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Fitter, faster, stronger, leaner

Patrick Dale explains how to go from your current physical performance levels to dizzying new heights by making logical progressions in your workouts

It is Monday, so it must be chest day - 5 sets of bench press, 3 sets of dumbbell flies, 2 sets of dips and a couple of sets of press ups to finish the workout - same workout as last week, and the week before, using the same weights you always use and the same repetition scheme. Or is it a cardio day? Run 3 miles in 30 minutes, just like last week and the week before. Or is it Body Pump class today? Same work out as always, same weights, same exercises, same duration? You do not even know what you did in last week's workouts? Do you go to the gym and do whatever your training partner suggests or just do what you feel like doing (The Weider Instinctive Principle!!!)

If any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, you are not alone. Look around the majority of gyms and health clubs and you will see vast numbers of people doing the same training, week in and week out. When they look in the mirror they see the same old reflection staring right back them - their physiques or figures have not changed in ages, their fitness improvements have stalled, and they have the same strength today as they did this time last year.

There is an old saying in exercise - "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got".

When they started their current workout routine what they were doing will have worked. It provided overload and sufficient training stimulus to force their bodies to adapt, to change, to improve. The thing is the human body is lazy! Once it can comfortably perform the activities it is being asked to do, it ceases making adaptations and we stop getting the benefits we seek from exercise. If we do not try to progress our workouts, the very most we can expect is to maintain our current physical condition and the worst-case scenario is that we actually lose fitness as our body becomes ultra-efficient at the exercises we perform which in turn lowers the training effect of our training sessions. It takes the body 3-6 weeks to adapt to a stressor like an exercise. After that, it takes a new stressor to keep the body adapting and improving.

People stay with the same exercise regime for a number of reasons - partly physical and partly psychological. Examine this list and see if any of the points relate to you and your current workout situation:

  • You are good at all the exercises and do not want to be seen doing things you are not good at
  • The programme you are on was written by an expert, so it must work
  • Your current programme worked initially so it will work again if you stick with it long enough
  • You only know a handful of exercises and have limited knowledge of programme design
  • You are comfortable with your routine and are reluctant to change it

Whatever your reason for not changing your routine I cannot stress enough that unless you do something different from time to time you are doomed to little or no progress!!! You are wasting your time in the gym! So, if you want to get fitter, faster, stronger or leaner we have to force our bodies to adapt and improve - and that means we have to shake up our workouts on a regular basis.

I am often asked, "does exercise ever get any easier?" The answer is a resounding "NO" To see progress in our fitness levels, there needs to be a consistent trend of increased workload/work rate. Exercise is not easier the fitter we get - we just develop a greater work capacity.

In the rest of this article, I want to tell you about the "training variables" you can use to keep your workouts fresh, interesting and above all productive and discuss the importance of keeping records to help us on the road to improved performance and appearance. So, grab your shovel because we have a rut to dig ourselves out of!

Progression - the key to long-term progress.

Making progress in our workouts requires the manipulation of the "training variables" - the characteristics of our workouts. By making changes to one or more of the training variables on a regular basis we can keep making steady progress towards our genetic potential for physical fitness. Let us look at each of the training variables in turn:

Resistance Training Variables - things we can change about the way we train with weights.

  1. Number of exercises per muscle group - can be increased or decreased
  2. Number of sets per exercise and per workout - can be increased or decreased
  3. Target repetition range - higher reps/low weight = more muscular endurance specific, lower reps/greater weight = more strength specific
  4. Loading - increasing the weight used for each exercise to develop greater strength
  5. Recovery period between sets - can be lowered to increase workout density (more sets possible per workout) or to challenge recovery ability
  6. Workout frequency - train more often
  7. Workout duration - train for longer
  8. Movement speed - can be increased to promote power development or decreased to extend the duration of a given exercise (referred to as Time Under Tension or TUT)
  9. Different exercises - e.g. trading barbell bench press with dumbbell bench press
  10. Stable based exercises to unstable - e.g. from machine-based exercises to free weight exercises to challenge coordination and balance
  11. Simple exercises to more complex ones - e.g. from single joint exercises to multi-joint exercises
  12. Exercise order - change the order of exercises performed in the session and training week
  13. Training systems - employ drop sets, super sets, forced reps, pre/post exhaust etc
  14. Split routines - split body parts up differently on a regular basis e.g. legs on Monday and not chest

Changing any one of the above variables will result in a new stimulus which our bodies will have to adapt to resulting in improvements in fitness. With so many variables to choose from some restraint needs to be exercised so as not to change too much at the same time. Rather than randomly shaking our workouts up, we want to employ a couple of the exercise variables for a period of 3-6 weeks and then, once we have adapted to the new stresses of our modified workout, make use of a couple more of the variables thereafter. For example, for 3 weeks focus on increasing the amount of weight used in each exercise, then for a further 3 weeks try to perform more reps with the weight constant, and then reduce the rest intervals gradually over the next 3 weeks and so on. By making small but significant changes on a regular basis we guarantee continued improvements in our fitness levels - up to our genetic potential.

Aerobic Training Variables - things we can change about the way we do our cardio

As with resistance training, there are a number of things we can do to make our cardiovascular exercise more productive and therefore improve our aerobic fitness to new higher levels. By implementing the following, we can make sure that the dreaded plateau is a thing of the past.

  1. Frequency - exercise more often
  2. Intensity - work at a higher percentage of maximum Heart rate
  3. Duration - exercise for longer periods of time/cover greater distances
  4. Speed - run/cycle/swim/step/row at a faster rate
  5. Intervals - employ interval training in place of steady state cardio *
  6. Terrain - run/walk/cycle on different surfaces
  7. Hill work - purposely seek out hillier routes to walk, cycle or run
  8. Modality - select different aerobic training methods e.g. run instead of swim
  9. Add resistance - use weighted vests, ankle weights or backpacks
  10. Employ an aerobic training method - e.g. fartlek, FCR or LSD **

*Interval training - periods of high-intensity work interspaced with periods of low-intensity recoveries e.g. run hard for 60 seconds, jog for 120 seconds and repeat

**Fartlek - mixed speeds within a training session performed randomly, FCR - Fast Continuous Running - aerobic exercise performed at high levels of intensity for shorter periods of time, LCD - Long Slow Distance - Continuous aerobic exercise performed at a comfortable pace for extended periods of time

As with our resistance training variables, it is a good idea to focus on one or two of the above options for a few weeks before selecting other variables from the list. Trying to make too many changes at once is likely to be too dramatic a change and result in exhaustion and injury. It is also worth bearing in mind that it is recommended that increases in duration/distance per workout and per training week be limited to 10%. In other words, if your current longest run is 3 miles, do not increase your mileage up to 4 miles overnight but increase the distance to be around 400 - 500 metres to avoid potential overuse injuries.

"If we are going to succeed, we need to plan for success" & "Failing to plan is planning to fail"

Improvements in physical fitness do not happen by accident. They are a direct result of the application of consistent and sustained effort, good eating habits and appropriate rest. If we have no real plan, we have much less chance of making the progress we are looking for.

When thinking about exercise, it is necessary to think long term - not just tomorrow, next week or next month, but next year and the year after. How are you going to take your current level of exercise and fitness on from the here-and-now to your ultimate fitness goal? The answer is to plan.

They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but if those initial steps are in the wrong direction then we will never get to our destination. It is necessary to "reverse engineer" our journey from where we want to be to where we are now, so we can plot our route to ultimate success.

So - a few questions - write down the answers:

  1. What is your ultimate fitness goal? (lose fat, run a marathon, make it to the 1st team etc)
  2. Where are you currently in relation to your ultimate fitness goal? (score out of 10)
  3. How committed are you to achieving your goal? (score out of 10)
  4. How much time can you dedicate to your goal? (list the hours per week)
  5. What are the possible barriers you might encounter during your quest for success? (make a list)
  6. How can you remove those barriers? (write down solutions to the above list)
  7. What/who are your allies in reaching your goal? (Who can help you?)

Once you have answers for the above questions, you are well on your way to planning a way forward to your goal.

Next - we need to break down the ultimate fitness goal into smaller bite-sized chunks. Our ultimate goal is a long-term goal - months or years away. That is a very long time to remain motivated. To help keep us focused on the prize, it is worth breaking our main goal down into several sub-goals which are more readily achievable.

To give you an example - let us say your goal is to run a marathon (26 miles) but currently your longest run is 6 miles. That means you have to run a whole 20 miles further to reach your goal. For many people, that might seem like a daunting if not impossible task! Instead, let us break that ultimate goal down into more manageable chunks.

  • 1st subgoal - run 10 miles
  • 2nd subgoal - run a half marathon (13 miles)
  • 3rd subgoal - run 17 miles
  • 4th subgoal - run 21 miles
  • Ultimate goal - run a marathon

By breaking down our ultimate goal into smaller bite-sized chunks, we will experience numerous minor successes on the way to a realisation of our end goal. This promotes adherence, maintains enthusiasm and improves our success potential dramatically.

Think SMARTER!

Once you have decided upon your goals, apply the acronym SMARTER to them.

SMARTER stands for:

  • Specific - put a numerical value to what you are trying to achieve
  • Measurable - make sure you can prove success by hitting numerical targets e.g. body fat %
  • Achievable - is your goal feasible? Do you have the necessary resources to allow success?
  • Realistic - can it be done in the time available? Are there any barriers to overcome?
  • Time-bound - set a deadline when you expect to achieve success
  • Enjoyable - if it is not you are less likely to stick to it
  • Recorded - write it all down, tell your friends, make your goals public property! It makes it much harder to drop out if you know people are interested in your progress!

By applying SMARTER to the goals, we set for ourselves we improve the likelihood of succeeding massively.

Training Diaries - No more wasted workouts!

I am an absolute believer in the power of a training diary. I have kept training diaries for my entire exercising life and rely on them constantly to help me plan my next phase of training. A training diary will provide you with numerical evidence of previous workouts performed, allow you to track improvements, see what has worked well for you and what has been less successful, show consistency and highlight lapses as well as improving focus as you record your performance from workout to workout.

By making use of a training diary, you will never go into the gym and be saying to yourself "Now, what shall I do today?" Every workout will be productive and specific to your goals.

Personally, I use A5 sized ring bound notebooks as training diaries although I know you can buy fancy programmes for your computer. Alternatively, if you are so inclined, you could even design excel spreadsheets. Regardless of what method you choose, keeping a training diary is one of the most useful tools we have available to keep ourselves motivated and focused.

By utilizing the information in your training diary, you can plan your next workout based on how your previous workout went. Make a note of which exercises you performed, which exercises which need increased resistance, reps achieved with a given resistance, number of sets performed, rest intervals used, settings on cardio machines, durations and heart rates of CV exercise, the total duration of each workout, how you felt etc. By having all this information to hand, we can use the training variables discussed earlier to push ourselves onwards and upwards towards out ultimate fitness goals.

So, the take-home points for continued exercise progress are:

  1. Whatever you are doing now, you need to change in the near future
  2. Manipulate the training variables regularly to promote progression
  3. Set goals and work towards them
  4. Make long-term plans for success
  5. Keep a training diary to measure your success and keep you focused

By following these 5 guidelines, your ultimate fitness goal is not just a dream, but a reality well within your grasp!


Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • DALE, P. (2007) Fitter, faster, stronger, leaner. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 46/ October), p. 1-3

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • DALE, P. (2007) Fitter, faster, stronger, leaner [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/scni46a1.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Patrick Dale has 15 years of fitness industry experience. He has a wide and varied sporting history, having participated at a high level in athletics, rugby, rock climbing, trampolining, triathlon, weightlifting and bodybuilding.

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