Rahul Rayer, a people manager at a Chennai-based corporate, started exercising in 2016, a mixture of walking and resistance training. He was 64 kilos above his ideal weight back then, he says. The intense training, at that weight, left him with ligament tears in both his ankles. "Even today, after shedding all the weight, I have trouble with my ankles," says Rayer.
Enter a gym today, and you will likely find signage like this occupying pride of place, somewhere on the premises: Go hard or go home; Time to activate beast mode; Today's mood? Beast, and so. Chennai-based strength and conditioning coach Jyotsna John, founder of The Unit, believes this messaging is deeply problematic. "I wish that people stopped believing that tearing yourself down in the gym through soreness and sweat is strength training," she says. Bodybuilding, in particular, has promoted this "whole, no-excuses beast-mode culture," she points out, adding that strength training, as a whole, gets a bad rap because of this.
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Competitive bodybuilding as a sport focuses on the aesthetics of the body, focusing on a physique that demands an unhealthily low body fat percentage (So yes, sustaining a six-pack isn't a great idea). Many fitness influencers and gym trainers are former bodybuilders who often become aspirational role models for recreational exercisers. Instagram, for instance, throws up 503311 posts with the hashtag #trainlikeabeast, a trend John doesn't seem to approve of. "The fitness culture is heavily influenced by bodybuilding," she says. However, bodybuilding is—at the end of the day—a competitive sport. "Any competitive sport is bad for your body," says John, who herself played competitive basketball for 16 years. "Sportspeople know it, but they don't care because they love their sport so much."
The average person who wants to get stronger and feel better doesn't need to work out in beast mode. "They should be preserving their body. Not abusing it," says John. Her opinion is mirrored by Dr Subhash Jangid, Director and Unit Head, Bone and Joint Institute, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram. "Bodybuilders work out so much because it is their profession; it isn't for everyone," he says, adding that working out for 50 minutes to 1 hour, 5-6 days a week, is enough. This fits in with the Mayo Clinic recommendation for most healthy adults: around 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise with two or three strength-training sessions thrown in.
The term beast mode seems to have its origins in the 1988 Sega video game "Altered Beast", where players transform into beast forms to increase combative ability. The term was also linked to ex-NFL player Marshawn Lynch, who had an especially powerful running style. However, in popular gym lingo, it refers to someone training at extremely high volume and intensity. "Influencers go beast mode all the time," says John. "There is an extremely unrealistic level of effort involved in there."
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As anyone who trains regularly knows, the risk of injury is real: this comes from someone with a bad back and worse knees thanks to unscientific and overenthusiastic (the worst combination ever) gym sessions in her twenties. Moderation and consistency are way better for you in the long run than excessive intense activity that destroys your joints, impeding the gradual progress that any well-designed fitness program will ensure. Dr Aghilavendan P, Orthopedic Specialist, Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, is wont to agree. "We see a lot of people with micro-injuries which come without any specific incidents," he says. According to him, overexercising, especially without expert guidance, can cause overuse injuries that spill into physical, mental and social well-being, even causing permanent damage. "Too much of anything is good for nothing," he says, stressing the need for moderation. "Extreme anything is dangerous."
This does not mean, of course, that you perform a few desultory sets on the weight machines and amble for ten minutes on the treadmill (flirting with the girl on the cross-trainer next to you) before calling it a day. "Workouts do need to challenge us," believes Mumbai-based Dolan Acharya, an INFS Certified Fitness and Nutrition Coach at FITTR who won a natural building competition in 2019. However, they need to be appropriately programmed, taking into account the trainee's current fitness level. "We need to progress from where we are," says Acharya. For a beginner, for instance, three days a week of light weights, with a focus on form and technique, maybe enough. "Focus on technique and then increase the load gradually; this will ensure you don't get injured," she says. Jangid agrees. "People want to get fit in the quickest possible time," he says. But fitness, he says, should be seen as a journey. "Start gradually, build up momentum and proceed further."
And yes, if weight loss is the end goal, killing yourself at the gym, courting injury in the process is pretty pointless anyway. "Too many people associate exercise with weight loss; if you want to lose weight, you should be filling up your grocery bag differently," says John. Rayer, too, wishes that he had lost some weight by eating better before he had embarked on such an intense exercise program. "I can never play basketball again because of this," he says.