I’ve just come to the end of a workout with one of my clients and we’re having a debrief. She peruses the gym and a quizzical look crosses her face. Lowering her voice and coming closer to me, she says, ‘All these people seem to be at the gym all the time yet nothing ever changes. They don’t look any different.’
I roll my eyes back and nod at the same time knowing my client is wondering whether she is wasting her time doing sessions with me. Of course, my answer is ‘no’, so I explain as concisely as possible why. They are in what’s known as ‘negative training’: eating too much and training too much. In other words, they place too many physical demands on their body without giving it time off to recover and adapt. They don’t fuel it with the right nutrition and end up over compensating with bad calories which top up their fat stores.
Every single one of those people training at the gym has been sold a promise that going there will get them an ultra lean body. They will have responded to ads showing pictures of top athletes sweating it out and if they do that, it will make them be like them.
Understandably, people can feel a bit short changed when day in day out they slog it at the gym, and when the time comes, they are not beach body ready. In all honesty, those posters you see set unrealistic expectations. They’re photo-shopped for a kick off. But the athletes, they’re real aren’t they? And if they can train for 36 hours a week, why can’t I?
A couple of things about the athletes. First up, that is their job. They don’t have all the other stuff cluttering their life like everyone else. Secondly, most of the training they do is at low intensity. Of the 36 hours training they do, only three are total hard out. So when you’re going hell for leather 2 hours a day, you really aren’t training like a pro. Thirdly, their training sessions are closely monitored by their coaches who will be taking blood and pee samples before and after to ensure the athlete’s precision training. Their diets will be calculated to the last mg of micro nutrients. Lastly, athletes have a limited shelf-life. On average, their career as an elite athlete is 10 years and that includes building to their peak. And when they retire ……….
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t get a lean body, but you have to be realistic. You can’t expect the transformation to happen over night. The real key to success isn’t just about how you train, it’s about how you eat and how you recover. Far too often, I see people leave their HIIT class, gulping down their recovery shake not realising they haven’t burned off all their calories from lunch. They’ll then have a slap up dinner. In other words, people are using working out to justify overeating. Just like everybody else, consuming more calories than you burn leads to increases in body fat.
The flip side to working out justifying overeating is: ‘I’ve just burned 400 calories, I’m not going to spoil it by eating’. These are the people who think creating a huge calorie deficit is the way to reduce body fat and get that lean look. Wrong again. If you want lean muscle you have to build it and to build it you need protein. Otherwise you’ll end up breaking down muscle during your workouts and not building it back again.
So back to my client’s question. Is going to the gym a complete waste of time? My answer is still ‘no’. Look around the gym again and you will see people who have that lean cut look. They are the ones getting the training intensity right, for the right amount of time, and getting their nutrition right. The key is putting in what you take out, getting the right balance between protein, carbs and fat, and training smart.
How do you train smart? Smart training is about getting the right balance between training intensity and recovery. The easiest way to gauge your training intensity is by how hard you’re breathing and how fast your heart is beating. When you’re going so hard you can’t speak, that’s max training and you should only spend 60 to 100 minutes a week in this zone (20 minutes per training session). Only supremely fit athletes can keep this training up for long periods at a time, so if you don’t fall into that category, you need to break this up into small segments of 1 to 3 minutes depending on your level of fitness.
The next step down is threshold training, where you’re not going hard out but your breathing is laboured your conversation is stilted. You can stay in this zone for around 90 to 150 minutes a week over 5 sessions, but if you slip into VO2 max, you will need more recovery time.
Training at lower intensity can be sustained for much longer without need for recovery.
Of course this is pretty complex stuff and you can get bogged down with the science and precise monitoring of heart rate training. A simpler way of figuring out when to exercise and when to recover is to listen to your body. Are your muscles hurting? Yes, don’t train; no, go for it. Sounds easy but all too often people train too hard, too long and go back in the gym still aching intensely from the previous day’s workout. This is when negative training happens, especially if training is followed up by the wrong kind of eating.
A good personal trainer will give you a training plan that balances training, recovery and nutrition. The fitter you get, the quicker you’ll bounce back, but that will only happen if you train smart and fuel your recovery.