particular aren’t paying enough attention to. Do you digest fat better or do you digest carbs better? How do you tell things about your individual metabolic profile? These questions and more we get to in this conversation.

I also want to take a second to say, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend podcast in your app of choice. Now, let’s get to it.

Dr. Mike T. Nelson, thank you so much for joining us today. For those who might not be familiar with your work and your many, many qualifications — we’ll go into that in a second — how did your interest in human performance come about and how long have you been in this industry?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

I probably started like most typical males. I was in high school and if you had the option of having me play on your team or not play on your team, you would play with one person short. [laughs] I was not only the last person picked, it was the discussion of, “Oh, do we have to have him? Or not? Can we just play with the one person short?”

Then started college. I’m 6’3″ so I was the same height, and I have been since probably about ninth grade. Even after my first year of college, I still weighed around 156 pounds so very much the eel-shaped rake.

I thought, “Well, maybe I should look into doing some form of exercise.” I had been interested in biology and physiology before that. Even in my first year I took anatomy and physiology. I was at St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota.

It was one of the rare schools where even as an undergrad, their anatomy and physiology class actually used cadavers, and they got new cadavers every quarter.

I was able to take that and was fascinated by looking at all the different anatomy and physiology and continued to take more anatomy and physiology classes literally just for fun because I thought it was interesting. It’s how I got started.

David TaoDavid Tao

Finding an interest in an attraction to strength training because [laughs] you might not be great at other sports. That’s something that’s familiar [laughs] to, I think, a lot of people in strength sports.

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

Oh, boy.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s [laughs] maybe a bit of a stereotype. Those who can’t play ball, lift weights. Certainly it is something where finding a passion for strength training comes in many different forms.

When you first started out and started developing this interest in physiology and training, were there any particular goals in mind? Or, was it just to get stronger and more muscular and that sort of thing?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

My main goal at the time was long-term to probably get close to 200 pounds. Like some people start, they never lifted and they start lifting and everything goes pretty well. I wasn’t really one of those people. I made every mistake known to man, and it took me, probably four years just to get to 185 pounds.

I eventually did get over 200 and the highest I ever got up to was 245. Literally, most of that was just trying to lift a little bit better. I did all the same mistakes everybody makes of doing the same routine everyday.

I remember [laughs] a guy who was at the weight room at college. He was like, “Do you realize you’re doing the same routine everyday?” I’m like, “Um, yeah.” He’s like, “That’s probably not the best idea.” I’m like, “Oh really?” [laughs] Now, looking back, I’m like, “Well, of course, that seems like a horrible idea.”

You read the Internet, which was a new thing back then, and there was a one-day-a-week program. I thought, “Well, if I just do that five days a week, then that would be better, right? More must be better.” Yeah, make all the same mistakes.

I guess my main goal was to get to over 200 pounds. Eventually did get there, had a few injuries along the way, and did all sorts of very stupid stuff.

Even now, looking back, it’s hard now that you’re older and you look back and you see younger people. You’re like, “I’m going to give them some wisdom of what they should or should not do.” It doesn’t always work so well, even if they’re paying clients a lot of times. I don’t know if you can ever permanently dissuade people from making mistakes.

I guess my newer philosophy is let them make their own mistakes but try to limit the downside. Make sure they don’t have any catastrophic injuries, make sure they don’t get really injured, think just screwing up as part of the process.

You can talk to most anyone in the industry, and they’ll just tell you a laundry list of all the mistakes that they made. It’s a good way to learn and get experience, too.


David TaoDavid Tao

It’s like being a parent if you’re working with someone on training or nutrition. You have to let them make their mistakes but, like you said, “Limiting that downside.” Making sure it’s no mistake that’s going to follow them for the rest of their life, that’s the balance.

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

The reality is that’s how most humans learn. Everybody says, “Oh, it’d be great to learn from other people’s mistakes.” In theory, that would be nice. Rarely in practice do I find it happens that way. [laughs]


David TaoDavid Tao

This is a direct quote from your website. Don’t get mad at me if it sounds weird when I say it. I quote, “More certifications and degrees than we can throw a kettle bell at.”

You are someone who exists very much at the intersection of physical preparation and performance optimization and nutritional preparation and performance optimization. Tell us a little bit about the educational path that you took to get to where you are in your career.

You don’t interact with that many people in the fitness industry these days who have 18 years of higher education under their belt. You do. How does one find that educational path? You must have just loved school.

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

I don’t know if I really loved school as much as I loved the process of learning. Changed degree paths three times along the way, so that’ll [laughs] definitely extend stuff out.

Like I said, I did my undergrad at St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. Did a Bachelor of Arts in Natural Science because I wanted more of a background on communications and other things that I know if I just went into engineering only I wouldn’t have. My goal was to do biomedical engineering.

At the time, in the early ’90s, it wasn’t really a thing, per se, there was areas that did it. Trying to find a job at the end was very hard. Literally, I had people in the HR department tell me, “Oh, we don’t have a checkbox for biomedical engineering. We just throw those resumes out.” [laughs] I’m like, “What? That seems insane.”

I did that, did my undergrad, and then went to Michigan Tech University in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — where it was even colder and more snowy in the winter, which was fine with me.

Did two years there of all engineering stuff, did another two and a half years there to do a master’s in mechanical engineering, primarily looking more at biomechanics. That’s my area of focus, the advanced study of how crap breaks. I was looking at, initially, internal bone fixation for some different devices, ended up not being able to get funding.

I ended up doing heat transfer. I did a computer-generated model of a monkey in front of a microwave transmitter, which at the time, they told me, was for safety on collision avoidance systems on cars.

This was back in the mid-’90s. Later, it turns out, it was the military wanted to make their own ray gun to shoot at a group of people for non-lethal crowd dispersion.

David TaoDavid Tao

They were harnessing your brainpower and your research to develop a non-lethal weapon and you had no idea?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

Yeah, literally. My advisor sent me a note five years later. It was this little clipping out of the side of a newspaper that says, “Military declassifies ray gun.” He goes, “Yeah, this is your research.” I’m like, “Well, you didn’t tell me it was classified.”

I said, “I thought it was weird that three people from Brooks Air Force Base showed up on the study that I submitted and got published.” He’s like, “Yeah, it was so classified, we couldn’t tell you it was classified.” I’m like, “That’s great.” Luckily enough it got published, I was able to get done with that.

I started working in the medical device industry actually, worked in cardiology products for 10-plus years, looking at implantable pacemakers, defibrillators, everything from how to read EKGs, how does the device work. Talking to a lot of reps, nurses, physicians.

Everything from a patient who had a device who’s afraid to get near their microwave so they were standing around the corner trying to close the door with a broomstick, to electro-physiologist that just put in the new device and the lead little wires that run in the heart is tangled around the value, “What do they do now?” A wide variety of stuff.

Along that time I was still trying to learn about physiology and I was going to go back and do a master’s in physiology. I met a guy who worked for a different company and he’s like, “Well, why would you do a master’s? You should just do a PhD in biomedical engineering,” which was more accepted at that time.

I’m like, “OK. That sounds a little bit better, I guess.” Finally, I applied to the University of Minnesota. It took me about two-and-a-half years to get into the program for PhD in biomedical engineering. Long story short, it was…application process was weird.

I got annoyed at the end so I figured out who was the guy who had to decide and I literally just started showing up outside his office every day for three-and-a-half weeks [laughs] during a set period of time when he was supposed to be there.

Towards the end of the third week, he finally shows up and I said, “Hey, can I talk to you about my application?” He’s like, “Yeah, sure, sit down.” He was like, “I don’t know, I’ve never seen it. I don’t know where it went. I don’t know what happened to it.”

There was these papers strewn all over his desk. You could barely see his head, buried behind books and paper. I don’t know why I just jokingly said, “Is it in that purple folder?” which was literally buried under six books.

As soon as I said it I was like, “My God, this is so bad. He’s going to kick me out of his office.” He picks it up and looks inside and was like, “I’ll be damned, it is.” [laughs]

I was like, “OK.” He looks at it and he goes, “Your master’s GPA is pretty low.” It was a 3.5. He looks at my GRE score and he’s like, “Is this a typo?” [laughs] “The advice I got which is horrible was, “Don’t worry so much about the GRE. You’ve been taking classes here for two-and-a-half years. Just walk in and take it.”

Like an idiot, that’s what I did. I didn’t do so well on the math section. I did really good on the vocab and the writing. I did horrible on the math. My overall score wasn’t too bad but it was literally the inverse of everyone who applies for engineering school.

I got in luckily. I was on probation literally for a year and a half. I did it for five years actually but I couldn’t get any funding so I ended up dropping out of that because I would spend all my free time learning about physiology, going to physiology conferences, going to conferences that trainers would go to.

I would basically sit there and annoy them about research studies. I’m like, “Hey, did you see this research study?” They’d look at me really funny. I’m like, “You guys are personal trainers and coaches, right? Don’t you read research?” Most of the time they are like, “No, that’s why we come to these things.”

“Oh.” [laughs] I ended up not wanting to do anymore math…went on to the Physiology Department, the PhD program there for exercise physiology that fall…had to start over from ground zero.

The first meeting I have, it’s a department meeting, my adviser walks in and he’s like, “Hey, we got two new projects and they both involve a lot of math” which, when you’re an exercise physicist student you don’t take a lot of advanced math.

You’re not really taking Calc. 4 and differential equations and [inaudible 14:31] equations and variability analysis and all this stuff. He looks around the table and he points at me at the end. He’s like, “Hey you, math boy, whatever your name is. These projects are yours now.” That’s how I got started with heart-rate variability and metabolic flexibility about almost 13 years ago now.


David TaoDavid Tao

For those who might not be super familiar, we’ve actually talked about heart-rate variability on a separate podcast. We had Will, the CEO of WHOOP come on. We talked about that at length. Metabolic flexibility and also flexible dieting is also something I know you’re very keen on and you work with a lot of clients on.

What is metabolic flexibility and how does it apply to maybe the average person performing strength training or just trying to get stronger?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

It’s one of those concepts that initially at the time I had never heard of it and I had read a fair amount of physiology and stuff at the time. The guy I was working within the department explained it to me and I’m like, “Oh, that seems too simple, right?”

In fitness everyone is like, “Fat is the best fuel because we want to get leaner and it provides so much more ATP than carbohydrates.” Then you had people on the other side that are like, “No, if you’re doing strength and power stuff you need to use carbohydrates for lifting weights. It’s a better performance fuel. You can get ATP. You can get energy at a much faster rate.”

To me those are stupid arguments because your body ideally runs on bulk. It ideally runs on fat and carbohydrates. It just depends upon what you are doing at that time. Metabolic flexibility is how well your body can use fat, how well can your body use carbohydrates, and then how well can it switch back and forth between those two, depending upon what the task is.

If you are doing a well-intensity worker, you’re just hanging out in a fasted state, you want the ability to use as much fat as possible. There’s no need to use carbohydrates. However, if you’re trying to get a PR and your 500-meter time on the rower and you’re doing some hideous conditioning or an old school gold star 5×5 on [inaudible 16:47] or something like that, you actually want the ability to use carbohydrates to a high degree.

Metabolic flexibility is how well you can use fat, how well can you use carbohydrates, and how well can you switch back and forth between them depending upon what is the task or the exercise or the thing that you’re trying to do at that time.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some means that you use or that people can use to measure their rate of metabolic flexibility or how well their body is using these two different energy sources in a given period?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

In the lab there’s a couple of different ways. The main way is looking at something called the metabolic heart which your listeners have probably seen. If you’re on a treadmill you’ve got these tubes that come out of your mouth and go into their backpack device or a separate computer looking thing.

David TaoDavid Tao

Not your average treadmill. Your treadmill in a lab. [laughs]

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

Yeah. In a lab with another piece of equipment. What that will tell you as you inhale and exhale air, it’ll tell you the percentage of fat and carbohydrates you’re using at any one moment in time, in what’s called indirect calorimetry.

That’s one way of looking at acutely per task, what energy system are you using, and what percentage of that — are you using more fat? Are you using more carbohydrates?

In research studies, then they’ll look at different things of possibly giving you an IV of a bunch of insulin or a bunch to glucose. Some of ’em will use different types of meals. Maybe we’ll give you a meal that’s super-high in carbohydrates, and then we’ll watch to see how you switch to use carbs and how you come back.

There’s different ways with more fancy equipment that you can do that. If you don’t have access to any of that equipment and you’re looking more for what is a field test, what I use on the fat end of the spectrum is fasting as a proxy for fat use.

If you tell me that you have a very hard time going more than two and a half hours while you’re awake without having to eat something, I would say your ability to use fat is probably not the best. If you can go 8, 10 hours pretty easily, you’re probably doing pretty good.

On the other end of the spectrum, on the carbohydrate end of the spectrum, I’ve used what I call the Pop-Tart test. [laughs] You have two Pop-Tarts for breakfast in the morning, then see how you feel.

The goal is not to have Pop-Tarts for breakfast every morning, but if it’s 30 minutes, and you’re passed out asleep under your kitchen table in an insulin-induced stupor, you probably can’t handle carbohydrates all that well in a resting state.

However, if you don’t really feel that bad, you’re probably going to be OK. You can get fancy a measure, blood glucose excursions, or insulin if you’ve lab equipment and stuff. We’re looking at, if we can give you literally 80 grams of some highly-processed carbohydrate, how well can you handle that and how well do you feel?

I’d say those are two endpoints you can use as approximations.

David TaoDavid Tao

What lessons can people take if you’re working with a client, and you find that maybe they’re not handling those processed carbs super well? What lessons can you use or give them as far as improving their ability to tolerate different energy sources or optimizing their use of those energy sources?

Is it changes to their diet? Are there other prescriptions you might give as far as timing their activity? How do we use those inferences in order to optimize performance on the individual level?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

If I find someone has a hard time using carbohydrates, one of my first question is, what is their general background diet? What has it historically been?

I’ve worked with, I guess,, more clients lately who have done a hardcore more ketogenic-type diet, so super-high-fat, very-low-carbohydrate, low- to moderate-protein, and have tried switching over to a little bit more carbohydrates on their own and run into issues.

If you have someone coming from that background, their body is probably pretty good at using fat, but it got used to doing that a little bit at the expense of carbohydrate usage. Just like exercise, use it or lose it.

If you’re not running that carbohydrate glycolysis end of the spectrum really hard, it’s going to downturn a little bit.

We know from studies looking at that — sometimes called PDH, pyruvate dehydrogenase — it’s kind of the gatekeeper to glycolysis, or your body’s ability to use carbohydrates to a very high degree.

We do know that that does change on a very high-fat diet. Actually, it gets turned down a little bit, 3 to 10 percent, somewhere around there. If that’s the case, I’m probably going to go pretty gradual on slowly increasing carbohydrates.

As you mentioned with timing, I may play around with adding more carbohydrates after a heavyweight training session. We know that weight training, just muscular contraction in and of itself, does help temporarily sensitize you more to the effect of glucose.

The main effect of that there is something called GLUT4 translocation. These little receptors that pull in glucose into the muscle cell — with exercise, they tend to go more to the outside of the cell so your body is more receptive to carbohydrates at that time.

Even things that people forget like just general movement, what’s called the non-insulin-mediated uptake…but we don’t really need insulin per se. That muscle contraction — just going for a walk or some simple movement — can actually pull glucose directly out of the bloodstream.

If someone is having a harder time with carbohydrates, I’m going to look to see, do they do any higher-intensity weight training? Do they do any type of interval work? What is their baseline amount of carbohydrates with how they feel? We’re going to possibly look at timing, so maybe adding more carbohydrates after a heavier weight training-type session.

I use a proxy like a step count. If they say, “I only get like 3,000 steps a day,” I know that their non-insulin-mediated uptake, so just pulling glucose out the bloodstream just by muscle contraction is probably going to be pretty low compared to someone who says, “Yeah, I get about eight to nine thousand steps per day.”

Again, a lot more movement, a lot more walking around probably going to be better able to pull glucose out. Once those are in place, you can look a little bit further down at stress levels. Stress throws a big monkey wrench into all of it. As I mentioned, I do use heart rate variability to get an idea of what their baseline stress is.

I do things like an ordering to look at an idea of sleep or just simple when they go to bed and when they get up. If they have sleep impairments, whether that’s short duration sleep or quality of sleep is less, actually become very metabolically inflexible pretty fast. There’s some studies showing that a single night of, basically, poor sleep, you’ll be more insulin resistant the next day.

Chronically, they did a study with healthy individuals, college-age people for four days. They cut their sleep from eight hours to four and a half hours and they became very metabolically inflexible by the end of the study. They had a poor use of fats as a fuel. They actually started putting out more fat into the bloodstream, so triglycerides — fats in the blood — actually went up.

They also had a bad use or poor use of carbohydrates. Yet their carbohydrates in the blood like glucose actually went up also. They got whacked from both ends of the spectrum just from dramatically cutting their sleep. Other things like that can have a pretty big role, too.

David TaoDavid Tao

What do you think is the most underrated factor when it comes to be at metabolic flexibility or just general performance and how your body is operating optimally using energy, and utilize energy pathways? What’s the most underrated factor in your experience when it comes to that?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

 I would say right now with a general trend would be aerobic capacity. I’ve seen more clients recently — recently been over the last couple of years — who are doing weight training five to six days a week which is great but their report is, “I just can’t recover from sessions. My body comp is stalled. My brain feels foggy during the day. My energy level is low. I don’t know what’s going on.”

You send them to their doc for blood work. The blood work is pretty good. Their stress is a little bit high but not crazy high. They’re sleepers. OK, not amazing but not horrible. On the surface, all this stuff you look at, you’re like, “Everything should be going pretty good.” A lot of these are actually trainers themselves, so work with a lot of trainers and coaches.

What I find in a lot of the cases that when we do some type of assessment of their aerobic capacity, there could be something as simple as a Cooper run test. If you don’t have any fancy equipment, take 12 minutes and see how far you can run. Now, they give you an approximation of your VO2 max. VO2 max is your aerobic top-in, so to speak.

Anaerobically, we think us having your one rep max. Aerobically, we can think of VO2 max as a corollary to that. If you’re using a rower or if you have someone who’s maybe mechanically, you don’t really trust them for running for 12 minutes due to may injure themselves or other things, you can put them on a rower like a Concept 2 rower. You can have them do a 2,000 meter, what’s known as a 2k.

From that, as some good equations on the Concept 2 site that have been validated, that will give you an idea of where their VO2 max is and how they compare to other populations. What I’ve seen from some of these people is that their aerobic capacity is literally bottom 20 percent. Sometimes, it’s really, really low.

David TaoDavid Tao

Even these people who are extensively fit? They’re going to the gym five or six days a week.

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

Yeah, if you look at them a lot of times their body comp is good. I won’t say amazing sometimes or they’re not at where their goal wants to be. By all stretch of the imagination, you would look at them and go, “Yep, that’s a pretty fit, relatively healthy, ‘looking person.'”

If you think about what’s going on, the main energy source during the day when you’re not doing, let’s say, weight training is going to come from your aerobic capacity. You’re using oxygen and ideally, you’d want to use fat as the main fuel for that. How well can you take those two and convert it into ATP or energy? If that’s going to be low, that system is going to be more taxed just by day-to-day living.

The analogy I use is if you want to do the NFL combine test and you want to see how many reps on the bench press you can get with 225. Say, you’ve got athlete A that can bench press 400 pounds for a single rep. You’ve got athlete B who can bench press 250 for a single rep. Wow, I would much rather train athlete A who can do 400 for a single rep.

They have a much, much higher threshold of where they can go. Their base strength is much higher. Even though it may not be specifically tuned for that test yet, it’s probably relatively easy to get them to do a pretty high number. If your VO2 max is higher…Again, you don’t need to get crazy.

You are not having to do ultramarathons or anything like that, or trying to break a two-hour marathon or some crazy stuff like that. Just better your day-to-day taxing on that system is going to be a lot less. Your baseline stress is going to be better. A lot of these clients, their resting heart rate is relatively high.

It’s a compared to the population, it’s pretty good but see it first thing in the morning. They’re in the high 50s to low 60s, which by general-population standard is not really that bad. By athletic standards or comparing them to other athletes I’ve worked with, it’s definitely on the higher side.

I think getting their aerobic capacity built up, especially trying to use more fat to fuel that up to a point, is going to be a benefit. A lot more fasted cardio, which I know it has its own little baggage that comes with it, lower-to-moderate intensity work, especially for the first six-day weeks to get that base built up.

David TaoDavid Tao

You’re not going to throw these people into a super-high-intensity boot camp or crazy CrossFit metcon to get them building up that capacity? You’re going to ramp them up gradually?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

Yeah, a lot more gradual. Ideally, I would have it be fasted because I want a low level of insulin. I want a more metabolic stimulus to push their body to use fat as a fuel. I’m going to cap the intensity level by a couple of ways. One, if they don’t have a heart rate monitor, just breathe through your nose. That’ll automatically cap you, even if you’re really, really good at it.

You’re probably going to stay more on your aerobic side by doing that. If they have a heart rate monitor, you can start them with the Phil Maffetone equation, which is 180 minus their age. It’s out the Karvonen, which is 220 minus age or 180 minus their age.

If they’re 40, their max heart rate during some of this aerobic base building would only be 140 beats per minute, which is really not that high. I will do that and then the other part that is really hard for a lot of clients, as you mentioned kind of metcons. Metcons to me, on a bioenergetic scale, are their own little animal.

They are not going to be intense enough that you can get an actual VO2 max. If you said, “I want to get maximal aerobic adaptations,” I actually would not have people do metcons. To me, that’s more of an anaerobic adaptation.

If you look at what are this things you can get a max VO2, so we can plot to how well your body can use oxygen via that system, you’re going to be left with biking, running, VersaClimber, cross-country skiing, and rowing. Maybe if you’re an elite swimmer but most people aren’t an elite swimmer.

One of those five modalities and lifting weights faster is not one of them, which really makes a lot of people sad. [laughs] They’re so used to just adding more metcons and then they’re like, “I can’t figure out why I still feel like crap. I’ve added more metcons. I initially got better at metcons for the first four weeks. Now, I’ve plateaued on those, too. I’m just trying harder all the time and I feel worse. I can’t figure out what’s going on.”

They’re adding more stress on that anaerobic system. The recovery of that, the ability to get your body back to your homeostatic baseline, that’s all primarily driven by your aerobic system. If that’s lagging behind, it’s going to take you quite a while to recover from those higher-intensity sessions.


David TaoDavid Tao

It’s interesting. Certainly, if you were to sit down with a lot of CrossFit athletes or high-intensity athletes and give them this news, it would be something where you’d expect some disappointment and maybe terror on their face, “Wait, I have to slow down? I have to dial back the intensity?” [laughs]

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

Yeah, and if I’m perfectly honest, I’ve lost clients because of that. I’ve worked with moderate-level CrossFit competitors, not super-elite per se. Man, the general story goes, “Hey, I want to get to this level.” I look at, “OK, where is your strength?” Couple of them were like, “Well.” “You’re just not strong enough. It’s going to be a two-to-five-year process to get your strength up.”

Then they usually don’t hire me anyway. When their strength is pretty good, I’m like, “OK, your strength is in the ballpark.” One guy, in particular, his resting heart rate was 61. Then I’m like, “OK, strong dude was doing pretty good.” Anytime the metcon got longer, he just got killed by everybody else. If it was very short and very power-driven, he did pretty darn good.

Ruined another body he competed against was almost the same size, same body type. I said, “Well, it’s probably your aerobic base.” We had him do some of the aerobic tests and he was good but he was not amazing. He wants to compete against people who were at a very high level.

I’m like, “Most of the athletes I know you would be competing against, their resting heart rate is in the low 40s seated in the morning. Their VO2 max is way higher than yours. There have the ability to recover in very short periods of time between very hard events and even probably do OK on some of the more aerobic events.”

If you’re forgetting, even at the CrossFit Games, the two years ago now, they did a marathon row. That’s incredibly aerobic and also just beyond friggin’ brutal. That’s highly aerobic. Anyway, you try to tell them, “Hey, here’s what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a six-day weeks of old-school, low-intensity, aerobic-base building. You’re probably only going to do one matcon a week.

“Yeah, we’ll keep your strength up. What’s going to happen is probably people in your gym, who would you do metcons against, they are probably going to beat you. They’re probably going to beat you pretty bad for about six to eight months.” It’s like, “Is your ego going to be able to handle that because we are not going to be training that system. You can’t really ride two horses with one ass.

“But trust me it, once we get this built up, we’ll get your metcon times back. It’ll take about four to six weeks and you’ll do much better than you did before. Your frequency of being able to repeat those events will be much better.”

I’ve had clients fire me halfway through because their ego couldn’t take people at their gym. A lot of times they were the person running the gym and started beating them on metcons. I’m like, “Yep, it’s going to happen.” [laughs]

You don’t have all day to train, you’ve got to run a gym, you have a life, and a lot of them have family and kids, and everything else. Even look at high-level CrossFit. Look at Mat Fraser. He was doing pretty good, finished in the top 10 in the CrossFit Games, but he said, “I want to win.”

He worked with Chris Hinshaw. I think he skipped the Games the next year because Chris basically told him that, “Hey, you’re going to have to probably sit out one year and work on these things.” When he came back, he just dominated everyone.

David TaoDavid Tao

Actually, he didn’t skip out. He got second in his first year at the Games, second in his second year at the Games and now he’s won four years in a row as of this recording.

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

I couldn’t remember if he skipped the year, or he basically spent much of the one year working on it though, but yeah.

David TaoDavid Tao

Chris Hinshaw is someone who’s worked with a lot of top-level Games athletes, to take them from just being pretty good lifters and really good at metcons, to also being able to handle the endurance pieces.

That’s why we see these top athletes like Fraser or Tia-Claire Toomey. Even though they’re among the stronger athletes, they’re dominating on the metcons, but they’re also winning the distance events.

In the CrossFit…

…Games like six or seven years ago, the athletes who generally finished on the podium were not the athletes who were winning the really, really long more “traditional endurance-based pieces” but now they are. I think it speaks to the credibility of building that aerobic capacity just to recover from everything.

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

To me, it’s fascinating that I would have never predicted that they could have gotten that high in aerobic capacity and still maintain strength and speed and power. Again, are they as strong as powerlifters than Olympic weightlifters? No.

Considering what they do, I am pretty shocked that they’re able to get to the levels that they did, but, yeah, I agree that a lot of that with the missing piece was aerobic development.

In both cases they’re already pretty strong, pretty good speed and power but the longer things went and the longer exercises went on, you would see them drop off. Again, it’s not like they did really bad. They beat most everybody else [laughs] but to be the best of the best, that was the missing component for them.

David TaoDavid Tao

We’ve talked a lot about you…we get [inaudible 38:25] crossfitters and how you may work the crossfitter to… [laughs] I hate to use the term break them down to build them back up in a way, at least ego wise.

What are some of the lessons, if you have a client who’s maybe a powerlifter or an Olympic weightlifter where endurance is not so much the priority, at least endurance in performing their activity of choice isn’t the priority. What are some of the main tools are that you’re going to use in working with them and in starting off an engagement with them in order to improve their performance?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

A lot of times it’s very similar but the scale is entirely different. One of the questions I would ask them is, if it is a powerlifter, and I’ve work with a fare amount of powerlifters and I’ve work with a lot of Olympic weightlifters, what is your main issue? Because nobody comes to me and goes, “Yeah, everything is great coach. I just want to get better.”

That never happens. It would be great if it did, but it just doesn’t. A lot of times it’s mostly what I deal with is recovery. Whether it’s a mechanics issue with the shoulder, or they’re just burned out or they can only handle training for four weeks and then just collapse. I did literally the same thing. What’s your resting hear rate?

What’s your HRV, what’s your aerobic capacity, what’s obviously your max list because that’s what counts the most? Then you try to figure out what’s the weak link. You’re like, “If you can only handle training super-heavy three days a week and your max strength is pretty good already, but it needs to get a little bit better, and I look at your aerobic capacity and it’s absolute dog crap unless you’re peaking for a meet.”

I’m like, “Hmm, maybe we should work on that and get it up a little bit. Maybe you only need to go from the bottom 10 percent to 30 percent.” We’re not asking you to run an ultramarathons or anything like that. Every time that we’ve done that, their ability to recover from their anaerobic training goes up.

Now, you’re able to train not three days a week, but four days a week, maybe even five days a week. If I can almost double the amount of reps you can take and keep that quality high and keep the work output high you’re obviously going to get better a lot faster because you’re getting in more quality practice, you’re getting in more tension, you’re getting in more of everything else.

You have the ability to recover from it. What I’ve seen with a fair amount of lifters is that a lot of times that’s actually the great limiter. If you think about it, people who are really good at lifting heavy weights are probably the same people who hate any type of aerobic training.

You can even make the argument. You go to the West Side you talk to Louis and they do a ton of GPP, they do a ton of volume because they just found that lifters seem to get better doing it. I think even with powerlifting now especially with weight class athletes where body comp is a big issue and not just dealing with super-heavyweight athletes.

Now you’ve got another reason that some type of aerobic training can be beneficial. The caveat though is as best I can split them out on entirely different days, because I don’t want any type of interference effect. With most people who are brand new to lifting, you don’t really have to worry about interference effect.

Even with someone who is doing CrossFit, their aerobic training would usually be ideally in the morning, primarily fasted if it’s low-to-moderate intensity. Their weight training stuff would be primarily fed higher carbohydrates usually in the afternoon or on its own separate day.

The higher the level the athlete is, the more I get very hyper specific with “OK, this training session, what is the number one thing we’re trying to focus on?” Maybe it’s only speed and power, maybe it’s just low reps. The more elite the athlete gets, the more you have to be very specific with the adaptations that you want because you only have a limited amount of recovery ability.

Because they’re at a very high level, it’s going to take a much higher amount of stimulus to get them to that next level also.

David TaoDavid Tao

Dr. Nelson, these have been fantastic lessons not only for the highest-level athletes but I think for folks at home when it comes to starting to identify issues they have with performance. There are a lot of strength athletes walking around who might perform at a relatively high level compared to the general population.

If they feel like crap, there’s something going on there and I think a lot of folks listening to this will certainly be able to relate to that. I really love those examples and those actionable steps that you outlined. Where can folks find out more about what you’re doing, get in contact and generally stay up-to-date with the work you do with clients and also the content you put out online?

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

Thank you for that. I appreciate it. I’d say the same concepts apply to someone who’s starting or even a beginner-intermediate athlete. OK, you have a session Monday and you’re training at 4:00 PM. You should be able to tell me what is the number one goal of that session.

If you can’t and are just like, “This sounds cool,” then you probably want to rethink your training program a little bit. That doesn’t mean you have to only do one thing. You can use mixed modes but you should still have a main goal for it. The best ways to find me would be the website which is miketnelson.com.

I also have a certification that’s on recovery. Looking at primarily nutrition, different things such as also sleep, a little bit of exercise and that’s using the concept of metabolic flexibility and flexible dieting. That’s at flexdiet.com. Those would be the two best places. There will be a little place you can get on the newsletter there also.

Most of the content I have, probably 90-plus percent of it actually goes out through the newsletter. The newsletter is free so either one of those two places, miketnelson.com or flexdiet.com, and be able to get on the newsletter and get all the info.

David TaoDavid Tao

Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us. We do appreciate you taking the time.

Dr. Mike T. NelsonDr. Mike T. Nelson

Thank you so much. Greatly appreciate it.