There’s PLENTY of material online claiming to be the BEST workout – how to get ripped abs, powerful guns, or a strong back; but most of these articles focus on the workout itself. They focus on the specific exercises being used to try to achieve the promised results, but most don’t address the basics needed for ANY successful workout regimen. That’s what I’m going to focus on in this post.
I think the first thing to consider when delving into the world of fitness is: find what works best for you. Most people envision going to a crowded gym and moving around a bunch of heavy metal plates, or running outside in all sorts of weather conditions when starting a fitness program. These aren’t the only options out there! Many people don’t like lifting weights (resistance training) or the impact on their joints that comes from running. Believe me, there’s a huge difference between putting on your headphones and tuning out the world to lift weights in a gym, running in the park, or attending a group fitness class, or swimming in a pool. If you’re really serious about this, then explore your options – see what’s available in your community and try out different classes – go outside your comfort zone and try yoga, or a cardio boxing class. Many places offer a “first class is free” option. You just might find your next addiction! If you’re a social person (or even if you’re not), there’s often a sense of community that can be found in group classes that can help with accountability, insuring that this new habit you’re trying to form grows into a lifestyle habit.
Once you’ve picked your activity, the real work begins. Make no illusions; this IS work. There’s a sense of excitement to beginning a fitness plan; and heading back again and again, once you’ve found something that you enjoy. When the rubber hits the road and it’s time to grind it out, you owe it to yourself to put in the work and make sure you’re maximizing your results. After all, that’s why you’re doing all of this, right?
Fitness and a healthy lifestyle is just a habit. Nothing more. There is one magic bullet that can change your lifestyle to one of fitness, and that magic bullet is consistency. Once you decide to commit to this new habit, be consistent. Set a plan for yourself, stick to it, and then be real with yourself. No one is always at their best. There are days when you’ll feel like you’re not performing your best, or even as well as you did the last time you worked out. That’s not only OK; it’s totally normal. Allow yourself to have bad days at the gym, just make sure you go anyway – even if you’re not feeling it, remember, SOMETHING is better than NOTHING. Showing up and putting in any amount of effort will keep you consistent, and help reinforce the habit you’re trying to create. Remember, the only “bad” workout is one that didn’t happen.
Let’s Talk About Form, Baby!
Form is such a huge and often overlooked element of fitness. Performing a repetition properly is the key to increasing its effectiveness and maximizing your results more quickly and – more importantly – safely. There are many elements to this topic, so I’ll break them down individually:
One of the most overlooked elements of fitness is proper posture during the entire movement. We live in such a sedentary society that we’ve developed many terrible habits in the way we hold ourselves. Is your spine aligned properly? This is especially important for any bent over movements like a bent over row. Shoulders should be pulled back and down – similar to the old army basic training adage of “shoulders back, chest out” not an exaggerated position, but a natural one. Because we sit so much in our culture, most of us tend to slouch with our shoulders forward and down, upper back slightly hunched and neck forward. It’s time to straighten that up, and align our spines properly!
The Mind-Muscle Connection
Think about the muscle you’re trying to work. In fact, prior to working on the specific muscle, test it out. For example, if you’re performing a bicep curl, take a minute and flex your arm in a fashion similar to the exercise you’re about to perform. Give it a squeeze, not with your hand; tighten the muscle hard, like you’re trying to lift the heaviest thing ever. Feel that? Good. That’s the muscle you’re working out. You want to feel that with every repetition you perform. And it’s not just resistance training that this works with; it’s an EVERYTHING thing. Yoga? Yup. Perform the pose, focus on the way it’s supposed to feel, become aware of the stretch, the flexion of the muscles when holding a pose, and get ready to repeat it. Even when it comes to running, focus on how your body should feel during the run, spinal posture, the length of your strides, try to continue to repeat this with each step of the run. You can apply this same thinking to any sport or form of exercise you’re performing. Become aware of what your body is trying to do and then apply your focus to performing the movement properly.
Isolation and Repetitions
Now, back to the bicep curl we just examined. Pick up the weight and slowly do the same thing you just experienced without the weight, only WITH the weight this time. When you’ve “curled” the weight to the top of your arm, squeeze that muscle again – hard. Do this with each repetition until you can’t lift the weight anymore. This is called isolating the muscle, and due to the mind-muscle connection you just established, your body remembers exactly how to do this. When you can’t lift the weight anymore without really sacrificing your form and losing control, you’re done. Just be honest about your effort. If there’s still gas left in the tank, but you just don’t feel like doing it again, too bad, keep going! Just never sacrifice form – that’s how you get hurt. When you’ve truly exhausted the muscle, take a break to catch your breath and after no more than a minute, do it all over again to the point of failure. That’s the formula for progress.
Another important element to consider to avoid injury is controlling your movements – whether this is while holding a weight or body control when doing yoga, running, etc. controlling your movement is important. You should never be swinging a weight to complete a movement, especially if it involves arching your back to force it (this is a good way to earn a trip to the doctor)! Don’t lose your form for whatever the exercise is. Be strict about this and you can avoid yourself a lot of (literal) pain and suffering.
Are you “plugging up” any energy leaks for movements like the pull-up or push-up that rely on multiple muscle groups to perform the exercise? The simple act of creating a rigid body by tensing or flexing non-related muscles during a movement will create a strong base from which to perform the movement. It also ensures that you’re muscles aren’t making micro-corrections during the movements that could be sapping your energy before completing a set. A good rule of thumb for almost any resistance exercise is to utilize a tight core during any effort.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Resistance training is not about how fast you perform your reps. To the contrary, your muscles respond to time under tension. That means you’ll have a better chance at achieving your goals by slowing down. It makes the workout tougher, but that’s going to lead to better results, which is why you’re bothering with all of this in the first place!
Warm-up that body!
Three to five minutes of warm-up stretches should be performed prior to ANY workout – this is a universally great idea. I don’t care if this is yoga, running, or resistance prepare your body for what you’re about to ask of it, to minimize the chance of injuries!
Cool Down that body!
You should be ending each workout with three to five minutes of stretching as well to cool down those muscles that you just demanded so much work from. You’re in this for useful, functioning muscles, not useless, tight limbs.
No seriously, start drinking…water that is. A good rule of thumb is to take your body weight and divide it by two. That’s how many ounces of water per day you should be drinking. Maybe that seems like a lot of water, but it’s really not that hard to do once you start actively trying. You’ll feel fuller throughout the day and water plays a huge role in recovery from a workout. It helps you digest vital nutrients and helps repair muscles damaged during exercise.
When exercising – especially when resistance training, you’ll find that you’re naturally better on one side than the other. Because of this phenomenon, you’ll want to favor that side. DON’T neglect the other side of your body though! Make sure to stretch the left side as much as the right side, lift the same weight on the left side as the right side – even though it may feel harder to do.S
Get your beauty sleep.
Everyone has an Achilles heal – this one is mine. I have terrible sleep patterns, and I hate it. I do find comfort in my weakness however by knowing that most people in our society don’t get the proper amount of sleep. The average adult should get at least seven hours of sleep each night to function optimally. This is even more important for someone following a fitness program. Sleep gives your body time to recover, conserve energy, repair and rebuild the muscles you’ve worked so hard during your fitness program.
OK, I hate to tell you this – I really do, but you can’t out-train a bad diet. You can put in all the hard work in the gym, yoga studio or outside running, hiking or biking, but if you put garbage in your body then you won’t see the results you’re probably hoping for. I don’t care if you’re doing this to lose weight, to become more healthy, to get a beach body or to live longer. If you don’t get a nutrition plan that you can follow EVERY DAY, then you simply won’t get the results you want. It sucks. I know, believe me, I hate it as much as you do. I have a soft spot in my heart for donuts, cheeseburgers and fries, but the fact is your body is constantly rebuilding itself, and it needs certain nutrients to rebuild itself optimally. When you’re starting down a path of fitness, you’re asking your body to rebuild itself even better than before – and it will happily do so, but only if it has the materials it needs to do so. Think of it like asking a carpenter to build you a house. They can certainly do the job, but if you only give them scotch tape and wet paper towels to do it, you probably already know the quality of the house you’re going to get.
Write it down and shout it out!
One last big tip before you start your fitness plan, write down the goals that you want to achieve. Think big! Shoot for the moon in your goals, because whatever they are, YOU CAN DO IT. Seriously, you can get there. If your goal is to lose 100 pounds it may seem like a massive challenge, but you can get there. Once you’ve written down your goal, break it up into smaller more achievable steps and set goal dates that you need to hit to stay on track. Be realistic in your goals. In our 100 pounds example, don’t tell yourself you’re going to lose 20 pounds a month because that’s likely unsustainable, slow and steady wins the race. Once you’ve set these smaller goals, hold yourself accountable, but don’t beat yourself up if you miss one. Progress is rarely a straight line. Frequently this journey is 2 steps forward, one step back. Sometimes it’s 5 steps forward, but as long as you’re moving toward your goal OVER TIME then you’re winning the fight. Now that you’ve set your goals – both big and small, shout them from the rooftop. Tell your friends and family what you’re doing. This can be a scary step because no-one wants to look like a loser if they don’t achieve their goals. That’s exactly why you should tell everyone you know what you’re doing. It will help you with your accountability on days where you really don’t feel like going for that run, or hitting the gym – or feel like grabbing a burger instead of eating healthy.
You’ve got this!
I plan to dig deeper into each one of these topics in this blog, so stay tuned! By following these foundational principles – some basic, some a little more advanced you should find that you’re seeing more results from the hard work you’re putting in. What are your thoughts? Are there any foundational elements that you think I’ve left out? Have you had any great success with other tips that might help out someone who is trying to navigate the waters of the fitness world? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
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