I’ve got this great old pair of sneakers. I’ve had them for at least a decade. They’re scuffed and ugly and brown, the big toe pokes through a little, and they stink…but man are they cozy. I wish I could wear them everywhere, but different circumstances call for different, sometimes less comfortable attire.
When I was in high school I bought a Camaro and thought I was the coolest thing on God’s green earth. I’d slide my Def Leppard tape into the player and turn up 'Pour Some Sugar On Me' till it was all crackly and nobody could decipher the lyrics. The car was fast and I left a patch of rubber at every green light as evidence. Shortly after I bought it I took my uncle out for a ride in it. He said he felt like he was riding in a pinball machine and preferred his Cadillac because the ride was more comfortable. I was appalled. Couldn’t he see that comfort wasn’t the point?
Do you ever go into the gym and see some lady on the elliptical machine casually going along at a leisurely pace and reading Ladies Home Journal? What about the guy in the weight room who uses weights so light he’s easily able to continue his cell phone conversation between sets? Every gym has the guys in velour outfits that spend far more time panting at the leotards than they do panting because of their workout. Every gym also has the women in full makeup and impeccably coordinated designer gym clothes that manage to have a “workout” while not smearing their mascara.
On most evenings from 8:00 till 10:00 I can be found with startling regularity lying on my couch watching TV in baggy pajama pants and a ratty t-shirt. It’s comfortable, I love it, and I can’t wait to finish writing this so I can get back to it. Almost every afternoon though, you can find me in the gym or on the street, lifting or doing cardio until I’m gasping, sweat’s running down my face, and I’m concerned about wetting myself. The point is that I like and appreciate comfort and rest as much if not more than the next guy, but there’s a time and place for everything and the gym is not the place to strive for comfort.
I’ve heard people say that they don’t like to sweat when they work out.
That’s like saying you don’t like to get wet when you shower. How can you do one without the other? If you get done with whatever you consider a workout and you’re not sweating, it wasn’t a workout. If you can read and turn pages of a magazine while you do cardio, you need to kick it up a few notches. If you can do the last rep of your set when lifting with as much effort as your first rep, you need to increase the weight a tad.
The only thing these half-effort workouts pump up is your ego. It allows you to tell everybody that you “worked out” today and makes you feel healthier without all the uncomfortable strain of exerting yourself. These types of workouts can actually do more harm than good! I’ve known more than few folks in my day that stroll on the treadmill for 20 minutes and burn off 150 calories and then proceed to wolf down pizza and Ding Dongs that evening guilt-free because they “worked out” earlier in the day. Here’s a good thing to try—get on the treadmill and go as fast or as slow as you want, but go until the “calories burned” display tells you that you burned 300 calories. Now go get some Oreos and line up how many you’d have to eat to negate your workout. When you see those six little crumbly cookies staring back at you, maybe you’ll realize you can never run off as much as you can eat. Chase that Oreo.
Ever run into some big dude who’s constantly worried about overtraining? They work out lazily twice a week for a half hour and justify it all by being concerned with doing too much rather than not enough. Like everything else, there’s a middle ground. The human body is capable of extraordinary things. Most of us never reach anywhere near our potential. You have to really be kicking your own butt to do more than your body can handle—don’t kid yourself that it’s that easy to work yourself too hard. Even the most active of us are far more sedentary than active when compared to our ancestors. The vast majority of us live our lives in chairs and break it up with the occasional session of activity. Your body can handle your hour-long workout three times a week; don’t use that an excuse to stroll through your routine. Overtraining is a real concern for some people that are really pushing themselves hard or treating themselves terribly, but if you’re not making gains and no one is commenting that you’re a lunatic for spending so much time working out, you’re probably doing too little and not too much. Wishful thinking. On the other hand, overtraining does happen. Some people actually do train to excess with ridiculously long sessions or multiple daily sessions and burn out. Some folks don’t get enough rest and do overtrain more easily than others. Rest is crucial to recovery and to performing your best. Should I say it? I think I will.Rest is more important than nutrition.Run for the hills! Why do I say such blasphemy?! Because I can eat pizza and nachos for a week straight and still perform at or near my previous levels. If I forgo or drastically decrease my sleep for a couple days, I won’t be anywhere NEAR where I was in terms of performance. So get your sleep.
You also need to take a break from training occasionally and recuperate. Some of us prefer active rest, where you train at a far lower intensity than usual but don’t completely stop working out. I’ll concede that some of the folks I see jawing on the phone and reading books on the treadmill are engaging in active rest, but not many. There should also be some periodization to your training routine, be it weights, running, biking or whatever. Periodization is a fancy word for “mixing it up”, sometimes lifting for 5 reps, sometimes for 15, sometimes running a fast 3 miles, other times a slow 10. Light and easy days should be an integral part of every structured routine to maximize gains and minimize injuries, but they shouldn’t be the standard.
I can hear you from here, “How do I know if I’m working out intensely enough?” I’m glad you asked! There are a few ways. The most accurate way I’ve found for cardiovascular activities is using a heart rate monitor. Your heart rate doesn’t lie. If you’re training at 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, that’s intense. If you’re 10 beats above your resting heart rate, go faster. It’s not complicated and it’s not subject to interpretation. You won’t have to use it long, either, before you know intuitively what the right intensity feels like. If you don’t want to shell out the clams for a fancy heart rate monitor, then you can go the low-tech route by talking to yourself. If you can talk easily, you’re not going fast enough. If you can’t say more than a word or none at all, slow down. You should be able to get out a few words before having to breathe, but not a long sentence. Not as accurate as the monitor, but it’ll get you close.
There’s also the Perceived Level of Exertion (PLE).
This is basically a subjective measure of how hard you’re working. If you feel you’re working out at a level 15 on a scale of 0-20, that’s your Perceived Level of Exertion. If you’re at a 7, that’s your perceived rate. It’s up to you. This can be tricky because what most people think is their maximum, a 20, is more like a 16. Most people never come close to their maximum level of exertion because it’s too difficult and painful. This is really just putting a technical sounding label on using your noodle. If you tell someone you worked out hard yesterday, you’re telling him or her that your workout was hard as you perceived it. Not hard for Lance Armstrong, but hard for you. What the PLE is best for is designing a program for multiple people to use. If I write a plan that says to run for 1 mile at a PLE of 7 and a mile at a PLE of 15, the actual speed will vary from person to person,. What is easy for one person will be difficult for another. The PLE evens things out.
I’ve found that the above methods work very well for cardio activities, but not so much for weight training. Your heart rate and breathing vary too much during resistance training, so we need another method. I invented this method—write it down and tell your friends. I call it the 20/45 Rule. When weight training, in 20 minutes you should be panting between sets, in 45 minutes you should be physically spent. Is this rule hard and fast? Nope, and you really didn’t have to write it down and neither did your friends. The message is that you should be striving to get stronger with each session and not wasting time in between sets. The striving to get stronger will get you winded quickly, in about 20 minutes, tops. If you’re not winded in 20, turn it up. Most people can’t maintain that intensity for more than 40-45 minutes. If after 45 minutes you still have quite a bit left in you, next time work harder. Harder can mean heavier, less rest, new routine, whatever. You don’t need a 2 hour training session, you need INTENSE training sessions. The old adage, “You can train hard or you can train long, but you can’t do both,” is accurate. This isn’t to say certain training days or workouts can’t last over an hour or you can’t sometimes have longer rest periods when training for specific goals, but I believe the 20/45 rule is a good standard for most people most of the time.
Here’s some more good news.
I know some people reading are lamenting that not everyone can run for miles or push big iron right off the bat. Some people are seriously overweight or in terrible shape and can’t come close to doing what others can do. I understand, and all those factors are taken into consideration with the methods presented. If you’re using the heart rate monitor, your rate will get closer to its maximum based upon YOUR individual fitness level. You’ll be panting when lifting as long as the weights being lifted are challenging for YOU. Your PLE is based upon what YOUR body can achieve. I don’t really care if your proper intensity is walking on the treadmill or running a 6 minute mile. I don’t care if you bench 30 pounds or 300 pounds. What I do care about is that you do what you need to in order for your workout to challenge you and make you better. Don’t sell yourself short and make excuses. Don’t kid yourself. Work. Work harder.
So that’s that.
If you’ve been engaging in physical activity for awhile and you aren’t making gains, intensity is one of the first things to look at critically and honestly. Use any method discussed to ensure you’re pushing yourself on a regular basis, but push. Keep in mind that your workout will change over time, often with each workout. As your ability to perform increases, the amount of work and intensity needed to produce the same response will increase as well. What you lifted or ran last month won’t be good enough this month. Many plateaus are actually resistance to accept that what used to work doesn’t carry the same bang anymore. Keep pushing and let yourself sweat. Don’t try to be comfortable, embrace the suffering. Chase that Oreo.
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