Full disclosure: I am not a trainer. I am a yoga guy. So when asked to write something about training, I'm always a little hesitant. I figure the folks around here probably know a thing or two more about training then I do. But I have taught therapeutic yoga to a lot of trainers, often on the down-low, and to a full range of people and conditions including the neighborhood characters at my local senior center, marathon runners, competition body-builders, dancers, and everyone else in between who has got some pain that the MRI can't solve. The question is does working our bodies need to be intense in order to be effective? To answer that, we first need be clear about what effective means, which is inherently tied to a matter of purpose.

What are you hoping to accomplish in your training? Are you training for a specific event or just overall fitness? Do you have specific fitness goals you are trying to reach? If so, why? Most importantly, is the training you do compromising your functional body health? If so, is it worth it?

You see, if I want to run marathons or climb mountains then I am going to need some serious no pain no gain in order to condition my body enough to meet those kind of challenges. And will likely put myself at some risk of injury in the process. But if what I'm after is functional body health, where I just want my body to do what I need it to do for me in my life with as little pain as possible, then the same techniques that are required for those other pursuits are actually counter-productive. A lot of the extremely intense training that people are doing to be healthy is actually working against their functional body health. (Read more on our Top 5 Functional Training Mistakes)

Regardless of your purpose, if we want to maintain functional body health then it behooves us to explore a range of intensity in our work-outs. If we look at things from a therapeutic orientation: on a day that someone is feeling well and in good health, challenging limits to reach fuller potential is likely going to produce benefits. But if on another day, when we are not feeling all that well for whatever reason, we go ahead and train the same way we did when we were feeling great, chances are we are not going to see those same benefits. In fact, that is usually the day that you end up getting injured.

It's difficult to discern. We want to push ourselves and be motivated. But if you do that too hard then you end up inadvertently sabotaging your goals. So how do we know how much to work, and when?

That is why I am into yoga practice. Yoga practice is all about learning to discern for yourself how you are doing and what you need, and having the discipline to provide only that to yourself and nothing more. But the principles that I am working with certainly apply to whatever sort of training you might do. Being able to have a sense of whether or not the work you put in is leading to your goals or just a bunch of wasted energy is probably a good thing to consider. And if every workout you ever do is to maximum intensity then you have no way of knowing whether a less intense workout would also be effective. Maybe even more effective.

Honestly, I am an outlier in the yoga world too. Most people are pushing the limits of intensity in yoga classes no differently than if they were doing extreme sports. I was a power yoga teacher in my early years and didn't care a lick about my functional body health. I wanted mastery of the forms and I worked hard to accomplish that. But after accomplishing those goals, I still had lots of pain and was miserable in my life nonetheless.

I have often debated with my trainer and athlete friends about whether training needs to be intense in order to be effective. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to support the case that high intensity training produces results. But those statistics generally don't reflect all the people who crash and burn. Most informed trainers would likely agree that being overly reckless or misguided with working your body in times of youth or health easily leads to degenerative issues down the road. Whatever immediate gains that might come from our efforts must be weighed against the risk of injury and longer term outcomes.

As a general rule, the key to honoring your functional body health is making sure to work within some limits, rather than always pushing them. For instance, let's say you are in a warrior 2 pose. If you take your feet as wide apart as possible, you will feel some intense sensation probably. People often want to go for “the burn." But where do you feel it? Are you feeling it in your joints? In a wide warrior 2 stance this is common. But if you are feeling it in your joints then that likely means the joints are being strained rather than working the big muscles of your legs. Often, when you are working best there is not necessarily a big sensation.

It is sometimes counter-intuitive to work a pose without feeling big sensation. When it comes to working our bodies, we associate sensation with progress. But working back from the edge where there is still some room to explore offers other sorts of benefit. Whenever I have an “advanced" practitioner come to my class, I am always pulling them back. And usually when I do, there is a lot of shaking. It's kind of like putting someone on a balance trainer. Working simpler and more subtle often requires people to access small muscles that get easily overlooked.

Beyond the technicalities of working within healthy limits, what makes a less intense workout effective is that it allows the entirety of your training to be more well rounded and holistic, When your efforts better fit with the ebbs and flows of your health and body state, you can minimize unintended backlashes and reach whatever your goals are more efficiently.

About the Author: J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com

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