I get asked fairly often what I’ve been doing in the last year or two to get my fitness results. I’ve decided to be very specific, despite the fact that each person has his/her own gender, age, body type, metabolism, race, motivation level, and other host of factors that will affect his/her ability to implement any of this. There is one overarching factor that will help you, no matter what type of exercise regimen you follow: Discipline.
I was going to say “consistence;” however, that is a misnomer. Yes, you have to consistently work for a long time, but you cannot repeat the same formulas over and over. Variety is very important. That can be applied in many ways: How many times a week you workout, time of day, what types of exercises you do, the order of the exercises, whether you focus on the concentric/essentric/isometric phase of exertion, the tempo of repetitions, how much rest you have between sets, whether you do supersets/pyramid/reverse pyramid/circuit/etc, blah blah blah.
Variety is key, because your body is extremely adept at finding the most efficient way to perform effort (i.e. the path of least resistance), and will adapt to repetition by burning fewer calories. If you do the same workout more than about three times in a row, you will see a drastic reduction in effort/caloric burn. Mix it up. Always.
I workout only 2-4 times each week. I workout for only 45-60 minutes for each session. However, when I do exercise it is with a focus on intensity and good form (proper alignment, proper use of breath, appropriate resistance loads). I also do not do the same workout more than once in a week. Plyometrics (explosive training that focuses on jumping/landing, locomotion while implementing resistance of some kind, and skill specific motions like throwing/catching) is very important for me, because I’ve been active so long that anything less demanding simply won’t shock my system.
What happens if you do not breathe? You die. That’s hyperbole in this instance, but you get the point. Without breath there is nothing else. You must not only breathe, you must do it with the proper coordination, in order to deliver oxygen and remove waste efficiently. Toxins in the body prevent progress – breathing properly and hydrating will help elimenate these substances.
The simple rule of thumb for breathing: Exhale on the exertion, inhale on the return. Often this means that you should exhale on the concentric portion of the repetition (i.e. flexion – decreasing the angle of the joint. e.g. bending your elbow). You would exhale when bending your elbow to do a biceps curl, and inhale as you lower it during the essentric portion of the repetion (i.e. extension – increasing the angle of the joint. e.g. straigtening your elbow). This isn’t always the case: You would inhale to go down in a pushup (when the elbows bend) and exhale to go up. So, exhale when you do more work, inhale when you do less work.
Visualization & Three Dimensional Symmetricality
Get it out of your mind right now that spot training is helpful. If you are saying, “I want to improve my (insert body part here),” you still need to implement the whole body, even while bringing some additional focus to the part in question. Be aware that the cosmetic muscles (i.e. the most superficial: biceps brachii, pectoralis major, gluteus maximus, etc.) are the furthest from the core of the limbs and torso, and although they are the prettiest to look at, they are the least important in terms of efficient development. The deep musculature is closer to the joints, and these invisible muscles are the foundation upon which the superficial muscles are built.
With that in mind, bring your focus to a deeper place within your visualization of what you are doing. Yes, imagining yourself doing an exercise will help your results, but try to think deeper than the muscles you can see. The biceps brachii (the muscle you show people when they say “make a muscle” and you flex your elbow in response) is not the primary flexor of the elbow: The brachialis is, because it is closer to the lever of the joint. When you do upper anterior arm exercises, be sure to keep this fact in mind.
In addition to working on a deeper level, also remember balance. As above, so below. What you do on the front, do on the back. If you do it to the left, do it to the right. You are a three dimensional being. You are a whole entity. It is a very Western concept to chop the body into parts without concern for integration. Eastern philosophies of the body (and the universe in general) focus more on wholes rather than portions. What does this mean for you as an exerciser?
If you do a chest workout, at some point in the next week you also need to do the back. Whether you do it immediately (Chest/Back day) or a day or so later (day 1: push exercises, day 2: pull exercises) doesn’t matter so much as finding the balance at all. Muscles work in pairs: Muscles can only pull, they cannot push. If you do not work both sides of a muscle pair you will create imbalances that will result in lowered results and greater risk of injury. Create balance on all sides of a joint.
An obvious example would be right/left symmetry. Would you only workout your left leg or your right shoulder? No. That would be ridiculous. Bring your left/right awareness into alignment with your front/back and upper/lower symmetry as well. In the movie “The Lady in the Water,” by M. Night Shyamalan (one of my favorite directors of all time), there is a character who works out only one arm. It has narrative significance for that movie, but otherwise it is exactly what it is: bizarre and unbalanced.
This brings us to upper/lower symmetry. It absolutely drives me bonkers crazy to see a huge torso sitting on top of a chicken. How gross. Ridiculous. The legs are just as important as the arms. The butt and hips are just as important as the chest and shoulders. Imbalance in upper/lower symmetry is a fantastic way to not only look like a cartoon character, but to also promote injuries. If your entire lower body is not as well connected to the core as your upper body, you will have an incredible amount of instability and weakness that will eventually lead to the break down of the whole. Whether you enjoy exercising the legs or not, you absolutely must do them: They are the foundation of everything else. You cannot build a cathedral with fancy towers and stain glass windows without a strong foundation to hold it all up.
If you are going to do cardio (I personally do not, because my particular metabolism would not allow me to maintain mass gains if I were to do cardio on top of the dancing I already do), the first order of business is to make sure you can do it without hurting your joints. If you want to run, and if you run more than about 10 miles in a week, then you should plan to replace your running shoes every 90 days. Speed walking burns almost as many calories, and it puts only a fraction of the strain on your joints. Swimming, if you have access to a pool, is a fantastic form of resistance cardio that doesn’t put as much stress on the body because it is in a “zero gravity” environment.
Your cardio session should not exceed 50 minutes: 5 minutes of gentle warm-up, 40 minutes of oscillating intensities of cardio training, and 5 minutes of moderate/gentle cool-down. The warm-up and cool-down are vital, because they allow your cardiovascular system time to adapt to demands. You should generally avoid doing more than 40 minutes of cardio training, unless you have a particular goal (i.e. run a marathon), because after 40 minutes the body no longer works aerobically. Your cardio workout will switch over to anaerobic activity, and you will start burning protein, rather than carbohydrate and fat. In layman’s terms: After 40 minutes you break down muscle instead of fat.
It has been a widely accepted piece of wisdom in the fitness industry for years that sit-ups and crunches alone do nothing to help you attain physical fitness. It’s infuriating that people still get duped into buying gimmicky pieces of crap to get better abs. I think a single crunch burns something like 1/10,000 of a calorie. There are 3,500 calories in pound. So, to lose a pound from doing crunches alone, you would have to do 35,000,000 crunches. Mhm.
Abdominal work is indeed very important. In fact, core strength is one of the single most important factors for attaining and maintaining fitness; however, remember what I said about spot training: It doesn’t work. To strengthen your core (which is not just the abs – it is the abdominals, lower back, hip complex, butt, deep rotators, etc. ad nauseum), you have to implement it while doing everything else. Working out on one foot and then the other, standing on instability surfaces, jumping while performing a repetition – all of these activities force the core to stabilize the entire body. Feats of balance will train your entire core much more effectively than crunches, which train you to have bad posture by over-strengthening the abs and pulling the torso forward.
Your entire workout should be an abdominals/core training session. Every moment of every session you should be doing abs/core. Where possible, use free weights rather than machines: You standing and controlling the weight brings more exertion into play than sitting and sliding on a machine, more calories get burned, and your core works harder. Graduate off of two-dimensional machines as soon as it is safe to do so.
Doing abdominal specific exercise will help define each head of the rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscle), internal, and external obliques but those exercises will not, in and of themselves, give you a six-pack. You already have a six-pack. Everyone does. You simply have to shed that which is obscuring it, and that requires whole body exertion and an improved body composition (i.e. get your lean:fat ratio in better alignment).
Something else to remember: Think deep. The six-pack and obliques are the pretty muscles you can see… Remember that the deep muscles are the important ones. If you do not train the transversus abdominis, you will never have a flat stomach, even if you have a lumpy one. The transversus abdominis is a layer of muscle in your core that works like a muscular sac that is wrapped around your lower trunk. Its job is to stabilize and to hold your intestines in place. To engage it, try to keep your belly button pulled up (without sucking in so deep that you can’t breathe/move) at all times. Have you ever seen someone with a six-pack who still looks pregnant from the side? Or how about a very slim person with no visible subcutaneous fat who still has a potbelly? Both of these are possible examples of a tranversus abdominis that is too weak to hold the intestines up inside the cavity of the torso.
Mass vs Tone
The generalized rule of thumb for building mass versus creating definition is simple: To get big do heavy weight with few reps, and to get cut do light weight with many reps. Let’s get a tad more specific. That might be helpful.
To build mass you will need to ingest about 1 gram of protein/pound of your desired body weight (if you want to weigh 150 pounds, eat about 150 grams of lean protein each day with your whole grains and veggies), and you will need to do sets of 8-10 reps. To increase tone, you still need to eat 1 gram of protein/pound of your desired body weight, but you will need to do sets of 12-15 reps.
To gague whether or not you are working with the correct weight load/resistance you will have to be honest with yourself, and you will have to be willing to adjust alot until you find your target resistance. For gaining mass: reps 1-3 should make you feel energized and powerful, reps 4-6 should require deep exertion but not strain, and reps 7-8 (as well as 9 and 10, if you can do them safely) should exhaust your temporarily. You should genuinely need to rest 60-90 seconds after the set. If you could have kept going, you should’ve used more resistance. To encourage tone: reps 1-5 should require little effort, reps 6-10 should induce a warm sensation in the muscles, and reps 11-15 should fatigue you to the point that you are uncomfortable. You should genuinely need 45-60 seconds of rest after the set. If you could have kept going, you should’ve used more resistance. Generally you should do 3-4 sets of 2-3 exercises per body part in question.
Diet & Rest
Diet is 70% of success. Like it or not, you are what you eat. Exercise itself is 20% of success, and rest is 10%. Respect that.
You should be eating 4-6 smaller, snack-sized meals, rather than 1-3 huge and filling meals. Providing your body with several smaller portions allows the digestive tract to completely break the food down, giving you access to the nutrition in your food, and it also keeps the metabolism high.
Digestion requires energy. By grazing lightly throughout the day on lean protein, whole grain foods, and raw veggies (go easy on the fruit, it has as much caloric density as candy) you keep your body buzzing with activity. You also avoid starvation mode: Eating less frequently confuses your body, which doesn’t know there’s not a famine. It simply knows that it’s hungry and will then hold onto all the fat you eat without using it, so that you can get through the “lean” times. Avoid stuffing yourself – you should feel satisfied without feeling satiated. Drink at least 64 ounces of water each day (the bare minimum to live), and munch often.
In this hectic world it’s hard enough to get five hours of sleep a night, but you need more than that probably. At least if you intend to get fitness results. The body evolved over millions of years, so it really doesn’t give a damn that you have a full itinerary. I’m not going to tell you to get eight hours of sleep a night if you don’t need that much, and if it’s impossible for you to do; however, napping, if possible, is nice. Get as much rest as you can. The body heals itself and grows while you sleep.
Also, avoid working the same muscles on back-to-back days. Exercise tears muscles fibers at the microscopic level. Stitching them back together is what makes them firm and grow. If you break them down repeatedly without giving them time to heal, you will not gain mass and your road towards becoming toned will be longer. For mass building, avoid working the same muscles more than once in 5-7 days, and for tone, avoid working the same muscles more than once in 36-48 hours.