Exercise and food are the same; they should leave you feeling good - capable, nourished and strong. They should not leave you feeling bad - depleted, exhausted or inadequate.
There’s a strong argument that the most healthful, natural exercise program you could follow would include plenty of movement most or every day (at a low intensity – such as walking, taking the stairs, and/or having a job where you’re on your feet as much as you’re sitting down) and doing something at high intensity one to three times per week.
Intensity is basically determined by perceived effort. Intensity that is a result of the work that has gone before (such as the intensity one experiences at the end of a marathon) and intensity that is a result of what you are doing now (such as a heavy lift performed a few times only) - these are different. But neither one matters more or less. Jogging for fifteen seconds and telling everyone you’re sprinting – this is not actually sprinting. It’s jogging. And that’s fine, because there’s nothing wrong with jogging. There is, however, something wrong with deception and delusion, and we’re much more used to talking about exercise than we are used to just doing stuff that feels right.
I frequently see people grunting in the gym – as if they’re trying to convince everyone else that they’re working intensely, when they’re actually taking it easy. The illusion of intensity is different to the experience of intensity, and there are many different and revealing types of grunts one can hear. But it comes down to the same thing: nobody cares. Either train hard, or train soft, but do what is right for you, and make no apologies for the process you are going through. Only you know whether you are training the way you want to be training.
As personal trainers, many of us are secretly afraid that everyone else will work that out one day. Because when they do, in order to be deemed necessary, we’ll have to lift our game and actually sink our teeth into helping people develop. A lot of us get by on just ‘making people work out harder than they would if left to their own devices’, but that has very little to do with the progression and development of an individual, and sometimes has more to do with holding them back.
All the time we’re told we should be doing more cardio for our heart, for weight loss, or to sweat and detoxify, and we’re told we should be lifting weights for strength, metabolism, hormone function, and bone density. Or we should be strengthening our core, which for some reason is not commonly associated with weight lifting, or we should be stretching more, or we need to do more toning, or whatever the hell. It’s very easy to lose touch with all the things we should be doing, and if you’re not careful, sooner or later you’ll find yourself entrenched in some training system that you don’t understand, that is no fun at all, and does not lead to any real development, progression or sense of satisfaction.
Whether or not your training is rewarding is determined by progress or enjoyment. That’s pretty much it. Not by changes in body shape – this is too fleeting or unpredictable or both, and success and failure carry ramifications that aren’t always apparent. For something to be rewarding, you must be getting something out of it, and that something must be more meaningful than fitting in with the popular kids at school. It’s in the process, not at the end of it, where meaningful rewards are to be found. So if you’re training because of some imagined future benefit - prepare yourself for disappointment. It’s what you’re doing now that determines whether your training is rewarding or eye-rollingly boring.
And if we are only to talk of the health benefits - almost any exercise you can do results in improved insulin sensitivity that can last for days - this means an improved ability to metabolise sugar. It also strengthens and protects the heart, it has a positive influence on hormones, mood, and liver function, and improves circulation throughout the body, which is protective against God knows how many things, and all of this starts to happen from your first session, and continues to happen even if you never shed a pound. But is any of that a real motivating force? Usually no. Injury can be. But falling in love with the process, or to put it more simply: doing something you enjoy - that’s key.
I wrote a rather long piece a little while ago about how cardio doesn’t exist, which basically comes down to the observation that physiologically, a set of heavy squats and sprinting up a hill are exactly the same thing. In both cases, you have a maximal, full-body intense exercise, lasting for maybe 8 to 20 seconds, there’s a strong breathing and heart response, and both exercises provoke a strength adaptation in the muscles. Yet we think of squats as strength training, and sprints as ‘cardio’. It’s odd. But unless you’ve done heavy squats and sprints at some time yourself, these are only words on a page (or a screen) and may lack meaning. As with many things, it is better experienced than written about. The point is, of course, that everything you do provokes some sort of cardio-vascular response. Having established that, training becomes simplified: you are either training for strength (short duration, high intensity) or endurance (low intensity, long duration). Maybe it’s just semantics, but it’s a meaningful distinction for me.
Unfortunately, when it comes to strength training at gyms, there’s a lot of confusion. Bodybuilding routines of the previous champions have a way of filtering down into the broader fitness community, so we’re told to use methods that are not be appropriate for us, that we do not understand, in order to develop our strength and muscularity. Or toning. Or badassery.
But if you’re not trying to bring out the lateral head of your triceps - if you don’t care about that - why are you doing that triceps pulldown with a rope? If, however, you have noticed a weakness in your triceps - maybe when you do push-ups, you only feel it in the triceps and they seem to be the weakest link – then hey, there’s an actual reason to specifically work on your triceps development. And if it’s successful, when you come back to your push-up training, you should feel the muscles of the chest, shoulders, upper back, abs – most of the body, really – all working in harmony to complete the exercise.
So basically, you’re bringing up the weaker parts to keep your body balanced, functional and strong. You’re working on your weaknesses, while playing to your strengths.
We don’t need to hit it hard on every exercise. It’s difficult to see how a triceps pressdown relates to getting strong and functional in a practical sense. A biceps curl, maybe – it relates to picking something up. If you look at basic big movements, you’ve got squats, deadlifts, lunges, push-ups and bench-press, chin-ups, rowing exercises, twisting, handstands and overhead pressing. That’s pretty much it. You can trawl through youtube if you like for variations on these exercises, and I will go into more detail about more of them in the future, too.
Those are the movements you want to be getting stronger at, if strength development is what you’re after. But it’s not necessary to train all these movements all the time, because there’s a huge overlap between them. However, if you only train isolated body parts at a time, the list becomes so full of things you have to do to maintain a balanced musculature and keep postural problems or muscle imbalances from creeping in. Who wants to keep track of all that?
Women are often told not to lift too heavy for fear of becoming ‘too muscular’. Instead – and try to work out if this makes any damn sense at all – they are given vague isolated body-part bodybuilder routines, and then told to do them at a low intensity, high rep range of 15 to 30 reps or something like that. In short, they are given a routine that is only effective if you’re going heavy (and you have some solid training experience too), and then are told to do it light.
So what have you got then? If you’re lucky, a whole lot of isolated exercises that might strengthen individual muscles to a point, but they won’t make you better at pushing a car or pulling a fridge up a staircase, or anything else that has a practical application. Because that’s what you need your strength training to deliver – some sort of ‘real world’ application. If you’re only getting stronger at gym exercises, but you haven’t improved your squatting, stair-climbing, pushing, pulling, bracing or twisting ability, your training isn’t working for your development. Then you’re spinning your wheels - this is what makes training so boring. When all you focus on is ‘burning calories’. More about that later - calorie burning is the very least impressive aspect of training. But what can I say? We are told over and over that women should not be strong.
We’re told women should train for ‘tone’. Never mind that toning doesn’t exist – it’s a social construct, a look, but nothing more. Physiologically, there’s no such thing. There’s muscle hypertrophy (growth), atrophy (wasting), and that’s pretty much it. In the hypertrophy camp, there’s growth in terms of overall size, and growth in terms of muscle density, but toning does not exist. Toning relates to the look of a muscle that is big enough, but not too big, that is covered by some fat, not too much and not too little (then you’re getting into ‘ripped’ territory, rather than ‘toned’ territory), and isn’t covered by cellulite. There’s no type of training that can guarantee that look.
When you do a high-rep set to failure, something like 15 to 30 reps, of a specific body part, what you get is a burning sensation – that’s a build up of fluid which is a by-product of muscle contraction. You also get a whole lot of blood rushing to the area which plumps up the muscle temporarily, and leads to the ‘pumped’ look – there’s more fluid, more tension, your muscles feel full. This is often confused with either toning or a strength adaptation, but whether ‘chasing the pump’ is an effective training strategy at all is a topic of much debate. What there isn’t is a feeling in the fat. That burning you feel is the muscle – it’s not the fat burning away. Training a muscle does not burn the fat off that muscle. So what is ‘toning’? It’s a bit like a unicorn, I think.
And then, we start to get into a whole other debate. Why should women fear looking strong? Are you supposed to be fit, but not look fit? Or are you supposed to look strong, but not so strong that you can throw a man across a room? Or another woman? Is it not okay to look autonomous or self-reliant? And is being in a constant state of tension supposed to be more attractive than being relaxed, fluid and comfortable? Might be a topic for another day.
If you train for your health, you’ll have the development of your health. And you’ll look however the hell you look.
Some people like ‘high intensity’ systems, whereby you take an exercise, and perform only one set, slowly, until as close to muscular failure as you can, and then you move on to another body part. This works well for some, but if you give that lifting protocol to a beginner, it’s unlikely to be met with rapid (or any) progression. When you’re new to lifting, you need to develop the coordination and the neuro-muscular connection, and one heavy set is not enough time spent practicing the technique to build up either one. It’s just going to be confusing and ineffective. Before you’ve built up those nervous connections and the coordination, even if you’re training at maximum intensity, you’re probably not yet capable of working in the right way to provoke the adaptations that system is designed for.
If you can’t lift more now than you could six months ago, what gives? Oh, but I don’t want to be too strong. Okay. What is that? Is it going to happen by accident?
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got programs that include ten or twenty sets of exercises per body part. And then you rotate body parts so you only work your chest one day per week. If you’re not already strong, that fails to deliver all-too-often. You’ll just burn yourself out, make yourself too sore, and only mess up your body’s ability to recover properly – unless you’re on steroids. Or maybe if you’re an advanced lifter and you’re eating tons of food.
So what do you do? Investigate. Train a lot, train a little, see what you find satisfying and rewarding. There is no way you’ll be able to fit everything you ‘should’ be doing into your week, so why the hell bother? If you’re interested in developing your health, pursue what you find interesting, rewarding, and fun. Spend time developing your coordination. You do this not by lifting heavy, but by lifting with attention and awareness, and getting in a lot of repetitions. As you adapt and learn, you can increase the loading parameters or sets or whatever, as you see fit, as your confidence develops. As your awareness develops. As the gap between your body and mind lessens. You’ll discover what works for you, what exercises are challenging to develop, and what aren’t. And it’s investigation that will lead you towards knowing what you want or need to do.
When in doubt, I always come back to a very simple guideline for beginners. Do more pulling than pushing, and more legs than upper body. That tends to balance us out nicely. Pulling (rows, chin-ups, deadlifts) is good for developing the back of the body. Pushing (bench press or push-ups, shoulder-press and handstands) is good for developing the front. And all leg exercises are pretty much fine by me. If you have a strong back and strong legs, I don’t think you’ll get yourself into much trouble at all.
I was talking to a Pilates instructor a while ago, and she said for weights training she was just doing three sets of 8 to 12 reps, and she didn’t seem to have a reason for it. That was the system Steve Reeves used, to become a bodybuilding champion in decades gone by. And that approach – going through different muscle groups from top to bottom – is still a popular one. Three sets of shoulder press, three sets of biceps curls, three sets of calf raises and the rest. But if you’re not trying to become a bodybuilder, why are you using that lifting protocol?
If all you ever did was a few sets of push, pull and squat – to the point of satisfaction, not exhaustion – you’d probably be okay. Your strength would develop in stages, slowly. You’d plateau and progress, and learn about yourself as you did.
And if you never even did that, hell – you’d still probably be okay. If you like dancing, dance. You can do separate strength and conditioning training if you want to build up your endurance or strength, or your ability to jump, or your flexibility or agility.
If you do what you like, sooner or later you’ll start to notice what weak points exist and if you care about building them up, you can. If you don’t, that’s fine too.
When you move the focus away from weight or appearance and onto function, rehabilitation and injury prevention becomes meaningful, because now you’re aware of the process. You’re aware of what you need to do to get where you’re really heading. You look inwards, and see what helps you to progress.
And if you like, if you find it enjoyable, rewarding or satisfying, you can do the biggest, most complicated system of body-part-rotating-ass-busting-thing you want.
The only real reason we’re told to do these long, alternating body part routines is to keep us in the gym longer, because of some random idea that we should be ‘buring more calories’. This is basically bullshit and has nothing to do with developing your strength or endurance. Nothing that comes down to athletic development has anything to do with calories burnt. Nothing. Think Olympic athletes restrict calories? Neither should you. If you want to be able to run further, you need to work on running further. This may include mobility and strength training, as well as distance work, and hill runs or sprints too, but duration is completely irrelevant. If you want to get stronger, the measure of this is whether or not you’re getting stronger. That’s how you tell if your strength training is effective – not by how long you can lift weight for.
The best way to tell whether or not your training is effective is not by whether or not your body changes shape. It’s adaptations in terms of ability, coordination, strength and endurance – in short: your athleticism – that reveals the effectiveness of your training. Just in case anyone was wondering, I’m still working on a post about athletic development, but I thought this would be a good topic to cover first.
Just don’t buy into the crap that you need to be doing some random whatever, just because you’re told. There needs to be a reason for everything. Ask why. Or just go ahead and do your own thing, on your own terms. Whatever they may be, as long as they’re honest.
Your own enthusiasm is your best guide. But you need to bring yourself to the task at hand. Be curious, creative, and inventive, and if you can – completely unashamed.