Previously I mentioned establishing goals when embarking on any kind of fitness program. Whether your goal is to lose weight, tone up, run marathons or get bigger and stronger, you need a plan to reach that goal. If you set your goals too high and/or expect too much from yourself at first, you will quickly lose steam and give up. Keep things realistic, but once you get into the swing of it you need to push yourself a little more each workout so you continue to progress. A well designed workout plan and approach makes all the difference. There are several things to keep in mind when planning a program.
Since I train mainly for bodybuilding and strength, I approach my workouts with that in mind. Body building and heavy weight training is different than the kind of training you would do as a runner, with aerobics or even with pilates or other isometric/stretch reflex program. Lifting heavy weight leaves you open to injury if you are not careful both with form, the weights you use and what movements you do. Still, a lot of the philosophies I go by apply to any kind of training or workouts.
Before we go any further, please read the rest of this paragraph as it is very important. Take your current fitness level and age into consideration. If you are 22 and relatively fit, you can handle a lot more on day one than if you are 52, overweight and get winded walking up stairs. If you have any health issues or are over 30 and have not worked out before or in a long time, I urge you to get a physical and talk with your doctor about your goals and starting a workout program. The rest of what I discuss here and in the coming weeks will assume the reader is in good health and taking their condition/age into consideration.
First off, If you are new to an exercise program, either having never been in a gym since high school or have had a long time off since your last serious exercise, plan on starting slow. Too many people join a gym in January as part of their New Year’s Resolution and go at it hard, only to give up quickly when they can’t maintain the pace. Spend the first 6 weeks just gradually building up your cardiovascular endurance and general muscle tone and endurance. Start out with some light jogging, biking or cross training for a short length of time, followed by a long stretching routine. You can get lots of books on stretching, but the idea is to stretch out the muscles, ligaments and tendons you just got good and warm by exercising. Getting into the habit of stretching after every workout will reduce your soreness later, and prevent injury as well. Plus it’s good for you. Gradually increase the time and intensity of your cardio workouts. I never do cardio for longer than 40 minutes… you don’t have to if you keep your heart rate in the right place. Heart rate monitoring is the best way to maximize the effectiveness of your workouts. Your age will determine your ‘target heart rate’, meaning a range you want your heart rate to be depending on your goals with the exercise. If you want to just burn fat, your heart rate will be lower than if you want to increase your heart’s strength (cardiovascular endurance). All gym equipment has a handy chart on it for target heart rate/age and may have built in heart rate monitors using grips on the machine somewhere. You can get a Polar heart rate monitor/watch if you want to get fancy. After three weeks of this, start incorporating light weightlifting or machine work into your routine. Cut back on the cardio time if you can’t just add it in, but the weight work is important. In fact, no matter your goals, doing both aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (strength/weight lifting) exercise is important for success. Stick to low weight and high reps, say 2 sets of 20 reps of each exercise, allowing 30-45 seconds between sets. Start out doing a full body routine once or twice the first week, then split it up to doing back/biceps/legs one day and chest shoulders/triceps the next. Work each body part only once every week or 5 days at the most. When the six weeks are up, you’ll get going on workouts meant to reach your specific goals.
No matter your goals, there are certain concepts that apply no matter what. One, as I mentioned before, is to make sure you have both aerobic and anaerobic exercises incorporated into your routines. Why would you need to lift weights if all you want to do is lose weight, and why do cardio when you just want to get big and strong? Because each helps the other achieve it’s goals, that’s why. If you want to lose weight, concentrate on the carido workouts but continue two or three weight/machine routines as well. This will tone and strengthen your muscles and build lean muscle mass… not the big, bodybuilding kind but the denser, harder muscle kind. The muscle’s act of repairing itself after weightlifting workout burns a lot of calories, and that helps lose weight. Also, lean muscle itself burns calories just by existing, so the more lean muscle you have the more calories you burn just sitting around, and the more fat you lose. On the flip side, if you are a weightlifter trying to bulk up or increase strength, you need to keep your heart healthy or you just end up gasping for breath after a heavy lift for lack of oxygen and blood flow. This leads to shorter workouts with lighter weights, and that impedes your progress. If you are on a weight loss goal, stick with high reps and low weight. Doing 18-20 reps, 2-3 sets and a weight level that allows you to complete the set without enormous strain (meaning you can get between 18-20 reps without failing) will increase your muscle tone and density but will not build size or strength. If you are a weightlifter incorporate light cardio workouts of 30-40 minutes three times a week into your routines. Keep your heart rate just at the highest of the fat burning zone levels, which isn;t too strenuous. You will find you have more energy and endurance for your weightlifting sessions, without losing muscle mass.
Periodization is a concept everyone should incorporate into their routines. Your body has a memory and recognizes and adapts to patterns very quickly. Doing the same workout over and over again will eventually lead to a plateau where you stop getting bigger, stronger or achieving more endurance/cardio health. This is especially true for bodybuilders and strength trainers. In order to avoid this, you need to stick to one workout for only a certain period, and then change to something different to shock your body into adapting and continuing to progress. If you train for cardio, that might mean switching from a treadmill to a bike or to a cross trainers after a week or two at one machine. You’ll be using different muscles in a different movement, and that will not only help you continue to progress but might avoid repetitive injury to joints or tendons getting abused via a certain exercise.
With bodybuilding, Periodization is crucial. First, I need to alter my exercises so I don’t do the same movements for the same body parts all the time. For example, I might do a barbell bench press for one period, and then go to a dumbbell bench the next time, then a lying cable press. Changing it up keeps the muscles guessing. I also can change the tempo of a movement to spark growth. I might do a routine where I lift very slow, 3 seconds up, pause, 3 seconds down. Then the next period I go up explosively and back down slow. Tempo is something most people don’t think much about when lifting. Finally, and most importantly, I have to periodically change the target muscle fibers and purpose of the lifts. My entire training routines are built around that last element of Periodization. Most people think weightlifting is idiot proof… you lift heavy weights until you can’t lift them anymore, and you get bigger, stronger and have more endurance. Not so. The way you lift makes a huge difference and can achieve many different goals.
Muscles have two basic kinds of fibers in them… fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Fast-twitch fibers are the ones that generate power and explosive strength, but quickly fatigue. Slow-twitch are the ones that generate sustained tension and extended use with slower fatigue. A sprinter uses fast-twitch fibers and a marathon runner uses slow-twitch. As a bodybuilder, I primarily want to make my muscles bigger and improve their shape and proportions. I need to develop both kinds of fibers to do that. Developing the fast-twitch fibers is training for strength and power. Developing the slow-twitch fibers is training for tone and endurance. Developing both to achieve bigger size is called hypertrophy. I need to train for all three.
Enter Periodization. I will work out for 5 weeks or so doing endurance training, where I do higher reps with lower weight. I may do 3 sets of 15-20 reps of each exercise for that period, with primarily slow tempo. I’ll also do more isolated movements like concentration curls or cable crossovers, and work with cables and/or machines with a short time between sets, only 30-40 seconds. Then I will transition to hypertrophy, where I will keep my reps in the 8-10 range and my amount of weight will go up. I may do a medium tempo or fast up and slow down, resting 1 to 1.5 minutes between sets. I’ll also do more compound movements like bench press, squats or military press. Then I will transition into a power and strength routine, were I do more explosive movements like deadlifts, standing shoulder push presses, clean and jerks or hang cleans. I’ll also do very heavy weights for low reps, say 2-6 reps and 4 sets of each movement, with 3 minutes rest between.
Periodization keeps the body guessing and keep progress from stalling. It also prevents injury by only doing a routine for 3 to 5 weeks before switching. Power and strength training with very heavy weights is hard on the joints and tendons, and endurance can easily get you over-trained and feeling overly fatigued. Switching keeps all that stuff from becoming a problem.
I’ll detail my current period workout routines in the next posts about training, including some pictures of me in the gym. Currently I’m on a 4 day a week program: Mondays- Back, Tuesdays- Chest, Thursdays- Legs, Fridays- Shoulders/arms. I’ll also do a post on diet and supplements before I’m done.
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