How Much Exercise Do You Really Need to Get Fitter?

Pete Ross

Photo by Alexander Redl on Unsplash

Unfortunately in society when we talk about fitness or getting fit, we often think of something like this:

We’ve seen so many montages from the Rocky movies and so much Crossfit footage that we assume to “get fit” means that you have to join a gym and annihilate yourself every training session, to the point you’re lying in a puddle of your sweat and questioning the reason for your existence. If your lungs aren’t on fire with sweat pouring out of you, you’re just not training hard enough and your workout isn’t useful.

No wonder people see it as an impossible goal and struggle to even take the first step.

I have good news for you though. Believe it or not, the reality is actually a far cry from this mentality. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get fit walking to the mailbox every day, but as is often the case, the middle path is far more effective than the extremes.

What does it really mean to “get fitter?”

Unfortunately the general population sees fitness as the domain of athletes. They see their performance levels, not to mention their ripped 6-pack and assume that’s what fitness means. As someone who has competed nationally in judo and strongman, I can tell you it’s not.

General training as an athlete? Sure, you should be focusing on sustainable improvement. The reality for most athletes though is in the lead up to a competition (which is often at least four times a year) your training volume is high, your diet is restrictive to ensure you make weight, and you feel tired most of the time. Sometimes you feel exhausted.

That kind of living requires a single mindedness that minimises the effort you are able to give at work, to your friends and to your family. That’s not fitness. It’s actually an all encompassing pursuit, which is the reason I got to the point that I decided I wouldn’t do it anymore.

Assuming elite athletes are the definition of fitness is like assuming an F18 Super Hornet is the definition of flight.

The bottom line is that being an athlete is about performance in a single sport, it’s not about fitness, health or longevity.

A realistic definition of increasing fitness would be:

  • Decreasing your resting heart rate, meaning that your heart is stronger
  • Increasing your mobility so you can move freely
  • Increasing your muscular strength and endurance
  • Improving your VO2 max

You can literally do all of those in a very low key, sustainable fashion, without having to train so hard you’ll puke. You can even do them all at the same time.

My counter-intuitive data that proves this

I don’t compete anymore, but I use a WHOOP tracker, which measures cardiovascular fitness by heart rate variability. Using it as a guide, I’ve been able to balance my training very effectively, to the point that I can train for up to 12 days straight without needing a day off. Unfortunately COVID19 and isolation began in March, which is where my discovery begins. Usually, I alternate days of weight training and a bit of cardio at the gym with days where I rock climb. Isolation meant neither of those were an option.

So I began running 3 times a week, with a couple of days of lifting weights in a friend’s garage. The main difference between my regular training and running was that running put a very high strain on my heart, and I’d need a day off after two of my harder runs each week to recover. You’d assume that pushing my body so much harder on those runs would mean that I got fitter — that seems logical. After all, the harder you train, the fitter you get, right? It certainly did improve my run times significantly. But fitness? Well, that’s a different story:

You can see from January and February that most of my training was in the “restorative” zone. HRV adaptation was increasing, indicating my fitness was improving. The drop in HRV adaptation for March was inevitable, as this was when everything got thrown out the window in terms of routine due to the start of isolation. Now take a look at April and May — the two months where I was running really hard. Most of it is in the upper end of the “optimal” training zone, but my HRV adaptation kept going down. What?

And now we get to June, where for the last 2.5 weeks, I’ve been back to regular training. My tracker considers it mostly “restorative”, but even after that short an amount of time, my HRV has improved immediately. I suspect the improvement will be significant with a full month.

So what does this tell us?

The reason my regular sessions are defined as “restorative” by my tracker is that even though they are far longer in duration than a run, my heart rate stays much lower. Here is what my typical data looks like:

Rock climbing: Max HR 161 bpm. Avg HR 100 bpm. 1–2 hrs of duration. Each climb is maybe a minute in duration, with rest in between each.

Weight training: Max HR 171 bpm. Avg HR 117 bpm. 1 hour duration. Fairly continuous, but there is walking to and from each exercise and I’m never too out of breath.

Running: Max HR 188 bpm. Avg HR 159 bpm. 23–40 mins constant duration.

Bear in mind that my resting heart rate (RHR) when awake is 55–60 bpm. So while the 100–117 bpm of climbing and weight training might seem low, it’s double that of resting. An average of 159 bpm is triple my RHR.

How that plays out in terms of how I feel is vastly different. The running sessions I was pushing myself to the limit and needed a recovery day afterwards. Sometimes two. Regular training, I finish my climb or gym session and feel a little tired but good. I could go and do another session later in the day if I wanted to, I can play with my daughter, I can do anything else I need to do. Even better, I’m ready to go the next day. I don’t need a day off.

Now, I’m obviously a sample size of one and this is far from a scientific experiment, but it does force me to draw some very counter-intuitive conclusions. First of all, getting fitter is not about pushing your body as hard as it can go, or even close to as hard as it can go. The harder you push your body, the longer it needs to recover. That means that when you trash yourself working out, the day/s afterwards are effectively useless for you not just in training, but as a human being because you’re tired, sore and nowhere near your best.

Gently nudging your fitness though? That seems to be incredibly effective. My training program these days focuses only on small improvements each session for that reason. For my gym sessions, I don’t increase the weight on every exercise every session like I used to. Each session, out of the 6 different sets I’ll do, I might increase the weight of the top set only on two of those 6 sets. Here’s what that looks like:

All sets are 12 reps

  1. Chest flys (lbs): 60, 100, 135, 150, top set 185 x 3
  2. Abdominal roll outs: 5 sets
  3. Hack squat (kgs): 50, 60, top sets 70 x 3
  4. Dips: 3 x 12
  5. Reverse hyperextension (kgs): 20, top sets 40 x 3
  6. Back extension: 3 sets at 5kg

So next week, I’d do 2 sets of the chest flys at 185, and the last set at 210lbs. The hack squat I’ll do 2 sets at 70kg, and then do a final set at 75 or 80. That’s because there’s no need to move the weight up on every single exercise. Doing that is going to require much more recovery. The beauty of making the last set of the two main exercises slightly heavier is that it makes the remaining exercises more difficult anyway, so you don’t need to increase the weight.

Training like this means you walk out of the gym feeling pretty fresh, you can sleep well because you’ve been active and you’re ready to go the next day. Effectively, you’re ready to go all the time. Even better is the fact that the small increase in weight means the difficulty of the workout increases so slightly that it’s almost imperceptible. Yet you’ve gotten stronger and fitter regardless.

That’s really what we’re after as humans, isn’t it? The last thing you want is to do a huge training session and then the next day feel exhausted at work or unable to play with your kids, just trying to get through the day. That’s going to become unsustainable very quickly.

How can you use this?

The great news for you is that it means getting fitter is actually much easier than you think. You don’t need to join a gym and start smashing yourself, you just need to be nudging yourself a little harder each day. That’s why whenever people come to me wanting a training program, the first thing I tell them to do is walk more. It’s so unintrusive because all it requires is finding opportunities to get up and move around, like parking your car farther away, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or going to the bathroom at the other end of the floor rather than the one right near your desk.

What we’re looking for is a minimal effective dose. Most people think of “getting fit” as working out really hard two times a week. The data shows that isn’t effective. A far better aim would be to get more movement in every day of the week. The results will be much more impressive. Imagine that right now, you’re getting 3,000 steps a day. Make your first goal an extra 1,000 steps per day each week until you hit 10,000, which is very easily done. You don’t even notice the extra effort, and if anything it gives you more energy, rather than requiring any.

Where to after that? Well, what do you like? You don’t have to join a gym. Maybe you play tennis a couple of days a week. Maybe you can get your heart rate up enough playing soccer with your kids on the weekend. The point is, just because you aren’t sweating it out at a Crossfit box, doesn’t mean that you aren’t having a very positive effect on your health.

Look to the greatest powerlifter of all time

Ed Coan’s career in powerlifting isn’t just amazing because of the ridiculous amount of records he broke in multiple weight classes. What is truly remarkable is that he managed to compete for 20 years in a sport where the athletes are lifting gigantic amounts of weight that take their toll on the body. Coan was rarely injured and just kept getting stronger and stronger.

He did this by using the method I described above. It’s common for athletes, especially strength athletes, to need a “de-load” week, where they back the weight off to give their body a rest. Coan never needed this. He trained far below his maximum and kept consistent to his programming. If he was feeling really awesome, he didn’t train harder and if he wasn’t feeling so great, he didn’t skip the session. He just stayed consistent.

That kind of logic flies in the face of our typical attitude that you need to go all out and train as hard as you can. More is always better, harder is always better. What Coan and my WHOOP tracker has shown is that it’s simply not the case.

So if getting fit has been something you’ve always thought of as too hard, it’s time to wipe the slate clean. Do a bit more this week than you did last week, and keep doing it until you’re happy with where you’re at.

It really is that simple.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.


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