Just Because Your Workout is Hard Doesn't Mean It's Good, Pt. 1

“That workout kicked my ass!”

 

This phrase is usually accompanied by a big smile and a feeling of accomplishment. I’m no statistician, but I’d be willing to bet that 9 out of 10 people believe that the key ingredient in a good workout is that it has to be hard. They’re not necessarily wrong, but it’s a myopic view of the total picture.

 

You don’t need a college degree or a personal training certification to make someone sweat and breathe heavy. If the effectiveness of a workout was measured by how challenging it is, I would just make every client walk up and down a flight of stairs while carrying a weighted sandbag for 15 minutes. They would certainly “feel the burn,” raise their heart rate, and possibly end up puking their lunch. But what did we really accomplish by mindlessly stressing the body like that?

 

Why do we associate challenging with good?

 

Instant gratification certainly plays a role. When you push your body past what it’s adapted to handle, it responds with immediate physiological reactions that can’t be ignored. An elevated heart rate, heavy breathing, perspiration, and the burning in your muscles are clear signs that you’re putting in some work.

 

The second and closely related reason is that the general public has been conditioned to believe that unless you’re pushing yourselves to the max, the workout will not be effective. If there’s one underlying theme from fitness magazines, online articles, and personal trainer philosophies, it’s that you must train hard to see results. The rationale is simple and logical: push the body past its current limits and it will respond by making adaptations, a.k.a gains. This is absolutely true and an important part of putting together a good exercise program, but it’s only one component of a much larger picture.

 

Components of a “good” workout

 

In discussing what makes a workout good, we must first acknowledge that determining whether a workout was “good” or not is partially subjective in nature. A group boxing class may be considered great by someone who’s looking for cardiovascular adaptations, but not by someone who’s interested in strength and mobility. For the purpose of this article, let’s change the word “good” to effective.

 

The two most important components of an effective workout can be posed as questions.

  1. Does the workout serve the specific purpose you are looking for?

  2. Is the workout appropriate to your current fitness level and physical abilities?

 

Purpose

 

The first consideration may seem obvious to someone with some exercise physiology knowledge, but it’s something that plagues the fitness industry. Most people don’t even ask themselves the question of whether or not the workouts they’re doing are contributing to their specific goals. An example would be a female who wants to get stronger and put on some muscle mass, but does Yoga classes three times per week and a wimpy “sculpt and tone” group class at her membership gym twice per week. I can’t say I blame the general public though. Everyone from the GNC sales rep to the local spinning instructor claims to know how to give you the exact results you’re looking for. The correct strategy from a consumer’s standpoint would be to do some research on what type of workouts you should be doing for the specific results you want. Oh, and make sure you actually have specific goals to begin with. Wanting to be in “better shape” is way too vague and you’ll find yourself being bamboozled into doing all kinds of silly fitness trends.

work smarter.jpg

 

Is it appropriate?

 

Perhaps more important than choosing purposeful workouts is doing activities that are appropriate for your current fitness level. Let me illustrate my point with an example. Tim wants to get strong, so he joins his local gym despite not having a clue about strength training. He sees the biggest dudes in the gym doing back squats, so he decides he’s going to incorporate that exercise into his routine. Few things are as hard as 4 sets of heavy back squats. Tim has had an office job for 10 years, and the closest thing he gets to exercise is walking his chihuahua once a day. Naturally, his mobility is atrocious and he has the trunk stability of a newborn baby. A good strength coach knows that Tim has no business doing back squats until he develops the prerequisite mobility in his hips, ankles, and upper body, as well as the trunk stability needed to properly perform a full squat. Tim obviously doesn’t know that, so he proceeds doing quarter rep back squats until his back gives out and he’s out for 3 weeks.

 

The point is that you have to ask yourself whether or not you are ready for the workout you have chosen. If you don’t know whether you are or not, which is the case for most people, consult with a trained professional who does. The fact of the matter is that fitness should be a lot more personalized than the industry portrays it to be. I get it, group exercise and membership gyms have to make their money too. When it comes to your health and body, it would behoove you to do a good amount of research to make sure you’re on the right track and not doing more harm than good.


Does a workout have to be hard to be effective? Yes, it must be challenging enough to create the desired adaptations, which are relative to the individual and his/her goals. However, consider the two components mentioned in this article when deciding what workout routine is optimal for you. In Part 2 of this article, I will discuss how to strategically challenge your body for consistent results. 

Optimal: Perfection in an Imperfect World

As humans, we are always chasing perfect. Whether that means chasing a number on a scale or a number in the gym, we get wrapped up in this idea that if we put in an exact amount of work, we will see exact results. We tend to look at results as the sum of an equation. We eat X amount less, we lose Y amount of weight. We work out X amount of days a week and we’ll burn Y amounts of body fat. But this idea is flawed for one simple reason: 

 

Life is Imperfect. 

 

Life is dynamic, ever changing, and impossible to completely control. We have jobs, we have kids, we have school. Our cars break down, we can’t fall asleep some nights, and sometimes we spill our coffee. Maybe we’re running late one day and we have to miss a workout. Maybe we’re short on time and we have an unplanned cheat day. Life is imperfect, so how can our plans and programming be perfect? Chasing perfection is like chasing a unicorn. It can’t be done. We expect perfection and when we fallshort, we lose motivation and we feel like giving up. 

 

So what can we do?

 

We must rewire our thoughts and stop fixating on “perfect.” You may never be able to achieve “perfect” but technically perfect is not the goal. If you create a goal for yourself, and are doing everything and anything within your control and power to achieve that goal, your efforts are optimal. We must start chasing optimal because unlike the unicorn that is perfection, optimal is 100% achievable and unlike perfection, it does not discourage continuation of progress. 

    

Optimal > Perfect

 

Optimal means doing your best with what you have, and where you are. Optimal is relative to all the circumstances in your life and is constantly changing based on said circumstances. Circumstances you cannot always control. Perfection is a concept set in stone. Absolute, fixed and unchanging. Life however is not fixed and unchanging. Human beings are dynamic creatures and we live in a dynamic universe. 

 

“Optimal is the human version of perfect” - Elish Le    

 

If we can change our mindset and accept Optimal in place of perfect, we can more easily accept and learn from our shortcomings and failures instead of letting them grind our progress to a halt. Accepting optimal also allows us to make adjustments and changes on the fly. Life often blindsides us to unexpected obstacles. If we prime our minds for optimal, we can adapt and glide around these obstacles instead of letting them smash through us. 

 

Whether the goal is weight loss, strength gain, becoming closer to our kids, or learning a new skill, we can all benefit from understanding the importance of optimal efforts instead of perfect efforts. 

 

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” - Theodore Roosevelt

 

 

How Cross-Training is Killing Your Gains

Having owned a personal training studio for over 4 years, I try to be aware of the current trends in the fitness industry. One trend that’s growing in popularity can be categorized as cross-training, although that term may have multiple meanings. Especially popular amongst young professionals in bigger cities, cross-training in this context means engaging in a variety of exercise modalities on a weekly basis for the sake of improving physical fitness.

 

The weekly regimen of a person doing cross-training may include a combination of high-intensity group classes, Yoga, Pilates, jogging, and strength training. While cross-training may be a viable option to someone looking to make modest improvements across a wide range of fitness-related components, this training methodology is not ideal for individuals seeking more specific results. Let me elaborate. If you want to become a better swimmer, you have to swim. If you want to complete a full marathon, you have to run. Although both running and swimming are both activities that will improve your cardiovascular capacity and muscular endurance, you will not get better at one if you are only practicing the other.

 

The body adapts to the specific demands applied to it, but there’s only so much it can adapt to. The specific neuromuscular and metabolic adaptations the body makes are dictated by activities that are performed most frequently. Unless multiple activities have very similar physiological demands, spending more time doing one activity can take away from making improvements in another. This explains why soccer players don’t do very well in sports that require finite skill of the arms and hands, or why an elite sprinter like like Carl Lewis did not excel in sports despite being the fastest man in the world. 

 

But I’m not trying to become the next Carl Lewis

 

Let’s say you are a 26-year-old female who wants to lose some body fat, maintain lean mass, and get that muscle definition that is so highly sought after in our society. Believe it or not, that’s a pretty specific goal that requires a strategy and some understanding of basic physiology to achieve. A good strategy would be doing resistance training a minimum of three times per week in order to increase or maintain lean mass. More lean mass means a faster metabolic rate, which means you don’t have to starve yourself to start seeing ab definition. You can also add two additional days of high intensity interval training per week, which targets similar muscle fiber types as resistance training. Last but not least, a balanced and consistent diet will be vital to reaching your goal.

 

Here’s where a lot of people get it wrong. Most people associate “cardio,” or low-intensity endurance training, with fat loss. This is partially due to misinterpretations of scientific data that shows that the body utilizes fat as fuel for prolonged, aerobic activities. Although that is certainly true, it doesn’t translate to your body getting rid of the unwanted fat and keeping the muscle. So why is it a bad idea to include prolonged endurance training (like jogging) into your routine when trying to lean out? The body is smarter than you—it adapts to the demands it is exposed to. The body does not want to carry around additional mass (i.e. muscle) for a 40-minute jog. Frequent exposure to steady state cardio will improve your cardiorespiratory efficiency and the ability of muscles to manage oxygen for extended periods of time, but that doesn’t help the original aesthetic goal. Prolonged aerobic activities are counterproductive for someone trying to get stronger, add some lean mass, or preserve muscle while getting rid of fat. Conversely, if the goal is to run a marathon, packing on a ton of muscle won’t help your cause.  

 

Strength coach Charles Poliquin says you “can’t ride two horses with one ass.” In other words, it would be awesome if the body could adapt to a variety of exercise modalities and improve across the board, but it doesn’t work that way. If your goal is to get stronger, emphasize on strength training and take the time to understand what the optimal strategy is for that specific goal. There’s a reason why the average person who hops around from gym to gym doesn’t really see any significant results. Don’t be that person. Optimizing your workout routine and cutting out anything that doesn’t contribute to your ultimate goal is the smartest way to progress!  

 

Are You Guys Like a Crossfit?

During one of the intermittent conversations that are typical of personal training rest intervals, a new member told me how much she recommends our services to her friends. It was what she said next that gave me the idea to write this post. She described our training program as “a safer Crossfit.” If I had a dime for every time someone asked us if we do Crossfit, I could probably pay next month’s rent, but that’s not the point. The point is that people’s understanding is limited by their level of perception.

 

It’s human nature to want to categorize and label everything. This facilitates communication and helps us describe the physical world using words. The drawback is that when we rely too much on a description of something, it may take away from actually experiencing it with our senses. A good example to illustrate my point is reading reviews or listening to a friend’s critique of a movie before watching it. If the movie has been labeled as “bad” or “boring,” we will have predisposed expectations before actually experiencing it for ourselves. If we hear the word “Crossfit,” we will inevitably start thinking of everything we associate with that training method.

 

There’s no substitute for personally experiencing something. No matter how accurate a food critic may be at describing it, we have to taste the dish to make our own conclusions about it. Instead of trying to categorize or compare everything, we need to spend more time trying things. I’ve taken over a dozen Yoga classes which have all been completely different from one another. This makes me realize that the term “Yoga” is too general to have a consistent opinion about. Similarly, other fitness categories such as strength training, bootcamps, personal training, and group exercise classes are too broad to make generalized conclusions on.

 

B-Fit is not Crossfit, or traditional strength & conditioning, or HIIT, or a bootcamp—it’s B-Fit. We created a comprehensive training system using what we considered the best tools from a variety of fitness methods and scientific research. The only way to describe what we do is to experience our training directly.

Discomfort: A Catalyst for Personal Growth

We modern day humans are fortunate to be living more comfortable lives than ever before. We have modes of transportation that allow us to never have to take a long walk when trying to reach our destination. We wear comfortable shoes so our feet are protected from sharp rocks and sticks on the ground. If we are feeling hot or cold, most of us have access to an air conditioning system or heater to adjust the temperature to our liking. Unless we’re standing in line at the DMV, we are rarely put in situations where we feel physically uncomfortable.

 

That’s a good thing, right?

 

Yes and no. Although we must be grateful that we don’t have to go through the daily struggles that our ancestors had to go through, there is one major downside to our comfortable lives: we can’t stand being uncomfortable anymore.

 

It’s human nature to get accustomed to our environments. If we spend a year in Thailand with no access to A/C, we’ll get used to the hot climate after a while. However, if we spend most of our time indoors with the A/C on blast, we are more likely to complain when we have to stand in the sun for ten minutes.

 

Life isn’t always rainbows and sunshine. Sometimes things go our way, and sometimes our car breaks down on the way to the most important job interview of our lives. Getting accustomed to comfort leaves us unprepared for situations where we find ourselves outside our comfort zones. Anything worth pursuing requires effort, perseverance, and the ability to adapt to situations that may not be ideal. Keeping that in mind, it would be logical to practice being uncomfortable so we are prepared when things inevitably get rough.

 

The good news is that humans have a remarkable ability to adapt. We can literally make the uncomfortable feel comfortable with frequent exposure. Take fitness, for example. If we start exercising after years of being sedentary, we may feel uncomfortable after performing 10 repetitions of bodyweight squats. After several weeks of exercising, we might be warming up with bodyweight squats and will certainly need additional resistance to feel discomfort. In fitness, discomfort is a prerequisite to making desirable adaptations!

Growth comfort

 

Let’s get uncomfortable

 

We can all agree that Navy SEALs are badasses, right? What is it that makes them so badass? They are trained extensively to thrive in uncomfortable situations. I once read an article where a Navy SEAL explains part of the concept behind their training. He said: “If it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it.” SEALs believe that when our minds tells us we’ve reached our limit in any given situation, we’re only at about 40% of our capacity. It’s an interesting perspective on how to improve mental toughness and reach our potential.

 

Do we have to train like Navy SEALs to improve ourselves? Of course not, but we can certainly take a page from their book. Here are 3 tips to practice getting uncomfortable on a daily basis.

 

  1. Take cold showers. Hear me out! I understand how good it feels to take a hot shower after a long day, so this isn't something we have to do every single day. Taking a cold shower is a simple and practical way to deliberately practice being uncomfortable. I’ve been experimenting with this myself for several weeks and have noticed a reduction in mental resistance before doing something I know will be unpleasant. Plus, there is some scientific research that cold exposure may aid with weight loss, improved brain function, and improved immunity, so why not give it a shot?  

  2. Set personal exercise challenges. I’m always surprised by how many people exercise routinely, but haven’t got a clue on how much progress they’ve made. Setting physical challenges doesn’t mean lifting heavier weights every week. Here are several examples of challenges we can all easily implement into our lives:

    1. AMRAP (as many reps as possible) Challenge: Set a timer for a given time, but no more than 10 minutes. Pick a series of exercises that are not technical, such as bodyweight exercises. Squats, lunges, plank variations, push-ups, and plyometrics are good options. Write down the number of repetitions performed in the set amount of time. Try to get more reps the next time around.

    2. Isometric Time Challenge: This can be done with a ton of exercises. Isometric exercises involve holding a position that allows muscles to contract without actually moving. Most people think of bent arm planks when they think of isometrics, but other good examples are holding the top of a chin-up position, the bottom of a bodyweight squat, or what’s known as a boat pose in Yoga. The challenge is to hold the position for as long as possible and try to hold it for longer the next time around.

  3. Do one thing that scares us every week. We can get creative with this. If we’re afraid of public speaking, we can find opportunities where we get to address a crowd. If we feel that we’re socially awkward, we can start a conversation with a stranger. Exposing ourselves to things that scare us will force us to adapt and evolve in the face of discomfort.

 

Every successful person I’ve ever studied has a history of adapting to uncomfortable situations. Whether our goal is to become an entrepreneur, make exercise a daily habit, or climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, we will eventually have step outside our comfort zone. Deliberately putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations means making a choice to transcend the fears that hold us back from reaching our potential.

 

The Perfect Workout

Rings Best Workout Back Biceps

Men’s Health tells you that doing HIIT (high intensity interval training) three times per week is enough to get you ripped. Your trainer suggests splitting up your routine by muscle group, hitting each group once per week. Your buddy claims that total body routines are his secret to getting lean. Bodybuilding, Crossfit, functional training, calisthenics, Yoga…the list goes on and on. The point is that you’re constantly getting bombarded with fitness advice from all angles. Unless you’ve inherited a family fortune and have all the time in the world, there’s no way to test all these different training modalities on yourself to determine which one works.

 

Rather than stand behind one single training method, the best advice I can give to anyone who’s serious about reaching their fitness goals is the following: there is no such thing as a generalized “perfect” workout.

 

Us humans come in all shapes and sizes. Although we share a similar means of functioning, we have unique differences and inherent physical limitations. Therefore, the ideal workout for you should be individualized to your needs and specific to your goal. I’m going to give you three simple steps that will ensure that you make consistent progress, regardless of the exercise method you choose.

 

1. Assessment. Designing the ideal workout program requires one important thing: a proper evaluation or assessment of yourself. An evaluation will determine exactly where you stand at the present moment, which is a prerequisite to knowing what you need. For example, you may find that you have very poor cardiovascular endurance and extremely tight hamstrings. Your ideal workout should address both of these issues, while also providing the appropriate regimen to help you achieve your ultimate goal.

 

2. Purpose.  Your body adapts to the specific stress applied to it. Wanting to get “in shape” is way too vague of a goal. An elite marathon runner can exercise at a steady rate for hours, but can they bench press twice their weight? A pro bodybuilder can crush the weights six times per week, but can they swim 400 meters? Being fit is relative to the activity. Having a clear vision of what you want to achieve is essential to creating the program that will get you there. You can’t know which route to take if you don’t know your final destination!

 

3. Strategy. Ok, so you’ve decided you want to look like your favorite fitness model. Now comes the hard part. How are you going to get there? No matter what your ultimate goal is, whether it’s decreasing your 40-yard dash time or shedding some unwanted fat, the concept of progressive overload will always be useful to you. Your body perceives exercise as a form of stress. When the body is strained, it will adapt and overcome the stress. Unless the stress is continuously increased, the body will not be forced to continue making adaptations (sometimes referred to as reaching a plateau). Progressive overload basically suggests that you must incrementally increase the level of stress (intensity, volume, frequency, duration, etc.) in order to consistently see physical changes. Ever wonder why that friend of yours who goes to the gym every day, but never changes her routine, never sees any progress?

 

If the perfect workout actually existed, we would all be doing it and seeing phenomenal results. Finding the appropriate exercise regimen for you will involve some trial and error, but you will gather important information about yourself in the process, which you can carry with you for the rest of you life. The most important factor that will make you or break you on your quest for fitness is consistency. Once you’ve developed a strategic program, stick to it! The only way of finding what works for you is to give your body the time it takes to make physical changes and adaptations as a response to the training stimulus. Follow the three simple steps mentioned in this article and you’ll be on your way to getting the results you want!

DEADLIFT WARM-UP: MUSCLE ACTIVATION

Going straight into heavy compounds like deadlifts without a proper warm-up is like being woken up with a bucket of cold water thrown at you! Doing simple muscle activation drills prior to doing deadlifts helps prepare these specific tissues for the more demanding movement that follows. Here are several warm-up movements you can do on deadlift days to fire up the posterior chain and glutes!

  • Bridge with resisted shoulder extension; 2 sets of 10
  • Prone hip extension; 2 sets of 8
  • Lateral deadlift with overhead raise; 2 sets of 10

STRENGTH TRAINING FOR A HEALTHY PREGNANCY

 
 

So you’ve been making great progress in your fitness program, but you find out that you’re going to be a mom. Does this mean you have to stop working out? Are all your hard-earned gains going to disappear?

While pregnancy consists of a wide array of physiological changes, it is far from a physical handicap. Most women are unsure about what type of exercises they should be doing, and whether or not certain movements will negatively affect the baby’s development. Exercise and physical activity are highly encouraged for a healthy pregnancy. Before I get into the sample workout I’ve put together, it is important to mention that every pregnancy is unique and you should consult with a physician to get medical clearance before engaging in any form of exercise.

If you are pregnant and want to continue (or begin) exercising, I highly encourage you to review the contraindications and specific exercise recommendations for pregnant women. Read this and this.

The following is a sample resistance training program that is safe for those who are familiar with weight training and experience no pain with functional movements. An example of the perfect candidate for continuing her strength training protocol is Local 10 meteorologist Julie Durda, who has been weight training for years prior to getting pregnant. The goals of her program during her term were the following:

  • Focus on foundational movements like squats, lunges, pulls, and sling system work
  • Include balance and stability exercises
  • Train the core to account for change in center of gravity (balance between anterior core and low back is essential)
  • Focus on total-body movements, implemented in a manner that doesn’t drastically raise heart rate
  • Never train muscle groups till failure
  • Maintain as much lean mass as possible, because those arms still have to look good on television!

Since Julie was in her 3rd trimester during the filming of this video, she’s only lifting about 50% or less of the weight she normally lifts. The overall workout intensity was drastically lowered during her entire term. Remember, the goal is maintaining some level of fitness without pushing yourself anywhere near maximal or submaximal level of effort. Just as being sedentary is not ideal, the other extreme of trying to set PRs and lift heavy is also not favorable. My professional advice would be to engage in some form of resistance training (light/moderate intensity) program 3 times per week, while supplementing with light aerobic activity another 2-4x per week.

Sample workout

 

There are many correct ways to accomplish the same purpose when it comes to programming. The approach I take with our pregnant clients involves resting in between each exercise so that the heart rate doesn’t increase too much. Here’s an example of how I would put together the specific exercises shown in the video:

Being pregnant is not an excuse to be sedentary and binge eat Haagen-Dazs. If strength training was part of your routine prior to getting pregnant, you may continue with several modifications and a lower intensity. If strength training is new to you, you may want to consult with a professional to make sure your exercise form is correct and the workouts are appropriate for you. Regardless of your fitness level, anyone can benefit from moving often and making exercise a daily habit. Performing an exercise routine such as the one showcased in this video several times a week can have a huge impact on keeping your body healthy and strong!