The world of social media is full of inspirational fitness content; men and women who look like they’re carved out of marble, each muscle perfectly shaped, etched with the perfect amount of tone and with their bronzed tan glinting in the downlight.
Very often these pictures are posted with a catchy (if clichéd…) motivational quote attached to them. You know the sort…
Winners never quit. Quitters never win.
No pain. No Gain.
No days off. (my personal favourite bit of nonsense)
If these kind of posts get your fire burning and get you to the gym, that’s great. I can’t knock the fact that these fitspiration posts get people excited to exercise- if that Instagram post of your fitness idol on the beach gets you motivated to train then more power to you.
But (and it’s a big BUT- like that fitness models...) there’s also a problem with the kind of sentiments they can portray in the fitness world.
Very often these kind of posts can give people an unrealistic idea of what it takes to look like an Instagram fitness model…
It’s fashionable to put their results down to back-breaking hard work, day-in-day-out. (#teamnodaysoff). Dozens of gruelling drop-sets, every set taken to grunting, mouth frothing failure with them collapsing heroically in a puddle of their own hard-earned sweat. This is the image that’s portrayed very often by these kind of posts and it’s an enticing message for people aspiring to be like the idols they look up to.
It poses one very simple promise- Work as hard as us and you too can have these results!
Just bust a gut, day in day out and throw everything you’ve got into every single session. It’s a simple answer to the problem of how to look like a chiselled super-hero.
The simplicity of it is what makes it such an attractive solution- just work! The more work you do, the more results you will get! If one set of bicep curls makes your guns grow then 20 sets must make them grow 20 times as much!
But it’s just not sustainable (or even true!).
It’s a flawed logic which is especially dangerous for beginners.
It’s the central foundation of any exercise regime that your body will adapt to the demands you place upon it. This is known as the S.A.I.D principle, which stands for specific adaptations to imposed demands. Basically, if you apply a demand to your body such as lifting weight then your body will adapt to that specific stimulus.
Taking the S.A.I.D principle on its own then we can see how people extend the logic to mean that more demand means more adaptation. More sets, more reps and more intensity would mean more demand and therefore more adaptation, right?
Yes and no.
Yes, in that the body requires more demand to continue to adapt- you need new stimulus to continue to alarm the body into making new adaptations. Training needs to get progressively harder over time to continue to get bigger, stronger and fitter in response to the exercises you’re doing.
(this is known as the GAS principle- or general adaptation syndrome)
However, it’s a big NO that more work always = more results.
This also relates to the GAS principle and Its three stage response to exercise demands.
When you exercise the first response is one of alarm. Your body recognises that it’s under stress and triggers pathways to deal with the stress and provide energy to get through the stressful incident. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are fired around your body, your blood pressure spikes and your heart rate increases.
Stage 2 is the resistance phase, if the stress is continued for long enough or is repeated then the body begins to make longer lasting adaptations to better deal with the stress in the future. The body restructures and rebuilds in order to deal with the specific demands that were placed on it. However, for this to occur, rest and recovery must take place.
The stage 2 recovery and rebuilding process can be disturbed and stunted if the stress on the body was too far from its current fitness level or was simply more than the body could realistically respond to (such as when you go balls-to-the-wall with 25 sets per body-part…)
Which leads onto stage 3- The exhaustion phase. If the stress is continued for a long period of time or isn’t adequately recovered from then it will lead to a state of exhaustion. At this point you’re more susceptible to injury, you’ll lack energy, motivation and will likely feel emotional and irritable and your sleep quality will suffer.
Sounds fun, right?
It’s not a great place to be for any great length of time! It’s a response that can be capitalised on to create super-compensation in a well-structured and organised training plan however far too many people spend far too much of their time on the exhaustion phase red line!
They get there by doing more work than they can adequately recover from and many do it because of the out-dated clichés that are continually proliferated such as “no pain, no gain”. They do it because it’s the message that their idols want them to believe in. They do it because being a hard-worker is cool.
And I can’t blame them.
I’ve done it too.
And I’m not saying you don’t need to work hard or that there’s anything wrong with effort.
But, what I am saying is that you need to work smart. You need to impose enough stress to cause an adaptation (stage 2) but not so much that you are always exhausted (stage 3).
It’s all too easy to work hard for the sake of working hard whilst completely missing the point of why you’re training- to impose a demand on the body that it must (and is able to) adapt to!
What will get you to looking and performing at your absolute best is a consistent approach where you steadily increase and alter the demands you place on your body to give it a reason to continue to improve itself.
This is why it’s important to have a plan, not just workout to workout but for the weeks, months and even year ahead so that you can balance your recovery and adaptation while continuing to provide your body with new stimulus that it can adequately recover from.
You’ll still work hard but you’ll be working hard within a structured plan that protects you from exhaustion and maximises your results.
(and that stimulus doesn’t always have to be more weight, more sets or more reps! It doesn’t always have to mean more work and more fatigue!)
SO there’s three points you absolutely have to take away from this:
1. More work doesn’t always mean more results. It can mean quite the opposite.
2. Your training is only as good as your recovery.
3. You need a plan to make consistent, steady adaptations.
If you’ve got any questions on how to make changes to your training, you’re concerned that you’re over-doing it with your training or you need advice on recovery then please, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message Run Jump Lift on Facebook!
Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
If you're interested in learning more, subscribe to the mailing list below-