That Time I Exercised Less & Got Stronger


Yep. It's true. I exercised for less time, at a lower intensity for two months. And I feel better. I sleep better. I'm fitter. I'm stronger. I can feel muscles I haven't felt in years. My knees don't hurt. Everything changed when I changed my workouts. Here's what I did... I wrote a post a couple of months ago about how I suspected I was over-training and needed to decrease the intensity and length of my workouts, and add in recovery days. You can read it here, if you missed it. What I didn't make clear in that post was just how scared I was of doing that.

Doing what, exactly?


I switched from 60+ minute workouts 6-7 days/week to 30 minute workouts 5 days/week with a couple of days of active recovery on the non-workout days. Active recovery meant either a 30-minute dynamic stretching routine or a 35-minute "pre-hab" routine. The latter was a series of movements that took my joints through their full ranges of motion and incorporated some stretching movements as well. The idea behind it is to prevent some of the common injuries we get by making sure that your body is flexible and balanced enough to respond to the demands of daily living and of regular exercise without breaking/tearing/straining/dislocating anything.

The 30 minute workouts all included cardio--some days were designated just for cardio, but the strength training workouts were circuit workouts, so even during resistance training my heart rate was up in a cardio zone.

Just because I decided to try this doesn't mean I was completely sold on the idea though. As I said, I was scared when I started.

Scared that I would lose muscle mass. Scared that I would lose strength. Scared that I would be less flexible. Less fit. Less in control of my body.

I wondered if I would gain weight.

I wondered if I would feel challenged enough by shorter workouts.

I honestly wondered whether I'd stick to it for the full 6 weeks.

But I did. And here's what happened...

I got stronger. I know this because when I started, the advanced modifications were too difficult for me to complete. By the 8-week mark, where I am now, I'm able to do many of those modifications and I've been able to increase the weight of the dumbbells I use.

I can drop further down into squats. Exercises that used to bother my knees, don't so much anymore because my glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps muscles are stronger and better able to support my knees.

I gained muscle mass. Maybe lost some fat as well. Probably a little of both. Not sure. But I do know that I began to notice that my biceps and shoulder muscles were more visible when I moved my arms around. Muscles in my legs, specifically my adductor and abductor (inner and outer thighs) became more defined. I could see them, not just feel them.

The workouts were shorter but they were challenging. I never finished one and thought, "well, that was easy." I finished them with shaky legs and rubbery arms.

I don't know whether or not I gained weight. I don't own a scale and I don't weigh myself. I may weigh more now, depending on how much muscle I gained (muscle weighs more than fat) and a host of other factors. I don't honestly care about the number that much. But I feel really good and strong. My clothes fit. And I've noticed good changes in the shape of my body.

I feel like I gained a ton of positive things from this and didn't lose anything out of the deal. My plan is to continue with this schedule, switching out some of the workouts and playing around with the order of workouts each week. Variety is important, both so I don't get bored and so my body continues to have to adapt to new challenges.

It's working really well for me, which means it's improving my health and quality of life. My body was in rebellion when I made this switch and now I feel like it's working with me not against me.

I don't know where you are with exercise--whether you're just starting out, thinking about starting, totally content with your workout schedule, or over-training like I was. I hope you've got a healthy relationship with your workouts and that they make you feel confident and strong! That's how it should be.

But the reason I wrote posts about my experience is that when I was doing too much, reading articles by other people who had dialed-back on their workouts resonated with me. And because it resonated with me, I thought it meant something. It got my attention. It made me think that maybe something was off. Those articles gave me permission, in a way, to change. If you're in a similar situation, maybe this post will resonate with you. Maybe some changes are overdue in your own workouts.

Or maybe you'll check-in with how you feel about your workouts and decide they're working really well for you. Yay! Or maybe you'll decide your workouts aren't challenging enough. That what once was tough is now really easy. That you haven't upped your weights recently or tried the advanced exercise modifications in your favorite exercise DVD, and you'll decide that you should.

The point is that no workout or workout schedule is so sacred that it can't be revised. Changing things up can be really good for you, mentally and physically. Keep checking-in with your body and your attitude toward your workout. Give yourself permission to make adjustments. You can try new things, new schedules, new intensities and if they don't work for you, try something else.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to leave comments or questions below.