How More Sweat Doesn't Always Mean a Better Workout

Sweaty basketball scene from Along Came Polly

Sweaty basketball scene from Along Came Polly

Sweat is not fat crying, it is your muscles and organs crying.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Just as it would be inappropriate to gauge a therapy session on how much you've cried, the same rule applies to sweat and working out. Some people react to stimuli by sweating, some people sweat regardless. Some can get their heat rates up without sweating, while others will sweat profusely no matter the ease of the activity. It would be irrational to assume someone who is always crying to be emotionally healthy, just as it would be to assume someone who is always sweating is physically fit. (In fact, excessive sweating can be a sign of health issues.) 

Fool's Gold: Obvious Choices Can Lead to Uneducated Decisions

Sweat is one of many reactions the body will go through, but the reaction that is most important is that of adaptation. We rely on sweat because it's obvious. You can see it, smell it, feel it, and sometimes you can hear it dripping onto the floor—physical fool's gold. What you cannot see with the naked eye, initially, is whether sweat made your body any better.

The Common Approach Is Literally Stupid

Your brain is made of fat and water, and it needs both to rebuild and work properly. But the common approach to exercise is to reduce fat and sweat to reduce water weight. There is truth to the stereotype of dumb exercisers, because depleting your brain of fat and water can only make the brain dumber. This is not a judgment but a scientific truth.

Equal Parts Science, Trust, Tracking, and Patience

Like any investment, the productivity of a workout is difficult to gauge in real time. You must trust the process. Base your workouts around science, then trust the science over sweat, vomit, and tears. Keep track of your workouts and log your progress to see what the data shows. Rely on the evidence before you.

Track for the Body:

  • Total fat percentage
  • Visceral fat (fat around the organs)
  • Hip to waist ratio
  • Body Mass Index (BMI)
  • Waist to height ratio
  • Skeletal muscle percentage
  • Log all meals
  • Log quality and quantity of sleep
  • Stress (rating your stress from 1 to 5 every day)
  • Weight
  • Two-week running weight average

Track for the Workouts:

  • Number of workouts a week
  • Types of workouts (what exactly you did and any progress change)
  • Protocols (for instance are you following: high intensity training, German volume training, 5x5, CrossFit WOD, etc.)
  • Duration (how long your workout lasted)

A holistic approach to data: seeing the relationships between all the variables. What's important is using this information to calculate the optimal effective dosage of workouts. Improvements take time, have enough information to calculate a two-week running average, as what you do or eat now will actually show up two weeks from now.

If you act harmfully, but you do not see the effect of your behavior instantly, you may continue the harmful action. However, adverse outcomes may take time to appear. Inversely, if you act healthfully but prematurely stop when there is no immediate results, you will rob yourself of future benefits. (It's the same as someone who removes money from a savings account because they don't realize it takes 30 days for interest to accumulate and pay out.) Sweat fosters instant gratification, which is why it's misleading.

Being upset that an acorn didn't turn into a mighty oak tree overnight may cause you to uproot that acorn and try something else. In the future, will you associate the lack of trees with your past actions? If you only pay attention to those instant reactions, like sweat, you might not. You might end up in a state of confusion and limbo, losing weight and getting fit for brief periods accidentally, never knowing what triggered those adaptations. An oak tree is merely a steadfast acorn.

Sweat Obsession Can Create an Unhealthy Mindset

(Cry Baby | Tania Van Den Berghen)

(Cry Baby | Tania Van Den Berghen)

It's possible to sweat enough where you'll be lighter than when you started. That's not "real" weight loss, that's the amount of water you've lost. 77% of muscle is water; there is nearly no water in fat. All the water you are draining, then, is coming from muscle. You will have to replenish that water or face serious health consequences. Do this long enough and you will create permanent metabolic damage. (When muscles work, it sweats. But trying to completely dehydrate yourself is dangerously misguided. Cutting water weight consistently kills wrestlers, fighters, and dieters.)

Sweat is not fat crying, it is your muscles and organs crying. Incessant crying will not melt away depression, it can make it worse. Excessive emphasis on sweat will not melt away fat, and in fact, may cause damage to both your physical and mental health. Hard work is hard work, whether you sweat, bleed, or cry. (Pushing yourself too hard to tears is called trauma. Pushing yourself too hard to sweat is rhabdomyolysis.) Do not focus on the byproduct, look instead to effort.

Not Real Weight Loss but Real Physical Damage

Working out only to induce sweat (using heat, clothing, excessive intensity, duration, or cardio) can create a vicious cycle where hunger surges and weight increases. Your hungrier than before, you see that you've lose some water weight and consider sweat to mean effort, so you feel entitled to eat more. You think you've earned it. Over time your weight increases and at first you attribute this to muscle gain, but in reality you're losing muscle and gaining fat. And you can't see what's really happening because your body is that depleted.

Sweat or no, the focus shouldn't be on the short term byproducts, but on creating the right training adaptations. If you happen to sweat, great. If you don't, so what? I suspect with better technology, we'll have better ways to track the intensity of a workout. If you are broken down to tears or vomiting from exercising, you have pushed too far. Exercise isn't a form of punishment, it's supposed to make us better than when we started.

Summary

Correlation is when two things are related, like tears and healing, sweat and fitness. Sometimes healing causes tears but crying does not necessarily mean healing. The same is true of sweat, sometimes physical adaptation causes sweat, but sweat does not cause adaptation. Track your workouts, track what you eat, track how you sleep, and track your measurements (so long as it does not stress you out. If it does, immediately stop). Have enough data to separate the signal from the noise. The focus of a workout should be on improvement, not great dramatic effect.

Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):

  • The most useful tracker I've found is the Fitbit
  • Omron makes a practical scale that tells you muscle, visceral fat, subcutaneous fat, and more
  • Tim Ferriss really changed how people view exercise and productivity with The 4-Hour Body
  • Dave Asprey wrote The Bulletproof Diet to show that you can make big changes even if you are a busy executive with limited time
  • Body by Science - John Little, Doug McGuff
  • Chris Kresser condensed a lot of his best practices as a clinician into The Paleo Cure