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.
Does the workout serve the specific purpose you are looking for?
Is the workout appropriate to your current fitness level and physical abilities?
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.
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.