Why the Most Popular Workouts Aren’t Always the Best
What is fitness? It is defined as “the condition of being physically fit and healthy,” with disease and lack of fitness being closely related. So when we set out to be fit, what we are actually trying to accomplish, is a state of optimum physical health that is free of disease. Because I work for a health club, and you’re reading this article, I’m going to assume that the pursuit of fitness is something that you strive for. For an adequate level of fitness that is free of disease, all one needs to do is exercise modestly, such as walking or gardening daily, and eat a healthy diet. This will control weight and lead to a nice and healthy lifestyle, end of story, and I’ll see you later.
My guess is, however, if you’re reading this article you aren’t interested in an adequate fitness level, but possibly the highest level of fitness that you can personally achieve; I know that’s my goal. But before I get ahead of myself, we should know that the definition of exercise is “activity requiring physical effort, carried out especially to sustain or improve health and fitness.” So with this definition of exercise, it is pretty clear that optimal levels of fitness are directly dependent on optimal levels of exercise (and nutrition). So if our goal is to be as physically fit at possible using exercise as a medium to achieve that goal then its time to bring on the Crossfit, P90X, Insanity, and hours on the Stairmaster so we can reach this beacon of light, this mystical place, this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You have to exercise like an unstoppable ferocious beast if you really want to get to the top of the mountain, right?
In my opinion, exercise to deliver optimal fitness levels should incorporate the maximum amount of benefit with the minimum amount of risk for injury or stress to the system. We get no closer to our goal of achieving optimal fitness levels if we are constantly hurting ourselves in our routines or if our routines leave us generally feeling beat down. I believe that injury and undue stress to the system leads to higher levels of inflammation, weakens the immune system, and generally takes us further from our goal of optimal fitness levels. To reach this goal, we must identify areas of weakness in the way our bodies move and have specific exercises designed to strengthen them. We must always strive to increase strength and endurance in our body’s designed movements of squat, lunge, push, and pull, as this will ensure that we are targeting every major muscle and the roles that each of them carry out from a movement standpoint in the body. Finally, we must have a program that incorporates these exercises into a strategic game plan that utilizes the principles of periodization to ensure that we are constantly applying a stimulus that leads to increases in strength, hypertrophy, performance, or whatever specific goal an individual may have. I’ve written about periodization before and this is really the place where people fail to maximize their potential. We must continue to progressively load our muscles over time in a strategic manner to provide the stimulus to spur growth in the body. In summary, we need the structure of a designed program with ever increasing intensities on exercises that are designed to custom fit the individual to reach the top of the fitness mountain. It is the failure to consistently incorporate the above ideas that leads to continued stagnation and a general lack of progress toward optimal levels of health and fitness.
People have many different reasons for choosing to exercise the way they do, and I think that it’s important that we step back from time to time and evaluate why we are exercising the way we do. I know runners who run for the “high” they get while doing it, Crossfitters who love the workouts and the community, people who do P90X because they enjoy being pushed to the extreme of what they can handle, Insanity because they never stop moving, and they enjoy the feeling of sweating their butts off, and Pilates because they like the sensation of stretching and serenity. The list could go on forever. What’s consistent about this list is that in every case the driving force may have nothing to do with “physical effort carried out especially to improve health and fitness.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing activities because they make us feel a certain way, and we may even lose some weight and build some muscle, but my point is that we just have to be honest with why we are doing them.
In my opinion, the popularity of Crossfit, P90X, Insanity, or really any current exercise trend, past or present, is really based on the fact that it gives people structure and often times a higher level of intensity than they are used to working at. The majority of people that are starting or are currently on traditional resistance training routines don’t have a lot of structure or planning in what they are doing. They simply show up, drag themselves through their routine, get there 15 reps in, check the box, and go home. No plan, no real results, no noticeable changes. This usually results in a lack of consistency, which ultimately leads to the steady loss of muscle and gaining body fat. After this repeated cycle goes on for several years, you run into a friend who is doing Crossfit, or P90X, or Insanity, and this friend can’t stop talking about how different it is and how much progress they are seeing. So then you try it and you start to see results too. You drop some weight, you feel stronger, and you’re excited about doing something new. These results should be expected; you were given some structure and within that structure an increased level of intensity that far surpassed what you were doing. Your body is forced to adapt, and voila, changes start to happen; however, I have made the argument that it isn’t Crossfit, P90X, or any other magic pill exercise routine, but simply a consistent structure with a high level of intensity that leads to these changes.
So why not Crossfit, P90X, Insanity, or any one of the hundreds of different programs out there? I’ll step on some toes, and that’s ok, because in the long run I don’t think any of them address enough of the factors that go into the long term health and fitness of an individual. Yes, I think you can get some short term gains by doing any one of these programs, assuming that your body is capable of standing up to the stresses they induce, but they do violate my maximum benefit with minimum risk philosophy. It’s medium benefit with maximum risk, not to mention the fact that I’m not aware of any of these routines being individually customized to each person’s individual movement capabilities, and they don’t address compensatory movement patterns that must be strengthened if the overall strength of the person is to progress. Most people on these routines will ultimately plateau out or get hurt in the process. Your joints and tissues just can’t handle doing high intensity exercise all the time with a one size fits all approach to movement. To progress on your fitness journey over the long haul, no matter what your fitness goal is, you must have a program uniquely tailored to you that incorporates all aspects of advanced programming. Ultimately, this will include elements of what makes the above mentioned programs successful for some, but it will be done in a way that is tailored to the individual and part of a long term plan to accomplish whatever fitness goals the individual has, and more importantly, allow us to have a healthy, physically fit, pain free life.