Yesterday, we discussed the importance of finding immediate value in your workouts. This makes exercise more enjoyable and more effective, and it also makes us more likely to want to do it. When we find intrinsic value in our workouts as they’re happening, exercise stops being a chore that we have to do to achieve some far off-goal, like lose weight or stave off disease or live longer. It becomes a meaningful, even pleasurable activity with instant returns. All you have to do is find a way to reframe your workouts. Many people reframe their workouts by turning them into games, working out with a group, focusing on the physical sensations of training, or taking them outdoors to enjoy the nature setting. Those are great ways to do it, but there’s another method: the breakthrough workout.
Everyone knows that improving one’s fitness requires sustained, consistent, progressive training. You can’t do a heroic workout every couple of weeks or months and hope to make a big difference. This doesn’t mean that our bodies “wait” until you’ve logged a week or two of steady exercise to start adapting to the exercise, though. The adaptation to training begins immediately after a single bout of exercise. String enough of them together, and you get the adaptations that we know, love, and want: bigger, stronger muscles; body fat loss; improved cardiovascular fitness; and better overall athleticism. Consistent workouts are necessary because you get the cumulative effects of adaptations to those individual workouts.
This means, of course, that one workout alone isn’t enough, but it also means that those individual extraordinary efforts can elicit incredible results when laid on top of a consistent training schedule. I call these breakthrough workouts.
When I was a triathlete, I gained more fitness benefit from a single 100-mile ride in the mountains than perhaps ten rides of 20 or 30 miles pedaling along flat terrain. That ride pushed my limits and forced me to draw deep from the well of human performance, and I got more fit after recovering from it. The workout immediately after it was easier than the one preceding it. But here’s the thing: both the 100-mile mountain climb and the routine 20-30 milers were necessary. If I wasn’t working from the base provided by the easier rides, the breakthrough workout wouldn’t have done much for me. And if I tried to switch things around by stringing together a bunch of 100-mile mountain climbs, I wouldn’t be able to recover quickly enough to do them regularly.
A breakthrough workout is one that is difficult and challenging enough to stimulate a fitness breakthrough. They come in assorted forms depending on one’s fitness goals. An endurance athlete can have a breakthrough workout of running or cycling longer than they ever have before. Or, if an endurance athlete is used to clicking along the miles at aerobic pace, a high intensity interval session can qualify as a breakthrough workout. Anything that’s an extraordinary effort. Anything that requires you to do something you’ve never done before.
Consequently, other workouts are then categorized as “break even” workouts or “recovery” workouts. Break even workouts are your typical session that helps to support/preserve current fitness level. This is the base work. A recovery workout is one that is easier in perceived effort than a baseline effort and used specifically to get the body moving and blood flowing to promote recovery and healing without getting stiff.
Way back in 1988, when I coined the phrase “breakthrough workouts” in my book Training and Racing Duathlons, my primary focus was endurance training. And though the notion of the breakthrough workout originated in the context of my endurance training, it can still be applied to other types of exercise.
Take your average strength trainee using barbells and following a basic linear progression. LP is perfect way for beginners. You’re consistently getting stronger and hitting PRs every single workout. It’s empowering while it lasts. But you can’t add five pounds to the bar forever. Once that stops and you hit a sticking point, it’s time to introduce breakthrough workouts. Maybe instead of sticking to the standard 3 sets of 5 reps in the back squat, you do an unbroken 20 rep set with a reasonably heavy weight once a week.
Even a casual fitness enthusiast should design their exercise program with a sensible balance of stress and rest. Going out and doing the same thing every day, such as walking 2 miles at a steady pace or going thru a sequence of 8 machines at the gym for 12 reps each is certainly better than sitting at home on the couch and provides a great activity base, but after a while the body will adapt to a rote regimen and fitness progress will stall. We need to push the boundaries to get anywhere.
In some cases, a “consistent” exercise strategy can even trend the exerciser into a chronic pattern, even for a relatively casual fitness enthusiast. For example, taking a couple spin classes each week, doing a weight circuit another day, and doing a weekend play effort sounds like a sensible approach, but on certain weeks or months the body can become overstressed and fail to benefit from one’s “regular” routine. It’s better to challenge the body occasionally with breakthrough efforts – huge acute stressors that you then recover from.
What does this mean for you? Why are they so helpful?
There are the physiological changes, to start. There are no studies specifically examining breakthrough workouts, but there is a ton of literature showing how adaptation to acute training sessions begins immediately after just one workout:
- Blood markers of endogenous antioxidant defenses against oxidative stress up-regulate immediately following a workout.
- Your memory improves and your brain becomes more plastic.
- Motor memory (the ability to acquire a new motor skill) also increases.
- MTOR1C (the “anabolic pathway” responsible for muscle hypertrophy) activates and growth hormone increases in response to a single bout of resistance training.
- An acute session of strength training lowers expression of myostatin, a “negative regulator” of muscle size (meaning lower levels of myostatin increase muscle hypertrophy).
- Skeletal muscle mitochondrial biogenesis begins immediately after a single session of high intensity interval training.
- Blood pressure is decreased in type 2 diabetics after a single strength training session.
In other words, one workout – the right kind of workout – can trigger muscle hypertrophy, improve the ability of your muscles to burn energy substrates (mitochondrial biogenesis), increase skill development, and modulate the inflammatory and hypertensive response to stressors. Is it enough? No; you have to stick with it. But it’s a good start and a real kick in the pants.
What’s more, fluctuating stress and rest exercise patterns allows for better recovery as the exerciser is free from the compulsion of sticking to a consistent schedule in order to preserve fitness. You can skip a workout if you need to rest and recover.
And that’s how a breakthrough workout works physiologically – by giving a big, exaggerated boost to those very same adaptive processes that regular workouts kickstart along with enough space to recover and progress.
There are also less tangible, more mental benefits to breakthrough workouts:
Remember, although being the smartest apes around is pretty great and all, it gets us into trouble. We overthink everything. That’s led us to discover quantum mechanics, learn how to navigate using the stars, and wield all the world’s knowledge in a small device that fits in the palm of our hand, but it also means we can psyche ourselves out and lose before anything even starts.
Undertaking and successfully completing a breakthrough workout more intense and tougher than any before it provides a huge psychological boost that can’t be denied. You’ve overcome a formidable challenge. You have incontrovertible proof that you can get it done. You realize you have what it takes, and it becomes a lot easier to access it in the future. Don’t underestimate the value of the confidence these workouts can provide.
Breakthrough workouts also free you from the “must work out every day or feel like a useless slob whose chest muscles are shrinking by the minute” mentality. When you know you can go hard once or twice a week, take it relatively easy the remaining days, and still see progress, you won’t beat yourself up over missing a day or two in the gym. Life gets in the way, it always does, and as long as you don’t languish for weeks and months on end, you can improve your fitness by kicking ass once or twice a week.
There are limitations and requirements and guidelines, of course. Breakthrough workouts aren’t magic.
Breakthrough workouts only work if you’re already training consistently. Doing nothing for weeks only to come out swinging with a PR deadlift attempt or a century ride won’t do much for you besides leave you sore and possibly injured. You have to have something – a plateau, a rut, a slow and steady incline – to break through.
Breakthrough workouts represent extraordinary efforts. I mean it. Adding five pounds to your barbell squat from last week represents a progressive overload, but it’s not a breakthrough. Adding an extra mile to your regular jog isn’t exactly a breakthrough; turning your flat easy jog into a breakneck uphill climb is a breakthrough workout.
Most breakthrough workouts are planned endeavors. Planning it out ensures you can get enough rest before and sufficiently recover after. You’re going to need both. If you go into a breakthrough workout insufficiently rested, it’s no longer a breakthrough. You’ll probably fall short and the added stress of poor recovery will hamper the results you get.
Some breakthrough workouts are spontaneous affairs. While these days I always plan my hardest workouts ahead of time, there are those days where I wake up and feel different. There’s an extra spring in my step as I get out of bed, a bit more dopamine than usual surges across my synapses in response to my morning coffee and everything shines with optimism. My joints feel great, my tissues are rested, my muscles are primed, I’m mentally ready, things just feel right. On these days, whatever I end up doing turns into a breakthrough workout. I’ll end up hiking a 15 mile loop (and sprinting up the occasional switchback!) when I’d originally planned on just a 4 or 5-miler, for example.
I’m sure you’ve experienced the same. Where you run a few more intervals than you’d planned on, bust out twelve reps in the last set instead of five, continue on to the summit instead of turning back halfway there. Where you do something you’ve never done before and surprise yourself.
What do you think, readers? When was the last time you had a breakthrough workout? What were the effects? Were they lasting?
Let’s hear about your most memorable, hardest and ultimately rewarding workout sessions in the comment section. Thanks for reading!
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