Fitness is different then anything else in life because in order to get the most out of it, Fitness has to be done in the exact opposite way that logic suggests. Usually when we are trying something for the first time, we look for the easiest path to success. Fitness doesn’t work like that. It is the one thing in life we should strive to find the hardest way to do it… and then try to fail at. It is this reason alone that people find getting into shape— and more importantly staying in shape— such a difficult endeavor.
In the following article I will discuss how to make the time you spend improving your health and fitness as effective as possible. I like to call this process “ Stress it – Feed it – Rest it – Do it again!”
There are very few things in life that have a 100% guarantee success rate. Such odds would put the stock market and Las Vegas out of business within hours. But these are the exact odds you get when it comes to your body’s response to physical stress. Stress—physical or otherwise—presents the body with the opportunity to adapt. Adaptation is a whole host of physiological changes that lead to a higher level of fitness. Adaptation occurs when four components are successfully addressed: overload principle, nutrition, rest, and frequency. Or, what I like to call “Stress it – Feed it – Rest it – Do it again”. What is so remarkable about adaptation is that it is extremely reliable. A closer look at the above four components will give you a better understanding of how they influence adaptation and ultimately how they enable you to achieve a higher level of health and fitness.
Before we dive in, I want to make something perfectly clear: all four components are “equally” important. So, emphasizing one component over the other, or worse, neglecting a component all together, will significantly impact your chances of reaching your health and fitness goals. The easiest way to grasp the concept of “Stress it – Feed it – Rest it – Do it again” is to think about it as a cycle which has to be kick started with every revolution. Much like riding a bike when you drive your foot down on the peddle with each rotation.
There is a basic understanding in Science regarding development and growth known as the overload principle. “Stress It” falls under the overload principle. The main reason we workout or practice an activity is to start something. That “something” is a physiological cycle technically known as the catabolic/anabolic cycle or the breakdown/buildup cycle. If the overload principle has been effectively reached during a training session, you will have caused enough stress and physical damage to the body (at a microscopic level) to produce change. It is during this breakdown/buildup phase that the body has an opportunity to adapt. In order for adaptation to be complete however, food, rest and especially sleep become critically important. (We will cover this later in the post!)
As I said, in order to have developmental change, there must be more force applied to a system then it can handle. Of course you don’t want to apply so much force that it disables the system entirely. Rather, there is an “optimal range” of force that is required for growth. If too little force is applied there will be no change… too much force and there will be damage. The most important thing to understand about the overload principle is that there is a “range” rather than a single amount of force. The trick then is to apply just enough force to allow you to cross over the bottom line and enter a range necessary to effect change. Although the overload principle applies to all areas of fitness, one area people often fail to achieve the overload principle in is strength training (especially for females). A lack of improvement often comes from the common belief that higher repetitions makeup for sufficient resistance. Here’s how:
Let’s say there is a lady who regularly weight trains two- three times a week. This lady also has a purse that weighs 8 to 12 pounds, which she is constantly picking up and putting down throughout the day… day after day. However, on the few days a week she goes to the gym, she does multiple sets and reps of arm exercises with 5 pounds weights. If she is already strong enough to lift the 10 pound purse, obviously 5 pounds is not going to be sufficient to enact the overload principle. Her muscles therefore will gain no benefit from the time she spends exercising. In fact, the 5 pounds isn’t even sufficient to maintain her current strength. Basically she’s wasting her time.
Unfortunately this is something I see very often in the gym, which begs the question, “Is just moving your body parts (calisthenics), good enough?” The answer is, in most cases, it is not. That being said, lightweights or bodyweight-only exercises can be meaningful if you are recovering from an illness, injury, or just starting out. Here’s an example; let’s say you begin exercising doing walking lunges with your bodyweight only, to strengthen your legs. Over time, you progress by increasing the number of sets and repetitions. At some point in the not too distant future, if you wish to continue your development, you will have to begin holding weights or apply some type of resistance during the exercise, otherwise you will no longer be sufficiently stressing your body and you will not meet the overload principle. Keep in mind, short of illness or injury recovery, if you can already get out of bed, walk around all day, and do daily activities such as walking up stairs, the few moments you spend each week doing non-weighted lunges in the gym are really insignificant. The point to remember is that there is nothing special about simply working out, being at the gym, or moving your body, if you are not achieving the overload principle.
Lastly, ask yourself this question: “Why is it that fitness centers and other workout facilities are filled with weights, machines, and other resistant apparatuses?” Probably because someone a long time ago figured out that lifting heavy objects made people stronger and more fit than using no weights at all!
If this makes any sense to you, why do you think so many people have suddenly decided going back to doing calisthenic type exercises only is a good thing? I am amazed at the number of people who are willing to pay hundreds of dollars a year to belong to a fitness center filled with thousands of dollars of resistance training equipment, only to spend their entire training session doing walking lungs, jumping jacks, sit-ups and burpies. Isn’t that like putting wooden wheels back on your vehicle and arguing, “They never get flats and they last a lot longer… Besides, everyone else is doing it!” Last time I checked, technological advancements move in one direction— forward.
The bottom line: If you want to change your body and improve your fitness level, you have to apply enough stress to your body to force change. The overload principle (i.e. “Stress It”) is vital if you want to see results. So what happens once you have successfully stressed your body? Now it’s time to give it all the nutrition it needs.
Although maintaining a healthy diet is always a good thing, it is particularly important during times of stress (mental or physical origins.) Stressful times place a great demand on the body for proper nutrients. Nutrients are necessary for the body’s ability to carry out the enormous task of making physiological adaptations (change). Incidentally, this is why stress makes you eat more.
Unfortunately, the specific types of nutrients that are needed are too varied and complex to cover in one article. Short of taking a course on nutrition at your local college, attempting to cover the vast array of nutrients (all of which are equally important) would be useless, so I won’t attempt it here. I will say however, from macro nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins, to micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidant and others, they are “all” needed to provide the body with the appropriate energy and organic materials. Rather than give you an incomplete list of nutrients, what I really want to do is impress upon you that when it comes to nutrition and physical activity, or even nutrition in general, there are no “special” nutrients which are superior over the rest.
Not a day goes by that I don’t read at least one article or study that claims to have found the next holy grail of nutrients. “This is it!” “This is really, truly, unbelievably, absolutely the most important, perfect food you will ever need”. Well.., at least for this week anyways. Let me save you a lot of time and money. If you want to know which foods are the best to eat, eat a wide variety of whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and low-fat proteins. I bet you have never heard that before? Hmm, isn’t it strange how we keep coming back to the exact same answer every time? Variety and whole foods! I promise you one thing; by simply eating a well balanced, whole food diet, you will get all the nutrients you will ever need, without ever having to know or pronounce all the names of the thousands of nutrients.
Now you may be thinking, eating a wide variety of healthy whole foods is all fine and dandy but what if I want an extra edge? You know, that special formula that makes me almost superhuman? What about manufactured products like supplements, protein powders and meal replacement bars? And what about “natural” performance products like extracts, herbs and secret products from far away lands? Let me make this very easy for you. There are two types of things we eat, drugs and foods. Drugs interact with the body in ways that supersede a normal physiological response. As a result, there will always be a range of side effects to be expected, prompting the benefit-vs-risk question. Remember, for a product to be classified as a drug it does not have to be completely manufactured in a laboratory. In fact, most drugs are actually derivatives of natural plant products, which makes them “natural”. To make a drug from nature, all you have to do is concentrate or isolate some portion of a plant or material. In reality, some of the most potent and dangerous drugs are really “natural” products (i.e. cocaine, heroin, caffeine, marijuana, nicotine and alcohol). Think about that the next time you’re at your favorite natural food store or vitamin shop, staring down at the endless aisles of floor-to-ceiling walls littered with “natural” supplements and products. All those items are also concentrated or isolated properties of plants and other materials— the only difference is the ones you have to get from behind the counter with a prescription have had at least 10-20 years of research conducted on them to somewhat understand what happens to your body when you ingest them. The ones at your favorite health food store…? You have no idea what they do.
Here’s how to think about the whole supplement discussion. There are two things you can ingest: drugs and food. If it is not a drug, then it is a food and if it’s a food, you can get it by eating food. So, just eat food and save your health and money. If you are set on a drug, choose one that requires a prescription to ensure you know at least something about what it will do. Whatever you choose to eat however, it’s now time to let the body rest and digest.
Rest is important to give your body the adequate time to “fully” repair before stress is inflicted again. If you don’t allow for an appropriate recovery time, you’re simply breaking down already broken tissue and exposing yourself injury. In fact, the leading cause of sports injuries (acute or chronic) is overtraining and repetitive abuse. It is also important to accept the fact that as we get older, we recover at a slower rate. If you only remember one thing from this section, remember this: “It is not a matter of forcing the body into shape, it is a matter of finessing the body into shape.”
Take the parent who dreams of scholarships for their children or raising the next great MVP athlete. Due to children’s immature bones and soft tissue, repetitive and overtraining syndromes can lead to long-term or permanent muscular skeletal deformities. Children and young adults who are subjected to this type of physical abuse often pay a high price in adulthood (mid 30s and on). It’s just not worth it. And what’s worse? Overtraining and repetitive injury syndromes caused by excessive training in an effort to “force” the body into shape are completely avoidable— even a world-class athlete or the best weekend warrior in town doesn’t have to expose themselves to such risks, in order to be number one!
Sleep, what can I say about sleep? A lot! And you can count on me doing so in future blogs, but for now I mainly want to emphasize that without adequate, “quality” sleep, any time spent training is essentially useless. Most recovery work the body does is done while you sleep. Less sleep = less recovery = less results. It’s that simple.
So how do you know you have rested enough? This is a really technical question, but I will try to keep it simple. Some use specific numbers like rest exactly one minute between sets or train your body every other day. But I like to use a much better and scientifically proven measure. You Feel It! We feel different every day, every week and every month. Everyone has unique physiologies and different life situations. There is an infinite amount of situations for each person, from day to day. Furthermore, there has never been one legitimate study (follows evidence based research) that shows there is some universal time frame for rest that is optimal for everyone. Best practice is to simply pay attention to yourself, listen to your body and respect what you feel. If you feel tired or run down, if you feel weak or your last run feels like you had combat boots on and you were running in sand, there is a good chance you need more rest. The more you pay attention to your body, the more accurate you will become at finding your ideal rest phase. For best results, always err on the side of more rest. And, after you have rested and “slept”, it’s time to do it all over again.
Do It Again:
The last component refers to frequency. After you have implemented the overload principle and have provided your body with the appropriate energy, nutrients, rest and sleep, the most important thing to do now is “Do it again.” Frequency provides the steppingstones to progressive development. It would be great if improving your fitness level or performance was like painting a house. You do it really well one time and you’re set for the next 10 years. Unfortunately, that’s not how biology works. Getting and staying in shape is more like doing laundry then painting a house— no matter how much or how well you do it, your job is never done!
One of the most fundamental laws in all of physics is conservation of energy. This law basically states that a system will always strive to conserve energy. The human body is a biological system and follows that very same law of energy conservation. I think everyone would agree that building a physically fit body and maintaining it requires a tremendous amount of energy. Because of this, your body will do everything it can to resist expending such large amounts of energy. What I am really saying is this: exercise is an unnatural behavior. Knowing that exercise is unnatural may provide some comfort to those of you who have struggled with a lack of motivation, in the sense that there is nothing wrong with you just because you don’t want to exercise. Not wanting to exercise is really the normal way to be and wanting to exercise is actually abnormal. The Catch-22 is that the benefits of exercising are so enormous, I would not even attempt to mention them all here. If this sounds unfair, it is. But hey! “I don’t make the rules, I just know them.”
As I’ve said before, frequency provides the steppingstones to progressive development. But, it is important to put this topic in the spotlight of “reality”. In a perfect world I could answer the next question “how frequent should I train?” by giving concrete answers such as; “Every other day, every couple days or X times per week.” Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world and the answer to how often is a very dynamic and fluid one. The amount of frequency may not only be different from person-to-person but even from week to week for the same person. The best answer I can give is “it depends”. It depends on how hard you trained previously? How well have you eaten? How did you sleep? Are you fully recovered? Are you fighting an illness? How busy is your schedule? So on and so forth… These types of questions are what I mean by putting things into the perspective of reality. To help give some framework to build from, I would suggest using the following as a general rule of thumb: You should train at least two times a week but never seven (not even if you’re the best athlete in the world). Discussing frequency on a daily or weekly basis is clearly important for development, but the real driver for developing a healthy and fit body is frequencies’ cousin, consistency.
We all have behaviors which can be characterized as strengths or weaknesses. But when it comes to the behavior of patience, I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of us find patience to be a weakness. All you have to do is spend a little time in a crowded mall, urgent care or at the local DMV, and it becomes quite clear— patience is not one of our strongest attribute. Nevertheless, when making health and fitness changes, patience is an essential component. Regardless if you’re interested in losing weight, building muscle, improving endurance or rehabilitating an injury, you are not going to be very successful without a little patience.
I like to think of fitness as the “great equalizer”. In other words, you can’t buy your way to fitness, no matter how much money you have. Not even Bill Gates or Warren Buffett can buy it. Nor does it matter who you know or how well you are known. It does not matter how smart you are, not even as smart as Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison. The fact of the matter is, every single person has to follow the same path, no matter how long it takes and the very same laws of nature apply to everybody. When it comes to improving one’s health and fitness, practicing patience is universal for everyone!
Why am I stressing this point about patience so much? Because it is the impetuous of all who fall victim to perils of marketing hype. “Get fit now, all it takes is just a few minutes a day”, “Loose weight quickly”, “The ultimate fast track to a new you”. We have all heard these enticing hooks, but the truth is, there’s no such thing. I know, not what you wanted to hear. (My friend always say I’m a buzz kill.) But, I would rather tell you something you need to hear than something you want to hear. There is enough of that already going around.
So what makes patience so special? Out of the act of patience, consistency is born. The trick to understanding consistency is to understand that although consistency refers to a state of conformity, it also allows for flexibility or slight changes in a condition over time. Most people start a new fitness program with great enthusiasm and, in general, their training regimens remain constant, at least for a short period of time anyway. However, something will inevitably interrupt their progress, and that something is called “life”: family, work, illness etc… There is always something that eventually gets in the way and more times then not, it’s enough to bring any progress to a screeching halt. It is also at this point that most people will through up their hands and say “Forget it, I cant do this now”, or “It is too hard to get back to where I was”, or “I’m just too old.” Unfortunately, this is exactly the time when one should realize, interruptions such as these are to be expected and more importantly they are part of a normal course for anyone’s quest to improvement in ones lifestyle.
Rather then ending all attempts to continue, one should just scale back as far as needed but do something— anything, no matter how small— and wait for favorable conditions to present themselves one again. Once they have, then return to a full program and continue making progress. However, when conditions do present themselves once again, it is also very important to scale up slowly, opposed to starting back where you left off. This is probably one the biggest mistakes people make when restarting a fitness program or diet routine. Any interruptions lasting two weeks or more will begin to diminish gains previously made. In particular, losses in fitness can expose one to an increase of injury. This is especially true for strength, cardio or even motor recruitment skills. Best practice is to scale back your intensity and frequency proportional to the amount of time you were sedentary or off your routine and “slowly” (over several sessions or weeks) bring your fitness level back to where you left off. For example, if you could run for a full hour before the interruption and you had been off for 3 weeks start back with a run/walk program for 30 minutes for the next couple of sessions, then increase to running 30 minutes. After that, you can then return to a full hour, and begin to advance your time or distance further. The same goes for weight training or any sporting activity. Even diets should be treated this way. If you have been off your normal eating routine for some time, start back slowly adding your normal foods back into your daily life.
All in all, improving your fitness and the quality of your life is hard. And… it should be! Nevertheless, adopting a protocol, which incorporates the components of “Stress it – Feed it – Rest it – Do it again” will maximize your time and effort, providing you with the best possible opportunity to achieve your health and fitness goals. In this article I have tried to convey, as simply as possible, a practical and comprehensive overview of the necessary steps needed to be successful in developing an effective fitness program. However, if this entire subject still seems too daunting, it’s good to know you always have the option to hire a professional such as ATP Lifestyle Modification to help you get the job done right.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, your comments are always welcome.
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