Lack of results is a major reason people stop using a trainer, and the fault may be because we are overtraining them. We all know that a good workout plan should have a combination of aerobic and anaerobic (i.e. strength) training. A good rule of thumb, for most people, is about a 50/50 split, but that depends on their goals, their level of conditioning and the specific type of training that is being targeted.
When we overtrain, we hamper the body's ability to release growth hormones, including testosterone, IGF-1 and DHEA. The overproduction of the stress hormones, cortisol, adrenaline (epinephrine) and norepinephrine limit growth hormone production.
We oftentimes think that exercise is stress-reducing, but it really is a double-edged sword. Low intensity training (walking) is truly stress-reducing for almost everyone. A high-intensity jog, spin, aerobic or boxing class may help you de-stress mentally, but the higher the intensity of the workout, the more stress hormones are produced.
Aerobic Exercise - Not Truly "Aerobic"
Aerobic exercise, exercise "with oxygen," is stress-reducing and triggers aerobic metabolism. As the intensity of the walk, jog, swim, cycle, etc. increases, the available oxygen decreases and suddenly causes the aerobic activity to trigger anaerobic metabolism, which is stress-producing.
This is one of the biggest reasons clients hit a plateau; they unknowingly overtrain! We think we have them on some type of balanced workout of aerobic and anaerobic workout routine throughout the week, but the facts could be that we are having them do their aerobic workout at too high of an intensity level, such that we are triggering anaerobic metabolism.
Egos Get in the Way
Anaerobic strength training should be intense, but aerobic training should be at a low to moderate intensity so that aerobic metabolism is activated. I have clients and patients telling me they do their aerobic workout at 80-85% of their maximum heart rate, which would be fine if they were an upper level or elite runner. But most of them are not, which means they should be keeping their heart rate at 70% or lower of their maximum heart rate when they do their aerobic workout.
A difficult thing for some people to understand is that you don't need to kill yourself when you are doing a good aerobic workout. The more difficult thing is to get them to slow down or lower their intensity when they do aerobic exercise.
If your client has been stuck on a certain weight and is struggling with other nagging issues, such as fatigue, allergies, high blood pressure, joint pain, digestive difficulties, cravings, mood swings or PMS, it could be another sign that their body is over-stressed. Remember, exercise is a form of stress. Strength training and activities that trigger anaerobic metabolism cause an increase of stress hormones, which can eventually lead to adrenal burnout and exhaustion.
A Simple Rule of Thumb
I ask my clients and patients this question: "After you finish your 20, 40 or 60 minutes of whatever, could you repeat the exact same workout at that moment?" If they say, "No way, I'm spent," that is an obvious sign that they are not staying aerobic because they should be able to do true aerobic activity for an extended period of time. If they can easily say, "Yes, I can repeat that workout without a problem," they are probably staying aerobic and triggering aerobic metabolism.
Watch that Heart Rate
The best thing you can have when doing aerobic exercise (besides a good pair of shoes) is a heart rate monitor. Only well-conditioned elite athletes can perform aerobic activity at 80% or above their maximum heart rate. The average VO2 max of many of these elite athletes is about 80-85%, which means they can elevate their heart rate to 85% of their maximum heart rate and still maintain aerobic metabolism. This is critical because when you maintain aerobic metabolism, your body can burn stored body fats for energy, and the body produces two and a half times more energy when it breaks down fats for energy instead of carbohydrates and proteins (lean muscle). When you cross over the aerobic threshold, your body begins to burn lean muscle and carbohydrates for energy, which is counterproductive when trying to reduce body fat.
After we determine what heart rate range we want them stay within, typically around 70% (220 minus their age, multiplied by 70%), I recommend you tell them two things. First, have them walk, jog, swim, etc. at their normal rate and see what their heart rate has normally been during that session. Second, tell them to run, jog, swim, whatever as fast as they want to - but don't let their heart rate exceed that predetermined number. Notice how different their speed or level of exertion is. Ninety percent of the time, they will open their eyes to the fact they have possibly been overtraining. They're producing too much of their stress hormones. This explains why they haven't been able to lose those extra pounds.
Let's not be guilty of "shooting ourselves in the foot" by causing our clients to overtrain. Use a heart rate monitor to help gauge the intensity of workouts. Keep their aerobic workouts at a lower intensity and their anaerobic workouts intense. If on occasion they just want to do a more intense aerobic workout because they want to feel the wind blow through their hair, that's fine. Just remember the name of the game is balance. I like to think of it like dieting; sometimes you are just going to splurge on your diet, so let them splurge on their aerobic workout. You can also implement "interval" training, which is the best way to help increase the VO2 max. But be careful how intense you make it for some clients because it could be more than their body can handle - and we don't want to literally be killing them!
Dr. Len Lopez (www.drlenlopez.com) is a nutrition and fitness expert, the author of To Burn or Not to Burn - Fat is the Question and inventor of The Work Horse Fitness Trainer. He is the host of Action Steps for Health and a frequent guest on radio and television. His approach to health and fitness is based on TEE-times: Time, Energy and Effort.