Exercise Program Design: Part 1
Everyone’s health and fitness goals are different, but most do have one big thing in common - strength training can play a huge role. Whether you want to lose weight, run a 5K, “tone up,” recover from injury, or just get healthier in general strength training will help you get there. When designing a strength training program, there are a few things everyone should keep in mind:
1. Living Heavy Is Good for Everyone (men and women)!
When strength training, regardless of specific exercise, you should choose a weight that you can perform approximately 8 to 12 repetitions per set with proper form. If you can execute the movement more than 12 times in a given set, that weight is probably too light. On the other hand, if you cannot perform 8 repetitions with proper form, that weight may be too heavy for you (unless you are intentionally programing for heavier weight, but that is for another article). Many people, particularly women, worry about developing a bulky, manly physique through weight lifting. In reality, there is no need to worry about that! No one ever accidentally “bulks up” and women do not have high enough testosterone levels naturally to add significant muscle mass. Heavy weights will help you increase muscle and bone strength, boost your metabolism, burn more calories, and simply have a more effective workout overall. Unless your doctor has advised against weight lifting, high-resistance strength training can benefit everyone!
2. Bigger Moves are Always Better
Strength training exercises can be broken down into two types - isolation movements and compound movements. Isolation movements focus on moving just one joint and use just one or two muscle groups. They are small, inefficient movements (i.e. bicep curl), yet for some reason most people focus their whole workout on isolation moves. Compound movements on the other hand are “big” movements, using multiple joints and multiple muscle groups (i.e. squats). These are more functional (they mimic activities of daily life), require much more effort, stability, and force, and are much more efficient. Your workout should consist mostly (if not entirely) of these big, compound movements. You will work every muscle in a fraction of the time and get much higher calorie burn and strength gains. The one caveat with compound movements is they require much more focus on proper form, so before diving in to your next workout program make sure you are comfortable with each exercise and have been taught proper form for each.
3. You Cannot "Spot Reduce"
Many people think they can design a workout specifically for "spot reduction" - or the elimination of body fat in just one specific area. However, fat and muscle are two completely different types of tissues - one cannot turn into the other. You also cannot work out one isolated area of your body in hopes of losing body fat just in that one zone. In order to lose body fat you need to exercise your entire body, and consume fewer calories each day than you burn. Total body strength training will help increase your metabolism throughout the day, increasing your total calories burnt and ultimately helping you lose weight everywhere. Whether you want to tone up your triceps, abs, or legs your best bet is to do total body strength training three or more days per week.
4. Placement/Inclusion of Cardio Depends on Your Unique Goals
Depending on your goals, cardio can be worked into your plan on the same day as strength training or on opposite. However, if your goal is weight loss and general fitness improvements a high-intensity strength training program can cover all the bases, without needing to add in much long duration, slow cardio (i.e. elliptical, jogging). Activities like jogging are best programmed in when your goal relates directly to running. Otherwise, use cardio as a warm up/cool down activity around strength training, or as a form of “active recovery” (light exercise that gets your blood pumping but doesn’t tire you out) on your off days. Spending hours on the elliptical or treadmill generally is not the most effective way to get in shape, lose weight, improve fitness, or burn calories.
5. Break Free from the Machines
When strength training, focus the majority of your workout on free weight exercises. Free weights are any weight that is not attached to anything - i.e. barbell, dumbbell, medicine ball, kettle bell, etc. Free weights require much more stabilization, muscle activation, and body control to work with compared to weight machines. Weight machines, on the other hand, tend to force you into a specific range of motion that may not be comfortable for everyone, require very little stabilization, often focus on isolation movements (see #2), and are simply much less useful than free weight exercises. At first, dumbbells and barbells may seem intimidating but they will make your workouts much more fun, effective, and efficient. Rarely is there any reason to sit down on a machine!