Fitter, faster, stronger, leaner
Patrick Dale explains how to go from your current physical performance levels to dizzying new heights by making logical progressions in your workouts
It is Monday, so it must be chest day - 5 sets of bench press, 3 sets of dumbbell flies, 2 sets of dips and a couple of sets of press ups to finish the workout - same workout as last week, and the week before, using the same weights you always use and the same repetition scheme. Or is it a cardio day? Run 3 miles in 30 minutes, just like last week and the week before. Or is it Body Pump class today? Same work out as always, same weights, same exercises, same duration? You do not even know what you did in last week's workouts? Do you go to the gym and do whatever your training partner suggests or just do what you feel like doing (The Weider Instinctive Principle!!!)
If any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, you are not alone. Look around the majority of gyms and health clubs and you will see vast numbers of people doing the same training, week in and week out. When they look in the mirror they see the same old reflection staring right back them - their physiques or figures have not changed in ages, their fitness improvements have stalled, and they have the same strength today as they did this time last year.
There is an old saying in exercise - "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got".
When they started their current workout routine what they were doing will have worked. It provided overload and sufficient training stimulus to force their bodies to adapt, to change, to improve. The thing is the human body is lazy! Once it can comfortably perform the activities it is being asked to do, it ceases making adaptations and we stop getting the benefits we seek from exercise. If we do not try to progress our workouts, the very most we can expect is to maintain our current physical condition and the worst-case scenario is that we actually lose fitness as our body becomes ultra-efficient at the exercises we perform which in turn lowers the training effect of our training sessions. It takes the body 3-6 weeks to adapt to a stressor like an exercise. After that, it takes a new stressor to keep the body adapting and improving.
People stay with the same exercise regime for a number of reasons - partly physical and partly psychological. Examine this list and see if any of the points relate to you and your current workout situation:
Whatever your reason for not changing your routine I cannot stress enough that unless you do something different from time to time you are doomed to little or no progress!!! You are wasting your time in the gym! So, if you want to get fitter, faster, stronger or leaner we have to force our bodies to adapt and improve - and that means we have to shake up our workouts on a regular basis.
I am often asked, "does exercise ever get any easier?" The answer is a resounding "NO" To see progress in our fitness levels, there needs to be a consistent trend of increased workload/work rate. Exercise is not easier the fitter we get - we just develop a greater work capacity.
In the rest of this article, I want to tell you about the "training variables" you can use to keep your workouts fresh, interesting and above all productive and discuss the importance of keeping records to help us on the road to improved performance and appearance. So, grab your shovel because we have a rut to dig ourselves out of!
Progression - the key to long-term progress.
Making progress in our workouts requires the manipulation of the "training variables" - the characteristics of our workouts. By making changes to one or more of the training variables on a regular basis we can keep making steady progress towards our genetic potential for physical fitness. Let us look at each of the training variables in turn:
Resistance Training Variables - things we can change about the way we train with weights.
Changing any one of the above variables will result in a new stimulus which our bodies will have to adapt to resulting in improvements in fitness. With so many variables to choose from some restraint needs to be exercised so as not to change too much at the same time. Rather than randomly shaking our workouts up, we want to employ a couple of the exercise variables for a period of 3-6 weeks and then, once we have adapted to the new stresses of our modified workout, make use of a couple more of the variables thereafter. For example, for 3 weeks focus on increasing the amount of weight used in each exercise, then for a further 3 weeks try to perform more reps with the weight constant, and then reduce the rest intervals gradually over the next 3 weeks and so on. By making small but significant changes on a regular basis we guarantee continued improvements in our fitness levels - up to our genetic potential.
Aerobic Training Variables - things we can change about the way we do our cardio
As with resistance training, there are a number of things we can do to make our cardiovascular exercise more productive and therefore improve our aerobic fitness to new higher levels. By implementing the following, we can make sure that the dreaded plateau is a thing of the past.
*Interval training - periods of high-intensity work interspaced with periods of low-intensity recoveries e.g. run hard for 60 seconds, jog for 120 seconds and repeat
**Fartlek - mixed speeds within a training session performed randomly, FCR - Fast Continuous Running - aerobic exercise performed at high levels of intensity for shorter periods of time, LCD - Long Slow Distance - Continuous aerobic exercise performed at a comfortable pace for extended periods of time
As with our resistance training variables, it is a good idea to focus on one or two of the above options for a few weeks before selecting other variables from the list. Trying to make too many changes at once is likely to be too dramatic a change and result in exhaustion and injury. It is also worth bearing in mind that it is recommended that increases in duration/distance per workout and per training week be limited to 10%. In other words, if your current longest run is 3 miles, do not increase your mileage up to 4 miles overnight but increase the distance to be around 400 - 500 metres to avoid potential overuse injuries.
"If we are going to succeed, we need to plan for success" & "Failing to plan is planning to fail"
Improvements in physical fitness do not happen by accident. They are a direct result of the application of consistent and sustained effort, good eating habits and appropriate rest. If we have no real plan, we have much less chance of making the progress we are looking for.
When thinking about exercise, it is necessary to think long term - not just tomorrow, next week or next month, but next year and the year after. How are you going to take your current level of exercise and fitness on from the here-and-now to your ultimate fitness goal? The answer is to plan.
They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but if those initial steps are in the wrong direction then we will never get to our destination. It is necessary to "reverse engineer" our journey from where we want to be to where we are now, so we can plot our route to ultimate success.
So - a few questions - write down the answers:
Once you have answers for the above questions, you are well on your way to planning a way forward to your goal.
Next - we need to break down the ultimate fitness goal into smaller bite-sized chunks. Our ultimate goal is a long-term goal - months or years away. That is a very long time to remain motivated. To help keep us focused on the prize, it is worth breaking our main goal down into several sub-goals which are more readily achievable.
To give you an example - let us say your goal is to run a marathon (26 miles) but currently your longest run is 6 miles. That means you have to run a whole 20 miles further to reach your goal. For many people, that might seem like a daunting if not impossible task! Instead, let us break that ultimate goal down into more manageable chunks.
By breaking down our ultimate goal into smaller bite-sized chunks, we will experience numerous minor successes on the way to a realisation of our end goal. This promotes adherence, maintains enthusiasm and improves our success potential dramatically.
Once you have decided upon your goals, apply the acronym SMARTER to them.
SMARTER stands for:
By applying SMARTER to the goals, we set for ourselves we improve the likelihood of succeeding massively.
Training Diaries - No more wasted workouts!
I am an absolute believer in the power of a training diary. I have kept training diaries for my entire exercising life and rely on them constantly to help me plan my next phase of training. A training diary will provide you with numerical evidence of previous workouts performed, allow you to track improvements, see what has worked well for you and what has been less successful, show consistency and highlight lapses as well as improving focus as you record your performance from workout to workout.
By making use of a training diary, you will never go into the gym and be saying to yourself "Now, what shall I do today?" Every workout will be productive and specific to your goals.
Personally, I use A5 sized ring bound notebooks as training diaries although I know you can buy fancy programmes for your computer. Alternatively, if you are so inclined, you could even design excel spreadsheets. Regardless of what method you choose, keeping a training diary is one of the most useful tools we have available to keep ourselves motivated and focused.
By utilizing the information in your training diary, you can plan your next workout based on how your previous workout went. Make a note of which exercises you performed, which exercises which need increased resistance, reps achieved with a given resistance, number of sets performed, rest intervals used, settings on cardio machines, durations and heart rates of CV exercise, the total duration of each workout, how you felt etc. By having all this information to hand, we can use the training variables discussed earlier to push ourselves onwards and upwards towards out ultimate fitness goals.
So, the take-home points for continued exercise progress are:
By following these 5 guidelines, your ultimate fitness goal is not just a dream, but a reality well within your grasp!
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About the Author
Patrick Dale has 15 years of fitness industry experience. He has a wide and varied sporting history, having participated at a high level in athletics, rugby, rock climbing, trampolining, triathlon, weightlifting and bodybuilding.
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