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Are You Exercising TOO much?

It’s a strange question I know. Most of us think our problem is not exercising enough. If you are a complete couch potato, maybe that’s true. But even so, keep reading. 

Because what’s stopping you from exercising may be that it seems like too big a commitment of time. But, recent research shows that many regular exercisers are actually exercising more than they need to and that less frequent trips to the gym may be better for your long-term health.

Life As A Gym Rat

Until recently, I’ve been a pretty typical gym rat. I’d go to the gym 3 days per week. I started my workout with 30 minutes of cardio to warm up my muscles and get my blood flowing. 

I’d follow that with an hour or so of strength training, exercising different muscle groups depending on the day of the week. I’d wrap things up with some slow paced warm down on a treadmill or stationary bike. Total gym time about 2 hours, 3 days per week - total time: 6 hours per week.

I’ve been doing some variation of that regimen off and on for almost 30 years. I’m in pretty good shape, not awe inspiring, but not bad compared to most guys my age.

The trainer at my gym, who looks like he could bench press a car, was pretty happy with my regimen. I think about 99% of fitness experts would probably salute that regimen as well (allowing for whatever tweaks and variations they’re in to. These folks always seem to have a “secret sauce” of some kind.)

My New Routine

Now, my trainer just shakes his head when he sees me, which ain’t that often these days. Here’s why. My new training regimen has me in the gym once per week for 30 minutes. Yep, that’s it. Let me say it again, I’m in the gym a total of 30 minutes per week.

This is my new routine. I warm up my muscles on an elliptical machine for 5 min. Then I perform one set each of 5 strength training exercises. Done. Finito. Out of there!

I know this sounds like an infomercial for some new exercise equipment or protein shake. But it’s not. I’ve got nothing to sell here. The equipment I use is available in almost all gyms and if it’s not, you could use free weights or substitute some basic body weight exercises.

You do have to perform the exercises a little differently. But it’s not difficult to grasp the principles and they can be applied to virtually any strength training exercise. And, this method is appropriate for people of ANY age or physical condition.

It's all About The Science
I changed my routine based on the advice of Dr. Doug McGuff. He does have a book to sell, it’s called “Body by Science.” You can pick it up on Amazon for $12. I don’t think he’s trying to get rich from it.

Dr. McGuff convinced me because, unlike most of the exercise advice out there, his recommendations are based on real science. The book is, in fact, a little hard to digest because it is so science rich. 

He does a reasonably deep dive into the metabolics of fitness and exercise. His recommendations are a variation of High Intensity Training.

Here are the Cliff Notes ( Do they still sell Cliff Notes?) 

Dr. McGuff analogizes exercise to medicine in the sense that any medicine prescription will specify, concentration, dosage and frequency. Similarly, in order to maximize the benefits of exercise you must engage in it with the correct intensity, amount and frequency.

The Exercise Prescription

Intensity: For intensity, Dr. McGuff recommends exercising to failure. The science behind this is fairly simple. You have different types of muscle fibers (4 in all) they vary in the energy required to engage them, strength and endurance.

In order to maximize your exercise results you need to fully exhaust all of these muscle fibers so they suffer micro-traumas that stimulate the rebuilding of the muscle stronger than it was before. Exercising so called (aerobically) engages only the low energy muscle fiber in rotation but never engages the high energy muscles.

Similarly, traditional strength training gives low energy and intermediate energy fibers time to recover between repetitions. Making it hard to ever activate the highest energy muscle fibers.

On the flip-side, lifting very heavy weights engages all the muscle fibers at once just to lift the weight. When the low energy fibers fall out, you can no longer lift the weight. So the exercise ends before you’ve had a chance to exhaust the high energy fibers.

The middle-way seems to be the best. McGuff recommends moderately heavy weight lifted very slowly until you can’t lift it anymore.

Dosage: There have been numerous studies of how many sets of exercise one should do. All but two of these studies found there is no fitness benefits from doing more than one set of exercises during a given exercise session. The two other studies, found only marginal benefit.

Dr. McGuff recommends five different exercises selected such that all major muscle groups are exercised, as noted above, done until failure.

Frequency: Again this has been studied repeatedly. The science is pretty unequivocal. The average person needs at least a week to recover from an intense workout. Some people may need even longer. Exercising before your muscles have had a chance to recover is counter-productive, slowing recover and hampering growth.

Those are the basic principles guiding this approach to exercise. If you all seem to be interested, I’ll follow up with a couple additional posts, 1) How do these principles translate into an exercise routine 2) Why this is better than the “aerobic” exercise most of you are doing.

Talk again soon, Ralph

Please leave a comment and let me know if this is a subject you want to hear more about.

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Post by Janet Wilpan on 02 Sep, 2015

Definitely interested…and very interesting!!

Post by Carol O'Connor-Eisenberg on 02 Sep, 2015

Very thought provoking. I’d definitely like to hear more

Post by Dennis on 02 Sep, 2015

Yes, Ralph. Please tell us more. I walk quite a bit, but I have little motivation to get to the gym several times a week. I am a senior citizen, so I am interested in an exercise regimen that I can do safely and effectively. If I can do so with only one visit to the gym per week, I believe I would do it. More, Please!!