As a kid I remember watching Disney’s Ducktales every afternoon ad Saturday morning on TV. Uncle Scrooge would often tell his three nephews about what his daddy had told him before immigrating to America from Scotland. “Work smarter, not harder laddie!” Like most people I took this to mean use your brain. Being a prolific nerd at this age the motto really appealed to me. Today though; I’m not so sure. Sometimes you can’t think your way through a situation the only course of action is to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Nowhere is this truer then in our workout routines.
While it is essential to build and execute a well thought out exercise regimen; when it comes to actually doing the work part most of us myself included are chronically falling short. Sure we’re huffing and puffing and sweating our way through reps and moves, but are we really working? Are we pushing hard, beyond our comfort zone? Chances are if your workout results have hit a plateau it’s because you’re not working hard enough. Most likely we’re stopping just at that edge where a movement starts requiring real effort. At that gut check moment between greatness and comfort we’re choosing comfort and its holding us back.
During my last weight workout I decided to test myself a little. I was feeling pretty good about myself and had some great music on so I decided to push it. I took my normal weight and just started adding plates. I’d do a rep ask myself how that felt, check my form and do another. Check again then do some more. Long story short; by the end of that workout I discovered two things. First of all I can lift more than I thought, and second I’ve seriously been selling myself short. Though I preach caution in weight lifting and encourage my clients to go slow and gradually build their weight up, sometimes I take this a little too far and actually stifle their progress, my own included.
I really don’t want to see someone get hurt and given my own lack of health insurance, a serious injury could bankrupt me. On the flip side of that though the simple truth of muscular physiology is that they won’t grow unless you push them past what they are used to doing. Our bodies are wondrous machines and technical marvels. Unless you constantly test your muscles and keep them guessing so to speak they will quickly adapt to any workout and your body will hit the dreaded plateau.
The plateau is a state in which your body has adapted to the initial shock of any workout or weight-loss program. It has adjusted and found the most efficient least physically taxing way to perform. Don’t be mad at your body, it’s not its fault, in fact it was designed this way. The ability to rapidly adjust and adapt to changing circumstances is what makes human beings so great at endurance and survival. While many doctors would have us believing our bodies are frail and inherently weak the truth is you are incredibly strong and resilient. Do you know the only animal that can outrun a horse in distance and time is a human being? Did you know that there are only two animals on the planet that can literally run for days without stopping; humans and dogs, and we can outrun them too. Of all the species that run only humans can sweat to cool off and accelerate our breathing rate faster than our stride rate.
The point of all this is; it actually takes a lot to really test your body’s capability. If you really want to see change in your physique, stamina, and strength then you will have to work harder. This doesn’t necessarily mean using heavier weights or running longer. When I talk about working harder I’m talking about intensity. There is a reason why so many weight-loss coaches advocate high-speed and high effort circuits to their clients; it works! A properly designed circuit routine will blast muscles, while simultaneously providing the body with an aerobic burn. In effect you learn to do more with less. Your body learns to move oxygen through your blood more quickly and efficiently. It learns how to remove lactic acid from the cells and recover without actually stopping. It also learns how to shift work between the various muscle groups of the body to prolong effort. Best of all, high intensity workouts train your body to metabolize fat for muscle fuel instead of carbohydrates.
The reasoning behind high intensity workouts has given rise to systems like CrossFit and P90x. These programs focus on real world ability and strength so to speak, in that they don’t rely on isolated movements and forms to target specific muscles. They preach a more holistic approach through full body movement and strength exercises. At least twice a week I would recommend you adopt a high intensity circuit in your normal workout routine. After a month or so switch up the moves to keep your body off-balance to negate the plateau effect and keep things interesting. Even if you don’t adopt circuit style training I still recommend upping the effort and intensity of your normal workout.
If you have time to stop and chit-chat at the water fountain, you’re not working hard enough. Approach your workout with a serious deliberate mindset. After all you’re there to accomplish something not strut or pose for the mirror. Don’t worry about how much you sweat or how red you get, just get it done. Music is great and a wonderful motivational tool but sometimes you need to tune it out and focus on what your body is doing. Feel it moving, and mentally concentrate on the muscles that are performing. Add a few slow motion reps to each set, making sure to squeeze the muscle through its whole range. In short start working instead of just going through the motions. Commit yourself to it and you will see your results grow.