As much as necessary versus as much as possible: who will win?

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When it comes to prescribing exercise within the fitness industry, we often come across two camps. Those who advocate seven days a week of high intensity, all-out effort and those who advocate the minimum effective dose to achieve goals and desired outcomes. Before we get into the detail of this battle, let me, first of all, say that regardless of what camp you are in, participating in a structured exercise regime, alongside a balanced and sustainable nutrition plan, will hold huge benefits to those individuals participating, from improved body composition to better social interactions and communication skills.

As identified in the performance pyramid devised by Eric Helms, the highly regarded strength researcher and author, adherence is the key foundation on which success is built. We, as individuals, must first find a regime that fits in with work, family, friends, and hobbies that we can happily, easily and reliably stick to. After all, consistency is the key to success.

As much as necessary

Before we get into the debate of “as much as necessary” vs “as much as possible,” I would like to draw your attention to a simple saying: the one size fits all approach is an approach that fits no one. In other words, what will be enough for one person could easily be too much or too little for another. No other human being will know your body and its responses better than YOU, which is something that’s important to discuss with your personal training clients. Although guidelines are there to assist us, your clients must learn to listen to their bodies in order to reap the rewards for years to come. The skill of a PT is helping them to recognise when their bodies have had enough, compared to when they’ve still got more to give.

Doing as much as necessary ensures that your clients are achieving their desired outcomes without increasing their allostatic load; in other words, without increasing their current daily stress levels. For example, if they have the desired goal of improving their cardiovascular fitness, a steady 20-minute aerobic workout 2-3 times per week would be more than enough to give them some initial results. Another example would be if they wanted to increase their full-body strength; a resistance session twice per week would be enough to start them on this journey. Some of the key guidelines outlined by the American College of Sports Medicine, the globally recognised and respected association of health and fitness professionals, are as follows:
5 hours per week of moderate physical activity
Perform resistance training 2-3 times per week
2-3 flexibility sessions per week
Now, as you can see, the above is for beginners to exercise only. This will be as much as necessary for them to start with. However, our body is a wonderful machine and will be able to adapt to these stressors relatively quickly and effectively if done consistently. This is where we need to have a quick look at progressive overload and work capacity.

Progressive overload and work capacity

Eventually, when people have been doing the ‘necessities’ to achieve their desired outcomes, there will become a point when that is no longer enough. We can call this the stage of exhaustion. Research Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome for more information on this. Ideally, before we hit this stage of exhaustion, we need to apply the laws of progressive overload. To keep this simple, they are as follows:
Progressive overload must be constant
Progressive overload must be specific
If you are a novice trainer, who has been training a client twice a week to get stronger, there will become a point when this is no longer enough. Therefore, what you could potentially do is firstly instruct your client to lift heavier (specific) weights and then move to three times per week (constant). This will challenge their body to adapt to its new regime and environment, as well as increasing the individual’s work capacity. In other words, improving the amount of training they can complete and adapt (recover) positively too.

As much as possible

There are many instructors who do not take the above (sensible) approach to training and either advocate clients to jump in headfirst and take the bull by the horns by doing as much as they physically can all at once. As mentioned above, I believe you have to earn the right to do as much as possible by applying the above laws of progressive overload to your own desired fitness outcomes.

Let’s look at CrossFit as an example of how people try to complete as much as possible without the thought of recovery or sustainability. While I’m a huge advocate of CrossFit and participate myself, I also believe that it is a unique type of training that should be participated in by those who have an understanding of the above progressive overload laws. CrossFit is a wonderful way of learning new skills, allows people to train like athletes and meet new people. However, for an individual starting a fitness journey, it can become overwhelming by including jumping, landing, throwing, catching, sprinting, rowing (I think you get the idea), all in just one week. It can become very difficult for the individual to achieve desired outcomes when they are hitting themselves with so much exercise stress on top of there own daily stressors. Again, take a look at Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome for more insight into stress versus adaptation.

Final thoughts

The “as much as possible” vs “as much as necessary” debate is a fantastic one and there is no right or wrong answer. The simple answer is, it completely depends on the ability level of your clients, what they want to achieve and how quickly they want to achieve it. I believe the small and sustainable approach is best and to apply the laws of progressive overload in response to how they are moving towards their desired outcomes.

I will say this one last time, consistency is the key to success. Your clients must adopt the “you do you” mentality and participate in what they can regularly stick to. Our job, as fitness professionals, is to help our clients to find the right balance and what works best for them at each stage of their journey to achieve their goals and become life-long exercisers.

If you’re looking to upskill to better support your clients, why not take a look at The Training Room’s courses for first-class education on all things health and fitness?


By Martin Hamer, Health and Fitness Tutor at The Training Room


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