In fitness, opposites attract. The same way you’d balance out a biceps curl with a triceps move or pair a push with a pull, incorporating dualities in other areas of your training makes you a stronger, more well-rounded athlete, says Julian Ho, a Precision Run instructor at Equinox Yorkville in Toronto.
Being comfortable with opposites also gives you flexibility in solving problems and breaking through plateaus. “When you get stuck in one way of doing things, always know there’s another way of looking at them,” Ho says. Here’s how to harness the power of polarity.
THE OPPOSITES: FAST AND SLOW STRENGTH MOVES
When to slow down: The first time you perform a new exercise, going slowly and deliberately allows you to work on proprioception and lock in the movement patterns, says Matt Delaney, New York City-based national manager of innovation at Equinox.
Even after you’ve mastered the motion, increasing time under tension builds strength and lean mass, says Mark Safer, national manager of programming at Equinox in Boston. For maximal strength, slow down during most of your movements. Instead of doing a regular push-up, take 3 counts to lower yourself, hold at the bottom for 1 count, then take 3 counts to rise.
When to speed up: Once an exercise feels familiar, performing fast, dynamic movements can help you run faster or lift heavier. For instance, to improve your squat, you might temporarily switch from barbell and kettlebell variations to jump squats, doing 5 sets of 5 as fast as possible using light weights or none at all, Safer says.
THE OPPOSITES: ACTIVE AND PASSIVE RECOVERY
When to be active: For increased mobility, stretch out your lats between sets of bench presses instead of staying completely at rest, Safer says. If you’re seeking endurance, a slow jog between sprints gives you higher mileage overall.
When to be passive: During max-effort movements—think really heavy lifts or all-out sprints—passive recovery allows you to execute the next rep or set at the same level of intensity, Safer says. Shake out your muscles to release tension, but mostly just breathe and allow your heart rate to drop.
You can even combine both styles of recovery in a single session. For instance, taking active rest between each of five intervals and a longer bout of complete rest before the next set maximizes volume and intensity, Safer adds.
THE OPPOSITES: SOLO AND GROUP TRAINING
When to go solo: Training alone develops positive internal self-talk, clears your head, and allows you to focus on a specific plan with individualized benefits, Ho says. This comes in handy when preparing for a solo performance—for example, in the final weeks before a race—or when you’re stressed and want to use your workout as meditation.
When to join a group: Training with a club or taking a class provides opportunities to tap into a collective energy that can fuel enhanced performance. “There’s something special about moving together, almost tribe-like, with everyone at the same time,” Ho says. The middle ground is working one-on-one with a trainer. The tailored programming and personal attention may lead to quicker progress compared to solo work, which can help if you have an ambitious or time-sensitive goal.
THE OPPOSITES: HIGH AND LOW INTENSITY CARDIO
When to raise it: High-intensity interval classes like Firestarter and MetCon maximize your work output in minimal time by taxing your anaerobic energy system, Ho says. They’re especially good when you’re time-crunched or have a goal that involves speed and power, such as a fast 5K.
When to lower it: Longer, steadier workouts like endurance runs and moderate cycling build your aerobic base. “What most people don’t realize is that your aerobic system helps your anaerobic system recover,” Delaney says. Less-intense days will help you bounce back from hard efforts.
The right ratio will depend on factors like your fitness, age, and goals, Delaney says. If you’re feeling excess fatigue, experiment with replacing one or more high-intensity workouts with something lower-key. Or simply sleep more—it’s the ultimate low-intensity session.