Ask a Trainer (Vol. 8)
Hi everyone, and welcome to Ask a Trainer, Volume 8.
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Today we’re going to talk about what to do when too much exercise leads to too little result, getting back into workouts after an extended time off, and working out while sore.
I exercise a lot, but I can’t seem to lose this extra fat. Why?
Your body is an amazing, well-built machine that is also very stupid. Think these don’t match up? Trust me, they do!
When you exercise it’s with the intention of losing weight, gaining muscle, and getting more healthy. Your body however, only knows that you’re moving, it needs to burn calories to make that movement happen, and it needs rest to repair the bits of damage that the exercise does. Your body also knows how to repair that damage within a certain set of parameters. When you exercise outside of the parameters your body needs to be healthy, you are actually doing yourself a disservice. Your body being the dumb machine that it is, it will keep pushing until either you tell it to stop, or it can literally no longer push.
Think of it like a car. Your body wants to be a compact sedan, driven from place to place at the speed limit, with regular maintenance along the way. Give it the right kind of high quality gas, a decent mileage oil, and rotate the tires every so often, and your car will last for many years. Many people think that they can treat their bodies like Formula 1 car, constantly red-lining their performance without taking into account the wear and tear that it’s causing to go that hard, all the time. If you then compound the issue with lackadaisical maintenance like cheap gas, infrequent oil changes, and ignoring the tires, you open yourself up to the vehicle failing at the worst moment.
To drive your body like a sedan, you need to be operating within the “reasonable usage” range.
First, drive at your own personal speed limit. If you workout 6 days per week, with one day of rest, and sometimes you do two workouts in a day, you may notice that your performance either stalls or slides back. This usually indicates that you’re just pushing too hard, too often. Scale back the workouts to 3-4 per week, and stop doing daily doubles. Give yourself more rest, and drop that speedometer down to a comfortable 55.
Next, your body needs good fuel in the form of natural, whole foods. Meats, vegetables, and fruits are the best choice by far. Anything that can be taken out of the ground or off a tree and eaten immediately is fair game, but I do recommend you limit fruit to a few pieces per day simply because they can be high in sugar, which will stall fat loss if you overeat. As for meats, you can basically cook and eat any animal you like, from red meat to poultry to sea food. Be careful of eating too much seafood, since many types of fish and shellfish can be high in mercury. An overabundance of this metal in your diet can lead to hydrargyria (mercury poisoning), which has some nasty symptoms like sensory impairment, disturbed sensation and a lack of coordination.
Lastly, your body needs basic maintenance to sustain itself, and that maintenance comes in the form of rest. Whether this is no exercise or a lightly active rest day spent casually biking, your body needs the time to change the oil and rotate the tires between workouts. Sleep is one of the major forms of rest for both your muscles and your brain. Making sure you get decent sleep every night is crucial to repairing the small tears you cause your muscles during weight lifting. It also helps you develop and solidify the neuromuscular part of the movements; i.e. your brain gets better at telling your body how to move, and your body gets better at listening to it.
If you red-line every so often it can be a good way to test your overall level of fitness, but this shouldn’t be done every day or every week. Spend most of your time at the Sedan pace, and your body will have the best chance of improving health steadily over time. If you notice that fat loss or other points of performance are stagnant or suffering, then look at your daily routine and make small changes to see what helps.
If I get off track with my workouts, should I jump back in full intensity or ease back into it?
This happens to all of us at some point: you get into a great habit of exercising, hitting every workout for a couple months without fail. Suddenly, life rears up and bites you right in the ass, and suddenly you’ve gone weeks without exercising and you didn’t even realize it. When the time comes to get back into the groove, where do you start?
Falling off the wagon is common, so the first thing to remember is: Don’t Worry About It
Once you’ve forgiven yourself for slipping up, it’s time to hold yourself accountable for getting started again. So the next tenant is: Don’t Make Excuses
That being said, it’s time to ease your way back into the workouts day by day, to see what you may have lost and what you need to work a little harder to reclaim.
A typical result of an extended time off will be clumsiness with more technical movements like the Barbell Clean or Snatch that you may have been proficient in before the break. Your brain needs a little jump-start refresher to remember how things should be moving, so even if you had a pretty solid lift before, start at a weight 30-35% less for the first week or two. For example, if your Deadlift was 300 lbs before you took a month off, then come back at 190-200 lbs for a couple weeks to get back into it.
You will probably also notice that you get winded more easily, experiencing heavier breathing sooner into the workout than you did previously. Your cardiovascular system starts to de-condition after a few weeks of lighter activity, so you will need to take time to build back up to short-term and long-term endurance. Expect to be sucking air during the first several sessions back in the gym, and scale back as necessary to not go from “breathing heavily” to “light-headed and falling over”.
You may notice that your muscles are less elastic and your joints may feel stiff. Not stretching and moving through your full range of motion regularly will cause your muscles to acclimate to the smaller range that we typically use in day to day life. Perform a simple, dynamic (i.e. moving) warm-up like a light jog, some jumping jacks, a little rope skipping, and basic calisthenics. It will take about 10 minutes for most people to start sweating a little and get loosened up. Once you are, spend another 4-5 minutes gently stretching through the full range of motion at your major joints (hips, back, shoulders, knees, elbows, neck at least), focusing a little more on the muscles that feel extra tight.
Lastly, you’ve likely gotten a little weaker if you took enough time off, so expect that your maximum lifts/reps/etc will be less than they were before. Use the 30-35% rule above to start lower than you probably feel like you need to, and then work your way back up as possible to your previous performance level. This may take as short as a week or as long as over a month depending on your age, prior conditioning, and length of time you took off.
Should I workout again if I’m still sore?
We get this one a lot, and the truth is that with a whole-body plan like CrossFit, you’re going to be sore on a regular basis. Soreness is your body’s way of telling you that the workout was good enough to cause it to adapt to more stringent stressors, which is ultimately what makes you stronger, faster, and healthier. Working out while you are still sore should not be a problem, as long as you are following some basic rules:
- Warming up is a thing for a reason. It gets the blood pumping and your muscles “primed” for action. Your workout prep should take at least 10-15 minutes and include calisthenics and basic cardio. A good routine would be rope skipping for a few minutes, simple bodyweight movements for 7-10 reps on the major muscle groups (squat, push-up, pull-up, sit-up), and light 400 meter jog. You should be sweating a little bit by the end, but not dying.
- Stretch after your warm-up, not before. Your muscles stretch better, and you improve flexibility more readily, when you’ve already gone through some basic movement. Use the warm-up to tell your body it’s time to work, and then stretch to improve your range of motion and mobility. Stretching should account for 5-10 minutes of time after your warm-up and before your main workout, focusing on the major muscles groups around each joint, and then proceeding to any personal problem areas.
- Stretch after your workout too! Once you’re done, do another round of stretching around the major joints and your problem areas. You may also notice that certain muscles feel tighter and more heavily worked after your exercise, because they acted as the primary movers. A good example of this is lower back tightness after Deadlifts. Spend time stretching the newly tight areas and helping blood/nutrient flow to those areas. You will recover faster and reduce injury risk substantially.
Now, that being said, there is a big difference between Soreness and Pain.
If you have the feeling in a muscle like “wow I did a lot of stuff with those things yesterday”, then you are generally experiencing soreness. It should manifest as a dull ache, some tightness, and slight weakness if you try to perform the same movements that made you sore. Generally, women will experience delayed onset soreness at about 36-48 hours and men will experience it around 24 hours. This seems to be related to how quickly muscle tissue is repaired after exercise, and the higher testosterone concentrations in the male system help repair damaged muscle a more quickly.
In contrast, pain is bad. Normally you will feel a sharp, shooting, painful sensation in the muscle or around the joint associated with the body area you injured. And make no mistake, pain comes from an injury and should be treated as such.
Muscular injuries, like sprains/strains/major tears, may lead to weakness and swelling, most notably. Not all instances will lead to visibly swollen muscles, but generally there will at least be some inflammation. These can can be treated with an anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen/Motrin, intermittent ice application, and rest. Don’t exercise with the injured muscle for a few days, and then slowly work that muscle group back into your workouts over the next 7-10 days. This will help prevent re-injury.
Around the joint you may notice stiffness, pain in certain parts of the motion (such as when you lift your arm above your shoulder), and general weakness around the joint. A heat pack can be used to help the muscles up and increase blood flow to the area. Basic pain medication like Aspirin or Motrin may also be used to dull the ache normally associated with joint pains. For recovery, avoid intense exercise around the joint for several days, focusing instead on moving through the joint’s range of motion as naturally as you can. Once you can move around the joint fairly freely, start adding slight resistance (like a small dumbbell) to the same movements. This will help strengthen the supportive structures around the joint more thoroughly, and prepare you to return to heavier lifts. It may take a week or more to help joint injury heal, so take it slow and be methodical.
And that’s it! Join us next time for more fitness and health goodness!