Exercise Challenges – Why?

This post is co-authored by Andrew Dowler (AEP, ESSAM) from Move EP

We’re sure you’ve seen these exercise challenges floating around the internet and gyms, such as:

  • 300 sit-ups in 30 days
  • 250 squats in 25 days
  • 100 push-ups non stop

They’re really interesting, like most things in fitness there are good and bad elements to these challenges. Depending where the individual is coming from, in terms of physical fitness and mind set, they can be pretty cool, or downright dangerous.

Let’s take a look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

What’s Your Goal?
First up, consider why you are doing the challenge, what you want to achieve, and whether this aligns with your goal. Many of the challenges are marketed as ways to change your body shape; they feature pictures of the abs, bums, and arms of fitness models. These challenges are NOT going to make you look like that. There’s a lot of false advertising happening, let’s get that out of the way first.

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This squat challenge will NOT give you ‘1 new ass.’

Secondly, the challenges are largely grounded in endurance. Consider whether it is relevant for you to be able to do 100 push ups, a 5 minute wall sit, or 120 crunches. If your answer is yes, awesome. If not, consider a different sort of challenge that encourages you to engage in a more helpful activity such as increasing your squat weight or running for longer.

These challenges often appear as a simple way for people to begin or increase their physical activity. We are big fans of getting people exercising and having some fun whilst doing it. But, it’s vital you’re safe, injury-free, and able to exercise for longer than just a 30-day challenge.

Overuse Injuries
If these challenge were re-titled “How to create an overuse injury in 30 days” then we could at least acknowledge the program is being honest. Recently, a friend of mine showed me a challenge she has just started with her friend. It begins with a modest block of:

  • 10 sit-ups
  • 10 crunches
  • 10 double leg lifts
  • 10 seconds plank

By the end of the 30 day challenge the program has progressed to:

  • 120 sit-ups
  • 120 crunches
  • 80 double leg lifts
  • 120 second plank

If someone approaches this program with a good base abdominal strength, then this sort of fitness challenge may be appropriate to encourage rapid progressive overload. The challenge might be really motivating, a bit of fun, and a 2 minute plank really isn’t that hard for the top-end fitness folk.

The problems begin when inactive folks go from nothing to high-volume, high-loading exercises in such a short window of time. For the untrained individual 120 repetitions each of sit-ups and crunches is placing a huge amount of compressive force through the lumbar vertebrae. The double leg hip flexion generates very powerful torques into the lumbar spine, essentially loading up the back in the hardest possible way without the aid of equipment. Then we finish with a 120 second plank, when we have already fatigued the primary spinal stabilisers. This results in gravity and tight hip-flexors pulling the lumbar spine into flexion, again loading the lower back. By the end of the 30 days, there is huge potential for a lower back injury. This is further exacerbated if the individual is unfamiliar with correct exercise technique and form.

30-Day-Plank-Challenge-The-Lemon-Bowl

This is how NOT to do a plank, it is how to give yourself a sore lower back.

Form = Functionality
This is always a good mantra to keep in mind when performing any type of exercise. Technique is vital and as challenges are often designed to promote muscular failure, an individual’s movement patterns may suffer.

If punters out in exercise land are already familiar with the move involved in the challenge, and have a good ability to maintain technique whilst training into fatigue, they will find these challenges, well challenging. They will be able to take their body into the zone of progressive overload to illicit local muscular fatigue, and thus generate a training adaptation.

But someone new to exercise, or who hasn’t performed the moves before, will most likely not have developed the sense of control to enable them to reach fatigue whilst still maintaining good technique. When this occurs poor posture and alignment will develop in the movement, and instead of working the target muscle group, alternate muscles will begin to compensate, with stress placed on joints and soft tissue structures. Getting injured makes it hard to keep training, and consistency is absolutely key to achieving any goal.

Think Good Stress, Not Distress.
Exercise is all about placing positive stress, or eustress, on the body to promote physiological change; it’s how we get fitter. However, too much stress can lead to injuries and, for untrained folks, these challenges have the potential to do just that. The body takes time to adapt to changes; for example, tendon and ligaments become strong over periods of months, not weeks. A high-volume, high-frequency routine, no matter what mode, fails to give the body a chance to really adapt to the forces and stresses it’s experiencing.

The body is as strong as it’s weakest link, and any exercise that combines intensity with volume will b  ring out any physical or physiological weakness. When soft tissues are placed under loads they cannot tolerate they really have two options:

  1. Break;
  2. Realign position to take the stress away.

1. Soft Tissue Damage.
When we exercise we cause micro-damage to our soft tissue structures, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and fascia. During recovery the body repairs and regenerates, making it slightly more adaptable to the stresses we place on it. Challenges that are structured with no or infrequent rest periods are dangerous as they don’t allow this healing to take place. We know gains are made in the rest days, because that’s when the physiological and anatomical change happens. The actual training session is just the stimuli to create change. When we keep performing the same movements, with progressive overload and minimal recovery, it’s a recipe for soft tissue injury that can put someone out of action for weeks. Not cool!

We need to understand the body is not a machine, but rather a bio-energetic organism that responds to a whole plethora of stimuli. With training stimuli, it needs to be proportionate to produce change at a cellular level, but not degrade the cells. If this happens it’s commonly known as over training. For the already fit and conditioned, short, structured blocks of heavy training may be programmed into a per-iodised program. This would include a de-loading phase to allow the body to fully recover and adapt to the exercises.

Periodisation requires a good understanding of exercise prescription, training volumes, and loading. This type of expertise will not be found in 50 cent iPhone app, Facebook post, or random website.

2. Developing Muscle Imbalances
Every muscle in the body has an opposite muscle (antagonist) which produces a counter movement. For example our biceps flex the elbow, the triceps extend the elbow. For the body to move with functionality both of these muscle need to work in unison. In other words they have a synergistic effect. If we train one aspect of the synergy whilst neglecting the other, we create a muscle imbalance. This can be in the form of:

  • too strong;
  • too weak;
  • too long (hyperflexible);
  • too short (hypomobile);
  • poor motor patterning (neural control);
  • poor compensatory patterns;
  • and/or poor posture adaptations.

Many of the exercise challenges train a single movement pattern, muscle group, or action, without also training its opposite muscle group (antagonist), leaving the potential for any of the above imbalances. If the non-stop push-up challenge was part of a structured program that included posterior chain exercises, such as a type of rowing action, and was periodised, supervised, and progressed accordingly then you are heading in the right direction.

Unfortunately we suspect most people who read these challenges do not receive the correct guidance and instruction to perform these movements safely. How do we know this? Because we often find ourselves working with clients who have developed injuries following these challenges.

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If you’re going to do this challenge, be safe with it, use it for a bit of fun, but not your sole form of training.

Quality vs Quantity
There is a trend in fitness to thinking more intensity and volume is better than quality training. Those who do train at the higher end of thresholds and intensities learn how to periodise their training. These exercise challenges may encourage severe overtraining syndromes, which in short term may provide some performance gains, but over a longer scope create negative changes.

On the other hand, if the challenge was to be structured to meet the individual’s capacity, then the challenge can be an excellent tool to help promote two very important aspects of achieving fitness goals: motivation and compliance. Any personal trainer will tell you that finding the ‘inner spark’ that motivates their clients to keep training is essential for fitness gains.

A well-structured challenge can be an excellent addition to a well-planned training program. We recommend these be 4-8 weeks, as this is often perceived as achievable by the client, with an end point where they will have some form of measurable result. A good challenge can also aid in compliance, giving the person an exercise task to do regularly reinforces positive habits. It also allows enough stimulus and adaptions to occur so the individual will notice some changes, thus reinforcing their efforts are actually producing a result.

Providing people with wins in their training will increase their self-efficacy and lead to improved exercise drive. Once folks get a taste of exercise success, and learn it is achievable, then we can slowly break down barriers to performance.

Our Advice
The key to a successful exercise challenge is to provide an individualised approach which will enable the person to complete the challenge injury free, with positive exercise adaptations. For those already in the health and fitness trenches you may only require a snap shot to point you in the right direction. For those just gearing up, you will need guidance, supervision and support to ensure a positive result. Get in touch with an exercise professional and have them set up a motivating and fun challenge for you that is grounded in safe exercise prescription.

For more on Andrew Dowler and the services he offers check out his website and Facebook page.

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