What type of workout should I be doing?
- Any workout can be effective, depending on the goal
- Different types of movements / rep ranges / resistance cause different hormone changes that cause your physique to change
- The specific hormone response of the workout is the whole point of working out because that's what causes your body to change
- Nutrition is 80% and you can't outtrain a bad diet, so quit lying to yourself to justify your scone habit
ITS ABOUT THE HORMONES, BRUH
What is working out? I mean, we know that it involves sweating, "burning calories" whatever that means, burning fat and (hopefully) adding muscle, but scientifically what is actually going on? The workout in truth doesn't do a whole lot. Yes, it feels good and like an accomplishment and it has direct effects like more energy and clearer thinking, and its a detoxification process. But what actually causes these changes internally, telling a muscle to get bigger, or a fat cell to release its contents, or protein to be taken from muscle during breakdown?
Its ALL about the hormones.
In fact, the whole point of working out, if you are serious about your goal, is to cause the correct hormonal change in your body that coincides with your desired outcome. If you're trying to add muscle and lose fat, which can be done simultaneously although its difficult, you'll need to increase hormones like HGH, testosterone production, IGF and others. You will need to activate the mTOR pathways that cause muscle growth. You'll also need "fat loss" hormones. If you're goal is simply to lose fat with no regard to muscle growth, then obviously you will not need to be as precise because you won't need to stimulate muscle building hormones.
Simply put, the more extensive and complicated your goal, the more precise you're exercise selection, rep ranges, time under tension, resistance, bar speed and any other details will need to be. This should come as little surprise; obviously it is more difficult to become an elite athlete who has lots of muscle and no fat, vs the average person just looking to get into a healthy range.
So I know that's a lot of jargon with the hormones and exercise selection, reps, etc. But here's a simplified way to ensure that you are setting up the correct hormonal response which stimulates consistent results.
Now there are several factors that I learned long ago from the NSCA, and they show you how to formulate a workout. We're going to talk about the more important ones in detail and brush up on some of the minor factors. These factors are:
1) Frequency (how often you workout)
2) intensity (how hard you workout)
3) exercise selection
4) exercise order (key)
5) rest periods (between sets / rounds)
6) duration (length of workout)
I forgot the last one :) Hey, it was about 13 years ago.
These are the building blocks of a workout or entire program. With these you can obviously modify different factors to round out a plan. The question of course is "how the hell do I know what do with these?"
To sum up what I see on a daily basis in corporate gyms, it seems like most "regulars" are looking to add muscle and decrease fat. The following errors in my opinion are the main reasons why there are plateaus, injuries abound, and people have a hard time making significant progress.
FREQUENCY - For bodybuilding the rule of thumb is 72 hours of rest between muscle groups, however this is different if you're...ahem...on some gear. One thing that people do wrong is by hitting the same muscle groups much too frequently, usually arms. While this can work in the short term, maybe a 4-6 week program emphasizing increased frequency and volume, over time elbow and shoulder pain are assured. Frequency also depends on the exercise selection and weight, but the rule of thumb again should be a few days off between muscle groups, IF you opt for a high volume (bashing a particular muscle to death) workout, like most beginning males tend to do.
INTENSITY - Intensity levels in most gyms are fairly sad. Lots of sitting around, texting and chatting. Great if you are there to socialize, not so great if you have a goal.
If you are powerlifting and going for heavy compound movements like squats and deadlifts, you will need 3-5 minutes of rest. The lower your repetition range, the longer the rest periods will be. That being said, most people are doing more like circuit / basic workouts with "high reps" and so you do NOT want a lot of rest. This is especially true if you're trying to lose weight.
"Time under tension" a term describing the length of the set. Increased time under tension is the hallmark of sculpting a physique. Decreased rest periods = increased time under tension = more HGH (growth hormone) = mTOR activation = muscle gain and fat loss.
Also, keeping the heart rate sustained for 30+ minutes is the very definition of cardio. So, if you can do your normal workout, only doing "active rest" like jump rope or jumping jacks or whatever, you can stimulate more hormones to activate fat as your fuel. Boom.
EXERCISE SELECTION - By far the most misunderstood of the factors of creating a workout. A close second is exercise order, which we'll get to next. Here's the simplest way I can explain why the exercise selection is CRUCIAL to optimizing hormones (the whole point!).
Large compound movements, meaning more muscle groups used, like deadlifts and squats, activate higher levels of "survival" hormones like testosterone and HGH, IGF-1, and all the other mTOR pathways, which in turn cause the body to MASSIVELY dump these hormones. This leads to more muscle growth, and if done properly you're body will be begging to drop bodyfat. There's even a theory out there that a barbell back squat actually enacts a survival mechanism by loading up the spine which your body reacts to by literally "ditching the dead weight and packing on muscle" so that this will never happen again.
One thing to understand is this: breaking down the body part by part, WILL NOT get the same hormone response as sticking to large, compound movements. So to answer this question right away: No, doing leg extensions, hamstring curl machines, calves, and leg press is NOT the same thing as doing sets of quality deadlifts and weighted squats.
Typically I hybridize my workouts, meaning I have multiple goals. But I always, always start with a compound movement and then move down the ladder.
If you want to try this out, just start squatting twice a week, 3 sets of 10 reps at a difficult weight, two times per week to START the weight workout. Do this for 6 weeks and you will see phenomenal results.
email me at email@example.com for more information on how to pick the right exercises for your goals.
EXERCISE ORDER - Nothing drives me nuts like seeing someone hammer their biceps to death and then try and do pull-ups. Or crank out their triceps and then try to do pushups. It ain't gonna work, and it leads to frustration and injury. Sure, there is a pre-fatiguing strategy of bodybuilders but that's a very advanced strategy.
A great training program will ensure that you move through the workout and get as much out of it as you can. If your exercises are out of order, you can hinder your performance, cause injury and train your body other bad habits.
The same sort of idea applies here as exercise selection. As you move through the workout, it would make sense to do the hardest, most demanding exercises first, and then move down through the smaller muscle groups. In this way the big muscles like your back and legs won't be hamstrung (get it?) because some small muscle group in the movement is fatigued. An example is like above, if you try and do pullups after a bicep workout, you are going to be toast, and your back, which is the primary mover of the pullup, will not be able to outperform the fatigued biceps. What would make more sense would be pullups first, which are more demanding, and then move down to biceps after. Same with triceps. Bench press or pushups first because these are compound movements, and then move down to the tricep isolation.
An example of correct order would be this: Deadlifts, pullups, lat pulldowns, biceps
In that order. This would not be corrrect: Lat pulldowns, biceps, deadlifts, pullups
Just remember: Big, compound movements first, then isolation stuff.
REST PERIODS - If you're going for explosive speed, rest 3-5 minutes, for something like box jumps, olympic lifting, specialty powerlifts (speed pulls), or sprinting.
If you're going for "time under tension" bodybuilding, rest between 30-90 seconds. Start at 90, and as you get better and better you can drop the rest time.
If you're trying to improve endurance, just try and do active rest like jump rope, jumping jacks, burpees or whatever crafty, annoying exercise you can come up with. You won't need to do cardio after the weight lifting if you do this, so it saves time as well.
DURATION - You don't need to be in the gym for 3 hours if you are working at proper intensity. Exclusions from this rule are high level athletes or very specified skills like mountain climbing or marathon training.
After about 90 minutes of workouts, for most people, the body automatically starts to wind down and the hormonal response begins. So working out past this time can often times backfire as your body is in recovery-mode but you're still working out. See what I mean? While working out we have a cortisol response, but after a certain time we get the recovery hormones.
If you're doing your active rest, you should be in an out of the gym in an hour or less. Think of higher intensity, shorter duration. This is actually more effective for burning fat as well.
And that's it. If you're confused and don't know where to start, just write out the six principles above, and start to see what you're already doing and how it lines up with these guidelines. This game is all about making small changes slowly and feeling out your program...you won't learn it all overnight.
Hopefully this helps just one person out there to break a plateau and continue the gain train!
Strength & Conditioning Specialist