Sometimes in our quest to get strong, we can get a few things wrong. Except for bodybuilders or extreme athletes, most of us work out to develop bodies that are highly functional. Meaning, we have the necessary strength and mobility to do what we want, when we want, with as little pain or strain and as much energy and vitality as possible, for our entire lives. But in a fitness culture that still toes the "bigger, faster, farther and heavier is better" line, many of us end up pushing ourselves far beyond what is necessary to achieve functional strength, often risking injury to do so.
How can we evolve our mindset to optimize our exercise routine? First, we need to debunk the major exercise myths that keep us working harder so that we can instead work out smarter.
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Myth #1: You should work out to exhaustion
Yes, muscles get stronger when they are fatigued, but the problem with working to exhaustion is that you often forfeit form and function for the sensation of hard work. Exercising to exhaustion will often cancel out the benefits of your hard work and risks injury that could set you back.
Myth #2: You should hurt the next day
We've all been there, clinging to the belief that barely being able to walk up the stairs is a sign of a killer workout. While next-day pain does indicate that you're getting stronger by fatiguing your muscles, it also indicates that your muscles are not at their optimal resting length, compromising the movement of your joints. Plus, now you have to deal with all the recovery time. Our muscles are meant to move us around, every day, so exercising to this extreme is far from functional and just doesn't make sense.
The false adage "no pain, no gain" should be replaced by a truer statement.
Myth #3: The harder your workout, the better
As we age, we do lose strength, so it's necessary to keep pushing the envelope to some degree to stay healthy and fit. But we don't have to push ourselves to extremes to get the results we desire, especially if it risks causing pain and injury -- slowing us down rather than keeping us going. Again, there seems to be a misunderstanding of how we achieve the gains we want from our workout. The false adage "no pain, no gain" should be replaced by a truer statement like "Little things can make a big difference."
Myth #4: The longer your workout, the better
Measuring exercise based on how long you spend at the gym will give you an incorrect assessment because it doesn't take into account how much exercise you are getting in your day-to-day activities. Every time you carry groceries, take the stairs or play with your kids, you are getting exercise. (Just try a Fitbit for a day, you might be surprised!) When you can measure your activity based on an average day, you can get a more accurate view of how much you actually exercise.
Myth #5: You should always work out with heavier and heavier weights
Keep challenging yourself by using more substantial resistance, but do not underestimate how effective small weight increases are. As always, it's the small things that really make a difference -- in this case, small resistance increases will help you build strength slowly and consistently because your form is less likely to be compromised.
Here are five tips on how to work out smarter and not, as suggested by the common myths above, harder.
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Smart Exercise Tip #1: Educate yourself about posture
Take your whole body into account many times throughout the day and educate yourself about posture. The more you understand how your body is designed to work optimally, the better chance you have at making that happen. When your body parts align and your posture is relatively good, you are pretty darn strong! In this way, you can achieve a sense of strength that feels integrated from head to toe.
Smart Exercise Tip #2: Work to fatigue, but not exhaustion
Pay attention to when you start to feel fatigued and go just a bit further than that. Work to fatigue, but in a range of motion where you feel support in your whole body rather than a buildup of strain. This will help you feel good during and after your workout and allow you to exercise daily, if desired, as long as you vary your activities.
Be aware of your daily actions and make them work in your favour.
Smart Exercise Tip #3: Gauge your workout by how you feel the next day, not by how long it is
Increase the difficulty of your workout in a way that doesn't compromise form and alignment. If you are not getting enough exercise in your daily life, adjust your daily habits, like parking farther from the store doors or taking the stairs. Add a pound of resistance at longer increments to build stronger muscles in a safe and systematic way.
Smart Exercise Tip #4: Turn daily movements and tasks in exercise
Knowing proper alignment and being consciously aware of how you do daily tasks, (like lifting grocery bags or pulling open a heavy door) can turn a movement or a chore into a strengthening exercise. Be aware of your daily actions and make them work in your favour.
In sum, smart exercise that feels great, leads to more energy and keeps you looking great, means paying attention to the big picture. Taking into account how you move throughout your day, what opportunities for strengthening exist at any given moment and when it's time to sweat, not overdoing it so you can get up and do it again tomorrow.
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