man lifting adjustable dumbbells doing bicep curl

Strength training is making me too sore!

I paddle outrigger canoes three or four times a week as part of a racing club. I’d like to strength train as well, but it leaves me sore for days and I can’t go out on the water. I don’t want to miss time in the boat, so I’m not going to the gym, but I really liked lifting weights in the past. Is there any way I can actually do both? 

When strength training soreness is consistent and limits your other activities, your program is probably too intense. Volume (sets/reps) and weight (load) determine session intensity. Too much of either will overload your body. It’s common to be sore after a session or two when: 

  • You’re new to lifting weights,
  • You are getting back into weights after a long period away from strength training, or
  • When you’re starting a new program, especially if there is a larger “power” component to it. (Power-focused exercises focus on moving heavy weight fast, like the Olympic lifts, or moving your body explosively, like plyometrics.) 

This doesn’t sound quite like you. I would look at adjusting your strength training volume, specifically by decreasing your sets and reps. When you use strength training to support another sport, you can get away with doing less in the gym. But you still want to make your time worthwhile. You’ll get plenty of muscular endurance training from your time on the water. A focus on heavier (but not maximal) strength training in the gym will provide you a better foundation for your sport-specific work.

Assuming no injury history that you work around, I’d probably be looking a a weights program including:

  • Dynamic stretching as a warm up. For paddlers, working on improving thoracic extension especially will be very helpful for injury prevention and power in the stroke. 
  • Lots of compound lifts (also called multi-joint exercises). These include squats, deadlifts, chin ups, rows, and pushups. Aim for two to three sets of six reps, choosing a weight that you can do for seven reps max, with good form.
  • Anti-flexion/extension and anti-rotation exercises like planks or anti-rotation presses (also called a Pallof press). 

The other factor to consider here is that you are potentially under-recovered. Higher-demand exercises like heavy weights, eccentric movements, or power exercises create more muscle damage than endurance or strength-endurance exercises. Damage requires healing, and while we rarely think about it in that context, that is exactly what recovery time is for. Higher exercise demands mean higher recovery demands. You might need more sleep (most important) or more food (usually less of a concern for recreational athletes). You could also pursue more soft tissue support like massage or foam rolling. That said, your consistent soreness makes me think this is not really a recovery issue, it’s a training volume issue. 

Bottom line: Strength training soreness happens, but you shouldn’t be sore every time you lift weights. The benefits you get from a training session like that will be outweighed by your inability to do the things you enjoy. Better to back off the strength training intensity so you can lift, train, and live your life without wincing. 

Fit and healthy middle age woman doing a snatch barbell exercise for stretch and power training

Do I need to set a big goal for motivation? 

If you want to stay motivated, a big goal can definitely help. But it also can backfire, and keep you from starting all together. This is especially true when we’re talking about complex things like physical health and fitness. Our bodies are complex machines. When they are working well, they work in a fairly predictable way. But when they aren’t functioning optimally, straightening things out can be complex. 

For example: A person wants to lose a significant amount of weight. The traditional wisdom tells us that weight loss is a matter of “calories in versus calories out”. But this isn’t the whole picture of how a body works. Age, health conditions, medications, your brain, and even your environment can all change how many calories you burn. Mental load – high levels of stress, a thinking- or emotionally-intense job, or how much you want to eat those brownies – can impact your levels of willpower. So the simple “eat less, burn more” isn’t always easy to accomplish. 

So big goals in health and fitness often have a lot of elements to consider. This is part of why we are so good at stopping ourselves before we get started. When there are lots of things to consider, how do you know what to do first? And when there’s so much to do, is it even possible to actually succeed? 

How to make big goals possible

You can use a big goal to keep your motivation high by being smart, rather than blindly working hard. When I’m meeting with a client for the first time, my first questions are:

  1. Tell me about you. (Everyone’s favorite…)
  2. What do you want to get out of this?

The information I get from these two questions tells me:

  1. What life is like, and where the opportunities for change are, and 
  2. What that ultimate goal is.

This information sets the stage for the planning and logistics part of the session. Breaking this ultimate goal down into smaller goals (sometimes called steps, action points, process goals, or similar) is key. By taking something huge and making it small, we also make it more easily achievable. 

Easy is key! Achieving anything helps us feel successful. Success itself is motivational. And because we know we can achieve one small step, it is easier to achieve the next small step. So success continues, and motivation stays high, and all of a sudden you’re on the brink of your ultimate goal. One more small step and you’re there, motivation high all along. 
So a big goal can keep motivation high, provided you are smart in how you’re working towards it. They say rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was worth the wait and the work – and your ultimate goal will be too.

Middle age woman walking for fitness

Should you exercise every day? 

Should you exercise every day? All the signs point to yes.

A lot of people worry that daily exercise might be too much, and it’s true that in some situations you can overdo it. But the fact is that many people don’t even meet the minimum exercise recommendations. 

Daily exercise recommendations in America, Canada, the UK, and Australia are all the same: 30 to 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 to 7 days a week. They also recommend strength or resistance training of some description at least two days a week. 

I can understand why you might think it’s not the best idea – exercise is hard, right? And you’re sore for days afterward? 

There’s a smarter way to exercise every day. Our bodies benefit much more from small-and-frequent bouts of exercise, even if they still don’t meet the recommended guidelines. For example, a Taiwanese study of over 400,000 people showed that even those exercising for 15 minutes a day at moderate intensity (half the recommended amount) lived on average three years longer than those who were inactive. Three years is a lot of life! That could be the difference between seeing your grandkids graduate from high school – or not. 

Daily exercise has no drawbacks

…When done well. It is definitely possible to over-do it when you are just getting started. Keep your workouts short and relatively easy, and you can do something every day. As your body becomes more accustomed to working out, you can stretch your sessions slightly longer or choose exercises that are a little more challenging. 

There is strong evidence that increasing exercise will decrease your risk of death from any cause. And there doesn’t seem to be an upper limit. Even very high volumes of exercise – in excess of 100 minutes daily – aren’t shown to be harmful for overall health. The worst thing that we see with long daily sessions is that you eventually won’t see the same return on your investment. I prefer to think of it like this: You’re already in peak health, and you can’t get any peak-er. 

Short term safety

Start off with small workouts to decrease the chance of being too sore. I always tell my clients that we want to aim for challenging but achievable, and that’s a very individual measure. You should feel like you’ve done something, but it should also feel good.

Doing the same thing day in and day out might give you a few problems. Repetitive movements can increase your risk of repetitive stress injuries, or overuse injuries.

Varying the types of exercise you do can help keep your muscles and joint safe and injury free. Strength training in particular is a really great way to prevent injuries, since it makes your body more robust and ready for anything. Yoga or a stretch session are also great options to add to a routine, since it puts your body in positions that you don’t access every day. This helps keep you flexible and challenges your strength in different ways. 

Overall, don’t be afraid to exercise every day. Listen to your body, especially in the day or two after challenging yourself with something new. Take it easy when you need to and push a bit when you feel up to it, and don’t forget that slow and steady wins the race. You want this to be a sustainable life-long habit, so make it as enjoyable as you can. Your body will thank you.

How can I build lean muscle mass for long distance running?

Want to build muscle for running? From injury prevention to faster times, it’s worth the effort! Strength or resistance training will be the single biggest thing to help you gain lean muscle mass. Any time you lift weights, or do other resistance training, you stimulate lean muscle mass gains, also called muscle hypertrophy. 

The challenge as a long distance runner is that running is a stimulus to minimize lean muscle mass. Your body wants to run as efficiently as it can. One of the easiest ways to improve running efficiency is to decrease your body weight, and muscle mass is heavy! So by minimising the amount of muscle you carry, you also minimize the amount of physical work you have to do when running. 

This is annoying,  A- because muscle mass is actually hard to gain, and B- because that muscle mass can actually help decrease injury risk and improve your runs. 

Strength training considerations as a long distance runner

Training for two different things at once is called concurrrent training. Here’s what you need to think about as a long distance runner: 

Have you lifted before? If you haven’t, you’re in luck: It will be easier for you to gain lean muscle mass when you have no history of strength training. If you have been lifting for a while, you may see slower gains, but the right programming will still stimulate this. 

How much running are you doing? If you’re running long and slow three or more times per week, it’s going to be harder to put on lean muscle mass. Your body will need more time to fully recover after a long run, and also needs recovery time after a strength session. Remember that recovery is when your body replenishes energy stores in the muscle and rebuilds the muscle to be better prepared for the next session. 

How to build muscle for running

When designing a strength training program, we consider several factors. To build muscle for running, we need to balance the muscle demands of long, slow distance with the demands of lifting heavy things. Changing the exercises, the sets and reps, time spent, speed, and how many days can all greatly influence your results. 

Program frequency (how often)

This will depend on how much you’re running. Even one strength training session will be helpful, but I would push for two or even three if you can. You can do both on the same day, which may be helpful if your body needs more recovery time. Research suggests that you’ll get better results from whichever exercise you do first (i.e. run versus strength), but that you can maximise best results in each by having a break between. For example, you might strength train in the morning and run in the evening. 

Program volume (how much, i.e. sets/reps or time, etc.)

I would look at sets of 6-8 reps, which is the low end of the hypertrophy range, and probably three sets per exercise. Four sets will give you additional muscle mass stimulus, but the trade off is additional recovery needs – in this case, time between sessions. 

Program intensity (how heavy)

This will be different for everyone. My rule of thumb is that exercise should generally be challenging but achievable. In strength training, choose a weight that allows you to do the exercise with good technique. If you’ve picked a good weight, at the end of the set you should feel like you could do one or maybe two more reps with (pretty) good technique. 

Exercise selection 

Because you’re a runner training for muscle mass, and not a weightlifter doing cardio, I would prioritize compound movements. These are exercises that use lots of big muscle groups and multiple joints. Think squats or push ups or deadlifts, compared to a biceps curl. And don’t neglect your upper body! The momentum you get from the cross-body swing makes a big difference in your running efficiency, so aim for a full body workout. 

No matter how far or fast you run, building muscle can make a huge difference to your running performance. Every little bit helps, and the added benefit of injury prevention means you can stay on the road longer. So get lifting!

Can I go to the gym only 3 days a week and still see results?

Probably yes! Getting results at the gym, or from any exercise, will depend on how fit you are before you start going regularly. Most people don’t do enough exercise. If you’re in this group, any increase in exercise will make a substantial difference to how you feel and look, and how healthy you are. 

Of course, getting results at the gym also depends on what you mean by results. If you want a first place finish at a competitive marathon, three times a week at the gym isn’t going to get you there. It probably won’t get you six-pack abs either. But three a week, exercising at at least moderate intensity, is often enough for general health.

To improve your health, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. You could also do 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both. You’ll get the most benefit if this time is spread throughout the week. The AHA also recommend adding moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity (such as resistance or weights) on at least two days per week.

How to do it

If you split these recommendations into three days, that would look like: 

  • 50 minutes of cardio per session, at a moderate intensity, or 25 minutes per session at a high intensity
  • Strength training during at least two of those three sessions, probably for at least 20 minutes

Of course, those make for long sessions. I’ve found that most people have a preference for either cardio work or strength training. It helps to factor that into your sessions, and then get creative in filling any gaps. My personal recommendation would be to use your gym time to focus on strength training, since most people aren’t set up to do resistance training at home. Combine your three sessions at the gym with a couple of non-gym “sessions”, which can be as simple as going for a walk, to reach the target numbers for health.

person in yellow and black backpack walking on green grass field under cloudy blue sky during daytime

What are good activities to do on a day off from working out?

The best thing to do on a day off from working out (or a rest day) is active rest, also called active recovery. There are a number of ways to do this, but the general idea is that you do some sort of movement or activity. It should be a much lower intensity than your normal exercise.

Why keep moving?

Low intensity, easy movement or activity on a non-workout day is a great way to physical recovery. Moving your body will actively stretch your muscles, especially if you move in ways that aren’t part of your normal exercise routine or daily activities.

Muscle contraction also increases circulation to the working muscles. Increased blood flow helps your muscle recover by bringing oxygen and metabolite molecules like proteins that help the cells repair and rebuild. Increased blood flow also helps replenish energy stores. It might seem counterintuitive to work your muscles in order to help them recover, but it helps. The key is to do it gently so you get the benefits without overtaxing the muscle again. 

How to do active recovery

Any movement is good for active recovery! You can gauge low intensity exercise with the talk test, keeping your movement easy enough that you could sing if you wanted to. I also like activities have you moving differently than you normally do, because this gives you some extra active stretch. You could try

  • Going for a hike or a bushwalk
  • Playing with the kids or grandkids on a playground
  • Going for an easy swim (try some backstroke or breast stroke) or water walking 
  • Do some easy gardening or yardwork
  • Doing a stretch class or gentle yoga session
  • Incidental exercise like the ideas here

And of course, getting out and going for a walk is a great option, and possibly the most simple way to actively recover from a workout day. Doing something you enjoy is an important part of any exercise routine, including the recovery aspects, so don’t be limited by the list above. Anything that gets you moving will work, and you’ll feel so much better for it.

Is it ok to change doctors?

It is absolutely ok to change doctors! Even if you’ve been seeing the same person for years. 

For most people, their primary health care provider (usually called a GP or PCP) is their strongest connection to the wider healthcare system. This person is entrusted to help you stay healthy, and to get better when you don’t. You should trust them to have your back, and if you can’t say with absolute certainty that your doctor will help you make the right choice for you, it might be time to consider a new one. 

Most of my clients who are unhappy with their doctors tell me that:

  • They don’t feel listened to
  • The appointment is too short to cover their needs
  • They can’t ask questions (either due to time, or because the doctor is unapproachable)
  • They don’t understand their health care plan, or that they don’t even know what the plan is and are just doing what they are told!
  • The doctor is dismissive, talks down to them, or otherwise indifferent

If you feel like this about your GP or PCP at all, it’s probably time to start looking for a new one. Even at the best of times, health care is complex and full of educated guesswork. If you don’t have full trust in your doctor, you’re less likely to share the details of your health, less likely to follow through on treatment, and have a lower overall quality of life. And that’s if you actually are willing to go! 

What to look for in a doctor

Like dating, it can take some time and a few tries to find the right person, but it’s worth it. Ultimately, you want someone that you can work with as part of a team. They know the medicine side of things, but you are the expert in your body, and that should be taken into account. Look for a doctor who:

  • Listens well and remembers you
  • Offers you different treatment options
  • Can explain why they recommend something, or how a treatment or prescription works in a way that you can understand
  • Makes you feel comfortable (or as comfortable as possible)
  • Is a nice person! 

There are great doctors out there. I wouldn’t trade mine for the world, but I only got to her after seeing seven other people. That was over a decade ago and I’m still so happy with my treatment. The good ones are out there! 

As a side note: None of this is to say primary care doctors are bad. As healthcare becomes increasingly more a business and less a calling – or, really, as smaller practices are bought out by multinational companies – general practitioners are often shoved towards acting in the best interest of the business, and not necessarily of their patients. Shorter appointments and rushed interactions are hallmarks of this pressure. Your health should come first though – so if you aren’t happy, change!

What is the best at-home exercise equipment?

The best at-home exercise equipment for general strength and fitness goals? You want pieces that are small, versatile, and easy to use. These are also great for crosstraining, or doing a quick workout at home to supplement your gym days. Here’s what I recommend for my clients:

My top pick:  TRX suspension trainer (or another brand, or gymnastics rings). 

Suspension trainers are versatile, easily portable, and adjustable for all levels of strength and fitness. They are a full gym all by themselves and the one thing I take when I travel. 

  • Use anywhere: They can be attached to any variety of solid surfaces by lopping and securing. Most brands also come with their own door anchor. Short story, you can use it just about anywhere inside or outside.
  • Do (almost) anything: Depending on attachment, can do almost every type of strength exercise. It has options for hip and knee dominant leg exercises. For upper body exercise, you can push and pull horizontally, and pull vertically. It also has some great anti-movement core options. The only thing it doesn’t easily provide is upper body push options.
  • Completely adjustable: It’s easy to modify almost any exercise to make it easier or harder. For most exercises, it’s as simple as stepping forward or backward.
  • Big bang for buck: Move slowly and pay attention and suspension trainers give you a big strength boost. They work both your stabilisers and in the big muscles that provide power for your movement. This means you’re better able to control your own body weight. In turn, this means you’re at lower risk of injury from overuse or traumatic event.

In second place: Superbands

Superbands are those giant rubber bands that have been popular for several years now, but still widely under-used. Like suspension trainers, they are highly versatile and easily portable. They do some things a suspension trainer can’t, but have their own limitations. 

  • Use anywhere: There are a few different ways of securing the bands for use, which can create more or less resistance. You can also stand on them to secure them. These are not generally sold with a door anchor, which would increase the versatility. 
  • Do (almost) anything: Again, your exercise options depend on how you’ve secured the band. With a little creativity, you can add resistance to almost every type of movement. Remember that you need a secure attachment point you can loop the band around.
  • Adjustable resistance: Changing the level of stretch on the band will change how much resistance the band provides. It’s literally the same as pulling on a rubber band either a little or a lot. 
  • Good substitute resistance: Superbands can replace cables in many exercises. Just be careful to control the whole movement. It can also sub for dumbbells and barbells in some instances. 
  • Great for eccentric exercise: The “stretchiness” of the band means that there’s a strong pull on the negative, or “lowering”, part of the movement. Working slowly to control your movement back to the start position creates a strong eccentric contraction. (Eccentric means the muscle is lengthening under load.) This exercise is especially useful for people with cardiovascular or respiratory issues, since it can prompt strength gains with lower stress on the cardiorespiratory system. 

And third?

Well, I don’t really have a third – or I have lots of them. I like anything that is adjustable, like an adjustable dumbbell set, since it can change as you do. I also like things that can be used in many ways. For example, a kettlebell that can often be substituted for a dumbbell. When I set up a client with a “home gym” that neatly tucks into a drawer when done, I want just a few things. The suspension trainer and the bands are my must-haves for strength building. Recommendations for at-home cardio are here and here.

Are chest-building strength exercises also helpful in fat loss on the chest?

Every muscle building exercise is helpful for fat loss… overall. Unfortunately, there’s no way to dictate what part of your body loses fat. 

BUT! Strength training can still have a big impact on your fat loss or weight loss. Here’s why:

Back in 1992, research was done to determine the metabolic rate of different tissues in the body (1). The results confirm the old gym -and-weight-loss saying, “muscle burns more calories than fat”. In science terms, it is more metabolically active – almost three times as much. The original findings still stand, telling us that: 

  • Each kg of muscle burns 13 calories per day 
  • Each kg of fat burns 4.5 calories per day

(One kg = 2.2 pounds, for anyone on the imperial system.)

There has been additional research based on the 1992 findings, which has confirmed the above findings (this is how we know that the previous results didn’t just happen by chance). This additional research has also shown that the above figures don’t vary much, regardless of age, sex, or overall bodyweight (2).

By confirming that muscle is indeed more metabolically active than fat – that it burns more calories than fat does, simply by existing – we can be confident that adding any amount of muscle anywhere will aid in fat loss. 

Fat storage and loss happens without any conscious control. We don’t get a say in where our bodies store fat. We also can’t control which fat stores might get used first. So as much as you might want to “spot reduce” or “spot tone” to decrease the fat storage in a specific area… We just can’t (without liposuction). If you’re burning fat through diet and exercise, that fat is going to burn off from all over your body, not just here or there. 

Consistent strength training will generally increase your muscle mass, especially if you are training in the rep ranges that stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth). So chest building exercises will support your fat loss, especially if done at high volume – at least three sets of 8-12 reps.

If you are training for building size, I’d also consider not just focusing on your chest. For both fat loss and weight loss reasons, as well as symmetry and aesthetic considerations, you’ll benefit from training all major muscles. The large muscles on the back of the body often get less attention, but working your traps, lats, glute, and hamstrings can have a huge impact on your overall size and muscle mass. Balanced front-to-back and left-to-right training can also decrease risk of overuse injury – because injury is one of the sure-fire ways to put all that fat right back on. 

Want to learn more? 

  1. Elia, M. Organ and tissue contribution to metabolic rate. In: Kinney, JM.; Tucker, HN., editors. Energy Metabolism: Tissue Determinants and Cellular Corollaries. Raven Press; New York: 1992. p. 61-80.
  2. Müller MJ, Wang Z, Heymsfield SB, Schautz B, Bosy-Westphal A. Advances in the understanding of specific metabolic rates of major organs and tissues in humans. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013 Sep;16(5):501-8. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e328363bdf9. PMID: 23924948.

Woman running up stairs for exercise

How To Do Cardio Without Getting Bored

Bored with cardio? I get it. By definition, cardio exercise is movement that, when done repeatedly, gets your heart rate up. Repeated movement works great for some people. For others, doing the same thing again and again can be boring. But it doesn’t have to be. If you’re looking for something slightly more entertaining to get your cardio hit, consider:

Doing something new

Doing something new requires you to use your brain, especially if the movement is more on the complex side. This means that you’ll be thinking about HOW to do the thing, and not the cardio aspect itself. While you’re working to figure things out, you aren’t going to be bored. The caveat is that this new activity that you’ve chosen shouldn’t be TOO hard. If you’re getting frustrated with it (hello, skipping ropes double dutch style), make it easier! You’ll get more out of it if you have to think, but not too hard. These variations on standard or traditional “cardio” options will keep your brain more engaged than the standard cardio options:

  • Trail running
  • Swimming a new stroke
  • Mountain biking, BMX, or other off-road options
  • Ocean swimming, if you live near open water
  • Canoeing or kayaking

Doing something that isn’t “exercise”

Whether you are playing on a jungle gym, climbing a tree or jumping on a trampoline, lots of the things we did as kids will give you the cardio workout without the “workout”. As you bounce, swing, and climb around, you use almost all of your big muscles. The more muscle you use, the more your heart has to distribute oxygen and nutrients. Heart rate goes up, cardio training effect is achieved, fun is had – wins all around.

  • Surfing
  • Parkour
  • Trampoline park session
  • Skateboarding
  • Rollerskating

Doing something social

Finding a social sport or recreational league can be a great way to tick the “cardio” box without enduring hours of boring work on the treadmill (or whatever your idea of boring cardio is). And these days, there are so many rec sports leagues to choose from. You can form your own team with a group of friends, increasing the enjoyment factor. And if your friends aren’t into it, these days most rec leagues can connect you with a team that needs players. Look for a local indoor sports centre or google recreational sport near me and see what options come up for you.

One last thing to note: Some of the options listed might seem…. unusual. But most clubs will offer a “Come And Try” day, or introductory sessions to give you a taste before you commit. Starting new things as an adult can be daunting, but there is actually a lot of support available. You don’t have to be bored with cardio. Give something different a try and you might even have some fun – the workout is just a by-product.

PS – For Brisbane locals, here are some good spots to get started:

Bounce Inc trampoline park

Brisbane Parkour

Brisbane Indoor Sports

Roadie Rob’s Bicycle School – Mountain bike and BMX

Pavement Skateboard Coaching