If you google “most important principles of exercise” you will find hundreds of different principles that trainers, coaches and doctors think are best. I agree with most of them because most of them have been around much longer than I have been even alive and from personal experience, they really are valid. I wanted to make my own personalized list though, with the principles of exercise in order of “most important” to “still pretty damn important,” so when you are thinking of your next workout plan you find online you have ideas to fall back on. Remember, any exercise program you do consistently and with effort will most likely give you results. Finding what is ideal for YOU though, will take months and even years of tweaking. Fitness is NOT like a book, you don’t just read it and put it down. It is not just one 12 week online program that gets you in shape and you move on. Fitness is a lifelong pursuit of getting stronger and healthier.
Here are my first 4 Principles of Exercise:
- Progressive overload. This is the idea that each week you should be progressively adding more “work” or “volume” to your workouts. This could be adding 5lb to the barbell. Adding another set of 10 to your pushups. Adding another half mile to your jog. Adding “pause” reps to your squats if you don’t want to increase the weight you are lifting. Your body adapts fast to exercise…very fast. You must be constantly progressing your workouts to continue seeing gains in strength and endurance. I like to use the word “work capacity” with clients. I often hear “when will this ever be easy??” My response is always “look back to 6 months ago and the amount of WORK you are doing now is 10x more. If I had you do a workout from 6 months ago it would feel ‘easy’…” This client’s “work capacity” or the ability to do a certain amount of work in an hour workout with me (or on their own) is drastically improved. That is progress! Next time you are at the gym look around and see if you notice that guy lifting the same 20lb dumbbells he has been lifting for a year. Or that lady who is at the same speed on the treadmill as the previous 6 months. Or that dude doing the same HIIT circuit he has done for the past 6 weeks. Usually…not always…but usually you could probably say that those individuals aren’t the “most in shape” people at the gym. Now try to spot the people who seem to have a plan, who are recording their workouts in a notebook, who are always adding weight to the bar or going up a notch in incline on the treadmill. Usually…not always…but usually those are the people who are in the best shape at the gym. There is a reason for that. And that leads me to my next principle….
- Record your workouts and measure your progress. I have every lifting workout I have completed (well like 95% of them) saved on a flash drive going back 4 years. Now, I don’t look that far back to compare progress very often, but it is pretty cool to look back 6-12 months to see how much more “work” I am doing or how much more I can lift on certain exercises. But, recording your workouts in the shorter term (think 4-12 weeks) is so crucial so you know how to progress lifts or runs (yes if you run you should progress your speed and mileage too) each week. If you don’t know how much you squatted or for how many reps last week, how the hell can you progress this week?? If you cant remember your pace on a speed workout last week how can you run faster this week?? Maybe I am just really Type A (OK I am very Type A), but if you aren’t recording your workouts and week to week changes you will never see much longterm progress. Just as you should be recording your caloric intake in a food diary if you want to lose weight, you must be recording your gym sessions. Plus it is always a confidence booster when I show clients that 16 months ago they deadlifted 95lb and now they can pull 185lb off the ground Keep it really simple in a notebook or in an excel spreadsheet with 5 columns: Day, Exercise, Sets/Reps, Weight, Rest. So, what you might be thinking is “well I cant add weight to the bar or get faster for ever, eventually I will plateau!” And you are right. There is a genetic ceiling for everyone, but how can you ever find that if you aren’t progressing a bit each week and recording everything you are doing in the gym?? And when you hit that plateau, it is time to find a different goal or be happy maintaining where you are at…there is nothing wrong with maintaining. And if you don’t want to bother with recording your workouts…well I mean a coach or trainer shouldn’t mind doing all that work for you….
- Nutrition. You knew this would sneak in here. This could actually be the most important principle of exercise quality, but I will put it third. “You can’t out train a bad diet.” A cliche, yes. But, it is a true statement. Another true statement is that “if your nutrition sucks your workout quality will also suck.” I have used me as an example before so I will again because I know first hand how this feels. My sophomore year of college is when I started taking my nutrition more seriously because I wanted to run faster, but also just didn’t want to feel like shit in hard workouts. I started drinking more water, started eating a bit “cleaner” with veggies and less pizza. I did end up running faster, but not feeling like I couldn’t finish workouts anymore was awesome too. If you hate exercise because you always feel like puking during your workouts, it could be because you’re not matching your nutrition to your new exercise intensity. You have to fuel your body properly (with the right amount and types of food) to be able to perform efficiently and comfortably in workouts. Trust me, feeling sick to your stomach is a good reason to quit exercising…and we don’t want to quit exercising obviously. And maybe you ‘think’ you have good workout quality while eating greasy burgers every day. Try eating cleaner for a few weeks and then tell me what felt better in the gym. Taking care of your body in the kitchen is a MUST if you want better and more quality workouts.
- Recovery. “You can only train as hard as you recover. ” Pretty accurate statement I heard recently. I love it. If you do 60 minute gym sessions that leave you wobbling out to your car, then go out til 1am every night after 6 or 8 drinks how is your sleep going to be? Well, probably not very good. Your body recovers from your gym sessions while sleeping and if your sleep ain’t any good your body can never truly recover and build from all the workouts you are doing in the gym. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work out if you have a busy night life, because you honestly probably need the exercise to balance out those drinks and late night drunk food more than anyone. BUT, finding that balance between exercise intensity and exercise volume and recovery is, in my opinion, the most difficult part of a quality exercise program. I mean you can obviously go the gym hungover and get a workout in, but that workout quality probably won’t be very good. At that point was it better to just rest and let your body recover from your workout the previous day? I don’t know, it depends on your body and what you think you can handle. Recovery takes A LOT of self awareness and it takes time to figure out what is too much for you and when you can push it harder in the gym because your sleep has been good. I am still learning myself. But, I can say that when I am getting 7ish hours of sleep per night I am much less sore and have more energy going into workouts then when I have 6 or less hours of sleep. Workout quality should always be of utmost importance when going to the gym for a lifting session or going out for a run. Working out just to workout, over and over and over, while not listening to your body is a recipe for over training and injury. Or at least shitty quality workouts that leave you frustrated with lack of results and you eventually giving up. Honestly, I really struggle with this recovery thing as well; I am always wondering “If wasn’t sore from two days ago could I have finished that set?”. I am very meticulous (obsessive actually) with how I structure my workouts and my clients’ workouts so my clients and I can have a QUALITY workout as often as possible. Going into the gym fatigued, sore, frustrated, broken down physically and mentally is not fun and I don’t recommend it. If you feel that way right now, you should take a day or two off first of all. Second of all, evaluate your sleep and if you don’t see yourself getting more than 5 hours of sleep I would recommend cutting your workout time down from 60 to 30 minutes per day. If you are sleeping 6-8 hours a night, maybe you are just doing too much in the gym for what your body can handle. I will get pushback on that sometimes from clients who always want to go “hard,” but sometimes “less is better.” It is a lesson that takes time to learn.
Nahla always looks sad on Mondays….
Exercise Principles #5-8 coming in the next post….