Have You Had a Breakthrough Workout Lately?

BreakthroughYesterday, 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:

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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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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68 thoughts on “Have You Had a Breakthrough Workout Lately?”

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  1. I had a mini-breakthrough series of workouts last week where I did 5×5 Bench Presses every day for 6 days straight. As long as I wasn’t sore the next day, I added 5 pounds and did the workout again…over training be damned! It was something I’ve never done before since I’ve always been told to rest a day between weightlifting workouts.

    These are some very interesting concepts I’m going to have to explore deeper. Thanks, Mark!

  2. I agree my most productive runs have been ones where I was properly rested beforehand, put out my best effort during the workout itself, and then allowed myself to recover. I have had some runs that could have been breakthroughs but for one reason or another (self inflicted) I didn’t recover well enough and it wound up hurting my fitness. It’s always a fine line, especially with endurance activities, I believe.

  3. I hadn’t thought of this approach to workouts. I’ve been following the linear, progressive approach, seeing incremental increases to the number of reps I can do easily.

    Recently I introduced a new set of kettlebell exercises, hoping to shake up my routine, but from what I’m reading here it seems I should, in addition, do some kind of super set or high weight reps with my previous workouts, which were mainly body weight exercises–pushups with different grips, pullups with different grips. In order to do super weight sets I’d have to invest in a body vest.

    Good idea.

    1. You can also wear a back pack and alter the weight instead of a vest. Unless you want to run with it then I think a vest is a better option.

  4. If I could stop watching the world cup and actually go to the gym, that would be a breakthrough workout.

    1. This made me smile! Do bodyweight exercises whenever there is a pause in play or go and do sprints in the garden at half time, then you’re a winner in all directions!!

      1. That’s a nice idea, but the only bodyweight exercise I’m currently attempting, seems to be one in which I drink my bodyweight in beer.

  5. I find it interesting how non-incremental it all is. My experience is that when trying to master anything difficult, there is this pattern of plateauing and then sudden big jumps. Often they are not related to effort. They just happen. A couple of weeks ago my side saw planks, which had been maxing out at about 2 to 2 1/2 minutes until total fatigue, suddenly jumped up to 3 to 3 1/2 minutes. At first I thought it was a fluke, but I’ve been able to repeat it every day.

    So not only did I make a sudden physical jump, but now my mental expectations are shifted. My self perception of my abilities and potential is now a minute longer. This means that when fatigue sets in a 2 1/2 minutes my mind tells me to keep pushing because I’m still 1 minute away from my potential. So the pain and fatigue I’m feeling now comes with an alternate interpretation.

    It’s like the four minute mile. It was this unattainable theoretical goal for decades. But as soon as it was broken, it was broken regularly. Did all the runners in the world suddenly get better? Of course not. But now that it was shown to be possible, runner’s brains allowed them to run that fast.

    It’s like when you were a kid and trying to jump over something, or do a skateboard trick, or do some physical feat. As soon as one friend did it, the rest soon followed. What seemed impossible for the last week, was now normalized through an shift in expectations.

    1. Excellent point, expectation is key. I can always do so much more with an element of competition or a level of accountability than when I am alone. The only difference is in my head! Is there a confidence/self-esteem element do you think?

      1. I don’t think it’s related to confidence or self esteem. I think there are two components.

        One, is we are fundamentally social animals and what our peers are doing, and what the expectations are, shape even the most stubborn misanthropic types. There’s no way around it, we are products of society and our surroundings.

        Two, we adjust to what the goals are. If someone tells you to run a mile on a quarter mile track, you map out a trajectory in you head. On the last lap, your brain will start winding down your physical effort as you near your goal. This happens with all effort, mental or physical. We are by nature really good at conserving energy. So if the goal is to run a mile our brain will figure out a way to do that with the least amount of energy expenditure as possible. So to break that tendency you sometimes need to trick yourself. It could be telling yourself you did 12 reps at that weight last time when in reality you’ve never broken 8. Or it could be telling yourself that you hold the plank for 3 minutes until fatigue sets in when in reality it’s always been 2.

        This is how I improved my side planks. I go through three stages of fatigue. The first one is a traditional position with the outside arm straight down my side. Then I would cock the elbow to a 45 degree angle after that got too hard to maintain with proper form, and then I would finish up with my outside arm pointing straight up which opens the chest and takes some weight off. This last position signals my brain that we’re going to wrap this up soon.

        It dawned on me that the way to increase my time was to extend the first step as that would delay the other two steps. It worked like a charm. So if I can hit two minutes in the first position, I can hit a 3 1/2 minute total.

        So the trick is to delay the first step as long as possible. Alternately I could add a fourth step.

        Either way I’m manipulating my brains desire for a consistent pattern and its desire to conserve energy by moving trigger points.

  6. Rolling outta bed and grabbing my coffee was a nice breakthrough workout for me this morning…all kidding aside, I can relate to those rare days when the stars align and I feel that extra spring in my step and wanna kick arse. Those are the days I hammer myself and then get extra rest afterwards.

  7. Mark,
    What do rest days after breakthrough workouts look like for you? A few days off? More calories than usual? A couple days of easy, light exercise?

    1. I’m not Mark, but I’ll provide my experiences on the subject. It really all just depends on the activity and how you feel. Some days after a breakthrough I feel pretty normal and other other times I might be tired/sore and ravenous.

      Typically I get sleepy and super hungry after high-intensity, sprint-like exercises, but maybe just sore after a breakthrough weightlifting session and might need a little more recovery time. My best advice is listen to the cues your body gives you. It will let you know if you need extra rest or extra calories.

  8. I did a breakthrough session just yesterday when I sprinted! You see not only do I not run I DEFFINETLY do not sprint. However yesterday I finished my weight training and I just felt like I need to run. I decided to do my 30 minutes of car do on the treadmill, a walk/light jog sorta thing. When I got on though I realized what my body wanted was a walk/sprint session…and sprint I did! I was flying! I did 3 min walk and 1 minutes sprint. I thought my heart was literally gonna burst out of my chest. I didnt know my body would or COULD move like that!!! The fastest I got was 7.0 which is huge for a woman thats never gone higher that a 3.5 comfortably. I feel amazing today and well everyday since transitioning my lifestyle to primal/paleo. I may only be in week 8 but never before have I been so EXCITED about the future. Life really does begin at 40 🙂

    1. Congratulations! That sounds fantastic.
      I had a break through “workout” over the weekend. I never run or jog but I really wanted to play chasings with my little girl in the park. We ran for over an hour! I didn’t know I could run that long or that fast. I did another run today and I feel great. I’m in week 6 of paleo and have been pretty strict. 6 kgs lost in 6 weeks, no hunger and loads of energy!

  9. I keep detailed lifting records, and they indicate my 1RM has been dropping for all lifts decade over decade. I’d be happy indeed if one decade would merely “break even” with the last!

  10. I feel that for a while my workouts haven’t really been anything special. But as I go back through my workout logs for the past 10+ weeks, I can see that the amounts I have been lifting have been steadily increasing. I don’t necessarily feel a breakthrough after a workout, rather more of a breakthrough in seeing the effort is actually paying off!

    1. For lifting, when you’re still rising to the limit possible at the intersection of your genetics and age, you can also see breakthroughs in time. For example, you may be “stuck” at a lift, say 5 x 5 x weight Y for weeks or more, but, if you also keep track of time, you may note that you can now do that exercise in less time, perhaps with faster movements or, more typically, shorter rests. Thus, you are more powerful.

      1. Thanks Rick! Funny thing is, I’ve been doing bodyweight exercises and I have noticed that the time it takes me to do 350 different reps has lessened over the past several weeks. That’s a good point and I may start adding a time aspect into my workouts.

  11. Back when I was a bike commuter I was late for work one day so when some faster guy passed me, I assumed he was on time. So I tried to keep up with him. Oh man was that a hard workout for me, but I felt like a million bucks afterward. That’s probably about as breakthroughy as I’ve ever been. Mostly I plod away and try to make slow progress and for fun I do crazy adventures on the weekend or on vacations. Maybe those are breakthroughs, too, but since it’s fun, it doesn’t fee like it.

  12. I have started swimming and am trying to figure out what a good lap time is for me. I think it might be good to kick it up a notch.

  13. ugh. I know that switching things up is ever so important, and yet I thrive on routine. Up, swim 3 mornings a week. Those are the mornings I can escape. I work out when I can work it in with the kid’s schedules so it kinda always happens at the same time. However I know when I am coasting and when I am pushing hard.

    1. You can still switch things, just mix in some faster laps or change up your strokes. Or do a shorter more intense swim session. It doesn’t take much to shock your system and kick up your gains. If found that in planking even changing the width of your stance makes it seem like a whole new routine. And that’s a pretty static activity. Swimming offers many possibilities

    2. Something I’ve done to mix up my swim routine is add bodyweight workouts between laps or sets. You want to shock your system.. try inserting either 10 pushups, squats, or burpees between each lap in a 10×50 set!

  14. I start a 90-day challenge with some IINers Monday which does a similar-type program. I need to get a breakthrough, so I am looking forward to it, but also with a bit of trepidation to the committment!!

  15. I got a bike so I’ve been biking all over the last few days while muling my backpack. I’ve been eating carbs sparsely. I’ve been consuming red wine and organic cacao nibs in profusion. I’ve probably entered the realm of chronic cardio. Some nights I’m sleeping on the ground though conveniently someone was going to take a couch to the dump and they let me take it across the road and into a little ravine area where I can crash quite securely.

    1. Your life scares the living daylights out of me. How do you have such regular internet access?? Particularly liked your stashing clothes in a tree as a workout btw.

      1. I go to libraries a lot. I’ve been a computer addict since I was about five years old and I like to learn and read.

  16. I have recently changed my weight training from 5×5 with 1 min rest between sets to doing only 2 sets with max reps and only 10-15 seconds rest between sets. This has greatly increased the intensity of the workout. I also do hill sprints once or twice per week.

  17. I am sooo motivated after this Article. I will try low volume, strength training with hand-balancing my body. Also i will run a bit longer in the forrest while trying to keep up the pace while i am running with really long steps taken. I look forward not to be so progressive from now on, but to really shift and change my workouts in technique and intensity and joy!

    Thanks a bunch Mark! I just LOVE your knowledge and passion for health. Kind regards, Marco / 22y student from Sweden.

  18. I found doing the old school new body work out plan by Steve Holman thrown in really helped. It’s doing 4 sets with a moderate weight and each rep you count 3 seconds on the return. You must keep good form! Any swinging you must lower the weight. Try doing push ups, 1 second up then count 3 seconds going down.

  19. Since I am just getting back into a regular routine of any exercise, it isn’t time for a breakthrough workout yet. But I know what you mean. But your question, when was the last breakthrough workout I had and what were the effects and were they lasting? Sadly, I realized the answer is that it was long ago; long enough I can’t remember. It is now a goal to have one.

    In fact, I think for some people (including myself), looking forward to the next breakthrough workout will be motivation to continue going exercising on a regular basis!

  20. I had a breakthrough when I realized that the quickest and easiest way to “tone” my female body was to go hard and heavy for a limited amount of time. I used to think I needed hours in the gym, with high rep, moderate to light weight. Now, I only workout for 20 minutes 3 times a week and focus on heavy weight and body weight exercises. I stopped doing cardio – which began to feel draining and dull – and started doing sprint intervals. Within weeks I developed visible biceps and a visible oblique line (despite doing no crunches whatsoever)! I shaved a good 3 hours off my total weekly workout time. Three cheers for the new workout!

    1. I hear ya. Many years ago I did Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty routine for a while. I dreaded every workout, but man, was it ever productive and time efficient!

    2. Yeah, the high rep, low weight advice everyone pushes on women is such bunk. Hit the weights hard for a toned body. I’ve never known a single person, man or woman, who had to worry about getting too muscular. It’s hard to build mass, especially for women. Trying to avoid something that won’t happen (becoming huge and bulky) is strange. But that’s what all the women’s magazine’s push – tone those thighs with a thousands reps with two pound weights.

  21. I read Mark’s blog on breakthrough and shifted my focus to breathing power and heart flexibility. I usually have some attention on that when I exercise, especially when doing exertion runs or biking. But today I challenged myself to reach for a stronger and deeper flow from inside. I apologize if this sounds silly, but I have gained significant ground in my health and fitness thanks to heart and lung power and flexibility. Thank you, Mark for your very useful advice and teaching.

  22. I’ve personally felt the benefits of breakthrough workouts in my training, but I’ve never read any studies that backed it up. This was great reinforcement for me. I also liked how you pointed out that you can’t have “breakthroughs” without your weekly “break even” workouts – they both go hand in hand.

  23. This is a very interesting read. The concept of Breakthrough Workouts certainly makes a lot of sense, and when I reflect on my current workout routine, I think it could be just what I need to mix things up and make a change. Thanks for sparking my interest and making me re-consider my weekly schedule.

  24. I’ve encountered this concept, in Periodization planning, meant to focus training efforts over long time periods.

    Given a one-month training mesocycle, the first two weeks are called Maintenance microcycles, and are done at regular intensity.

    The third week is called the Crash microcycle, and is done at a maximum effort.

    The fourth week is the Recovery microcycle, where the goal is to active recovery, at a minimal effort.

  25. the best workouts ive had was working at a summer camp that we had to build our own dumbells. Doing that and having to be creative with exercises and combining it with running sprints and hills were the best workouts I ever had!

  26. I often head to the forest and for 2 or 3 hours walk, jog, sprint, climb, listen, observe, interspersed with rock lifting, log carrying etc. It’s exhilarating and tiring.

  27. Mark,

    What are your views on glutathione and why so many people haven’t a clue what it is or what it does. I think so many of us, especially athletes, need to research and study how powerful this antioxidant is.

    Great article as always. You are one of top authority figures out there so was curious your thoughts on it.

    Thanks, Nathan

  28. I’m just thrilled I’m well enough to do any exercise at all! I had something like Chronic Fatigue a couple of years ago and spent at least six months either in bed or getting back to bed. I lost almost all my muscle tone which wasn’t great to begin with. Finally, it seems to be letting up. I can walk again (two miles!!! So exciting!) and even ride horses which is just so wonderful. So, for me the breakthrough is just being able to exercise at all. I’m so happy to be gradually getting my fitness back again.

  29. My last breakthrough was a couple months ago.. You have inspired me to push myself!!!! I’m going to aim for one this weekend

  30. I’m just starting going Primal I’ve been on the Plan by Lyn-Genet Recitas and went down to 185 from 215 and was happy with my loss but not with my looks naked and so I seen you on the 700 Club and like what you said so I got your book I’m only half way through. I’ll finish tomorrow. I don’t feel I’ll have a hard time changing over because The Plan is very close to the Primal Blueprint. I am looking forward with great excitement over finely getting the body I want. I’m 65yrs young and don’t take any drugs and want to keep it like that.So Thank You

  31. I have recently started doing Parkrun thinking a free timed 5km run each Saturday morning would provide some consistency to my weekly training. But it’s become me against my PB and most weeks I’m with in 30 seconds of my usual time but two weeks ago I beat it by 1 min 30 sec! Now I’m so looking forward to the next time the ‘stars align’ until then I’m hooked.

  32. I like the idea of a breakthrough workout! I had one lately, when I went swimming, and decided to swim in a new style instead of my usual. It was a demanding workout, I got a cramp but it was all worth it, I pushed my limits, and I will go again. Soon I will be able to complete a whole workout in the new style.

  33. I’ve been trying to get some cardio runs in a t lunchtimes and have been doing approx 5km runs in around 30 mins about 2-3 times a week. Sometimes I push through and go a longer route and do 6-7km…. I feel so good after them and it clears my head….yesterday I got a cramp at 3km and decided I would walk…..while these 2 jogged on ahead, I watched and decided to sprint approx 200m to catch them….then walked again, I did this along the beach approx 4 times….then jogged on to finish the 5km…..I felt great and wonder if this is probably better than just doing the usual slower pace 5km….I think so after reading this article. I do yoga once a week and now I am thinking of trying to fit in 2 trips to the gym to do some core strength weights……I am 173cm height and 155lbs. I have had 3 kids and weight has fluctuated between 196lbs to 135lbs over the last 10 years. I really would like to get back to the 135lbs but I know it’s not about weight, the fact is I was my fittest and strongest and looked the best when i was this weight, looking back at my routine, I was doing weights 3 times a week and doing interval training…..it’s hard to keep consistent when I’ve so much kids stuff to do….this is why I like the idea of doing what you can when you can and have breakthrough workouts on the day you feel stronger…..sounds ideal actually.

  34. Funny timing. I have been following a steady 3×5 routine for years. Just yesterday I was doing my third set and had a spontaneous urge to do as many reps as possible. I did 10! Now I’m trying to do random bonus reps or bonus sets more often.

  35. I’ve been working on learning to walk again after having my legs shattered. Every month or so I get a breakthrough where suddenly I can do a lot more (like use a cane or ditching a wheelchair).

    Interestingly, I also suddenly sleep a whole lot for a few days and eat more food for a little while. Sometimes I also have to scale back on regular workouts for a day or two. I had to use the wheelchair some for a day or two after transitioning to the cane full time.

  36. I’d like help in sorting out how to do breakthrough workouts, AND stay consistent with Mark’s exercise pyramid of things to do, and his advice about what NOT to do. To be specific: the Primal Exercise Pyramid says to:

    “Law #3: Move Frequently at a Slow Pace strengthens the cardiovascular and immune systems, promotes efficient fat metabolism and gives you a strong base to handle more intense workouts. (3 to 5 hours a week.)

    Law: #4: Lift Heavy Things stimulates lean muscle development, improves organ reserve, accelerates fat loss, and increases energy. (1-3 times a week for 7 to 30 minutes.)

    Law #5: Sprint Once in a While stimulates the production of HGH and testosterone, which help improve overall fitness and delay the aging process – without the burnout risk of excessive prolonged workouts. (Once every 7-10 days < 10 minutes each time.)"

    And NOT to dos:

    "Avoid Chronic Cardio (frequent medium-to-high intensity sustained workouts)"

    "Avoid Chronic Strength Training (frequent and/or prolonged sub-maximal lifting sessions ending in exhaustion)"

    I've done lots of intense cardio interval training workouts before. At age 60, I'm concerned about now overdoing it and getting too stressed, to inundated with cortisol, etc. I recognize the pitfalls of working to long and intensely, and have been following Mark's advice about avoiding intense, long cardio and exhaustive strength training.

    I'm looking for patterns or rules that will enable me to plan and do breakthrough workouts, without the downsides Mark mentions on the pyramid page here, quoted above:


    I'm thinking the answer may be just like for sprinting—rest sufficiently between breakthrough workouts, especially if they are long, intense cardio and/or strength training.

    I'd love to get some guidance from those who have navigated these issues. I'm looking for how to make good decisions about more intense and/or long workouts.

    1. Read your post.. I’m a recovering chronic cardio guy in his 50’s who still likes to do a little running, swimming, etc., just not as long and “steady” as I used to. I find mixing things together is great way to challenge myself, without slipping back to chronic cardio territory.

      My favorite example is mixing running intervals and strength training. For instance, instead of a 45 minute “jog” staring at my heart rate monitor, I would do 4 X 1/2 mile runs with 10 each pushups, pull-ups, kettle bell swings, etc. between each interval, so you end up logging 2 miles of interval work, and 40 each of whatever exercises you throw in. A TOTALLY different workout that takes about the same amount of time. It’s an intense workout, not one you want to do every day. Maybe once a week, or a few times a month, but a great way to break up the monotony and push yourself in a different way.

      Another day in the week I would go for a long hike, or take my dog for a few miles on the trails and just do what he does…. Trot, sprint, stop, walk, chase.. etc. It’s like we’re on a primal hunting trip together! Plus, your body benefits from different speeds, intervals, and terrain.

      I found the key for me now is to mix things up, as injuries and burnout come from too much of one motion/length/speed etc, and to only do the intense stuff once, or maybe twice a week tops. Everyone is different. You’ll figure it out!

      1. Thanks Rich! That idea of variety makes a lot of sense. For me especially, because much of my fitness training is geared towards my annual elk hunting trip in November, which itself (as you suggest) a mix of lots of different activities. What’s different about it from normal workouts is its duration. so doing some longer-duration, varied-activity workouts makes perfect sense.

  37. I started a martial arts class called KRAV MAGA. The instructor puts us through a good 15-20 minutes of intense warm up calisthenics and then simply kicks our asses with puching, kicking, flips, wrestling moves… I can barely move after 1.5 hours of it. It is so awesome and physically satisfying. Its given me the impetus to be more fit by running and doing other weight bearing things so I can be in better shape for the classe and sparring.

  38. I found with the heavy lifting training, you can get breakthroughs by changing the rep/failure patterns. Try switching to doing less reps for more sets, or vis versa. You might do 2×10 reps to max, or switch to 6 x 3 reps, focusing on good form. Also doing the reps slower, and eliminate bounce by pausing at the bottom and top of the reps – make sure you come to a complete standstill (don’t kid yourself by using momentum). You can change up again by do plymetric versions of the same exercises.

  39. This is a very minor point, but when you said that thing about “ ‘must work out every day or feel like a useless slob whose chest muscles are shrinking by the minute’ mentality”, it reminded me that this was a post aimed at men, and that I, a woman, am essentially viewed as an eavesdropper here. Why?

    Well, for women, building huge chest muscles isn’t really a standard workout goal. You chose to illustrate a basic, fundamental feeling with an example that applied essentially only to men. Why? Why not mention a fitness goal that nearly everyone shares? Why not say “feel like a useless slob whose back muscles are weakening” or “feel like a useless slob whose cardiac fitness is declining” or just… anything other than chest muscles shrinking?

    As I said, I’m aware this is a minor point, and considering the state of internet comments at the moment I am a bit fearful at the type of replies this post will get. But consider the world we live in, and how your post adds one more drop in the bucket. When people talk about people, what they usually mean is men; when people want to talk about women, they say “women.” In other words, unless otherwise specified, a person is a man. For example, if a man commits murder, all they have to say in the news is “murderer.” A woman commits murder, you better be sure it’ll be mentioned that she’s female. And so on. Not a doctor, but a female doctor. Don’t say female? People will assume male.

    So, as I said, you chose illustrate a universal point with an example that was coded male. To flip it around, imagine you were reading an article that you thought applied to everyone, and then the author said something about “ruining that cute booty you’ve worked so hard to tone”? All of a sudden, you’d be taken out of the article. You’d say, “Crap, this was written for women????” and maybe even stop reading. But women don’t do this, so you, the author have the luxury of knowing that we likely won’t stop reading just because you’ve chosen to speak specifically about something outside our experience. That’s because we have been socialized since we were young to identify with the male perspective as being, well, human. For example, girls don’t mind reading first person stories told by male narrators. Imagine a book written from Hermione’s perspective selling billions of copies to both genders? Yeah, not so likely. And that’s what I want to challenge.

    Please understand that I am not accusing you of conscious sexism; nor am I deeply upset and crying or anything,so please don’t accuse me of being butthurt or something. I’m just telling you so that you can think about this a bit in the future.

    TL;DR? I’m sick of weightlifting and fitness articles being implicitly coded male. Tiny details add up to a pervasive, drip drip drip feeling of “this isn’t for you, sweetie pie,” and it’s tedious. I would like it if your articles took into account the full scope of your audience. Thanks.

    1. You must be suffering from a fit of hysteria. Hold on, I’ll get you the smelling salts.
      Well written comment. I see where you’re coming from and I think I can at least partially understand your (I assume) mildly perturbed emotional reaction.
      However, I remember Mark stating at least once something along the lines that though his workout philosophy is suitable for everyone it’s generally geared towards males more than females. I can’t condemn him for that. He’s a man who writes largely from his own experience with his body so it makes sense that his natural target audience would be mostly male. He doesn’t exclude females; he just doesn’t write as much material about exercise that is meant especially for them. (Though Primal Woman should be out soon to take care of that I think).
      As a male who’s probably psychologically affected by male stereotypes similarly to most others of my gender, I can definitely relate to that quote about the mentality of feeling like you need to work out constantly to maintain the size of some of your muscles and the physical attributes and capabilities that society puts a lot of emphasis on. In fact I used to be a chest exercise fanatic and was was essentially obsessed with growing and toning my pectoral muscles, among others, but the chest was my main focus for a long time because I was just conditioned to believe that it ought to look stupendously impressive, and that I should all-around be physically fit and strong and that if I didn’t look and feel like a beast then it meant I wasn’t working hard or often enough and that I should get to torturing myself as much as possible to achieve the formation of my desired body. I think a lot of other males can relate too and as a result I think that his quote is a really good one for me and them and though it may not be inclusive of people who aren’t concerned with having crazy pecs and being beastly, which potentially might include male as well as female readers, it was only meant to illustrate a point to the desperate chronic exercisers among us who hate setbacks and wasn’t meant to be taken too literally.

  40. My breakout workouts, typically come when I least expect them, as scheduling them rarely works for me. I know within a few minutes into a workout if this is the one to tweak and try something new, which could mean a more reps, more weights, more speed, more intervals, etc. I keep a couple of “extras” in my head for these days. Maybe all it is more abs over all else that day, hitting them from several angles, with no rest till I can’t move.

    I’ve also started working out by going thru some scheduled “cycles”. Which looks like this – this week I end my 3 day a week workouts where I workout harder 1 of those three days., making sure not to do the same harder work out twice in one week, and not favor my strengths, or favorite exercise/s. That 3 day cycle last 5 weeks. Next week I go on a 4 day a week cycle, Mon, Tues on, wed off, Thur, Fri on, off sat and sun as those are fun days, family, etc. On this cycle Tues and Fri will be the harder days if I’m feeling it. But they usually are. I’ll do this 4 day cycle for one month only, then back to the 3 day cycle.

    Works for me.

  41. as always a well researched and reasoned post. Of all the healthy food experts on line, I find mark to use science and deep research to help better our lives.

  42. Mixed feelings when having breakthrough workout… i choose HIIT as my breakthrough… Everytime after HIIT i feel so exhausted and sleepy, is that normal? ???? On the other hand, i feel amazing after accomplished it! <3

  43. My latest breakthrough workout was the burpee challenge presented by stack.com. The challenge is to do 100 burpee for time. As you know, burpees in large quantities are a bear. When I fished in 11:14 I was pretty wasted, but in a few minutes, I felt great. I felt like I really accomplished something. My next breakthrough workout may be something completely different. Like maybe 2000 jump ropes. Thanks for your insight. Mike