More Exercise Isn’t Better. Better Exercise is Better.

More Exercise Isn't Better. Better Exercise is Better.

Are you eating less and exercising more but gaining weight?

Spending longer hours at the gym, but can’t get rid of that tummy?

Signing up for more workout classes, but don’t have time to do the things you really want?

In this article we address a common belief that “more is better” when it comes to exercise. You’ll learn how taking a smarter, “less is more” approach to exercise can produce better results and save you time.

Eating more and exercising more isnt better, slow motion strength training is better

How to Get Stronger in Under 20 Minutes

Most people spend an hour in the gym for a strength training workout. Did you know strength can be maximized with workout sessions lasting less than 20 minutes?

One study (1) experimented with individuals who strength trained for two months. All participants in three different groups performed the same full-body workout but with different workloads.

  • GROUP 1: performed one set per exercise. (7 total sets per workout)
  • GROUP 2: performed three sets per exercise (21 total sets) 
  • GROUP 3: performed five sets per exercise (35 total sets)

** All sets were performed to muscle success (aka. Temporary muscle fatigue)

The secret to a successful workout

All groups gained strength, but the strength tests which included a bench press and a barbell squat showed no statistical difference in strength gain for each group. 

This is significant when considering the amount of time spent exercising:

 

GROUP 3 averaged 68 minutes per workout
GROUP 2 averaged 40 minutes per workout
GROUP 1 trained for just 13 minutes per workout

 

Therefore, training intensely for 13 minutes can produce similar strength gains compared to training for 68 minutes. You get a five-fold return on your time investment. 

The 13-minute routine used in Group 1 is similar to a typical session at The Perfect Workout: 

 

  • one set per exercise
  • seven exercises total
  • each set performed to “muscle success”
  • each workout targeting all major muscle groups

 

This similarity is not a coincidence. Our method is designed to help you become strong, healthy and able-bodied without wasting your time. In fact, you get your time back.

Exercise Everyday? Not Necessary

A common misconception about exercise is that we need to exercise almost every day, if not every day of the week.

This approach to exercise can actually hinder results.

In another study (2), 72 women between the ages of 60-74 were tested before and after a 16-week exercise program. There were 3 groups:

*Aerobic workouts were cycling/treadmill for 20-40 min at 80% of max heart rate

**Strength training workouts- each set of repetitions was taken to the deep fatigue point of “muscle success”

1+1 Group:

Performed 1 low intensity aerobic workout per week

1 high intensity strength training workout per week

2 total workouts per week

2+2 Group: 

Performed 2 low intensity aerobic workouts per week

2 high intensity strength training workouts per week

4 total workouts per week

3+3 Group: 

Performed 3 low intensity aerobic workouts per week

3 high intensity strength training workouts per week

6 total workouts per week

Results measured included: total number of calories expended per day (TDEE), non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), and fat loss.

 

1+1 Group:

  • increased their NEAT by 57 calories per day
  • increased their TDEE per day by an additional 30 calories
  • averaged 2.2 lbs of fat loss. 

2+2 Group: 

  • increased their NEAT by 200 calories per day
  • increased their TDEE per day by an additional 195 calories
  • 2+2 group lost the most fat, dropping 4.4 fat lbs

3+3 Group: 

  • decreased their average daily NEAT by 150 calories. 
  • decreased their TDEE per day by an average of 63 calories, despite the extra activity level of working out six days per week.
  • averaged 1.1 lbs of fat loss. 

 

The group that spent the most time exercising wound up burning fewer calories and losing less fat than both of the other two groups. 

This study is evidence that more exercise doesn't necessarily produce better results.

In fact, too much physical stress (including exercise stress) can cause the body to react in unfavorable ways. You want just the right amount of high-intensity exercise stress for optimal improvements, and no more.

If you want to get optimal results you need to value resting and recovering from your workouts

More is not better quote from Alex Stefan

Learn to Work HARDER, Not Longer.

A typical slow-motion strength training workout generally consists of 7-8 exercises per session. This may vary slightly depending on a number of factors: once or twice a week, injuries, limitations and individual goals.

 

In theory, you can hit all major muscle groups with just 4 exercises:

  • Leg Press: Glutes, Quadriceps, Calves(or Squat for Virtual)
  • Chest Press: Pectorals, Shoulders, Triceps (or Push-up for Virtual)
  • Lat Pulldown: Lats, Biceps, Abdominals (or Superman for Virtual)
  • Leg Curl: Hamstrings (same for Virtual)

 

Depending on the individual, we can also incorporate other machines to target specific muscle areas, including:

  • Leg Extension: Quadriceps (same for Virtual)
  • Preacher Curl: Biceps, Forearms (or Bicep Curl for Virtual)
  • Tricep Extension: Triceps (or Tricep Dips for Virtual)
  • Hip Abduction: Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Minor, TFL (or Fire Hydrant for Virtual)
  • Hip Adduction: Inner Thighs (or Pillow Squeeze for Virtual)
  • Compound Row: Trapezoids, Rhomboids, Biceps (often interchangeable for Lat Pulldown) (or Row for Virtual)
  • Abdominal Machine: Abdominals (or Crunches for Virtual)
muscles worked on exercises

If you look at the first list, you’ll notice the entire body can be targeted with just four exercises, making it simple and efficient to get a full-body workout.

More exercises can be added to further fatigue smaller muscles that may have not achieved muscle success on bigger-muscle machines. 

For example, the biceps are the secondary muscles used on the Lat Pulldown. The Preacher Curl can be added to further fatigue them.

 

This does not mean it is necessary to do all machines and exercises in every workout.

In fact, having the ability to easily complete 11 slow-motion strength training exercises is a good indication that the intensity level is not high enough. 

Think of your workouts as a short sprint, not a mile-long race. The reason there isn’t a mile dash in track & field is because nobody can sprint that far, or work that hard for that long. 

 

Since intense effort is what stimulates best results from the muscles (and the body), demanding slow-motion strength training workouts have to be brief.

If you feel like you can perform slow-motion strength training exercises for more than 20 minutes at a time, you can probably improve your results by increasing the intensity and learning how to work harder.

 

This applies to every single exercise too.

An appropriate weight will allow you to maintain a slow speed while eliminating any momentum. Therefore, slow lifting makes greater demands on the muscles, and provides a more effective stimulus for the muscles. 

An ideal exercise should take about 1-2 minutes to hit muscle success. Anything over 2 minutes indicates the weights may be too light for you, thus making the exercise less efficient.

Rest AFTER the Workout

Have you ever thought, ”Why doesn’t my trainer give me any breaks between exercises?!” 

 

One reason is minimal rest between exercises improves the cardiovascular impact of the workout. 

The only way to “get at” your cardiovascular system during exercise is to make the muscles work hard. We achieve that by hitting muscle success. Slow-motion repetitions make your muscles work much harder than most exercises which puts a greater demand and stimulus on your cardiovascular system.

your heart and eating less and exercising more
Image Source: Cybex

Little to no time to rest between exercises quickens the process of getting to muscle success, making the overall workout more efficient. 

While strength training in general provides several improvements to the cardiovascular system, many benefits are received or amplified only when training to muscle success. 

Another Area to Avoid Resting is Between Repetitions.

One study (3) observed what happened when two different groups strength trained. Resting was compared against not resting between repetitions:

 

  • GROUP 1: lifted continuously from start to finish in each set (we use this in our protocol)
  • GROUP 2: took a short break in the middle of the set. 

 

When muscle biopsies were taken from the quadriceps, the fibers from GROUP 1 had grown 13%, whereas GROUP 2 only grew 4%. 

Keeping your muscles continuously loaded without any rest (as we employ with our slow-motion repetitions) yields the best results.

Save the rest & recovery for after your workouts. You’re going to need it!

Need Proof 20 Minutes is Enough?

We’ve helped over 40,000 clients improve their bodies and health over the last couple of decades with our 20-minute, twice a week protocol.

Here are just some of their success stories:

Over a 20-day period in May 2020, we measured just how long it takes for an average client of The Perfect Workout to complete a workout and the amount of time spent on each exercise. This is what we found out:

These are the people seeing significant results… And they are doing it with two workouts a week, for 20-minutes.

Now That You Know...

At the end of the day, we want to spend time doing the things we love, and there’s no reason for exercise to get in the way.

Now that you know:

  • You can get the same strength gains, if not more, in 13 minutes than you can in 68 minutes
  • More workouts per week can actually hinder your results
  • Doing more exercises than needed in a session is an indication the workout may not be intense enough and you can be working harder
  • You can get a full body-workout in with just 4 exercises
  • More rest in a workout can reduce muscle growth and cardiovascular impact

If you could save hours each week doing more of what you love, would you?

What you get working out with this method is not only guaranteed results, but also your time back!

We know you value your health and exercise should be at the top of your priority list, but it doesn’t need to fill up your calendar.

Imagine what you could gain from saving time in your week getting a more efficient workout.

Whether you’re looking to get stronger, carve out more time to play golf, or simply keep up with the grandkids, all you need is 20 minutes, twice a week.

  1. Schoenfeld, B.J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2018). Resistance training volume enhances muscle hypertrophy but not strength in trained men. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
  2. Hunter, G. R., Bickel, C. S., Fisher, G., Neumeier, W., & McCarthy, J. (2013). Combined Aerobic/Strength Training and Energy Expenditure in Older Women. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. (Published ahead of print).
  3. Fisher, J., Steele, S., & Smith, D. (2013). Evidence-­‐based resistance training recommendations for muscular hypertrophy. Medicina Sportiva, 17(4): 217-­‐235.

It is possible for an individual to exercise too much

Is it Possible to Exercise Too Much?

Shifting the Paradigm Around Exercise

it is possible for an individual to exercise too much, woman ab crunch

“Physician tested, approved.”

“_______ are just what the doctor ordered!”

“The Doctors’ Choice is America’s Choice.”

These slogans came from advertisements during the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Do you know what product they are referring to? No, it’s not broccoli. It’s not exercise, reading, or meditation, either. Those ads are referring to…SMOKING CIGARETTES! 

Yes, you read that correctly. From the 1930s to 1950s, cigarettes were advertised as healthful. Yes…”healthy” was used to describe the same cigarettes that can cause lung cancer, heart disease, COPD, asthma, birth defects, a stroke, heart attack, and many other types of cancer. 

This was a widespread belief. Some cigarette companies acknowledged causing a little “throat irritation,” but they were otherwise considered beneficial. 

While the cigarette being healthy is an extreme example, it illustrates a bigger point: beliefs generally held as dogma are often incorrect. 

Other popular examples include Pluto being a major planet in the solar system, humans using only 10% of their brains, and a human’s urine relieving the pain caused by a jellyfish sting (I hope you didn’t learn this firsthand). 

Here’s another example: more exercise is better. Said differently, the belief that people should perform long, intense workouts every day is a common but misguided belief.

And often we get the question – Am I exercising enough? When it’s just as important to ask whether or not it’s possible for an individual to exercise too much.

Joint Health.

We’re all aging, but not necessarily at the same rate. A study out of the University of California at San Francisco assessed the rate at which the knee joint wears down over a four-year period. 

The participants were middle-aged men and women with a large range of exercise habits. The researchers wanted to see if exercise habits were tied to the rate of arthritis development. 

What did they find? People who exercised a moderate amount were the most likely to preserve their joint health. The people who did little to no exercise AND the people who exercised a large amount both had more cartilage breakdown. 

The results indicate that people who don't exercise and people who exercise very often are on a quicker track to arthritis.

Knee Arthritis from too much exercise

Weight and Metabolism.

Our bodies are clever machines that have “negative feedback loops.” These feedback loops work to counteract some kind of stimulus. For example, when our blood sugar is excessively high, we produce more blood-sugar lowering hormones (insulin). 

A negative feedback loop also occurs when we exercise very often

One example was in a study from Laval University in Quebec. Young men exercised intensely on a daily basis for a few months. At the end of the study, the participants’ metabolic rate decreased by eight percent. The men also experienced a reduction in several hormones, including a thyroid hormone (T3). 

decreased Metabolism from exercising too much

The University of Alabama at Birmingham published a study that showed a similar effect. Older women exercised anywhere from 2-6 days per week for four months. Women who did 2-4 days of strength training and other activities (e.g. walking) per week actually became more active outside of their workouts. (Maybe they gained more energy?). 

Women who performed six days of exercise and activity per week were less active outside of their sessions and lost less weight than the other groups. Learn More about how to lose fat and only fat.

The takeaway: the body seems to fight back when pushed to exercise intensely on a daily or near-daily basis. Perhaps the body is trying to tell us something?

Strength.

You’ve likely heard at least one member of The Perfect Workout family say that the results happen between the workouts. The workouts are actually only a stimulus for change. The stimulus translates into change as you rest between your workouts. 

This is not a lie. Multiple research reviews, which make recommendations based on the findings of many studies, suggest 72 hours as the shortest possible rest period between training sessions on the same muscle groups. 

When training after a shorter rest period, muscles are actually weaker in the second workout. Why? They haven’t recovered yet from the first workout.

Don't exercise too much, rest between workouts

You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing.

Exercise is one of the most healthy habits we can practice. However, similar to a medication or a supplement, there is a healthy amount and an excessive amount. Intense exercise on a near-daily basis can lead to counter responses from our body and limit strength gains.

It’s time to shift the paradigm on how we see exercise. It’s a potent habit that is best applied briefly and infrequently to maximize your health and fitness.

Valuing your health and exercise should be at the top of your priority list,  but it doesn’t need to fill up your calendar.

Imagine what you could gain from saving time in your week getting a more efficient workout.

Whether you’re looking to get stronger, carve out more time to play golf, or simply keep up with the grandkids, all you need is 20 minutes, twice a week.

  1. Hunter, G. R., Bickel, C. S., Fisher, G., Neumeier, W., & McCarthy, J. (2013). Combined aerobic/strength training and energy expenditure in older women. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise, 45(7).
  2. Kraemer, W.J. & Ratamess, N.A. (2004). Fundamentals of resistance training: Progression and exercise prescription. Physical Fitness and Performance, 36(4), 674-688.
  3. Lin, W., Alizai, H., Joseph, G. B., Srikhum, W., Nevitt, M. C., Lynch, J. A., … & Link, T. M. (2013). Physical activity in relation to knee cartilage T2 progression measured with 3 T MRI over a period of 4 years: data from the Osteoarthritis Initiative. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 21(10), 1558-1566.
  4. Tan, B. (1999). Manipulating resistance training program variables to optimize maximum strength in men: A review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 13(3), 298-304.
  5. Tremblay, A., Poehlman, E.T., Després, J.P., Theriault, G., Danforth, E., & Bouchard, C. (1997). Endurance training with constant energy intake in identical twins: changes over time in energy expenditure and related hormones. Metabolism, 46(5), 499-503.

How to Workout Anytime, Anywhere (no excuses)

no excuses. how to workout anytime, anywhere, no matter what.

small space workouts with results

Having coached over 8,000 Virtual Training sessions in the past couple months, we are confident about what we are about to share with you…

You need very little to accomplish a workout that creates body-shaping results.

Most gyms and personal trainers over-complicate the process of working out safely and effectively by adding ropes, boxes, sandbags, all the bells and whistles to a training session when most of it is unnecessary.

This does not mean exercise is easy or easily accomplished alone, but it should be simple.

In this article we outline all you need in order to perform slow-motion strength training to muscle success inside & outside of the studio, starting with… a beach towel.

As coaches, we hear these statements all the time-

“I don’t have enough space or the right equipment to workout at home.”
“I won’t be able to workout while traveling for work or on vacation because I won’t be near a studio.”
“I can’t get into the studio today, so I’ll have to skip my workout.”

Whether you’re stuck at home in isolation, or on the road traveling in a hotel, it is ALWAYS possible to get in the perfect workout…and we’re going to show you how.

If you have room for a beach towel, a yoga mat, or the length of your body, you have enough space and equipment for a really good workout.

Yes, it’s that simple.

female client strength training on a nautilus machine with a personal trainer

Let’s get into the programs, shall we?

PROGRAM 1: The Hotel Collection

This is one of those no-excuse opportunities. If you’ve got a body and space for a beach towel, you’ve got the goods to get in a great workout.

This program is perfect for you if:

  • You have very limited workout space.
  • You have zero workout equipment or access to makeshift equipment.
  • You are traveling and plan to exercise in a hotel room

What you need to perform this program:

  • Enough space to fit the length of a beach towel or yoga mat
  • A chair
  • Beach or Bath Towel

LOWER BODY

  • Slow motion squat or wall squat
  • Leg Curl on Chair
  • Glute Bridge
female clients doing lower body exercises virtually

UPPER BODY

  • Slow motion push up on wall or ground
  • Superman with pull
  • Static Bicep Curl with Towel
female clients doing upper body exercises virtually

CORE/ABDOMINALS

  • Boat pose
  • Plank
female clients doing core and abdominal workouts virtually

Watch this Quick Video to see a REAL LIFE client performing the Superman Exercise!

PROGRAM 2: The MacGyver

Remember MacGyver?… oh come on, we know you remember MacGyver! He had that uncanny ability to craft up some magnificently effective tool with a just paperclip and a wad of gum.

This program is kind of like that– meaning you can use whatever you have lying around that house that will help to either add resistance or make the exercises more weight-bearing. We promise the workout will be surprisingly, and magnificently effective.

This program is perfect for you if:

  • You have very limited workout space.
  • You have no workout equipment, but access to household items (see below)

What you need to perform this program:

  • Enough space to fit the length of a beach towel or yoga mat
  • A chair
  • Beach Towel or Large Towel
  • Paper Towels or Socks
  • Bag of Bricks, Gallon of Detergent (or other heavy household item you can hold)

LOWER BODY

  • Squat with bag of bricks or detergent
  • Leg Curl on with paper towels
  • Static Leg Extension
  • Lunges
Virtual training clients doing lower body exercises

UPPER BODY

  • Slow motion push up on wall or ground
  • Superman with pull
  • Static Bicep Curl with Towel
  • Overhead Tricep Extension with household item
Virtual clients doing upper body workouts

CORE/ABDOMINALS

  • Time Static Crunch with Bag of Bricks
Male clients doing abdominal workouts virtually

Watch a Quick Video of REAL LIFE clients performing this abdominal exercise!

Watch a Quick Video of REAL LIFE clients performing this abdominal exercise!

Program 3: Too Legit to Quit

This is an even bigger no-excuse moment… you actually have legitimate exercise equipment! Let’s put your dumbbell sets and resistances bands to use.

This program is perfect for you if:

  • You have very limited to ample workout space.
  • You have access to basic exercise equipment such as: dumbbells, resistance bands, kettlebells

What you need to perform this program:

  • Dumbbells or kettlebells
  • Resistance band(s)
  • Chair or ottoman

LOWER BODY

  • Wall squat with dumbbells
  • Glute bridge with resistance band, or free weight
  • Lunges with dumbbells
Virtual clients and trainers doing lower body workouts

UPPER BODY

  • Slow motion push up on wall or ground
  • Chest Press with dumbbells
  • Bicep Curl with Bands or dumbbells
  • Lat Pullover with dumbbells
Virtual clients and trainers doing upper body workouts

CORE/ABDOMINALS

  • Time Static Crunch with kettlebell or dumbbell
Female vitrual client doing core exercises

Watch this Quick Video of a REAL LIFE client performing the Glute Bridge Exercise!

Program 4: Slow-Mo Studio

Getting to this program is the ultimate goal. If you can make it into The Perfect Workout studio to work 1-on-1 with a trainer in person, then we highly recommend you do it. We supply the space, the equipment, the cold water and as always… the coaching!

This program is perfect for you if:

  • You want to get stronger, leaner or improve your health in any way
  • Want access to a distraction-free environment
  • Want access to machines calibrated for slow speed and maximum resistance

What you need to perform this program:

  • An appointment at The Perfect Workout studio

LOWER BODY

  • Leg Press
  • Leg Curl
  • Hip Abduction
  • Hip Adduction
in studio personal training with machines

UPPER BODY

  • Chest Press
  • Compound Row
  • Preacher Curl
in studio personal training with machines

CORE/ABDOMINALS

  • Abdominal Machine
in studio abdominal machine training

Watch a Quick Video of a REAL LIFE Slow-Mo Studio Workout!

However, we know that everyone is working with a different set of abilities, equipment options and amount of space! So, whether you are training in one of our studios, working out virtually with our trainers, or getting in a hotel-room workout session while traveling, we’re here to give you the tools and resources to stay on track so you can reach your fitness goals.

How are we able to promise that?

The principles of exercise remain the same no matter where you workout, or what equipment to use. Before we dive into the different programs we’ve outlined below, the most important things to understand are these:

  • Always use slow-motion protocol
  • Never sacrifice safety, efficiency or effectiveness
  • Work with a Personal Trainer
female client with a female personal trainer on a machine

Sticking to slow-motion protocol:

For over 20 years, The Perfect Workout has been helping people change their bodies and their lives with a revolutionary method of exercise: slow-motion strength training.

Slow-motion strength training involves lifting weights slowly, in a controlled manner, until you can’t do another repetition.

This means that the targeted muscle group has reached momentary muscle failure– we call it muscle success. It may sound intimidating but the goal of any strength training exercise is to achieve this result.

For a detailed explanation of our method, see our article on High Intensity Exercise.

In short, slow-motion strength training is a workout that is short, brief & intense, and requires ample recovery which ultimately creates more positive effects on the body than any other exercise method.

3 Pillars of Exercise: Safety, Efficiency & Effectiveness

Safety is key when performing any exercise. There is no lift, press or pull important enough or worth doing incorrectly that might risk injury. This is where the attention of your Personal Trainer is needed. Even the most seasoned athletes need a coach, someone who can help them see what they aren’t able to and guide them to the goal… especially when muscle success is approaching.

Speaking of muscle success, achieving that ultimate goal of exercise with slow speed and no momentum makes each exercise efficient and effective. A good rule of thumb is to attain the goal in between 1-2 minutes.

female client with male personal trainer in studio

The Value of a Coach

Our Personal Trainers offer more than just a workout. You can expect to get personalized attention, guidance on how to do each exercise, adaptations to the workout depending on your ability, equipment and desired intensity level, accountability, expert coaching, and a friend throughout your fitness journey.

Reminder: Please work 1-on-1 with a Personal Trainer on any of the below programs to ensure you are achieving an ideal workout without sacrificing any of our musts: safety, efficiency & effectiveness!

Below you’ll find four different workout programs that vary depending on the amount of space and equipment you have access to. Why did we put these together?

  • To always keep you on track toward reaching your goals!
  • To ensure you are always building strength and not losing it!
  • To offer you coaching and support no matter what the obstacle is!
  • To prioritize your health above all!

Life will always throw us curve balls that can disrupt our routines and take us off track. We want to give you everything you need in order to maintain your workouts, your momentum and your progress.

The last thing we want you to know is this- There are advantages to working out with machines, but there are more disadvantages to not working out at all.

Using machines, like our Nautilus equipment in the studios have the potential to be safer than free weights because they allow for better concentration which can facilitate a higher intensity level. In addition, many machines provide resistance throughout each repetition's entire range of motion.

So, if you have the option of training in one of our Personal Training studios, that would be an ideal option. If you cannot, whether you are sheltering at home, traveling, or simply don’t live close to our studios… well, we’ve given you a no-excuses approach to getting in your exercise. ?

There are more disadvantages to not working out at all, including:

  • Gaining Fat
  • Losing Muscle
  • Losing Bone Density
  • Decreased Energy & Stamina
  • Increased Mobility Issues
  • Increased Blood Pressure
  • Increased Cholesterol Levels

And so much more!

So.. no workout space? No equipment? NO PROBLEM!

virtual personal trainer with client

SUMMARY

You need very little space or equipment to accomplish a workout that creates body-shaping results.

What you do need is:

To utilize Slow-motion strength training Protocol, taking each repetition to muscle success using slow speeds and optimal resistance when available.

Always practice safety, efficiency and effectiveness when exercising and use those as pillars to guide what types of exercises to do, how to do them and how much resistance to add.

Whenever possible, exercise with the guidance of a Personal Trainer who can coach you to muscle success, choose exercises for you, how much resistance to work with and ensure you are getting in the most effective workout possible.

Remember, you can get in a great workout whether you are just working with the weight of your body and a beach towel or you have full access to our training studios with Nautilus equipment. The magic lies within the method and the coach!

Already working with one of our Personal Trainers? Fantastic!

Not working out right now? Schedule a Virtual Training Session to keep you active at home!

Separating “Exercise” and “Recreation”

Separating Exercise and Recreation

I first read Ken Hutchins’ “Exercise vs. Recreation” article in 1996. I consider his ideas in this area to be some of the most important ideas in the history of exercise thought. They’ve certainly improved my quality of life significantly. And chances are you probably haven’t heard these ideas prior to reading this article. I hope the ideas benefit you as they have me.

In this context, “exercise” denotes activity that is performed to improve the body physically (increase strength, endurance, cardiovascular efficiency, help with fat loss, preserve or increase bone density and lean muscle tissue, etc). “Recreation,” on the other hand, refers to things that we do for fun and enjoyment (which are psychological purposes). In his essay on the subject, Ken identified 5 key differences between what appropriately qualifies as “Exercise” and what qualifies as “Recreation”:

Exercise is Logical. Recreation is Instinctive. Recreation is whatever you feel is fun for you (“instinctive”), whereas proper exercise results from a logical approach of looking at how to efficiently, effectively, and safely load the muscle and joint functions of the human body.

The principles of Exercise are Universal. Recreation is Personal. The muscle and joint functions of the human body are essentially the same for everybody, so the requirements for effectively loading the muscles to provide effective exercise is universal (applies to everybody). In a sense, effective exercise is the same for everybody. Recreation, on the other hand, is personal. What I like to do for fun may be very different from what you enjoy.

Exercise has General transfer to other activities, whereas Recreation is Specific. The benefits of exercise (stronger muscles, more endurance, better cardiovascular efficiency, etc.) will enhance your ability to perform any physical task (including running a race or carrying groceries from your car to your kitchen). Recreational skills are specific to that activity itself, and the motor skills learned from one task don’t transfer well to other activities (learning the skill of swinging a golf club will do little to enhance your bowling game, for example).

The purpose of Exercise is Physical. The purposes of Recreation are Mental. As discussed earlier, the fundamental purpose for exercise is to improve the body physically. Recreation is for fun, leisure, relaxation, etc. (i.e. mental and psychological reasons).

Proper Exercise is Not Fun. Recreation is Fun. Recreation had better be enjoyable for you – that’s the whole reason for doing it! Exercise, on the other hand, is all about loading the muscles of your body in a demanding manner, and that is not fun when you’re doing it effectively. (How much fun is that last, impossible repetition on the leg press?) The results and benefits of exercise are certainly fun, but if the process of exercising is fun, chances are it’s not challenging enough for the muscles to qualify as meaningful exercise.

So what are the practical implications of these ideas? Essentially it’s that only certain versions of strength training (including slow-motion strength training) qualify to be included under a useful concept for the word “exercise.” And it’s not useful to consider other activities as “exercise.” (That doesn’t mean other activities are “bad.” It just means they’re not useful for exercise.)

Significant problems often occur when people mistakenly confuse and mix exercise with recreation. As an example, before becoming more enlightened on this subject, years ago I played a lot of basketball both because it was fun and also because I thought it was good exercise. I now see that compared to the muscular loading generated through proper strength training, basketball provides haphazard, inefficient, and often low intensity muscular loading. As a result, basketball is comparatively ineffective for stimulating physical improvements in my body. Also, the high-force pounding my joints experienced from thousands of hours of running and jumping resulted in me starting to feel the effects of osteoarthritis in my knees at age 23 (much too young for somebody’s joints to start wearing out!). Instead of an improved body, basketball had given me the exact opposite result as far as my prematurely worn out knees were concerned.

I would’ve been better off if I’d separated exercise and recreation, stimulating change in my body from rational strength training, and only played basketball to the degree that it was fun for me (rather than thinking it was something good for me physically).

When I became convinced of Ken’s ideas on the subject and quit all the non-strength training activities I’d previously considered to be “exercise,” I didn’t get stronger or weaker, and I didn’t get leaner or fatter after ceasing those activities. The only difference was my knees started feeling better after eliminating the pounding they were taking from the jogging and other similar things I’d been doing. Exercise for me now is safer and more effective, and the things I do for recreation are more fun because I do them for fun and not because I feel like I need to do them for exercise.

My recommendation is to perform sensible strength training for exercise to improve your body physically, and then make great use of your fitter body to enjoy all of the other activities you like to do for recreation (whatever they may be, including swimming, basketball, running a marathon, badminton, etc.) If you mix exercise and recreation, exercise is less effective as well as more dangerous, and recreation is less enjoyable. Keep them separate, and I think you’ll be better off.

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