Intense workouts are all the rage today—from military-style bootcamp sessions to CrossFit to ‘P90X’ (Power 90 Extreme). These types of exercise programs can be great for getting you fit, but if your mind and body aren’t prepared for them, you risk doing yourself more harm than good.
Here’s how to find out if you’re ready for high-intensity training, and what to do to get the most out of your workouts.
High-intensity exercise programs usually incorporate complex exercises using functional movements like squats, step-ups and push-ups. Complex exercises are those that use multiple muscles and joints—a lunge or cable push, for example.
Performing a bicep curl with a dumbbell, on the other hand, or a leg extension on a weight machine, are isolation exercises, not complex exercises, as they involve only one joint and fewer muscles.
Complex exercises require the use of more neurological (nervous system) energy than isolation exercises, so you need to be more rested—in all bodily systems—to reduce your chances of injury. These exercises also require excellent postural and core control—two areas that are sadly lacking in many people today due to our sedentary lifestyles, poor eating habits and misguided exercise regimes.
If you attempt to participate in intense workouts featuring complex exercises without putting in the time to strengthen these critical areas first—particularly when the exercises are done in circuits with little or no rest in between—then I can almost guarantee that injury or pain will soon follow.
Once you’re confident about your core, you can perform the following three tests to assess your readiness for intense exercise.
Test 1: Resting heart rate
Monitoring heart rate variability can give valuable information about levels of stress and the degree of integration or disintegration between our body and mind.1 From my own research and experience, I’ve found that comparing a person’s morning heart rate (MHR) with his average reading for the previous seven days is a consistently reliable indicator of the total stress load on the individual—which impacts greatly on both the quality of his training and his capacity to perform hard work.
While training athletes, I’ve noticed that when a person’s MHR climbed to three or more beats above his previous weekly average, modifications to his training that day were essential. The higher the MHR relative to the weekly average, the more concerned I needed to be as far as decreasing the intensity of his workout.
Here’s how to use this ‘response system’ to monitor your own levels of stress and ability to work out on a particular day:
• Take your heart rate each morning in beats per minute (bpm) while lying in bed—before you sit up or go to the bathroom.
• Keep a record of this number for at least a week and then, each day, compare your MHR to the average of the previous seven days.
• If your MHR is three or more beats above average, check the chart on the right to find out what to do.
The information you get from this test is useful feedback for any kind of exercise, but it’s especially important for determining how to modify a workout on days that call for high-intensity, high volume or complex training.
Kneeling exercise ball
This is an easy test to do right before the start of your regular workout.
• Take a properly inflated exercise ball and kneel on it for 30 seconds (see right).
• If you can balance on your knees for at least 30 seconds without falling off, your neuromuscular system is sufficiently rested for you to work out at a relatively high intensity.
• If you are challenged by kneeling on the ball, or lose your balance once or multiple times, this typically means your nervous system is too fatigued or has not yet recovered from your previous workout. It can also mean that another system is under load and unable to support the nervous and musculoskeletal systems sufficiently for exercise.
• If you are new to exercise or feel nervous about kneeling on an exercise ball, try sitting on the ball and lifting one or both feet up off the floor while balancing (see bottom right). Hold for 30 seconds and pay attention to how much you have to struggle to stay on top of the ball and/or how many times you put your feet down.
The more trouble you have performing this test, the more you need to modify your workout—or even skip it altogether.
The 1 to 3% rule
For this test, which originates from the training system of sprint coach Charlie Francis,4 you simply need to ask yourself: “Am I ready to improve my last performance of this workout by at least 1 to 3 percent today?”
As a general rule of thumb, if you can’t honestly meet and exceed your last workout performance by 1 to 3 percent, you’re probably exercising with too much volume or intensity, or you’re overstressing your body in some other way (see ‘The 6 Foundation Principles,’ opposite page).
The challenge you may face when trying to apply this rule of progression in typical gym/weight-lifting situations is that dumbbells and weight plates typically jump up by 2-kg (5-lb) increments at the lowest, which can be a noticeably greater progression than 1 to 3 percent, particularly for a woman whose only option with dumbbells may be a progression from a 5-lb to a 10-lb dumbbell. Professional strength coaches and trainers often have smaller weight plates, ranging from as low as half a pound on up, so they’re able to make such small progressions.
If you are experiencing any of the following, your answer to the 1 to 3 percent question will probably be ‘no.’
1) Fatigue: First, a general sense of fatigue, which often results in a significantly increased use of stimulants, then you may find your sleep quality starts to diminish
2) Decreased sex drive and/or sexual performance
3) Feeling like it’s taking longer and longer to warm up
4) Onset of old injuries, or nagging injuries that don’t seem to heal
5) Mood swings
6) Cravings for certain foods, sugar, stimulants or drugs
7) Decreased mental concentration
8) Elevated resting heart rate (see Test 1, page 41)
9) Elevated resting breathing rate
10) Progressively becoming more close-minded or resistant to trying new things.
Modifying your routine
If you find you’re experiencing any of the 10 issues listed above, your heart rate is higher than normal (Test 1) or you’re challenged by the exercise ball test (Test 2), it’s best to make one or more of the following modifications to your daily training. If you fail to pay attention to what your body is telling you and don’t adjust your workout accordingly, you run the risk of training with faulty movement patterns, which can progressively increase your risk of injury.
Here are some simple adjustments you can make:
Reduce the number of complex exercises. If your tests reveal that you’re fatigued, you may want to include just one or two complex exercises in your workout that day. Less is more!
Reduce the complexity of the exercise. This can be done in three main ways:
• Increase your base of support. Increasing the number of points you have in contact with the ground, or the distance between those points, reduces the work required by your postural system and general motor control. Kneeling on an exercise ball while performing an overhead dumbbell press can be changed to sitting on the ball with one foot touching the floor and pressing, while a body-weight squat can be altered to include holding a dowel rod for support.
• Decrease the lever length—the distance between the weight and the force applied to lift it. Instead of doing a regular push-up, place your knees on the floor and do a ¾ or box push-up.
• Break the complex exercise down into simpler, functional versions that are less complex for the nervous system.5
Increase the length of your rest periods. This gives the neuromuscular system more time to recover. When performing high-intensity lifts in the gym (loads you can only lift one to six times per set), the nervous system takes five to six times longer to recover than the muscular system does. This is easy to recognize by the simple fact that if you’re lifting at high intensities and you don’t take four to five minutes of rest, you simply can’t lift the weight; if you’re lifting in the body-building rep range of eight to 12 reps per set, you will notice, as a general rule, that you only need one minute of rest to effectively support your next set.
So just because you’re not sore from your previous set or workout doesn’t mean you’ve fully recovered.
Make sure you’re not trying to function on an empty stomach. Having low blood sugar is very dangerous with complex lifting and/or stability training exercises.
Take the day off exercise. Sometimes the best solution is to have a day of complete rest from physical activity, then come back the next day refreshed and fully rested.
Work hard, rest hard
As I often tell my clients and athletes, always respect the ‘work hard, rest hard’ principle and you’ll have good long-term success with your conditioning efforts.
Exercise is most effective when thought of as a ‘lifestyle’ rather than something you must do now to lose weight or look better for an upcoming reunion. Developing an intimate relationship with your body will radically enhance your awareness of when it’s good to push yourself, and when rest is the magic needed to enhance your health and performance.
When we use the methods outlined here, we are also given a clear view of our ‘mental–emotional self-management strategy.’ Many people have the data right in front of them, but choose to ignore it (and usually have health and performance challenges to show for it).
Witnessing our own behavior in such instances is a worthy meditation and allows us to learn that we may be exercising as an addiction, or as a means of expressing pent-up mental–emotional energies from other parts of our daily life that we’re not effectively addressing.
The key to having a healthy relationship with exercise is to develop habits that support exercise as an essential component of an holistic lifestyle.
The 6 Foundation Principles
One of the great benefits of regularly performing the tests described here is that you’ll become much more aware of the effect every part of your lifestyle is having on your ability to perform strenuous exercise.
Your nutrition, hydration, sleeping, breathing, thinking and movement all have direct impacts on your body. I call these the 6 Foundation Principles and they are the key factors underpinning everything we teach at the C.H.E.K Institute.
All systems in the body are interrelated, and if you plan to work out intensely, then you must pay attention to all six of these principles.