Evlo Fitness/Education/Body Composition/“Harder” workouts aren’t always more productive
Dr. Payton Busker, PT, DPT
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“Harder” workouts aren’t always more productive

Fitness culture says that the harder your workouts are the more effective they will be. But when aiming for “harder”, we often lose sight of what actually moves us toward our goals. In today’s post, we bust all the myths that arise with this “harder the better mindset” and share what to focus on instead!

Common myths associated with harder workouts

Using calories burned as a gauge of effectiveness of your workouts

This is one of the most pervasive myths in the fitness industry. Many fitness enthusiasts turn to calorie burning as the first step in their fitness journey. Conventional fitness culture teaches us to “burn more” in our workouts. And to use calories burned as a gold star of approval for a class or session. 

But what if we’ve gotten this all wrong?

Constrained total energy expenditure model

The Constrained Total Energy Expenditure Model proposes that we remain within a narrow window of energy expenditure (calories burned) throughout the day. With this model, Herman Pontzer explains that despite an increase in calories burned from something like a “hard workout,” our bodies adjust to stay within this narrow window. Our system downregulates activities like fidgeting and digestion to account for this uptick in energy from the workout. 

Now this is not to say that movement doesn’t matter. But when we use exercise as a means to add to a calorie deficit or energy expenditure, we miss the mark.

Exercise selection with “harder” workouts

Oftentimes, aiming for harder, higher calorie burning workouts turns us towards compound movements and HIIT workouts. While these exercises may leave you feeling exhausted and your fitness tracker congratulating you on a job well done, you might notice that you don’t know exactly what muscles you were trying to target. Over time, you might also notice significant joint aches and pains. 
When our goal is excessive calorie burning in a workout, we lose connection with what our bodies might be telling us. Learn more about how tracking calories burned might be sabotaging your workouts in this episode of Fit Body, Happy Joints.

“No days off”

Do you think of recovery days as missed opportunities for workouts? You’re not alone! 

Conventional fitness culture says maximize your workouts by getting at least one workout in a day. 

Physiology says otherwise.

Muscle building actually happens during the recovery from a workout, not during it!! Exercise is a catabolic process, meaning it intentionally breaks down muscle tissue. In order to build that tissue back up (and then some), we have to allow for our muscles and our nervous systems to recover. 
Muscle and nervous system recovery comes from appropriate programming as well full days off from strenuous lifting. Learn more about how to measure if you’re properly recovering here.

“No pain, no gain” as a motivator

We have ALL heard this one. Usually paired with “if it hurts that probably means you need it!!”. However, this could not be further from the truth! 

Symptoms like pain, tightness, stiffness, etc. often indicate an underlying cause. They are not in and of themselves the issue. 

For example, you may feel pain in your shoulders during overhead presses because of a bone spur. Or you might feel low back pain in a squat because of a disc or facet issue. 

Don’t push through your pain signals. 

If you experience discomfort with an exercise, adjust or modify it! Research shows that we get better results when we choose exercises that feel good for our bodies.
This also allows us to show up more consistently to our workouts! Consistency is the key for results, not how much pain a “hard” exercise induces.

“Toning” workouts

Ahhhh the burn. We have all felt it. And most typically in classes that promise to “tone” our bodies. 

Oftentimes these “toning” exercises, like flutter kicks, planks, leg lifts, shoulder circles, feel really HARD after a few minutes and high repetitions. Your muscles begin to burn and you often have to drop out of the exercise to reset. 

But does this burn or “difficulty” mean that you’re burning fat? Or building your muscles? 

 Not exactly. 

Although this burn, or metabolic stress within the muscle, is correlated with muscle growth, it is not shown to cause muscle growth. And we cannot spot treat fat! If “toning”, or increasing muscle definition while decreasing fat, is your goal, focus on:

Turning to endless cardio workouts and cutting calories for weight loss

For many years, excessive amounts of cardio paired with significant cuts in calorie consumption ruled the weight loss world. 

But as mentioned above, focusing on calories burned through “hard” cardio-heavy activities won’t necessarily move the needle if weight loss is your goal. 

This pairing often leads to what we refer to as the downward spiral. While this tactic may work for weight loss at first, it becomes a vicious cycle. With this type of weight loss, you lose both fat AND muscle. A loss of muscle mass decreases pertinent glucose storage sites found within muscle tissue. 

The barometer for “hard enough” exercise continues to rise while the allotted calories consumed continues to go down in order to account for these changes in muscle mass/glucose receptors. 


Let’s put this philosophy into action with our 14-day free trial.


If aiming for “harder” workouts isn’t the answer, what is?

Focus on workouts that promote muscle growth

Building muscle mass is the long-term solution to putting yourself on the upward spiral. Shannon speaks about this topic extensively in this podcast episode. 

Research shows that mechanical tension/load drives muscle growth (hypertrophy). Here at Evlo, we choose exercises to maximize this mechanical load to specific muscle groups while minimizing unnecessary force to surrounding tissues. 

You should feel fatigued in the specific muscles you target following a workout. It is not a requirement to feel full body fatigue to see results. 

Oftentimes, the exercises that specifically target one muscle group at a time require less systemic exertion. This allows for maximum output to the targeted muscle group as well as maximum load that that specific muscle tissue can tolerate. With compound movements, often deemed “hard”, you underload certain tissues while overloading others. 

While it might seem more productive to work the whole body at once, the physics of the movements proves that this is not the case! Instead, focus on using less complex lifts to achieve maximal mechanical load within the tissue, working the muscle towards fatigue in each set. 

Your joints and your muscles will thank you.

Sprinkle in cardio workouts

We recommend aiming for the recommended 150 minutes per week of low-moderate intensity cardio. This can look like walking, easy jogs, leisurely bike rides, swimming, stair climbing, dancing, etc. 

But the good news is that oftentimes your strength training can also count towards this recommended goal. Do you notice how your heart rate rises when lifting weights? This is because your heart and lungs don’t know if you’re doing a heavy lunge or running. They just know that the demand for blood and oxygen has risen, requiring an increase in both heart rate and respiratory rate. 

Focus on slow and controlled lifts and the cardiovascular benefits will follow! 

In addition to strength training, we recommend 10-30 minutes of low-moderate intensity movement a day. For me, this typically looks like a morning or afternoon walk! 

IF (and only if) your joints feel great and your overall stress levels are low, we recommend adding 1-2 HIIT sessions per week. We do not recommend trying to turn your strength training into a HIIT session. Remember: slow and controlled. 

If you add these HIIT sessions into your routine, keep them less than 20 minutes in length and place them after your strength training sessions when possible. Separating these two exercise modalities helps you avoid excessive central fatigue. This overall, systemic fatigue can impede the output to your muscles, decreasing the effectiveness of your strength training.

Work with your nervous system instead of against it


Neurons that fire together, wire together

We can actually use our thoughts to enhance our workouts and make our wiring stronger. Research shows that perceived effort, or how much you imagine you are lifting, can actually increase the number of motor units recruited during a particular exercise. 

Try it out on your next strength day. Imagine that you are lifting a 40 lb dumbbell instead of a 15 lb dumbbell for your bicep curl. Notice the biceps kick into high gear with this imagery! 

Warm ups

Use your warm ups to intentionally ramp your nervous system up! Focus on elongating your inhales and shortening your exhales to tap into your sympathetic nervous system. The SNS naturally engages during exercise. Use your warm ups, including breathwork, to ease your way into it. 

Focus on mobility-style movements and muscle activations to improve your proprioception (knowing where something is in space). Enhanced proprioception allows for more effective output to your muscles as you lift. Set yourself up for success by strengthening your mind-muscle connection in your warm ups!

Cool downs

Use your cool downs to calm the nervous system back down after your workouts. Elongate your exhales this time and shorten your inhales. This helps to upregulate your parasympathetic nervous system responsible for our rest, digest, and recovery functions. 

It is crucial to tap into more of an anabolic state (opposite of catabolic exercise) to build muscle tissue following an exercise. Don’t skip past your cool downs!

Recovery days

Recovery days benefit our entire system. They allow our muscle tissue to build back up and our nervous system to recalibrate following a targeted week of work. We highly recommend at least 2 recovery days a week. Bonus points if you can take them in a row! 

We still encourage gentle movement on these days. Check out our recovery day classes or take a nice walk with a friend. Make these days about moving for enjoyment! 

Bottom line: Work smarter, not harder.