“The resistance that you fight physically in the gym and the resistance that you fight in life can only build a strong character.”
If you’re committed to becoming the best possible version of yourself, you can’t ignore your body. Maybe you have a gym membership, or maybe you own some weights, but do you have a good understanding of the principles that will get you in shape and keep you fit into your old age? That’s what this post is for.
Before you hit the gym, the street or the dojo, give some thought to what you want to accomplish — what fitness looks like for you — and think through the following principles.
Note: We’re going to differentiate between exercise and training. All training will involve exercise, but not all exercise is training.
How often should you train? It depends on you and on your training goals. In his book, The 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss discusses the principle of the Minimum Effective Dose (MED). The goal here is to expend exactly the right amount of effort to obtain the desired result and no more. Your age, current level of fitness and ability to recover will determine the frequency of your training. If you choose to use calisthenics and bodyweight exercises, you can train every day. If you’re lifting weights, you should allow at least one day’s rest for any muscle group you train on a given day.
This is simply how hard you’re training. This can encompass the number of specific exercises, the number of sets, the number of repetitions, the amount of rest time between sets and the amount of weight per set. There is a specific technique called HIT — short for High-Intensity Training. This method shortens the duration of your workout by deliberately increasing the weight per set. The articles I’ve read suggest this is a solid approach.
Note: If you’re new to the idea of getting fit, plan at first to perform one set of ten repetitions per exercise. You’ll want to use enough weight so that the last rep or two is a challenge. You’ll likely feel sore the next day, but it won’t be unbearable.
How much time will you spend training? Hint: Time walking around between sets jawing doesn’t count. If you’re busy, you may find that allowing yourself 45 minute to an hour a day for training will force you to make better use of your time.
What time of day should you train? That’s up to you, but I find when I get my workout done in the morning, no one can take it away from me.
This principle is the one most people seem to overlook. If you’re trying to lose weight by walking a mile every day, you’ll notice that in a fairly short time, that mile walk becomes easy and you are not losing weight as desired. This is because our bodies are remarkably adaptable. To get in shape and to continue to improve, you must build progressivity — an increase in your capacity to do work — into your training plan.
Let’s take kettlebell training as an example. If I swing a 55-lb. kettlebell 100 times (say, five sets of twenty swings), I have expended 5,500 pounds worth of effort. If I remain on schedule, the next time I swing that same kettlebell, I need to increase the total amount of work. I can do this by increasing the number of reps per set, or by adding a burnout set (an additional set with as many reps as I can complete using proper form) to my workout. I can also increase the intensity by accomplishing those reps in fewer sets or by shortening the rest time between sets.
In an earlier post, I wrote about pull-ups as a way to increase fitness and confidence. The Armstrong Pull-up Program prescribes a five-day-a week, twice-a-day set of exercises that attacks the muscle groups differently each day. This is a great example of the muscle confusion principle. If you’ve tried P90X or CrossFit, for example, you’ve also seen this principle in action. This concept doesn’t allow your body to fall into a rut where your training is concerned. As a result, your body continues to respond because you’re not presenting a routine that your body can adapt to.
Pavel Tsatsouline, the man who brought kettlebell training to the US, says that one shouldn’t train to become proficient at training. Instead, he should train to become good at his sport. I’d add that one should train to get good at life — that is, to be physically able to respond to the challenges he’ll encounter in his life. This is why, unless you are or plan to be a bodybuilder, you shouldn’t train like one. Focus on compound movements, such as olympic weightlifting and picking up and carrying bulky or heavy objects. This is another thing CrossFit gets right.
Physical therapist Gray Cook is the leading expert in functional movement. His videos provide great instruction in proper form and the philosophy of functional movement.
Set training goals and keep records. Again, what are you trying to accomplish through your training regimen? Runners have an advantage in that they can choose races and train toward the race date. Martial artists, wrestlers and boxers can train toward meets or matches. If you don’t have those sorts of day and date deadlines to train toward, be creative. It can be your family beach trip, a wedding or a class reunion. Define the objective specifically and chart your progress.
The time you spend training according to these concepts will improve your health, your posture and your confidence. Train smart and you’ll be well on your way to the best version of yourself.
One last thought: As you train, make sure to build in time for rest and recovery. You don’t build muscle while you’re lifting — you build it while you sleep. Making recovery part of your training regimen will accelerate your progress and help you avoid overtraining.