Ditching your “work out harder” fitness mentality for a sustainable “work out smarter” lifestyle
We’re taught from a young age that in order to become more proficient at something, we simply have to work harder. This is particularly true in the arena of health and fitness. There are countless Instagram pages that are meant to inspire us to get off our asses and suck up the pain and work harder, faster and longer. To be sure, there are millions of people that ignore this guidance, but by the same token, there are also millions that heed this advice, and go balls to the wall to make it happen.
This piece is directed to that second group of people. Those who follow more inspirational “just work harder” pages on Instagram than they do people they actually know. Those who hit the workout circuit every day. Those who think that the only thing keeping them from a stronger physique, longer or leaner build, or more athletic body is some arbitrary number of ultra-high intensity workouts. Those who prioritize their gym time over everything else. Those who work their bodies to oblivion and get up to do it the next day. Those who expect each workout to be sweatier than the last. Those who expect their journey to follow a clear and linear path to the top.
Sound like you?
If so, I’ve got breaking news: Your workout addiction may be keeping you from achieving your health and fitness goals.
Most of us are all too willing to blindly do the hard work without a second thought or hesitation. For some reason, we’re not at all conditioned to think logically and make a well-informed and intentioned plan.
Think of all the wellness and fitness activities you partake in on a weekly basis. How many times do you resistance train? Do cardio? HIIT? Are you a CrossFitter? Take boxing classes? Pilates? Yoga? Barre? Spinning? How often do you think of and program rest into your routine for any given activity? It may surprise you to find out that merely working a different body group on Tuesday than you did on Monday doesn’t necessarily constitute ‘rest’.
Just because you feel “ready to go” the next morning doesn’t mean that all the body systems you’ve fatigued aren’t still silently trying to recover.
For example, after a lower body day, or a high intensity workout such as hill sprints or a tough boxing session, you’ve depleted the energy in your muscles (glycogen). It takes a full 24-48 hours for your body to replenish those stores (assuming you’re eating properly), and up to a full 72 hours for the muscles themselves to recover. If you pick up and train hard again before the energy has been restored and the muscles have recovered, you’re actually working backwards. By jumping back into intense exercise before the body is fully restored, you’re further breaking down something that’s already broken, doing more damage than you are repair. Over the short term, you may be seeing ‘progress’ on the outside, but you’re doing gradual damage on the inside. It will catch up to you eventually.
Whether you know it or not, when you work out, you’re doing damage to the body. You’re putting the body under mechanical stress with the intent of breaking down muscles so that they become rebuilt stronger and more efficient than before. But it’s not the breakdown portion that we care about – it’s the repair. This “repair” is a synonym for the words we more commonly use: “progress” and “results”.
Maybe you recognize them now.
A far more sensible approach to “work out smarter” would be to follow some simple rules of thumb:
- Stop focusing so intensely on the breakdown (read as: “the workouts that you’re doing”), and focus on the repair.
- Keep 48 hours between any “exhausting” cardio activity to give your muscle and liver glycogen stores time to recover.
- Keep at least 48 hours (72 is better) between any resistance trainingRest days (or restorative days) should never be viewed as something you’ll get to only if you have time – they’re a necessity
- Ditch the mentality that every workout has to be the best workout you’ve ever had and that you simply need to be tougher and work harder. Focus on delivering what your body needs and not what some untrained and self-proclaimed internet guru that’s never met you posted on Instagram
- Days should alternate intensity to allow for full recovery
An example of the absolute most activity I would recommend to a client for any given week:
- Monday: HIIT class/Spin class/Boxing or Resistance Training
- Tuesday: Low intensity endurance cardio
- Wednesday: HIIT class/Spin class/Boxing or Resistance Training
- Thursday: rest/Restorative work such as yoga
- Friday: Moderate intensity endurance cardio
- Saturday: HIIT class or Resistance Training
- Sunday: rest/Restorative work such as yoga
Understandably, there are likely those of you that may be thinking “but I feel fine the next day.. I’m fine to go” – but I assure you this isn’t the case. The body has a system for telling you when you’re hungry (the hormone ghrelin), for telling you when you’re tired (your eyes get heavy, you feel sleepy), and for when you’re sick (you feel lethargic/run down), but it doesn’t have a system for telling you when your muscles have been completely refueled and repaired. You just need to wait it out. You only feel ready to go because you’ve conditioned yourself to believe that you are. It’s the textbook pathological lie: if you keep lying to yourself long enough, you’ll eventually start to think you’re telling the truth. We need to reverse this type of thinking.
What about athletes?
High-level collegiate or professional athletes follow a very meticulously and well thought out plan that has them ramp up or decrease activity in predetermined phases known as cycles. Each season (or year) is broken into pieces that generally follow a pattern of varying intensity that allows them to “peak” at just the right time so that they can perform at the highest level when it matters most. Watching a YouTube video of a football team during off-season training doing intense drills doesn’t mean they do them 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Their workouts are dictated and observed by professionals, with individual adjustments being made every step of the way for each athlete.
Focus more of your effort on making a sensible plan rather than simply trying to perform at 110% every day – you can’t. In addition to being mathematically impossible, it’s an unbearable curve to even attempt to keep up with and is more likely to result in overtraining or injury than it is anything positive. What you CAN do however is try to be just a little smarter each day – but that takes concentrated and deliberate effort. Keep learning every day and keep listening to your body.
Art Horne, Head Athletic Trainer of the Atlanta Hawks, was one of my biggest mentors in my coming of age as a professional. In one of my clinical rotations he offered me some of the best advice I’ve ever been given: “If you listen [to the body] just long enough, it will tell you exactly what’s wrong with it; and if you listen just a little bit longer, it will tell you exactly how to fix it.” Sage wisdom and practical advice without question, but it’s hard to put into practice without concentrated effort. This is where your opportunity lies.
Make solid, deliberate steps to become better each day, and over time those little pieces will come together to create a much healthier (and far more successful) picture in the long run.
Your body communicates with you in so many ways – you just have to become better at listening, and stop ignoring the signals. There’s so much excess noise both in advertising and on social media that would have you believe that you just need to work harder to attain your goals. Hopefully by now you’ve come to realize, as I have, that this isn’t the case. Rise above the interference. Give your body what it’s asking for.