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My Confession... or Why Working out too Hard is Counterproductive

October 19, 2009 08:48 AM

I have a confession to make. It goes against everything that I stand for in the fitness world, but lately I haven't been able to help myself. My confession is that I like to make boys puke. Now, pushing your body that hard on a regular basis goes against all that I know to be true in how to make real progress. So many trainers have the philosophy that once you think you are finished, do one more rep. More enlightened trainers have the philosophy that once your form goes, you need to stop. Extremely enlightened trainers know that to really make progress, one must stop even before then, which is something I learned through Z-Health.

If you have ever studied the hormone cascade or what your body really does during extremely strenuous activities, you know that it is counter-productive to push yourself too hard. You know that "runners high" that people talk about? Well, that is exactly what it is. You are "high" from self-medication. When your body says, "Oh, darn! What is happening to me?" it releases cortisol, which increases the amount fat and sugar released in the bloodstream and decreases cellular protein uptake (among other "really-bad-for-you things.") That doesn't sound like it's going to help you lose weight OR build muscle, does it? When you feel that "high" or rush from an extreme workout, it is the feeling of your body medicating itself. And when do we usually take medicine? When there is something wrong with us!

So why do I like to make boys puke? Maybe it's a version of little-man syndrome because there are many who take one look at me and walk into my studio expecting some version of pilates. Or maybe it's because if I hear one more "mainstream" person compare kettlebell training to yoga I'm afraid that I will NOT be able to hold my tongue. "Um… yes, you are right. I'm pretty sure the Russian Special Ops got their strength and physique by stretching in the field for an hour." I am not a mean person. These guys LIKE the fact that I make them puke. They seem even excited about it. "Yeah, man! After that last workout, I was driving home and I had to pull over and yak out the window. The people driving by gave me weird looks, but MAN did I feel good afterwards!" I'm not reveling in their misery. I am just excited to have given them something extra that they weren't expecting. Is that so bad? Yes, it is. Because if I'm training these guys to the point of puking I might as well have them do bicep curls while hopping up and down on a Bosu. Ok, so it's not that serious. But at the end of the day, it really isn't helping.

If you really want to progress, whether your goals are weight loss or strength gains, you need to keep noxious stimuli OUT of your workout. That means no pain and no feelings that you are about to vomit. A noxious stimulus is a danger signal. And what happens when the brain is sent a danger signal? It pulls back the reins. If you are lifting, it says "Whoa! Something is not quite right here, let's not allow so much force to be transmitted since I'm not so sure this rep is a good idea." You can't lift as heavy because your central nervous system won't ALLOW you to (notice that I didn't say that it was because you aren't strong enough.) And did I mention that your body is smart? It gets good at doing whatever you have it do on a regular basis. That means if every time you train, you train to failure then your body gets really good at… (you guessed it)… FAILING.

So, how do you make real progress and real gains? You start out with perfect form. "Practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect," a very wise man named Brett Jones told me years ago. (Knowing Brett and his affinity for quoting, I Googled that quote and it was credited to Vince Lombardi.) After you are sure that your form is perfect, make sure that you are in good postural alignment. There may be some slight arches in your spine, but no severe angles - lengthen through the crown of your head. Next, synchronize your respiration (when your lungs are compressed in an exercise, exhale.) It sound obvious, but sometimes my respiration is not in sync and I don't even realize it because I'm trying to push out that rep!!! Not good. Lastly, make sure you have a good balance of tension and relaxation. Take the kettlebell snatch for example. There are points when your body is full of tension (i.e. the hip snap) and there are times when your body is somewhat relaxed (i.e. the bell's descent.) So you go through the checklist: Good form? Check. Good Posture? Check. Synchronized breathing? Check. Balanced tension and relaxation? Check. Now what? Now you work out until one of those components is no longer there. Usually the first thing to go is your balance of tension and relaxation. When it does, stop. That's right. STOP. Once one of those components goes you are no longer training efficiently; therefore, you are no longer training your body the right way to do something.

Perfect practice makes perfect so every single rep should be perfect and efficient. To really make progress, the exercise should be stopped BEFORE the first imperfect rep. And, for the record, feeling like you are going to throw up is not a component of a perfect rep.

Delaine Ross is an RKC Level 2 and Z Health Level 1 trainer and owner of Condition Kettlebell Gym in Atlanta, Ga. Check out her website: