Since starting a health and fitness podcast, I’ve spent a lot more time following fit pro’s and Instagram exercise celebrities.
Lots of cool stories. Also, a lot of B.S. I’ve noticed an interesting trend in the comments section that mirrors a lot of the interactions I’ve had in real life. Whenever someone loses a bunch of weight or considerably changes their body composition, the first question they’re asked is: “What are you doing for your workout?!”
I had the same questions when I was first introduced to training in high school. I was obsessed with reps, sets, and training volume. I was always looking for that perfect workout routine that would finally get me where I wanted to be.
And then there are the gimmicks and fads. Everything from prancercise to trampolines. Don’t get me wrong – anything that gets people off the couch is a-OK with me. But, I would like people off the couch for the next 50 years. Unfortunately, the “shiny objects” tend to fade as quickly as they pop up.
So how do you know if you’re doing the “right” workout routine?
There are common elements that we’ll discuss, but a good indicator of a responsible, sustainable program is that it isn’t necessarily “novel” or “shiny.” One criticism (that I actually believe is the most sincere compliment) of CrossFit is that it’s nothing new; people have been doing power cleans and pull-ups and rowing for decades. PERFECT! I’m proud that CrossFit has exposed the masses to best practices in strength and conditioning and has actually got millions of people to do them. Distance running, jumping, gymnastics, plyometrics, resistance training, and strongman. These are all really effective and evidence-based practices. For decades, the general public really never had access to these things under the same roof.
Let’s audit your current routine.
There are four non-negotiable aspects of a well designed program. Again, it really doesn’t matter the branding or label you put on it – your body simple needs each of these things to perform optimally and see results for the long-term. There will be consequences for neglecting each of these components as well as adding too much emphasis on another. Let’s take a look at them.
What: Moderate to heavy breathing sustained over at least an uninterrupted 20-25 minute period. Examples include: Running or rowing a 5k, the CrossFit workout “Cindy”, or 25 minutes on the elliptical.
Benefits: This type of exercise improves circulation, reduces risk of heart disease, improves lung function, and assists in fatty acid oxidation (using fat as fuel).
Ignoring this type of stimulus will result in decreased heart and lung function and limit your ability to maximize calorie burning. Plus, you should be able to hop into a 5k at any time 🙂
Over-focus on activities in the long, slow, distance categories will result in decreased lean tissue thereby resulting in a decreased metabolism and stalled – if not reversed – fat loss. Most people see early weight loss through activities like jogging, and tend to over-emphasize its importance. After about 12 weeks, their metabolism has slowed down to such a degree that their only option to continue to see weight loss is to add mile upon mile, usually resulting in injury and burnout. Running for long distance as a form of exercise or sport has the highest injury prevalence.
What: Resistance training is moving an external load or your own bodyweight through various ranges of motion. Repetition ranges can vary from 1-20 with periods of rest between. Lower rep ranges will increase muscular strength while higher repetitions tend to increase the appearance of muscle size. Examples include: deadlift, bench press, push-ups, TRX rows, power cleans, and kettle bell swings.
Benefits: Increased bone density, increased function and independence (especially in older adults), increased resting metabolism, and improved “physique” through improved muscle tone and metabolism.
Ignoring this type of exercise generally results in a more injury-prone athlete (especially in the case of high school girls’ athletics) and poor body composition long-term. Early and short-term weight loss can be easily gained through cardio-respiratory endurance, but long-term and sustained weight loss cannot be had without resistance training.
Over-focus on this type of training can have similar body composition effects that ignoring it can have. Generally speaking, people that over-focus on resistance training (especially moving an external load) have a very high metabolism due to their increased muscle mass. Along with a high metabolism comes an increased appetite. These athletes must be very diligent to ensure that they’re not over-consuming calories. Additionally, activities like gymnastics and running tend to incentivize an ideal body fat percentage. If your sole goal is to move as much weight as possible, you likely won’t keep your weight in check. You could also have cardio-respiratory consequences by ignoring endurance activities.
High-intensity Interval Training
What: HIIT is a form of training that involves short bursts of very intense activity followed by rest periods. Your breath should be rapid without the ability to speak a full sentence. Work periods can range from 10 seconds to 3-4 minutes and rest periods can be anywhere from a 1:1 to a 1:10 ratio.
Benefits: HIIT is generally a very fun way to train, and usually has built-in micro-goals. Things like As Many Rounds as Possible (AMRAP) or a target number of repetitions per exercise keep people interested and working hard. Aside from improvements in heart health and endurance, HIIT is also the most time-efficient of all the exercise types both in duration of activity and time it takes to see results. Participants can warm up, workout, and cool-down within a 30-60 minute window – a feat that is difficult to achieve with endurance or resistance-only programs.
Ignoring this type of exercise leaves you will very time-consuming alternatives like bodybuilding and endurance running to achieve similar benefits. HIIT has also been found to increase fat burning for hours after completing the workout – opposed to endurance activities whose calorie-burning ceases nearly immediately upon stopping the activity. Due the the anaerobic (without oxygen) nature of HIIT, your body tends to gobble up calories because of EPOC (post-exercise oxygen consumption) for hours after you’re don’t training.
Over-focus on this type of training can lead to injury, difficulty sleeping, and increased stress. Due to the high-intensity nature of this training, your body may not be fully recovered between bouts of training. It is important that you monitor sleep and stress levels as well as improve your diet and avoid alcohol to maximize the benefits of this training. Trainees should note that high intensity does not mean 100% everyday. If you participate in a HIIT program, think about “emptying the tank” every 7-10 training sessions to allow for some varied stimulus across sessions.
Mobility and Stretching
What: Any stretching, range of motion, or recovery activities. Things like yoga, foam rolling, banded joint distraction, massage, or even some types of meditation.
Benefits: Injury prevention, decreased stress, increased recovery, improved range of motion, and improved function.
Ignoring this type of exercise will result in muscle soreness and stiffness. You may not feel recovered or 100% going into your next training session. Ignoring your range of motion issues may also result in you attempting an exercise, like a dumbbell snatch, and tweaking a joint or pulling a muscle. Strength athletes must pay particular attention to mobility and stretching when working with heavy weights. At a certain point, range of motion will become a limiting factor in a lift and, under load, results in injury.
Over-focus on this type of activity has an equal likelihood of injury. Because activities like yoga – especially restorative yoga – place an emphasis on bending and stretching, lack of core strength is typically the result. The inability to brace one’s core against an external load is usually the cause of lower back pain and random injuries from everyday activities like throwing away the trash, moving a couch, or picking up your kids. While most yoga and flexibility practices involve some aspect of moving your own bodyweight through ranges of motion, there is often little focus on building lean muscle tissue and powerful activities that support bone health. This can have detrimental effects on function and metabolism for the long term.
Putting it all together.
Fitness, like all things, is about moderation. Ignoring one thing and over-emphasizing another ultimately leads to burnout, injury, adverse body composition, or halted results. If you’re building your own workout plan or looking for a trainer to do it for you, be sure that it includes each of the aforementioned elements. I like to think of a program in a 2 week chunk. So, over the course of 10-12 sessions completed in 2 weeks, your workout should contain:
- 3-4 long, slow distance days where the work portion lasts 20 minutes+
- 2-3 “heavy” days wherein you just move heavy objects or challenging bodyweight exercises like dips and strict pull ups.
- 3-4 HIIT days where you’re doing short bursts of activities, quickly moving to another movement or a rest period.
- 2 dedicated mobility and recovery days and at least a short bit (less than 10 minutes) of work daily.
Give yourself or your gym a quick audit of the course of the last couple weeks and see if you hit all of these. If you didn’t, is it because you avoid the things you may not like, but need?