What Is Peripheral Heart Action Training, and How Can It Help Your Running?

This combo of strength and cardiovascular work gives you “big bang for your workout buck.”


BY DANIELLE ZICKL |

New workout trends crop up all the time—some, like HIIT and circuit training, catch on for the long haul. Both of these modalities get your heart pumping and your muscles burning, making them the go-to cross-training activities for runners.

But there’s another training modality that’s been around for decades and coming back into the mix called peripheral heart action (PHA) training, that may be even more beneficial for stronger, speedier miles. To find out what the advantages of PHA workouts are and how to use them in your training, we chatted with Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S., a trainer in the St. Louis area, and Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder and CEO of TS Fitness in New York City.

What Is Peripheral Heart Action (PHA) Training?

While PHA training has been around since the 1940s and was subsequently used by bodybuilders in the ’60s, its popularity among a broader range of athletes—including those focused on endurance—is growing as of late.

According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), PHA training is similar to circuit training in that you move from exercise to exercise with little to no rest, but with PHA training, you purposely alternate between upper- and lower-body movements.

The blood circulates between your upper and lower body and builds better muscle strength and

endurance because you can maximise your efforts

While the upper-to-lower-body format of a PHA workout is fixed, there’s room to play with the structure of it, according to Thomas. You can do a timed workout (for example, 1 to 3 sets of 30 seconds or 1 minute per exercise with 0 to 2 minutes rest between sets), or you can work by sets and reps (for example, 2 to 4 sets of 12 to 15 reps with 0 to 2 mins rest between sets).

“You can make your workout as short as 10 to 15 minutes, or a bit longer, depending on your energy and how you put it together,” Thomas says. “PHA workouts should be intense, but they’ll err on the side of moderately intense—versus a HIIT workout, for instance—and are a great match for endurance runners.”

PHA training differs from a traditional HIIT workout in that the goal is to sustain an elevated heart rate by sending the blood flow to different parts of your body throughout your workout versus spiking it up high and letting it recover low like during HIIT, says Thomas. And it’s different from traditional circuits in the exercise selection, she says. With circuit training, you might choose exercises almost like a traditional bodybuilding circuit—all upper body during one workout session, for example. But for PHA training, you alternate between upper and lower body.

What Are the Benefits of PHA Training?

Because PHA workouts are a combination of strength and cardiovascular training, you’re in constant movement, sustaining an elevated heart rate that gives you “big bang for your workout buck,” says Thomas.

Thomas points out that endurance running and training are all about getting comfortable at a higher sustained heart rate, and PHA is a little like the strength training version of that. “This workout format enhances a cardiovascular endurance base while also challenging muscle endurance, so it’s a great complement to the goals of runners, all while supporting the necessity of consistent strength training,” she says. “Additionally, PHA training is highly efficient, so it’s a great choice for an effective workout without a ton of time investment.”

Tamir adds that PHA training is great for working on any individual muscle imbalances and weaknesses you may have.

“If you have weak glutes or hamstrings, you can focus the lower-body portion on hip- dominant exercises. If you have weak shoulders, you can focus the upper-body portion on those specific muscles,” he says.

It’s a great option for runners because it requires you to work the upper body, which many of us skip to focus on our legs—the prime movers of running—but upper-body strength is important for a stronger arm swing and better running efficiency.

Plus, in a 2015 European Journal of Applied Physiology study—which was “the first longitudinal 12-week study to complete such an exhaustive analysis of PHA training,” according to Len Kravitz, Ph.D., a professor and exercise science researcher at the University of New Mexico—researchers found that participants who performed PHA workouts had a greater increase in muscular strength and maximum oxygen consumption than participants who performed HIIT workouts.

So How Can You Incorporate PHA Training into Your Routine?

While training choices are always individual—you should keep in mind what you know about your body, your training plan effort, and your recovery requirements—both Tamir and Thomas agree that runners can incorporate PHA workouts into their routines two to three times a week.

“I’d consider PHA training something to add to the rotation of cross-training workout options,” Thomas says. “Sometimes, a person may want or need or be in a training phase that accommodates more high intensity, but sometimes not. PHA is a great choice for a more moderate workout, allowing for workout diversity.”

It’s important to make sure you’re getting enough recovery time in between your workouts to prevent any injuries and make sure your muscles are fresh. “You don’t want to overtrain,” Tamir says. “You should only do PHA workouts if you’ve had at least 48 hours to recover your muscles from a hard run or other workout.”

For additional injury protection, you also want to make sure you’re properly warmed up and you’re doing each exercise in your PHA workout with the proper form. Exercises you can do to warm up before a PHA workout can include the following, according to Tamir:

  • Cat-Cow
  • Bird Dog
  • Spiderman Lunge
  • T-Spine Rotation
  • Inch Worm
  • Good Morning
  • Toe Touch to Squat

 

With all that said, here are two PHA workouts you can add to your routine, courtesy of Thomas.


PHA Training Workout 1:

Perform 12 to 15 reps of each exercise. Complete the circuit 1 to 3 times through. Rest 60 to 90 seconds between circuits.

  • Push-Up
  • Squat
  • Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
  • Alternating Reverse Lunge
  • Dumbbell Curl and Press
  • Dumbbell Deadlift

PHA Training Workout 2:

Perform 10 to 12 reps of each exercise. Complete the circuit 1 to 3 times through. Rest 60 to 90 seconds between circuits.

  • Dumbbell Overhead Press
  • Hip Thrust
  • Lat Pulldown (or Pull-Up)
  • Side Lunge
  • Triceps Dip
  • Skater Hop

→ The Bottom Line: PHA training is great to build the muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance necessary for strong, speedy miles. You can incorporate it into your routine two to three times a week as long as you’re mindful of getting enough recovery time in between workouts. A proper warmup is necessary before PHA workouts to minimise injury risk as well.

READ MORE ON: strength strength exercises strength workouts strength-training training

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