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Exercise Tolerance & How to Break the “Cardio Cycle”

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Last week I posted a status update on Facebook about the break I took with my exercise volume the week before. Some of you chimed in and asked about it:

Can you build up a “tolerance” to exercise where your body is no longer responsive?

The answer is absolutely yes.

And furthermore, not only can your body become unresponsive over time with the same duration/intensity, but once you have reached that point, any decrease in exercise volume can quickly add pounds back.  It is almost as if the amount/intensity of the exercise you have been doing is what you now must do just to maintain. WTF?

For most, this is not the case and a few days off of exercise will be sufficient to give the body the rest it needs. But for some, this is most likely the case IF you have been doing consistently long-duration exercise for a year or more. This is also where competitors who are doing multiple shows year-round can end up if their training requires a lot of cardio work to maintain their conditioning.

I know because I have experienced this in the past—and it is frightening—the idea that if you don’t get in your allotted minutes of cardio each day that the pounds will come back on faster than you can sprint on the treadmill.

For competitors or models who have to be “in shape” most of the year, it is easy to fall into the cardio cycle where 1-2 hours A DAY is needed just to MAINTAIN. Ugh! And then in order to get leaner for a shoot or show, you have to add even more cardio, setting a new maintenance level, and usually not possessing the same leanness or hardness as before.

I have experienced this in myself in the past and I have worked with many clients who have gotten into this cycle and in the end, it is unsustainable, miserable and can often distract you from everything else.  The outcomes are many, but for me, one of the worst things about trapping myself in the cardio cycle is that it made me unproductive and I had a hard time focusing on other projects or getting anything else done.  It can occupy all your time and mental energy.  For those of you who say you love exercise so it’s no big deal, fine, but in time, it tends to get old and exhausting.

Isn’t there an easier way?

There has to be—look around you. There are lean, fit people who don’t spend all day exercising and eat clean, just like you do.  These individuals have metabolisms that are more responsive to exercise, food and are most likely more sensitive to their hormones, insulin and catecholamines.

So how to become responsive and re-sensitized again?

The answer is taking time and putting together a strategy to reset the metabolism. In short, systematically introduce a series of calculated steps in a manner that allows the body rest and catecholamine relief.

Here is what I did to normalize my metabolism, get my physique responsive again and free up a lot of time I was missing:

At the time I got to the point where I knew I needed a change, I was doing 2-2.5 hours of cardio 6 days a week and 1 hour on a 7th day.  I was so tired from having to get in all my cardio minutes that I let my weight training slip, maybe doing 1-2 days a week consisting of a half-assed 20 minutes.  I experienced tons of compensatory eating urges, so much so that I was constantly looking for things to nibble on, never satisfied, always cravings sweets.  Here are the steps I took:

1) Keep a tight diet.

90% tight 100% of the time, with room for preemptive cheats 3-4x/week. This part is key—remember that since doing a certain amount of cardio is now needed just to maintain weight at this point, excessive binging and consumption of refined grains and sugar while exercise is scaled back can really pack on pounds quickly.  Your clean diet is the key to controlling this process. Use preemptive cheats to keep you more satisfied so you don’t feel the need to overindulge as a result of deprivation.

2) Expect to gain a little.

This is tough, but inevitable if you want to normalize your metabolism again. When you are caught in a cardio cycle, you are in a constant battle with a body that wants to put on fat—you have essentially primed your body to store fat quickly and effectively—whether it is water or fat and likely some of both.  Once again, keeping a clean diet (I use the Metabolic Effect Diet based on the “Sugar Burner” type) will minimize the rebounding effect when decreasing exercise, which brings me to my next step, which is…

3) To begin, take 2-3 days completely off.

Keep diet tight, and then…

4) Begin back with weight-training and sprints only.

Slow, heavy weight-training with a body-part training approach. Take your time and spend as long as you need to in the gym—upwards of 40 minutes, 4-6 exercises per workout, 3-4 sets each. Here is an example split:

  • Monday – Legs (heavy)
  • Tuesday – Chest/Triceps
  • Wednesday – Back/Biceps
  • Thursday – Legs (moderate & plyos)
  • Friday – Shoulders
  • Saturday – Track Sprints
  • Sunday – OFF completely

This will obviously be a huge change away from hours of cardio, but it is at this point that you must trust the process.  A targeted approach via intense weight-training will help resensitize your muscles to insulin and increase testosterone to help offset potential relative estrogen dominance.

5) After the first week like this, add in 30-60 minutes of slow leisurely walking outside.

NOT power walking. Slow, relaxing walking—this will serve to help lower cortisol and give the adrenals a break.

6) After an initial 8-12 weeks doing the above program (depends on your results/progress), you can begin adding back 20 minutes of HIIT 2-3x/week max.

Including your ever-present track sprints 1x/week.  This is completely optional and if you are getting results on the skeletal program, then don’t bother adding these.

7) Implement other tactics to help lower cortisol and decrease catecholamine output.

This includes doing restorative activities like meditation, relaxing yoga, stretching, walks outside, tai chi, using Yogi Bedtime tea and cutting back on caffeinated beverages. Most of all, rededicate yourself to sleep—aim for 8-9 hours per night. Lowering cortisol will help boost progesterone in women who tend to be estrogen dominant and HGH released during sleep (and weight-training) will help burn fat, build muscle and exponentiate the after-effects of exercise (=more efficient metabolism).

8) Trust the process.

This is definitely a journey, and there will be bumps in the road—gaining, losing, maintaining.  But remember the desired outcome—you want your life back.  You want to be able to maintain your weight and eventually begin getting even leaner, but with less effort and more of a controlled approach.  This was what Jade said to me when I felt stuck: “There will be bumps in the road, but stay the course, stay consistent and re-teach your body how you want it to function—it will work in the end.” This statement gave me permission to be gentler with myself, knowing that if I had to gain a few initial pounds to make this switch, then it was worth it.

I had been using cardio to maintain my physique, thinking that cardio gave me control, but in the end, I realized that the cardio was actually controlling me.  Giving up the reigns was tough initially, but I have never been more happy and in control of my physique than I am now.  It takes patience, practice and trust! Good luck!! ox Jill

This is what my current exercise schedule looks like:

6 days a week: morning walk outside 45-60 minutes, slow/leisurely (usually with a coffee :))
Monday: Heavy Legs
Tuesday: Chest/Triceps, Track Sprints
Wednesday: Back/Biceps
Thursday: Light legs/plyos, 30 min Stepmill HIIT
Friday: Shoulders
Saturday: Track Sprints
Sunday: OFF completely

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