3 Of The Most Important Things About Exercising

Whatever type of exercise you do, there are three principles that govern the effectiveness of all else. Ignore these at your peril. Abuse them and suffer. Embrace them with reckless abandon and at the risk of looking like a fool to the rest of the world, and you may just discover the things you’ve been missing all these years.

1. Recovery

Or, Are you prepared?

This one is so often at the end of a list. That it is so often at the end of a list makes me think people put their most important things at the beginning and then put this in just in case their coach is reading. It’s like a discarded sock. It has a use. Or had a use. But now you want to do something that gives you a burn; makes you more flexible; looks impressive; settles your soul.

But none of those things (I think I said none of those things) can really happen properly without recovery.

Lately, I’ve started the habit of calling this by a different name.


Recovery (preparation) is the most important aspect of everything that involves learning and adaptation. Everything. Exercise involves learning. Learning new motor programs, learning muscle control, learning rules, learning to measure distance and timing, learning to learn. Exercise also involves adaptation. Adapting to resistance by getting stronger, adapting to oxygen deficit by getting fitter, adapting your flexibility, adapting your mental toughness.

Did you know that new motor tasks (movements) spend a lot of time being learnt during sleep? So let’s say you learn a new task, like a new funky salsa sequence. If you sleep after learning the task, you’ll be able to do it better after the sleep. Or after several sleeps, in comparison to if you don’t get enough sleep. That’s recovery.

Or what about your muscle strength? That involves time. Did you know that the majority of muscle strength increases in the first few weeks of training occur because of neural changes? Yep. It’s all about the central nervous system learning how to use nerves to activate the muscles more efficiently. So that means we have to wait for the nerve cells (neurons) to wire together properly. For the brain to learn. That’s recovery.

The growth of the muscle, hypertrophy — the ‘getting big’ part — is almost just an adaptive by-product of the nervous system recruiting all the neurons it can. The body, in its amazing wisdom, then rebuilds the muscles a little bit stronger. A bit of protein here, a splash of connective tissue there and you have a slightly larger muscle. The muscle growth occurs because the body suspects you’re going to push or pull again soon and it might need some more strength behind it. So it adapts. First it adapts the neuron, then it adapts the muscle. And bone.

Did I mention the bone? All those Haversion canals have to come from somewhere, and let me tell you, it doesn’t happen overnight! The bone gets stronger. All those steps on the pavement, lifts on the pull up bar, jumps in front of the basketball hoop, give the body a chance to exercise more wisdom and build the bone’s density and strength. Which, as it turns out, takes time. That’s recovery.

This recovery, as it’s called, is not about making you feel better after training. It’s not about waiting for your muscle soreness to go away or your body to move freely again. It’s not about doing nothing. It’s about getting your body ready for the next training session.

It’s preparation.

Every time you train, you need to get ready for the next training sessions. As an unrelated illustration, imagine going on a long drive. Before you go, you’d prepare. Well, I hope you would. Things like filling up your tank, checking your tyres, checking the oil. You prepare. Get ready. So that when you go for that drive, you know without a doubt the car’s ready to go.

And I invite you to think about recovery that way. It’s not recovery, it’s preparation. The body rewires the nervous system so that in the next session, it can move better, lift stronger, keep you safe, move further. The body changes the protein content of the muscles so they can lift stronger next time. Blood vessels are increased in number, mitochondria increased and red blood cell production upped to allow the body to take in and use more oxygen the next time around. It’s all for the next time. Recovery isn’t a thing you do to feel better after training, it’s a thing to do so that next time, training is better. Recovery isn’t a thing you do because your coach says you should rest, it’s a thing you do because it’s the smartest thing to do. This recovery thing, it’s the bees knees.

And those bees have pretty cool looking knees.

2. Intensity

Or, Should it feel that tough?

Intensity, typically, is about how much energy an activity uses. So running in a 100m sprint is a higher intensity exercise than walking to your letter box. Generally.

But what happens if you had triple bypass surgery three weeks ago? In that case, walking to the letterbox very well could feel like a 100m sprint. Intensity, then, is also a relative term. It’s relative to your experience, to your body’s capacity to exercise today and it’s relative to your emotional state.

Getting the right intensity for an exercise is what will result in healthy progress. If you lift too light a weight, you won’t get any stronger. If you run too slow, you won’t get much fitter. We need to be in the right intensity zone to stimulate the right response from the body.

So intensity is key to getting the results we want.

Let’s not make the mistake, though, of thinking we have to use the same intensity all the time. For example, if you always do activities at 90–100% of your ability, then you run the risk of burning out. Or of injuring yourself.

Intensity, on any given day, needs to be tracked by how your body is feeling on that day. Did you go for an unexpected run yesterday? Did your four year old wet the bed during the night — twice? Did you have three huge deadlines all due this week, as well as some unexpected bills and the extended family stay over for two days more than planned? All of these things affect your capacity for work. All of this impacts how well your muscles can use oxygen, or your nervous system can control your body or the balance of your particular hormonal mix inside your body (training adaptations are so dependent on hormones).

Just because you coud lift that weight three days ago dosen’t mean you can lift it today. So stay relaxed about it. Lift what you’re able to, as close to your goal for today as possible. Run for as long as you’re able to for today. Maybe instead of 10 km you’ll only run 7 km or even 5 km. That’s okay. Because training is not about always beating your self. Exercise isn’t about outdoing yourself. It’s about being kind to your body, giving it a chance to enjoy something, and seeing it develop and grow over time.

If we have too little intensity, then we run the risk of never adapting in the way we want. We stay the same; or more likely, we stay the same and then go backwards. If we have too much intensity, we overload the body and mind, and run the risk of harming ourselves.

Intensity, one of the most important elements of exercise, is something to be nurtured, to be listened to, and to be adjusted based upon how we feel on a given day.

3. Frequency

Or, That is way too much!

The final frontier. This is it. This is where it all goes weird. Imagine a client who’s come into my studio to do some exercise. The time’s come to prescribe the exercise, to discuss how often they should do the program. Were you the fly on the wall, or the mouse rummaging through the paperwork in the corner (Mouse?! Did he just say mouse?!), you might hear something like this:

Me: “So tell me, just as a rough guess, how many days per week do you think you could do the exercises?”

They (fidgeting uncomfortably in their chair): “Oh, I dunno, maybe, um … maybe, like, yeah, probably five or six days of the week,” and mumbling the next part, “I should probably do it every day”.

Me: “So you think you’re saying you could do five or six days of the week?”

They: “Yeah. Sure!”

Me: “Tell me, do you think that’s a realistic goal? I mean, is it really something you think you could achieve every week? In light of the fact that you said you’ve had trouble maintaining any exercise routine for the last 30 years, does it still seem realistic?”

They (wry, awkward smile): “Well, uh,” laughing with slight embarrassment, “I suppose not. Maybe. I don’t know!”

Can you see the issue? People think they have to do the exercise every single day and that right there is a barrier to them exercising every single day. It seems insurmountable. It doesn’t help that my industry tells everyone they need to exercise every single (or most) days of the week and expect people to start there. Why not gradually build the frequency?

You see, frequency of exercise is as important as intensity. And like intensity, people overestimate how much they have to do. They think they have to do the same intensity of the same kind of exercise every single day. But that doesn’t allow for recovery, for preparation, for sound motor learning or increasing in flexibility.

That’s a fine case in point, actually, flexibility. I have had a great many people come to me clinically who need or wish to increase their flexibility. Almost without fail, the people who are most concerned about increasing flexibility are the ones who stretch too much. They stretch every day, or twice every day. Bend over, reach for the toes; stretch the butt, knee to chest; heel to hip, stretch the quads. But no matter how often they stretch, how many times a day, it barely changes. Those toes are as far away as that day you tried to tie up your ice skates — while on the ice. Ouch!

Once we reduce the frequency of stretching, though, and increase the intensity and quality and change the kind of the stretches when they actually do stretch, they begin to get changes. Reduce the frequency, increase the intenisty and its corresponding quality, and you get change. Increase the frequency too much and you get stagnation or worse, harm.

Frequency is something to be monitored. You don’t even have to have the same routine every week, if other things get in the way. It’s about consistency over time rather than millitant concern for doing it the same way every single week. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Seriously.

I mean it. Relax. Enjoy yourself. All of that control you have over your life, that iron tight grip on what you do and how you do it and how much guilt you feel over if you don’t do it right, yeah, well, Elsa and I have the same advice: Let it go!

Just for one week, do it differently. Do it less. Do it lighter. Skip a day. Skip two! Recover. No, don’t recover, prepare. Spend your off days preparing for your on days. Go for a light stroll through the park. Sit on a park bench and soak in the scenery. Watch a leaf blowing in the breeze. Inhale the cool air and be curious about how it feels. Listen to some beautiful music (to you) with earphones on and no one else around — and let your face smile or frown or weep with the music; no one can see you, no one knows you’re doing it, so do it. Feel it. Enjoy it.

Then, after your day(s) of preparation, lowered frequency and intensity, go out and exercise again and see how much has changed. Don’t just do it once, though. Try it again. And again. Sometimes these changes take time; actually, always these changes take time.

To finish, let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Recovery is really preparation for the next day of exercise and it’s the most important thing to do. Intensity is something to be varied depeneding on how your body feels and what you’ve done either side of your workout — so, you don’t have to do the same intensity every single day, you can vary it. Frequency of exercise is to be adjusted according to need — sometimes you need to do more, sometimes less. You don’t have to do lots all the time, that is certain.

And finally, go forth and exercise! One day a week at first. Then two, perhaps. Maybe with a friend on a third day because it’s easier. Stick to that and see what else happens. You may be pleasantly surprised.