Why Must Exercise Be So Hard?

By Tim Ryan, Copyright 1995

 Perhaps the most detrimental misunderstanding harbored by most would be exercisers is the notion that exercise should either be easy or only moderately difficult. It appears that many people assume they should be able to exercise, and reap dramatic physical improvements from that exercise, yet only mildly exert themselves in the process. This misguided assumption single-handedly destroys the potential effectiveness of the exercise program of every person who possesses this belief. To put it bluntly, if you are expecting exercise to be easy or even moderately difficult, and you allow this belief to interfere with your willingness to exert yourself during your workout, you are going to end up very disappointed with your lack of results from exercise.

So that the information contained in this article will not be misconstrued, I find it is first necessary to define my terms. Exercise means Strength Training. Strength Training is the only activity that properly satisfies the Definition of Exercise therefore, the only true exercise. All other activities (i.e. aerobics: walking, running, biking, swimming, roller-blading, stair-climbing, etc.), often construed as exercise by the media, general public and health/medical professionals, do not satisfy the definition of exercise. Consequently, these activities ARE NOT EXERCISE. These activities qualify as recreational physical activities and are not a necessary component of a proper exercise program. (Please read Exercise Vs. Recreation and The First Definition of Exercise by Ken Hutchins, available through Precision Fitness)

The results obtained from exercise are directly proportional to the intensity of effort put forth during the performance of that exercise. Yet, rare is the individual who is willing to put forth maximum effort and work intensely during exercise.

Ironically, many people perceive, and have convinced themselves they are working hard -- though in reality they are not. Many people even believe they couldn’t possibly work any harder, that they are working as hard as is possible for their body. They say their muscles are completely spent and incapable of further work. They insist they are giving maximum effort in an attempt to continue, but their bodies are simply incapable. Others exhibit no slightest sign of fatigue or hard physical work, yet they simply give up and state: "that’s all I can do."

Putting an individual’s personal perception or theatrics aside, there is a big difference between what one thinks they can do, or what they may be willing to do, and what the body is truly capable of doing. The true story is told by the body’s physiological responses, or in this case lack thereof.

Demanding physical work manifests itself in the body in many ways; elevated heart rate, elevated breathing rate, increased heat production, sweating, muscle fatigue, any many other items. If an individual claims to be, or acts as though their muscles are completely exhausted and physically spent -- thus, working to their maximum ability, yet they are devoid of these physiological responses, or exhibiting only a mild response, you can be sure they are not truly working hard or putting forth a true maximum effort. No amount of Academy Award winning performances can prove otherwise.

During a workout some individuals will act as if they are in agony, being tortured beyond belief. They moan, groan, whimper and whine and sometimes even scream out. (Note: none of these actions are necessary or advisable during exercise. It is important to stay relaxed and in control despite the intense work.) With many of these individuals, despite their apparent agony, the instant the exercise terminates or the workout ends they walk out of the room calm, relaxed, and sometimes even laughing and joking, as if they just finished having tea with a friend. Some other individuals don’t make a sound or even take so much as a deep breath, yet they claim to be exerting themselves as hard as possible.

Obviously something is wrong with this picture! The physiological effects of a demanding bout of exercise do not instantly vanish the second the exercise terminates or workout ends. It requires several minutes, even longer, for the heart rate and breathing rate to return to normal, for the muscles to regain the strength depleted during the exercise, and in general for the subject to regain his/her wits. If a subject walks out of the room appearing as if nothing has happened, then you can be sure that nothing has happened!

It should be no surprise that most people are so unwilling to exert themselves during exercise. Many have grown up pampered and have never experienced hard physical work of any kind, let alone real exercise. Technology continues to make manual labor a thing of the past. To make matters worse, the newspapers, television news programs, magazines, books, and ignorant fitness instructors have for years been inappropriately lowering the standards of exercise and telling people to: "relax", "go at an easy pace", "stop if you feel discomfort", "exercise should be fun". Now they are even telling us that activities such as grocery shopping, gardening, bird watching, playing with the kids, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator, all qualify as exercise. So, is it any wonder that when I attempt to teach my clients "real" exercise they have such a hard time coming to grips with the reality of hard work?

Though some of the basic human activities previously mentioned may have a place in a healthy, active lifestyle, none of these activities can even scratch the surface of the multitude of physical benefits stimulated by real exercise. An active lifestyle does not replace the need for a structured exercise program. Physical, recreational activity and exercise are two separate things. The benefits of proper exercise, and the stimuli necessary to produce these benefits, cannot be accomplished with recreational activities.

Work of a Demanding Nature . . . The First Essential of Exercise

The most important ingredient in any exercise program is demanding muscular work. It is so important that nearly any exercise method or protocol will stimulate some results if the performance of that protocol results in a high intensity of muscular work. It is also true that any method or protocol devoid of high intensity work, regardless of how well designed and implemented otherwise, will fail to result in meaningful benefits. Certainly there are a number of other factors that contribute to the quality of an exercise program and its ability to stimulate results. However, without demanding work nothing else matters.

To understand why exercise must be hard to be effective, it is first necessary to understand the nature of why the body produces physical improvements. Essentially, the body’s response to exercise -- the building of stronger muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons, increased endurance and physical capacity etc. -- is a defense mechanism. It is your body’s attempt to protect itself from the rigors of demanding work and its associated fatigue.

Demanding muscular work causes the muscles to become very fatigued, thus temporarily weakened. Fatigued and weakened muscles cannot adequately perform their job. Therefore, the body seeks a way to prevent the muscles from being fatigued and weakened again in the future. The way to prevent such a state in the future is to increase the muscle’s strength, endurance and overall physical condition. Then, presumably the next time the muscle encounters demanding work it will be up to the challenge. By producing this improved muscular condition, the body is simply providing for its continued survival.

Consider the following; during exercise, the body performs work of a demanding nature. The key word here is demanding. The work is so demanding, that the body’s physical and metabolic status quo is threatened, though not really harmed. Essentially, exercise issues an ultimatum to your body: "Body, your physical condition and protective margins are inadequate. Adapt to these imposed demands or you will not survive." Then, if all other conditions are right, over the next several days the body responds to the stimulus and adapts itself, becoming stronger and more fit in an attempt to be ready for future bouts of demanding work.

The fundamental concept here is: through exercise we are attempting to cause the body to adapt to an imposed stimulus. The body must have a good reason to adapt, in essence it must be forced to adapt - given no choice. Low intensity, comfortable activity does not challenge the body beyond its already existing abilities. The body is simply engaged within its normal capabilities. Therefore, there is nothing the body needs to adapt to, nothing requiring the body to change.

From a biological perspective, the body prefers not produce strength increases. For example, production of increased muscular strength and the tissue changes associated with this increased strength requires the usage of valuable natural resources, so to speak -- resources which are in limited supply. Furthermore, ongoing maintenance and continued sustenance of this new muscle is metabolically expensive. That is, energy demands, hormonal demands, and nutritional demands are greater and more costly.

Why then should the body spend valuable energy, nutrients, hormones, and other valuable resources to increase and then maintain muscular strength and overall physical condition if its present condition is already quite capable of sustaining the demands being placed upon it? Answer: It shouldn’t and it won’t. The body will not produce these changes unless the changes are absolutely necessary. These changes are not absolutely necessary unless there is a very strong stimulus present – the stimulus of demanding physical work carried to the point of deep fatigue.

By now you might be asking: How do we know when we’ve worked hard enough to stimulate results?

First, understand that the specific objective we need to accomplish during exercise is to affect a deep level of fatigue within the targeted muscles. We call this "inroading" a muscle’s strength level. Inroad describes the "depth" of fatigue caused by the exercise. The concept of demanding work is merely a necessary part of the process.

The exact amount of inroad necessary to stimulate results is not known. However, we do know that low to moderate levels of fatigue/inroad are not adequate. Additionally, there is no harm in causing more fatigue than necessary and there is some evidence that the higher the inroad the better the results. Furthermore, the universal motivational problem is inadequate exercise intensity hence inadequate inroad, not excessive inroad. Therefore, assurance of the minimum level of inroad requires working as deeply and intensely as possible. Practically speaking we must carry an exercise to the point where the muscle becomes completely incapable of producing further movement against the resistance despite 100 percent effort on the part of the subject to produce movement. We call this working to failure. If you give up prior to this stage, or do not give maximum effort, it is unlikely you have stimulated much if anything in the way of meaningful improvements.

In summary, if we expect anything in the way of meaningful results from exercise, including noticeable visual changes in body shape and appearance etc., we must exercise in such a way that challenges our bodies beyond our already existing capabilities. We must literally "command" our bodies to take action in response to the physical demands. Only then will the body adapt.

The Immediate Physical Responses to Exercise

Executed properly, exercise is unpleasant to perform. It must be if the body is going to be forced to adapt and improve.

Some of the main physical manifestations resultant during the performance of proper exercise are: labored breathing, increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, increased metabolic rate, muscle ache from fatigue, a burning sensation in the lungs, increased body temperature, and sweating.

Since these physiological responses are a completely natural and unavoidable by-product of proper exercise, do not be alarmed when you experience them during your own workouts. Also, do not assume that since the work is demanding and you are experiencing these feelings that the work is too hard or that the weight you are lifting is too heavy. The weight is basically a tool used to cause demanding work and the exact responses your body is producing.

Provided that you use correct form and technique during the performance of the exercise, and you are capable of completing the minimum number of repetitions required, the weight is not too heavy. If your form and technique is poor or, you seem unable to complete the minimum amount of repetitions, don’t automatically blame too much weight as the cause. The first place to look for the source of the problem is at you and your own effort and desire to use strict form and persevere, not at the weight. Many people blame too much weight as the cause of their poor form and technique. They convince themselves they can’t perform proper technique simply because the exercise is difficult. In reality the body is quite capable if only the person would be willing to put forth greater effort and more concentration.

Claiming the weight is too heavy is really a roundabout way of complaining that the exercise is too hard. The individual is seeking to have the weight load lessened in order to make the exercise easier, i.e. to avoid hard work. To be successful you must want to do the work. You must get out of the comfort zone and call out the body’s reserves of strength and use your muscle’s full ability to perform the work being demanded.

Do not become frustrated and panicked by the fatigue and other physiological responses. Do not deviate from proper form in order to lift the weight or in any way attempt to make the exercise easier or avoid the fatigue. Most of all, do not give up! Give your best effort to carry on the work until the muscle is incapable. Notice I said until the muscle is incapable, not just when you "think" that it is incapable or when you no longer prefer to keep trying.

Intense work and muscle fatigue do not cause injury. The only thing that can cause injury is excessive force. Excessive force is most likely to occur from improper lifting technique and fast movements, not the weight. You could for example attempt to lift your car without ever encountering excessive force or suffering an injury if you attempt to lift the car properly. Regardless of the weight level, you are the only one who has control over your own actions. If you use proper form and stay in control you have nothing to worry about. All that will occur is the muscle will become too fatigued to continue the exercise.


Exercise pits our natural instincts against our intellect. Our instincts tell us to avoid demanding physical activities that cause fatigue, but our intellect tells us we must perform them in order to demand that our bodies adapt. In this case, to obtain best results we must use our intellect to override our instincts and carry on the demanding work. Great motivation is required to carry on in the face of these uncomfortable feelings. You must always remember that despite these feelings you are experiencing and the events taking place, they are not really harming you. They are simply an unavoidable by-product of demanding muscular work and serve to remind us that the demands we are imposing on our bodies make worthwhile improvements possible.

It is not possible to exercise properly and simultaneously avoid these uncomfortable feelings. Attempting to do so, or attempting to make exercise fun, unavoidably denies the very nature and existence of exercise.

An activity that is fun to perform and does not result in the previously mentioned physical manifestations does not qualify as exercise. Fun and enjoyable pastime activities and recreation do carry some healthful physical benefits. However, these activities will not and cannot stimulate the multitude of exclusive physical changes that only exercise can stimulate. Only when you acknowledge and accept these facts, rather than fight them and try to avoid them, will you truly benefit from exercise.

Stay motivated and disciplined and always put forth your best effort despite the uncomfortable feelings present -- your body will reward you for it. 

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