There's so much wrong information about fitness out there that I feel compelled to make a little page with an introduction to sane basic fitness. This page is targetted at people who want to be in basic decent shape, not athletes or bodybuilders; this is a way for me to work out thoughts as well.
I'm going to try to filter for things that are actual scientific fact. In general, the more specific the fitness article is, the less likely it is to be correct. There are a few basic principles that are now very well understood, but the details are still really a mystery. There are a few things that I believe in without evidence, so I'll try to mark those as unsubstantiated.
Everyone's goals and personal challenges are different, the point is to make the most effective steps towards your goal. You may be making progress now with unsound methods, but most likely if you would spend your workout time in a more productive manner, you could make much more progress.
Adding the super-short cliff notes which is really all you need.
1. Work out. Do something *hard* so that you feel it. Ideally break a sweat or get to muscle soreness; I know the exercise physiology nerds are rolling their eyes, but for 99% of the gain that's a perfectly fine guide. Keep pushing yourself, make your workout progressively harder over time.
2. Eat less. Food is calories. If you're fat, you need fewer calories. I find the easiest/best way to do this is just to eliminate junk food (soda, french fries, hot pockets, cliff bars, etc.) and otherwise eat whatever you want. It's actually hard to eat too may calories when you're only eating home-cooked meals.
That is all.
My thesis is that for the average semi-fit or unfit person, if they only work out a few hours a week it should be high intensity strength training. By default that should be free weights, with heavy compound full body movements that work through the limbs and the core (aka the kinetic chain), the nervous system, and balance and stabilizing muscles. Intensity should be increased in each workout.
Overall health encompasses a ton of factors, and I'm not going to talk about them. I'm only going to address body composition - that is, how much of you is fat and how much is muscle. Generally people are working out to increase muscle or reduce fat or both. Almost everyone reading this probably needs to do both to some extent, and it's certainly possible to do both. It basically seperates into two axes : what is your total weight, and what is the weight of your muscle (your LBM, or lean body mass). The goal is to increase your LBM and bring your LBM closer to your total weight, either by lowering your total weight, keeping it the same, or just increasing it slower than your LBM. It's very very hard to simultaneously increase your LBM and lower your total weight (unless you're way out of shape), but for most people that's not necessary - if you just keep your total weight the same and add muscle you will lose fat and look very fit. This should already get you thinking about things better - you cannot "burn fat", you can only add muscle or decrease total weight.
The first thing you need to do is forget all the nonsense from the mass media about fitness. They are starting to get certain things closer to right, but even that is just parroting of little truths that get overblown. It's also a myth that scientists keep changing their idea of what's good for you. The basic science that I'm drawing from here is largely from 1950 when the US military did lots of tests on body transformation of recruits in basic training. The press latches on to all these retarded or incorrect reports and blows them all out of proportion and gets people all confused. Ignore it. You should also ignore all the bodybuilding literature for now. You are not an elite bodybuilder and you should not be doing the routines designed for them. Also forget about all the BMI recommended weight stuff. Your ideal weight depends so much on how much muscle you have that that stuff is useless, just like the recommended daily calorie stuff depends so much on your activity level that it's equally useless.
We're going to attack body transformation in two parts : diet (which will be the primary effect on your total weight), and exercise (which will be the primary effect on your LBM - your amount of muscle). Of course they are related, and there are lots of other factors, like sleep, stress, flexibility, genetics, etc. but we're not going to talk too much about those. Every body is different, you're starting in different places and have different goals and genetics. My goal is not to give you a prescription, it's to teach you the tools and what's going on so that you can create your own prescription. I'm not going to tell you what exercises to do (other than squats, you need to do squats), or exactly how to eat or anything like that. The goal is for you to learn how different foods and exercises affect your body, then you can use those tools to get what you want.
Now you already many be thinking "I don't need to gain muscle" or "that's wrong, exercise is good for losing weight". Well, you're definitely wrong about the first one, and you're sort of wrong about the second. You can probably gain 10 pounds of muscle and not look any bigger (with the same total weight) - you would just look more cut and skinny even though you didn't lose any weight. Gaining muscle makes it much easier to lower your bodyfat%. Most of you if you are computer users are also probably at a dangerous state of atrophy of your hips, glutes and shoulders, which is seriously endangering your joints. You can add a lot of stabilizer and support muscle without even showing it. Adding muscle and working out more allows you to keep eating a lot and still lose total weight, which is much easier. Most people will also look and feel much better if they add muscle. "Tone" and "firmness" come from muscle, not from losing weight. If you have too little muscle and lose weight you'll just get super skinny and your skin will be all loose - probably not what you want, and yet tons of people take that approach. For girls to get firm butts and legs they need to add a lot of muscle; they've got a lot of fat there and you don't just want to burn that fat away (even if you could, which is very hard), it's much easier and better to replace the fat with muscle. The other great thing about building muscle is that it consumes calories, and not just from the workout, but all the time. Muscle burns calories at rest, and your body uses calories in the effort to synthesize muscle, so just by doing strength training you can greatly increase your daily calorie burn rate. Doing cardio is like dropping off some of the calories you ate that day; building muscle is putting a little engine inside your body that constantly burns calories day after day. All you RTS players should know the first thing you should do is build lots of harvesters that will just keep working for you even when you're idle.
About "exercising to lose weight". Total weight is affected by one thing and one thing only - your net calorie difference, the amount consumed minus the amount burned. You might be adding or losing fat or muscle depending on exactly what you eat and how you exercise (more details later), but total weight is just calorie differential. Now, of course part of that is how many calories you burn from exercise, but most people who do cardio will then have a snack to get energy back and roughly cancel their calorie burn. Not having a snack might be even worse. Even if you do work out pretty hard, you really don't burn a huge amount of calories, and if you want it to be long term you have to keep doing it over and over and over every day because it doesn't change your resting calorie burn. That's not to say that endurance cardio workouts don't have their use - personally I love hiking and bike riding and do them a lot - but they are really not a great way to lose weight for most people. I like doing them and getting really hungry so that I can eat a ton afterwards, but that doesn't really accomplish anything in terms of calorie differential. On the other hand, changing your calorie intake is relatively easy, and you can make huge changes. For example, someone who's eating badly might be taking in 3500 calories a day. You can pretty easily cut that to 2500. Trying to burn 1000 calories a day with cardio workouts would be much much harder. So, it's a simplification, but largely I like to think of your "diet" as how you manage your calorie differential, and obviously if you work out more then you can eat more and still have a good calorie differential.
Also I should note that tons of fat people are not actually over weight. Most people who think they just need to "tone" are in fact just weak. Lots of guys have fat around the gut but have butts and thighs that are too thin; the correct body change for them is not losing weight at all - it's just gaining muscle at the same weight. Lots of girls have a decent body shape but are very flabby; they somehow think they are fit and just need to "firm up" - in fact they should not lose weight at all, they should add muscle and lose fat. If you're not losing weight, you don't need to reduce your calorie intake at all, but you may want to tailor your diet better for muscle gain.
Some people who are very out of shape think that working out is somehow harder for them. In fact, just the opposite is true. The more untrained you are, the easier it is to make a dramatic transformation. It's sort of like an asymptotic (e)^(-x) kind of curve. The lower your bodyfat% gets, the harder it is to remove 1%, similarly the more muscle you have, the harder it is to increase your lifts by 1%, which is why bodybuilders have to do all kinds of wacky cycling and overtraining and such to make progress - you don't have to do any of that. People who are very fat can easily lose weight, while people who are very weak can easily make big muscle gains. One thing you do need to be very careful with is not trying to go too hard too fast because your joints are probably in bad shape and not ready to support your weight. You should definitely not go out right now and jog on concrete. Also many people think they should lose weight before they start working out. That's ridiculous, fat doesn't get in the way of weight lifting, and weight lifting will make it much much easier to burn fat. Why would you wait to add muscle when muscle is a huge huge help in losing fat?
I also want to emphasize that weight lifting is not just for building muscle. The reason it's great is because it's a very high intensity exercise which is easy to control and it's easy to do a lot of different moves. Free weight lifting is *exercise*. It's just like a sprint - a very short burst of high intensity physical activity. It makes the heart race, it stimulates blood flow, nervous system development, and relieves stress. It increases testosterone production which makes your whole body's metabolism more anabolic (building muscle, not storing fat). It's one of the best things you can do for joint and bone health, it prevents osteoperosis, and it's (perhaps surprisingly) one of the better ways to train VO2Max (see more later). If you only do one exercise in your whole life, you should do squats, as heavy as you can safely do them.
A quick summary of the overall approach most people should take :
1. Do strength training workouts to build muscle, increase your LBM, and increase your resting calorie burn 2. Strength workouts should be whole body freeweight functional resistance training. In particular, strain the big muscles of the kinetic chain and the core. 3. Eat whole functional foods with a purpose. Eat many small meals to provide energy throughout the day. 4. Eat based on the amount you work out; eat enough protein to support muscle growth and enough calories at the right times to provide constant free energy.
That's it. It's really very simple. Now on to the details.
I want to emphasize that just because this is a long document that doesn't mean you need to be really careful with your eating or work out for hours and hours in order to make huge changes. I'm just trying to provide the necessary information to understand your body as a dynamic system. Once you know how to regulate it, you can get results with just very small changes to your diet and only a few hours a week of exercise.
I also want to note there are lots of psychological factors. I'm not addressing all those bizarre human behavior problems that we all have here, I'm just trying to put the basic facts out and you can work out how to deal with them yourself. For example, if you really don't like free weights for some reason, then by all means, don't do them (but it is very hard to find alternatives that can provide a wide variety of moves which are intense enough and where you can gradually increase intensity). If you hate normal gyms, then don't go to a normal gym. If you need to eat something really dumb once in a while, fine do it.
Eating right is really easy. It's way easier than working out right, because it's almost completely understood. There are basically two parts of eating right; one is knowing how you should be eating, and the other is controlling yourself so that you actually do what you should. I'm not really going to talk about the second problem, but surprisingly most people don't even know how to eat well. A large part of the problem is the constant barage of nonsense from the popular media, and even the government, schools, and reputable newspapers.
The first key piece of science to understand is that a calorie is a calorie. Fat does not make you fat. Sugar does not make you fat. Protein does not make you gain weight or lose weight. If your body needs 2500 maintenance calories and you eat 2500 calories from any source, your weight will not change. If you eat more calories of any kind, you will gain weight equally, if you eat fewer calories, you will lose weight. Carbs and protein provide 4 calories per gram, fat provides 9. Generally you want to think in terms of calories, so substituting 9g of protein for 4g of fat is fine, but 1g for 1g is not equivalent. Try to get in the habit of always reading nutrition labels in terms of calories, so something that's 15g of protein and 10g of fat is actually a 3:2 ratio of fat:protein.
The next thing to be aware of is how different nutrients are used and how they affect you. You generally need all 3 types of nutrients in all meals. Carbs are necessary for energy and brain function. Fat is crucial for hormone production among other things. Protein is necessary for muscle and amino acids. Cutting or severely reducing any of them may be very bad for you. Simple sugars are useful for short term energy, such as during a hard workout and right after a workout, but generally should be otherwise avoided. All the stuff about insulin spikes and getting hungry again has merit, but a bigger factor is just that they're garbage calories that do nothing for you and calories = weight gain. For all your foods you can easily look up the nutritional content at some place like "calorieking" or "fitday" and make sure you are getting the right nutrients.
The exact balance of nutrients that you need depends on what you are doing. For someone doing some mild general exercise (not building muscle or sedentary), a "Zone" balance is okay, which is a calorie split of 50%/30%/20% (or 40/30/30) from carbs/protein/fat (note that is a split by calories, not grams!). If you are more sedentary you don't need as many carbs and should lower your overall calories and maybe go more like 33/33/33. If you are really trying to put on muscle (without gaining weight) you might up the protein a bit to 40/40/20 or 30/40/30.
Complex carbs are useful for medium term energy, and should be eaten in the morning on workout days or before endurance work. There is no evidence that eating carbs the night before provides any benefit, because they are completely digested by morning, so loading up on pasta before a big bike ride will just make you fat. Eat normally the night before and eat more carbs the day of the ride. Free energy from food is gone very very fast, generally in less than half an hour; any that's left over then becomes fat. For performance, you need to eat lots of little bites as you go. Generally it's best to eat slower releasing carbs with fiber, such as fruit or whole grains.
If you are trying to build muscle, the general guideline is to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. For most men this means eating around 200g of protein a day which is 800 calories. There is some evidence that you cannot actually usefully digest more than 25 - 30 grams of protein from any one meal, so it is important to try to space this out into as many small meals as possible (25g of protein is about 3oz of red meat, for example). eg. eating hardly any protein all day and then eating a 16 oz steak for dinner is not an effective way to consume protein for muscle synthesis - only 25g of that meal will go to muscle and the rest will be stored as energy (fat/glycogen).
It is very important to avoid ever being in a "starving" state, whether you are trying to lose weight or gain weight. Certainly fasting or any kind of severe calorie restriction is very bad. It puts your body into a famine mode where you burn muscle and store fat. Whether you are dieting or building you should always try to be in an "anabolic" state, which is your body's energy-burning growth mode. After a workout, your blood sugar will generally plummet - it's crucial to eat at that point. Many people think have heard they should do cardio exercises and avoid eating so that they can "burn fat". This is wrong wrong wrong. Remember all that matters is your total daily calorie difference; if you are going to eat at all, the most important time is right around your workout. Why would you starve yourself when you body most needs the energy and then gorge on dinner when you're about to go to sleep?
That was only looking at the physiological problems with letting yourself get too hungry during the day. There are obviously of course behavioral problems as well, if you try to starve yourself you will then overeat or make illogical food decisions in your next meal. The body's satiety feeling responds very slowly (it's like a very loose spring). When you let yourself get too hungry, you tend to way overeat past normal fullness. Fat and fiber are both good at providing satiety, while simple sugars trigger hunger.
Another myth is that late night eating makes you fat. Once again, a calorie is a calorie. It doesn't matter if Oprah eats too much after 8 PM or in the morning - calories in minus calories burned = weight gain. The reason why eating earlier is good is if you are doing something physical, then that food is useful for energy during the day. This does not mean that calories consumed near a workout "don't count" or have any less power to make you fat - they are just more useful calories. If you were totally sedentary any time of day would be equal.
In fact, late night eating is actually very beneficial if you are trying to build muscle. Your cells are working away at converting protein to muscle 24 hours a day, and they need fuel to do it. However, you are generally not eating through the night while you are sleeping, so they don't get the protein they need if you are in a severe muscle building mode. The best way to help them is a big dose of protein (25g or so) right before bed, and then again right away when you wake up. Serious bodybuilders will wake up in the night and take more protein, but for most people that's excessive.
Some random notes :
BTW one of the funny things I've seen along this line are "heart healthy" chips. Chips are absolutely horrible for you, it doesn't matter if they're organic or have flax seed or wheat germ or whatever flavor-of-the-month additive. Another similar thing are juices. Juice is basically sugar water. It's okay as an exercise supplement but otherwise is not good nutrition, it doesn't matter if it has all these good vitamins and pomegranet and beta caroteen and whatever.
Building muscle consists of two seperate and equally important phases : 1) stimulating your body to think it needs to add muscle (aka exercise), and 2) providing your body with the right conditions for it to put on muscle. By far the easiest way to trick your body into adding muscle is by lifting weights. It is not the only way, any progressively increasing near-maximal periodic exercise can do it, but it's the main thing I'll discuss here. Weight lifting itself doesn't give you any muscle, all it does is send a message to your body that it needs to put on muscle. The actual muscle building occurs in the 24-48 hours following a workout. During this time it's crucial to have proper rest and nutrition. If your body does not have enough protein, or not enough free energy (sugar), it won't add muscle. If you don't sleep well you won't maximize muscle gains either.
Being in a muscle-building state is called being "anabolic" (as opposed to "catabolic", the state in which your body is breaking down its tissues to create free energy). In a maximum muscle building phase your goal is to be anabolic at all times. That means every 24 hours or so you trigger your muscles that they need to grow, and then you rest and feed them and the little factories in your body go to work and make muscles. You can do a lot of things to screw this up - not sleeping, alcohol, not eating enough total, not eating enough protein, not eating enough small meals to give a constant stream of nutrients. One thing that people trying to get fit often do is too much cardio work. If you are doing hard endurance cardio during the 24 hours following a strength workout, you will not build muscle. You are using up your body's free energy to do the cardio workout and it can't go to muscle building; this effect lasts much longer than just during the cardio workout, and if you really workout hard and hit a near-starving state you can push your body catabolic which is disastrous for LBM increase. (you can of course combine cardio and muscle building but it requires very careful nutrition and I don't recommend it for beginners)
You need to add muscle. One myth you should probably wipe from your mind is that you are already strong and just need to lose weight. Chances are that is wrong and you are in fact very weak. The human animal was designed to run around and swing bone clubs and climb and fight, all things you don't do; you are likely a near-atrophied husk of what a human should be. As a rough guide, if you can't squat your body weight, you are still at a totally "untrained" level in terms of weight lifting and muscle development. That more or less goes for girls as well, though we might scale it down to squatting 75% of bodyweight.
Now, there's a lot of debate about how exactly is the best way to trigger your body that it needs to add muscle. The truth is that all the details about how exactly to set up the workout don't matter that much. I'm going to talk about just the things that are known. Also, the ideal workout for a beginner is very different than the ideal workout for an experienced bodybuilder. Most of the strange isolation moves that have gotten so popular are really only necessary for advanced bodybuilders who can't stress their muscles any other way.
There is no iron-clad prescription. Every body is different and can handle different types of training. Some people just have huge amounts of energy and may be able to do greater volumes of training. Some people are naturally very thermogenic (skinny and burn calories easily) - they will need to do a smaller volume of training with higher intensity. If you understand the principles and the logic you will be able to optimize your workout. But it's also important to remember that you are a novice and you don't know what you're doing and you need to stick the core principles that are well established.
One thing that's certainly agreed upon is that you need to stress the muscles with heavy loads that progressively increase. If you do a move that isn't very very hard for your muscles, it might feel like a workout if you do enough reps, but your body will not build muscle. If you do a hard workout, and then just keep doing the same level of difficulty - your muscles will not be growing. The human system is in fact very carefully designed to NOT build muscle. If you give it a load that it thinks it can handle with your current physique, it will not send the signal to build muscle. Presumably this mechanism evolved through times of famine - people who put on muscle really easily wound up needing too much food and died. Doing more repetitions of an exercise is an okay way to increase the intensity up to a point, but you really want to be increasing the weight.
I've started talking about "hypertrophy" so I should sort of define it. Hypertrophy is the state of growth in muscle tissue, and our goal in a muscle building workout is to stimulate hypertrophy and do hypertrophy-conducive exercises. You can do the exact same exercises but if you don't do them with the right intensity, frequency, and duration, you will not be in the "hypertrophy range" or "hypertrophy window".
The last thing that's definitely backed by science is the very rough rep range and total volume of the workout. But the ranges are very wide. First of all, the total duration of the workout should be around one hour or less. More than that and you are overstressing your nervous system and using up the free energy in your body, and not only is working out beyond that range not as productive, it may be counterproductive. Working less than one hour is acceptable but you will not be making maximum gains. Similarly, the total number of reps that you do in a workout should be somewhere in the 50-200 range. This range is very wide because it depends on how intense those reps are, but < 50 you surely aren't doing enough volume for hypertrophy, and > 200 you are doing too light of work with too much volume. A typical rough guideline is to do about 4 exercises in a workout with about 25 reps per exercise. In terms of how you break that into sets, the recommended number of sets is somewhere in the 1-10 range and the number of reps per set should be 3-12. Again you'll see these ranges are huge because the science is not very precise. However, less than 3 reps is not enough to stimulate hypertrophy. And less than 15 total reps on an exercise is probably too few. Some typical patterns are 3x10 (old school) , 5x5 (modern standard) , 3x5 (modern beginner), 10x3 (intense strength training), written as sets x reps. The fewer reps you do in a set, the more intense they should be. Remember the goal is to be fatigued by each set, it should be difficult to complete.
The whole point of doing reps and sets is to force the body to adapt to the weight. The point is NOT to use up your free energy store, which many people mistake for the feeling of a good workout. Why don't we just do one rep with your maximum weight (1RM = the amount of weight you can do for one rep) ? Because the human system has mechanisms to prevent adaptation to a short term strain. Again this goes back to how the body really doesn't want to put on muscle. If you give the body a single rep of really hard work, it says "okay that was an exception I'm not gonna add muscle for that". You have to repeat that loading several times in order to trick the body into thinking that it will have to adapt to handle that loading. There are a ton of articles about how different rep ranges can give you size or strength, stimulate the fast twitch or slow twitch, etc. etc. but the science is pretty weak. Doing something in 4-8 reps is a compromise, especially if you mix in ocassional strength-endurance work such as swimming or yoga. (also note that I'm not including warmup sets at all here which can be done to a higher rep range)
From here on out I'm going to describe one specific way to workout that follows these principles. The exact details of this method are not entirely scientifically backed, but they are advocated by smart trainers and follow a sort of good Occam's Razor rule of doing the most straightforward possible thing. These techniques fall in a category that I call "modern strength training". Most of the modern trainers are in this group including Mark Rippetoe's "Starting Strength" , Bill Starr's "5x5" , as well as the Westside Barbell training and the Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST) program.
The basic prescription for Modern Strength Training goes like this : Work out 3 times a week. Hit the whole body in each workout with functional full-body moves so that every muscle is stimulated in each workout day. Progressively increase the intensity every workout day, either through more reps or higher weight. Generally do 1-5 sets, and keep reps in the hypertrophy range, 3-12.
This basic prescription is very simple and follows our understanding of hypertrophy. Every other day we hit the whole body for roughly an hour to tell every muscle it needs to adapt and grow. The next day we rest and the muscles grow during that rest. Then we hit it again. Note that the muscles are not "recovered" after that one day of rest. In fact, it takes 1-2 weeks for full recovery, and waiting for that is not necessary or beneficial. This is part of the new "dual factor theory" in muscle building. That sounds fancy but it's very simple. Basically it means that through training you are increasing strength and also increasing fatigue. As long as you stay on the program, both are building, but eventually you get too much fatigue and stop benefitting your strength. Then you stop and rest a while ("deloading") to let the fatigue drain, and you keep the strength.
There's nothing wrong with training a partially fatigued muscle. The 1 day of rest between workouts is more to let your nervous system recover and to make sure your nutrition and everything has a chance to get into your system and let you build some muscle without other stresses. You may still be sore from the previous workout, but soreness does not really affect performance - just stretch and warmup and it will be fine.
Each workout day the goal is to work the entire body, there are no "arm days" or "calf days" or whatever. Any muscle that you don't train on a given day is a muscle you are not triggering to grow. Remember the goal of a workout is to tell your body "I need these muscles". Now, by far the most important muscles are the big "core" muscles aka the trunk and the posterior chain. Any serious full body moves will heavily load these. There are various moves you can do for these, but the best are squats and deadlifts. These are big moves that involve the whole body. You might think squats is a leg move, but in fact it works the entire body hard - it works the shoulders for stabilization, the abs and back to keep the trunk tight, and of course the gluts and legs. In fact heavy squatting and deadlifting is a harder ab workout than something like crunches. It's crucial that you do these big moves with heavy weight, that's what really tells the body it needs to get stronger.
Another way to think about it is in terms of functional strength. Real power comes from the "kinetic chain". That's basically the whole length of your body from your legs, through your butt and hips, abs and back, and out your shoulders. The kinetic chain lets you push with your strongest muscles (your butt and legs), and also lets you transfer your weight into the motion. Major league pitchers and hitters don't use their arms to thow and bat, they use the whole kinetic chain. A good power punching boxer like Mike Tyson uses the whole kinetic chain to make big punches. Obviously olympic throwers use the whole kinetic chain. This is the way the body was designed to work (think about how a cat jumps), and training the whole kinetic chain is natural and functional.
It also allows you to make the biggest gains in the shortest amount of time because you are using tons of muscle. If you do 3x10 bicep curls you are only activation perhaps a few pounds of muscle. If you do an overhead squat you are activating almost every muscle in your body. People think they can hit their biceps harder if they do them in isolation. That's basically false. You can do the exact same intensity of bicep workout while also working other muscles. For example, you could do pullups instead of bicep curls and get the same benefit for the biceps while also working many other muscles. The only exception to this is if you are a huge bodybuilder and your muscles have grown beyond the ability of your heart and ATP system to supply energy for full body moves. This applies to about 0.001% of the population and yet everybody does isolation moves at the gym.
As I said before there are many possible reasonable choices. For example, if you're able to do a hard full body move like a clean & jerk, you could just do that for one workout day (with plenty of warmup and ramping up the weight). However, most people don't have the flexibility or technique to do real full body moves like that safely. So instead we need to break it into a few different moves that amateurs can learn relatively easily and ramp up weight in.
So, we're at the point where we can show a specific program. I'm going to show Rippetoe's Starting Strength program, but if you actually do that you should go read about it elsewhere. I'm just trying to teach the logic and principles behind it. The program consists of two different days, A and B. Both are full body days. You work out 3 times a week and alternate between A and B. The recommended exercises are :
Workout A 3x5 Squat 3x5 Bench Press 1x5 Deadlift Workout B 3x5 Squat 3x5 Standing military press 3x5 Rows
The goal on both days is to hit the whole body with basic moves. The 3x5 is 3 sets of 5 at your working (max) weight. In practice you should be doing 5x5 or 6x5 with a few warm up sets ramping up the weight. This is a very low volume routine designed to do heavy weights and make quick progression. You should be adding weight with each *workout* - not each week.
This is a very good routine for someone who's untrained. If your squat is less than bodyweight, you are "untrained" and this workout would be great for you. I'm not going into detail on it, there is lots of information about specific programs all over, that's not my goal. If you actually do this workout, go read about it. Better yet, buy the book "Starting Strength".
One point that's crucial that many people miss is that you need to be increasing the weight all the time. That's part of the hypertrophy signal to your body. Part of being able to keep increasing the weight is not starting too heavy. You need to start really light and start building the foundation of the pattern and the ramping weight. Then keep adding weight each workout and you will be failing soon enough.
A lot of people who have done "Men's Health" type workouts in the past thing this is too low volume and not enough different moves. You don't need to do a ton of different isolation moves if you are doing big compound moves that work the whole body. High volume may make you feel like you got a good workout (you'll be shaking, tired, have a "pump", etc.) but it does little for strength gains. Once you start doing heavy lifts, this program will be plenty draining, and adding more volume will just give you excess fatigue without benefit. Part of the point is that you don't want to totally blow yourself out on Monday because you're coming back on Wednessday and you need to increase the weight again on Wes.
An alternative program is the "Hypertrophy Specific Training" (HST) program. It's based on the exact same principles, but the details of the program are a little different.
Let me emphasize again the basic principles of workouts for muscle building :
1. Hit the major muscle groups as often as possible. (3+ times a week for all but very advanced trainers) 2. Do very "intense" work. Intensity is defined only by percentage of 1-rep-max load. 3. Do repetitions and sets that are in the hypertrophy range, eg. 1-8 reps per set, 25-50 total reps. Do not train to failure because you will be training again soon. 4. Increase intensity progressively, ideally a linear progression increasing intensity each workout. Never stall and stay at the same intensity for a long time. If you stall, rest and reset. 5. Do compound, load-bearing training which stresses the kinetic chain, stabilizers, the core, and neuromuscular coordination.
You may note that nowhere in these key principles did we mention freeweights, though that is certainly the easiest way to adhere to these principles.
some random notes :
There are many benefits to supporting real free weights with your body, particularly on your shoulders or held overhead. It works the whole core. It's an extremely powerful nervous system stimulant. It help with bone health (decreases risk of osteoperosis) by loading your body. It helps balance and all the balancing and stabilizing muscles. It helps coordination of the core muscles with the arms and develops functional control of the kinetic chain. You can feel it by just holding some weight overhead and try to sway them just a tiny bit - your whole body gets recruited for stabilization.
Mobility and stabilizers are your limiting factors for how far and how fast you can safely progress. If you haven't built them up, you can't progress without high risk of injury. Programs like HST (Hypertrophy Specific Training) sort of build in a prep phase to every cycle, where you first do the moves at relatively low weight and high reps to sort of build up your ability to do the move, and then you do them with big weights to add muscle. For a beginner, you don't really need to do this two-phase approach, but you do need to make sure you have the right body condition to progress. This is part of why you should start your cycle really light, and also remember that your heavy lifting days are not the only part of the program - the off days are for general physical activity which prepares your body for further progress (things like yoga, swimming, whatever).
This page is mainly about how to change your body composition - increasing muscle % and decreasing bodyfat % - and the best way to do those are with a sensible diet and hard strength training. That's not to say that other exercise doesn't have a lot of positive benefits, it's just not the best way to do those things.
For example, I think Yoga and swimming are two of the best things you can do for your body, but neither one is very good for body transformation. Yes yes there are yogis and swimmers with great bodies - that is circumstantial evidence and should be ignored. Most of those swimmers with great bodies spend *hours* in the pool every day, and also do plenty of other strength-building exercise. As I said earlier, it's possible to get a good body any way, we're trying to find the easiest and most efficient ways.
Some of the things you can get from other workouts are dynamic flexibility work, coordination, increased blood flow, tendon and nerve health, cardiovascular strengthening, muscle endurance, etc. etc. All these things are very beneficial and will help your strength training as well. Muscles are actually the easiest thing (other than fat) to grow on the body; nerves, tendons, blood vessels, etc. all take much longer to change, and if you only do strength training you can easily get your muscles ahead of the rest of your body which can be dangerous.
One huge myth that we need to drop is the idea of "fat loss" workouts, or the whole idea that some workouts are "for muscle" and other are for "cardio" and others are good "fat loss". There have been all these retarded studies showing that very low intensity steady state cardio is the best way to burn fat, as opposed to just burning glycogen or muscle. The problem with these studies is they don't control for diet and look at the total long term body change. When you do that you come back to one of our starting principles - calories burned are calories burned. If you do something like go on a long walk, you might be "burning fat", but you burn very little of it, and when you sleep your body will work away at turning free energy into storage fat. On the other hand if you go and do some hard sprints, you will primarily burn glycogen, not fat, but afterward your body will work to burn fat to create free energy to replenish the glycogen stores, and also to have energy to build muscle. Your body is constantly balancing itself based on perceived needs, and it really doesn't matter what kind of energy you burn at any given workout - your body will correct the balance when it's at rest.
Most pople now recommend "HIIT" (High Intensity Interval Training) for body transformation, rather than traditional steady state cardio exercise. HIIT is a harder workout for the heart, and will change your VO2max faster. You can burn a lot more calories in a shorter time period, and it's more straining so it also stimulates muscle and bone growth which increases your resting metabolic rate. Basically HIIT means rather than going for a slow jog for an hour, you go out for half an hour and do sprint intervals with resting in between. I'm not going to go into detail here. It's not really something you have to do, but it is part of "modern training" in the cardio world so I wanted to mention it.
One thing that's sort of interesting for endurance exercise is the limitations of VO2Max and Lactate Threshold. VO2Max is the amount of oxygen you can pull through your lungs into your body. Lactate Threshold is roughly at what % of VO2Max your muscles go anaerobic and produce too much lactic acid such that they lose function (a little bit of lactic acid is fine, and you can go past LT if you go back down). VO2Max is relatively easy to train, and if an untrained person goes out running they will be limited by VO2Max. VO2Max also increases very fast. In about 1 month of training you can get your VO2Max up near your genetic max. Over time you will increase it a bit more, but not much. VO2Max obviously involves stretching your lungs, the strength of your heart, but also lots of cellular factors like mitochondrial density. VO2Max can be trained very well even through weight lifting and intervals. VO2Max also falls off quickly if you stop training. Like, if you're a cyclist and you take the winter off, when you go out in the spring you will be limited by a very poor VO2Max, but in only a few weeks of riding you will get your VO2Max back up.
Lactate Threshold (LT) is much harder to train and changes more slowly. It's dominated by microscopic cellular factors, like your ability to move oxygen from the blood to the muscles, ability to turn glycogen into ATP, ability to rapidly flush out lactic acid, etc. These changes take a long time. Very high level endurance athletes like pro cyclists are mainly training their LT. Even beginner pros will have a VO2Max that's as high as it ever will be, but their LT will gradually keep increasing over the years as they carefully train it. Many endurance athletes believe that spending too much training time beyond LT (anaerobic) is bad for LT, so they will try very hard to get their intensity as close to LT as possible but not cross it. Strength training and intervals has essentially no benefit to LT. An amateur cyclist makes very little progress in training their natural LT.
good page on VO2Max and LT
Some real questions and many fake ones.
A : The kinetic chain refers to the whole pathway of mucles and ligaments that go from the legs to the hips to the core to the shoulders to the arms. All those muscles and joints work together to create compound movements when you do a functional explosive move such as punching or throwing something. It's really what the human body is designed to do. Most of the power in the kinetic chain comes from the legs and hips, and a skilled athlete like a boxer or a pitcher or an olympic thrower (like discus or hammer toss or javelin or shot put) all get their power from the big lower muscles. It's important to work the kinetic chain even if you have no interest in athletics, because it makes sure that your training is balanced and functional. This is part of why I recommend doing real squats rather than a leg press, among other reasons. When you really work the functional kinetic chain you increase coordination and nervous system development as well.
A : If you have fat on your stomach, you have fat. There's no such thing as being skinny in one part of your body and fat in the other. There is only fat or not fat. You cannot target fat loss in a specific spot on your body. Certainly never ever try to "work" the fat part, that only makes it bigger. Start over and read this page again because you didn't understand it.
A : No, absolutely not. I've tried to make it clear that "modern training" does not rely on weight lifting. Free weight lifting is just a very useful tool, and you do sort of make it harder on yourself if you don't use it. There are plenty of other activities that you can use. For example, you might build a training program based primarily on sprinting and rock climbing. The hard thing with both is that you need to get activity which is intense enough to work in the "hypertrophy" range. It also has to steadily increase in intensity. With weight lifting that's easy because you can just put on the right amount of weight to make 6 reps very hard, then increase the weight next week, etc.
With something like sprinting, you'd want to start doing 25 meter sprints, maybe do 5 "sets" of 25 meters with rest in between runs. Then progress to 30 meters, 35 meters. Then increase the intensity by doing some uphill sprints. Increase the intensity by finding a steeper hill. Increase to 40 meters. Then mix in some "skater walks" (lunging steps). Min in some plyometric jumps, sets of 10. etc. Then go run in the sand. You can go like this for a while but eventually you'll run out of parameters to increase the intensity.
A : You, I am willing to wager, will never ever get really big and overly muscular. And no, lifting light weights is not okay.
A: No. You're probably overtraining, but really it's just impossible to tell because those physiological signs have very little do with the actually intensity of the work you did. Intensity is measured in only one way : moving more weight. (or if it's not weights, doing a faster sprint, or whatever the workout it, doing a larger effort). It has nothing to do with how hard you feel you worked out. You can do weird things that can make you feel like you got a really hard workout even though you didn't. Many of the "feelings" of a hard workout are actually just caused by low blood sugar and an elevated heart rate. Those things in themselves do zero to advance your fitness.
A : Well, mainly you just need to get fit. That means lowering bodyfat %, which is what this whole page has been about. As I noted above, fat is not something you can target, so you just have to lose it overall. Really the best thing to do is just follow the general programs specified here, do something like Starting Strength that has lots of functional heavy moves. When you do heavy weight lifting with free weights supported by your core (such as squats and deadlifts) you are working the abs very hard, much harder than with crunches. Adding muscle will be the tailwind to cutting bodyfat (again, review this whole page).
One thing to note is that almost all the "ab programs" you see around are totally retarded. They're a clear example of the popular media style of training (aka the "Men's Health" training) which is not based on these scientific principles. As with everything else we've talked about, you need to just ignore them and base a simple training program on "modern training". In particular, that means doing just a few reps of very heavy hyptertrophy-producing ab moves. One good option is just to not do ab exercise AT ALL and focus on your heavy full body compound lifts. If you want to add a little bit of ab-specific work, do something hard and heavy as your last exercise on your gym days.
One more note - if you're a coder you probably suffer from some degree of Kyphosis (upper back rounded forward, aka slumped posture). Doing heavy abs can make this worse. You need to make sure you do more back exercise than ab exercise. More on Kyphosis later.
A: NO NO NO! Skinny guys trying to add muscle really need to avoid the cardio and focus on just eating and doing strength training. Do something like Starting Strength, try to eat a ton of protein, don't worry about eating clean, eat lots before & after your workouts, and do low rep high intensity work.
A: This is a bit of an exceptional case because you're so out of shape you don't need to start right off with weightlifting. The first step is to build a little strength and get your joints used to moving because you're currently very suceptible to injury. One thing you really really do not want to do is jogging. Most importantly, just get moving around, warm up your body for movement and do something physical you enjoy. After a few weeks of that you can start trying to build some base level strength which will then set you up for the next step. There are some basic things that people should be able to do and if you can't do those, then start with the basics. One is just walking up a flight of stairs. If you can't do that - there's your first workout. Another is air squats with no weights, another is pushups and pullups with no weight. In the early phases do not try to do anything explosive such as running or jumping.
A: First of all, try not to judge advice too much by looks; you dont know how much time they've spent in the gym, whether they've juiced, their genetics, etc. As for their advice - 90% of personal trainers in gyms give horrible advice. Unfortunately the certification is really retarded, they don't have to know anything about physiology or modern science of training and diet. They recommend machines partly out of ignorance and partly because their gyms require them to. The gyms want you on machines because it's easier to teach, doesn't require supervision or much awareness in the athlete, and less liability. It also forces you to come into the gym instead of just doing work at home. Furthermore, it's easier for the idiotic exerciser to come in and immediately start using machines and "feel the burn" and think they're making progress, whereas if they taught freeweights you'd have to practice for a few weeks before you really start making progress, which many of the occasional exericers would give up. The majority of trainers will still recommend bodybuilder style splits. If you want some personal supervision, the most reliable program these days is probably Crossfit. Other than that, try to find a real powerlifting gym. You can tell a powerlifting gym because it will be full of power racks (these square metal frames) and hardly any of the normal machines.
A: Warming up is really important; generally you should spend around 15 minutes on it. The goal is get the blood moving and loosen the joints and get your body ready to lift weights. Lifting "cold" puts you at much greater risk for injury. In cold weather, warm up longer, in hot weather you can do a little less. One thing you should NOT do is really stretch. Real stretching means trying to lengthen the muscles and ligaments and that does not belong in your warmup, if anything stretch after your workout or at a totally different time of day. Some examples of good warmups are : rowing on a C2 machine, old school calisthenics like jumping jacks and burpees, unweighted squats like "potato sack squats". Something else you should often do is go through the motion of your big weight lifting moves with no weight, using just the bar to work on form and practice the movement. That's not including warmup sets which you should always do to ramp the weight up to work weight.
Really good :
Guide to Novice Barbell Training, aka the Official RIPPETOE-STARTING STRENGTH FAQ - Bodybuilding.com Forums
Madcow Training - Table of Contents, 5x5 Programs, Dual Factor Theory, Training Theory
Stumptuous Weight Training
Dan John - Video FitCast- Episode 6 - Google Video
Squat Rx Youtube Videos
What 200 Calories Looks Like
YouTube - Tommy Kono lecture instruction on Olympic Lifting Part 1
Welcome to CrossFit Forging Elite Fitness
CrossFit Exercises (lots of good videos here)
Training to failure (is bad)
The TNT Workout Plan - Men's Health
The Coach - Dan John - Lifiting and Throwing
Rippetoe's program - Bodybuilding.com Forums
Posture for a Healthy Back
Physical Therapy Corner Iliotibial Band Friction Syndrome Treatment
Low Back Pain Exercise Guide
Kettlebells Training Video - The Turkish Getup Exercise
Iliotibial band stretch
HST - Charles T. Ridgely
How to benefit from Planned Overtraining
Foam Roller Exercises
ExRx Exercise & Muscle Directory
EliteFitness.com Bodybuilding Forums - View Single Post - HELLO! your on STEROIDS REMEMBER
Deepsquatter back & abs
Dan John Front Squat
CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS - knee pain
Bodybuilding.com Presents Diet Calculation Results
AbcBodybuilding window of opportunity
The York Handbalancing Course
T-Nation stuff ; this is a "juicer" site so take it with a grain of salt, but there's lots of good workout information :
Mastering the Deadlift Part II
TN Shoulder Savers 2
TN Shoulder Savers 1
TN Monster Shoulders
TN Band Man
TESTOSTERONE NATION - The Shoulder Training Bible
TESTOSTERONE NATION - Romanian vs. Stiff-Legged Deadlifts
TESTOSTERONE NATION - Neanderthal No More, Part V
TESTOSTERONE NATION - Most Powerful Program Ever
TESTOSTERONE NATION - Mastering the Deadlift
TESTOSTERONE NATION - HSS-100 Back Specialization
Testosterone Nation - Hardcore Stretching, Part II
Testosterone Nation - Forgotten Squats
TESTOSTERONE NATION - Feel Better for 10 Bucks
TESTOSTERONE NATION - Essential Waterbury Program Design
TESTOSTERONE NATION - EasyHard Gainers
TESTOSTERONE NATION - Core Training for Smart Folks
TESTOSTERONE NATION - Back On Track
TESTOSTERONE NATION - A Thinking Man's Guide to Sets and Reps
tennis ball ART
Romanian Dead lift
My shoulder rehab links :
USA Swimming - Sports Med Articles - Good Good
YouTube - scapular mobility work
YouTube - Rotator Cuff Exercises Blackburns
YouTube - DieselCrew.com - Shoulder Rehab Protocol
UpToDate Patient information Physical therapy for frozen shoulder
Timberhill Physical Therapy
The Shoulder Joint (by Jeremy Likness)
The Physician and Sportsmedicine Exercising the Frozen Shoulder
Sports Medicine Institute
Sports Medicine Advisor 2006.2 Dislocated Shoulder Rehabilitation Exercises
Sports Medicine Advisor 2005.4 Frozen Shoulder Rehabilitation Exercises
shoulder exercises Sports Injury Advice
Scapular disorders stretch focus of athletic rehabilitation
Rotator cuff home rehabilitation exercises
MedNets A medical search engine and health portal
common shoulder injuries shoulder pain exercises Sports Injury Advice
Bodybuilding.com - Jeremy Likness - The Shoulder Joint! Exercises And Stretches.
Adhesive Capsulitis A Sticky Issue - April 1, 1999 - American Academy of Family Physicians
Adhesive Capsulitis -- familydoctor.org
Charles Blooom [cb][at][cbloom][dot][com] Send Me Email
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