By Zach Columbia B.S. NASM. FPT
You get to the end of what you think was a pretty tough workout, look at the clock and think, “oh good, it’s over!” Then, your coach says, “Okay here’s what we got for the finisher…” You think to yourself, “finisher? That wasn’t the finisher?” They push you harder and further than you wanted to go and of course harder and further than you ever would have pushed yourself. That’s what you’re paying them for isn’t it? You finish the workout with a rush of endorphins and a great sense of accomplishment.
The next day, you show up to the gym and your coach asks how you’re feeling. You respond with, “A little sore, but pretty good.” As you complete your warm up, your coach observes your movement patterns and body language and notices you aren’t moving as smoothly as the day before. This tells the coach that there’s damage to the muscle tissue from the previous workout(s) and that the nervous system isn’t firing as efficiently. Your coach decides to lower the intensity level of today’s workout. As you begin lifting, you think, “That set was easy, I can lift more than that.” Then, your next block of exercise and it’s the same thing. Finally, your coach says, “Three sets of this and you’re all done.” You glance up at the clock and think, “That’s it!?” After finishing your workout, you think, “Well, I didn’t get my money’s worth today.” You leave without that rush of endorphins and a sense of frustration. But did your workout suck?
One big challenge that exists in the fitness industry is the balance between performance and programming.
There is no doubt that training is partially a performance. The energy of an intense workout with the theatrical encouragement of a coach is something that can send a pulse (haha, see what I did there) of energy pumping through your veins. However, any well educated coach knows that a scientifically based program includes varied levels of intensity across several weeks or months, and is designed with flexibility to adjust for a client’s movement efficiency from day to day.
In other words, the focus should not be on how hard a single workout is, but rather the program in its entirety.
Rating the quality of your workout by comparing how hard you worked the day before or even the week before is completely the wrong approach. If you were to go all out at maximum capacity every workout, then you’d most likely suffer an injury and stop seeing results. It’s important to plan for varied intensity levels within your program and also be willing to adjust on the fly based on how you’re feeling and how well you’re moving.
Many variables can impact your quality of movement and appropriate intensity level, including how much sleep you get, diet, hydration level, and where you’re at in your periodized training program. Many professional athletes use force plate technology prior to each of their workouts to determine how well they’re moving that day and what intensity level they should work at to get the maximum benefit from their workout. While, your average person doesn’t need to go to that extent, the point remains that sometimes less is more. Most coaches will agree that a well designed program and a keen coaching eye is just as effective anyway.
The point is, when it comes to working out to obtain a specific goal and/or just overall health and wellbeing, you have to look at the big picture. In most cases, short-term results are short-lived. Overtime, you should become more resilient to workout induced stress. Meaning what you once found extremely intense and challenging has become less difficult and less taxing. What you thought was a really hard workout a year ago, shouldn’t feel hard today. That doesn’t mean your workout today sucked, it means the program is working.