Why "Crushing" Your Workouts Is Making You Fat

general health strength training Oct 09, 2023
Holly Perkins
Why "Crushing" Your Workouts Is Making You Fat

If you want to lose weight, improve energy, look more fit, or simply feel better, crushing your workouts could be making you fatter, wiping you out, and leading to systemic inflammation.

While it’s inconvenient to be tired and heavier than you should be, chronic inflammation is the bigger concern, as it is linked with the very diseases you’re trying to avoid.

If you’re “crushing” your workouts but feel like your body is getting weaker and softer, it’s probably because you’re violating an important rule called the Acute Chronic Workload Ratio. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard this term before, because very few, if any, of my colleagues are talking about it.

In this episode you’ll learn why your hard workouts aren’t working for you, and why finding the right workout intensity is the key to unlocking your healthiest body ever.

If you believe that you’ve got to work out hard in order to become fit…this episode is for you. 

I’ve helped thousands of women transform their body so they feel tighter, stronger, and more energetic. Clearly, this isn’t an easy task - if it were, you’d be fit and lean right now. The truth is, creating a smaller, tighter, leaner body is a bit tricky for women, especially if you’re over the age of 40. 

I’m incredibly blessed to work with some clients for an extended period of time, and I’ve had the chance to work with a few repeatedly over a number of years. It allows me to learn her physiology so well that I actually know her body better than she does. Dianna is one of those clients and I’d like to brag on her for a minute because she’s a glowing example of what happens when you get your workout intensity right. 

After working together twice, Dianna came to me last year because she was really struggling to decrease her body fat, and increase her lean muscle. Now, this story is extra interesting because Dianna has a degree in exercise physiology - like me - and is way more knowledgeable than most people. Using her own knowledge, she was able to drop some weight and made some definite progress towards her goal, but she got to a point where the progress stalled out despite her true and honest efforts. That’s when she called me. Right away I spotted a trend that was preventing her from moving forward: Dianna believed that the more she pushed herself, the faster she’d reach her goals. 

I noticed that she had a tendency to work out more, or harder, than I had advised, and as a result, the scale stalled.

She got into a cycle of what I call “crushing then crashing” and she would experience bouts of extreme fatigue. Instead of crushing her workouts, I guided her to pull back a bit, ease up on the workouts, and do “less” in general. It really didn’t take long for Dianna to start making progress again, and in a very consistent manner. Being a good student, Dianna kept tracking charts and graphs of all of her metrics and we’re now able to nearly predict exactly when the scale is going to drop next. As of this week, she has lost nearly 23 pounds and will be in the 120s soon. On top of that, she also increased her muscle mass, so that 23 pound-loss on the scale translates into more than 23 pounds of body fat lost. Her primary goal was weight loss, but to me, the bigger win is that 1) she has gained lean muscle mass and 2) she’s way more fit than ever before and 3) she’s over 60! She’s on her way to being the leanest she’s been in her adult life and she looks younger and healthier than ever. 

Dianna’s success is because of several factors including her commitment, attention to detail, willingness to be coached, and some real patience. That all being said, without a doubt, she started seeing consistent and sustainable progress when she stopped “crushing” her workouts.

So let’s review why this is, and what you can do to ensure the right intensity for your workouts so you can become leaner without the risk of triggering the biology that causes your body to store fat.

The first thing to understand is that “hard” workouts don’t necessarily lead to a hard body.

Boy, if I had a dollar for every time a client comes to me believing this! Thankfully, I personally learned this lesson early in my career. I remember in my twenties, I was living in New York city and working as a trainer at La Palestra. It was a super motivating environment and I wanted to be performing like an athlete all the time. So every day I’d show up for a workout and push myself to the edge because I thought that’s what would make me stronger, leaner, and faster - at the time I was running a lot. I’m stubborn, so it took way longer to figure out than it should have, but I finally started noticing that I’d “crush” my workouts two days in a row and then be out of juice on the third day. I’d try to push through the sludge on that third day, and by the fourth day I’d have nothing left in me and would be so wiped out, hungry and dealing with serious sugar cravings. I’d feel defeated and broken, and it would take another 10 days before I’d recover enough to start over again so I could try again to crush every workout. And another cycle of the same would start. I started to think there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t able to perform the way I thought I should. And, I wasn’t getting leaner! In fact, I had more fat back then in my mid twenties than I do now, at 51! The truth is, there was something broken: my mindset about what quality workouts should look like.  

Hard, grueling, or “crushing” workouts aren’t what’s needed to get a strong, fit, lean, or more athletic body. It is important to challenge your body beyond your current ability, so stay with me because in a minute we’re going to very specifically define how hard you should be working. But first let me explain why it is that “crushing” your workouts might actually be stopping you from burning off the extra body fat that you don’t want or need. First: when you crush your workout - either a tough spin session, a killer bootcamp class, or even a brutal day of deadlifts and squats - your body  experiences the physical demand as “stress” and responds by elevating cortisol.

Cortisol is a what’s called a gluco-corticoid hormone and is released by your adrenal glands when your body senses stress of any kind. That could be emotional stress, environmental stress (like mold in your home, or extreme temperatures), or physical stress like a car accident, or, a hard workout. Cortisol is actually a very beneficial hormone when it’s used only as needed and then allowed to recoil. Unfortunately, most of us confront stress in some manner every few hours, every day, all the time. Chronically elevated cortisol impacts nearly every organ and tissue in your body in a number of ways, but specific to this conversation, get this, cortisol: 1) slows metabolism so as to conserve energy (ie calories) 2) increases blood sugar by draining your stored glycogen and 3) therefore, preserves fat in case it’s needed during your state of stress. All of this means that if your workouts are too intense, your body will store fat rather than release it for use during your workout - which is what we actually want. Additionally, workouts that are beyond your current ability trigger systemic inflammation, adding to any inflammation that might already be present. While inflammation is a requirement for building better muscles, it’s important to manage it. In a perfect world, you’d work out just hard enough  to trigger the remodeling process, but not so hard that you add a significant amount of inflammation to your already pro inflammatory life. 

There was another time in my life, in my 30s, when I discovered a very popular bootcamp class here in LA. All the cool kids went there and a client wanted me to go with her. This bootcamp class prides itself on crushing people and making it an extreme workout.  I loved the challenge of it and the community in general, so I got hooked for a while. After about two months, I noticed that my body fat was going up, even though I made no other changes to my diet! Now, I wasn’t going there to get ripped - I was going just because I loved it. But I certainly didn’t want my body fat to go up! And in particular, it was my belly fat that was most noticeable! Not good! Now listen, please don’t hear this and think that you should avoid hard workouts altogether because that’s not true either! If you don’t challenge yourself beyond your current ability, you’ll never become stronger, or faster, or more athletic. The key here is for us to define what “hard” means! Now, I could get super technical here, but I’m going to try and keep it simple.  I’ll give you the scientific explanation, then I’ll give you my easy to grasp way to look at it. In the field of athletic training, performance, and physical therapy, there is a concept called the Acute: Chronic Workload Ratio. It is a mathematical calculation of sorts used to compare the value (ie intensity) of a current workout to the value of your current fitness level. It’s a scientific way to say, “Is today’s workout a safe and effective intensity in relation to your current fitness (which is the result of your workouts up until today). I’ll give you an example: Let’s say you’re a runner, and for the past several months you run 2 miles every Tuesday and Thursday at a reasonable pace. Your body is accustomed to this “workload” or intensity, if you will. Then, let’s say that your friend asks you to run a marathon with her this weekend. There is a big difference between 2 miles twice per week and 26.2 miles! I think you can imagine what would happen. You’d probably not finish the race, you’d be so wiped out you could barely walk, you might even pull a calf or hamstring, and you’d be so hungry for 10-14 days after. In short, the activity is just way too much for your current ability. This is why we use the Acute (the intensity or workload of today’s workout) to Chronic (your fitness level) Workload Ratio to determine what “hard” means. A reasonable workout for me might “crush” you, just like a reasonable workout for Serena Williams would crush me. It’s tempting to think that if I do what Serena does, I’ll be as fit as she is, but that’s not true. Serena got there over a number of years and incrementally harder training phases. The fastest and best way for you to become stronger, leaner or more athletic is to gradually and incrementally increase the challenge of your workouts - whether that’s measured by intensity or workload.  And it’s important to make sure your workouts are hard, but not too hard.

In college I took an incredible class on the history of athletics. It was taught by this amazing old man in his 80s who was so passionate he would get up on his desk and jump and scream and demonstrate things about Ancient Greece. I loved him. He got on his desk one day to tell the story of Milon of Croton, an athlete in ancient Greece. He wanted to become stronger to improve in his sport of wrestling, so he started carrying a baby calf up a mountain every day. As the calf grew, Milon became stronger. If Milon had jumped immediately from carrying a calf to carrying a full-grown cow the next week, he’d probably get injured, or at the least be super sore and wrecked afterward. But because of the cow’s slow growth Milon became stronger. This is progressive overload and the ACWR at work.  

So if you want a slightly scientific answer here without all kinds of confusing considerations, let’s use the example of running. If you run 2 miles twice per week, we can call that your chronic workload of 4 miles. If you go run a marathon today, that would be the acute workload of 26 miles. Your Acute: Chronic ratio would be 26:4 which equals 6.5. Now, if you go run 4 miles today your Acute: Chronic ratio would be 4:4 which equals 1. The most effective ratio is somewhere between 1 and 1.2 but could be up to about 1.5, although I never program that for my clients. Now, if you want an easier way to estimate this without trying to assign measurement to things like deadlifts or yoga classes, you want today’s workout to be about 20% harder than the average of your workouts last week. If you slowly work a bit harder, week after week, just like Milon carrying his cow, you’ll become better without cortisol getting triggered. “Hard” workouts don’t lead to a hard body. Workouts that challenge you just a bit are the key, especially if you’re a woman over 40. 

It’s a mistake to try and “crush” every workout.

What I’ve found with my clients is an alternating approach where you challenge yourself every other workout. Today’s workout can be 20% harder than last week’s, but then tomorrow’s workout should be back at the ACWR of 1 which means tomorrow’s workout is about the same as last week’s. And then you can repeat. This gives you 2 to 3 workouts each week that are about 20% harder than the average of your workouts last week. Now if you’re someone like me who gets heady and wants to measure and be precise on the calculations here, you can do that. But take it from me that 1) it’s not necessary and 2) it’s nearly impossible anyway, unless you’re in a laboratory setting. Instead, just use your gut and estimation on the intensity and plot out your workout, highlighting which are the ones where you’ll work harder. 

To summarize… In the simplest form, because of cortisol, if you’re crushing your workouts every week and aren’t seeing an improvement in your body composition, this could be why. It is indisputable and has been proven in research over and over: chronically elevated cortisol increases belly fat - and body fat in general. This isn’t my idea or observation, this is fact. The name of the workout game is to work hard enough to spark change in your body, but not so hard that you spark cortisol. 

If you feel like you’ve tried everything and your workouts don’t seem to work the same as they used to, or maybe you even feel like you’re getting “fatter” ask yourself if you’re pushing too much in your workouts.

At this point, I’ve helped so many women create ideal body composition and get into impressive fitness, that I can say with complete certainty: You can have the body you want. It is absolutely possible to become stronger, or leaner, or more fit, or even just feel better. It’s just a matter of the right strategy. And yes, you too. My client Dianna is 63, has some really tricky physiology, had kids, has a husband, and has a career. If she can do it, I promise you can too. 

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