What’s Your Real Workout Goal?

This morning was a typical morning at the gym…

  • A woman on the recumbent bike reading a magazine.
  • Another woman first striding on the elliptical machine and then looking like she’s doing some sort of interpretative dance with dumbells weighing less than a supersized soda.
  • Yet another woman almost breaking a sweat on the stairmaster.
  • Finally a guy, going from weight machine to weight machine, loading up pretty heavy weights on the leg extension machine, the pec deck (aka “chest machine”) and then doing shoulder presses on the… what else, shoulder press machine and, of course, some bench press. He did do calf raises on… yup, the calf machine, the only part of the workout that I saw that involved actually standing up.

All of these people are doing things that I might have been caught doing many years ago. But now that so much more information is available and so much more research has been done, it pains me to watch this. Didn’t you hear people? They invented the internet. You don’t have to work out like it’s 1979.

The Disconnect Between What They Want and What They’re Doing

Is it better than nothing?

Of course! It is infinitely better than doing nothing. Doing something that makes your body move and gets some blood flowing is better than not doing it. But it’s so damn inefficient for achieving anything actually worth achieving.

It really only does one thing well: get rid of your guilt with as little effort, energy and effect as possible. These workouts work great for that.But watching this, I wanted to go up to all of them and ask, “What is your goal? What are you trying to achieve?”

What do the women want?

I suspect most of the women are hoping to lose weight. I only say that because 90% of all the women I’ve talked to in a gym about their goals say it is for appearance. None of them are fat, but none are lean either.

They may also be trying to get fit. But let’s face it, we spend too much time sitting in our lives. Any workout that centers around sitting (recumbent bike) should be excluded from the get go.

Then there’s the magazine reading. I find that I cannot do intense exercise and read and I’ve never seen anyone exercising hard who was reading. What they’re doing is exercising in the mythic “fat burning” zone, which is to say moderate aerobic activity. When we sit on a recumbent bike for 30 minutes at a “fat burning” pace, we burn maybe 200 calories more than we would while watching television. About a heaping tablespoon of peanut butter. Maybe a decent handful of almonds.

Yes, I know the charts will say you’re burning more, but they are not typically giving the difference between a given exercise and doing nothing, but the total burn while doing that exercise, including what your body would have burned anyway watching television. Since a lot of those calories still come out of glycogen supplies, that recumbent workout, lazing along with a magazine, is likely burning fewer than 100 calories of fat. So all she needs to do is do that recumbent workout 35 times and she will have lost a whopping one pound of fat.

The root problem is that low intensity exercise has no “afterburn” effect, that is no EPOC as sports scientists like to call it (it stands for excess postexercise oxygen consumption). Intense exercise causes your body to ramp up and keep burning calories after you quit. The more you challenge your body, the greater the effect.

Now, if you are truly training for serious endurance, that’s a different thing. Then you need to do a lot of volume at low intensity to build your aerobic engine. But in that case, you need to be thinking way beyond 30 minutes. So these people are not doing that.

So if you’re not doing volume, you should be doing intensity. If you do hard intervals that’s good. If you do hard intervals that involve whole-body exercise, that’s great. If you also challenge your body muscularly and ask it to build and rebuild muscle tissue, that’s even better.

None of that applies to lazing along in the “fat burning” zone reading a magazine while sitting on a recumbent bike. That will have little long term effect on body composition. Unless you do it for two hours or more, it probably does little for endurance unless you’re very unfit to begin with.

Even one hour at that intensity is brief, compared to other activities one does at that intensity, like going out for a walk in the hills. And then there’s the sitting, which is the last thing I want in my exercise program. The other women are at least standing up and doing exercise through a somewhat greater range of motion, but again, the intensity is low, so the effects are similar to the recumbent biker.

At least one of the women goes and hits the weights, but unfortunately, the weights she hits are sized more for juggling than exercise. They are lighter than almost anything else she’ll pick up today. Lighter than a half gallon of milk. Lighter than her laptop computer. Lighter than a good sized squash. Hitting the weights is a good idea, but go heavier weights. No, you won’t get muscle-bound and look like a man, probably the stupidest thing a woman can be afraid of.

Now as for the guy hitting the machines, it’s not bad, but it could be a lot better. First off, he’s doing many of his exercises sitting down. Second, his exercises tend to be isolation exercises involving a single joint (leg extensions, pec deck) or at most two (seated shoulder press, bench press). These machine workouts don’t build functional strength, because they don’t mimic any function that we actually do in life. It also doesn’t do much for the metabolism, because it just isn’t hitting the big muscles hard enough.

A Better Alternative

Okay, enough whining, what should you do instead?

  • Work intensely.
    This means lifting weights to failure in 5-12 repetitions, straining to get that last rep out. It means pushing past your aerobic comfort level to the point of really feeling the burn and huffing and puffing. It means pushing some hard intervals when doing metabolic work. Sweat, grunt, curse, scream. Do some actual work!
  • Move your torso.
    This isn’t universal, but usually choose the option that will put your torso in motion. So instead of benchpress, do pushups (which works your core and your arms). Instead of leg extensions, do lunges and squats. Instead of leg curls, do deadlifts. Instead of the shoulder press machine, lift a weight from the floor to above your head.
  • Work the big muscles.
    Hit the quads, the glutes, the big muscles in the back.
  • Change it up.
    Introduce something new every few weeks. Our bodies adapt to what we ask of them. Ask something new so that it will keep adapting, muscularly and neurologically.
  • 5×5 workouts are a good place to start for weight workouts.

It doesn’t need to be complex, but it does need to have the proper intention. You want to get fit? Strong? Lean? Then get intense, go heavy, push hard. That’s how you get there.

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