It’s Not Just the Calories Burned | A Final Look at “Hard-Core Workouts”

Posted on November 11, 2012


Well, consider the delay in Part 3 of my series on “hard-core” workouts a literary suspense builder. Or just an author who takes no consideration for time & writing schedules. 🙂 What can I say, we’ve been busy at ProKine starting the off-season endurance athlete S&C program & building ProKine’s programs so that more people can take part in the fun and achieve some new fitness results. The hours with class members & clients, it’s fatiguing…but also the time NOT with them – planning, prepping, tinkering behind the scenes…it makes for limited time for personal blogging. Also, I’ve instituted a ban on guilt-tripping myself. If I need to sleep, I sleep. If I need to lay in my bed for an hour watching some crap on Bravo, I do. If it means I don’t blog for weeks, so be it. It’s a turn around from how I used to be, but it’s saving my energy, spirit, and focus by keeping me from burning out.

Ok, let’s wrap this series up so we can have a complete look at why “hard-core” workouts should be entered into with caution. Two segments here followed by a ‘how to do “hard-core” workouts & not kill your health & fitness’ section…just in case you’re still going to get after a puke-on-your-shoes-tough workout.

Without This, Fitness & Weight Loss Is a  Nearly Impossible Challenge

In my opinion, the biggest hurdle of them all to overcome when doing “hard-core” workouts…hormone imbalances. I’ve been through this one and have seen plenty of people in my years of working in a large national health club chain go through it too – when we do things, whether they be exercise-related or not, that disrupt the balance of hormones in our bodies, we have problems. Exercise is a stress on the body – we want it to be a good stress that signals to our bodies that it should grow stronger & fitter, but sometimes, if the work is too much intensity, too much volume, for what our hormones are capable of,  the hormones are no longer in a happy-state. They get thrown off-balance from trying to handle the exercise (or lifestyle! excessive life stress fits in this category too!) loads being thrown at them, so they start stealing from each other to preserve themselves.

To make a long and complicated ‘science of hormones’ story short – our hormones are like a system of rapids in a river, cascading from 1 section to another, the proper flow of 1 hormone allowing the proper flow of the next hormone. Cut the rapids off at the top where the Master hormone sits and all the other hormones either dry up (or in our case) try to change the entire river system to keep their section of the hormone-river flowing. No bueno. Weight loss, fitness gains, they don’t happen simply because you burn X amount of calories or because you do X amount of burpees…you achieve fitness results by doing things (maybe burpees…but maybe not if your hormones are in a state of dis-stress) that signal to your body that healthy tissue growth should happen in the parts of your body that you’re stimulating with certain movements under load & that it is ok, “safe”, to let go of body fat that is above what the body needs for survival.

A great perspective from a trainer, turned wellness expert, Sean Croxton, for his full post, click here:

“What drove me bat-sh*t crazy was the fact that, despite these arduous cardio sessions (typical ‘chronic cardio’ sessions, 30-90mins of elevated heart rate work) in addition to severely calorie-restricted diets (USDA Food Pyramid; 1200-2000cals based on the person), most clients wouldn’t drop a single pound. Some even gained weight. It was the most perplexing thing ever!

Fast forward half a decade, and I finally learned the truth about why my approach was failing over and over again. Not only were my clients consuming the wrong foods, but the majority of them actually needed LESS exercise.

My clients were already stressed out enough as it was — emotionally, financially, socially, and spiritually. My methods of gross overtraining were only making matters worse.”

Just because it looks like exercise does not mean it’s going to make you lean, light, and healthy. This includes ANY kind of exercise that is not aligning with your body & hormones current needs: running, yoga, weight lifting with the wrong programming focus, at-home workout videos…too much or the wrong kind at the wrong time equals lacking fitness results.

Be open to honestly evaluating (or having a professional in the field) evaluate your program & your desired/actual results. Be ok with changing your program from something you thought you were really enjoying…if it’s not giving you any great results, why do you love it? Can you learn to love another form of exercise that will better assist you in achieving results?

Here are 2 more articles on why hormones are so important with regard to exercise. Whole9’s take on hormones & exercise. And, Robb Wolf’s take on disrupting hormone flow.

It’s not just workouts that make you lean

Here’s why I hate that calories in/calories out belief about weight loss or fitness. It’s SO MUCH MORE than a calorie count. In fact, calories in/out is not a high-priority focus for me with my clients. It used to be, when I was just a basic trainer learning the basics. Now that I better understand human physiology & the interplay of the many things that go into making a happy, healthy body – I focus on so many other things. Here’s a basic list of what I cover with my clients to help them reach strength, body fat, weight, and fitness goals:

  • Mobility/corrective exercise – if your glutes don’t work & arms don’t straighten overhead, you’re not ready to load that body up with weights
  • Strength work – focused on achievements, not calories or even time spent exercising
  • Anti-inflammatory diet – basic paleo-template with personalization based on the persons’ needs/goals
  • Sleep – minimum 8hrs…high-quality, pitch-dark room type sleep
  • Vitamin D – get it tested, get it elevated
  • Omega 3/omega 6 ratio – fix it with wild-caught salmon & high quality fish oil
  • Stress management – reduce it, manage what you can’t eliminate, smile, have fun
  • Hydration – water water water water

Food for thought: I’ve got a gal who was losing weight pretty consistently until her marathon training kicked up. Then it stalled despite all the cardio. 1 month post-marathon and the only cardio I’ve allowed her is house chores & 30mins of walking or less. She’s lost 5lbs. More cardio does not always equal more weight loss. In fact, it could mean less.

How to do “hard-core” workouts better

But what if you’re just gonna do it. You’re gonna do “hard-core” workouts, regardless of all the reasons I’ve given you as you why that might not be a good idea. Here’s how you do them better…

If you’re going to “extreme yoga” classes i.e. burpees and plyometrics show up amidst your sun salutation series: cut 1 of your other cardio sessions out in favor of more traditional-style strength training. All that planking and holding warrior 2 is lovely, but it’s only bodyweight training. Bones get stronger, muscle tissue grows in a measurable way as to raise metabolism & shape really changes when you lift weights HEAVIER than your body weight. Hopefully you’re not still thinking (if you’re a woman) that you’ll get “bulky” (that myth should be long dead by now). 

If you’re going to do P90-Insane-BiggestLoser bootcamp-home workout dvds: Do yourself a favor & spend a few $ meeting with a fitness pro who can perform a “functional assessment” on you, evaluating your kinetic chain & helping you see where you are lacking muscle activation & where you need to open up/create more mobility. (Remember what we talked about in post 2 of this series…if your glutes have amnesia and literally are not “on”, squat all you want, you won’t change a damn thing about your butt and you’ll overtrain your quads to do too much work.) Once your functional movement capabilities are assessed, take that info (they should give you some tips and exercises to do to fix your issues as part of that assessment), spend 3 weeks addressing that stuff, THEN start your P90-Insane-whatever at-home workouts. Turning on those deactivated muscles & getting your joints & spine moving better will go a long way to helping you avoid injury as you workout at home.

If you’re going to Crossfit type classes: Evaluate the gym. Evaluate the coaches. Remove the emotion around your evaluations. People go ga-ga for Crossfit right now partly because it makes them feel like part of a community, which is awesome, but most of that excitement that you’ll hear is honeymoon phase stuff. Be careful to not get swept up in their excitement or you’ll fail to make an honest evaluation of the gym itself. There are some very real reasons Crossfit may not be right for you, so evaluate before diving in. Did you get assessed by a coach to determine if you can move well-enough to do the exercises they prescribe in class? (not an evaluation of how many pushups you can do, but your mobility and joint integrity, that should have been evaluated right from the start.) If you can’t fully straighten your arms overhead, did they give you a ton o’ stuff to fix that before you went pressing 135# over your head? Does everyone do the same workout but with more or less reps? What about people who have orthopedic issues like -back problems -knee issues -shoulder problems? Is there different stuff for those people to do? Is the coach/owner just certified through Crossfit or do they have a more globally-accepted accreditation like ACSM, NSCA, or NASM?

In the end, there are a variety of workouts that *could* work for you. And “hard-core workouts” definitely have a place in programming…but all to often, they are placed far too early in a person’s fitness progression. I love doing “hard-core workouts”, but not every workout I do falls into the “hard-core” category we’ve been talking about here. Although I’ve written a whole series on why “hard-core workouts” may be a bad idea, I’m not against “hard-core workouts.” At the right point in a program, for the right person who is unencumbered by major kinetic chain limitations, and in the right doses, “hard-core workouts” can be great! My hope was simply to give a different perspective than the one that is dominating the culture today…like the diet pills of the 90s, the words ‘extreme’ and ‘intense’ in relation to fitness should be warily approached & assumed to be slightly dangerous until proven otherwise. This concludes my series on “hard-core workouts,” as always, I welcome your ideas & opinions. Just make sure you’ve got something to back up your thoughts so we can have an honest discussion & move the fitness world & it’s exercisers forward.

Posted in: fitness