Ever looked around your local gym and taken a hard look at the locals? These are the people you see year after year at the gym, in group fitness classes, jogging on the treadmill, even taking toning classes and using machines.
Very few of these people ever look any different.
I was the same—using exercise as some kind of penance for overeating, and then even trying to use it as my primary weight loss tool as I prepared for competition after competition. I’d “diet down” for a show by increasing my cardio volume week after week as my show date neared. The problem was that over time, my body stopped responding the same way—I’d need more cardio each show, and even then, the quality of my conditioning wasn’t as good—I’d be soft, bloated, flat and puffy, despite doing more and more.
I spent a lot of time confused as to why doing more was not bringing me linearly better results. And then exercise turned into a control mechanism—something I had to do or else I felt like I’d blow up and gain 50 lbs in a week. And eventually, I started hating it. Hours at the gym, sometimes three times a day, only to look the exact same, and then come home and try to white-knuckle my way through cravings for the other 20 hours of the day.
And then, about 5 years ago, I got pissed, resentful and straight-up miserable. I was literally crying to my husband about it, and he’d say, “Jill, just stop, pull back, don’t do as much.” But I felt imprisoned in this weird obligatory relationship with cardio, and if I did stop or pull back, everything would fall apart.
Something I’d once loved was now a full time job.
So why do we continue to do the same exercise–and even more!–when we are not getting any better results and we also feel like a slave to it?
The first reason is because we tend to choose the devil we know over the devil we don’t.
Humans are funny—we prefer to continue to doing something in the face of it not working, but that we’re comfortable with, then try something new that’s a little uncertain.
Familiarity breeds trust and safety. At least we know it’s not working, ha!
This comes down to control again, doesn’t it? So long as we see all the angles and things are predictable, then we feel secure.
The second reason is because we the old calorie model is still ingrained in our brains. Yes, calories matter immensely but to think that sitting on an elliptical reading a magazine for an hour or two has no perilous consequences is short-sighted.
Sure, you are burning calories, but here’s where hormones come in. The intensity, mode and duration of your exercise impact both anabolic and catabolic hormones, things like HGH and testosterone, and cortisol and catecholamines, respectively. These chemical messengers have implications for how the body looks, how it functions and whether it will grow in certain places or you will lose (muscle or fat) in certain places.
Thinking that all exercise is created equal is a mistake.
And that’s why years and years of more and more moderate intensity exercise will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. Like Dr. Jade Teta, founder of Metabolic Effect says, “More is not better, better is better.” Your body doesn’t continue to respond to the same exercise, just more of it, ad infinitum.
And the potential detrimental effects of more and more exercise are real: increased cravings and hunger, unstable energy, an extreme mental preoccupation with diet and exercise, significant muscle loss, injury susceptibility and just plain old hating your life.
At least that was the reality of working out 3+ hours a day for me. Ugh.
So, is there a better way? Absolutely. If you are just courageous enough to try! Most aren’t. We’d rather be certain that something is not working than risk trying something new of whose effectiveness we’re unsure of.
But those who are brave enough to go against the old models of the “more is better” mentality will see that a combination of shorter workouts, higher intensity and greater rest/recovery is the ultimate mashup for physique results—not to mention, you get your life back.
The SPRINT Model: 6 Key Tools for Better Physique Results in Less Time
These are unfortunately out of order, but hey, for the sake of a nice and clean acronym, hopefully you’ll excuse me ;) The acronym SPRINT stands for short, protein, rest/recovery, intensity, nutrition repletion and train heavy.
S – Short
Not only do your training sessions need to be short because spending all day the gym is no way to live, but when you do shorter workouts, they are also more psychologically satisfying and you have the mental bandwidth to push harder. You think, okay, well I don’t feel like training, but I know that if I just do 10 minutes, I can make those minutes count.
Back when I was personal training people for 60 minutes, I’d have people cancel all the time. Of course they did. Canceling an hour-long training session at 7pm was irresistible when you’re mentally exhausted, chips and salsa are waiting for you at home, and your trainer has a punishing 60-minute routine waiting for you. No thanks, bye! But 30 minutes you can handle. Twenty minutes? No problem.
Finally, short workouts are actually more effective for body change, again because of the intensity factor. When you exercise longer and at more moderate intensities (and you’ll naturally have to), especially cardio, the hormonal response of the workout is different (marked up an elevation in unopposed catabolic hormones) than when you are doing shorter, more intense and weight-training-centric workouts (more anabolic response via HGH and testosterone). Maximize the hormonal situation by keeping things 40 minutes or less.
P – Protein
In order to maintain your lean body mass while exercising intensely, you need to keep your protein intake up. Not extreme levels or to the point of obsessively counting and measuring, but eat protein at all meals—at least some. I don’t care if it’s 10g or 40g, just stay aware. Most women who are exercising with weights should be getting at least 100g/day from various sources.
R – Rest and Recovery
The only way intense exercise can remain sustainable and the body can continue to respond depends entirely on the amount and quality of your rest. I know it sounds cliché, like, “Gotta get your rest! Duh!” But so many women don’t listen because they power through, try to be Superwoman and try to train intensely day after day sometimes ignoring the fact that it’s not working or they’re feeling worse or they’re experiencing symptoms of overtraining. I know because I was that control freak, Type A personality that was trying to do just that.
But the metabolism doesn’t work like that.
Remember the catecholamines? Adrenaline and noradrenaline. And cortisol? These are metabolic gas pedals, fat (and sometimes muscle)-burning hormones released from the adrenal glands required during movement (sympathetic nervous system response).
Catabolic hormones don’t just keep pumping out ad infinitum without consequence. The more your body calls on them to be utilized, the more the body taxes the nutritional building blocks of these hormones. This is a super simple explanation of eventual adrenal fatigue, which becomes a chronic condition. The molecules that are required to synthesize the hormones need to be replenished (nutritionally) and your adrenals need to be given some downtime. This is called ‘toning the adrenals’ and you might have learned it in school as the parasympathetic response.
Your body needs both the yin and the yang to continue to perform optimally and continue being responsive to intense movement.
My favorite restorative activity is leisure walking. I do it 1-2 times a day, for an hour, nice slow walking. This lowers stress and helps the body recover. Of course, adequate sleep and implementing other stress-reducing activities (massage, hot baths, meditation, journaling, orgasm, reading, etc.) is important. Not to mention taking days off!
I – Intensity
It’s no surprise that intensity impacts results. The more intensely you train, the more force you put on the body to respond.
But your ability to actually train intensely depends on a few things: time (workouts need to be short), recovery (only push when you have plenty of downtime), nutrition quality and having a level of self-awareness required to understand how “intense” feels for you, since it’s subjective based on your own rate of perceived exertion.
I am a huge fan of Metabolic Effect’s Rest-Based Training concept: resting as much as needed during the workout, no set right periods. Research shows that when exercisers are in charge of their own rest intervals (duration and intensity), they push harder overall. This is in line with general research on autonomy and self-responsibility.
In general, you want to think about intensity in two ways: level of breathlessness and level of muscular demand/exertion. You can reach muscle failure without getting breathless, and you can get out of breath without feeling any muscle exertion.
The aim is to generate both at different times during your workouts. Not the whole time, but sometimes. Once you reach breathlessness or muscle burning/fatigue, rest until you can do it again at the same intensity. This is a kind of self-generated interval training. And it’s individually tailored to you. It’s critical that you learn and listen to your body in order to do this safely.
N – Nutrient repletion
Your diet (not meal-plan diet, but literally the way you eat) needs to support your movement. More intense exercise will require diligent repletion. Protein is important for muscle maintenance, but a full range of healthy fats and starches are needed to refuel, keep the metabolism at full responsiveness, and help with vitamin and mineral absorption.
In fact, one overlooked piece of the nutrition puzzle is micro-nutrition: vitamins and minerals. If protein, fats and carbs are the kings of the metabolism, then these are the molecules at their beck and call—needed to help PFC be metabolized optimally.
Of course the best and ideal way to get these babies is through a high fruit and veggie diet. Here are the sneaky ways I increase my veggie intake. These are nonnegotiable when you are training consistently and intensely.
But in general, taking a good multivitamin, high quality omega-3 (here’s mine) and probably magnesium and l-glutamine (an amino acid that aids both the GI and muscle recovery, especially in advanced level exercisers) are worth it. Supplements are just that—meant to supplement a diet rich in variety anyway—but for those training intensely, it’s an important consideration.
T – Train heavy
I don’t care if you are a 15-year old boy or a 65-year old woman, your muscles need to be taxed enough to respond. And that happens through progressive overload.
Will you turn into The Hulk? No. But what you will do is add lean, feminine curves, while also taking off inches in other places. Not that you have to change your body at all, but if the goal is to improve health, body composition and performance, then you can’t get away from weight training, especially with a heavier weight than what is comfy.
So many women ask me, “But what is heavy??”
It’s subjective. Each person is different. Jen Sinkler will squat 270 lbs after not doing it for 6 months, while someone else will PR at 65 lbs. Totally fine and perfect. What is key, however, is how heavy something feels for you. And you need to build up slowly so that your movement stays controlled and safe. Building a base of strength primes neuromuscular movement patterns, changes the shape of the body and allows for you to add weight safely over time.
Buuuuuut in general, ladies, you can lift more than you are giving yourself credit for.
My mom—I love her—defaults to 8 lb dumbbells always. Sure, for some movements they’re sufficient, but not for things like squats, rows, step-ups, etc. Most of us can add 5-10 lbs to what we have been using and still be safe and in control. Have body awareness and actually think about how each exercise is feeling in the moment, weight-wise. I’ll do lateral raises with 15 lbs but Arnold presses with 30 lbs. Both are shoulder movements, but have different lever lengths and recruited muscles. Have some self-awareness and increase if you can, even for just a single set.
Your body responds when you challenge it ;)
But yes, be safe. Yes, have great form, and build your strength slowly so that you can handle more weight. But I truly feel like the message of, “Add some weight, baby!” is not happening enough. You’ve got it. Know your body, move with control and stay aware.
That’s it! The recipe for shorter workouts (30 mins or less) and better results (intensity is key, but only if sustained through things like nutrition and recovery): SPRINT.
There are a million considerations when it comes to your nutrition and training, but if the goal is to change the shape of the body, then you cannot get away from intensity in your training, and in order to do that, you need to keep things short and with plenty of recovery. Do a few key things well and consistently, rather than changing things up every day, and your body will respond.
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