By Michael Krueger
For some people, the best way to work out is the way they work out and only the way they work out. For others, it seems the best workout is from whoever has the hottest, hippest, and coolest infomercial on TV. For still others, it’s strictly “old school,” paying no attention to new research and methods. The answer to the best workout question lies somewhere in that murky netherworld of “everyone is right and everyone is wrong.” How’s that for equivocating?
If you agree that the function of exercise is to increase strength; improve cardiovascular condition, flexibility, and body composition; and prevent injury, then there probably is a “best” way to work out since all of these things can be quantified and measured. Of course, nothing involving human beings is ever that cut and dried. Where your fitness is right now, where you want to take it, and what measuring stick you’ll use to determine your success will also have an influence on what the best workout is for you today as well as tomorrow, next year, and the rest of your life.
Unfortunately, for many people a workout consists of using the same weight with the same lifts and the same intensity as they did the first time they worked out–no progression and no improvement. On the other hand, if you are consistently performing a well-designed, progressive workout built around your needs and abilities, you will get the most favorable results for the effort expended; and this is another matter entirely.
You may have more specific goals, and these would be a subset of the above-mentioned five primary goals of exercise. If you want to be a distance runner or a bodybuilder or participate in a sport, there are many books and Web sites all more than happy to tell you precisely how to train to achieve these goals. Since you are reading this on Firelife.com, you more than likely want to be a better firefighter.
A firefighter needs many specialized skills honed to perfection over many hours of practice just as a basketball player needs to work on his skills. The problem is, if you don’t have a solid base of strength and conditioning from which to work, you won’t be able to perform the specialized exercises that address the specific skills, movements, and unique physical requirements you need to excel as a firefighter. If you can’t run, jump, lift, push, and pull, how do you figure you are ready to specialize? That’s like setting out to make a seven-course meal when the preparation of a “Pop Tart” confounds you. In my experience, we would all be better off focusing on the primary functions before moving into the specialties. For the most part, if you do well in those five primary areas, you can do most anything you set your mind to with just a little extra effort and instruction. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people never achieve anything close to their potential in even one area, much less all five, and without that basic fitness, everything else is a struggle.
So what is the most effective way to train? Well, you’re not going to like the answer. It’s simply very hard work on basic exercises targeting the five primary functions of exercise done properly and consistently. It’s not sexy and it’s not hip; it’s just hard.
A protocol consisting of twice per week full-body, high-intensity, progressive-strength workouts coupled with cardio interval training done three times per week is the ultimate fitness program. The specifics of how this is done are another area of debate, but all the data, both empirical and anecdotal, point in the same direction. You need to work hard on big multijoint exercises to get the best results. When it comes to fitness, the old adage of “volume, intensity, frequency; pick two” still holds, more or less. The new thinking can be summed up as “volume, intensity, frequency; program wisely.”
So, where does that leave us? Simply put, hard work on basic full body strength movements done intensely and infrequently coupled with high-intensity cardio will provide all the stimulation your body needs to grow fit and strong. Why then are so many people struggling along on so many programs that don’t meet the basic needs of an effective program?
Some people assume that if there is a new way of exercising being sold it must be better. They see something on TV that promises results in 90 days and they say “That’s for me” without even considering what happens after 90 days. They think that fitness is a one-time buy, failing to understand the continued investment in effort that it takes to maintain to progress.
Others believe they know the perfect way to work out, and no more investigation is needed. They continue to pound away on the same program they learned in high school football practice years ago.
Still others believe in the myths propagated in muscle magazines, performing complex split routines designed for genetically gifted or pharmaceutically enhanced bodybuilders that have little use for the average trainee. Thinking you can isolate body parts on a day-to-day workout-to-workout basis is like thinking you can eat or sleep for just one part of your body.
Another issue is stopping short of momentary muscular failure. Leaving “a couple of reps in the tank” will get you very little if any progression. If you are studying mathematics, you don’t improve by solving equations you’ve solved before. You must challenge yourself. The same holds true for strength and cardio training. If you always make your rep and set goals workout to workout, you just aren’t training hard enough.
And finally, many people spend a lot of time doing many ineffective, time-consuming isolation exercises. I have seen people do set after set of wrist curls, heel raises, and thousands of sit-ups all in the name of increased volume. High-volume, low-intensity routines will keep you in the gym for hours on end, wasting your time and tiring you out, but that’s about it. You may have the feeling that you accomplished a lot, but the reality is that you simply burned up some time and some calories and, in the process, convinced yourself that you had a “good workout.” The truth is, you didn’t progress much if at all, and if you maintain a good log, you can go back and see that. High volume is a waste of time–period.
I see people working out in gyms every week. I feel bad when I see them doing ineffective workouts, because in the long run they will become disillusioned and quit. They put in the time but don’t reap a proportional benefit, and that is disheartening.
Look at you current program: Does it measure up when it comes to progress compared with invested time and effort? If not, it’s time to find a new program, one that will get you to your goals rather than just paying lip service to them. If you can’t design your own routine, find someone who can, and get to work.
Your long-term success as both a healthy, fit individual and a top-of-the-line firefighter depends on it.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected]