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Doing “Less” for Better Results

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We are all taught from an early age that more is always better. We’ve all stayed up later than we should have watching just one more episode of TV. And of course, we all strive to make more money than we have now. Naturally, this also rings true in our mentality toward training. We look for every way we can to increase training volume. We aim to add more weight on the bar every time we hit the gym. We even try to see if we can get away with training more frequently throughout the week. After all, we can train twice a day, right?

This more is better approach seems great in theory. As long as we can handle more training, we should stand to gain a lot more. More muscle, less fat, and superhuman performances in the gym that is! However, this is where people often make a critical error. In reality, this approach will reach a point of diminishing returns. And dare I say that you will also reach a point of negative returns if you aren’t careful. Training more may help us get better in the short term, but somewhere along the way, something has to give.

Before you get angry with me for telling you to do “less,” hear me out. I’m not necessarily telling you to do less to better your health. What I am saying is that taking a myopic view of our health and fitness isn’t the most effective strategy. If being in peak physical shape was as simple as just training more, then why do so many people spin their wheels and fail to reach their goals? In reality, there are other things we should be doing besides training in order to bolster our results. This is especially true when those things help us to recover more efficiently and completely. So, I’m going to let you know why it may be better to scrap that extra workout in favor of something more beneficial.

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Recovery Is King

What do you think would happen if you were to exercise non-stop from sun up to sun down every day? You might think that you’d be in peak physical shape. Perhaps for a while, you would be in great shape. However, beneath the surface, your overall well-being would be deteriorating slowly. Your fitness would shine for a while, masking the toll this behavior was taking on your body. But eventually, things would break down. Maybe you’d develop some overuse injuries. Or maybe you’d even develop some sort of chronic disease. It’s no mistake that many burned out crossfit games competitors suffer from autoimmune disorders like Lupus, and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

You see, our body is dependent on rest and recovery in order to maintain both optimal health and optimal performance. Therefore, a delicate balance exists between the training stimulus and our recovery capacity. Many of us can fool ourselves into thinking that we are recovering from our training. This is because our body is able to make up the difference for a while when you give it too much. Do this for too long however, and issues start to pile up.

With this in mind, let me say that training too far beyond our recovery capacity actually leads to less efficient results. The theoretical all day exerciser I described above would actually be in better shape if he were to limit his exercise to a more manageable amount. Now, there are times when it is okay and even necessary to “overtrain” or overreach, but the key there is limiting the amount of time that is spent in that phase so as to not do an unrecoverable amount of damage. As a general rule of thumb though, it is always better to rely on more recovery as opposed to more training.


How Do We Recover?

It is a little known fact that your training can only help you if you are able to recover from it. In that way, your training is only as good as your ability to recover. Think of it sort of like a rate limiting step in a chemical reaction. It doesn’t really matter how fast the supporting reactions take place. The overall reaction will only go as fast as the rate limiting step will allow. Put in training terms, it doesn’t really matter how much you train because recovery is the rate limiting step. If you are able to make your recovery more robust, you make the overall training effect more robust as well.

So how exactly do we recover? Well, we know this as our rest/off days from the gym. This is the time we give ourselves to stay away from the gym and let our muscles grow. This is of course a very effective form of recovery. As I discussed above, you want of make sure you are getting enough of these rest days. For some people this might mean having three or four rest days per week. Yes, you may actually have to rest more days than you train depending on your individual circumstances!

Before you go up in arms about this, let me say that you don’t have to lay around doing nothing on these days. This is something that people struggle with as far as rest days go. They feel that it’s just a day where you have to be bored, but you might want to start thinking of it as part of your job if you want to perform well. And the good news is that you can still be somewhat active on some of your rest days. Going for walks, swims, hikes, and bikes are great recovery tools. The key is keeping them low intensity so that you don’t do more harm than good. Yoga, stretching, massage, and even prehab type movement flows are also great for recovery. These modalities will also keep your joints and connective tissues healthy which helps you stay in the game longer.

You can also make your recovery better by taking care of your mental health. We know that stress has a big impact on the body. Just about every client I’ve had has been affected by stress at some point in their training. Doing simple things like reading a good book, listening to good music, or even conversing with friends/family can help bring down our stress. Additionally, meditation/breathwork has a great impact on overall wellness for most people. If you have access to a sauna or a hot bath, the exposure to high heat for 20 or so minutes can help to improve mood and decrease feelings of stress. And finally, you will want to make sure that you are getting a good 7-9 hours of sleep. Otherwise you are selling yourself short on both performance recovery and overall health.



When it comes to getting the most out of your training, more isn’t always the answer. All of us hit a wall in our training at some point. Most will respond by trying harder to push through that wall. But for many, the solution lies in moving to the side and going around the wall. And for some, taking a step back is the key to moving forward again.

As such, making your recovery a priority is key in long term success. You are only as good as the rate limiting step. In the grand scheme of training, recovery represents that rate limiting step, so it’s about time you start attacking your rest days with the same discipline that you exhibit in the gym. Getting the most out of your rest days will only serve to make you better for your workouts. So, rather than look at rest days with disdain, apply the various modalities I have mentioned and start reaping the rewards that only come with maximized recovery!

About the author

About Andres Vargas
Andres Vargas

Andres is a strength and nutrition coach and the owner of The Strength Cave, an online fitness coaching company. He holds a Master's degree in Exercise Science and is currently studying for a PhD in Sport and Exercise Science. His goal is to blend science and real world application in order to provide the best...[Continue]

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