The Negative Effects of Too Many Long, Gruelling Home Workouts
At the time of writing, and with the world in the grips of COVID-19 social distancing, social media is littered with posts of long, gruelling workouts going down in garages and home gyms around the world.
We think this is amazing! To see people sharing their efforts in times of upheaval is inspiring. But there seem to be some common themes. The reps are high, the weights are light, the times are long. And the variety is low. The variety of exercises, the variety of loads, the variety of times, and the variety of intensities.
And while we LOVE that people are staying active and healthy (which is infinitely better than not doing anything), we think that maybe the ‘sameness’ of a lot of their exercise is maybe limiting the health, fitness and performance benefits that they could be achieving.
Maybe you’re worried about losing your fitness? Read “Will I Lose My Fitness During COVID-19 Gym Closures?“.
And there are two main reasons we would love to see an improvement in their programming:
- People are missing out on the health benefits of the things they’re neglecting.
- People are potentially over-training certain elements of their fitness, which can actually lead to some negative effects.
Let’s start with the first point – what health benefits are people missing?
One of the big characteristics of the style of exercise we program at Range of Motion is the amount of variety in what we do (learn more by reading Why we have so much exercise variety at Range of Motion).
That doesn’t just mean we have a big variety of movements and styles of exercise, but also a range of session lengths too.
Sometimes we’ll exercise for a very short amount of time (just a few minutes for the entire session, or repeated ‘intervals’ of exercise as little as five seconds). And sometimes we’ll exercise for half an hour or longer.
The shorter the session, the harder you’ll be able to work (the intensity will be higher), where-as a longer session will need to be done at a lower intensity (because you won’t be able to sustain a high work rate).
There’s good reason for this variety. Of course, it keeps your exercise fresh and interesting, but there’s a major benefit to your health to.
To understand this benefit, you have to understand the principle of ‘specificity’. Specificity basically tells us that if you want to get better at something, you have to do more of that thing. So if you want to improve your squats, the best thing to do is squats. If you’re trying to improve your push-ups, do more push-ups. The same applies to how long a training session is. If you always exercise for the same amount of time, you’ll only get the benefits of that amount of time.
The reason for this is that our body has different energy systems, different ways of fuelling your muscles to do work. Think of it like lighting a fire. You need paper to start the fire, then twigs, then sticks, then logs. All of these fuel sources are burning at the same time, but they’re burning in different amounts, and more important at different times. At the start, the paper is doing most of the work, and at the end, it’s mainly the logs.
Your body is the same, for short sessions, you’ll (mainly) use one certain energy system. And like paper, this energy system burns brightly, but doesn’t last long. As you add in progressively longer sessions your body has to go to different energy sources (just like with the fire). They don’t burn as ‘brightly’ (the exercise is at a lower intensity), but they burn for longer.
Each energy system will give you certain health benefits. Short, fast sessions will give you a certain set of benefits, moderate length sessions at a moderate intensity will give you another set of benefits, and longer, slower sessions with give you another range of benefits again.
And the benefits don’t end when your exercise session ends, the higher the intensity, the higher your metabolic rate (all the chemical reactions going on in your body) will remain for an extended period of time. To use our fire analogy, higher intensity will result in the fire continuing to ‘smoulder’ (burn fuel) for an extended period of time.
If you always exercise for the same amount of time, at the same intensity, you’ll be leaving a lot of potential benefits on the table.
A great strategy to get some more intensity is the use of interval training – high intensity exercise, paired with periods of rest. Interval training couples a drop in volume with an increase in intensity. In research into intervals training for endurance runners, it was found “Interval training achieved its effects through improvements of maximum oxygen consumption, anaerobic threshold, and economy.” (Paton and Hopkins 2004).
Our recommendations for interval training:
- For intervals of less than 30 seconds, rest four times as long as you’re working.
- For intervals between 30 seconds and two minutes, rest twice as long as you’re working.
- For intervals over two minutes, rest for the same amount of time as you’re working.
You should also be completing heavy resistance training (lifting weights). Don’t have weights? No worries. We’ve put together “The Ultimate Seven Strategy Guide to Getting Strong Without Equipment“.
And if you’re worried about losing strength with gym closures, read “Are You Worried About Your Strength Suffering from COVID-19 Gym Closures”?
Even if you want to specifically train to improve your endurance capacity, “…resistance training or the addition of resistance training to an ongoing endurance exercise regimen, including running or cycling, increases both short and long term endurance capacity in sedentary and trained individuals.” (Teneka and Swensen, 1998).
Aside from all the health benefits you may be missing, there are actually a few negative effects of only completing high volume, long duration workouts, including:
- Longer duration exercise can increase cortisol levels, which can break down muscle (therefore reducing strength).
- Increased cortisol levels can reduce testosterone levels in males, and can reduce fertility and sex drive (reductions in sex drive also apparent in females).
- Chronic levels of cortisol can weaken the immune system (not ideal during a global pandemic).
- The effects of chronic cortisol elevation on both thyroid hormones, and insulin levels can create an internal environment in your body where it is more difficult to burn fat (lose weight). In particular high cortisol levels can make it difficult to remove abdominal fat.
- Higher cortisol levels can impact your happiness, mood and focus by changing the levels of noradrenaline and dopamine in your body.
- High levels of long duration exercise can increase free radical oxidative damage in the body, causing negative effects to both skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle.
- High intensity, long duration exercise can increase systemic inflammation in the body.
Now of course, a lot of these negative effects of chronic, long duration exercise occur as a result of a prolonged period of training. But with the length of ‘lockdown’ unknown, many of these negative effects are a potential reality.
If you’re judging the benefit of an exercise session on how long you can keep your heart rate as high as possible as measured by your ‘wearable tech’ (Apple Watch etc.), you might actually be doing damage.
Don’t get us wrong, low intensity aerobic exercise is great, and there are many benefits of this form of exercise. Long, slow swims, walks, cycles etc. are great. The problem is when people push high intensity for extended periods.
And now’s a great time to be building habits that will last you long after COVID-19 blows over. Read: How COVID-19 Can Help You Build Habits That Will Last a Lifetime.
So if you’re finding yourself gravitating towards long, grinding workouts, what can you do? Here are our recommendations:
- Follow a program that has been scientifically constructed to optimise your overall health and fitness. The program should have a ‘big picture’ goal. Don’t just cherry-pick things that ‘look good’ on social media. Struggling to find ways to follow your normal program with equipment limitations? We’ve put together this resource for you to give you examples of how to modify your exercises.
- Vary the length of your workouts. Sometimes go short and more intense, sometimes go long and less intense, sometimes, go right in the middle.
- Do some interval training – periods of high intensity works, interspersed with periods of rest.
- Lift some heavy things. Haven’t got heavy things to lift? Try some of these techniques.
- Add variety in as much as possible. It’ll be better for your health, better for your fitness, better for your performance, and better for your mental health too.
- Something is better than nothing, if you’re choosing between long duration exercise and nothing, stick with your gruelling workouts!
Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology. He has worked with many thousands of individuals along the full spectrum of health, and has coached at The CrossFit Games. He regularly presents to corporate and fitness industry groups and mentors Fitness Professionals.