Craig Valency, MA, CSCS
We’ve talked about the madness of the more is better mindset in fitness training. It’s unlikely that compulsive, extreme exercise programs are going to get you the long-term results that you’re looking for. Nonetheless, as tempting as it is to lump ourselves in with the overtraining crowd, the reality is that most of us fall on the other side of the fence –with the undertrainers. That is, we don’t exercise enough. At one point or another, all of us have suffered from the disease of inactivity. The undertraining epidemic comes in many flavors. Here are four of the most popular.
The Couch Potato
The Couch Potato’s La-Z-Boy recliner has a magnetic pull. It calls his name each time he walks by. He is a master of efficiency. Without leaving his command center, he is able to store and access snacks and drinks of all sorts, assume a multitude of comfortable seating positions, and remotely control his TV, lighting system, and other gadgets. The Couch Potato does think about exercise. From the comfort of his chaise lounge, he has ordered The Insanity Workout and P90X. He can actually watch a 30-minute exercise infomercial and vicariously feel the burn! The Couch Potato knows he’s out of shape, but he hasn’t quite hit rock bottom. He feels a sense of entitlement. After all, he works hard at his desk job all day long and deserves a break at the end of the day. By the time he takes off his tie, downs a cold one, and watches Homeland, it’s time for dinner. Everyone knows that it’s nearly impossible to make it to the gym after eating leftover mac-n-cheese.
The solution for this invertebrate is to slither out of the chair, get to a gym, and start moving. The Couch Potato will require an appointment with a certified personal trainer. If left to his own devices, he will meander throughout the gym until he finds any piece of equipment that resembles his beloved recliner. In fact, it is not uncommon to spot this suspect on a recumbent bike, cycling his way through one hour of college football at 50 rpm. Hire a trainer, show up, and move your body.
The Yogi is on a lifelong quest for inner peace and tranquility. She doesn’t want to jostle her chi or throw her chakras out of line with any sudden, ballistic movements. This gentle warrior detests violent exercises. Instead, she favors breathing, bending, and standing upside down on her head. She understands the benefits of an alkaline diet, and she does due diligence to ensure that no animals or vegetables are harmed in the process of making her raw green smoothie. The Yogi knows that weightlifting and high intensity exercises lead to excessive stress and big, bulky muscles. She seeks a long, lean body and fears looking like a bodybuilder or a man. Her preferred exercise modalities are yoga, Pilates, tai chi, and an occasional jog on the beach.
Pilates and yoga do contribute to greater balance, core stability, mobility, and flexibility. Most of us would benefit from the stress reduction that comes along with these exercise practices. If, however, these are your only forms of exercise, than you’re ignoring other critical aspects of fitness. The Yogi has mastered the art of slow, controlled movement. What she needs to work on next is power, reaction, and agility. This may take her out of her comfort zone, but discomfort is necessary in order to see results. To elicit an adaptation, your fast twitch muscle fibers better be moving fast! Don’t do a metabolic circuit, jump squat, or med ball slam unless you intend to do it as hard, fast, and powerfully as you possibly can. Sarcopenia, or age related muscle loss, predominantly affects fast twitch fibers. In other words, without proper training, you can expect slower reactions, which lead to potential accidents, falls, and other not-so-zen consequences in your old age.
The Scaredy Cat
The Scaredy Cat has a gym membership, and she actually uses it. She is a delicate flower and knows that her body will break in half if she lifts anything that is too heavy. The Scaredy Cat avoids all extreme angles and ranges of motion. While doing a squat, she makes sure that her knees never get below 90° of flexion. She believes in the osmosis effect: By simply showing up at the gym and going through the motions, she will get results. Four years into her three-days-per-week regimen, she is still struggling to complete 10 girly-style pushups. The Scaredy Cat is commonly heard saying, “I feel it in my neck! I feel it in my back! My forearms are burning! I’m gonna drop it! I just don’t feel it anywhere I’m supposed to feel it!” She doesn’t yet understand the concepts of movement-oriented training and progressive overload. If the Scaredy Cat has any post-workout soreness, she considers making a trip to the emergency room for treatment.
The purpose of training is to elicit a positive change in response to a stimulus. To increase strength, you must impose a stress that is outside of your comfort zone. If you can already lift something with ease, than no adaptation will occur as a result of lifting it again. If it’s totally comfortable, then it’s no different than lifting your coffee cup to your mouth. You don’t need a trainer or a gym for that. To become stronger and more fit, you have to be willing to struggle. You might feel uncomfortable, weak, and even silly. That’s okay. Once a weight is comfortable, increase the amount you’re lifting. As you do this, lower the number of reps. It’s okay if it’s uncomfortable to hold it. In fact, discomfort is part of the process. As you improve your grip strength and joint integrity, you’ll notice you’re making more progress in the gym. Your strength training will build muscle and bone density to keep you strong and help offset the (un)natural progression of osteopenia and sarcopenia that takes place with age.
The Sacrificial Lamb
You can spot the Sacrificial Lamb by the weary look on her face. Given that she spends her life solving everyone else’s problems, it’s understandable that she’s sapped of time, motivation, and energy to work out. After all, how can she go to the gym if she hasn’t fed her husband, bathed her kids, and solved world hunger? The Sacrificial Lamb just doesn’t get the concept of putting the oxygen mask on herself before her kids. She doesn’t even have time to take a shower, so it is, of course, unrealistic to expect her to exercise.
We could all learn a little something from those who put others first. They restore our faith in humanity and improve the human condition. But at the risk of sounding trite, you can’t save the world if you’re limping around on one leg without any energy. Because it can be very difficult to get to a gym when you have young children and other responsibilities, perhaps it would be wise to borrow the Couch Potato’s P90X video. After all, he isn’t using it! Try out some DVDs and get the kids involved. Get yourself a jogging stroller. Order some pedometers for the whole family and see if you can increase your average number of steps to 10,000 per day. Take your kids on a hike this weekend and see how much exercise you can do as a family.
It’s also important for the Sacrificial Lamb to get some time away from the kids. Exercise can be a great way to get some alone time and clear your head. Go to a gym, get a trainer, or go on a hike with your friends.
The human body is a movement machine. Despite our differences in personality and preference, we all share the need to consistently move. As we enter the new year, let’s vow to feel a little uncomfortable as we lunge, squat, throw, run, climb, pull, push, and lift heavy things.