Extreme Conditioning Programs: Good for Your Health or Just Risky Business?

Become a beast. Train like a warrior. Get fit fast!  Such are the tag lines of today’s oh-so popular fitness regimens that tout that you, too can become an invincible, perfectly trained specimen of rock solid muscle in a mind-blowing 90 days or less.

Extreme conditioning programs are typically categorized as high intensity, high volume exercise intended to improve overall physique at a rapid pace.  Many of these programs came in to the limelight several years ago and in our world of instant gratification, they took off in mainstream fitness circles as the new mania.  Though often promoted as military or mixed martial arts type training, it was actually divisions of the U.S. Armed Forces that first started to question the safety of these programs.  Since then, multiple recommendations have been issued to raise awareness about the signs of over-exercising among military personnel and medical teams.  If the military is concerned, civilians should probably heed the warnings as well. 

It is true that you that if you want to become better, faster or stronger… you have to train.  You have to push beyond your comfort zone to see results.  Not true, however, is the thought that to see results more quickly, you have to work repeatedly harder and longer.  There is a tipping point at which the level of intense exercise becomes detrimental to your health and where performance actually starts to decline. This tipping point is different for everyone and depends on your baseline level of fitness. In extreme circumstances, a rare but serious complication of too much exercise called exertional rhabdomyolysis can result.

Please note that I said such serious complications from too much exercise are RARE.  Don’t go off and tell all your friends that exercise is dangerous and so THAT’S why you don’t do it. Extreme conditioning programs can be highly effective for achieving great results, but they’re not for everyone, and need to be implemented in a safe way.

Here are some tips for getting started:

Know what you are getting in to.  Go watch a class or review the program in detail.  Find out specifics of how it ramps up and exactly what it entails.  If week 2 includes things like hauling tree trunks around or tossing tractor tires, you might want to think twice.

Be cautious with home programs.  Many intense programs are available on DVDs for use at home.  These can be very convenient, but convenience comes with risk when there’s no one there to give you feedback on what you’re doing right or wrong.  If pre-workout instructions are part of the series, be sure to watch them.  Poor technique often gets worse as intensity increases and frequently leads to injury.

Don’t jump right in.  If you do not already have a basic level of fitness established, extreme conditioning should not be step 1 in your exercise comeback.  Seek the advice of a medical professional to learn the best way to get started.

Keep a log.  Track your workouts, and how you felt afterwards.  If signs of injury or over-training arise, you’ll be able to tell what changed and what the cause may be.

Pay attention to signs of trouble. A decline in performance, sudden trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and painful joints and muscles may all indicate that you’re exercising too intensely. Increase rest periods, decrease intensity and make sure exercises are being performed correctly.  If symptoms don’t subside after backing off, seek medical attention.

Consult a professional.  Just because someone looks physical fit doesn’t mean they are trained in exercise prescription.  Exercise regimens should be tailored to the individual taking into consideration all components of health.  If you are in the Philadelphia region, visit Magee’s Wellness Center for expert advice on how to start exercising safely.

We want to hear from you! Have you tried any extreme conditioning program? What did you think?

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