By Boko Suzuki
© 2016

I was working out at Red Rocks Amphitheater the other day (pictured above) as were many people of all different fitness levels. I couldn’t help but notice some people doing things to make their workout more difficult; one was holding planks for what seemed like a really long time, another was working out with weights wrapped around her ankles and a third was wearing a training mask. But WHY? Were these people getting a better workout?

I believe the answer lies in challenging our assumption that a more difficult workout is a more effective workout, an assumption so common that most of us never consider examining it. If walking on an elliptical machine is an effective workout, then surely walking on an elliptical while operating the handles or lifting dumbbells is surely more effective. Right? Adding more time to your plank or wearing ankle weights or a training mask must also add to the effectiveness of an exercise. RIGHT?

I propose that these things more often than not actually REDUCE the effectiveness of a workout. Now before you start collecting villagers with torches and pitchforks, stay with me for a moment. The effectiveness of a workout doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it must be measured against the goal of the workout. If the purpose of a workout is, for example, to improve one’s speed, quickness, and agility for playing soccer, ankle weights will be counterproductive. When training one’s body, we are also training our central nervous system (CNS). If we train ourselves to run quickly, our CNS remembers that; but if we train ourselves to run slowly, our body and CNS become accustomed to being slow.

Ankle weights, besides the fact that they increase our likelihood for injury because of the additional stress on our knee joints, make us move more slowly. Not effective for speed training. But what about the additional resistance? Surely that’s beneficial for building strength? Well, not really. Let’s say our ankle weights weigh 3-5 pounds each. Is that an optimal amount of resistance to build leg strength? If we compare it to a squat with a 135-pound barbell or a leg press with 180 pounds, it’s pretty easy to see that doing weight training using a resistance that actually challenges our lower body muscles combined with speed training with no resistance is going to be more effective than “speed” training with ankle weights. But what about the additional calorie burn? If our ankle weight wearer is a 130 pound woman, simply moving her body weight is going to burn a lot of calories. Will wearing ankle weights that are less than 10% of her body weight going to make much of a difference? I think not.

But this is just my opinion, based on my experience of training hundreds of people and observing many more. I’m not saying ankle weights or training masks are evil; I think we’d be better off by challenging long-held assumptions rather than taking them as fact. Take the plank, a great core exercise when used correctly. What could even a curmudgeon like me possibly have against the plank? Well, let’s first dispel the myth that a plank is a good place to start your core training. It’s not because a plank is NOT A BEGINNER EXERCISE. Most people who are starting an exercise program don’t have the core strength or body awareness to hold a proper plank. People typically either hold a plank with their belly sagging down, a position which can create a lot of low back strain, or they hold a plank with their butt sticking in the air, a position that exacerbates the most common postural flaw of an anterior pelvic tilt and rounded back.

In order to hold a good plank position, you MUST first correct your postural alignment and shore up your deep core stabilizers, preferably under the guidance of a fitness professional. Let’s say you have a good plank position that you can hold for 30 seconds. Then a one-minute plank must be twice as good and a two-minute plank four times as effective, right? RIGHT?? Well, again ask yourself what the goal of your training is. Unless you want to get in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest plank in history, I can’t imagine what the usefulness of a four-minute plank would be.

Here’s a concept that I think you’ll find useful: If you can do an exercise for 12-15 repetitions or for a minute with no problems, it’s time to PROGRESS the exercise rather than to simply do it for a longer time. Some great progressions for a plank are to use a stability tool like a BOSU or a physioball or to take away one of your points of support by lifting a leg or an arm. Much more challenging . . . and in my opinion, a lot more interesting.

So what about the dude working out wearing a training mask? He looks like Bane from the Dark Knight movies so he must be getting an amazing workout, right? It’s harder to breathe in a training mask so surely that would increase your cardiovascular fitness. Plus, we’ve seen pictures of famous athletes wearing them so it MUST work, right? RIGHT??? (Okay, I promise to stop doing that.)

Here’s what my research tells me: There’s a chance that just possibly there may be some small benefit to wearing a training mask (hey, training mask manufacturer – how about a sponsorship?). But there are many red flags. On the website trainingmask.com there are references to numerous studies proving its effectiveness but none of these studies are cited. As a rule, claims made without citing independent and unbiased studies cannot be taken seriously. The independent research I’ve looked at shows little benefit from using the training mask. So why would a high profile athlete use it?

Imagine being a highly paid professional athlete who is always looking for a leg up on your competitors; are you going to wait for independent research and corroboration or are you going to simply try the new gadget on the off chance that it just might help? So for you, I would ask: Is it worth the expense and partial asphyxiation to use something that probably doesn’t work?

Here’s the point of all this: I’m not saying that ankle weights, planks, or training masks are inherently bad. But in practice, they seem to often simply make the workout harder and less enjoyable with little benefit. Here are my recommendations:

  • Challenge your assumptions about exercise. Don’t just do something because you’ve seen others do it or because you’ve heard it might work.
  • Ask yourself: What is the goal of my workout and is this helping me reach that goal?
  • Rather than making a workout harder and more grueling, think about what might make the workout more enjoyable. Chances are, you’ll work harder and reap more benefits.

As always, check this website for more articles and advice. E-mail me with your questions and feedback and I’ll do my best to help you on your fitness journey!