By Michael Krueger
A friend recently said that the reason he doesn’t exercise is that it’s just too complicated. There are too many programs and products, too many infomercials, and too many preachers and gurus.
I wouldn’t disagree with his premise that there are an awful lot of awful opinions being tossed about in the name of profit, celebrity, and television ratings and that confusion can result. I would disagree with his conclusion, though, that it makes sense to deny himself health and fitness in response to it.
So, let’s make this fitness thing as straightforward and as uncomplicated as possible.
How It Got Complicated
I have interviewed and been interviewed by a lot of prospective clients. I find out about them and they ask questions about me and what I do. It doesn’t take them long to realize I’m very old school in my approach to training. I don’t have any pieces of trendy equipment, nor do I use current buzzwords to impress.
I ask them how they have trained previously, and they sometimes respond, “Zumba,” “Core Classes,” “Functional Training,” “Hot Yoga,” or “not at all.” When it’s my turn to talk, I go on about consistency, discipline, moving iron, sweat, and hard work. This is usually right about where we part ways–not always, but often.
People have told me that the problem with me is that I’m so far behind the times. They tell me that free weights and squat racks went out with “Ahnold” and “Pumping Iron.” Where are my wobble boards? they ask. Where are the battling ropes, Bosu Balls, DVDs, and colorful plastic doodads? They are aghast when they see my equipment and exclaim, “You train in your basement? What about the glass and chrome smoothie bar, complete with recovery concoctions and muscle builder additives?” Then, as an afterthought, they might ask what brand of supplements I use and recommend. That’s an easy one: “None.”
It’s been said that expecting people to keep logs, stay on track, eat well, and work hard just isn’t what people want to do. They are too busy and too sophisticated to simply train hard without various electronics to tell them how they are doing. To make it even more difficult on dinosaurs like me, they also want to know what brand of electronic fitness tracker I use. Once again, the answer is, “None.”
People say they want to be thin, healthy, and look good. I tell them that these are all outcome goals that aren’t completely under their control. I then talk about performance and process goals–all the things that are completely under their control. I try to get them into a discussion focusing on diet and training, intermediate and long-term goals, consistency, and progression. By then, many people are fidgeting and looking at their fancy fitness tracker/watch and wondering how they can make their escape. I generally give them an out by handing them my card and suggesting we talk again after they’ve thought about what I’ve said. I rarely see them again.
It seems that like my friend, many people make exercise complicated to justify avoidance and failure. They try every new program and training aid that comes along and then lament that they “just don’t work.” They fail to understand that it isn’t the program or product that works or doesn’t work, it’s them.
The world of exercise is actually really simple and straightforward. No one likes to hear that because if they haven’t been successful, they resent being told that they’ve failed to achieve success at something that is so simple.
The program for fitness success consists of very few parts. One that stands alone is cardio training. I recommend hard and fast interval training. It takes less time; is very effective; and, in the long run, creates less wear and tear on your body. How you chose to do this is up to you. Just keep it short (20 minutes) and hard three times per week.
Next is strength training, an area where there are many opinions, so I’ll give you mine. Your workout must consist of seven parts. You need to do an overhead push and an overhead pull. You need a horizontal push and a horizontal pull. You need a squat, a hinge, and forward flexion. It’s nothing fancy, and you don’t need fancy equipment to do it. You will need to do them regularly and progressively. You’ll also need to work hard, eat well, and sleep regularly to get the full benefits.
The overhead push includes barbell/dumbbell pressing and handstand push-ups. There are many variations; just find a couple you like and do them. Overhead pulls include lat-pulls and chin-ups. These too have many variations. Find what you like and work them hard.
Horizontal pushes include bench presses, dips, and the ubiquitous push-up. There are, once again, so many variations that you’re sure to find a couple that will work for you; try them all if you want, and train them hard.
Horizontal pulls include dumbbell/barbell rows, reverse push-ups, and cable rows. Rowing is often overlooked because the musculature they affect is on the back side of your body so it doesn’t easily show in a mirror. They are important nonetheless to build a strong back and to maintain proper posture. If you row hard and correctly, you’ll never have back or shoulder problems.
Squatting is rarely on anyone’s short list of favorite exercises; at least not if you’re doing them properly and working them hard. There are front squats, hack squats, and back squats plus different takes on each. I can understand if you really hate to squat (as I do), it’s okay … do them anyway.
The last two are a little different–hinges and forward flexion. Hinges include things like straight leg deadlifts, back bridges, and Kettlebell swings. These help to strengthen your rear chain (glutes, hamstrings, lower back) and improve posture and movement. Forward flexing includes sit-up variations, hanging leg lifts, jack-knives, and any number of core training variations.
So that’s it. Do each of these seven movements plus cardio, and you’ll be fit as can be, strong too. Do cardio three times per week and full body weight training twice. If you do intervals or sprinting, your cardio will be for 20 minutes plus warmup and cool down. Your strength training will be for three sets of 8 with one minute between sets and exercises.
This is where you start; sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it is. As you learn more about how your body responds, you certainly will make changes and your program may become more sophisticated. Perhaps, as most trainees do, you will add specialized assistance exercises. But remember, if you do add to the workout, the seven movements mentioned remain constant and serve as the cornerstone.
I’ve talked of goals so many times that I don’t know what to add. Simply put you need to challenge yourself in the gym as well as at the dinner table. Decide what you want and figure out how to get it. Once you set a goal, don’t think about anything other than the process of getting there. Then, when you make it, set a new goal that’s bigger and better than the one you just achieved.
It will take time to figure out what the weight on the bar should be or how quickly you should progress. Sometimes it will feel easy, and other times it will be awfully hard. Plateaus will make you crazy, and surges will make you elated. That’s just how it works, and there’s no way around it. There are no secrets or magic formulas to make it easier. You just lift and learn.
Simple, straightforward, old-school training will never go out of style, at least not among those of us who don’t mind working for what we want and are secure in what we’re doing.
Train hard with old-school principles, and no one will ever ask you if you work out…
they won’t have to, because it’ll be obvious that you do.
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 MKPTLLC@gmail.