Does your exercise program cause confusion and anxiety? Well, it should! When you're training at the proper intensity level, you should be a little nervous before each session. And organizing the tools at your disposal, in a way that's effective, safe and applicable to your needs, goals and lifestyle is an art. And modulating training variables in a way that promotes constant adaptation, plateau avoidance and longevity is a science.
How does your fitness routine stack up?
- Are you using enough weight?
In order to create change, you must challenge the human systems past what they're accustomed to. This exercise science principle of overload states that a greater than normal stress or load is required for training adaptation to take place. What this means is that in order to improve fitness, strength or endurance, you need to increase the workload accordingly.
The training resistance should be over 50% of what you can lift once. Use less than this, and despite the exercise feeling difficult, you are not doing enough work to make lasting and continual physiological, anatomical nor neural change. To increase fitness levels, you need to add volume or intensity to your efforts.
Research indicates that free weight training produces superior results and a greater transfer of training effect compared to training with machines, particularly when the free weight training involves complex, multi-joint exercises, used in combination with calisthenics appropriately challenging to one's skill and strength level.
- 2. Does it stay challenging?
The overload principle works in concert with the principle of progression. You should build efforts over repeated sessions in a reasonable manner in order to promote adaptation as well as improve soft tissue strength/resiliency. Any demanding exercise attempted too soon risks injury. This principle implies that there is an optimal level of overload that should be achieved, and an optimal time frame for this overload to occur. One renowned method of progressing a program methodically is Periodization Training that it built upon specific training phases throughout the year. A gradual and systematic increase of the workload over a period of time will result in improvements in fitness without risk of injury. Frequency, intensity, time, and type of exercise are all important variables to modulate. If overload occurs too slowly, improvement is unlikely, but overload that is increased too rapidly may result in injury or muscle damage. For example, the weekend athlete who exercises vigorously only on weekends violates the principle of progression and most likely will not see obvious fitness gains.
- 3. Are you resting enough or maybe too much?
Training is the stimulus, but you get fitter and stronger only with proper recovery. Proper overload and progression and the principle of rest and recovery go hand-in-hand. Continual stress on the body and constant overload will result in exhaustion and injury if adequate repair time is not allotted. If you train too hard all the time, you risk overtraining and a decrease in fitness. Both short periods like hours between multiple sessions in a day and longer periods, like days or weeks to recover from a long season are necessary to ensure your body does not suffer from exhaustion or overuse injuries. Motivated athletes often neglect this. At the basic level, the more you train the more sleep your body needs. Not to mention proper nutrition and stress management. On the other hand, resting too much between exercises or sessions will return you to baseline, and super-compensation, an increase in fitness level, can never occur.
- 4. Are you doing the best workout for you?
The exercise science principle of individual differences states that everyone is different and responds differently to training. Some can handle more training while others may respond better to higher intensities, or vice versa. Exercise selection and variables should be specific to the individual, based on factors like genetic ability, past experience and skill, predominance of muscle fiber types, lifestyle, age, sex, injuries and other constraints and mental state. One size does not fit all. Group training should be kept to no more than 8 people per instructor to allow for effective scalability and to accommodate the above variables. Past that you become lost in the mix and are left to the mercy of the WOD.
- 5. Are you training for your goals and needs?
Individual body type is one thing, but tailoring an exercise program to specific goals is another. The principle of specificity states that exercising a certain skill, movement or body part primarily develops that which you are focusing on.
Improving your ability in an activity is very specific. If you want to be a great cyclist, running will help your overall conditioning but won't develop your skills at cycling or the power and muscular endurance required for that activity. Swimming will help improve your aerobic endurance but won't develop bone density and muscular endurance for running or cycling. Decide what you're looking to achieve, and if your training regimen is general or specific enough.
Training can be broken up into two main phases: GPP and SPP. General Physical Preparedness refers to wide-ranging and multi-purpose, typically low skill strength and conditioning. Specific Physical Preparedness refers to training with a specific sport or activity in mind. What puzzles me is why so many people these days rely on classes geared towards SPP, such as cycling or dancing, when their goals usually fall within the realm of GPP, such as tone, weight management, flexibility or endurance. They are becoming more efficient at specific activities indeed, and as fun as these may be, they're really not getting them any close to their real objectives. Most modern classes are too specialized and one-dimensional. Keep your scope broad, and your hard work and results will transfer towards meeting your real goals.
- 6. Does your training program incorporate the right variety?
Adequate variation in a training program should be included, to avoid staleness and plateau, but not to the point where the movements are varied so frequently that skill cannot be developed. There's a fine line between a routine becoming too routine, and a constantly varying 'muscle-confusion plan' that ends up being no plan, and too confusing.
Strength is a skill, and if you do not build adequate motor pathways by performing an action repeatedly, then you are not promoting strength, a key component in a comprehensive fitness program. Movements can be consistent, and variables surrounding that movement should be the moving parts in the equation. Repeatedly practicing a skill or activity makes it second-nature and easier to perform.
Over time the body becomes accustomed to exercising at a given level - it accommodates, according to the principle of use/disuse. When it comes to fitness, you "use it or lose it." This simply means that your muscles hypertrophy with use and atrophy with disuse. This also explains why we become de-conditioned or lose fitness when we stop moving or exercising. This is the body's way of adapting.
Additionally, it makes an athlete very efficient and allows him to expend less energy doing the same movements. This reinforces the need to vary a workout routine if you want to see continued improvement.
This adaptation results in improved efficiency, less effort and less muscle breakdown at that level. That is why the first time you ran a mile you were sore after, but now it's just a warmup for your main workout. According to the principle of adaptation, this is why you need to change the stimulus via higher intensity or longer duration in order to continue improvements, and keep adapting. The same holds true for adapting to lesser amounts of exercise. The body naturally tries to conserve energy. If you don't need strength or muscle mass to complete a certain task, the body will lose it. This reversibility also goes for endurance, flexibility, circulation, range of motion, skill, and bone density - resulting in atrophy/sarcopenia, osteopenia, and fat gain.
The fitness industry is plagued with smoke and mirrors. Sifting through the piles of misinformation fueled by infomercials and self-proclaimed fitness gurus can be overwhelming. The sexy appeal of the churn-and-burn specialty fitness class craze is enticing, fun and easy. But by now you should at least question their effectiveness. Used as a tool in an overall training program, these classes may certainly find a place to fit in. But most group classes claiming to be comprehensive workouts?! Let the buyer beware.
Exercise science principles must be adhered to if you hope to become the best that you can truly be, and to make every drop of sweat count towards something meaningful.
Designing a training program that adheres to all of the above guidelines can be perplexing, so it's not a surprise that many in-the-know turn to a coach or trainer for guidance with the details so they can focus on the effort.
A proper training program setup to maximize your body's potential, left in the hands of a professional will save years, if not decades of wasted trial and error efforts, not to mention keep the process fun and safe.