Our Obsession With Intense Exercise

“No pain, no gain.”

“If you aren’t hurting, you aren’t working out!”

Slogans like this are plastered all over the internet in the form of forum posts, blogs and those “fitspo” posters that have all-too-quickly gone viral. But, of course, this is nothing new. And this type of motivation isn’t limited to the internet. Trainers, class instructors and coaches have been spouting these phrases for decades. Most recently – and most notably – entire training styles, like Crossfit, have been built on this philosophy. While many people have latched on to this thinking, and have made undeniable progress because of the determination it instills, many experts worry that there is a darker side to approaching your workouts in this way.

What are some of the potential concerns? Is there a better way to go about your training?


Discouragement, Plateaus and Burnout

Admittedly not as frightening as some of the other issues that we’ll cover later, pushing yourself too hard can simply sap your mental energy. This could even happen in the first couple of workouts, when you discover that your body just isn’t yet capable of what you’re asking it to do. But, your workout routine requires you to lift this specified weight. So, what are you supposed to do if you can’t?

Hitting this wall, especially early on, has the potential to make you feel like a failure and leave you totally discouraged.

Consistently working out at extremely high-intensities without proper fuel and rest will also make your progress stall. Remember, your body does not change during your workout; Improvements happen during rest. If you deny yourself the opportunity to recover, you won’t progress past your initial progress. In fact, if you continue to workout at the same intensity after you stop making improvements, you will probably even notice a lack of energy and strength.

That’s right, if you push yourself too hard, you could work against your goals.

In part, this is because of the hormone cortisol. Generally vilified as the “stress hormone” cortisol is released when your body is under intense stress and feels like you are in danger for one reason or another. Included in the list of things that your body perceives as “stressful” is intense exercise. Studies have found that cortisol levels spike after just 30 minutes of exercise performed at 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. Levels of the hormone steadily increase based on the intensity of your workout. Of course, a few spikes of cortisol are normal and your body can handle them in a healthy way. Consistently working out at a high intensity, though, can chronically elevate your cortisol levels.

Among the variety of not-so-desirable effects of chronically high cortisol you will experience increased body fat, decreased lean mass, increased appetite depression and lack of energy.


Overtraining Injuries

The effects of pushing yourself too hard can also be much more visible, though. Often, people who take this approach to exercise will push through the pain. Which is a very bad decision. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong; it’s a warning signal. Just like ignoring the lights on the dashboard of your car will eventually lead to problems, it’s better to stop and check on why you are in pain.

Not only could you experience muscle or joint damage by ignoring the pain you get during a workout, but more serious complications could arise. Particularly in the Crossfit community, there’s the fear of rhabdomyolysis or Uncle Rhabdo. This condition, which can be caused by over-exertion, is marked by a rapid breakdown of muscle tissue and resultant kidney damage.

Staying Balanced

But you have to push yourself to make improvements, right? So how do you know when you’ve found the right intensity?

First of all, do not go by sweat. The amount that you sweat has very little to do with how hard you’re working out and much more to do with the environment.

You also need to consider your goals. If you’re working to increase your endurance, you will understandably find yourself more winded than someone who is trying to gain strength or muscle mass.

If you are working for gains in strength, use your lift numbers to tell you how you’re performing. Similarly, you times can tell you how effective your runs have been.

Other useful tools include your heart rate or even a perceived exertion scale. Depending on your goals, you will want to keep your intensity within a certain window on either of these measures.


How have you found the balance in your workouts? Please share your tips in the comments.