One of the realities of strength training is you can’t rest on your laurels – or your strength gains. The same workout that tires you out and leads to strength gains when you first start out ultimately stops working if you keep doing it over and over again. No workout works indefinitely.
The burden is on you to keep challenging your body in new ways. You can do that by tweaking a number of training variables, including volume, load, tempo, number of reps, number of sets, exercise order, type of exercise, and reps speed, to work your muscles in a different way. Even making small changes to your routine can often jumpstart growth.
One of the more advanced training methodologies is called PHA training which you will soon see in my Strong and Sweaty series. PHA stands for peripheral heart action training and it’s a demanding approach to training. If you’re just starting out or have been training for less than a year, it’s probably not for you. Keep it on hold until you’ve built up a certain level of strength, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness and you need a more physically demanding approach to wake your body up or break through a plateau.
How PHA Training Works
Where did this training method come from? PHA training dates back to the 1960s when Mr. Universe, Bob Gajda, popularized it. To this day, serious bodybuilders use it when they want to shake up their routine. Like circuit training, it’s a dynamic and fast-paced way to work out and one that places greater demands on your cardiovascular system, yet still leads to gains in strength and muscle size.
The way you structure PHA training is to alternate an upper body strength training exercise with a lower body one. As with circuit training, the goal is to keep the rest periods between each exercise short, no more than 30 seconds. By alternating between upper and lower body with minimal rest, you keep the demands on your heart high.
As you switch between upper and lower body exercises, you send blood flow back and forth between your upper and lower body. Since you want to send large amounts of blood between your upper and lower body, focus on compound exercises, like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, bent-over rows, push-ups, lunges, and dips. Doing these multi-joint exercises burns more calories too and gives your metabolism an added boost.
What Are the Benefits of PHA Training?
What makes PHA training so effective? To meet the added demands of pumping blood between the upper and lower body, your heart has to work harder. This type of training is more challenging to the cardiovascular system than even a traditional circuit workout. Is it an alternative to traditional cardio?
A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed that PHA workouts increase maximum oxygen consumption as well as muscle strength. During the workout, participants maintained a heart rate of between 60 and 80% of maximal heart rate, enough to offer cardiovascular benefits. After 12 weeks of training, the participants also experienced a reduction in systolic blood pressure. If you’re pressed for time, you can challenge your cardiovascular system and build strength in a single workout with PHA training.
PHA workouts are also good for fat loss. The demanding nature of this type of workout forces your body to burn more calories and body fat than standard strength training. So, if you’re trying to get strong, but also shed some body fat, PHA offers both benefits. Another advantage of PHA training is you’re limiting lactic acid build-up and fatigue. When you build up lactic acid in your upper body and the muscles fatigue, you switch to the lower body where the muscles have had enough recovery time to generate force again. With PHA, your upper body recovers while your lower body works and vice versa. In that sense, it’s a time expedient way to work out too.
How Do You Do PHA Training?
PHA training is a flexible way to train with the option of using a variety of exercises. Start by selecting 4 to 6 exercises that alternate between upper and lower body. If the first exercise you do is squats, the second one might be overhead presses or bent-over rows. The idea behind PHA training is to do switch back and forth between upper body and lower body so that blood flow is funneled between the upper and lower body. This, in combination with short rest periods, is what gives the cardiovascular benefits you get from this type of training. Keep the rest period between exercises to 30 seconds or less. Letting your body recover defeats the purpose. Once you’ve completed the circuit, rest for one minute and repeat.
How heavy should you lift? With PHA workouts, go a little lighter than you would for a standard hypertrophy workout, around 50 to 70% of one-rep max. Then aim for 10 to 12 reps per exercise. Just as with standard strength training, you’ll need to increase the intensity of PHA training over time by increasing the number of reps, shortening the rest periods, or by lifting a heavier weight.
After doing a PHA workout, you’ll understand why you don’t want to do one every time you work out. The demand on your body is substantial. You could use it as part of a periodization scheme but make sure you’ve worked up a baseline level of fitness. Always begin by doing a 5-minute warm-up as well.
The Bottom Line
Peripheral heart action training offers multiple fitness benefits. It’s more challenging to your cardiovascular system than standard circuit training and burns more calories. Plus, you’re placing enough of a stimulus on your muscles to build strength and size. This assumes you’re using a weight that’s toward the upper end of the suggested range, around 70% of one-rep max. Just as importantly, it can help you break out of a frustrating training plateau. So, if you’re looking for a workout protocol that challenges you in a new way, PHA might be for you. Why not give it a try?
Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015 Apr;115(4):763-73. doi: 10.1007/s00421-014-3057-9. Epub 2014 Nov 27.
Peripheral Heart Action Training: “What’s Old is New Again” Len Kravitz, Ph.D.