By Jeff Spencer, MA, DC
I was talking with an acquaintance the other day and he remarked to me that ever since he started his new high intensity fitness program a couple of months ago he's been on this incredibly unpredictable and intense good and bad workout roller coaster that's driving him crazy. Some days he's sore, others not, then he'll have a King Kong workout day and do no wrong feeling like his "old self," and, then, the next day for no apparent reason be weak and unresponsive as if he's never worked out.
If there's ever a conversation I've had a zillion times in the fitness world it's about the good day/bad day fitness roller coaster. The origin of the fitness roller coaster is almost universally rooted in too much workout intensity too often.
The Epic Battle Between Mind and Body
Too much intensity too frequently is most often the product of the mind's false belief that more is better, and if the workout isn't felt it's not doing any good to improve fitness.
The mind is not always our friend in fitness matters and can do a pretty darn good job of making us think that more effort is better and working out harder more often will produce the best fitness gains in the shortest time.
This sounds completely reasonable and rational, the only problem being it has no basis in reality as your body isn't physically set up to perform hard day in and day out without sufficient recovery, and when pushed to do so it starts roller coastering to keep up with the demand as it begins to break down.
Finding the balance between too little, too much and just the right amount of training intensity is a challenge and it is the purpose of this article.
Even at the highest level of sport in the professional ranks there's an epidemic of misinformation and myth about how hard to workout to get the best results in the least time.
It's well known in the world of peak performance that those that adopt the "more is better motto" are the ones that fail to progress, are frustrated at their inability to consistently perform at their best and most often have an endless string of nagging low-grade micro-injuries that follow them around day after day, endlessly that zapping their mental, emotional and physical strength.
What's so difficult about this for me is that a vast majority of these challenges are completely preventable by shifting the emphasis from "more is better" to balancing effort and recovery.
How Your Body Gains Fitness
As a graduate student at USC I had the honor of having Dr. Gene Logan as the chair of my masters degree thesis. Dr. Logan was a fabulous man, mentor and also co-developer of the SAID Principle.
The SAID principle stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID).
In fitness terms this means that to increase fitness in a specific area of the body, that area must be strained by specific exercises that stimulate the area to build itself back up to a higher level of fitness after the workout is completed. For example, if I want a bigger bicep I have to strain my bicep by doing bicep curls that stimulate the bicep to grow bigger. No strain, no change.
The important take home with the SAID Principle is that the body will adapt up specifically to the demand (training stress) placed on it. If you want a bigger bicep then do bicep curls, not triceps press downs. Specificity is the name of the game. How you exercise is what you'll develop.
In summary, it's during exercise that the muscle is physically stressed and "torn down", which prompts the body's natural recovery and repair mechanism to rebuild the exercised muscle back to a higher level of function and appearance.
The Key to Better Fitness is Full Recovery
No amount of training will reap beneficial long-term fitness gains unless the training is properly balanced with adequate recovery time allowing the body to rebuild itself back to its full functional level.
Achieving Ideal Weekly Workout "Total Training Load"
To achieve the most beneficial effects from your workouts in the shortest time it's essential to understand the concept of total load. Total Training Load refers to the total amount of training "strain" on the body over time. For example, one single super-hard workout can strain the body as much as several moderate intensity workouts done back to back can.
The Total Training Load can be increased by increasing the number of exercise repetitionces, resistance, length of workout sets and by increasing the speed of repetitions and, also, by shortening the rest interval between exercise sets. If the Total Training Load is in excess too long, the body breaks down, and illness, over-training, burnout, and injury occur.
Your Body Can't Discriminate Between Stresses
The key to remember in the Total Training Load concept is that the body doesn't look at separate strains as distinct entities but rather as a single total load made up of all the stresses and strains it's exposed to day in and day out. For example, the strain of a hard workout, spending a hour in traffic, staying up late, or traveling between time zones are different stresses that the body looks at as all part of one giant stress on itself.
The mind may say these are different types of activities and not stresses but in the end the body looks at them all as stresses contributing to the total stress burden placed on it.
The challenge with total load is that over time it sets the stage for illness, injury and burnout.
A major item that helps in controlling the Total Training Load is to know how hard a workout is. Knowing that provides insight as to whether it's adding to, or taking away from the total load.
How Hard is Hard? Exercise Effort Grading
As a general rule "hard", as in how hard is my workout effort, is defined by perceived effort while exercising. The following three perceived effort levels are surprisingly accurate and are great tools to gauge your workout effort to get the most benefit from your workouts:
- Easy – If you can maintain an easy conversation with someone when exercising then the intensity of the workout is considered easy.
As a general rule you want to exercise easy twice for every hard workout.
The 2/1 ratio is the magic number and in some cases a 3/1 ratio is a good idea to give your body an extra day to get the extra recovery when needed.
- Moderate – When working out if you can speak in words, but not sentences, and don't really want to talk then that's the classic sign of a moderate workout.
In a weekly training program one or two, moderate workouts separated by two days is a great training strategy.
Hard – The key sign of a hard workout is that it's impossible to talk during the workout.
Hard workouts should only be done once or twice a week with three days in between.
In summary, the following are training intensity guidelines to help you control your weekly Total Training Load's effort-to-recovery ratio to reduce the risk of burnout, illness, and injury follow these ratio guideline:
- Minimum 2/1 easy to hard workout ratio
- 1-2 moderately hard workouts with two days in between
- 1-2 hard workouts with 3 day's in between.
Make Your Hards Hard, and Easy's Easy
Before moving on I want to make a final point about the three different exercise efforts presented in the preceding section. To get the best value from your workouts, always follow the effort intensity guidelines by the letter and never, ever fool yourself into believing that you'll get more fit by making your easy workouts slightly harder and your hard workouts slightly easier as it doesn't work that way.
The reason why it doesn't work is that by making the hard training sessions easier and easier workouts harder makes all the workout's intensities more similar, and that can quickly lead to over training.
Classic Signs of a Workout with Ideal Intensity and Length
At the end of the day when you're workout intensities and training loads are within ideal range you'll find that your fitness will increase and maintain itself with less time and effort.
The following are the signs that tell you your workout program has the correct balance of hard and easy workouts and your Total Training Load is within normal range.
- Should have quick and full recovery after each workout - After a workout you should rebound quickly from the effort and feel almost back to normal within 30-minutes. A prolonged rebound is a sign the workout was too difficult and you need to go easy for a couple of days.
- Ideal to feel better at end of workout than the beginning – Successful workouts will leave you feeling better at the end of your workout than the beginning. This is a sign of well-trained body.
- Slight soreness on occasion is OK, but regular soreness isn't - Slight muscle soreness is normal after starting to exercise, when new exercises are implemented into your workouts or when an increase in exercise intensity is done.
If you feel sore then put two or more easy days into your program to let your body catch up with itself.
- Should be able to raise heart rate – A cardinal sign of having the right training balance of effort to recovery is when your heart rate moves up and down nicely during a workout. If your heart rate fails to elevate during a workout you're over-trained from training too hard too often, and you need time off.
- Heart rate should drop immediately when the workout is completed – Fitness buffs having ideal intensity variety in their workouts have heart rates that drop down to slightly above normal within 5-minutes of finishing a workout then drop back to normal levels shortly thereafter.
- Perspiration should stop shortly after the training is completed – As a rule sweating associated with workouts should stop within a few minutes after exercise is stopped when workout intensity and overall fitness is within ideal range.
If sweating continues 20-30 minutes after exercise it is the sign the workout was too hard, and requires a few easy days to recover from.
It's a Wrap
As I look back over the course of my career in fitness, health, and athletics there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that more people than not are over-trained from too much workout intensity, too often having fallen for the myth that the best way to get most fit in the shortest time is to train hard often.
I also have no doubt that high intensity training is the best way to get and stay fit if it's balanced, following the 2/1 easy to hard days ratio.
The challenge is to determine how hard to train how often to get to the ideal fitness level, and stay there.
Following the three "Can I or can't I hold a conversation?" rules to determine workout effort will help promote more effective and safe workout programs to take health and fitness results to higher levels.
When in doubt, do what the top pros do, workout hard once for every two or three easy workouts, you'll be glad you did.
About the Author
Dr. Jeff Spencer, Olympian, ICA "Sports Chiropractor of the Year", and author is one of America's top builder of champions.
"Dr. Magic", as Dr. Spencer's often referred to, has been directly involved in 40+ World, Olympic, National and Tour de France championships. He has worked with NASCAR champion Bobby LaBonte, World Series MVP Troy Glaus, rock legend U2, and most known for helping Lance Armstrong win all 7 of his Tour de France victories on site. Spencer has also worked his "magic" with PGA, WTA, and Supercross champions, ultra-successful entrepreneurs and business standouts, NFL, MLB athletes, as well as Motocross and Formula 1 drivers.
Spencer received his master's in physical education and his undergraduate degree from University of Southern California and his doctor of chiropractic degree summa cum laude from Cleveland Chiropractic College in Los Angeles. He has taught post-graduate sports rehabilitation courses and frequently lectures on health, fitness, and wellness.
Dr. Spencer is the author of the acclaimed book, Turn It Up! How To Perform At Your Highest Level For A Lifetime and audio program "The Top 10 Tactics From The Champions Playbook".
"Jeff is part doctor, part guru, part medicine man… we believed Jeff could fix all of our problems… while he fixed us physically, he also fixed us mentally… If you judged the most important man on the team by the foot traffic in and out of his door, then it was Jeff. Without him, we know we'd never make it to Paris."
-Lance Armstrong, Every Second Counts