High-Intensity Training; it’s all the rage.
Bootcamps, Crossfit, HIIT Class, Orange Theory, F45, etc. Everyone is promoting HIIT workouts as the holy grail of fitness. Burn more fat in less time, they say. Increase your post-exercise calorie burn significantly they say…
There is nothing inherently wrong with it, rather the approach may be the biggest problem.
Even powerlifting type workouts can be prone to too much high intensity. When you hit the gym day after day, working at high intensity super heavy sets that you have to crank up the Metallica to 11 for, slap your chest and huff and puff – (this used to be me) – day after day…
What about endurance athletes? Some might say – that’s not high intensity! – While it may not be high intensity in the form of an all-out sprint, I would argue that it still is because of the duration of the activity, and especially if it is used ina competitive sport.
So what’s the problem?
You spend all your time doing HIIT, or balls to the wall workouts – because that burns fat faster, right? Not always.
Truth is; the body has a finite amount of intensity that it can endure until somethings gotta give.
The graph on the left is what we THINK happens – more physical activity will always lead to more total energy expenditure aka calories burned. However, the true story is the graph on the right. At some point, the body will start preserving energy in other forms to counteract the “over intensity-ness”. This cannot be good, and especially at a deeper level of HOW the body will do this.
Let’s think about this:
High Intensity not only places stress on the physical musculature of the body but also the central nervous system. Your CNS is composed of your brain and spinal cord, but most importantly your HPA Axis (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal). When we put the body through high-stress training, this system is stimulated. It is a cascade of hormonal triggers that flow downward to eventually release the hormone cortisol. This is a NORMAL response to stress (like high-intensity training).
Most of us have other stressors in our lives.
What also places stress on the body and the CNS?
- Lack of sleep
- Poor nutrition
- Watching the news
- Frequent travel
So how many of you High Intensity 7x per week go-getters are perfect in all of the above categories? Probably not many.
How many are taking time to do the opposite, and recover or do something that is LOW intensity?
In that overstressed, high octane, environment, your body releases chronically high levels of cortisol, which in excess can cause:
- Muscle aches
- Joint aches
- Fat and water retention
- Sleep issues
- Food cravings
- Low mojo in the bedroom
So what do you do???
Am I saying stop doing HIIT all together? NO
Think of it as one of those seesaw scales that big fancy city lawyers have.
One side is where you put your high-stress things, and one side is where you put your low-stress things. Is your scale balanced?
Another way to think of your day is being + or – towards your stress/health.
- Got 8 hours of sleep +1
- Ate donuts and Starbucks for breakfast -1
- Got stuck with extra work -1
- Skipped lunch -1
- Got my backup protein shake +1
So at this point, you are in the negative…so what can you do to get positive, or balance out your scale?
Here are a few ways how to keep yourself in check:
Be aware of your training volume. If you aren’t sleeping well and you are eating like crap, doing HIIT stuff won’t help you 5 times per week – it will probably do the opposite. Get your diet in check and try to sleep more, and limit your high-intensity training to 1-2 times per week.
If you are not sleeping well, start with your pre-bed routine first.
Are you winding down? Or just plopping into bed and expecting to fall asleep. Think of bedtime like a very important meeting. A meeting with your recovery boss. You want to prepare. An hour before your goal bedtime, turn the lights down in the house, try to avoid electronics, or at least wear some sexy blue-blocking sunglasses. (The blue light from TV, phones, and computers stimulates the brain and blocks production of melatonin).
Make it a ritual, a habit. It won’t work instantly, and you won’t do it perfectly 100% of the time, but I promise that if you start spending just a little more time preparing for sleep, it will pay huge dividends.
Self-monitor. Here’s a novel idea – listen to your body. If you are dragging and feeling extra bloated and weak, it’s probably not the best idea to go all out crazy at the gym. Reflect on why you are feeling this way, fix that problem, and then dial it back for the day and do some lower intensity pump work, foam rolling, or a nice hike outside.
This doesn’t mean you need to take a full day of sitting on the couch (even this could be a good idea for us crazy gym junkies) – but turn the throttle down, and chillax for a bit. If you know you have gone hard at the gym 2 days in a row, racked up 20,000 steps and are sleeping like garbage, killing yourself at the gym is NOT going to get you to where you want to be…unless your goal is injured, burnt out, or sick.
Work to Recover. When we talk recovery from training, it’s usually in the form of eating better, sleeping better, and do your foam rolling and stretching. How many of us do that?
If you can’t sleep more and don’t want to change your nutrition habits, then you can at least make an effort to do a solid recovery session 1-2x per week.
What would this include?
- Breathing exercises
- Mobility drills
- Soft tissue work
- Range of motion work – light activation
- Light/low-stress cardio – incline walk, light sled dragging…
Essentially 30 minutes dedicated to leaving the gym feeling better than when you got there.
Build recovery focussed days into your plan. For every crazy intense session you do, match it with a recovery session, massage, outdoor hike, etc. This is where we balance the high-stress stuff with the low-stress stuff. You need to focus on finding a balance because a Ferrari can only redline it for so long before it overheats and explodes…and the same thing goes with your body…well, you might not explode.
By focussing just a little bit on recovery, listening to your body, and dialing back a bit on the crazy 100 burpee challenges, you can actually improve your bodies ability to burn fat, grow muscle, and feel a whole heck of a lot better.
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Stay healthy my friends,