Today's topic is the first part of a series on balance. In this instance, we will focus on finding balance between effort and rest in life. The uninterested and hyper-busy do not exercise, and eventually find that health problems come from inactivity. Those that are new to fitness struggle to work out a few times a week, becoming frustrated with the lack of progress but limited by post-workout soreness (or even worse, pain). On the other side of the spectrum, many dedicated athletes work out six or even seven days a week and push through injury after injury, accepting a poorer quality of life as a trade off for doing what they love. And somewhere in between those two extremes are the weekend warriors, those that barely get in anything during the week and brutalize themselves on the few days that they can.
Many new and prospective clients, as well as casual acquaintances that find out that I am a personal trainer, ask about the frequency of their workouts. Like most questions, I find that there is not a simple, one fits all answer. If the goal is to stay healthy and fit, three to four workouts every week allows the body to maintain its current level of fitness and health, with a gradual improvement in the activities and skills that are undertaken on a frequent and consistent basis. This allows for adequate time for recuperation and rebuilding. For the many whose goal is positive and noticeable change, either appearance alteration or gain in ability, five to six workouts a week is closer to ideal.
Whenever I think of balance, I recall a lesson my martial art teacher once imparted to me; the lesson of yin and yang. This concept is familiar to many, but not necessarily well-understood. Yin and yang are not separate things that oppose each other, but the opposite sides of a spectrum that can be applied to any concept. A key part of this philosophy is that nothing can become completely one-sided; the more one falls to any one extreme, the more that elements of its opposite come through.
In regards to exercise, there is a limit to the amount of repetitions a muscle can undergo before it fails to fire. There is a limit to the amount of days that one can exercise in a row before the body becomes injured and must rest. On the other side of the spectrum, if no strenuous activity is undertaken for a long time period, eventually tasks that were easy become difficult. Many have found that they do not have the energy to keep up with their children. Older individuals have difficulty walking up a flight of stairs. For morbidly obese individuals, getting out of bed is incredibly difficult. In other words, use it or lose it.
To quickly summarize; a general rule is that a target of 3-4 workouts per week will allow the body to maintain its current level of conditioning and ability, and will gradually increase any skills that are practiced on a regular basis. To truly change your body, the target is slightly higher at 5-6 workouts every week. This must be balanced with a period of rest to avoid injury by letting the tissues rebuild at the cellular level. But how long must you rest for? The current literature in health and fitness suggests at least one full day (24 hours) before it is safe to re-work the same muscle groups after an intense workout. So for those of you who have a single workout that you repeat, that implies that you would be in a maintenance fitness cycle (3-4/week) or are risking a strain or injury that will delay you from achieving your goals, or possibly make them unreachable. For the majority of individuals that are training with the purpose of changing themselves for the better (5-6), this necessitates a split routine, in which workouts vary from day to day.
There are a number of variables that can, and should, change from workout to workout. The most important of these variables is intensity. Not every workout has to be brutal. In fact, high-intensity exercise should ideally be limited to no more than two or three times each week. This becomes more important the older you get. It is often far more beneficial to do a light workout. Any day following an intense workout should be lighter (if it isn't a day off). Think stretching, rolling, and light cardio. Yoga and pilates are great! Rebound from sickness or injury by testing the waters with a lighter workout. But light does not mean non-existent! The hardest thing about light workouts is keeping them mildly challenging. You can take longer rests between your normal exercises, or do added repetitions at a moderate weight. Work on form or technique. Keep the resistance lighter and add an element of balance (It is called proprioception in trainer-speak). The possibilities are endless.
Workouts can also be broken up into different activities or muscle groups. These are the most common varieties of split-routines, whereby an individual maintains a preferred intensity but cycles through different foci. The concept here is to train the whole body at least once a week but provide adequate recovery time before hitting the same area again. A common mistake of many who follow a split routine is to focus on only one component of their exercise program. A complete workout has components of, and should challenge; strength, speed, balance, endurance, flexibility, and neuromuscular control. With this type of routine, it is important to maintain intensity levels throughout the entire cycle of workouts, or the body may develop imbalanced movement patterns. Some of the more common split routines are: upper body/lower body/rest, strength day/conditioning day/rest, chest and shoulders/legs/back and arms/rest, sport day/workout day/weekend rest, crossfit day/yoga day/rest, boxing day/jujitsu day/weekend rest, etc.
So now you have a general idea of how many days a week to work out (and take off), and a few ideas of how to use different workouts to complement each other. We can now turn to the final component of a long-term fitness program; planned recovery breaks. This often-overlooked component in the fitness world is included in every competitive sport. Think about it as an off-season or a vacation. The physiological purpose of this vacation is to let the body have an extended rebuilding period. During this time, stores of vital minerals and nutrients that are gradually depleted by intense exercise can be replenished. Tendon and ligament breakdown can be reversed. Mental and emotional energy will be restored. Simply put; let your body refresh itself.
Plan on a week or two off for every six months of continuous exercise. I often tell clients to align it with either a vacation or the busier season(s) of their professional or personal lives. Taking time off can be very difficult for some people. If that is you, it is best to frame it as allowing your body to excel at the subconscious work that it is trying to do all of the time. And unless you are on a dream vacation and spoiling yourself to the fullest; this prolonged rest period is not a reason to deviate from adequate and healthy nutrition. When you return to your exercise regiment, build slowly back into the intensity and frequency of workouts that is optimal for your goals and conditioning.