The old saying ‘No pain, no gain’ is both misleading and potentially harmful. Exercising at high intensities too often can cause over-training. As well as draining us of motivation and making us feel fatigued, over-training can increase injury risk.
Watson warns us that ‘Training periods that are too long or too intense, and recovery periods that are too short, inhibit adaptations and may even result in tissue breakdown,’ (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance).
It’s for these reasons that we should intersperse high-intensity training with easy workouts. In fact, according to Matt Fitzgerald, author of 80/20 Running, eight out of ten workouts should be conducted at a low intensity.
In addition to reducing injury susceptibility, easy workouts do not deplete us of energy and exercise enthusiasm. Also, they provide us with an opportunity to focus on what Nick Grantham calls MQT or movement quality training. MQT is a form of low-intensity exercise where we refine our technique and pay attention to quality as opposed to quantity.
So, with that said, either start the workouts or stick around to discover some surprising benefits of training easy.
Easy workouts act as exercise recovery
Training at high intensities (often shortened to HIT) is an essential factor in improving fitness. Lee Driver, author of HIIT: High-Intensity Interval Training, maintains that HIT is a more effective exercise method for encouraging physiological adaptations. This is the biological process that can promote the following training effects:
Enhanced muscle endurance
Improved cardiovascular fitness
Improved sports and athletic performance
However, as briefly mentioned in the introduction, frequently exercising at high intensities increases injury risk. Muscles need time to recover so that the body can repair damaged tissue. Working them too hard too often impedes this process.
But contrary to common misunderstanding, recovery doesn’t just involve taking days off training and sitting on the couch. Studies have shown that low-intensity training sessions actively facilitate muscle repair. When we do easy workouts blood flow increases. This delivers essential nutrients to the muscles which are used to rebuild damaged tissues.
So, next time you take it easy at the gym, don’t beat yourself up or think that you’re being a slacker. Remember, easy workouts support recovery while also providing the opportunity to engage in MQT.
Related: Try this Low-Impact Cardio Workout
Use easy workouts to focus on quality
The optimal time to improve your skillset and technique is during low-intensity easy workouts. All athletes and sporting practitioners dedicate specific training sessions to improving technical performance. For example, cyclists practice peddling in circles (as opposed to squares) while boxers spend hours each week perfecting their pugilism.
Exercisers of all stripes should follow in these well-trodden footsteps. Setting sessions aside for what Nick Grantham calls ‘movement quality training’ can confer a wealth of benefits (The Strength & Conditioning Bible).
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, MQT involves low-intensity workouts where we focus on quality as opposed to quantity. After a gentle 10-minute warm-up you might progress through this full-body kettlebell workout.
However, you’d use a light kettlebell, and your training objective would be to improve the technical application of each exercise. MQT sessions should be conducted at a relaxed, easy pace. Sets are interlaced with long rest periods where we either stretch or isolate specific movements or transition phases.
The benefits of MQT, Grantham observes, include:
Improved motor patterns
Enhanced body control
Synchronisation to finely coordinate movement and motor function
Augmented kinaesthetic awareness
Improved technical application
Four easy workouts
The four easy workouts that follow have been designed around different training facilities. For example, the first easy workout is tailored to suit a public gym. As you would expect, the exercises selected involve resistance equipment and cardio machines.
The second workout is a super-simplified sweat session that can be completed outside, on your turbo trainer, or at the gym. In addition to being easy, this workout requires little to no training equipment.
Our third easy workout has been crafted with the home gym in mind. Comprised of callisthenics, cardio, and light resistance exercises, you could do this workout almost anywhere – at home, at the office, or (if you're feeling super-committed) on holiday.
And the final easy workout involves a gentle circuit that can be completed at your local park. All you need is a stretch of open space to jog around a patch of ground to complete a bodyweight progression.
Easy warm up
Even though these are easy workouts we should still warm up. A 10-minute progress intensity warm-up of an appropriate nature facilitates many important physiological changes (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance). These changes, such as elevated heart rate and raised core and muscle temperature, prepare the body for sustained exercise.
And even if you’re exercising at a low intensity, there is still a risk of injury. Warming up reduces that risk while also improving motivation and physical performance (The Complete Guide To Strength Training).
To ensure that you are thoroughly prepared for the easy workouts, an all-purpose warm-up process has been produced. The process can be applied to any form of training – even sports and athletics. All you have to do is select the exercises and modulate your intensity levels.
Easy workouts #1: gym workout
This gym workout is comprised of distinct training phases. The first phase, of course, is the warm-up. When warm and ready you will embark on a 10-minute bout of MQT. This phase affords you a relaxed environment where you can practice specific exercise techniques. During MQT you must observe two rules. First, resistances remain low – less than 30% of your one-repetition max. Second, recovery periods between techniques are long – a minute minimum. Remember, you can always stretch during your rests.
Concluding the second phase you will begin the workout proper. This involves performing light lifts on a selection of compound exercises. The third phase is scheduled for 30 minutes.
After a series of easy lifts, you will finish up with a gentle bout of aerobic exercise. Hop on a cardio machine of your choice – bike, runner, rower, cross-trainer – and proceed to sustain a pace that doesn’t cause you to sweat. If you taper the intensity right down over the final five minutes this will constitute your cool-down.
Now all that’s left to do is stretch, shower, and replenish.
Workout key points
Complete this all-purpose gym warm-up.
Using an unloaded Olympic barbell or broomstick (the weapon of choice for sweeping away poor technique), practice the techniques listed.
For 30 minutes you are to complete the six compound exercises. To uphold the easy workout ethos, you should resist the temptation to increase the resistance above 50% of max effort.
For the final stage of the workout enjoy a relaxed cool-down (five minutes on a stationary bike will suffice) and whole-body stretch.
Easy workouts #2: cardiovascular exercise
Sometimes it’s nice to dispense with sets, reps, and resistance training formulas and instead just do some cardio. Cardio-only sessions provide a low-intensity alternative to other conventional forms of exercising. As well as being comparatively stress-free, cardio workouts confer loads of health and fitness benefits.
Daniel Liberman, in his book Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest & Health, reminds us that aerobic training is a more effective method of burning fat. Furthermore, people that regularly engage in cardio exercise enjoy a reduced risk of several serious diseases – including, cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
In addition to being easy, this workout couldn’t be simpler. Your only objective is to sustain low-intensity aerobic output for between 20 and 60 minutes. You get to dictate the workout duration and cardio exercise.
Workout key points
Warm up before starting the workout (you can, of course, integrate the warm-up into the main session).
Select your cardio exercise of choice: rowing, running, cycling, skipping, airdyne cycling, the cross-trainer – even swimming.
Decide the session duration: 20 to 60 minutes.
Sustain a low-intensity output.
Conclude your workout with a cool-down and stretch.
Then hit the showers – and don’t forget to hydrate!
Easy workouts #3: fitness and conditioning
You can enjoy this easy workout in the comfort of your own home. While it does require some basic exercise equipment, it can still be adapted for even the most parsimonious of home gyms. For example, if you don’t have a resistance band or a competition kettlebell kicking about, you can make subtle substitutes with equipment-independent exercises until you treat yourself.
But the bulk of the workout is comprised of bodyweight exercises. It begins with a 10-minute Yoga flow. Don’t worry, you won’t be required to do anything technical. Just a series of slow sun salutations and simple stretches.
After paying homage to Patanjali, you’ll progress up a bodyweight pyramid. This involves ascending a repetition ladder: one rep, followed by two, then three, and so on.
Again, as with all the easy workouts, the objective is to maintain a low intensity for the duration.
Workout key points
Warm up with 10 minutes of Yoga.
When warm and limber (and probably feeling a sense of satisfaction and inner calm), complete the 20-minute bodyweight pyramid.
Optional: With the pyramid done and dusted, it’s time to transition to the kettlebell and resistance band pairing. Here you will be oscillating between the exercises for a total of 10 minutes.
Resolve the workout with a 10-minutes of gentle aerobic exercise – this could be a walk around the block or a slow cycle.
Stretch, shower, and then treat yourself to one of these uber-healthy plant-based meals.
Easy workouts #4: morning fitness
This morning fitness routine is a perfect way to ease into the day. It engages all the major muscle groups while also kickstarting the cardiovascular system and firing up the metabolism.
The workout is fully customisable, and the intensity can be modulated to suit your mood and energy levels on waking. Organised into a circuit, one complete lap consists of an 800-metre jog followed by a series of bodyweight exercises.
However, none of the exercises is set in stone. For example, though this morning routine is designed to be completed outdoors (preferably at a local park), you could just as easily do it at home if you had a stationary bike or rowing machine.
At a gingerly pace, one lap of the circuit takes roughly 6-minutes. But as mentioned before, you can take less or more time depending on your energy levels.
Workout key points
Begin the workout with a 5-minute walk followed by a 5-minute gentle jog.
Now at the training ground, proceed to run around the 800-metre track (or equivalent).
After the run, progress through the four bodyweight exercises – hanging leg raises, press-ups, air squats, and burpees. You are performing a single set of 25 reps on each exercise.
Once the 100 reps have been polished off, get back into the run.
Maintain a low-intensity output for 30 to 60 minutes.
Conclude with a walk home followed by a stretch.
Enjoyed these easy workouts?
Get your hands on 70 more with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 2.