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Fitness Training for the Soul

Fitness Training for the Soul

The principle of progressive overload

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Have you ever done a workout that left you feeling incredibly sore for the next few days? Have you ever tried to repeat that workout shortly after regaining the use of your legs? If you did, as long as you kept the intensity the same during the second workout, you were probably not nearly as sore for as long as you were the first time. This is called the repeated bout effect, which means that when your body undergoes the same stress a second or third time, it is better able to undergo the stresses of the activity without rendering you immobile for days afterwards. If you do this enough, the exercise of choice will no longer be a challenge for your body to complete—it will have adapted.

There is always more you can do

This is why it is important to employ the principle of progressive overload, whereby the demand you place on your body becomes increasingly harder, and therefore your body is forced to adapt over and over again, molding you into a fitter, stronger, healthier person and athlete. With advanced training strategies, people are learning to push the limits of human athleticism beyond anything we ever dreamed possible.

How, you ask, is this related to Torah? Since Torah is G‑d’s knowledge, it is infinite, as G‑d Himself is infinite. So, as with fitness and health, where there is always more you can do to become bigger, stronger and faster, there is also always more Torah to learn, a deeper layer of meaning, a new perspective. Like health and fitness, learning Torah is a process that is largely individual—each one of us must take our own steps toward our own goals, according to our own level and abilities. Nobody can do it for us. We must be the ones to invest in ourselves and our future.

Adding regular exercise training into your schedule can have a seemingly infinite number of positive effects on your physical, mental and emotional health. However, like many things in life, if abused or implemented incorrectly, exercise training can be detrimental to all aspects of health as well. One of the common phenomena experienced by high-level exercisers and athletes is what is known as overtraining, characterized by a drop in performance, a decline in health status, and lethargic mentality, despite the progressive overload applied to their exercise regimen. This doesn’t make sense—if the stimulus for adaptation is there in the exercise, how come the body is doing the opposite of what it is supposed to do and declining in health status across the board, physically, physiologically and mentally?

The answer is inadequate recovery. Like many physiological systems, the immune system also responds to exercise, and is important to the recovery process, enabling our bodies to rebuild following challenging workouts. Exercising over and over again without allowing the body to recover actually results in the body’s breakdown. The body needs to rest to allow itself to rebuild, rather than breaking itself down via the activation of inflammatory pathways, which prevents muscle protein synthesis, creates a sensation of fatigue and lethargy, and makes the host more susceptible to infection.

Even elite endurance athletes have trouble internalizing this idea, which seems counterintuitive. It is common practice before big competitions for athletes to undergo a taper period, reducing their volume and duration of exercise training so that they will “peak” or perform at their best on the big day. But the duration and volume of their workouts must be reduced so much that many of them don’t taper properly; they work themselves harder than they are supposed to because it seems like the logical thing to do before a competition. Of course, we find that those who adhere to good tapering programs prior to a competition usually perform better than those who don’t.

This idea is reflected in our daily lives. We are all working toward something. Whether it’s getting a degree, earning a living, raising a family or building a community, we all have goals that we are striving day in and day out to achieve. To us, the path to success is a pretty logical one: The more we work for it, the more we chip away at the obstacles, the more time we invest, the closer we get to achieving our goals. But G‑d tells us otherwise in the fourth commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the L‑rd your G‑d. On it you shall not do any manner of work—you, your son, your daughter, your man-servant, your maidservant, your cattle and your stranger that is within your gates. For in six days the L‑rd made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day, wherefore the L‑rd blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

G‑d is telling us, “Yes, you can work hard for all of the things you want—but not on Shabbat!” But what about our logical path to success, that the harder we work, the more time we invest, the more likely we are to succeed? According to the fourth commandment, this is true for six days of the week, but not the seventh. In fact, we are told that nothing good can come from any work that is done on Shabbat. Working on Shabbat will not bring us closer to our goals—instead, it will set us back.

Recovery enhances our health and performance

Just as the “rest period” is actually an essential part of our training program, resting on Shabbat is actually an essential component of our success the rest of the week. Resting on Shabbat may seem like a frustrating break from what needs to get done, when really it is what propels us even closer to our goals. It may seem counterintuitive, but recovery enhances our health and performance, and resting on Shabbat enhances our work and progress.

It’s a matter of perspective. We have the ability to look into the Torah that G‑d gave us and see rules and limitations that supposedly “hold us back” from the things that we want in life. Or, we can look into the Torah and see the divine wisdom clothed in what appears at first to be boundaries and restrictions, but what are really building blocks propelling us beyond anything we could have imagined.

We can be the athletes who don’t taper properly because it doesn’t make sense or feel right, or we can be the athletes who are willing to embrace what is seemingly paradoxical, who do taper properly and perform better during competition.

The choice is ours.

Rachel Graff is a Mayanot Women's Program Alum working on her PhD in exercise physiology at the University of Houston in Houston, TX.
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