There was a time in my life, years ago, when I was an ambassador for that foolish "more is better" approach to exercise. I was teaching Spin at 6 a.m., yoga at 7 a.m., running on my lunch break, lifting weights at 5:30 p.m., and then icing it all off with a 90-minute kickboxing class at 6:30 p.m.
That was my schedule on most days, for years. I erroneously believed that she who did the most exercise would win the grand prize. Boy, was I wrong.
What I did get out of all that madness were a wonky cortisol rhythm, chronic exhaustion, and a lot of colds. As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, my body composition wasn’t changing for the better. As a matter of fact, I distinctly remember my body fat going up for awhile, undoubtedly due to the combination of high stress and the voracious appetite I developed thanks to the insane of amount of exercise I was doing.
I eventually learned my lesson when I made my switch to strength, but a quick glance at my social media feeds shows me that women (and men!) continue to work themselves into the ground, training too frequently or too intensely.
They’re bragging about how they almost passed out or vomited, or that they managed to push through even though they were sick, stressed, or exhausted. I cringe when I see all the likes and cheering these types of posts get, and I constantly have to refrain from typing (with my caps lock obnoxiously on):
THERE IS A BETTER WAY.
Throughout years and years of training and coaching clients, I recognize that their lackluster results rarely stem from a lack of intensity or frequency in their workouts. Quite frankly, in women who work out regularly, it’s almost always the opposite. The reason for lack of progress is typically because women are training too hard and too often!
I want to be clear: there isn’t anything wrong with working hard, so long as you’re being smart about it.
Tilling your garden with a soup spoon is working hard, but digging that dirt up with a shovel is a prime example of working hard and smart. You’ll get better results, in less time, and with substantially less pain. You’ll never hear anyone boasting about how hard they worked to excavate their yard with a spoon, because that unnecessary labor doesn’t make sense. It’s not rational when it comes to training, either.
Neither sweat, nor soreness, is necessarily indicative of an effective workout.
It can feel good to work up a sweat, and a bit of soreness can serve as a nice reminder that we moved our bodies. However, the sad truth is that neither of those things means much, if anything, with regard to how beneficial the workout was. Those things may feel nice emotionally, but they don’t always have a solid physiological carryover.
I can stand in my yard and wave at the neighbor for three hours straight in the blazing sun, work up a monumental sweat, and experience extreme soreness the next day. It doesn't necessarily mean that I burned fat, or got stronger. It simply means that my arm and shoulder performed the same movement a bazillion times in a row and it was hot outside.
A lot of people see an increase in their weight when they begin working out. That’s often because they dive into exercise a little too aggressively, lifting weights several times per week and doing cardio like there's no tomorrow, kicking their appetite into overdrive.
When it comes to fat loss, the only thing that a ton of really intense training will do for most people is make them voraciously hungry.
If this is you, step back and evaluate how you’re feeling. Are certain training modalities or activities causing intense cravings, or an insatiable appetite? If so, consider reducing the intensity of your workout, and see how you feel.
It's crucial to fuel your training properly, and there’s a possibility that you aren't eating enough — but that’s a topic for another article. In the context of this topic, if your training is turning your stomach into a bottomless pit, consider backing down the frequency and intensity of your activities.
Maybe it’s because we’re naturally inclined to assume that if some exercise is good than surely a whole lot more is better. Or maybe the old adage, “go hard or go home” is to blame. For the record, we’d actually advise you go home than go unnecessarily hard, and that is because of what it does to your hormones.
The body treats training as a form of stress and reacts to it the same way that it reacts to anything else that’s stressful — sick kids, a looming work deadline, or being chased by a bear. Training can feel good emotionally, but stress is stress is stress, and cortisol will always respond accordingly.
The stress brought on by a lot of intense training can be absolutely fine, assuming that your stress levels are in check in all other areas of your life.
Here’s a tough question: how many of us can say with confidence that our stress levels (family, work, relationships, financial, etc.) are, indeed, “in check?”
Unfortunately, not many of us can say that. It’s critical to take this information into consideration when planning the frequency and intensity of our training.
This is a tricky situation because for many women, when we experience stress, our first inclination is to go “work it out" at the gym, essentially pouring fuel onto the fire.
Do not sacrifice your health for the sake of fitness.
When stress levels spike, the first thing I ask my clients to do is back off a bit (or a lot) on their training, and temporarily trade it in for some other type of therapeutic movement, such as walking or yoga. I then encourage them to focus a bit more on nourishing their bodies with good food, and aim to get more sleep. During these times, training falls to the bottom of the priority list, and that's perfectly OK. My goal is to keep my clients safe and healthy, and teach them to train a way that they can maintain for the next 10, 20, or 30 years.
Speaking of priority lists...
Any time my clients get stuck and stop seeing progress, I’ll look at a few other pieces of the puzzle before looking at their training. I believe that the list of priorities for fat loss and optimal health looks like this:
Sound nutrition, plenty of high-quality sleep, stress management, and daily movement should, in my opinion, precede training when it comes to fat loss and optimal health.
This is a tough concept for many people to wrap their heads around, and I understand that. Training is enjoyable, but like anything else, it has its time and place. Improving nutrition, sleep, stress control, and overall movement will have much more of an impact, than simply increasing exercise.
Exercise develops physical strength and mental fortitude, and offers a slew of other benefits, but you don't have to give up your life or go crawling out of the gym after every session in order to reap the rewards.
We are big fans of using the Minimum Effective Dose. This means doing the type of training that provides the most benefit, in the least amount of time, and just enough of it to get the results that we want, without a bunch of added stress.
For most people, this means:
The rest of your results will come from nutrition, sleep, stress control, and overall movement.
If you find yourself constantly hungry or experiencing a loss of appetite, fatigued, perpetually sore, retaining water, or have an elevated resting heart rate, these can be signs that you’re overdoing it with your training.
Training is meant to enhance and optimize. It’s a way to develop strength to enable you to better engage in and enjoy life and all that it has to offer. The most effective training is smart training, not unnecessarily hard training.
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