Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

You can't just...

Weight training and "getting in shape" aren't really that complicated. But it's not dead simple, either. Lots of bad advice and misconceptions exist.

Here are a few of them, and why.

1) You can't just walk into the gym, do whatever exercises look interesting, and go home. You see this often in gyms open to the public. People come in and do 10-15 minutes of cardio machines. Then they do whichever machines they like in no particular order, probably for about 10 reps for 2-3 sets, and then move on to the next one.

Why not? There is no plan. You're just noodling around, and your results will reflect your preparation.

You need some kind of planned activity. Training is about progressive increases. You can't get away with treating the gym like a playground - a few of these, a few of those, go on the slide until you're bored, if the swings are free play on those, etc. You need to have a systematic plan for your workout, or you won't get everything out of it you can. You won't even get out of what as much as you put in.

Okay, so let's so you have a basic plan - you found a "workout template" online and want to train. You're going to do things in a proper and systematic order, so now it's just a matter of going in, doing your "legs," your "push," and your "pull." Right? Unfortunately, wrong.

2) You can't just plug in exercises into a template. Not if you want to succeed, you can't. If I give you a template that says do two leg exercises, one push, one pull, and one core/abs, you could easily come up with this:

Legs A - Machine Calf Raises
Legs B - Leg Press
Push - Seated Chest Press
Pull - Rowing Machine
Abs/Core - Abdominal crunch machine and that back hyperextension unit.

Why not? What's wrong with that? The problem is it's just some random exercises plugged into slots. They aren't a cohesive unit working to improve your strength and fitness.

You need a solid plan. A better version of that same template could be:

Legs A - Deadlift
Legs B - Lunges
Push - Standing Press
Pull - Chinups
Abs/Core - Hanging Leg Raises and Planks.

That's even assuming you got a legs/push/pull split. It's more likely you'd find a bodypart split, such as chest, arms, shoulders, legs, calves, core, and end up with pec deck flies, standing curls on a bosu ball, machine shoulder press, leg extensions, machine calf raises, and a few crunches or the ab machine. Or get a chest/arms workout and do 3-5 kinds of presses and curls and not much else.

You're better off with a routine that reflects your goals, centered on compound exercises and as machine-free as you can make it. This will give you some training economy - making the most of the time you put in at the gym. What's the best routine for this? Check here, for strength and general conditioning, for example.

Okay, so now you've got a plan, a real plan, centered on compound exercises and which matches your training goals. Now you can go and do that routine forever, right? Again, unfortunately, you can't.

3) You can't just do the same thing forever. This means exercises, weights, and reps. You must make some kind of progress.

Up the intensity on your cardio. Decrease the time between your sets of weights, or up the reps, or increase the weight. Do a harder variation of an exercise that gets easy. You can always strive for improvement. Indeed, you must, otherwise all you are doing is spinning your wheels in the gym. It's a waste of time, and if all you wanted to do was maintain you wouldn't need to do quite so much work.

Why do I have change to make progress? Because your body adapts to training. It spends resources to improve your ability to do tasks you keep doing. You get stronger if you lift heavy weights relative to your strength. You get more efficient at running long distances if you run them often. Your body compensates for the tasks you give it. Once it compensates, though, it won't overcompensate. If you challenge your body to 10 pullups and then never try for 11, it'll get strong enough to do 10 pullups, not 11. You can deadlift 5 x 225 pounds, but if you don't try for 5 x 235 then your body won't try for it either. In other words, you can't continuously improve your strength without continuously improving the challenge. Basically - this is a gross simplification, but it's an accurate one for all of that. You ask your body to do more, and it does more. Ask it to do the same thing as before, and it won't realize you want it to get ready for some future, bigger task. Unless you challenge it to with higher weights, more reps, less rest...whatever.

But, as a final "you can't," you also can't just change willy-nilly. Have a reason for the exercises in your workout, and have a reason to change them. Variety is the spice of life, but continued hard effort is the name of the game when it comes to strength training. You have to put in the work, training day in and training day out, for a long time. It's a journey not a destination. Remember what it's all about - getting stronger and fitter in an effective and enjoyable way.

You can do some variation of the same things more or less forever, though. You can always have some kind of squat, some kind of press, some kind of deadlift, some kind of jump, etc. in your program. But you may have to change them at some point. The simplest advice I can give on that, though is - are you still improving and moving towards your goal? Then keep on keeping on!

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