It took years of having a torrid, on-again-off-again relationship with working out to finally discover a deep and abiding love for fitness—and a six-pack. My secret? I gave myself a break and stopped asking myself to be so hardcore. Seriously, rarely do I give more than 70 percent of my max effort.
It’s hard to believe that you don’t have to torture yourself to be fit, especially when every ripped-AF person you meet at a coffee shop is raving about the CrossFit class that just made their eyes bleed (… awesome!). Besides, conventional bro wisdom and even scientific studies declare that the harder you work out, the better results you get. (Failure, bro!!! You gotta get to failure, BRO!!!) Yep, I swallowed that blue pill too.
It’s just that hardcore workouts NEVER worked for me.
People thought I was fit because I had the highest PT score in my battalion—as a former medic, I could run 20 miles at the drop of a hat and knock out 130 push-ups in a minute. But despite being able to perform under pressure, I never felt fit.
That might’ve had something to do with the fact that I always had some sort of catastrophic injury that kept me from being consistent and gaining muscle. And truthfully, injury was okay with me because I hated working out. It was a high-stress, low-fun thing for me, and I’d take any excuse to avoid it.
So I settled for being “skinny fat” and semi-sedentary throughout my early- to mid-20s, only reverting to binges of hardcore exercise when I got fed up with the way my body looked and felt, and always burning out or getting injured. I was basically a bulimic exerciser.
That you could enjoy your workouts and essentially be a balanced human being hadn’t occurred to me yet (failure, bro, failure!!!). But shortly after I turned 28, I came across one of those YouTube videos that just happens to resonate with you in a satori-like moment from God (is there an algorithm for that?). And it had me drinking a new flavor of Kool-Aid within 24 hours.
Firas Zahabi, head coach at Tristar Gym, was featured on the Joe Rogan Show, where he talked about reducing exercise intensity for more consistency, better form, and more gains. That’s where I learned about the 70 percent principle: Only on rare occasions, Zahabi says, should you extend yourself past 70 percent of your perceived maximum effort. Basically that means fewer hardcore workouts and more “softcore” workouts.
Certified personal trainer Shawn Mynar agrees, saying that workouts for overall fitness should primarily be full body and low intensity, with your exertion level somewhere between 60-70 percent of your perceived max.
The idea is never to be fatigued so that you can do high-quality reps all throughout the day—we’re talking anywhere from five to seven 3-5 minute mini-workouts—that way, you can continue working out the next day (when hardcore lifters can barely get off the pot). It was good enough for elite marathoners and weightlifters, so I gave it a shot.
I was hooked after the first day.
The first thing I noticed was that I actually enjoyed the workouts. Instead of going cross-eyed and crying in a corner (OK… maybe it was never that bad), my “softcore” mini-workouts were no longer than a coffee break—and just as energizing.
I did my first 5 sets of 10 push-ups at 9 a.m. and was ready for the second round by 10, then repeated the cycle every hour or two until sunset—either hitting the floor right next to my writing desk or sauntering to a park five minutes from my house.
The best part was that instead of looking to the clock and thinking, Ugh… I’ve gotta go work out, I actually couldn’t wait to break away from work to use my body and feel like a human being again. It was totally stress-free and fun, which is the exact opposite of what working out had always been for me.
And yeah, I work from home—so you might be thinking, um, this sounds super inaccessible, but I know a guy who used a conference room in his office for the same type of training. Where there’s a will (and a decently flexible work environment), there’s a way.
I ended up finishing the day with about 300 push-ups total, which was more than I would normally do in my hardcore days, and I felt awesome—no strains, no DOMS, no crying in dark corners. I did pull-ups the next day (each round was 3 sets of 7), and the same thing happened—I just wanted to go back to my bar and do more and more, because now that I wasn’t killing myself, I could actually enjoy the movement and feel energized.
I worked in days of burpees, just five at a time, short sprints of 40 yards, squats, planks, weight training—rarely going over 70 percent max. And it was the same story for each: I fell more in love with fitness after each set. No injuries, no burnout. Just more energy and results.
Friends and family were commenting on my changing physique within the first month.
My (admittedly kinda weird) family members started talking about my “nice tummy.” By month two, I had a defined six-pack for the first time in my life, and my notoriously hollow upper chest was finally starting to fill out. The fact that I was still working out by the third month was a testament to how well the 70 percent rule had worked for me because I’d never stuck with anything for that long.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a type of person that can get energized by crazy-intense workouts. It’s just that I was never that person, try as I did. The best part of it all? After years of dreading exercise, working out this way finally sparked my love for fitness. And that’s something everyone can use.
Dan Dowling is a writer and coach in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Got some fitness or career goals you’re putting off? Swing by his blog, Millennial Success.