CrossFit. HIIT. Body-building competitions. Fitspo. Pushing ourselves to our physical limits has become more mainstream than ever. But is there a dark side to the surge in high-intensity training routines for the average Jane or Joe?
We often don’t pay much attention to our routines. We sign up for a class, embark on an organized run, or follow along with a video. We settle on something we enjoy, then return to it out of habit and convenience. But our comfort zone, when mixed with the oft-touted adage “If some is good, more is better,” creates a perfect storm for fitness fatalities.
One of the most fundamental issues with this level of frequent and intense exercise is not adequately rotating our muscle groups. When we follow the same routine and push ourselves to the maximum every time, we run the risk of overloading our muscles. As a result, we may not be seeing desired results. But this also poses a number of serious health risks. Here’s why.
Muscles need rest
Any trainer worth her salt will tell you that strength gains and progress are not made in the gym; they’re made during recovery periods between gym sessions. The only way to get stronger is by tearing your muscle fibers and then backing off to let them repair themselves.
How much rest a muscle needs depends on several factors. More intense sessions require longer periods of recovery, as do those that recruit larger muscle groups (think lower body more than upper body here). Generally, one or two days is sufficient, but you may find that if you’re just starting out, you need a little longer.
If you don’t respect your body’s need to recover, you run the risk of developing overtraining syndrome. Performance first plateaus, then eventually declines. You feel tired and sluggish all the time. Your muscles are always sore. You may catch more viral infections than usual. Oh, and you’re a heck of a lot more likely to hurt yourself.
No one needs illnesses or injuries to further slow them down. Take care not to overstress any muscle group; it could put you out of commission entirely.
Muscles adapt to imposed demands
The first time you attempt an exercise, you’re likely to be sore for days; keep doing it and it gets easier. It’s not just you mastering the exercise. Our body finds more efficient ways to accomplish the same motion over time, which winds up burning fewer calories and being less challenging. A workout shouldn’t be torture, but it’s not always meant to be easy, either. That’s why switching it up is so important!
If you do follow one routine consistently, vary the exercises, intensity, duration, or speed every four to six weeks. It’s also a good idea to shake things up more often than that: try a variety of classes throughout the week, vary your intensity (HIIT isn’t meant for every workout!), and bottom line, make sure you’re rotating which muscles you focus on each session.
There are a lot of online resources to help you split your muscles into different gym sessions, and the one you choose will depend a lot on personal preference, time availability, and desired goals. You can also hire a personal trainer to help design a workout program that’s safe and effective; the trainer can also progress the workout over time to avoid plateaus.
Just because you work legs one day and arms the next, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t risks to intense physical activity seven days a week. There isn’t a single fiber of our bodies that works in isolation from everything else. Our body is one complex unit, and focusing on one area doesn’t mean the rest of it is on vacation. Even if you rotate muscle groups, taking days off remains crucial to staying healthy and fit.
Rotate. Rest. And remember: more is not always better.