Fit your programme
I have a vague recollection from my early teens, of once picking up the book, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.
A frenzied sense of interest crept in as I began to read. While with hindsight I can commend such a thirst for knowledge in a boy that age, I was clearly hopelessly out of my depth.
As I struggled to comprehend bendable space-time, black holes, and the mysteries of thermodynamics, I distinctly recall deciding I’d better put the book down for the time being and concentrate on getting my O-level in Physics first, lest my brain crumble prematurely under the tremendous weight of Hawking’s genius. I suspect my most valuable lesson that day was not so much about the nature of the universe itself, but more precisely my humble place in it.
Knowing your place doesn’t just apply to academic pursuit; it can also spill over and influence many of our interactions with the outside world. Of course, my business lies solely with the pursuit of better health and fitness, so where on earth are my ramblings about quantum physics and other strange disciplines headed this fine Sunday morning?
Discovering your place on the health and fitness spectrum is perhaps the most valuable observation you could possibly make in the pursuit of your goals. From beginner through to intermediate and advanced fitness levels, following appropriate programmes will save you from injury, sickness, lack of motivation, frustration, and above all, failed results.
Some frequent cases we see are young men wishing to gain muscle and therefore training like professional bodybuilders, or women wishing to lose weight and therefore training like specialist endurance athletes. Many athletes too are guilty of inappropriate training, striving for unnecessary complexity before a solid foundation of skill and/or conditioning has been built.
Let us start with the first of these cases as it is certainly the most common: the average new gym user looking to put on muscle size. Most of the programmes we find in bodybuilding and fitness magazines are simply not suitable for beginners, for the simple reason that they normally conform to the style of training employed by professional or champion bodybuilders.
If we were to suggest that there was any similarity at all between professional bodybuilders and Stephen Hawking, the beginner gym user would actually be a pimple-ridden 14-year-old in a Kurt Cobain T-shirt attempting to tackle A Brief History of Time.
Be they bodybuilders or athletes, the professionals are just that: professional. Training is pretty much all they do, and even if they aren’t actually professional in the way we most commonly define professionalism, that is, investing significant time in exchange for financial remuneration, then you can rest assured they benefit from some form of professional assistance, be it instructional, nutritional, therapeutic, or otherwise; assistance, therefore, that the average Joe simply does not have access to.
On the plus side, building a foundation of strength and size given our limitations in time and resources is actually far less complicated than many might think.
Keep it simple, and be efficient; train two to three times per week, allowing for maximal recovery and growth. Fill those workouts with the biggest moves in your arsenal, avoid wasting time and energy on smaller, less productive exercises.
The most powerful muscle-builders are squats, deadlifts, heavy shrugs, bench press, weighted pull-ups, standing barbell press, weighted dips, and any other move that engages maximum muscle mass in minimum time.
For growth to occur, repetitions should be at least eight and not more than 16, and resistance used should be the absolute maximum you can handle in good form inside that repetition range. From workout to workout there should be progression in terms of resistance or number of repetitions, to challenge the muscles with ever-increasing stimuli. Tick these boxes and enjoy a strong foundation upon which any structure you desire may ultimately be built.
For those wishing to lose weight, a similar mistake can be made in training like professional endurance athletes such as cyclists or runners. Runners and cyclists spend years conditioning the specific muscles and joints engaged by their sport due to the repetitive nature of the movements involved.
Even the professionals, however, experience injuries through overuse, so the rest of us should certainly beware of diving headfirst into any intensive programme consisting exclusively of just one repetitive movement. Shin splints and other overuse injuries are often the outcome, and there’s nothing like an injury to ruin your hopes of better health and fitness before you’ve even started.
So unless you have professional guidance in your chosen activity, adopt a more varied programme consisting of different movements and types of training.
Don’t fall into the trap of performing only cardiovascular-based activities. Incorporate resistance training too, and see how positively the shape of your body will respond, and enjoy a higher metabolic rate allowing your body to burn more calories, all the time.
And finally, if you are a competitive athlete, avoid becoming seduced by overly complex or specialised training systems just because the champions do it that way. If you are lacking in a specific skill or component of fitness essential to your game, then you will need to programme for that, even if the champions don’t.
A beginner becomes advanced by doing what is required as a beginner, not by training advanced right off the bat.