I get asked a lot of questions about fitness, actually I have the fun job of answering them for a living. There are times I don’t have the answer, or I don’t have an answer that I’m sufficiently happy with and so I must grow my knowledge base to answer them by seeking out knowledge from others.
Right now this is probably you, you probably started reading this book seeking answers you didn’t have. This book might not contain all the answers to your questions but I want it to adequately describe the basics or fundamentals of training as I see them currently. This is a snapshot in time of my development as a coach.
A lot of the questions I field about fitness are related to programs and programming, so this book is primarily aimed at providing answers to those questions and a program framework or foundation for people to build off of. In the time that I’ve been answering questions about fitness I noticed that people generally have very similar questions, things like, “Should I do this program or that program?” Other times they ask, “What’s the best program if I want to accomplish X.” Others still ask me questions pertaining to the best exercises to do, the best workouts for that or the best exercises and workouts to do in this context or that context.
Over the years it’s become obvious to me that people ask these questions because it is a nice distraction from actually getting started with a fitness program. If people generally spent half the time learning to train, that they do researching training, the world would be a fitter place. It’s not that these questions aren’t valid, it’s that they fail to answer the more important questions. Even if I did have an idea as to what the best program out there was, it doesn’t matter if that program won’t work with your schedule. And I can recommend certain programs over others just because I think they are better or more detailed, but again that information won’t help you if that recommendation doesn’t align with your desired objectives.
If you’re going to spend time researching training, then this book is definitely for you. Over the course of researching fitness, you really have to learn some fundamentals, like when and how to schedule your workouts. A program that requires 4 days a week, though it may be a good program, won’t work for you if you only have two hours a week to dedicate to training. Very few programs ever discuss how to manipulate the program itself to suit the individual. I’m going to lay it all out for you to pick and choose, kind of like a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ book. It’s important that you read a little, then practice actually implementing that knowledge. Knowledge is useless without application, so do some of the stuff I talk about, don’t just read about it.
I’m also going to lay some truths on you in this book. You may not like it, it may feel like you’re taking steps backward, it may take a little longer than one workout to get some of the concepts, but sometimes you have to go backwards and undo things in order to make progress forward. Just ask any proficient athlete or trainee who has ever been injured.
Here is the first fundamental truth.
People often skim over or ignore the details and the principles of any given program, just to skip to the program itself. I’ve witnessed countless people do this with many popular online training programs, only to get stuck and not know what to do. Occasionally they’ll go back to clarify things in a program, but they often still skip and or ignore the principles of training. Principles are timeless, they shape the system of training I’m going to urge you to develop. Programs are a dime a dozen, easily replicated and most yield a result so long as they are followed consistently. Programs don’t teach you ‘how’ to train. To make long term progress, you need to understand the principles behind all the good programs. What the program states is not nearly as important as the instructions I give you for how to execute on it. Don’t make that mistake of skipping to the end with this program. If you’re not big on reading, I’m planning on finding newer ways of getting this information into your brain, including potentially video and audio. If you want more information about that, send me an email, and I’ll put you on the list to get first dibs on that when I complete it or simply sign up for the email newsletter using a signup box scattered through the online version of the book.
Not learning how to train is perhaps the biggest programming mistake that most beginners and novices make. Some people even progress to a level of skill on par with an intermediate or advanced trainee but without understanding the principles or fundamentals of how they got there. That’s when they get stuck, and that’s when they have to take more than a few steps backwards to make progress. Some people find success in spite of a limitation, not because of and taking it to the next level will eventually reveal such a limitation. It is a lot harder to undo bad training habits, than it is to create new ones from a clean slate. This is a moment in time that I typically get involved with various clients. Generally the new clients I take on are two types of individuals, they either have no experience training, or they have a ton of experience training, they just never learned how to train properly.
I think this is a large part of what separates the really successful trainees from the moderately successful ones. If you go to a fitness circuit class a few times a week, week in and week out, without questioning the approach, just doing what you’re told, you may find a little success initially, but long-term success might be a little harder to come by. Short-term success is generally easy to come by.
In this class, you’ll burn some calories, get a sweat on, and as long as your eating is in check you’ll probably alter your present physical physique in a positive way, or at least you’ll maintain it. It easy to make a lot of progress when you’re new to fitness. After a while though, you’ll start to notice something; What used to work, no longer works the way it used to. The classes start getting easier and easier. You’re not sweating as much. The amount of energy you’re expending during class is diminishing. You’re adapting to the training. This is often called the point of diminishing returns, or the point where you simply can’t get any additional benefit.
What is the instructor to do? They’ve been paid to put on a circuit class that appeals to the largest possible audience. Generalized circuit training is an effective tool for the short-term, just like nearly any other, but it’s only one approach of many available to you. After a while, just like any approach, it leads to stagnant progress. If you picked up cycling and started cycling regularly what seems difficult to do that first week becomes very easy to do by the sixth. If you don’t increase the distance or the speed in which you travel and provide some variation to the routine, the body just maintains the status quo.
To obtain a specific result, exercise needs to be viewed as a stimulus to the body. Just like plants grow towards the stimulus of the sun, your body adapts to the type of training you’re exposed to over time. At this point, the instructor of said circuit class, most likely can’t just start teaching a different style of training all together, it would go against the routine that the majority of people ‘expect’ in a gym environment. It would not be poignant of them to suddenly change the style of the class completely, even if doing that would actually yield the best possible outcome for their students. Such is the politics you’re likely to find at most gyms.
Change happens so quickly at first. You noticed some big changes over the first six weeks, but then the amount of change drops exponentially from there if you don’t change the training in a meaningful manner. It would be wise to mix up your training at this point, and generally that’s what people do as they bounce around from class to class, but it’s more prudent to focus on learning the principles behind program change and program design, rather than jumping ship to a new flavour of the month fad exercise program. With that I impart my second knowledge bomb:
Take the time to learn the principles behind this program.
Also in future, as you progress to more advanced programs, take that principle with you. Learn the why behind the program, ask questions, be skeptical, then learn how to train based off those principles. If you decide yoga is the next big thing for you, then learn about yoga, it’s origins, various styles, what styles suit your physique and other intricacies most other people glaze over. This is the big step towards mastery. If you skip to doing any program without understanding the principles you are limiting your potential. Case in point, without a doubt one of the most popular exercise programs around the web is a strength program called Starting Strength. It’s a good program for the most part, but it’s lost on most people.
This is how the web abbreviates the ‘Beginner Program:’
3×5 Bench Press
5×3 Power cleans
Workouts A and B alternate on 3 non-consecutive days per week.
Oh sure there are other programs contained in that book, that are also listed in a similar fashion on various websites. They all fail to deliver on the principles of the program though. Never mind that Starting Strength is a 347 page textbook on the basics of barbell training. You’ve clearly nailed training if you can get those six moves strong, right? I know people like to keep things simple, but you’re short-changing yourself on the solid training information contained in the rest of the book with that approach. You’re only looking at, and being exposed to, a small piece of the program puzzle. Starting Strength is a fantastic book, I reference it often from my bookshelf when I’m creating client programs, but you have to give it the respect and attention it deserves to get the most out of it.
Don’t be that guy, or gal. It’s like trying to learn how to do long division before you learn how to add and subtract. You can probably figure it out without knowing addition and subtraction, but it’s harder and you end up with holes in your foundation. There is a logical sequence in development that I’m going to attempt to lay out as best as I can for you.
When I say learn how to train, I don’t view it as a definitive end point, it’s a continual process. I think learning how to train is remarkably individual. It’s a combination of getting in touch with your personal idiosyncrasies; Learning from your training experiences and learning how various training principles apply to your objectives. You don’t just become good at something and that’s the end of it, you have to keep working at it and practicing. How much you work and practice at it, is entirely up to you, there are more advanced concepts like barbell training, gymnastics training, olympic lifting and kettlebell training that I’m not going to talk about in this book that are places for you to physically develop in the future. I will probably even recommend some at the end of this book, before I get around to writing a few follow ups that build off these concepts.
I’ve spent a long time studying fitness programs, why one coach puts this exercise there and that coach puts that exercise there? What research supports an idea that comes up repeatedly in various programs? Maybe it comes up repeatedly just because of experience. What practical reasons could there be to include one research based notion, while ignoring another?
If you approach training with the right mindset, you’ll be significantly better off than everyone else.