Despite having a largely unfit population, in the U.S. high-intensity training is in! Unlike many other ridiculous, unwarranted health fads, the high-intensity trend is founded on science. When properly executed, strategic high-intensity exercise has been shown to have numerous benefits in terms of fat loss and exercise efficiency.
What many fail to recognize, however, is the high degree of stress that’s applied to physiological and biomechanical systems when they are at their max. When this stress is applied in strategic, well-measured doses, it maximizes the possibility that the “good stuff” will happen and minimizes the possibility of “bad stuff” like injury and burnout. When it’s applied carelessly with unabated frequency, the benefits are slowly eroded while the risks increase dramatically.
My first “job” out of college was a one-year internship living at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Prior to arriving, I was expecting to see the pinnacle of training intensity. I envisioned bullwhip-yielding coaches and perennially wincing athletes, rendering training montages fit for boxing movies and shoe commercials.
In reality, however, it was quite the opposite. The coaches were more like mathematicians than menaces, taking a careful and calculated approach to applying training stress to their athletes. The athletes did their share of wincing, but during their highest-intensity training periods, they knew relief was around the corner in the form of sleep, a low-intensity recovery day, a de-loading week or even time away from training.
The highest performers in the world know that to ensure safety, efficiency and continued effectiveness of a training program, the “yin” of high-intensity training needs to be paired with the “yang” of rest, recovery and “easy” training. Here’s what happens when these two are balanced through strategic “hard” exercise followed by strategic “easy” exercise:
The physiological response to exercise is maximized.
The advantages of high-intensity training primarily lie within the body’s physiological and neurological response to near-maximal effort. Under conditions of chronic fatigue, this response does not happen properly. Fat-burning, muscle-building hormones are suppressed, the central nervous system can’t relay neural “messages” quickly and tissues can’t recover.
During times of rest, recovery and decreased training stress, all of these mechanisms are able to regenerate, allowing for optimal gains when intensity is increased again.
To garner the benefits of high-intensity training, the intensity of training needs to be sufficiently high. When the body’s systems are diminished due to being overly stressed and fatigued, they can’t reliably produce efforts near or above a true maximal output. While a fresh neuromuscular system can lift 100 pounds or run a 5-minute mile, a fatigued system can only lift 90 pounds or run a 6-minute mile.
Proper training creates strategic overload and fatigue so that the system recovers stronger. Without a change in training intensity to allow recovery, training performance decreases to a point where it affects overall ability. Strategic decreases in intensity between sets (rest), exercises, training days or weeks allows training and maximal intensity to maintain and improve over time.
Motivation to train increases.
Relentless high-intensity exercise stresses both the body and the mind. In combination with the decrease in performance and the increase in pain/injury, the monotony of relentless high-intensity training can manifest in burnout and a departure from exercise altogether. Establishing a “light at the end of the tunnel” period of decreased intensity in a training program helps maintain the desire to “give it your all” when you need to.
Training becomes learning.
In the constant high-intensity world of “faster, heavier, harder, louder,” there’s a risk of stopwatches and heart-rate monitors replacing actual coaching, with many becoming more concerned with timers than they are with technique. In this case, people end up doing exercises faster and harder, but not necessarily better. Decreasing intensity in order to slow down and learn how to move can pay big dividends in terms of both performance and injury prevention when the intensity is turned back up.
As you can see, “exercising easy” or intentionally decreasing intensity can be a powerful tool within a daily, weekly, monthly and even a yearly training cycle.
Here are eight ways to integrate “easy exercise” into your clients’ training programs:
- Follow a periodized program that includes incremental progression as well as planned rest and decreases in intensity.
- Take at least one day completely away from training each week.
- Define high-intensity and low-intensity training days throughout a week. Make sure high-intensity days are truly high, and low-intensity days are truly low.
- Every four to six weeks, insert a training week where intensity is significantly decreased (de-load).
- Designate a few exercises each day as “technique” or “accessory” exercises with the primary purpose to improve movement.
- Don’t encourage clients to merely “go as hard as you can” every day. Establish progressive training intensity goals based on the client’s established maximal effort and stick to those goals (this is a basic tenant of a periodized program).
- Focus on different aspects of training throughout the year in one- to three-month cycles. For example, chose a particular skill and focus on fundamentals, independent of weight lifted, speed ran, etc.
- Intentionally “govern” your client’s relative intensity for an exercise, honing in and finding a challenge from tempo, technique or some other aspect other than heart rate, speed, weight lifted, etc. For example, instruct your client to perform body-weight squats with proper breathing, tension and mobility patterns with a 5-second eccentric, 1-second concentric tempo, with the toes against the wall.
With the right amount of easy exercise, you will enhance your ability to achieve long-term results for both yourself and your clients.