The Myth of the Best Workout
Monday, March 11, 2013
LifeTime WeightLoss in Exercise, Exercise, Jason Stella, myths

You hear the claims all the time: “It’s the best fitness class out there!” or “You’ll never find another workout better than this!” or (my personal favorite) “This is the last fitness routine you’ll ever need!” Behind these claims, of course, is the assumption that a single program can meet all your exercise requirements. How realistic is this concept? When we consider the broad spectrum of our physical capabilities and the need to develop each for good overall fitness, what is the chance that a single approach, let alone practice, will be enough to achieve that potential? Let’s explore the question.

Take, for example, P90X, Insanity, Alpha Training, Crossfit, bootcamp and even the newest fitness video called the “Donkey Booty” workout (I’m seriously not kidding here). First, they promise they’ll help you improve your fitness and get you into better shape. They’ll most definitely deliver on that. Actually, any activity will help people get into better shape if they never perform that type of activity before. The reason stems from a principle that Hans Seyle founded called “The General Adaptation Principle” Seyle found that the body will adapt to the stress placed upon it in a predictable pattern. Dr. Thomas Delorme took Seyle’s findings and related it to the Strength Training stress response and founded the “Progressive Overload” principle.  This states that in order for the body to change through exercise, it must be taken through “gradual” phases of “new” stresses. Notice this says “gradual” and “new” stresses. This is where most people fail and where fitness programs oversell themselves. 

The Importance of Varying Stress

The problem with any “best workout program” is that most of them apply the same stress over and over again. This means doing the same exercises, with the same variables time and time again. It’s why the company that created P90X also launched Insanity, then a second P90X video series--because the “muscle confusion” (and progress) stopped!People got great results the first time they did the program but then expected the same results the second time around. They worked hard, spent hours on the program and didn’t get the same impact. It comes back to those key findings of Seyle and Delorme: once the body is stressed a certain way, it will adapt to the given stress and the original stress will not create the same response.

The Importance of Proper Recovery and Regeneration

The second reason workout programs, especially varieties like bootcamp and Crossfit, can’t live up to any “end all” expectation is because they too often fail to mandate proper recovery and regeneration techniques and phases. The body will only improve if given the proper conditions. This includes recovery and regeneration techniques such as adequate sleep, nutrition, and changing of workout stress. 

You could use a stair analogy to show what occurs with proper and improper recovery, respectively. For example, when someone works out, there is a stress placed on the muscles and nervous system causing both to perform at a lower level until they have fully recovered. This is called over-reaching. Once the muscles and nervous system are given the proper conditions for recovery (“adequate recovery”), they will once again be able to perform at a higher level. Subsequent workouts with appropriate stress and adequate recovery will result in steps upward or continual improvements. 

On the other hand, if a person continues to do the same workouts with the same variables, or if a person continues to work out without giving the body a chance to rest and recover, it will cause the muscles and nervous systems to live in a state of continued stress, ultimately leading to a decline (down steps) in performance and/or injury.  This is called over-training

The Importance of Acute Exercise Variables 

The final--but perhaps most complex--reason many “best workout programs” fail to produce continual, sustainable progress is because they don’t appropriately manipulate the exercise variables over time. Most people, for example, think that every workout should make them sweat and leave them nearly immobile the next day. They go “hard” all the time, over-train, never get stronger and ultimately injure themselves. This cycle continues each year and can actually undermine one’s fitness goals as well as personal health.

Let’s take apart those variables briefly. The variables that can be manipulated in any workout program are called the acute exercise variables. They include; intensity, repetitions, sets (the combination of these three are called volume) tempo, rest periods, exercise selection and exercise order. How we manipulate these variables can and should change given our shifting goals and continuing progress. Too many structured, formula fitness programs don’t allow for this evolution.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve found that the three most overlooked exercise variables are rest periods, tempo, and changing the intensity. I discussed intensity previously, but let’s talk about the importance of tempo and rest periods or a moment. Tempo is the speed at which you perform each individual repetition. It’s described using four numbers, (e.g. 3131). Adding these number up would mean each repetition would take you 8 seconds to perform. For example, if you were to perform a squat using this 3131 tempo, it would take 3 seconds to lower your body down to the ground, pause for one second, then take 3 seconds to come up and pause for one second before starting your second repetition.  The important take away is this: the quality and focus of each repetition is vital to achieving sustained success, but most people never pay attention to the speed of movement. This is a huge factor in achieving specific strength training & body composition goals.  

The next variable that is overlooked is rest periods. Rest periods should be dictated by the specific training goal. If you are trying to build strength, it is vital that you rest longer (3-5 minutes) between sets because most strength and power qualities are dependent on maximizing the nervous system. It actually takes the nervous system five times longer to recuperate than the muscular system. It’s important to note that if you’re lifting maximal intensities and you do not rest long enough, you will set yourself up for injury! On the other hand, if your goals are to improve body composition or hypertrophy, you want to shorten the rest periods, as this has been shown to maximize the release of growth hormone, which is the best fat burning hormone in your body. 

Finally, we return to the central question: is there really such a thing as the “best workout program”? Strictly speaking from a fitness perspective, no. From a personal perspective, however, you can think of the “best program for you” is the one that’s you’ll consistently do! (Infusing variety, however, by trying something entirely new can challenge and engage you at a new level!) That said, any program should always take into account where you’re starting from and how your progress develops along the way. It should allow for varying stress and adequate recovery as well as strategically evolving acute exercise variables. Applying these principles is the key to continually progressing, staying injury-free, and achieving long-term fitness goals.

Now for your perspectives and feedback! What are your thoughts on the claims of "best workouts," and how has your experience of fitness evolved?

Written by Jason Stella, National Brand Developer-Fitness and Certified Personal Trainer

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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