Let’s face it, putting together an effective long-term workout program (that actually works) isn’t as easy as we would like. If just going to the gym and doing stuff was effective, every gym member would be super fit.
There are literally thousands of different fitness messages coming at us constantly and it’s hard to know what’s good information and what’s just bullshit. Millions have been made on every type of workout program imaginable.
Is the p90x the best way to workout? Maybe it’s CrossFit. Maybe it’s Zumba. Or maybe it’s all of them?!?
You might be saying to yourself, “the best program is the one that works for me”, and you’re right. But what does that look like exactly?
Hopping from one workout program to the next or trying the latest, coolest exercise you found on Bodybuilding.com generally isn’t the best option.
Why? Because they write for the masses and offer up boiler plate programs. Sure it will work in the short-term as will pretty much any new type of program you try, but it’s just a quick fix.
Our bodies are highly efficient machines and will adapt to the demands placed on them pretty quickly. A well rounded, safe and effective long-term exercise program should include a number of variables and is what I’ll be discussing here shortly.
I’ve been a personal trainer and fitness coach since 1997 and have certainly learned a lot along the way. And as I’ve developed as a coach and educated myself, I’ve found that the most effective programs are the ones that include the following 10 components.
1) It’s specific to YOU
A good workout program will always be based on your goals, abilities, and limitations. A therapist wouldn’t give you a behavior plan for someone else’s child nor would a physician give you another patient’s prescription.
If you have no interest in running a half marathon, why are you running 50 miles per week? Because you read it works in Runners World magazine?
Why are you doing 1 rep maxes with deadlifts if you are just trying to lose 15 pounds and feel better?
Why are you performing Olympic style lifts for reps when you have never done them before and have spent the last 10 years sitting on your couch?
It just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes we just don’t think about why we’re doing something, we just follow along. And it’s not the best way to train, I can tell you that.
2) It’s challenging and progressive
A proper workout program will be challenging enough to elicit muscle growth and stimulate your central nervous system as well as be progressively more and more challenging.
How many times have you seen the same guys doing the same exercises with about the same weight month after month? I see is all the time and guess what? They always look the same.
If you want to grow or improve, you have to constantly be challenging your body, plain and simple.
Now I’m not saying you have to crazy with the idea of muscle confusion, but you have to continually stimulate your body for change.
3) It MUST include strength training
This is a fancy way of saying to pick up heavy weights and then put them down. The days of doing marathon bouts of cardio on the treadmill or elliptical machine with the notion of burning fat are over.
If you want to get leaner, stronger, and healthier, then training hard with weights is an absolute must in your workout program. And this goes for women as well. And no, you won’t get big and bulky if you do..
I tell this to my clients all the time: the single best way to burn fat (which is what almost everyone wants to do) is to add more lean muscle tissue. This can only be done by overloading your muscles, breaking them down, and rebuilding them both bigger and stronger.
Also keep in mind that you should work on both muscular strength as well as muscular endurance. Both are equally important.
4) It should include a cardiorespitory component
Just training with weights may work if you’re looking to get as big and strong as possible, but if you want to get leaner, boost your metabolism, and shed that unwanted fat, then adding a cardio component is imperative.
Not to mention the health benefits of training your heart.
If you think cardio is a waste of time, think again. It may be boring as shit (I hate it too), but your cardiorespitory health is one of the strongest indicators of your mortality rate. Meaning a strong heart equals a longer life.
And if you really want a cardiovascular challenge, I can think of no better heart (and leg) strengthening exercise than sprints. If you haven’t done them since the 5th grade Presidential challenge, then ease into them because your heart rate will skyrocket!
If you still aren’t sold on cardio then here are a few of the biggest benefits:
- Reduced risk of heart disease
- Less anxiety
- Reduced cholesterol
- Reduced stress
- Increase in lean body mass
- Reduced risk of diabetes and obesity
Cardio training can come in many forms and my preferred method (for me and my clients) is using some form of HIIT or circuit training.
An example would be a circuit of full body movements done in succession with very little rest.
So it would look like this:
- 30 seconds of exercise followed by 30 seconds of rest
- Do 3 rounds total
- Use exercises like burpees, rope waves, jump squats, mountain climbers, squat press, russian twists, or pushups.
The idea is to get your heart rate up to where it’s pushing your limits and then allowing it to come back down before repeating it. This is a great way to increase endurance, stamina and overall heart function.
Also, a jump rope is a dirt cheap and invaluable condition tool, so if you aren’t using one in your cardio routine, start. Here’s a demo to get you started.
5) It should include a dynamic warm up, and a cool down
If I had a dollar for every person I saw walk into a gym and head straight to the weight room, I’d be a millionaire. In my 20+ years in and out of gyms, I would honestly say that maybe 10% of people actually take the time to warm up and stretch properly before hitting the weights.
And I cringe every single time because I know how hard it is on the joints, ligaments and muscles when you start using them cold. It’s just like getting into your car in the middle of winter and driving off before it’s warmed up. It will work, but the chances of a belt breaking or something going wrong is greatly increased.
Rolling your shoulder in circles a few times does not constitute a warm up!!
Take 5-10 minutes to do a full body dynamic warm up like the one I demonstrate in my video. And if you aren’t sweating (maybe profusely), then you are doing it wrong. The whole idea behind this is to get you warmed up. Really warmed up!
I actually prefer to do a general warm up before the dynamic warm up, which is just a 5 minute incline walk or run on the treadmill. And after you finish, you should spend maybe 5 minutes cooling down and doing some light static stretching.
There has been recent research that indicate that static stretching before or during exercise may decrease strength, so save it for afterwards.
6) It should include core, balance, flexibility, mobility, power, and SMR training
A well rounded workout program and one that is designed for long-term health and wellness, is much more than just lifting weights. It will target many different areas of movement and keep you limber and your joints healthy.
Unfortunately, many guys lift with their ego’s and not with their long-term health in mind. It’s a natural thing of course and doing balance work isn’t fun or sexy.But it’s critical.
Just know that when you’re 60 years old and can barely move because of your lack of stretching and using flexibility training, you’ll understand the importance of it.
Part of flexibility training will include not only stretching but corrective exercise as well. For example, those with poor posture due to sitting at a desk all day could include band dislocations and wall slides to improve shoulder mobility as well as doing deep pec stretches to open up the front shoulder and chest muscles that may be overly tight.
And if you aren’t using a foam roller, also known as self-myofacial release (SMR), then I highly recommend you start. Here is a short video to get you started. Spend 5 minutes prior to your workout rolling out your major muscle groups.
The benefits are numerous and what it does is basically break up tiny knots in your soft muscle tissue (or fascia) that is caused by not stretching and/or repeated movement patterns (i.e.sitting at a desk all day).
Believe me, you’ll feel a hell of a lot better and more flexible after a month of consistent rolling. And if you want to take it to the next level, try using a lacrosse or tennis ball to really dig into those knots. Just be prepared to scream in agony the first time you do it!!
7) It should be limited in time
When it comes to training, intensity is one the most critical components. And in order to maintain an intense workout, it can’t drag on for long periods. Makes sense, right?
At some point (usually around an hour), training has the law of diminishing returns. The days of two hour sessions are over and there just isn’t a need for it. Plus, as a busy dad, you don’t have time for that anyway.
My workout last a total of one hour and that includes a full dynamic warp up and a cool down.
Here is a great article by strength coach, Jason Ferruggia on the subject of workout durations.
8) It should use all 3 planes of motion
What do the following exercises have in common?
- Bicep curls
- Bench dips
- Incline chest press
- Back squats
Answer: they are all done in the same plane of motion (sagittal).
Our bodies don’t move in just one plane and if you have kids, then you know just how many angles we have to be moving in all the time.
Exercise, or rather movement, is something we much constantly be working on and improving upon. As we age, our bodies respond less and less favorably to the demands we place on it and at some point, it won’t respond at all.
Part of my job as a trainer is to make sure my clients move well and will be able to do so for a long time. It’s not just about getting fit or looking good in a t-shirt (although that doesn’t hurt), it’s about feeling good, having freedom over your movements, and being pain and injury free.
Training in all three planes is one way to help with that.
Here are several examples of each:
- Lateral lunge
- Hip abduction
- Lateral raises
- Forward lunge
- Russian twist
- Swinging a bat
- Cable woodchop
9) It should be challenging and constantly evolving
In my experience, a workout program should be changed up every 4-10 weeks, depending on your current fitness level. A newbie to fitness can stick with the same program much longer than I can, which is why I change mine every 4 weeks or so.
Many will argue that “muscle confusion” is a myth and there isn’t a need to change workout more than a few times per year, but like I’ve said before, there are a million and one opinions out there. This is just mine.
If you’ve hit a plateau, something’s not working anymore and it’s time to reevaluate your diet and training. I’ll save the diet talk for another article, but there a few tell tale signs that it’s time to change your program.
- You’ve stopped progressing
- It doesn’t motivate
- It doesn’t challenge you
- Your goals change
- It’s boring
By all means, if your workout is still working for you and it’s been 8 weeks, don’t change it. Wait until it ceases to work, then move on.
Here are some of the variables that you can change to further challenge your body:
- Exercise selection
- Exercise duration
- Exercise volume (total time under tension)
- Exercise order
- Rest periods
- Exercise focus (balance, stability, strength, power, etc.)
And your workouts should be evolving in a way that elicits constant stimulus. For example, don’t stick with only strength training for 6 months, spend 8 weeks doing balance training. And if you think balance training is unnecessary, you’ll probably find out the hard way some day.
Keep in mind that exercise intensity is one of the most critical aspects to a program. If you aren’t pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, then you aren’t working hard enough.
10) It should include specific set, rep, and rest periods
Just winging it just doesn’t cut it when you are serious about making progress in the gym. It can work in certain situations, but will only be temporary.
Sticking to these guidelines is a good place to start.
For muscular endurance and stabilization:
- Aim for 1-3 sets per body part
- Aim for 12-20 reps per set
- Keep rest periods between 60-90 seconds between sets
- Use slow and controlled movements, especially on the eccentric part of the movement
For muscle growth (hypertrophy):
- Aim for 3-5 sets per body part
- Aim for 6-12 reps per set
- Keep rest periods under 60 seconds
- Use a moderate movement speed
For optimal strength:
- Aim for 4-6 sets per body part
- Aim for 1-5 reps per set
- Keep rest periods longer, like 3-5 minutes between sets
- Use a fast movement/lifting speed
- Aim for 3-6 sets per body part
- Aim for 1-10 reps per set
- Keep rest periods longer, like 3-5 minutes between sets
- Use fast/explosive movement speeds
So What’s The Best Workout Program?
In short, there isn’t one.
And clearly there is a lot more to programming effectively than what I’ve mentioned here, but this a great place to start. So if you’re not incorporating these 10 principles, begin now.
Understand that having a proper workout plan in place will not only keep you progressing for longer periods of time, but will help you build strength and muscle mass and reduce body fat much faster than a random program (or none at all).
And if you need help, I mean real help with your program, I will create a fully customized 12-week workout program based on your goals and everything I’ve mentioned here today.
Also, please note that I am not saying that I create perfect exercise programs or that there is even such a thing; I don’t and there isn’t. What I’m saying is that there are things that make a program good and then there are things that make one great.
Of course everyone is unique and will respond differently to different stimuli but in my experience and opinion, all exercise programs should include the things I’ve listed here.
Remember, I’m here to help you become the fittest dad you’re capable of becoming and this is what I love to do. My 12 week program is one way for you to get a very fast start to getting there!
P.S. All of this is well and good and you can have a rock solid exercise program but if your diet is shit it won’t help you much.