By Michael Krueger
Many people who start strength training greatly overcomplicate it. They’ll pour over books and search the Internet for the perfect workout. They end up spending a lot more time and effort looking than they do working. This overthinking isn’t just for beginners either. For some people, the longer they train, the more complicated their workouts become.
What the long-term and truly successful trainees learn is that, while there isn’t a magic workout, there is a magic starting point. If you start with a simple template, you can create a workout that not only will get you strong, but you’ll be able to continue it for the rest of your life.
Now, doesn’t that sound like a good use of your time?
The following guidelines will work with any strength goal that you may have, because this isn’t a list of exercises. You may choose whatever exercises you want. It’s just some simple guidance to keep you focused and injury free while you build muscular strength and endurance.
Keeping with the theme of keeping it simple, I recommend doing full body workouts. Some people like to do split routines, but I feel this type of training complicates everything from design to scheduling much more than is necessary. I find that doing full body training works just as well regarding strength increases and physique improvements. If you want to be a competitive bodybuilder, then a simple program is not what you need; but for the rest of us, simple works just fine.
To start with, choose one to three exercises for each muscle group. (By the way, the basic muscle groups are chest, back, shoulders, arms, legs, and core.) They may be free-weight, machines, or body weight exercises. There is no reason that you couldn’t combine those three modes in your workout or switch between them. You may also change them up on whatever schedule you please.
Now, for each of the chosen exercises, find a speed of movement that suits you–not too fast or too slow. The idea is to be able to maintain good form on both the lifting and lowering or pushing and pulling portion of the movement. If you lift or lower or push or pull too quickly, aside from increasing your risk of injury, you miss out on a lot of the benefit because you are using momentum and gravity to help you along. Strive for control at all times. There are some exceptions to this rule, and they generally involve explosive movements like the Olympic lifts; but that’s a whole different column.
Next, you’ll find your set and repetition range. There are varying opinions on the number of sets needed to stimulate optimal strength gains. Some people warm up and do one hard set while others do many sets. The most common number of sets per exercise is three. I doubt that it’s based on any really good science. More than likely, it goes way back to the early days of strength training, and most people simply don’t think too hard about it. My recommendation is to find what works for your body, available time, goals, and personality. Remember, you may vary the number from workout to workout as well as from movement to movement.
As for repetitions, this can vary from two to 20 or more. It depends somewhat on your goals, but most people will fall somewhere in that range. I find that eight to 12 is the most sustainable. There is also no reason that you cannot vary that range between your exercises too. You can also switch it up between workouts or even between sets. Find what you prefer and what provides the best gains for you.
With regard to rest between exercises, make it long enough to allow you to go into the next movement maintaining good form. For most people, somewhere between 30 seconds and two minutes seems right. I recommend that you maintain a consistent rest time between exercises so you can be sure you are progressing rather than just taking a longer rest break. If you are so fatigued that you can’t keep your form tight, end the set and move on.
There is no good reason to train every day either, so plan on strength training one to three times per week. Try to have at least two days between training sessions. Current research has shown that doing high-intensity cardio intervals on the same day as your strength training doesn’t cut into gains, so feel free to do your cardio on the same schedule. You may find that some weeks your recovery has been less than optimal. When that’s the case, take the day off, but be honest about it. If you are tired because you’ve been staying out late drinking and eating poorly, you may want to reconsider that day off, sort of as a reminder not to do that. But, if you are still fatigued and feeling beat up, by all means schedule an extra day of rest.
That is the basic plan. As you become more advanced, you may find muscle groups that are lagging or respond better to more or less training. You may find that your job requires more leg or back strength so you will need to focus a little more on those areas. Strength training is an ever-changing proposition because your body is always adapting to the stimulus you are providing.
If you find yourself using primarily machines, you may want to switch to free weights after a while. Just the same, if you are using free weights, you may want to try mixing in some machines. You will see that the effect is different and that it’s good for your progress to vary the stimulus. It’s also possible that you won’t like the changes even a bit, and that’s OK too. Look for something else to try, or go back to what you were doing.
I would recommend mixing in some body weight training as well. Body weight movements will give you a good idea as to whether your weight-to-strength ratio is good. The old saying about “being big as a house to move a house” isn’t always the best path to follow, especially if endurance and flexibility are important parts of your job.
Body weight activities are also very handy since you can do them any time and any place since no equipment is needed. Push-ups, squats, chin-ups, squat-jumps, back extensions, and any number of other movements can provide a good workout, or you can do them simply for variety or because they are just fun to do.
So, that is the template in its most basic form. If you find that you really enjoy training and want to take it to a different level, you are certainly free to do just that. What I’ve talked about here is just how to make training as simple and as sustainable as possible.
Take this and create your own personal workout. Monitor your progress and vary your approach as needed. Keep it simple and, in the long run, you will be fit, healthy, and strong …
…and have the time to enjoy 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]