By Carrie Morgan CPT, CFNC
Why is it that within a group of exercisers doing the exact same workout, at the exact same time, some will find the workout extremely challenging while others will feel it was easy? Some will get sore while others never get sore? Some get results while others never change? Do the fitter individuals perceive the workout to be easier? Contrary to what you might think, we have discovered that the ones who are more athletic and have a more advanced fitness level are actually the ones who find the workouts to be more challenging. There is a direct correlation between their higher fitness level and their perception of the workout being difficult. That’s because their workouts actually are indeed more difficult! The reason? Exercise Intensity.
The ones who think the workout is difficult workout with maximum effort every time. They push themselves to their very limits, completely focused on the exercise and how their body is performing that exercise, pressing on to muscle failure without regard for what others around them are thinking or doing. Meanwhile, the others around them (the ones who think the workout is easy) are generally busier looking around and commenting about the fit ones than they are with doing their own workout.
Down to the very cellular level in our tissues, our bodies have been created to improve with resistance and challenge. Our bone strength and growth is directly related to the stresses of our physical activity and is deposited in proportion to the compressional load that the bone must carry. Our neurons in our brain and the branches interconnecting them grow with an increase in mental challenges such as learning new things, problem solving, and physical activity. Our immune system grows stronger by creating antibodies and attack cells after it has been exposed to a pathogen that threatens to destroy healthy cells. Our muscles grow after resistance causes trauma to cellular proteins, thereby causing a cascade of events leading to muscle repair and growth. We are made to operate with resistance in order to maximize our function.
How do you know if your intensity is enough?
We’ve all seen those people who read a novel while leisurely riding a bike at the gym. Here’s a fitness tip for you: If you can read while you’re exercising, your intensity level is too low. If you can carry on a conversation about your spouse, kids, or boss while you’re exercising, your intensity is too low… and if you’re doing it while you’re on your cell phone, then you need to leave the gym immediately because you’re seriously annoying everyone around you in addition to your intensity being too low. If you can complain while you’re exercising, your intensity is too low. If you’re not sweating during exercise, your intensity is too low. If your heart isn’t pounding, your breath short, and your muscles burning, then your intensity is too low.
If you’re going to spend the time and money to workout, why not make it maximally effective? Don’t settle for less than what you are capable of just because you think the easier road will get you there. It won’t. Exercise is hard work, that’s why it is called a “work” out, not a rest out. Simply showing up for a workout doesn’t make you fit any more than standing in your garage makes you a car. You have to earn the results by working hard for them. Why not push all the way through? Why give up on yourself? Instead you should prove to yourself that you CAN do it. Don’t let that voice in your head tell you that it’s good enough… prove that it’s enough by going farther, pushing longer, moving faster, and lifting more. Be the BEST you can be!
Several weeks back we created a workout challenge designed to increase the intensity level of the participating exercisers by pairing them into teams of two. We paired the teams together not by fitness level, but by competitiveness and/or motivational personality styles. In doing so, this created a microenvironment where each individual would be moved to exert maximal effort for the duration of each exercise (Note: The operative concept here is “team”. We do not encourage comparison with others whether inside or outside of our class environment.) . One person would do an exercise as hard and as fast as they could with good form while their partner would do the same but with a totally different exercise. They would compare results and try to beat their partner’s score on the next set. While the exercises were not new or especially challenging on their own, they became extremely difficult solely because of the increased intensity level. Partners motivated each other with encouraging words to push on while the inner competitor took on the challenge of “beating” their teammates’ score. The result- 100% effort with maximal intensity. They each discovered a whole new level of intensity and an understanding that their bodies were capable of doing far more than they thought was possible. They were red-faced, sweaty, and completely exhausted at the end. Why? Intensity.
How do you increase your intensity of your workout?
- Stop talking– focus on the exercise, your muscles, and your breathing while you’re in the middle of your workout. It should be too hard to talk.
- Decrease the rest time– the shorter the rest, the higher the intensity. You don’t need a minute rest between each exercise. Do several back to back without rest.
- Increase the resistance– lift more weight. Muscle is amazingly adaptive and adapts after 6 weeks. If you’ve been doing the same weight with good form for more than 6 weeks, it’s time to increase. If you’re on a cardio machine, then increase the resistance or the incline.
- Move faster– all out sprinting is one of the very best body conditioners.
- Accountability– we all do more when we know someone else is watching. Hire a trainer, join a group class, or grab a workout partner that works hard, motivates you, and challenges your inner competitor.
It doesn’t matter if your trainer is Jillian Michaels, Chris Powell, Dr. Oz, or Rocky Balboa, the intensity level of your workout is ultimately up to you. YOU are the one that has to do the work. YOU are the one who is responsible for making your workout as hard as possible. It’s time to get honest with yourself—are you truly giving 100%? Or are you going until it’s uncomfortable only to justify that it’s better than nothing? Run the race as if to earn the prize. Everyone is an athlete—you just have to work like one.