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Organizing workout variables

This is an excerpt from Smarter Workouts by Pete McCall.

The human body is extremely efficient at conserving energy. The more often you perform a certain exercise with the same amount of weight or run the same distance, the more efficient your body will become at performing that work, and you could experience a reduced training effect. Workout programs based on learning and performing movement patterns can provide you with more options for how to exercise, which can ultimately lead to greater results. Whether it's exercise to improve muscular strength, enhance metabolic efficiency, or increase mobility, exercise programs contain the same basic elements known as the variables of exercise program design, which are exercise selection, intensity, repetitions, tempo, rest interval, sets, and frequency of exercise sessions. How these variables are organized and applied will determine the results from an exercise program.

Designing a Workout Is Like Cooking a Meal

Simply throwing a bunch of stuff in a pan and hoping that it turns into an appetizing and edible meal is not an effective way to cook. Likewise, hopping from one piece of equipment to the next, bouncing around between different fitness trends or doing exercises only for specific muscles are not effective methods of exercising. The first step of cooking is determining exactly what to make. In a similar fashion, the first step in designing an exercise program is determining the specific outcome you are trying to achieve. In cooking, the dish you want to prepare will determine the ingredients, the utensils used for preparing the food, and finally the best pots and pans for doing the actual cooking. Your fitness goal will determine the best equipment to use, the specific exercises you do, and how often you do them.

To prepare a successful meal it is important to know how to organize the ingredients, how much of each to use, the order in which they're added, and finally the optimal temperature and length of time in the oven. Using too much or too little of a specific ingredient, the wrong temperature, or wrong length of time can drastically change the outcome of a dish. Exercise is very much the same way; performing exercises that are not relevant to your goal, using too much or too little resistance, or doing too many or too few repetitions could drastically change the outcome of the workout. The variables of exercise program design (table 2.1) can be applied based on what you want to achieve from an exercise program. Add muscle? Lose excess body weight? Enhance athletic performance? Improve health? The variables can be adjusted to provide the appropriate mechanical or metabolic overload in a manner that creates a safe yet effective stimulus to meet your objectives.

Finding the Motivation to Exercise

Lack of time is one of the most popular excuses for avoiding exercise. Another reason for skipping exercise is that there is almost too much information available, making it hard to identify the types that you should be doing for the results you want. These two reasons alone demonstrate why it's easy to find other things to do instead of exercise; you'd rather spend your limited free time doing something you enjoy instead of something that feels awkward or uncomfortable. Most importantly, you probably just want to know how to exercise in a manner that will provide the greatest amount of benefits without an extensive time or cost commitment.

First, exercise is something you do in your free time, so it should be an activity that you at least don't mind doing. (Enjoy doing would be more preferable, but it's necessary to set realistic expectations.) To identify the types of exercise that can bring you the greatest amount of enjoyment, think back to the types of activities that brought you the most pleasure. Understanding just a little about muscle fiber physiology can help you identify the types of exercise activities that will feel right for your body. If you've always gravitated toward endurance sports such as running, cycling, or swimming for long distances, you may have more type I muscle fibers, which are extremely efficient at aerobic metabolism. However, if you've found that you enjoy field sports such as soccer or football, court sports such as tennis or basketball because of the fast-paced running and rapid changes of direction, sprinting, or dancing, you probably have higher levels of type II muscle fibers, which are responsible for creating the powerful muscle contractions needed for those activities.

If you have been struggling to follow an exercise program consistently for the long term, maybe your focus is in the wrong area. Rather than placing all of the emphasis on the outcome of exercise, why not adjust your thinking and focus on the process? You are better off choosing activities that are easily accessible and that you enjoy doing as opposed to workout programs that you think you should do even if you don't look forward to them and especially if it is at an out-of-the-way location that can be difficult to get to.

Principles of Exercise Program Design

Understanding how the different systems function as discrete components can help you identify the best methods for synergistically coordinating their actions to produce the desired results from an exercise program. Participation in a regular exercise program is essential for achieving and maintaining good health, which can help you avoid having to pay expensive medical costs as you age. Exercise provides numerous health benefits, including increased bone mineral density, improved blood lipid profiles, elevated mitochondrial density, increased aerobic capacity, lowered blood pressure, and improved glucose tolerance. All these benefits help reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases while providing various cognitive benefits, such as improving memory recall, making exercise as important for your brain as it is for your muscles. Exercise should engage all of the physiological systems reviewed in chapter 1, with a specific emphasis on enhancing mobility, strengthening the core, and improving metabolic efficiency. Identifying the best exercise program for your particular needs first requires a basic understanding of how exercise changes the human body.

The SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands) states that the type of exercise stimulus placed on the body will determine the expected physiological outcome. Changes to the structures and systems of the human body do not occur without a preceding stimulus. The body is very adaptable and adjusts to any physical stimulus it is exposed to regularly. Each physiological system—neural, endocrine, metabolic, fascial, muscular, and skeletal—will respond and adapt to the specific physical demands applied through a progressively more challenging exercise program.

According to the SAID principle, an individual who performs only muscle-isolation exercises can expect to strengthen the specific muscles used during exercise but may not achieve the intermuscular coordination necessary to improve skills such as coordination and dynamic balance.

Applying the Variables to Design Your Workouts

One thing most top fitness professionals agree on is that an effective exercise program doesn't need to be overly complicated. It's not necessary to do overly complicated moves or change the exercises you do every workout; only five basic movement patterns determine the exercises you should do during the workout. Simply changing one or two of the variables, like the amount of intensity, number of repetitions, or length of the rest interval, can significantly change the demands imposed on your body. As you get started with your exercise program, you should be aware that research can provide some general insights about how fitness may affect your body, but there are many factors besides the variables of exercise program design, like nutrition, sleep patterns, and overall stress levels, that will determine your specific response.

Inducing metabolic and mechanical stress in the gym does help promote muscle growth; however, what you do in the gym is only one component of the equation for achieving results. T and GH are produced during the REM cycles of sleep, meaning that after a hard workout, a full night's rest is essential for promoting muscle growth and achieving optimal recovery. Insufficient rest does not allow for optimal muscle protein synthesis to repair tissues damaged during exercise, nor does it allow for adequate replenishment of the muscle glycogen used to produce ATP and could lead to an accumulation of energy-producing hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, which can reduce the ability to generate new muscle tissue. Loss of sleep, loss of appetite, lingering illness, and cessation of gains from exercise are all symptoms of overtraining, which can significantly affect your ability to achieve your fitness goals.

The postworkout recovery period is often the most overlooked variable of any exercise program. Whether it is mechanical or metabolic stress that provides the stimulus for muscle growth is not as important as allowing the time for T, GH, and IGF-1 to promote muscle protein synthesis after the exercise is over. Exercise is when a physical stimulus is applied to a muscle and is only part of the equation responsible for muscle growth. Adequate recovery is important to allow the trained muscles sufficient time to replace muscle glycogen and the physiological process to repair and rebuild new tissue (Bishop, Jones, and Woods 2008; Hausswirth and Mujika 2013). The frequency of your workouts will depend on a number of factors, including your specific training goals, overall exercise experience, level of physical conditioning, and the amount of time you have available. After a higher-intensity core strength or metabolic conditioning workout, an appropriate recovery period is approximately 48 to 72 hours before training at the same intensity. Lower-intensity mobility workouts can be performed the next day to either expend the energy for weight management goals or as a form of active recovery.

Structuring Your Workouts

When it comes to workouts to enhance core strength or improve metabolic conditioning, repeatedly performing the same exercises with the same amount of weight could limit the amount of mechanical or metabolic stress placed on the involved tissue, which then minimizes the training effect. It's important to change workouts on a regular and consistent basis. Changing too often will not allow your body time to adapt, and following the same program for too long could result in a plateau. (The specifics of how and when to adjust your workouts will be covered in chapter 6.) To produce the desired results, the acute variables of exercise program design must be applied in a structured, systematic manner that either imposes a mechanical stress on the muscle, fascia, and elastic connective tissue or creates a sizable metabolic demand.

Increasing exercise intensity can be done a couple of ways: performing a strength exercise to a point of momentary muscle fatigue or increasing the work rate by moving at a faster speed to challenge the metabolic energy pathways that fuel the muscles. Valdimir M. Zatsiorsky and William J. Kraemer identify three specific types of strength training, two of which can be applied to improve core strength or enhance metabolic conditioning with only one piece of exercise equipment. The three methods are the maximal effort method, the dynamic effort method, and the repeated effort method. The maximal effort method, as the name suggests, is for enhancing maximal muscle force output using extremely heavy amounts of weight, which, while a worthy outcome, is not relevant to workouts that can easily be done with one piece of equipment at home or a fitness facility. The other two methods, the repeated effort and dynamic effort methods, can be adapted to use only one piece of equipment, making them efficient and effective solutions regardless of where you work out (Zatsiorsky and Kraemer 2006).

Repeated Effort Method

The repeated effort (RE) method of strength training requires the use of a nonmaximal load performed until momentary muscle failure (the inability to perform another repetition) to ensure proper stimulation of the motor units and depletion of energy stores. Applying the RE method of exercise requires performing the final few repetitions per set in a fatigued state in order to stimulate all of the involved muscle fibers. The RE method is an effective means to stimulate the adaptation of increasing lean muscle mass. This method uses slower motor units for the initial repetitions; as these motor units begin to fatigue, the muscle will recruit type II high threshold motor units to sustain the necessary force production.

One limitation to the RE method is that as the type II motor units are activated, they fatigue quickly, leading to the end of the set. If the load is not sufficient or the set is not performed to fatigue, it will not stimulate the fast motor units most responsible for changing muscle definition.

One significant benefit of this method is that as anaerobic type II fibers are recruited, they create energy through anaerobic glycolysis, which produces metabolic waste such as hydrogen ions and lactic acid, changing blood acidity. Research suggests that acidosis, the change in blood acidity due to an accumulation of blood lactate, is associated with increases in GH and IGF-1 to promote tissue repair during the recovery phase (Schoenfeld 2010).

The RE method provides two key advantages when using just one piece of exercise equipment: It has a greater impact on the metabolic function of the muscle, provoking greater levels of growth, as well as involving a significant number of motor units, leading to strength gains.

Dynamic Effort Method

The dynamic effort (DE) method of strength training uses nonmaximal loads with the highest attainable velocity of movement to apply the muscle motor unit stimulation. Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky and William J. Kraemer suggest that the DE method is an effective means of increasing the rate of force development and developing explosive strength, but when using a submaximal load for bursts of high-intensity movement speed, it can be an effective means of metabolic conditioning as well (Zatsiorsky and Kraemer 2006).

The DE method activates the contractile element of muscle to create an isometric contraction and place tension on the bodywide network of fascia and elastic connective tissue. When the contractile element shortens, it loads the fascia with elastic mechanical energy, which, when rapidly shortened, creates an explosive shortening action to generate movement.

When using the DE method with one piece of equipment for metabolic conditioning, the goal is to perform a move at an explosive or fast pace until either becoming out of breath or feeling the sensation of burning in the involved muscles, both of which are important markers of a metabolic overload.

Effective Equipment for Developing Mobility, Core Strength, and Metabolic Conditioning

One inside tip that many fitness professionals know is that it's not the actual equipment you use, but how you apply it that leads to physical changes. Yes, different types of exercise equipment place different stresses on the body, resulting in slightly different adaptations. And, yes, to some degree weight is weight: A medicine ball that weighs 10 pounds is the same weight as two 5-pound dumbbells. However, the movements you do during an exercise plus the way you apply the other variables of program design, such as sets and rest intervals, actually determine the changes that will happen to your body. Staying with the example of the medicine ball and two dumbbells, even though they weigh the same amount, the way they are used in a workout will result in completely different outcomes. A medicine ball is held in both hands while the dumbbells allow each arm to move independently, imposing a number of stresses on the various systems of the body.

The equipment selected for the workouts in this book (table 2.2) was chosen specifically because they are capable of imposing the appropriate demands for mobility, core strength training, or metabolic conditioning as well as being very affordable and easy to use in a home setting where space may be limited. In addition, the equipment selected can be found in most commercial health clubs or fitness facilities. Learning to use one piece of equipment for an effective workout gives you options for when you want the convenience of exercising at home or when both space and equipment are in short supply at the gym. When you make it to the gym only to see that all of the equipment is being used and people are waiting in line to take their turn, you can smile knowing that you'll still get a great workout. All you need to do is grab a single piece of equipment, secure a little space, and have at it. You'll be sweating and working toward your goals in no time!

Movement is exercise and exercise is movement. Knowing how to move with the pieces of equipment listed above, along with knowing how to organize the variables of an exercise program, can help ensure that you are doing workouts that will produce the results you want. All of the top fitness instructors know that exercise is both a science and an art: The science can provide insights on how the human body will adapt to specific types of overload, but the art comes from finding the best types of exercise that feel right for your particular needs. One piece of equipment, like a kettlebell, can be used for mobility, core strength training, or metabolic conditioning based on how the variables of exercise program design are applied. The next chapters show you dozens of exercises to help you get the results you want, simply and effectively.

More Excerpts From Smarter Workouts