Key Sessions

Are You Training Too Much?

Exercise physiologist Michael Olzinski explains why focusing on two key sessions each week can unlock your best body.

For those in pursuit of body perfection, two-a-day workouts — a trend documented by The New York Times last Sunday — are increasingly becoming the status quo. Yet in fact it's those extra sessions that may be what's derailing your training goals. One exercise physiologist explains why in this case, less is more:

You’ve heard the expression “You can achieve anything if you work hard enough at it.” It’s certainly true in some pursuits, but in the gym, too much sweat equity is more likely to leave you exhausted, uninspired and smack in the middle of a plateau — both a physical and mental one — rather than admiring your accomplishments in the mirror. Just consider the person at the gym every day, panting and dripping as he talks about his killer workouts, all of which belie a body that looks exactly as it did three months ago. Chances are, after a while, you’ll see him less and less.

Can you blame him? Sustaining high-intensity workouts most days not only can over tax the body, it saps ambition and enjoyment of exercise and can keep you from your ideal physique. On the other hand, research suggests excitement for physical activity directly correlates with increased levels of fitness. One way to get both: Retooling your routine using the concept of Key Sessions: two intense, go-all-out workouts per week, with the remaining three or four focused on prepping for those body-changing main events. The approach isn’t simply about doing less, it’s about changing the way you think about each session and your routine as a whole so that you’re physically fresh and mentally pumped for your most important workouts.

This technique, which some of the world’s best athletes use, works no matter your goal. After an intense weights session, for example, muscles need about two days to regenerate and repair. Work them again too soon and rather than rebuilding stronger and denser, they stay the same or even decrease in strength. A similar phenomenon can happen with fat-burning cardio. When the body reaches a new, high level of intensity, new capillaries form to deliver more blood to working muscles. Similarly, the nervous system recruits more muscle fibers, eventually making us more balanced, fluid and powerful. However, on a fatigued or unprepared body, these improvements are less likely to occur. What else can happen, especially with cardio junkies, is adaptation. Maybe you’ve been hitting the treadmill hard three days a week and taking two Spin classes a week for a few months, but aren’t getting leaner. Your body likely made all the changes it needed to long ago, and at this point it’s so used to the routine that it has begun to conserve some energy during your workouts rather than burn extra calories.

As far as the mental benefits of a Key Sessions approach, seeing ever-increasing results keep you motivated, of course, but so will re-thinking your “prep” days as exactly that — essential workouts that make your favorite sessions more effective and more fun. That automatically gives those easy days or your least favorite workouts (those that you don’t like but are crucial) more of a purpose, helping drive you to keep at it.

Ready to make over your routine in the Key Sessions model? Here’s how:

Align Key Sessions with your goals. What is your top reason for working out? If it’s to lose body fat, for example, your Key Sessions might be a hard interval run on Tuesday and a Friday morning cycling class. If it’s to pack on muscle, schedule two intense weight training days.

Fill in the blanks. On the other days of the week, choose workouts that directly enhance your Key Sessions. For example, to prepare for high-intensity cardio and enhance fat loss, strength training is a must; it allows your body to handle increasing impact and helps rev metabolism. On the other hand, if packing on muscle is your goal, spend your prep workouts improving mobility and technique so that during your hard lifting days, you can focus on pushing your body, not a bum shoulder. 

Change it up. After a few weeks, speak with a trainer about how your Key Sessions can progress. As you get stronger or adapt, your workouts need to become increasingly challenging to avoid plateaus, and a professional can help you figure out the most effective way to go about it for you.   

Soon, you’ll notice how you look forward to those Key Sessions, showing up to the gym ready, eager and excited to give it your best effort. Embrace that feeling of athleticism and enjoy your well-earned results. That’s the way to keep yourself truly engaged and excited, and it’s how the fittest people in the world get there and stay there.  

Photography by Matthew Brookes/trunkarchive.com