I recently read an article from mercola.com that inspired me to post on this subject. Exercise is always supposed to be beneficial right? Well in most cases, yes, most of us actually do need more exercise & it’s health benefits are not unlike a wonder drug. However, it seems that the growing trend these days is marketing high intensity, all out exercise all the time. As you’ll see as I continue, high intensity exercise is great and it serves its purpose… just not every time you exercise.
More isn’t necessarily better:
Somewhere along the way, we got it in our heads that more is better, and in order to get anywhere we have to go all out, all the time and if the results aren’t instant then we’ve failed. You’ve heard the sayings… “go big or go home”, “no pain, no gain” or even, the latest I recently heard, “if you aren’t puking or on the verge of it, then you’re not working hard enough”… right, well not if I can help it. I would like to think that I could actually enjoy the process and get some good results without feeling miserable the whole time or like a failure because I couldn’t quite push it hard enough to do a million plus one reps as fast as the next guy! This is supposed to be fun right?
Without proper recovery, you won’t get anywhere. You may notice that you have either experienced this before. Either you aren’t sleeping, you are too stressed or you are simply overtraining. You may notice that your body feels worse, you are constantly dealing with injuries and illness, you’re groggy and fatigued all the time and you may even be holding on to that abdominal weight some refer to as “the spare tire” or “muffin top” no matter how many crunches you do. And… what do you do? More exercise… to push through it. And what do you get? A stubborn extra layer of fat and adrenal fatigue.
Your recovery time is absolutely crucial, it is the period of time where your body reaps all the benefits of your exercise and training regimen. During exercise, your muscles are strained and stressed and broken down… it’s during your recovery where you are actually maximizing on your muscle growth, fat loss and increases in strength. Recovery accounts for a number of things, including the actual rest (sleep) you are getting; both quality and quantity, your nutrition as well as your lifestyle and relaxation levels. Sometimes it’s really “less is more”, but it’s finding the balance that always seems to be tricky.
Total Training Load:
In order to understand how much we individually need to train to create just the right balance of training vs. rest and recovery; it is important to understand Total Training Load (TTL). This is the amount of training “strain” on the body over time. The beauty of TTL, is that it can be manipulated to suit your own individual needs from workout to workout & day-to-day. Here are some of the things you can change within your workout regimen; whether you are running, spinning, swinging kettlebells or strength training with free weights.
- Number of repetitions
- The amount of resistance or weight
- Length of workout sets
- The speed
- Length of resting intervals
Depending on what you want out of your workout for that day, you can mix it up with this short list of things and get exactly what you need. The thing you want to remember is that if you overdo it (and you will overdo it from time to time), then you are essentially going backwards and breaking the body down, taxing the nervous system and will likely feel worse, experience more injuries, illnesses and eventually burnout.
It’s all about listening to and understanding your own body. For most of us, this may not be as easy as it sounds. It’s easy to say “listen to your body, and rest when you need it”, but how many of us actually know how to listen to our bodies? If we did, then I likely wouldn’t have a job.
In general you should cycle the intensity of your workouts between easy, moderate & hard. So how do you know what your intensity is and how often do you cycle through each? How do you know when you are actually participating in an easy workout as opposed to a moderate or hard one? The answer is relatively easy, how much can you talk during the actual workout.
- Easy: According to experts an easy workout is one in which you would be able to have a full conversation, speaking full sentences while working between 50 & 75% of your maximum. This would fall into the category of low-level aerobic activity below. In general you should be doing 2 easy workouts per each 1 hard workout.
- Moderate: This falls right around the 75% mark. This is where most people camp out. You are able to speak words but not engage in a full conversation or speak in full sentences. Your moderate workouts basically fill in the blanks as far as timing and scheduling workouts go.
- Hard: This is where you can no longer talk at all, you’re likely reaching your VO2 max. These workouts are great to supercharge. For a good balance and to achieve gains in whatever your goals are, 1-2 hard workouts a week, separated by 2 days (at least) is a good baseline to go off.
Types of training:
There are tons and tons of different training styles out there today… one could never get bored researching them… trust me, I’ve spent hours on the computer getting lost in blogs, YouTube videos and research studies on exercise and training. Your body is adaptable, it’s one of the things that makes us so resilient. As you can adapt to different climates, situations and even people, you will adapt to exercise if it’s not varied. Your body will figure out the most efficient way to preserve energy and nutritional stores, it’s a survival mechanism rooted in our DNA; this is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that we are able to adapt to our surroundings and the curse; your body will hold onto fat like your life depends on it, because at one point, it did. Hence, the plateau. I know you’ve all experienced this at some point, you’ve gotten great gains at the beginning (built muscle mass, lost some body fat, gotten stronger and felt better) but then it just stops and no matter what you do… nothing changes and you may even notice you do go backwards. One of the worst things you could do is continue doing exactly what you’re doing, exactly how you’re doing it. Mostly people will exercise at about 75% of their max all the time, doing the exact same exercise (a good example is runners). Switch it up people! Go harder, go easier… refer to the list above and change-up your workout routine. What you need is to recharge your system (nervous and cardiovascular) in a different way and shock the body into having to recalibrate and adapt to a new set of criteria. Otherwise, you may just be stuck on that plateau whether you like it or not. In addition to the different ways in which you can change-up your intensity and total training load above, the following is just a quick and short list of options to add in to your training regimen.
- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – Just like it sounds, HIIT is a high intensity short burst of exercise. Much like sprinting, and sometimes referred to as sprint interval training. In other words if you are feeling pretty confident with your fitness level and try doing some HIIT, prepare to be humbled. Sprinting would definitely fall into the category of HARD workouts. HIIT is not limited to sprinting however, you can use this concept with anything else… jumping, bounding, push ups, weights, spinning… you name it. The key with these, is they are usually short in duration, lasting anywhere from 9-20 minutes for your entire workout. The original protocol for HIIT training follows a 2:1 ratio; meaning for every 2 (units) of exercise, you recover for 1. This may sound familiar…
- Tabata – HIIT that is measured by doing intense bouts of exercise for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest. This is great for sprinting and we use it a lot at the Gym with Kettlebells, ropes, boxes and other functional training modalities.
- Neural Charging – Still following a similar concept but is based on the idea that you can train more frequently without overtraining. In general, neural charging uses explosive movements for short amounts of time (stopping before you experience any muscle fatigue, a concept many of us are not used to). An example of this is doing explosive push ups. Pushing up off the ground or a box as fast and as explosively as you can for 1 – 5 reps (until you feel you may lose power) and taking out the eccentric part of the movement (the slow lowering of your body back to the floor). For a more in-depth description, check out Christian Thibadeau’s articles on Neural charging here.
- The benefits of all the above have been shown to increase your body’s ability to burn fat, improve insulin sensitivity, as well as increase your speed, agility and athleticism.
- Low-Level Aerobic Activity – Basically anything you do where you can talk with a friend at the same time. For some workouts, you may even count these as a gym workout, there are plenty of times I’ve been taking it easy at the gym, able to have a full conversation with somebody while I’m lightly swinging a kettlebell. However, more commonly these workouts are walks, hikes, biking into town, other daily activities outdoors or even indoors. You could probably count vacuuming as a low-level aerobic activity if you wanted.
Stress and your body:
Stress is a huge part of our lives, some experts say it’s the cause of 90% of disease, (though one could argue it may be high fructose corn syrup and stress causes about 99% of disease)! Your body can’t differentiate between physical stress and all the other mental and emotional stressors that you experience in a day. When we work out, our physical bodies are stressed in that we are putting strain on the muscles, the cardiovascular system & the nervous system. When we are emotionally stressed, our bodies are dealing with the windfall of adrenaline and cortisol spikes and valleys elicited by work, family responsibilities, finances, traffic, deadlines, not getting enough sleep etc… the list goes on and on (you are probably feeling a little bit of this stress right now, just after reading that short list).
For the most part, exercise reduces stress, increases the amount of endorphins your body produces, helps you lose weight, increase focus & improves sleep just to name a few. However, there is always a balance to be found. It depends on who you are, how you live and what you deem priority in life. For example, for some people it’s like pulling teeth just to get them to commit to going for a walk 20 minutes a day 3 days a week… then for others it’s more is always better. Pain is the name of the game right? “No pain, no gain”… well to some degree this is true, but in general not to the extreme that we American’s are used to.
First and foremost it is important to find your balance and as far as exercise is concerned. Here are a couple of notes from Dr. Jeff Spencer, named Sports Chiropractor of the Year, author, olympian and recent author of the article “Fail To Do This After a Workout and Your Whole Effort is Wasted” on Mercola.com.
- Should have quick and full recovery after each workout – After a workout you should rebound quickly from the effort and feel almost back to normal within 30-minutes. A prolonged rebound is a sign the workout was too difficult and you need to go easy for a couple of days.
- Ideal to feel better at end of workout than the beginning – Successful workouts will leave you feeling better at the end of your workout than the beginning. This is a sign of well-trained body.
- Slight soreness on occasion is OK, but regular soreness isn’t – Slight muscle soreness is normal after starting to exercise, when new exercises are implemented into your workouts or when an increase in exercise intensity is done.
- Should be able to raise heart rate – A cardinal sign of having the right training balance of effort to recovery is when your heart rate moves up and down nicely during a workout. If your heart rate fails to elevate during a workout you’re over-trained from training too hard too often, and you need time off.
- Also keep an eye on your resting heart rate first thing in the morning. If your heart rate is elevated while you are still lying in bed, then you are likely not recovery properly &/or overtrained. Take this as another indicator that you’ve pushed your threshold and just back off.
- Heart rate should drop immediately when workout completed – Fitness buffs having ideal intensity variety in their workouts have heart rates that drop down to slightly above normal within 5-minutes of finishing a workout then drop back to normal levels shortly thereafter.
- Perspiration should stop shortly after training complete– As a rule sweating associated with workouts should stop within a few minutes after exercise is stopped when workout intensity and overall fitness is within ideal range. If sweating continues 20-30 minutes after exercise it is the sign the workout was too hard, and requires a few easy days to recover from. If you feel sore then put two or more easy day’s into your program to let your body catch up with itself (Spencer, 2011).
As for the rest of your life, it’s up to you to start decreasing the amount of stressors in your life. There are many ways to do this and that could be a much longer post… so stay tuned we’ll get there. Diet is going to play a big part in your total stress too, in short you are better off eating as clean as possible, lots of vegetables, fruits and good clean proteins. But for now, get some acupuncture, do some yoga or meditation and get a massage!
There are a number of nutritional supplements that you can add to your regimen in order to better deal with stress (both physical and mental emotional), many of them are referred to as ‘adaptogens’ and I regularly cycle through them. A quick and short list includes: Rhodiola, Ashwaghanda, Maca, & Ginseng. Add to that B-vitamins (complex), Vitamin C (for tissue repair) and a daily multi-vitamin and you should be well on your way. (If you are currently on a list of a number of other medications please consult your physician before beginning any new supplements, this article is not intended to diagnose or cure & is for informational purposes only).
As an Acupuncturist & Master of OM, chinese herbal formulas can also do wonders to help with stress management and recovery. In addition to acupuncture treatments, a trained herbalist can put together a mixture of herbs (including some of those listed above) personalized just for you in order to help your body adapt to stressors and strains.
Overtraining & Cortisol Response:
It’s actually an easy thing to do. Life stressors are always changing and our ability and strength to stay resilient has its own personal ups and downs. I still struggle with keeping a good balance of how much is just enough in order to get the benefits without the break down. So what happens to our bodies when we overdo it? Your body is running on adrenaline all the time, and much like the insulin de-sensitivity that happens with Type II Diabetics, we become a little less sensitive to the constant influx of adrenaline-like substances coursing through our bodies and literally get sick and tired.
Just like we need to exercise, but not too much, we also need Cortisol… just not too much. It is a necessary hormone and in moderate amounts will regulate glucose, insulin, blood pressure, the immune system and our inflammatory response. Aptly referred to as the ‘stress hormone’ it is released as a means to improve mental acuity, kickstart your immune system and shuttle glucose to where it may be needed during acute episodes of stress. However, our bodies were never meant to experience stress all the time, especially at the levels we are accustomed to today. The fallout of having elevated levels of cortisol in the bloodstream for prolonged periods of time makes up a very long list of maladies including (and not limited to):
- a decrease in muscle tissue and bone
- decreased immunity
- increased blood pressure and likelihood of experiencing a cardiovascular accident
- blood sugar imbalances
- lowered thyroid function and
- an increase in abdominal fat (that stubborn muffin top that never seems to disappear no matter what you do).
Just like Goldilocks, you’ve got to find the right fit for you in order to achieve the maximal benefits from your exercise whether you are looking to gain size, increase strength and muscle, lose fat or just to reduce your stress level.
So… go on, get out there and enjoy your training regimen, switch it up and cycle your TTL’s & don’t forget how important your recovery time is. Get the benefits that exercise was meant to give you without the frustrations of never getting it right! Have fun and I’ll see you in the gym… or at the office.
Till next time ~ be well,
Erin (soon to be LAc., MAOM)
Spencer, J. (2011, May 13). Fail to do this after a workout and your whole effort is wasted. Mercola.com, Retrieved from http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2011/05/13/getting-fit-doesnt-mean-killing-yourself.aspx