By Michael Krueger
It’s as easy as going on line, picking up a magazine, buying a book, or asking a friend, and you can get a premade, ready-to-go workout program of your very own. Unfortunately, it may or may not cover everything, and it may or may not be what you need.
This workout may be a product of science, or it may simply be a “product.” You might have to buy special equipment, take particular supplements, or go to a special gym. It might be fine for you or it might be useless. Of course, the primary allure of this type of workout is that it’s prepackaged, comes with celebrity endorsements, and “guarantees” extraordinary results.
Trust me, this is not the way to choose a workout.
Your Needs Are Unique
If you are just starting training, it’s tempting to grab one of the ready-made programs and jump right in. As a starting point, this may seem like the way to go, and it can be OK if you are willing to examine it with a critical eye.
You’ll need to run through a checklist to be sure it’s going to cover all the bases and move you toward your goals. This can be tough, because most formulaic workouts make unsubstantiated claims that they are the best thing for everyone. It doesn’t seem to matter if you need to lose weight, gain weight, improve cardio, or gain strength. They claim to cover it all by using their special equipment, taking their proprietary supplements, or confusing your muscles week to week; what more could you ask for?
Well, how about a program that is geared specifically to address your weaknesses, capitalize on your strengths, and get you to achieve your goals? This program will be as unique as you are, but you have to be the designer, implementer, critic, and problem solver all rolled into one.
This may seem like a daunting task, but if you find a good starting point, keep good records, and are patient, it can actually be fun.
Modifying Your Workout
In the beginning, you start by deciding on what you want and need and write it down. Then you honestly assess your current condition and write down what needs to be improved on. Then ascertain your strengths and write those down. Next, assess your experience and skill level with exercise and record that. Finally, look at the list and decide if you are ready for this.
If you are new to exercise, this is where the simplest premade workout you can find becomes your starting point. If you don’t know what that entails, hire a trainer to help you out. I’m not going to go deep into this process because that isn’t what I really want to talk about. What I want to get into is what happens once you have chosen a program and you have been consistently training on it for a few weeks.
Once you have a good number of workouts under you belt (about eight weeks’ worth) in which you have consistently preformed all the exercises in your workout, it’s time to assess their effectiveness. Are you getting what you want? Are you enjoying the program? Are you overly fatigued or is it not hard enough? Is it taking up too much time or are you looking at adding something to increase your training time? These are just a few of the questions you need to ask yourself every eight weeks.
After your assessment, it’s time to add, subtract, or modify exercises in your workout. By the way, avoid making changes during a cycle, because you really need to give it a chance to play out. Now, keeping in mind that you need to always have all the push and pulls, legs, back, and core work covered, you can add or change whatever you’d like. You may switch from machines to free weights or barbells to dumbbells–whatever trips your trigger. If you have seen a new lift or a variation you’d like to try, add it in; but don’t just stick it at the end. Make sure you understand what it does and put it where it belongs in the context of your workout. It’s also important to commit to eight weeks of working with any changes too, so don’t modify on a whim.
When you decide to adjust your basic plan, know why you’re doing it. Is it to address a problem or accentuate a strength? It could also just be because you want to try something new and see where it takes you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but be sure to keep track of what it’s doing for you so that you can decide later whether or not to keep it as part of your program.
When you add something new, be sure to approach it as a beginner. Don’t overload or over rep. It may seem like an outlier compared to other lifts in your workout because it is light or slow, but that’s how all things start. You need to ease into it or risk creating a disruption in the flow of your training or, even worse, getting injured.
So know why you’re adding an exercise, figure out where it belongs, and have a quantifiable goal attached to it. If you commit to it in time and effort (and in your head), you should gain valuable knowledge in about two months.
Modifying Your Diet
You approach changes in your diet the same way you do in your training. Look at what you’re eating and why, and decide if it’s doing for you what a good diet is supposed to do. Is it giving you the energy that you need to get through your day? Is it helping you to shed fat if that is your goal, or to add lean mass if that’s what you desire? Is it providing adequate nutrition to keep your body and brain functioning at the highest levels? Are you eating a wide variety of foods from all the groups including colorful vegetables? Are you eating lean proteins including cold water fish so that you are getting all the essential amino acids? There’s a lot to consider, but it’s the only way to make smart choices.
It’s tempting to just grab hold of whatever the latest diet trend is and go for it. The vast majority of “commercial diets” are impossible to stay with for any length of time. They are too restrictive, are too expensive, or just promote a way of eating that is too annoying to deal with long term. In my opinion, the only exception is the Mediterranean Diet. It’s a great way of life, but even this is difficult to stick to within our American eating culture.
Once you look at what you are eating and how it’s making you feel, make a small change and see what it does. That’s an important part of this–making only one change at a time. If you make wholesale changes, you won’t be able to figure out which effect was attributable to which change. Something as small as limiting processed carbohydrates can have metabolic effects far beyond losing a pound or two. It takes a while for changes to show themselves, so you will need to be patient.
Once again, giving each change eight weeks to play out is a good idea. (In the spirit of full disclosure, over the years and through many cutting and bulking cycles, I have found that I can’t do it for more than four weeks, but that’s just me.) It’s not as difficult as you might think to do this, either. Commit to just one change, and then assess the effect; simple.
So, assess your metabolic health and fitness, decide what you want to address, choose a small change, commit to it, keep track of the ongoing effects, and see what happens.
Modifying Your Life
Little changes undertaken intelligently with a process and a goal in mind will make huge positive changes over time. You just need to be patient and consistent. Be honest with yourself, and don’t take on more than you can handle. Keep what works and reject what doesn’t, and soon you will have a perfect blueprint of how your body and mind work.
It won’t take long (no more than a few years, anyway) and you will have a workout and diet plan that are unique to you. No longer will you be a slave to the changing whims of the fitness, food, and marketing industries. You’ll know what works and what doesn’t because you did the work, analyzed the data, and designed your program
… and in the process, created your life.
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 MKPT[email protected]