Effective Workouts without the Strain
In my last blog post, we discussed the myth widely spread throughout the fitness industry that harder automatically equals better. If you haven’t read that yet I encourage you to go back and read before diving into today’s topic!
Today, we’re going to talk about the reason why harder does not automatically equal better in a workout, and the potential dangers of believing that.
The Mechanics of your Workout
Every muscle tends to be stronger when it is lengthened, and weaker when it is shortened. This is called the strength profile of the muscle. For example, your glutes are stronger when your hip is flexed (knee towards your chest), and weaker when it is extended (hip fully straightened).
Because of this strength profile, you want what is called the resistance curve of an exercise to “feel” the most challenging when the muscle is longer, and “feel” easier as the muscle shortens. This is the most optimal, productive, and safe way to strengthen a muscle. When a strength curve and resistance curve match, this is called early phase loading.
Early phase loading is the safest, most effective way to load a muscle. This will lead to the best results as far as muscle development, with the least amount of risk of compensation/rupture/strain. You experience a resistance curve each time you lift a weight.
For example, in a bicep curl, the weight feels the hardest in the middle and gets easier as you approach the top of the movement. This has to do with what’s called the moment arm. There is a resistance curve to every exercise, or where in the range of motion there is the most magnification, and where there is the least. It’s important to know the resistance curve of an exercise so you know how and when the muscle is loaded.
A less productive and often more dangerous way to strengthen a muscle is in the opposite way, which is called late phase loading. The exercise “feels” the hardest when the muscle is shorter and feels the easiest when the muscle is longer.
An example of an exercise that is late phase loaded is a tricep kickback. At the beginning of the movement, when the triceps are longer, there is hardly any resistance. And towards the end, when the triceps are shortened, there is a ton of resistance.
This is an exercise at the gym that is “hard” because the muscle is the weakest when the load is the highest. But it is a great example of how hard doesn’t mean productive since it is a late-phase loaded exercise.
So let’s get into productive vs. “just hard”. I’ll start by explaining what a productive exercise looks like. Some examples of a productive exercise include Step-ups, Bicep curls, Skull crushers, and Reverse nordic curls.
Productive exercises have a few key qualities:
Stimulates Type 2 Muscle Fibers
Your body’s Type 2 Muscle fibers are stimulated when there is a significant force. So when you need to lift something heavy, your brain recruits the type 2 fibers of your muscles to finish the movement.
Conversely, your Type 1 Muscle Fibers are your endurance fibers. These are recruited for posturing, walking, jogging, and many barre or Pilates exercises.
Your type 2 muscle fibers fatigue in about 90 seconds or less, whereas your type 1 fibers can go on for much much longer without fatiguing.
Stimulating your type 2 fibers in your workouts at the gym is what will move the needle for your results. The type 2 muscle fibers are much larger and make up most of the size of your muscle.
So if you are only selecting endurance workouts like barre, pilates, or bodyweight exercises, while you may still be getting an effective workout, you likely won’t see that muscle growth you’re looking for. So to make the most of our workout, pick up a weight that will probably fatigue you after about 90 seconds.
Stimulating your type 2 muscle fibers by choosing an exercise with a weight that will probably fatigue you after around 90 seconds/set is best for productivity.
Little Risk to Surrounding Structures
This one seems obvious, but it is so misunderstood. I think there is an emphasis on “form” over exercise selection in many workout programs.
However, you could have the best form, but physics and gravity don’t care when it comes to muscle strain.
For example, most people don’t know that an overhead press isn’t optimal for the deltoids (a shoulder muscle), and it strains a small rotator cuff muscle called your infraspinatus (If you are having pain on your back shoulder, this could be why!).
Many also do not realize that overhead presses can often lead to impingement of the shoulder joint. So choosing an overhead press is a less optimal shoulder exercise that ultimately puts you at a greater risk of injuring your shoulder.
This is why I prefer a side-lying lateral raise. It’s still an effective shoulder exercise, but with less impingement on the shoulder. It more accurately targets the deltoids from a mechanical standpoint and does not strain the infraspinatus.
Again, often overlooked in the fitness industry, but it is crucial to choose a joint-friendly workout that will still help you build muscle.
On the flipside, “Just hard” exercises have a few key qualities and are often found in HIIT workouts, Tabata, and aerobic exercises. That’s not to say those workouts are bad! But it’s important to understand the mechanics behind the movements.
“Fatiguing” and “calorie burning”
These exercises generally involve multiple joints, which require high energy from your body. In turn, means you will burn calories and probably break a sweat. This is generally the greatest benefit to your body. Burning calories is of course never a bad thing, but again, keeping your own individual goals in mind, may not help you see new muscle growth.
Do not necessarily target any muscle effectively, or late-phase load
Many of these exercises (like a burpee or mountain climbers) aren’t necessarily targeting a singular muscle group very well. Many muscle groups are working in coordination, but no one muscle group is specifically loaded well enough to receive much benefit. In other words, the work is spread across your whole body, and each muscle group gets a little stimulation, but not enough to create measurable change and adaptation in the tissue.
If the exercise is late-phase loaded, like a standing lateral raise or a tricep kickback, it may feel “hard” but that’s only because the resistance is the highest when the muscle is the weakest.
It’s important to remember that “Harder” won’t always result in better outcomes. It’s like trying to clean your house on rollerblades. Yes, it’s harder, but it will take me a lot longer to clean my house, and I probably won’t do it as well!
Risk to surrounding structures is generally higher
If you string together a bunch of these exercises, you will likely feel exhausted by the end of your session, which, according to many fitness programs, is the desired result.
I always say: it’s so much less about what you’re burning, and so much more about what you’re building at the gym. If you focus too much on what you’re burning, you may not be creating desirable and sustainable changes in your body.
If you break down each exercise in a “just hard” type of workout, you will find that you may have burned energy and calories, but you probably didn’t create much lasting change in your body. Often these types of workouts at the gym will burn people out, and cause frustration from lack of results and eventual injury.
Burpees are not a bad thing. HIIT workouts are not a bad thing. Cardio is not a bad thing. However, they have the potential to be dangerous when relied upon and overdone.
The heart and lungs don’t care which exercises you choose for cardio at the gym. But your muscles and joints will.
You’re trading an improvement in your cardio and calorie burning, for potentially long-term damage to your joints which will later prevent you from doing the activities that you love.
You can burn calories and improve your cardiac health just as well from smashing it on the exercise bike as you can doing 100 burpees. The difference is, the exercise bike will offer a lower back-friendly cardio workout.
A Lifelong Exercise Program
I encourage all my Evlo clients to look less at their FitBit at the gym, worry less about how tired they feel, and focus more on which exercises they are choosing in their workouts at the gym.
If you are a physical fitness professional, you should know the anatomy. You should know what position your hamstring is longer and which is shorter. Same with your deltoids, pecs, lats, and every other muscle you are targeting in your program.
And if you are just a physical fitness enthusiast who wants to apply for this, I’d love to have you join Evlo! I get messages each week about people who are working out for less time and seeing better results in an at-home workout program than they did after spending hours at the gym.
More muscle definition, leaner bodies, reduced muscle strain, and happier joints are the goals for all our workouts in the Evlo program. I teach classes Monday through Friday, so try out our unlimited classes and watch your body evolve with an at-home workout.