By Michael Krueger
Along with a few tools and some time, it only takes a few basic ingredients to make a loaf of bread. It seems so simple, but if you leave out any of the ingredients, you end up with garbage.
There are also only a handful of activities required to design an effective fitness training program. This, too, seems simple, but once again if you leave out any of the necessary elements, instead of fit and strong you will end up hurt, frustrated, and unhappy.
So, what are the important “don’t miss” ingredients of a solid fitness program?
Resistance training is lifting weights referred to by a trendier name; it’s not a different activity. Working your muscles against a source of resistance, be it a band, bodyweight, machine, or chunks of iron, it all falls under the umbrella of resistance training. Personally, since I am very much an old-school guy, I prefer to call it all “lifting,” but that is just me.
Within the arena of lifting there are three basic paths. I could break them down further, but for our discussion three is plenty. They are muscular endurance, hypertrophy, and strength/power. They are all important if your final result is a fit, strong, and balanced body.
Training for muscular endurance requires high rep work with little rest in between sets and exercises. This requires that the trainee have a decent aerobic base; otherwise, he will not be able to maintain the pace needed to progress. This is not a weight loss program; it is used to build muscular endurance—hence, the name. If you want to lose weight, don’t eat so many calories.
Hypertrophy training requires a solid base of muscular endurance along with aerobic efficiency so that that you will be able to move a good amount of weight across all planes of movement and do it for high reps and multiple sets. Adding in a lot of assistance work makes sure you are hitting all of your muscles from every angle. This additional work means that you will be spending significant time under the iron and that means many hours in the gym.
It is possible to have a hypertrophy oriented program without going into full blown bodybuilding. Most gym rats who train for appearance fall into this group.
The sport of bodybuilding is a culture of its own. Drugs are ubiquitous, and eating disorders abound. Adding muscle takes a lot of work not only in the gym but in the kitchen and grocery store as well. Repeated cycles of bulking and cutting are extremely difficult and require an amazing amount of dietary discipline. They also take a toll on your metabolism, heart, kidneys, and liver. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Lastly, power lifting is a sport unto itself just as Olympic lifting is. Those who choose to focus exclusively on getting as strong as possible, whether they compete or not, often neglect aesthetics, function, and health. These trainees eat big to get big and don’t really care to build any sort of balance in their workouts. They have a mission, “big as house to lift a house,” and nothing is going to get in their way.
For most of us, a balanced lifting program combining all of the above activities is the way to go. We all need muscular endurance since most of life involves the ability to repeat actions day after day. Most of us do care about how we look, so a little muscle in the right places is desirable, as is being strong enough to handle whatever comes our way.
Setting up a program that intelligently and methodically addresses all three of these resistance training protocols can be a challenge, but it’s necessary for lasting success and is certainly worth the effort.
Cardio is a funny thing since people seem to do it exclusively or not at all. Aerobics classes, spinning, running, swimming, or devotees of any number of aerobic activities often neglect resistance training, and weight lifters generally hate doing cardio.
Truth is, you can’t be fit without a reasonable focus on your cardiovascular efficiency. Even if you prefer to lift weights, you will find that with the addition of an aerobic phase, your overall endurance and recovery between sets and exercises will improve drastically. When you devote an hour or two per week to cardio training, magic happens in all the other parts of your program. It doesn’t matter so much exactly what method you employ for your cardio work; just find something you will do regularly, and do it. Keep at it and soon you’ll see what a great feeling it is to recover quickly after a tough set of squats and be ready to move on to your next exercise.
Also, don’t worry about aerobic training cutting into your strength gains; that’s an old gym myth propagated by big guys who hate to train cardio, and it has been disproven time and again.
Of course, the flip side of the “aerobic-phobic” lifter is those aerobics fanatics who would never spend even a minute in the gym lifting weights. They believe that lifting just makes you big and bulky, so why would they possibly want to do that?
Truth is that for a runner, biker, or swimmer, adding core, upper body, and rear chain strength training will make that person a much better runner, biker, or swimmer. Muscular strength will help keep your from breaking when you start getting tired, and that will allow you to maintain your balance, efficiency, and speed.
If you have ever bonked at the end of a race or slowed to crawl on a big hill, you know what an awful feeling it is. Being passed by people you passed earlier is the ultimate in athletic humiliation. Strength training added to your cardio training will help prevent that from happening; and no, you won’t get all “muscle bound.”
There is a lot of controversy surrounding what flexibility can and can’t do for you. The questions range from “Does it prevents injury and aid in rehabilitation, or does it simply improve range of motion without any improvement in performance?” to “Does it do anything important at all?” These have generated arguments and research grants for years and probably will for a long time to come.
My personal experience is that to a certain extent it can do all of those things and at other times it doesn’t seem to make any difference at all. Through a judicious flexibility program, I have rehabbed my periformis muscle so that I am running pain-free into my fourth decade of running. I have also learned to use a foam roller so that I no longer need to visit a chiropractor.
I never specifically stretch before I lift or run, but I do stretch every day simply because it feels so good. I don’t see that it has significantly improved my range of motion, but then again I don’t participate in any specific activity in which I would necessarily notice.
I am a firm believer that it’s important to be as flexible as you need to be to function at a high level in whatever activity you chose to do. As a firefighter, you need to be able to climb ladders and get into trucks while wearing gear that impedes you range of motion. You may get into some tight spots where good shoulder and hip mobility would certainly come in handy. You must be flexible enough to make sure you can do all that is required of you. Fortunately, you don’t need to be as flexible as a gymnast.
Diet is always a tough one. Personal preference coupled with cultural and family influences make it a touchy and difficult subject.
The basics of a high-quality diet are simple: Eat lean protein, whole grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables and drink plenty of water. It seems simple enough, but as I’ve said before, eating is so personal that we get it all wrapped up with emotion to the point that we usually eat all wrong.
If you can take your diet and unemotionally insert it into your well-designed cardio and strength program, you will learn to think of food as fuel, and that will help you to make logical and informed dietary decisions. You wouldn’t put poor fuel into your car or truck, so why would you put substandard food into the high-performance machine that is your body?
Whether you are trying to lose weight (or more accurately lose fat) or gain muscle, you need to tailor your diet so that you fuel your body properly. Fortunately, it is as basic as sticking with unprocessed, natural foods and simply adjusting the total calories up or down. If you eat this way, you will never get bored, nor will you ever be hungry. It just takes some time and effort to make it happen, and remember, you and your goals are worthy of this investment.
The final thing isn’t something you train for but rather how you train, and that is consistency. If you’re hit and miss with your training or your diet, you’ll run into all sorts of problems, and failure is all but assured. Doing the right thing every day may seem difficult at first, but soon you’ll begin to see the benefits and then you’ll begin to gain momentum.
….and One Other Thing
Taking control of your life, by mindfully planning your diet and exercise, will actually give you more time to do what you really want to do. Being strong and healthy makes every aspect of your life better.
Do it for your department, your community, your family, for everyone who is important in your life, but especially do it for yourself.
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]