Less Is More: Why Short, Intense Workouts Yield Better Results
Tired of spending long hours in the gym? Have trouble sticking to your workouts because they take too much time? Less is more when it comes to exercise. A long workout doesn't necessarily mean better results. On the contrary, it can hamper your progress and make it harder to reach your goals.
When you’re exercising, you might be trying to build mass, lose fat, or improve your overall conditioning, keep your workouts short and intense. With this approach, you'll get better results in less time.
Understanding Your Body's Energy Systems
The "less is more" approach makes perfect sense when you think of how your body uses energy. You see, there are three primary energy pathways in the body: the aerobic, anaerobic, and phosphagen (ATP-CP) system. The latter serves as an immediate source of fuel - we're going to focus on the first two.
The aerobic system provides energy for long distance running, swimming, steady state cardio, and other low-intensity activities. It provides your body with the fuel needed to sustain operations lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. This system relies on oxygen.
For example, when you run on the treadmill or do lots of reps with light dumbbells, you’re using the aerobic system. This energy pathway utilises glucose and glycogen as fuel to resynthesize ATP. If your muscle and liver glycogen stores are depleted, fat can be used for energy.
The anaerobic system, or glycolysis, provides energy for medium to high-intensity activities, such as weight training, soccer, baseball, and HIIT. Any intense action that lasts from 30 seconds to about two minutes will utilise this energy pathway.
Unlike the aerobic system, glycolysis does not use oxygen for fuel. Instead, your body breaks down carbs in the form of either muscle glycogen or blood glucose to form pyruvate and produce ATP molecules. Therefore, the pathway produces very little energy, but you'll get it a lot faster.
The aerobic system produces byproducts that cause fatigue and leave you feeling drained. Glycolysis, on the other hand, doesn't have this effect. This means that you can quickly refuel and resume your workouts after a short recovery period.
Why Does It Matter?
What do you want out of your training program? To feel weak and tired or to perform the minimum effective dose to get stronger, move better, burn fat, and build muscle - all while saving time? Most likely, you're going to choose the second option.
If your goal is to get leaner and stronger, anaerobic training is your best bet. During aerobic exercise, your body can sustain itself by using oxygen. It doesn’t require additional energy from another source, such as stored fat.
Anaerobic exercise, by comparison, doesn't utilise oxygen. As a result, your muscles begin to break down glycogen, leading to higher lactic acid production. If your glycogen stores are low, stored fat will be used for energy.
High-intensity workouts with short rest periods between exercises and sets increase your body's demand for oxygen even after you're done training. This process is known as EPOC or exercise post oxygen consumption. Elevated EPOC levels lead to a higher metabolic rate and more calories burned. You might be familiar with the so-called afterburn effect, which is the same as EPOC.
After training, your body undergoes a series of processes that aim to restore its pre-workout state. As a result, it will use more oxygen than usual, which in turn, raises your energy expenditure.
If you lift heavy, your metabolism will go up for hours after exercise. Training at high intensity will further increase your metabolism and trigger the afterburn effort.
The result? More calories burned and increased fat loss.
Steady state cardio can trigger the afterburn effect too. The downside is that it will take longer compared to strength training and high-intensity workouts, which tap into your body's anaerobic system. Furthermore, cardio skyrockets your cortisol levels, leading to fatigue, sluggish metabolism, and low testosterone. In I.C.E sessions at Creighton Personal Training, we regularly have rest intervals to ensure we stay in the anaerobic state!
Both fatigue and low T levels can hinder physical performance. You'll get tired quickly, feel hungrier than usual, and experience mood swings.
Elevated cortisol also slows your metabolism and messes up the hormones that regulate appetite. In the long run, it promotes fat storage, especially in the abdominal area. Not to mention that your body adapts to exercise and becomes more efficient at using energy, so you'll burn fewer calories. When a person is overweight, this is the last thing they need to get the results they want!
High-intensity workouts have the opposite effect. They rev up your metabolism, torch fat, and boost exercise performance. Due to their short duration, they're unlikely to cause fatigue. Sure, you may feel tired immediately after exercise, but you'll recover much faster than when you do cardio.
Tap into Your Energy Systems for Fat Loss
Studies confirm that short, intense workouts are better for fat loss compared to low and moderate intensity training. HIIT, for instance, is just as effective as cardiovascular training but takes less time. Therefore, you're more likely to stick to it.
The "less is more" approach can be applied to strength training too. Let's take chin-ups, for instance. You don’t need to do a ton of reps to build strength and power. A few reps done with perfect form will yield better results than dozens of reps with poor form. High-rep training is more likely to cause fatigue and increase injury risk. Plus, your body will adapt faster and you'll stop making gains.
Use your body's energy systems to get better results from your workout! With high-intensity training, you'll gain strength and endurance in a fraction of the time. A more efficient metabolism, increased energy expenditure, and faster gains in muscle size and strength are just a few of the benefits worth mentioning.
Just because you're spending long hours in the gym, it doesn’t mean you burn more calories. It's workout intensity, not duration, that matters. Plus, intense training burns calories during and after exercise. With cardio, you only burn calories while at the gym.