You’ve probably heard the term ‘muscle confusion’ tossed around by trainers. Some trainers are of the school of thought that routine is the enemy and that producing ‘muscle confusion’ through keeping workouts random is the way to go.
The problem here is that these trainers are full of shit.
Muscle confusion is a meathead term; random workouts produce random results. It’s kind of like taking your money to Vegas and then trying to rob the casino. You will end up with two broken legs and a sore back because your plan didn’t make any sense.
Now, I will say that you DO have to change your workout program. Keeping to one program works, but it will only work for about 6 weeks. Having a strict routine doesn’t work for most people who have a life. Keeping things random MIGHT work for a little while, but there is no way to measure your progress effectively because it’s all random. And what will your long-term plan look like?
To get results and prevent injury, workouts should be thought of as part of a whole program rather than a bunch of random activities strung together with a cavalier attitude.
Most educated trainers will preach the benefits of a periodized program consisting of cycles. These cycles are designed to create specific adaptions to the stimulus and they have planned de-loading phases and recovery phases tailored to facilitate your goals whether that be toning, muscle building, fat loss, or strength and conditioning gains.
A general program can be broken down into 3 cycles:
1. Macro-cycle (pre-season, competition, post season, and transition periods between)
2. Meso-cycle (2-6 week training block focused on specific adaptions to occur during this 2-6 week period.)
3. Microcycle (1 week training blocks focused on specific set and rep ranges depending on the meso-cycle). Each Microcycle would contain 3-7 specific workouts based around the goal you wanted to accomplish.
The problem with this is most people who are working out in a gym are not professional athletes and can’t always stick to a program 100% of the time.
Pro athletes get paid based on performance and have every workout scheduled for them in advance. But most of us live in the real world and find that our programs can get disrupted: Our kids gets sick, extracurricular activities have already tired us out, or we’ve gotten a small injury that sets us back.
The point is shit always comes up, and we can’t just follow a strictly planned program perfectly.
So, how do you develop a program that will WORK and works with your busy schedule?
Simple! Just follow these principles I outline here to create a flexible program that will still produce results.
1. Make strength training a priority.
The most important thing to help prevent plateauing is to focus on strength training.
Think of how strong you are now as the base of a pyramid or the foundation of a house. The stronger the foundation, the stronger you can build your house and the more stuff you can put into it. A stronger base will allow you to perform more work through the other layers.
Interval training is important as well. Interval training can speed up the fat loss process by increasing excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). But the stronger you are, the harder/more work you will be able to perform during interval work.
Aerobic work is less important if you are trying to build muscle/burn body fat/tone. Strength training should take precedent over other activities and anaerobic intervals should take precedent over aerobic activities.
Nutrition and lifestyle will still be the largest factors but these can also be influenced by your workouts. For example, heavy strength training can help create a more optimal hormone level to promote fat loss and indirectly lead to different nutritional choices.
Focus on building yourself up so you can perform more activities. Long, slow cardio sessions burn fat but they also burn muscle (think skinny but flabby), slow your metabolism so you can’t enjoy as much food without increasing body fat, and make you more hungry.
Focusing on strength training and building muscle gives you a bigger furnace to burn more fuel (calories). High intensity workouts (in the form of heavy loads or high tempo) will increase your EPOC so you are able to burn more calories even after you finish the workout. Strength training (along with proper nutrition) creates the optimal hormone balance for fat loss.
2. Make recovery a priority.
Your body makes progress in the response created by a stimulus and the recovery period that takes place after.
If you are always working as hard as you can and not letting your body recover, you will not only be slowing or preventing your own results you could injure yourself, which puts you even further from achieving your goals.
The volume and intensity of a workout will dictate the amount of stress put upon your body. This means with each increase in volume or intensity, we also need to increase the time we spend doing recovery work.
With any type of weight loss or performance enhancement program there is a Stress-Recover-Adapt protocol. You will put your body under an increased amount of stress (workout), then recover, then adapt and challenge your body in a new or harder way. This is how progress is made.
3. Focus on the intensity of workouts and manipulate the volume.
Intensity refers to how hard you are working or how heavy the load is that you are working with as compared to your 1-rep max and how many reps are performed.
What is a 1-rep max?
If you are doing reps of 1, it would be 100% as heavy as you can go, 5 reps would be around 80%. You want to match the load to the rep range. If you do 5 reps at a certain weight but could really do 10, it’s not the same intensity level as your 1-rep max and you want to up the weight. Heavier weight and fewer reps implies higher intensity.
Intensity is very individualized. Several factors will affect the intensity of a certain workout.
What is your starting level? Couch potato or former Super Bowl MVP? What is your experience with the subject matter you are dealing with?
If you are a runner, you may be very fit but not experienced with strength training. Even seasoned lifters will have a learning curve with nontraditional techniques, such as sandbag training or kettle bells, and therefore, not get as intense of a workout as someone more experienced.
The intensity you put into the workout is the aspect that will give you the most bang for your buck, from a results standpoint. No matter what results you are seeking. It has been proven time and time again that better results are achieved (and in less time) from shorter, intense bouts of exercise with appropriate recovery after as compared to longer training sessions. The efficiency of a workout will decrease if it is much longer than 45 minutes.
Volume refers to the workload you are putting yourself through during any specific workout or any given workout program. The longer the workout and less rest you take (more sets and reps), the more time your muscles will be under tension, and therefore, they are working longer.
When we talk about training volume, we want to think in terms of the volume or workload we put on our bodies during each workout and collectively over each cycle. The amount of volume you put into each workout as well as a collective cycle will have a huge impact on reaching your goal.
We want to slowly build on intensity first and then add volume. At first, you are going to step up the intensity of the workout. Once you are able to perform the lift well, you will add volume, e.g., more sets/reps/load. We will also build in de-loading phases and recovery to allow for adaptions to occur.
A beginner, or any seasoned athlete who has taken some time off, should start with moderate intensity and low volume. As your fitness level becomes more advanced, you will want to increase intensity and also increase the time spent in recovering from the intense sessions. Volume will increase exponentially during the course of your fitness journey as a natural result of demand for increased intensity as you adapt to exercise.
Avoid long, high-volume sessions in the beginning. If you become adapted to high-volume workouts too quickly, you will have to keep increasing to get continued results. At some point you will run out of time, energy, willpower, or all the above.
Start small and add volume slowly. If you start with a lot of volume or long workouts you will run out of hours in the day. “Ain’t nobody go time for that!”
4. Follow a plan but make sure it has some flexibility.
Try to plan your workout schedule around events such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, and my birthday (kidding) whenever possible. If you are going on vacation, schedule it as the reward or recovery period after finishing a program. If you are out of town on the weekend, try to get the harder and more intense strength workouts in while you are in town; save the lighter workouts for the road.
If you are working with a trainer, tell your trainer any changes to your schedule that might affect the workout program. Ask them to write a workout for you if you are on the road or research bodyweight exercises on your own and schedule time to do them.
You CAN make it work! I’ve seen countless moms, doctors, bartenders, and teachers all make it work. Stick to a flexible program, get the workouts in, work hard when you do them, and enjoy your recovery time!
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