Monday, February 2, 2009

Harder is Better? Maybe Not

Are you one of those that thinks that "if I don't work out hard every time I go to the gym, I'm not getting a good workout"? Don't get me wrong, as I mentioned in another post, I've been there. I was raised in the camp of no pain no gain, and blood, sweat, and tears, and sacrifice your body. Now, after years of hit or miss exercise, injuries, and average fitness gains, I'm not so sure that that mentality works. Are you one of these people? What usually happens after you set your New Years Resolution to get back in the gym? Are you still at it? You tell me.

I can tell you how it use to be for me and I bet for many others out there to. Maybe not you, because some of you are totally committed and love taking care of your bodies and have developed the habit of consistent working out. But for the majority of us, I've seen it year in and year out at the gym, after the first month or so we quit. It's too hard! It's not fun. Why do I kill myself? My back hurts. My muscles ache. I can't focus at work after working out so hard in the mornings. I'm soooo tired all the time. It doesn't even seem like I'm losing weight. I crave sugar all the time. I crash about 2:00pm. I'm getting sicker this year than usual. I'm not really seeing any significant gains anyway. Do these sound familiar? If they do continue reading.

After reading many, many articles on this and experiencing this for myself, I'm convinced that "harder is not better". Now, is there a place for "harder" workouts. Let's refer to harder as intensity for now on. Absolutely there is a place for intensity in your routine. I would bet that for some of you, that's all you know. That's why you get discouraged and quit, or maybe aren't as consistent as you want to be. Do you think that every time you go to the gym you have to work at a high intensity. Here's a better question. Do you even know how intense your workouts are? Do you have a Heart Rate Monitor? How are you measuring your intensity? That might be a place to start.

There are several ways to measure intensity. The first is by RPE or rate of perceived exertion. That's just simply how you feel. How hard it seems you are working. There are a dozen charts that describe RPE based on certain descriptors like "Hard" or " Near Breathless". These are obviously subjective and vary greatly among students. The other is by using a power meter which I have not yet tasted the cool-aid on so I won't go into that. And the other most common way to measure intensity is by measuring your heart rate. Your heart rate is how your heart reacts to a certain work load. It's not a measurement of work or force produced but simply how hard your heart or cardiovascular system is having to work in response to this effort. This too can be subjective but it's so much more objective than RPE. Several things can affect HR are things like quality and quantity of sleep, caffeine, illness, stress etc. Do yourself a favor if you are serious about fitness and get yourself a heart rate monitor. Google Polar Heart Rate Monitors. I recommend Polar and particularly the F-4 or F-6. You're going to spend anywhere from $80-$120 on one but don't panic. These are not your entry level HR monitors. Polar is the most popular and dependable brand on the market. There are other more expensive and less expensive brands but these are the ones I would recommend for anyone looking to get one.

Back to Intensity. It is a physiological fact that you burn fat as the primary source of fuel at lower intensities. If you train at a lower intensity for 8-12 weeks you actually train your body to become very efficient at burning fat as fuel. When you do that great things start to happen. (more about the benefits of aerobic base training later) On the other side of the coin, when you work out at a high intensity, you burn glucose (sugar), carbs, and calories as your primary source of fuel. Now this is very simplistic explanation of your body's different energy systems and what each uses for fuel but for the most part, they'll do for now. What is the first thing most overweight people do when they finally want to lose weight? They walk! Partly because they can't run or do much of anything else so they just simply walk. IF they are committed to walking and get out there regularly and walk, what happens? They start seeing results. They start losing weight. They start feeling better. They get MOTIVATED to do more and the cycle starts. What happens if they are fat and try to run 5 miles the first day? You guessed it. They quit and go to Krispy Kream because let's face it, they're never going to get into shape. There's just no use.

Don't be that guy/gal. Don't think that you have to kill yourself in the gym or on the track the first day back. Take it slow. You didn't get in this shape overnight and your not going to get in great shape overnight either. Get a HR MONITOR now. Set some goals. Have fun. Get over the idea that harder is better. Be smart. Educate yourself on the facts and don't listen to anyone that tells you otherwise. Remember, there is a time and place for high intensity workouts, it's just not the first few weeks after you set your NY Resolutions. I would tell you to go easy for 8-12 weeks. Trust me. It works. More on that later.....


  1. It is so amazing how my cravings for sugar are almost nonexistent when I keep my heart rate below 80%. It makes sense since you are burning more fat and less of your glucose at this rate. This is very encouraging because it just shows that it is really working! This is the hardest challenge for me because I am such an intensity junkie so, it is nice to see this kind of result to help keep me going towards my goal.

  2. Wow! That's awesome Rachel. I'm glad you have already seen tangible results. It's hard to convince people to change lifelong habits but when one experiences things first hand, it's powerful. Hang in there and I bet you'll see more benefits in the future. Just 8-12 weeks then you add in High Intensity Workouts a couple times a week. Your fitness will explode! Remind me which Rachel you are?

  3. The best piece of fitness equipment I have invested in thus far is my heart rate monitor. I couldn't have asked for anything better.

  4. Hey Kala! You're blog is great! I'm jealous you are getting a master's in excersice science. Wish I had gone that route. Thanks for stopping by here. I tried to comment on yours but wasn't able to. Said something about downloading a file that I'm not allowed to download. THis is my work computer so maybe that's why. Keep up the Great Work!

  5. I like my heartrate monitor...I just really don't know how to use it:o) That may have something to do with the fact that I haven't taken the time to read the directions. Guess I'll have to put that on my "to do" list.