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How Much Exercise Intensity is Enough – or Too Much ?

It’s hard for me to not notice when people are doing things wrong in the gym. Sometimes what I see is people doing exercises with really bad form; other times it’s just some ridiculous exercise. But there’s a third area of “wrong” that’s equally hard to ignore, and that is the issue of intensity, or effort.

What I see most often is people talking too long between sets. They do one set, and then they talk for five minutes, or longer. Sometimes – as ironic as this is – I see it happening between trainers and their clients. The amount of time spent between sets is of critical importance. It should be as brief as possible. Keeping the rest time brief allows the heart rate to stay elevated, which causes improvements in cardiovascular fitness and helps reduce body fat. Brief rests also cause the working muscles to more dramatically improve their strength, endurance and visible development. It also helps keep the body warm, thereby reducing the risk of injury. All of that is lost, when the rest between sets is too long.

I realize that many people use their time in the gym to socialize; not everyone is as serious about getting results as I am, and people have different priorities – I understand. But often it’s these same people who complain about not getting the results they expected. There’s a price to pay for everything, and if you want the “prize” of a sculpted body, you have to step up to the plate.

Another kind of “not enough” intensity that I often see, is people not coming to the gym often enough. Frequency is a critical component in making improvements in the body’s fitness level.  For best results, a message needs to be sent to the body (the muscles, the cardiovascular system, and the metabolism) that “exercise is a frequent thing”. This causes the body to adapt by preparing itself for the demands of the soon-to-occur next workout.

These adaptations include changes in the way the body stores excess calories; if the body knows that workouts are infrequent, it will store excess calories as body fat (i.e. long-term storage); but if the body knows that workouts are frequent, the body will store excess calories as glycogen (i.e., short-term storage). This single adaptation, therefore, causes the body to get leaner.

Another adaptation that occurs with frequency is that the body “learns” to use body fat as fuel more easily than it would if exercise were infrequent. Numerous studies have shown that unfit people burn more glucose and less fat, than fit people, when exercising. This situation is remedied by increasing the frequency of exercise. Super-fit people break into fat-burning mode sooner in the workout, than do unfit people, who typically cross that threshold much later, if at all. This is why novices who rarely exercise, and then exercise too hard when they do finally workout, get noxious. Their blood sugar drops too far (they become hypoglycemic) because their bodies’ don’t know how to use fat as a fuel. This process is only “learned” with frequency.

Also, in terms of muscle gains, frequency is vital. When a muscle is exercised, it is stimulated to adapt to that “stress” as a preparation for the next such episode. Typically, this occurs over a period of about two days. In other words, let’s say that you start at point zero. Within two days of your last workout, your conditioning level rises to a level one. If the next workout happens shortly after the previous workout, you will be able to build on your level one, and possibly push it to level two. Later, with frequency, you can push it to level three. However, if you wait too long before your next workout – 5 days or longer, for example – you will have returned to level zero again. Now your second workout will only bring you back to level one. This happens all the time. Stopping and starting, with week-long periods between workouts, has people going from level one, back to zero, back to one, back zero – endlessly.

Another kind of “intensity mistake” I often see (or hear) is the person who has a combination of overzealousness, and inconsistency. He (or she) comes into the gym and just beats themself into the ground. In other words, they workout too hard, considering that they are not yet prepared for that degree of effort. The next day, they’re very sore, complain that they can barely walk, or worse – they may have injured their shoulder or their back. Then they stay away from the gym for a couple of weeks, until the soreness has diminished. But I assert that more damage has been done than is apparent. The psyche has been sent a subconscious message that equates exercise with soreness and pain. This is neither a healthy, nor an accurate representation of exercise. In fact, it’s a misrepresentation of exercise. Unfortunately, this may ultimately cause one to lose enthusiasm for exercise, when the fact is they simply exercised improperly (i.e. too much intensity, too soon).

I’m often skeptical when I hear someone verbally celebrating the fact that they “had a really intense workout yesterday”. Workouts don’t bestow their benefits on a per workout basis. They bestow their benefits over a period of time. In other words, the pattern of exercise is what causes the body to make changes. The frequent and consistent pattern of regular, sensible, proper exercise, over a period of time, is how the magic of fitness happens. Frequency and consistency are FAR more important than intensity. In fact, the intensity should be no greater than the frequency and consistency will allow. If you can’t maintain that level of intensity every day, week after week, then it’s too much intensity for you – at this point in time.

Celebrating a single workout suggests that it was “an event” for you. A single workout should not be a big deal, but a matter of course – like showering and brushing your teeth. You wouldn’t rejoice a single shower, right? It’s part of the big picture, which – again, over time – produces results. Placing too much emphasis on a single workout is not the right mind-set for someone who’s in it for the long haul – and the long haul is the only way to do fitness right. It’s a lifestyle – not a once in a while thing.

The “right” intensity of workout should be – first and foremost – regular, frequent and consistent.  No less than three times per week, but the more frequent, the better – even if it means a shorter workout each time. The body responds best to frequency.

Second – the workout effort should be such that it’s challenging, but still comfortable, both physically and mentally. It should be only slightly more strenuous than what you are otherwise accustomed to. More effort than that is unproductive, and potentially injurious.  It should be of moderate intensity, but non-stop.  Don’t use weights that are too heavy for good form (and at least 10 repetitions….better would be 20), and – ideally – alternate exercises in circuit fashion, to maximize the cardiovascular benefit.  This is also very time-efficient.

As the body adapts and becomes stronger, you can slightly increase the amount of weight used, or add a set here and there, or add some reps. But keep it reasonable. No need to set a record at each workout. Remember – you’re going for a cumulative result.

Eventually, if you’ve been consistent – if exercise and good nutrition have been a daily part of your life for a period of time, and you’ve been gradually increasing your efforts along the way – you will likely find yourself having a decent physique.  Using a stop-and-start method, or talking too much during your workouts, will fail to produce any significant results.  You might as well skip it all together.

It’s no mystery – there’s lots of evidence of this in the gym. Look around, and you’ll see that the best physiques belong to those who rarely miss a workout; they workout 4 to 6 days per week; their intensity is always moderated (not too much, and not too little); and they don’t waste much time between sets. It’s just a part of their lives.
















Photo of Doug Brignole by Robert Rieff – 2011

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