How hard do I need to exercise?
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
"Would you punish me?"
That certainly needs some explanation!
That’s what an old school friend asked during a chat about the prospect of having some personal training. My sense was she valued training sessions by the degree to which they hurt. While it's useful to get uncomfortable in order to get fitter, leaner or stronger, there’s more to it than that. There are several considerations when figuring out how hard to exercise. Read on and learn more:
Workout consistency matters most
2 superhuman workouts in a month will never beat 8 moderate or low intensity sessions over the same period. To truly benefit from exercise, you need to accumulate regular workouts over time, there's no way around it.
Your fitness level and body composition will tell the story of your habits over months, decades and years. Prioritising building the habit is crucial, the best way of doing that is to err on the easy side initially. As a guide, when starting out on a new exercise routine go at a level where you finish feeling you could have done a fair bit more. That’s very different from the sense you couldn't wait for the workout to end.
Once the habit’s ingrained you can always up the ante, especially if you're not getting the results you want.
Initial overzealous training can be cause for injury and extreme soreness. Leading to a loss of motivation and confidence in your ability to get fit and develop a routine. Think about going at a pace that'll best allow you to develop a routine that'll last for years, rather than doing something with the aim of changing your physique within weeks.
You can exercise long or hard but not both
A high level of effort is only sustainable for a short period, an elite athlete who has peaked for a major event may be an exception, but for the rest of us it's a poor strategy to go both long and hard. The likely outcomes are tiring quickly, getting really sore afterwards, meaning you can't exercise again for a while (which is contrary to what you need to do to get fit) and getting injured. Additionally it's hard to get motivated to continue to face up to long, gruelling workouts.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has become popular mainly due to the well published results from a small period i.e. 3-5 minutes of effort. If you investigate the studies closely though, you'll find the intensity needed for those results is damn high. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding this type of training takes more motivation to start on than a 1 hour workout.
HIIT most certainly has value, but I'd recommend getting a good chunk of longer, easier sessions done first so you’ll cope when you opt for this style of training. HIIT, when appropriately applied, can complement those lengthier, easier sessions nicely.
Clearly, available time to exercise will influence how hard you should go. A simple & reliable guide is:
*Long= easy to moderate. *Medium= moderate. *Short= high.
Your physical state should influence how hard you go
Tired? Rundown? Hungover? Dehydrated? Lack of fuel? Sore throat? Stressed?
You are limited by your physical state. It's wise to modify the intensity of exercise if you're not in top shape- this happens a lot in personal training sessions, and it's the responsible thing for a PT to do.
You run the risk of depleting your immune system to the point of illness if you go hard when you're not in good health. Lack of fluid and/or food can also result in much deeper muscle soreness than expected.
Exercising too much is a more common problem than exercising too hard
Over training is typically a result of doing too much exercise, it results from lack of recovery between sessions. This happens when the body doesn't get the chance to repair and adapt before it’s broken down again. If that happens regularly injury, illness and fatigue result. In fact, your fitness can decline rather than improve, beyond a certain amount of activity.
It is possible to go too hard, but again, being in a compromised physical state (as described above) will increase chance of bringing on problems. As this study shows less than 5% of 35-65 year old's who have heart attacks, have them during exercise. Two thirds of them had known heart disease, while one third had had symptoms such as chest pain and breathlessness in the week prior.
Clearly it's wise not to go hard if you've recently experienced symptoms, have a known heart condition or are in the compromised physical state explained.
There is a condition called Rhabdomyolysis, which can be caused by going extremely hard (usually with strength training). It involves a breaking down and leaking of muscle cells. This happens when people push themselves to an extreme in pursuit of very high level performance. It's not an issue when exercising in a regular, conventional way.
How hard I typically push clients and how hard I go myself.
I'm aware a 1 hour personal training session can be daunting for someone who hasn't been exercising regularly. Push them hard in the first 10 minutes and it's going to turn into a long and unenjoyable 60 minutes. Chances are they’ll then dread regular sessions and develop a belief that exercise is far from enjoyable.
I strive to keep clients at a 7 out of 10 intensity. This will result in a sense they're doing something productive (which indeed they are), that with a degree of effort, can be maintained through a session and sustained for ongoing regular workouts.
This 7 out of 10 is the same perceived rate of exertion for everyone but the actual weights lifted or speed of walking/running etc will vary from person to person depending on the individual's level of fitness. It's a level where you can talk if need be and have a little in reserve. To provide greater context 9 out of 10 is really hard work and seriously uncomfortable, while 10 is the hardest you can possibly go.
If a client commits to doing those 7/10 sessions 2-3 times per week results will come, as evidenced by being able to go faster or longer at that same 7 out of 10 effort level. People who train only once a week do get benefit and some initial improvement, and twice weekly offers greater benefit, while 3 sessions/week is ideal for making significant change.
The picture looks a little different with my own training, mainly because lately I've been focused on some goals for 5km run's and Obstacle Course Races. As I try to get a higher level of performance from my body than my clients, my training program includes 5-6 sessions per week. The theory of differing intensities for differing lengths of workouts still governs the approach though. There are 2 x 40-60 minute sessions which are at a 6-7/10, 2 moderate sessions of 20-35 minutes @ 7-8 out of 10 and 2 x 15 minute sessions at a more taxing 9/10.
I use a heart rate monitor to track the effort level I target for each session, and tend to be pretty precise about that, similarly my strength training is very specifically planned out with sets and reps.
I find the varying intensities within my program keep it interesting and complement one another. Of course, I’ve built up to that amount of training over time and learnt through experience that going like a bull at a gate all the time is asking for trouble.
When you could benefit most from going hard
If you've been consistent for a while, going hard can actually help with motivation, partly because you’ll push into the zone where you can get the euphoric feelings associated with runners high. It's a pretty direct payback for the effort put in.
It can also prevent staleness from doing the same thing over and over again, besides which, you really need some progression to move forward with your fitness. There are plenty of people who have a solid routine in place but lack variation in intensity and would benefit from throwing up a new level of challenge for the body to get new gains.
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