Pushing your body to its limits can help get you fitter quicker
We humans are an adaptable bunch. So are our bodies. The more exercise you do, the fitter your body becomes. However, if, like us, exercising for increasingly longer periods of time would mean other, more vital bits of your time - like sleeping - being sacrificed, then progression can suffer.
But there is another way. Pushing yourself harder during each workout can mean you spend less time in the gym, but still feel the benefits. It's what personal trainers like to call "working out of your comfort zone".
A study carried out in 1996 by sports scientist Professor Izumi Tabata found that training outside of your comfort zone or, to use the technical term, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) - four times a week achieved the same benefits as someone who trained five times a week doing, steady, long-duration cardio work.
In addition to making fitness gains, stepping outside your comfort zone can also positively impact motivation, says Richard Scarlett, a freelance personal trainer.
"It has been proven that those following a varied, challenging programme are more likely to adhere to it than those doing the exact same thing week to week. This is because by engaging in a diverse, progressive routine, not only will you see impressive results in the mirror, but psychologically the gym will no longer feel like a chore."
But, what is training out of the comfort zone, how should it feel? "A good test is the central nervous system should be knackered after a workout," explains Richard. "So, if you can hold an intelligent conversation, muscles feel fine and you can walk normally straight after a workout, you didn't train hard enough!"
Step one: lose familiarity
The first step, says Richard Scarlett, is to move away from exercises you have been used to doing to give your body a shock. "Bear in mind a change that is too drastic can throw you off course and cause some people to lose sight of their initial fitness objectives," he warns.
Do you prefer to just work your upper body? Do you love cardio and hate weight training? Are there certain muscle groups that you avoid like the plague? Working out the areas you normally train, can help to identify those you're ignoring.
Another area you can consider altering is changing the days you go to the gym - this forces the body to re-adapt to a new set of stimuli, improving your performance in the process. Another easy change is to add in a cardio or weights session to mix up your regular routine.
You could also experiment by changing the number of reps and sets that you do. Strength trainers typically do low reps of a very heavy weight - so switching to high reps at a lower resistance will start to introduce an endurance element to the workout, which is something that can be very challenging for someone not used to that approach. On the flip side, an endurance trainer could try throwing in some exercises for strength for a similar effect.
Building a workout
The workout should train all the major muscle groups - legs, back and chest - to ensure the whole body is working hard. Each session, says Scarlett, should increase repetition or the weights you're lifting by 2-5% each time to keep your body from adjusting too quickly. Bringing down rest times in between each exercise is also a good way of increasing workload.
Richard gave us an example of a total body workout have he gave to an actor client who had to bulk up, tone and get fit for his character in the movie Clash of the Titans.
"Heavy squats. For the right amount of weight, it should be roughly how much you weigh. After the first set of 10 reps, hop straight into front jumps. If you have access to a weight vest, put this on, or alternatively, grab some dumb-bells. To do this, stand with feet roughly shoulder width apart, use your arms in a swinging motion bending your knees and jumping forward. Do this for 10 reps, rest for one minute and repeat the above for four sets."
"Bench press. You should be aiming for six to eight reps for five sets. So if you've done bench presses before, you'll know getting to the eighth rep should be a struggle. Once you've done that grab a set of bar bells (start with 15kg) and do 10 pec fly exercises. This involves lying on a bench, arms stretched up, palms together, and lowering you arms until they form a cross shape. The elbows should be slightly bent but not too much as to lessen the impact. If you're not completely exhausted after the first set, try adding in 10 handclap press-ups to really give your chest a full workout.
Next up, move into wide grip pull-ups - instead of working primarily your biceps, which the traditional, narrow grip press-ups do - these work the muscles of the upper back as well as the core.
Aim for as many as you can in one go. Scarlett says "If you can do 60 on your first try, give yourself a pat on the back. Once you've done that, head over to the treadmill, put the incline up to the maximum and do 10 30-second sprints with 30 seconds rest in between."
One of the key things to training out of your comfort zone is circuit training, ie lots of exercises one after the other.
Scarlett recommends 100 Muay Thai kicks against a punching bag or, if you've got a friend or training partner, with pads.
To do this, place your non-kicking foot forward, with your kicking foot pointing outwards. Rotate on your toes with your kicking foot rotating your hips as you do so. Your kicking leg should make contact with the top of the foot, and the knee should be bent to allow flex.
Follow this up with 20 kettlebell snatches. If you've never done these before, it's worth getting someone to show you the correct technique first. After that - if you're still breathing - 30 squat thrust press-ups on a medicine ball. This is a standard burpee with a press-up built in. Do this 30 times, and then repeat the circuit for 10 minutes.
If you can't do all these in your first try - never fear, reckons Scarlett. The trick is to introduce these elements into your regime incrementally, to help keep you motivated and your body crying out for its comfort blanket.
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