Choosing Your Fitness Program
When selecting an exercise program to meet your goals, be sure that it is designed to progress towards your goal in the safest and most effective manner possible. Fitness goals can be grouped into clear categories, such as fat loss, strength gain, sport specific performance, or a combination of these. My clients need to be very specific when defining their goals, as this will give them a clear measurement of the program’s effectiveness. But effectivity is not the only measure, the most important being safe and sustainable. Although goals may vary, there are a few concepts common to all. Here are some guidelines on following the right program.
Function over form
The lower a trainee’s movement quality, the more wasteful said movement will be. The “wasted energy” will be dissipated somewhere down the kinetic chain, leading to premature fatigue in the best case, or mechanical failure (injury) in the worst case. The right program directs your focus to impeccable movement quality and technique.
There is no point in adhering to a program which always leaves you visiting your physical therapist. Your health is the most important asset that you will ever have in your life – the better your health as you age, the better your quality of life. Also, reaching your goal today and then falling apart tomorrow is not very helpful.
The human body can achieve amazing results. If you don’t believe me, check out Cirque du Soleil! Progress is always a combination of specific and effective training stimuli and recovery from these stimuli. Pushing hard all the time might seem like a good idea, but don’t fall for a program that makes this it’s main focus. Pushing hard all the time is counter productive and will come at a cost. The price will be overuse injury, adrenal fatigue and/or health problems later in life. Remember, you are in this for the long haul. Taking a week off does not impede your progress, but will help it by giving us the opportunity to help you assess your progress, reset your goals and let your body rest. This means taking a week off from training every six to eight weeks. For the fitness enthusiast this is very hard to understand, as they think they need their “daily fix”. We are being consistently told that any training is better than none, which, depending on the context, can be incorrect.
Improving bad joint positioning
In today’s environment, approximately 90% of us sit most of the day. This tends to result in bad posture, resulting in incorrect spinal alignment, tight hips and rounded shoulders. We can see these effects on a daily basis – watching people move is scary. As Dr. Kelly Starrett says, “I see broken people”. Don’t be one of them. A good program addresses these bad daily habits through specific mobility and stability exercises. You will probably not be able to fix everything yourself, so don’t be reticent about looking up a professional.
Out of all the specific and non-specific athletic capabilities, the most important one, hands down, is strength. Being strong will not only result in a more fulfilling and useful life, it will also increase bone density as well as anabolic hormone release (this keeps you younger) and brings with it a great sense of achievement. Focus on basic strength first and build an above average capacity thereof.
Simple exercises done at relative high intensity
High intensity has been shown to be a valuable tool to increase metabolic conditioning. However, when training at high intensity, a program needs to use simple exercises. “Simple”, in this context, means movements that the trainee technically excels in. This allows the trainee to push hard without compromising technique and without repeating incorrect movement patterns. On a side note, intensity does not have to correlate with panting, sweating and a “killer workout”. From a scientific point of view, a max weight deadlift is more intense than a 15 minute WOD with multiple repetitions.
Your life style – as long as you are not a professional athlete – does not revolve around your training. Therefore your program needs to allow for adaptation to work, emotional stress, inflammatory diet choices, lack of sleep and other events that are detrimental to your health and training. Regarding sleep requirements, my clients are not allowed to do medium to high intensity workouts if they did not sleep properly. For help in coordinating all of this, an excellent, easy to use tool like the HRV gives you instant feedback on your body’s ability to cope with training.
A Bad Program
Here are three pointers to spot a bad program:
- Injury – look at the people already in the program. Are they constantly injured? Do they show you their torn up hands with pride? Walk away.
- The “any douchebag” program – Anyone can throw together a list of exercises that trash people using such a program. The magic is throwing out the complex and useless and just keeping the simple and effective exercises.
- No improvement – if your chosen program does not get you closer to your goal and you have applied yourself for at least 30 days, rethink your program.
There are no Shortcuts
Sales people will try to convince you that they have the “magic pill” that will make you “look better naked, be healthier and happier”. The fact of the matter is that there is no such pill, so stop wasting your time trying to find one.
Define a SMART goal, find a program, adhere to it for 30 days, then assess if you are a step closer to your goal – “rinse and repeat”. It’s not rocket science but be sure that the person you trust with your programming has more experience than a one-hour lecture on how to program.
Roland is a strength and conditioning coach that works out of Cape Town, South Africa. He also runs the web-design and -development company Top-Node IT.