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The Case for Exercising Less to Get the Results You Want

Yes, you've got to do the work to get results. But much like how you approach your career, you've got to work smarter, not harder, to master your fitness goals.

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When you’re feeling really amped about a fitness goal, such as losing the last 10 pounds, it’s easy to get carried away. You might find yourself suddenly ignoring your achy, sore muscles, and charging full-speed ahead toward a slimmer, fitter you. In the process of hitting the gym too hard, too often, you begin to risk injury, compromise enjoyment, and inadvertently prolong reaching your goals by giving your mind and body almost zero time to recover between each sweaty session. This classic overzealous mistake that people often make in January is the very reason resolutions die well before the end of the month.

As a longtime avid runner, I have found that when I take more time off, take it easier on long runs, and do less speed work, I am able to run more consistently. When I first adopted this more balanced approach, I transformed my experience with a sport I had practiced for more than 25 years. Not only did I save time and get better results, but also I decreased my chances of burning out, getting hurt, and dreading doing the recreational activity that I love most. Before you fill up your calendar with your favorite fitness classes this year, consider these six ways to achieve more by doing less. You’ll see for yourself how it leads to surprising physical and mental results throughout the whole year.


1. Switch your high-intensity exercise for low-intensity.

These days, most workouts include high-intensity moves, like box jumps or sprints—exercises that push your body to the max. And while they do work for some people, especially those who can keep a consistent HIIT routine, it’s not the smartest choice for everyone. A better way to go: low-intensity training interval training, or LIIT, a method that’s meant to make exercising more enjoyable and, therefore, easier to stick to.

LIIT involves performing the minimum effective dose for exercise, so you still see results without diminishing returns. For example, let’s take a look at box jumps. Postural alignment specialist Brian Bradley, vice president of Egoscue, says that in HIIT, people often do 20 in a row until they get really tired and often end up moving in a dysfunctional manner afterward. In LIIT, you’d do fewer (say five) box jumps, focusing on proper form through each one. Then, you would move on to doing mobility exercises to teach your body how to work more efficiently. “It will clear up imbalances and help re-establish functional movement patterns stemming from your hips and pelvis,” Bradley says.

The goal for a LIIT workout is to end it feeling energized, happy and like you executed new moves with good form. It’s a workout you can do every day, and one that will provide results without making you feel exhausted.

“[LIIT] creates an increased metabolic demand by removing you from the repetitive motion of your environment. This not only increases your basic metabolic rate, it can lead you to feel different emotions about exercise,” says posture and alignment expert Pete Egoscue. “You stop criticizing yourself and thinking that you’re ‘lazy’ or ‘out of shape,’ or that you ‘can’t do it.’ Instead, you see that you can do it, and wind up wanting to do it again because it was fun.”

2. Carve a stronger core 10 seconds at a time.

Holding a plank position (a straight-body press-up position with your weight on your forearms and toes) for as many minutes as possible may feel productive, but fails to build any substantive strength, says strength trainer Pavel Tsatsouline, author of Hardstyle Abs. “To express max strength, one must learn to maximally contract all the muscles at once and hold nothing back,” says Tsatsouline. In plank pose, this means squeezing the abs and glutes as tightly as possible. You know you’re doing it right when you fatigue after 10 seconds. Take a short rest, then complete two more sets for a total of 30 seconds at max effort.


Related: 15-Minute Core Challenge Workout


 

3. Slow down to get faster.

To get faster you have to train faster, right? Wrong. Runners and other endurance sports enthusiasts, such as swimmers and cyclists, are notorious for pushing themselves too hard too soon. But the truth is, they would get faster if they actually went slower in training.

To run faster, for example, most of your mileage should be at a very slow (easy) pace for weeks or months before adding any fast workouts. This approach builds aerobic efficiency, which conditions your body to use fat as fuel more efficiently and boosts the body’s ability to use oxygen to make energy. This is known as movement “economy.”

“Getting faster is most easily accomplished with better movement economy,” says Phil Maffetone, chiropractor, coach, and best-selling author of The Endurance Handbook. “As training progresses, the goal is to go faster at the same heart rate, which demonstrates improved economy.”

4. Take more frequent rest days to build fitness faster.

When at rest, such as during light activity and sleep, your inner body is hard at work, repairing muscles, strengthening bones and joints, and rebalancing the hormones that control inflammation and other biological responses to the stress of exercise. These are the processes by which you build fitness.

Too little rest and recovery severely compromises your fitness, no matter how hard you work out. Signs you are under-recovered include lingering fatigue, feeling stale, bored, and unmotivated to exercise. These slumps can be avoided by planning more frequent rest days into your routine. “Consecutive days of rest or of lighter activity allow restoration and rejuvenation following a buildup of higher-effort days,” says Matt Dixon, author of The Well-Built Triathlete. This way, you achieve better results from your key workouts or “higher-effort days” because you’re refreshed and recovered.


Related: The Surprising Secret to Sticking with a Fitness Plan


 

5. Relax to exert more power, speed, and endurance.

Have you ever had that feeling of complete effortlessness and focus? Known as the “flow state” or the “peak experience,” it typically occurs when you strike the right balance between effort, relaxation, control, confidence, and skill. You can’t force or make flow happen. It occurs naturally when you’re fully engaged with an activity that is challenging yet you’re confident you can achieve. Flow may occur in any sport or activity, and presents the opportunity to perform to your fullest potential with relatively little effort. Achieving the flow state requires, however, that you to detach yourself from a specific outcome and simply trust in your ability to meet the challenge.

“The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.

6. Set fewer goals to create better fitness outcomes.

When you work out really hard but are not getting the desired results, the problem may not be a lack of effort, but rather, a lack of focus. The body has a limited capacity for adaptation, meaning that it can build strength or speed, but not both at the same time. Nor can it build endurance to run a marathon while losing weight on a low-carb diet. Pursing multiple fitness goals at the same time is often counter-productive. When the body isn’t given the opportunity to adapt to one kind of stress before it’s exposed to another, fatigue and injury are the more likely outcomes.

Segment your fitness routine over periods of weeks or months, each with a different emphasis, such as developing an aerobic base before adding strength training. Later, replace the strength workouts with speed-oriented workouts for a few weeks. This way, each period develops a different fitness aspect and keeps your routine varied and stimulating.

 

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