Fitness Stimulus Plan – Trigger Workouts

Building your own Trigger Workout

Try this method to get in a lot of exercise on days when you don’t have time for a full workout

Whether you are short on time or want to try something new, “trigger workouts (aka. Intermittent workouts) might be just what you’re looking for.

What are Trigger Workouts?

Trigger workouts are simple, effective and made for people working from home. It will make you move more frequently throughout the day for better overall health. You will be doing lots of exercise without needing an hour of uninterrupted time. It will make you take short work breaks that will invigorate your mind. It may even make working out seem easier.

Typically, in a normal workout you will do 3 sets of 12 repetitions of exercises for each major muscle group (10 normally.) The large muscles of the lower body are normally trained before the smaller muscles of the upper body, because these exercises require more mental and physical energy. The stabilizing muscles in the waist should be trained last. These exercises will consist of five basic moves: squat, hinge, push, pull and core work. Overall, you are looking at a total training volume of about 300 repetitions in a single hour’s workout.

But what happens after this hour of hard work while you are working from home? Chances are, you will be sitting in chairs for the rest of the day. That being said, before quarantine you probably sat in even more chairs, like the one you commuted to work in. In other words, that one hour is a brief intermission in a day that is often defined by stillness. Modern workers can spend as much as 15 hours per day in a chair and this can take a toll on our bodies and minds.

What would happen if we reversed this? What if we spend more of the day physically moving, with an hour or two of stillness? This may sound ludicrous but think of construction workers, furniture movers, military personnel and agricultural workers who regularly put in long days of almost continuous movement. Physical activity produces a lot of changes in the body, even after a relatively short time. Muscles contract, circulation increases, nutrients are shuttled into cells, and energy expenditure climbs. The body’s management of insulin improves, and we also see changes in hormonal function and energy metabolism. Our bodies are always adapting to what we are doing in a given moment. If we are sitting still for hours, our bodies are getting better at sitting still for hours. If we are moving around a lot, then recovering from the movement then we will get better at that instead. Fatigue is essentially a complex emotion derived from our body’s past experience and current data. During activity, our brain takes into account things like our hydration status, ambient temperature, humidity, blood glucose levels, body temperature etc. Then it compares these factors against our previous experiences under similar circumstances. The brain uses this information to regulate how much effort we can produce and how tired we feel. For example, runners on a hot humid day will begin their race at a slower pace than they would on a cool, dry day—even though they haven’t yet accumulated mechanical fatigue. Our minds are constantly referring to what we did in the past to decide what we can do today. Most exercise is done using fixed, known quantities, and there’s generally an element of “chasing” pain or fatigue involved. In the case of three sets of twelve squats, completing 36 total reps is known and safe territory. Doing anything more than that is unknown territory and therefore potentially threatening. But when physical activity is shifted away from fixed quantities—and into open-ended performance (that is, it goes on for as long as it has to)—these associations change. Your brain no longer sees your effort level as “this is the most I can do for X time or Y reps.” It sees your effort level as being set at “sustainable for as long as necessary.” This altered association changes your stress response. Not just in the moment, but also in the future—when your brain reflects on past experience to decide how hard an activity should feel.

Distress v. Eustress

The stress response that you’re producing when you exercise—and that you’re teaching your brain to associate with exercise in the future—is an important piece of the training process. We can think of that stress response as being either distress or eustress. Distress, as you’re no doubt aware, is thought of as negative stress. It can feel overwhelming. This can break you down. Eustress is considered positive—it’s usually short lasting and in a “dose” that feels manageable. This can build your resilience.

The division between distress and eustress is driven largely by our perception of two variables: predictability and control. Predictability is essentially our brain’s answer to the question, “Do I know what’s happening, and do I have the resources to cope with it?” Control is our perception of how much influence we can exert over a situation. In a distress state, our sense of predictability and control is low, and the situation is seen as threatening. Our brain is sufficiently uncertain of our ability to handle it. As a result, it ramps up a strong epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) and cortisol-heavy response. In a eustress state, we have a strong sense of predictability and control. Our brain reads the scenario as challenging rather than threatening. Our physiological response is also different. Rather than epinephrine, we produce predominantly more norepinephrine, and less cortisol. The response is more accurately matched to the “mere physiological demand” of the situation, rather than the “better safe than sorry” adrenaline response we feel in a threatening situation. Once the event has passed, we return more quickly back to baseline.

The vastly underrated benefit of intermittent activity

Pavel Tsatsouline, founder and chairman of StrongFirst, made some aspects of this training approach famous when he coined the term greasing the groove. Greasing the groove is as much about motor learning and skill acquisition as it is about stress responses and physiological adaptations. It’s a way to strengthen a motor pattern by practicing it more frequently. Pavel has people practice a strength skill such as a kettlebell swing or a pushup in regular intervals spaced throughout the day. An important piece of this is that you’re not trying to beat yourself up. You’re deliberately staying relaxed and not training to failure. You simply mix in sets of technically crisp, high-quality reps throughout your day.

How to build your own intermittent workout

We call this idea of doing a set (for example 5 repetitions) of an exercise every time you walk past a certain object or are reminded by a timer a ‘Trigger workout’. (It’s way easier to say than “intermittent.”). It’s a great way to improve fitness and motor skills. It may even be more beneficial for certain aspects of health than a one-hour workout done once per day (if you’re otherwise sedentary). It’s also a sneaky way to get in a lot of exercise on days when you otherwise wouldn’t have time for a full workout.

Here’s What You Do

Step 1: Establish your trigger.

This can be anything from a timer to an object in your house. Ex. A dumbbell/kettlebell beside your bathroom door. Every time I walk by it I do a few sets of swings, snatches, or ab movements. Whatever you choose, make it somewhat frequent. Ideally, you’ll be moving around about once per hour. If you’re working from home (like millions of others right now), this gives you enough time to do focused work, while still keeping your body from fusing with your chair. It also gives you a brief, regular break from the mental demands of work. Have several triggers around the house.

Step 2: Pick an exercise.

Generally, choose a movement that works a lot of big muscle groups and that can be done safely without a warmup. Goblet squats, Bodyweight squats, Lunge variations, Pushups, Dumbbell rows, Overhead presses, ab movements like planks or dolphins. You can also mix in some favorite stretches or mobility drills. Come up with a handful of movements, and try to get about an equal mix of upper and lower body movements. For the sake of your shoulders, it’s often helpful to do about twice as many reps of pulling movements—such as rows—as you do pushing movements like pushups.

Step 3: Decide how many reps and sets to do.

The specific number here isn’t critical. You’re just trying to make physical work feel easy. Stay at a level where you don’t feel a significant “burn,” and you’re nowhere near failure. As a general rule, it’s better to do multiple sets of lower reps than one long set of a bunch of reps. For most exercises, try starting with 5 reps at a time.

Step 4: Start your workout.

Here is an example trigger workout that uses exercise at particular times of the day, say every hour.

8 am: 5 pushups, 5 bicycle crunches, repeated for 4 total rounds.

9 am: 5 goblet squats, 10 kettlebell swings, 5 lunges (per side), repeated for 4 total rounds.

10:30 am: 10 dumbbell reverse flies, 5 pushups, repeated for 4 total rounds.

11:30 am: 5 goblet squats, 5 dumbbell rows (per side), repeated for 4 total rounds.

1 pm: 5 dumbbell bicep curls,5 dumbbell tricep kickbacks (per side),5 crunches, repeated for 4 total rounds

2:30 pm: 10-second side plank (per side), 5 dumbbell lunges (per side), repeated for 4 total rounds

3:30 pm: 5 dumbbell rows (per side), 5 single-leg dumbbell deadlifts (per side), repeated for 4 total rounds

4 pm: 5 dumbbell bicep curls,5 dumbbell tricep kickbacks (per side),5 crunches, repeated for 4 total rounds

5 pm: 5 dumbbell overhead presses ,5 bicycle crunches, 30-second plank, repeated for 2 total rounds

Every time you pass by your ‘trigger’ object complete a set or two of your chosen exercises, and repeat this over the course of the day.

Of course, you can also just pick one or two exercises, or a single circuit, and repeat that over the course of the day. Where possible, use trigger workouts with some conventional training, and go play outside. This training method works best when it’s done in combination with the type of maximal strength training and periodic high-intensity work that’s done in a gym (even if that’s your home gym).

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