I thought the trend of working out with the goal of achieving a high state of fatigue each session was beginning to die out. But, it’s not. People think that if they don’t finish a workout on the brink of vomiting or completely exhausted that they didn’t work hard enough. Even worse, they think the workout was just a waste of time.
About a month ago a Lift Like a Girl reader emailed me; her personal trainer carries around a chart with a scale from one to 10 that includes faces above each number. One is incredibly easy (and is represented with a smiley face) and 10 is an all out, gut busting effort (represented with a very red, and sad looking, face). This is the chart he uses to measure her (and his other clients) exertion level.
According to her, “He demanded that I stay at nine or higher the entire workout.”
She contacted me because she felt discouraged. She doesn’t look forward to, let alone enjoy, her workouts. She wants to improve her health and lose body fat in the process, but part of her wants to give up because she feels sick every workout, gets incredibly sore, and just doesn’t feel great after completing her workouts.
“I’ve read on your website that you say people should finish their workouts feeling better than when they started. I want to believe you, but isn’t it necessary to work incredibly hard and finish each workout tired?”
No, you do not have to finish every workout tired. And, yes, I do think that the majority of the time you should complete your strength training workouts with more energy and feeling better than when you started the session.
Let’s explore this a bit more.
The “Biggest Loser” Effect
The show, the Biggest Loser, has greatly contributed to this idea that every workout is practically a torture session with the only goal of getting you to work as hard for as long as you can humanly tolerate. When things get tough, you push even harder. When you want to quit because your muscles burn and you’re on the verge of collapsing from fatigue, you dig deep and muster up a bit more courage to keep going.
This makes for entertaining television (I assume), but it’s also sending the wrong message to people who want to lose fat, improve their health, or simply begin a fitness routine for the first time. Exhaustion is not the answer to achieving those results.
Why, exactly, is working out with the goal of achieving a high level of fatigue unnecessary and, arguably, the wrong way to go about losing fat and building a healthier body?
1) It doesn’t produce long-term motivation. Sure, at first some people may be able to handle this gut-busting intensity for a couple of weeks, but more often than not, most people can’t stay motivated to keep performing these grueling workouts. Maintaining that effort every workout, multiple times per week, becomes too much to handle. As a result, many people abandon the routine all together because they’ve been taught that if they don’t go all-out every workout, then they might as well not do anything.
Furthermore, this “go ’till you drop” mindset is a horrible component of the rapid fat loss mindset.
2) It can be dangerous. These rigorous workouts can cause trainees to injure themselves because they push beyond the point of fatigue, their form and technique deteriorates and they risk getting hurt. There can be other, perhaps even worse, health consequences, too.
And that brings us to the third point, which we’ll discuss separately.
It’s Not about Getting Tired – It’s about Getting Better
Your workouts and strength training sessions should not revolve around the goal of achieving a high level of fatigue. Getting tired does not mean you’re getting better, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re going to achieve the results you want.
Getting better (i.e. stronger or otherwise improving your performance) is what produces the results you want and can maintain long-term whether you just want to look better or improve your overall health. That’s why your workouts should be solely about improving your performance whenever possible. After all, this is one of the cornerstone sane and simple rules to get the results you want that you can maintain.
There are numerous ways you can accomplish this simple goal, but here are some of the most common:
1) Add more weight. This is the most obvious, but when you add more weight to an exercise, you’re improving your performance. For instance, if you squatted 115 pounds for 4×8 (4 sets, 8 reps) last week and squatted 120 pounds for 4×8 this week, you got stronger.
2) Perform more reps with the same weight. Sticking with the previous squat example, if you squatted 115x4x8 last week and you squatted 115x4x9 this week, you got stronger.
3) Perform the same amount of work in less time. Once again using the squat example, if you squatted 115x4x8 and rested 90 seconds between sets last week, and this week you only rested 80 seconds between sets, you improved your workout density (same amount of work in less time), thus improving your performance.
4) Use a more challenging variation. This one applies primary to bodyweight exercises. If you’ve been performing sets of 10 reps of regular push-ups, you could switch to close grip, feet elevated, or use a suspension trainer to improve your performance.
Now you can certainly improve your performance in other ways (e.g. increase the range of motion such as standing on a step for a reverse lunge), but those four are my favorites. As long as you’re using great exercises and you improve your performance gradually and consistently as shown in the four ways above, you will get results.
By improving your performance, you can accurately track and measure your progress. Fatigue is a fickle and unreliable component to measure, so you never know if you’re truly improving. Stick with the four ways to improve your performance above – you’ll know when and how you improve, so there’s no guessing.
I doubt most people love super exhausting workouts, but most trainees love the long-term motivation they acquire from focusing on getting stronger.
Now we should answer an important question:
Should You Never Push Yourself to a Point Where You Reach a High State of Fatigue?
While I recommend people finish their workouts feeling better and more energized than when they began the workout, at least the majority of the time (because, let’s face it, some days are tougher than others), there’s always a place for tough challenges that leave you gasping for air.
Personally, I like to strategically use challenges to test my physical and mental limits. It can be fun (in a sick way) and let you see what you’re made of and definitely allow you to become more awesome.
Take for example a few of my favorite tough challenges: high rep squats, high rep deadlifts, hill sprints near an all out effort, and advanced burpees.
If you push those challenges to the limit, you’re going to be incredibly worn out afterward.
But these challenges are done on occasion, and not every workout. Furthermore, the main goal of these challenges is not to simply “get tired”. I always keep track of my performance and try to beat it over time. For example, if I performed a challenging set of high rep squats last month, I’ll write down the weight and reps I performed so the next time I repeat that challenge, I know what number I need to beat.
Even though these challenges are exhausting, the goal is still to get a little better. Fatigue may be an inevitable side-effect, but it’s certainly not the goal.
Quality VS Quantity Mindset
How do you feel, the majority of the time, when you finish your workouts? Are you exhausted, or more energized? If you’re usually worn out after a workout, there’s a chance you’re focusing too much on quantity instead of quality.
You don’t need to perform a dozen different exercises for a ton of sets each. As long as you’re working hard on the basic exercises and you improve your performance as discussed above, you probably don’t need to do as much as you think.
You can see an example of such a routine in the Minimalist Sample Workout, and if you commit to that routine for several weeks, you’ll experience the results for yourself.
Ask yourself this question before your next workout: what is the goal of this workout?
Hopefully your answer is something to the affect of, “To do better than last time”. Then I encourage you to answer that question specifically so you know exactly what you need to accomplish.
Remember what really matters:
- Using great exercises
- Gradually, but consistently, improve your performance
- Adopt the quality-matters-most mindset
- Have some fun!
It’s not about getting tired — it’s about doing a little better whenever possible. Do that and you’ll get the results you’re after.
- Triple-Exercise Total Body Workout
- The NEW Definition of Fitness (or Just Another Stupid Fitness Article, but You Should Read It Anyway)
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