In this article I will present basic information on strength, cardiovascular and flexibility training that I have found to be foundational in my experiences with physique transformation contests as well as fitness training in general.
If you are new to a fitness lifestyle that includes a focus on exercise and nutrition, keep in mind that most beginners, or people just returning from an extended layoff, can expect to make better progress than most “seasoned” exercisers. Be advised that exercise programs can be very demanding activities. I recommend that you have a physical exam by a physician before you begin any programming recommended in this special report.
Everyone working to change their physique, whether trying to gain or lose weight, should be measuring body fat (and lean mass) as they go along. For those desiring to lose weight, I believe it is crucial to strictly focus on fat loss and not just weight loss. Too many people get hooked on what the scale says, not caring if weight loss is coming from fat, water, or lean mass. If people are losing over 2 pounds of scale weight per week, research tells us that there is a high likelihood that some of that is lean mass. If you want to lose significant amounts of body fat as rapidly as possible, you need to be sure where the weight loss is coming from – fat? or muscle? (we don’t want to lose muscle!)
Most people come to me with very little experience on how to effectively balance weight training, eating correctly, and cardio / aerobic workouts. My job is to help them establish a foundation to build upon and hopefully stay committed to for the rest of their lives. I always start beginners on a full body strength training program involving higher repetitions and low weights. This strategy is designed to strengthen and condition joints, ligaments and tendons and to prepare the client for more aggressive, higher intensity workouts. These beginner full body workouts, performed every other day, three days each week are also designed to teach clients proper repetition speed, exercise form and breathing. With intermediate clients, I usually start with a slightly more advanced full body workout, still focusing on correct form and rep speed as well as proper breathing.
After four to six weeks on a full body routine, I will usually transition people into a two or three day split (workout) where they train different muscle groups each workout. This workout uses lower volume (sets and / or reps) and higher intensity (heavier weight and / or slower lifting speed) compared to the beginner workout. Based on the individual, they will complete 2 to 4 strength training workouts each week as beginner / early intermediate trainee. I carefully gauge progress based on body composition readings, strength gains / losses, energy levels, illnesses, motivation level, as well as other factors.
If a person is competing in a physique transformation contest, I try to help him / her to focus on the contest as an entry step to a fitness lifestyle, not as the only way to train, now and forever. As a beginner sees progress with a particular exercise program, I am a firm believer in not messing with success. If a program is working, monitor progress and stick with it. Once it stops producing results, try different strategies to see if you can get progress moving again. Remember, this is mainly for beginners. For those closer to their genetic potential, progress inevitably slows down, requiring more patience with how fast they improve.
Warming up prior to a strength training workout is an area that is too often neglected. Warming up prepares your cardio-respiratory system, muscles and joints for activity. Some people choose to use stretching as their warm-up activity, but I prefer to keep stretching routines separate from warm-up activities. I do encourage people to stretch their hamstrings (back of thigh) and lower back prior to strength training, and I include warm- up sets into most all of the strength training programs as the first set or lifting movement for a specific body part. Research demonstrates that if you stretch excessively before strength training, your muscles will be weaker. The key word here is excessively. If you have body parts that are sore or tight, you will want to be very certain that they are warmed up sufficiently which may require some stretching prior to strength training.
As a matter of routine, develop the habit of spending about 3 – 5 minutes doing light cardio / aerobic work, then move into a couple of minutes of stretching the lower back and hamstrings prior to beginning a strength training session. If you have tight body parts or sore spots, gently stretch those areas until they feel like they are loosening up and / or signaling less pain. Don’t turn your warm-up into a full fledged cardio / aerobic workout unless you want to do your cardio prior to your strength training workout. Once you begin your workout, be sure to complete warm-up sets prior to the specific muscle (or muscle group) about to be worked.
No matter what your age or what you do physically, from the time you get up to the time you go to bed, you should try to periodically get in some form of stretching / flexibility movements. It doesn’t have to be laborious or extremely time consuming. I suggest that people complete the equivalent of 2 to 4 whole body stretching sessions per week. I say equivalent because you can take spare moments during your day (waiting to cross the street, talking on the phone, waiting in line, getting up briefly from your desk, etc.) to stretch rather than have a designated stretching routine done all at once.
When you stretch, the movements should lengthen muscles towards a point of extension that is functional and safe. Stretching helps to maintain maximum range of motion in all the joints of the body. Bending down to pick objects from the floor, putting on socks, tying shoelaces, itching our backs – all of these movements require some level of ability to move through a range of motion for the joints and limbs effected.
If your goal is to work on building muscle mass, toning or defining, it is best to keep your cardio / aerobic training separate from, or after your strength training workouts. If you complete your cardio / aerobic training immediately before you strength train, you will be weaker going into your strength training session due to having depleted muscle glycogen. If your goal is to improve in endurance activities such as running or cycling, it may be best to do cardio before strength training. Prioritize your workouts around your primary goal/s.
As far as cardio / aerobic programming goes, many people still fall for the “more is better” strategy, putting in long, low intensity sessions in hopes of burning body fat and losing weight. If this has been your training strategy, the results you experience should speak for themselves. It is my guess that your results following the “more is better” routine have been minimal or short lived. Don’t blindly stick with a program out of loyalty if it isn’t getting you the results you want. If a particular training strategy is effective, the results should prove it. If not, change it (training strategy) into a better way.
For optimum fat loss, cardio / aerobic workouts should occur within 30 minutes after wake-up, on an empty stomach. You may also want to wait up to 1 hour after your morning (cardio) workout before eating to maximize fat loss / burn. If you have any blood-sugar issues like diabetes, or any other pre-existing medical conditions, do not apply these strategies without first consulting a doctor. Also, don’t forget that IF YOU EXPERIENCE ANY DIZZINESS, CHEST PAIN, NAUSEA OR SHORTNESS OF BREATH, DISCONTINUE EXERCISE IMMEDIATELY.
Learn the formulas for establishing your heart rate training zone based on your goals and current fitness level. I define a beginner as one who hasn’t been participating in a cardio / aerobic program at all, or has been averaging less than 3 cardio / aerobic workouts per week. I define intermediate as one who has been participating in a cardio / aerobic program for an average of at least 3 times per week, for at least 30 minutes per session for at least six weeks with no problems or complications.
I start beginners with three cardio sessions per week, beginning with 10 – 12 minutes and gradually working up to 40 minutes per session. When they are getting close to the 40 minute session length, I begin to increase intensity for the cardio workouts as their current level of fitness allows. Intermediate to advanced trainees are able to progress to the 40 minute mark and achieve a higher level of intensity much more quickly. Once a person is able to comfortably complete 40 minute sessions at about 70 – 85% of their maximum heart rate, I transition them into doing interval training. Interval training is a way to exercise that increases your body’s tendencies to burn fat.
Research shows that interval training sessions are more effective at burning fat than either high or low intensity aerobic exercise. Interval training can be very challenging, and FUN! Not only does it challenge you physically but also mentally. Basically, to do interval training workouts you start with a 3 to 5 minute warm-up. The warm-up is followed by a high intensity dash or burst of speed for a short duration (around 30 seconds). The time and intensity of this “dash” will gradually increase as the weeks go by. This burst of speed is called the high intensity interval. Once you have completed the high intensity interval, you bring your speed and intensity way down so you can “recover”. This is your low intensity interval (around 90 seconds). One high intensity interval followed by one low intensity interval makes up one cycle. During an interval training workout, you repeat the cycles of high intensity – low intensity until you’ve done the recommended number of cycles (7 to 9 cycles). You finish with a 3 to 5 minute cool-down and you’re done.
When I do interval training sessions, I like using a treadmill or an elliptical glider, but you can use about any physical activity you want. If you use a piece of stationary cardio equipment (stationary bike, treadmill, elliptical glider, cross country ski machine, stepper, stepper/climber, rowing machine, etc) it will be fairly easy to run a stop watch and time the high and low intervals. If you choose to walk, jog, run or sprint, you can also include hills or stairs. Long hills or stairs are very useful for going up when you are doing the high intensity interval part of the interval training cycle and then turning around and going down for the low intensity interval part of the interval training cycle.
I would strongly advise you against running or sprinting if you are just beginning to do interval training; especially if you are overweight. This can really injure or compound any existing conditions with your knees, ankles, or back. A heart rate monitor is useful for checking out your level of intensity, but as you get into interval training, you may be less inclined to use a heart rate monitor and more inclined to go by your perceived level of exertion or by “the feel” of the intensity.
Intense interval training should only be done if you have already established a good cardio fitness level. As a general guideline, this would include having already completed a minimum of four weeks of training that included at least 3 cardio / aerobic sessions per week and a minimum of 30 minutes per session at 70 – 85% of your maximum heart rate. Be aware that the risk for injury while doing interval training is higher than with less intense cardio / aerobic exercise due to the increased levels of intensity and movement.
I would like to again stress that interval training should be gradually incorporated into your training program. This includes progressively increasing the number and length of the intervals as your fitness level improves. Be sure to always warm-up and cool down for 3 – 5 minutes before and after completing interval workouts. If you choose to complete six to eight weeks of consistent interval training, follow that time with one to two weeks of non-interval training cardio workouts to allow for recovery.
Whether your goal is to lose weight or gain weight, strength training is definitely where it’s at! Knowing that for each pound of muscle you gain, you burn 30 – 60 more calories per day, this should make it apparent that putting on muscle is important for anyone who needs to lose weight (and keep it off). I have outlined a few basic principles that I believe are foundational for getting the most out of a strength training program, especially if you are pursuing a physical transformation
Be consistent! If you want to see changes, you’ve got to work! When you are ready to start a routine, commit to it. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted or discouraged – no matter what. One of the biggest roadblocks to making maximum progress is skipping workouts or wasting time and effort during workouts. How bad do you want a new physique? It all comes down to your desire and commitment to become the “best you” you can be. People will often justify missing one workout, thinking it’s a well deserved break, or that “missing just one won’t hurt”. The problem with a missed workout is that it makes it that much easier to miss another, then another, then …
Limit your actual strength training workout time to 45 – 90 minutes. The body’s natural growth hormone release is working to your advantage within the first hour of hard training. After that, your body needs to recover. You can end up taxing your body’s recovery cycle if you continue working out too far beyond the “growth hormone release” window.
Practice good exercise form and speed. Your exercise movements should be smooth and deliberate, not jerky and fast. Don’t throw the weight around. Take about 3 to 6 seconds for each repetition, unless the training methodology specifies otherwise. Try not to rest longer than 30 to 60 seconds between sets (unless otherwise specified). This will keep your workout moving along and will optimize your body’s response to build muscle. Don’t neglect warm-up sets to warm up the muscle group before you start the work sets. If you are just starting out and this is the first time you have lifted weights, or if you haven’t been exercising regularly, the first weight lifting program should be geared towards establishing a good, whole-body base. The first four to six weeks should be geared at building joint, ligament, and tendon strength, and flexibility. I believe this is crucial for building muscle strength and quality.
For beginners or people returning from a layoff, I believe it is best to complete a full body strength training routine three times per week for at least the first month. Proper form on all exercises can’t be stressed enough. Most injuries are the result of improper form, speed, or overexertion / overtraining. Be sure to take a deliberate pause at both the top and bottom of each repetition and don’t hold your breath throughout the entire exercise. Inhale as you lower the weight, exhale as you raise the weight. Exhale at the point of exertion in all lifting movements.
Know your equipment. Review descriptions for all the exercises in upcoming workouts. I encourage you to seek out proper instruction from a knowledgeable trainer or staff member, especially if you are new to strength training or unfamiliar with the machines / equipment / exercises you are going to use. Just recently, many changes have occurred in equipment design (and machine movements) requiring users to take the time to get familiar with the operation of the machine before using it. In order to minimize injury, be sure that you fully understand how to use any machine or piece of training equipment before you use it. Be sure that you know how to adjust machines to fit your size, where your hands and fingers should never go, and safety tips specific to the machine/s you are using.
Use weights that you can handle for the suggested number of reps and sets. It is sometimes hard to resist the urge to load up a dumbbell or barbell with heavier weights only to become frustrated in the first few reps, or to get so tired that you can’t finish the total sets / reps outlined in a workout. If you find that you are unable to complete the listed number of sets or reps, reduce the weight to a manageable poundage. There will be plenty of time for increasing weight when you begin to grow stronger and more muscular.
Be sure to “feel” the muscles that are being worked during each exercise. As you progress into more advanced workouts, there will come a time when you will want to increase the intensity or volume of your workout. I would recommend that you don’t start to do this until at least 4 weeks into your program. Some of the ways to change the volume / intensity of a workout include: changing the resistance / poundage lifted, changing the number of repetitions, changing the time it takes to complete the workout, change the recovery / rest periods between repetitions, sets, exercises, and workouts, change the types of exercises, and change the order of exercise performance.
Be sure to observe safety at all times! Weight lifting is a safe activity as long as you keep your head in it. Be sure that the weights are securely clamped to dumbbells and barbells by collars or other securing mechanisms. Having a plate fall off a bar to break your nose or take out some teeth is no fun.
Get enough rest. Remember the majority of muscle growth occurs when you are resting. When you work out you tear the muscle down. After workouts your body builds the muscle back up, stronger and bigger than what it was before. Try getting 8 hours of sleep each night for a two week period. How do you feel during the day? Do you wake up feeling refreshed and rested? After doing this, try getting 9 hours of sleep each night for a two week period. Again gauge how you are feeling during the day and in the morning when you wake up. After trying both 8 and 9 hours of sleep, try going two weeks with 7 hours of sleep each night. Again gauge how you are feeling. After these three “tests”, pick the amount of sleep time that left you feeling the best
If you are sick, don’t work out. Your body needs the rest to recover without the added strain of heavy exertion. Remember that stress and other influences (good / bad diet, illness, etc.) can also have an effect on how you’re feeling, but this simple test will help you get an idea of what the optimum amount of sleep may be for you. Too many people will commit to a great exercise and nutrition program while getting too little sleep. This shortfall in sleep can keep them from benefiting or making any gains in putting on muscle. Too much sleep can also slow down your body’s ability to burn body fat.
For beginner to early intermediate trainees, strength training / weight lifting workouts should be conducted so that a particular body part has at least 48 hours of rest before you work it again. Remember that there is minimal to no amount of muscle growth that occurs during exercise. The majority of muscle growth occurs during the recovery / recuperation periods between workouts. Not only that, but if you fail to get enough rest and recovery between workouts, you may find yourself feeling tired and run down, getting sick (weakened immune system), or experiencing a higher incidence of injuries. Don’t take the chance. Be sure to get enough rest and recovery.
If a muscle is still sore from the last workout, you can stretch out that muscle and complete your pre-workout warm-up. If the soreness is minimal, go ahead and work out. If it is still moderately sore, I would suggest that you still work out, but reduce the weight that you are using. If the soreness is very intense, (7 – 10 on a scale of 1 – 10) don’t work out and take another day of rest.
Avoid illegal drugs, but read up on breakthrough (healthy) supplements.
Don’t forget to drink lots of water throughout the day to keep your system hydrated and to help rid the body of toxins and impurities. Try drinking at least .5 times your scale weight in fluid ounces of plain water each day.
BE PREPARED! If you are starting a new workout for the week, sit down and plan your workout sheet before you get in the gym. Figure out what weights you will be using. If it’s an exercise you haven’t done before, or that you’re not sure of the amount of weight to use, take a conservative guess. When you perform that exercise, you can adjust the weight after your first set. Study the exercises, and get a clear picture in your head of what that particular workout is going to entail.
If the workout involves a machine or piece of exercise equipment you are unfamiliar with, be sure you are familiar with its operation before you use it. In the spirit of being prepared, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The types of exercises you choose for your workouts will depend on many factors. Your goals, frequency of workouts, where you train, what equipment you have access to, whether you train alone or with a partner, and preexisting injuries or illnesses, are some of the factors to consider before you start.
This special report barely scratches the surface of strength training and exercise. It is meant to give the reader some general information to safely and effectively apply towards whatever exercise program they are or will be using. As you advance in your level of fitness, you will want to consider making modifications to your strength training routines that are more involved and require careful planning.
For those of you who are planning to start a contest, you should have your eating plans ready, your cardio / aerobic workout ready, your strength training program ready, and your first body composition results recorded no later than your declared start date. The first two weeks can be hectic because everything is so new. Focusing on eating from a list requires learning and adjustments, and you wonder if you’ll ever start seeing results. But by week four habits begin to set in, and things really begin to happen! So, with no further ado, plan, get scheduled – get working!