In the Gym, Do More by Doing Less

Let me start off this blog today by giving you a hypothetical situation. You are a dedicated gym-goer who hits the gym upwards of 3 times a week. You attack your workouts with fearsome ferocity and give it your all, even if life outside the gym may not be going so swimmingly. Any workout after which you can barely walk out of the gym under your own power is a successful workout indeed. As a bonus, maybe you love making progress, and have a great appreciation for strength-training.

However, there are some days, maybe even weeks where you can’t help but feel like a complete physical wreck. The gym is calling your name though, and you have to find a way to obliterate your workout somehow. In your head, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t go.

im-about-to-go-hamSound familiar? You are in what I affectionately like to call the “Go-HAM” crowd. I admire your drive, but I question how sustainable your approach is. This is not to say that there isn’t a time and place for this sort of effort; I’d certainly want to give it my all in a powerlifting meet or a marathon, but to reproduce that kind of performance in my training all the time? It can leave you more susceptible to sickness and overuse injury, and it may not be the best approach for doing well when your performance actually matters.

Meanwhile though, some people are the exact opposite, just going through the motions and not exerting themselves hard enough. We’ve all encountered the cardio bunnies who only ever set foot in the gym to use the treadmill, elliptical, or stairmaster.

We have to strike a balance between the two sides. This is something that CEO Jeff Halevy touched on in an article for US News & World Report published last year, titled Cardio Isn’t Dead Yet. I’d highly recommend reading it; it extols the virtues of low-intensity, long-duration aerobic exercise more thoroughly than I want to today. Aerobic exercise is absolutely fantastic, when applied correctly. It shouldn’t be the only thing you do, nor should it be omitted entirely. It actually works in conjunction with good, old-fashioned, strength training. Thus, for our hypothetical gym-goer, many of our readers, and us fitness coaches as well, sometimes less is more.

Our hypothetical gym-goer is obsessed with crushing a workout in 20 minutes or less, while someone who trains for maximal strength typically never does a heavy set that lasts more than 1 minute. We tend to spend so much of our efforts on the anaerobic and glycolytic side (high and moderate intensity, respectively), that it isn’t a bad idea to dial it way wayyy down from time to time and focus on our aerobic system. The benefit? Imagine not getting gassed walking up a flight of stairs, or just loading and unloading the barbell during a training session! Going for a light jog or some sort of low-intensity aerobic exercise, and yes, doing LESS than what you’re used to, can help make this a reality.

Low-intensity aerobic exercise serves not only as a great form of both aerobic conditioning, but active recovery as well. This is a lesson I learned from Alex Viada, Juggernaut Training Systems contributor and complete badass. It’s hard not to listen to someone who boasts a 705 squat, 465 bench, and a 700 deadlift, and also happens to have a couple of ultra-marathons and Iron-mans under his belt.

11qqtqI had the opportunity to listen to Viada speak last year, and he hammered these points home. Sure, not many would have an interest in being competent in both powerlifting and marathoning, but having this interest in doing two diametrically opposite endeavors brings to light the fact that it’s important to realize when too much is too much. Like stress from our jobs or personal lives, exercise and training stress should also be smartly managed. Why should we do extra work for the sake of extra work if it doesn’t make us better? Especially if you’ve been feeling bogged down as it is, dialing it down for some low-intensity recovery work might not be a bad idea.

So how much should we dial it down? As long as the intensity of aerobic exercise is low enough, we can reap the benefits without having them interfere with our progress in the weightroom. And trust me, “low enough” is lower than you would expect. Generally speaking, this window for low-intensity is Zone 2, which is 60-70% of our maximum heart rate. On a treadmill, this is a slow jog for many people, but for the poorly conditioned, this won’t even amount to more than a brisk walk!

Using these concepts, I implemented a weekly recovery run into my powerlifting cycle last summer. By my own admission, I think I did pretty well when it came time for the meet (you can read about that here), so I certainly think this aerobic work has its place.  Running at a zone 2 pace put me at 4.8 mph, and it was so slow, I’m sure I’ve traveled faster during my morning commutes.

The good news is that as your conditioning improves, your zone 2 pace will, too. Nevertheless, the goal here isn’t to run a marathon, 10k, or even a 5k pace; it’s simply to move, get the blood flowing, and feel good afterwards.

Polar HR Monitor
Time to bust out one of these bad boys.

So what can you do right now? On a day off from training, go for a 30-minute run on your cardio machine of choice, but keep your heart rate between 60-70% of your max, up to 2x/week. If you’re feeling beat down, do this recovery run instead; I’m certain you’ll feel better immediately and over time as a result, because sometimes less is more.

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau Halevy Life Staff CoachJeremy Lau is a Staff Coach at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.