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This blog post is part 3 of a series on nutrition and exercise. If you haven't seen them already, I recommend reading part 1 now, which provides a general overview, and part 2 detailing nutrition. This blog post will go into more details on exercise.
I'm going to break down exercise into three broad categories:
These categories can overlap. For example, a weighted squat could be seen as both resistance training and mobility work. Circuit training could be seen as cardio and resistance. But typically there are distinct benefits for each categories, and fairly distinct activities that achieve those goals.
For the completely impatient, here are my recommendations on where you should get started. I strongly encourage reading the rest of the post so that these recommendations make sense and you can tweak them for your own personal needs:
Before diving into the details, I want to talk about two related but distinct terms. Definitions on these two terms vary quite a bit, but I'd like to give my own simplified definitions based on the input of many other sources:
What I'm trying to get across in these definitions is that health is about reaching a baseline where your body is not working against you. By contrast, fitness lets you push the boundaries of what you're capable of.
Often times, these go hand in hand. Being able to run a mile in 15 minutes, for instance, is a good indication that you are not suffering from any respiratory conditions, your bones are strong enough to withstand the impact of running, you have decent lower body muscle mass, and so on.
However, these two concepts can and do diverge. The ability to deadlift 300kg (660lbs) is not by any reasonable standard a prerequisite for a healthy body, but certainly measures fitness. Running a 4 minute mile is an amazing feat of prowess in fitness, but doesn't really tell me you're healthier than the person running an 8 minute mile.
I point this distinction out here because this series of posts is intended to cover health, and using nutrition and exercise to achieve it. It is very tempting to get caught up in numbers and goals that measure fitness, while throwing health to the wind. For the most trivial example of this: taking steroids to improve your powerlifting numbers will certainly improve your fitness. However, I'd argue pretty strongly against it, since it's bad for your health.
All that said, there's nothing wrong with pursuing fitness goals, and as I mentioned in why I lift, doing so can be a lot of fun. Having something to compete against—even yourself—is a huge motivator. Just make sure you're not sacrificing your health in the process.
This is also known as strength training. Let's rip off the definition straight from Wikipedia:
Strength training is a type of physical exercise specializing in the use of resistance to induce muscular contraction which builds the strength, anaerobic endurance, and size of skeletal muscles.
The term strength training tells us the why, whereas resistance training hints more at how we achieve these goals. Resistance training involves exerting your muscles against some external resistance. Probably the most emblematic version of this is resisting against gravity in the form of lifting weights, but we'll see that there are many other approaches available.
This could be my own personal experience that others have not felt, but growing up I always had the impression that training for strength was somehow bad. Lifting weights was a vain pursuit of bigger muscles, and real health benefits only came from cardio like jogging.
If you never had these misconceptions, congratulations. I certainly did. And in case others do as well, let me dispel them:
That's a lot of benefits, and it's far from a complete list. You may not relate to all of the points above, but hopefully it makes the point that strength training is not just for young guys wanting to impress people with their biceps. Strength training is a vital component of good health for everyone, regardless of age or gender.
All strength/resistance training fits into the same basic idea. You want to move some part of your body by contracting a muscle. You want to use some technique to make that contraction difficult so that your muscle has to struggle. By challenging the muscle, you trigger—through various pathways—your body to:
These benefits occur during recovery, or the time after you stop exercising. This is important: if you keep exercising non-stop for days on end, you will get weaker, not stronger. The formula then is:
This kind of exercise is anaerobic, meaning "without air." Because resistance training is short bursts of heavy intensity, it mostly relies upon glycogen for energy, which can be burned without oxygen. This may seem to imply that resistance training has no benefits on the cardiovascular (heart and lung) system, and doesn't help burn fat (which requires oxygen to break down). Neither of these is true, however. During the recovery phase, your body will need to rely on your fat stores to provide energy to rebuild muscles, which will put demands on the cardiovascular system to provide additional oxygen.
Last bit of theory here before we dive into how to do all of this. Another way of looking at exercise is a stress we are applying to our body. Stress has a bad rap, and for good reason: chronic stress, such as we experience in our daily life from work and continual electronic stimulation, is damaging. However, in small doses, stress is wonderful for our body.
When we temporarily stress our body, it provides a stimulus for our body to get better, so it is able to more easily handle the stress in the future. Stressing our muscles causes them to get stronger. Stressing our bones makes them more dense. And stressing our cardiovascular system with extra oxygen demands makes our heart and lungs more efficient.
Temporary stress with proper recovery is the very heart of exercise, and will carry through to everything in this post.
OK, let's actually talk about some exercises! The most easily accessible form of resistance training is body weight exercises, or bodyweights. The concept here is simple: use your own body and gravity to provide a resistance for your muscles to exert against.
Probably the most famous example of this is the pushup. You are pushing against the ground with your arm, shoulder, and chest muscles to create enough force to move your body against gravity. Your own body weight is working against your muscles.
If you read the word "pushup" and thought "I can't do that," no need to worry. Bodyweight exercises usually follow some form of progression, where you can start with easier forms of the exercise and gradually move to more difficult versions. Taking a pushup as an example, a progression may look something like:
There are other variations you can perform: changing the width of your grip by putting your hands closer or farther apart to focus on different muscles. You can also follow a one-arm pushup progression instead of a vertical pushup progression. Vertical pushups put more stress on your shoulder muscles, while one-arm pushups put more focus on your chest muscles.
If all of this sounds confusing and a bit daunting, don't worry. Some very helpful people online have already created programs around bodyweights. Some references:
All of these routines follow the same basic principles: use compound movements to target all of your major muscle groups, progressively overload those muscles, and provide ample time for recovery. If those terms are confusing, don't worry, there are sections below dedicated to explaining them.
If you're feeling overwhelmed or confused, let me remind of something from the first post in this series: don't let confusion get in your way! These are all great routines, and doing something is better than doing nothing. Pick something and do it for a few weeks, and after you get comfortable, you'll be ready to make a more informed decision about how you want to proceed.
Let's see how bodyweight exercises stack up against alternatives:
Weight lifting is the act of moving some external weight against gravity (or sometimes against friction and inertia). The category breaks down broadly into machines and free weights. Free weights are things like barbells, dumbells, and kettlebells. For those unfamiliar with these terms:
Free weights have an advantage over machines in that they are unstable. This means you need to use more muscle groups to keep control of the weight. By contrast, a machine keeps the weight in more a less a straight line, which takes some of the stress off of your body. Additionally, machines are usually easier to learn to use and less dangerous.
If you're too intimidated by free weights, by all means start right away with machines. But if you avoid free weights indefinitely, you're limiting yourself significantly. I strongly recommend you get comfortable with using a barbell. Start with low weights and build up slowly. Focus on getting the movements correct (aka good form), and slowly build up to heavy weights (where heavy is a personal assessment of what is difficult for you).
If you're going to pursue a machine-based routine, I'd recommend speaking with one of the trainers at the gym you're attending. I'm not familiar with good machine-based routines available online, and it will depend a lot on what equipment you have available.
If you want to get started with free weights, there are two very popular routines to consider:
If you go to popular weight lifting forums, you'll see a lot of flamewars between these two routines. To cut through some of this: Starting Strength was the original program, is designed by a coach (Mark Rippetoe) with a huge amount of experience training individuals, and was groundbreaking when first released. StrongLifts is basically a variation of Starting Strength and doesn't have as much experience to back it up.
Based on that, it would seem that Starting Strength is the way to go. I personally decided to go with StrongLifts, and my reasons were:
I'm sure these reasons sound shallow, and some people will be upset with this. But the reality is: do whichever routine you want (or a completely different one). As long as you're lifting, you're better off.
And one word of warning from my own experience: don't become so obsessed with progressing through the program that you ignore your body's complaints. I trained to injury a few times because I ignored pain and put on extra weight when I shouldn't have. Don't be stupid!
I'm not going to say much about these, since I haven't really used them. But I wanted to make it clear that there are drastically different approaches to resistance training. Resistance bands are pieces of rubber which you can stretch, and which become harder to stretch the further you've pulled them. You can use them in place of weights for many kinds of workouts. Your body doesn't care what's causing the resistance. It just wants something to be resisting it.
There's a YouTube channel which I find very beginner-friendly, called "Picture Fit." Here are two videos I recommend watching that summarize the three categories mentioned:
I've presented the information so far as a choice among competitors. This is far from the case. Many of these techniques can be combined to gain the advantages of each. For example, consider a workout routine consisting of:
There's no reason to avoid mixing and matching. However, building your own routine is a more advanced activity. When you're getting started, I recommend choosing one of the routines I linked to above and sticking to it until you get comfortable with the exercises.
Let's talk nomenclature. A rep is short for a repetition, and it describes performing one complete exercise. For example, with a pushup, a repetition consists of lowering your body to the ground and raising yourself back up to the starting position.
A set is a collection repetitions performed without rest. For example, a set may consist of 8 reps.
Often times, workout programs will be given in terms of sets and reps like so:
You'll also need to consider how long to rest between sets. Usually your program will tell you this. Valid answers here can be as little as 30 seconds and as much as 5 minutes. Typically different rest periods will work your body in different ways: shorter rest gives more endurance training, whereas longer rest gives more strength gains.
Think of a bench press: you're lying on your back with a barbell over you. You bend your elbows, your wrist bends, and your shoulder joint activates. You push back up using your chest muscles, your shoulder muscles, and your arm muscles (tricpes in particular).
Now think of a bicep curl: you hold a dumbbell in your hand and you bend your elbow.
The former is called a compound movement: it involves multiple muscle groups moving mutiple joints in your body. The latter is an isolation exercise: it targets just one muscle group via one joint.
Generally speaking, you'll get better results by focusing on compound movements. They stress the body more, and in more natural ways. They lead to more balanced development of muscles. And they are more time efficient: you work more muslces in less time.
That's not to say you should never use isolation exercises, but in my opinion they should be considered accessories to main, compound movement. Use them to help develop weak spots in your strength.
You'll notice that the routines I listed above all focus on compound movements. That's not by chance.
If you do 10 pushups a day for the rest of your life, after a certain point you aren't going to get stronger. In order to reap the full benefits of strength training, you need to progressively overload your muscles by increasing the stress/stimulus. You can do this in multiple ways:
A good program will build in this kind of progressive overload, as do the programs I linked to above. The basic idea is to avoid stagnating by constantly challenging yourself to improve.
In order to modify the weight of a barbell, we can add extra weight to it. These weights come in the form of plates, circular pieces of metal—sometimes rubberized—that are put on the sides of the bar.
If you're going to be doing barbell exercises, it's important to get comfortable with adding up weights, also known as plate math. I'll start with the metric system, since it's easier to handle, and what I use.
A standard barbell weighs 20kg. The plates you'll put on the barbell must be balanced: you put the same amount on the left and right side. If you put a 10kg and 5kg weight on each side, you'll end up with:
I find it easiest in most cases to add up the weight per side of the bar, double it, and add 20. So in the above example, I'd do "10 + 5 = 15, 15 * 2 = 30, 30 + 20 = 50." This is just arithmetic, so don't get too hung up on it, and do what's comfortable.
Now let's do this in reverse. Suppose you're planning on benching 70kg. In order to figure out what to put on the bar, you would do this:
Try not to just match the total weight, but also the plate distribution. In other words, don't put a 20kg on one side of the bar and 4 5kg plates on the other. That will feel unbalanced. Most gyms will have plates of size 20kg, 10kg, 5kg, 2.5kg, and 1.25kg. Some may also have 25kg and 15kg.
You may also hear people say things like "squatting 2 plate," or on stranger parts of the internet, "2pl8." This means you have 2 20kg plates per side of the barbell. Why 20kg? Convention. Do the math, I'll give you the total weight for this at the end of this section.
For you Americans, the numbers are slightly different. Instead of a barbell weighing 20kg, it weights 45lbs, which is just slightly more than 20kg (20.4kg). And the plates come in sizes of 45lbs, 35lbs, 25lbs, 10lbs, 5lbs, and 2.5lbs. As a developer, I love the power-of-2 system employed by the metric plates, but if you have to use imperial measurements, just get used to doing the math.
This has the funny side-effect that if you say "I squatted 2 plate," it means something different between America and the rest of the world. (Go ahead and figure out what that total pound value is.) The numbers are close, but not exactly the same.
Answer: 2 plate is 100kg, or 225lbs.
You'll read this just about everywhere that discusses weight lifting, but I'll say it here too: using proper form on your lifts is absolutely crucial. Using proper form will:
There are two particular points of proper form that I want to point out:
A full body workout is a routine that exercises all (or most) muscle groups each day you train. A split routine somehow splits up days of the week to specific muscle groups. There are many tradeoffs between these two approaches, and I won't be able to cover them all here. But here's a basic idea: you should always have a day of rest between training a specific muscle group. But having too many rest days in between is limiting your growth potential.
If you're going to work out three days a week, you can do a full body routine each of those days and have 1 or 2 days of rest in between. By contrast, if you're going to work out 6 days a week, doing a full body routine each day won't give you any time to rest and recover.
The routines above are all full body routines. That's probably the right place to start; I would highly advise against strength training for more than three days a week as a beginner. If you later want to progress to more days of working out a week, you can consider some kind of split. There are many preexisting routines based on splits, and you can of course make your own.
Personally, I've found the PPL (Push/Pull/Leg) split approach to be pretty good. The idea is to first separate out all lower-body/leg exercises to their own day. Then, of upper body exercises, break them up by whether they push the weight away from your body (like a bench press) or are pulling the weight toward your body (like a curl or barbell row). This ends up pretty cleanly dividing up the upper body muscle groups.
If you're just getting started with strength training, you don't need to worry too much about eating. Follow nutrition advice from the previous post. If you're trying to lose fat, eat at a caloric deficit. When you're initially going from untrained to trained, you get to experience what are known as "noob gains," which lifters treat as the magical ability for your body to get stronger and leaner at the same time.
Once you're past that initial beginner phase, it gets harder to pull this off. You'll hear people talk about bulking and cutting, on the premise that you need to eat extra food to fuel muscle growth (bulk), and then go for a period of caloric deficit to burn off the extra fat you gained (cut). Other approaches believe in trying for a recomp, or body recomposition, consisting of careful balancing of calories to get just enough to gain muscle and burn fat. Other approaches like Lean Gains believe in carb and calorie cycling: eating more carbs and calories on training days, and less carbs and calories on rest days.
This is all rocket science versus what we're discussing here. I'm mentioning it all so that you know you don't need to freak out about it. Remember, your goal is to get used to training, enjoy it, nail down form, and get basic strength gains. If you decide to pursue strength training more aggressively (like I have), there will be plenty of time in the gym to read hundreds of articles on the right way to eat. For now: eat healthy and lift heavy things.
Final note: be sure to get plenty of protein while strength training. You'll be using protein to rebuild your muscles after working them in the gym. If you don't have enough protein in your diet, your body will be unable to recover.
There are many different muscles in your body. However, when talking about weight lifting, we usually break the body down into major muscle groups. The basic breakdown often discussed is:
You should get comfortable with identifying these muscle groups, and at flexing the different muscle groups. Some exercises will say things like "activate your glutes" or "stabilize with your lats." Don't worry if you're having trouble feeling your pecs or lats, working them out will help.
Make sure that, with whatever exercise routine you're following, you're hitting all of this muscle groups at least once per week (and ideally 2-3 times).
Wow, that was a lot! I honestly didn't realize I had that much to say on the subject of resistance training, and there's still a lot more worth saying. But hopefully this gives you a good place to start. In sum:
I'll say right now that I know more about resistance training than cardio and mobility, so these two sections will not be as detailed as resistance training. (And after everything you just read through, you may be relieved to hear that).
Cardio is also known as aerobic exercise. Aerobic means "with oxygen," and describes the energy system used during typical cardio workouts. When you go for a 30 minutes jog, you'll end up using fat as a major energy source, which requires oxygen to break down. This energy production is not as fast as glycogen, but we don't need to have the same level of explosive energy as we do with weight lifting.
Advantages of cardio:
It's good for burning fat
There are also some downsides:
There are many different ways you can perform cardio. Some of the most popular are:
Cardio can be performed on a daily basis. There is far less concern of overtraining like with weight training, since the exercise will not break down your muscles to the same extent. Common durations for a session range from 15 minutes to an hour. My recommendation: start off with something you can manage easily, get used to the activity, and then ramp it up over time.
I haven't personally done this program, but I've heard good reviews of the Couch to 5k program, which trains you to be able to run 5 kilometers (or just over 3 miles) in 9 weeks.
It may be slightly incorrect to include High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, as a subheading within cardio, but I'll explain my motivation shortly. Cardio as described above is also known as Low Intensity Steady State (LISS), where you keep to a mostly-fixed level of exertion which can be maintained for a significant period of time. By contrast, HIIT uses short bursts of high intensity exertion for a shorter period of time.
A typical HIIT protocol may look like: perform a cycle of 8 sprints. For each sprint, run as fast as you possibly can for 20 seconds, and then rest for 10 seconds. (This specific protocol is known as tabatas.) This full workout will take only 4 minutes, but as I saw someone once describe it, "it's 4 minutes of suck." Also, since HIIT is more physically taxing than LISS, you should take at least one rest day between sessions.
Before getting into the physical comparison, I want to point out that both HIIT and LISS are appealing. HIIT is anything but boring, and it's incredibly time efficient (imagine replacing a daily 30 minute run with a 4 minute sprint 3 days a week). But it's a hard workout. In fact, it's hard enough that I'd encourage people to not try to start exercising with regular HIIT sessions, as it may encourage you to give up. Instead, try a HIIT session interspersed with other workouts, and only consider making it part of your routine when you're confident that you won't give up. Remember, any exercise is better than no exercise.
So, if HIIT is so very different than normal cardio, why did I include it here? Because research is indicating that it can deliver on the same benefits people try to get from LISS cardio:
In addition, HIIT claims some advantages over LISS, like more favorable hormonal responses and possibly better blood glucose control.
Short story: there is a lot of positive to be said about HIIT, but the science is not conclusive yet. If you want to try HIIT, and you don't believe you'll be discouraged by the intensity, go for it.
To make my biases clear in this: I almost never do dedicated LISS cardio sessions, but instead rely on HIIT for cardiovascular health. It's worked well for me, with improvements in my blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory system (far less symptoms of asthma). But given that HIIT is still considered somewhat less established than LISS, I want it to be clear that I am not advocating for anyone to stop standard cardio workouts.
You can do HIIT with lots of different exercises:
There are also similar programs, like circuit training, which involve high intensity as well as weight lifting.
One other very interesting approach for overall strength and cardiovascular health is presented in the book "Body by Science." I'm throwing this in here just to give a taste of how varied theories of good exercise are, and to encourage you to continue research beyond this naive overview.
Body by Science makes the bold claim that you can get "strength training, body building, and complete fitness in 12 minutes a week." I'll present a massively simplified version of what they claim, and encourage you to read the book itself if you're interested in more.
I've never done this program myself, but that's mostly because I actually enjoy my time in the gym, and don't want to reduce it to just 15 minutes a week. At the very least, the book is a great read with lots of valuable information.
This is a very common problem with people doing cardio: get on the treadmill for 45 minutes, walk at a decent (but not particular strenuous pace), and then get some kind of recovery smoothie (or insert other food item here). Take a guess: how many calories did the treadmill burn, and how many are in the smoothie?
Unfortunately, for many people, the smoothie completely outweighs the workout itself. Don't fall into this trap! Figure out your nutrition, and stick to it. Don't convince yourself that you're free to eat whatever you want because you went for a run today. You'll be undoing all of your hard work.
Another idea to throw in is, outside of "exercise," it's a good idea to simply be more active. Taking a nightly walk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, playing some easy sports, taking a break at the office to step outside, or a dozen other tweaks you can make throughout your day, all make you less sedentary. Sure, these activities help you burn a few more calories. But I would argue—as would many better authorities—that simply being more active is a reward in and of itself.
Flexibility measures the range of movement of a joint. Flexibility can be improved with stretching. Given the sedentary lifestyles most of us live today, we end up having reduced flexibility. While flexibility and stretching typically have to do with the static range of motion of our joints, mobility refers to our ability to effectively move our joints.
An important distinction to make in these kinds of routines is dynamic vs static. Dynamic movements will involve moving a joint constantly. These are good to warm up before another exercise session. By contrast, static stretches will hold your joints in a fixed position. These can increase overall flexibility, but are generally best saved for after a workout.
This is the area in this post I am least familiar with, so I'm not going to go into much detail. Probably the most popular technique out there right now for improving your flexibility and mobility is Yoga. Many other people can give better advice than I can for getting started with it.
One pair of programs I followed (for less time than I should have) for mobility and flexibility are Molding Mobility and Starting Stretching. I found it much easier to grasp when I watched a set of Youtube videos demonstrating them:
The idea with this order is to perform the dynamic mobility routine first, perform any resistance training next, and then finally perform static stretches at the end.
Thank you for making it through these three posts, I know I didn't make it easy. Hopefully they have provided you with lots of information, a good idea of the terms at play, and encouragement to go read more from better sources. And, of course, I hope you don't just make this an intellectual endeavor, but start taking control of your health!
My recommendation for getting started with this: get your nutrition improved, and to a place where you're comfortable with your daily eating routine. Try not to focus on a scale goal; focus on eating better. Experiment, and find what works. Introduce some exercise. Make sure you're ultimately getting in exercise that both improves your strength level, and improves your cardiovascular system.
I hope this was useful. If you have questions, please send them to me. I still haven't decided if I'll be making more health-related posts. If this is something you'd like to see from me, please say so, it's more likely to happen with such feedback.