For me, there are three main areas that you need to cover with your physical training: strength, conditioning, and mobility. How you achieve the balance is up to you, but frequently what you need isn’t what you want, and your needs will shift over time.
Strength is the mother-attribute for nearly every physical activity. All else being equal, the stronger you are, the easier physical exertion is.
In general, keeping reps between 3-5 builds strength, 6-12 builds muscle, and 12+ builds strength-endurance. Cycling your training between these rep ranges over time is crucial to emphasize different qualities and prevent staleness and stagnation. What this means is you’re not trying to do the exact same workout indefinitely. Think “progressive resistance”, meaning more reps, more weight, or both, over time (usually not each workout).
But what exercises do you include in your training?
Dan John has a classification system that puts the six basic human movements into categories. Include some variation of each.
- Push (e.g. bench, military press, pushup)
- Pull (row, pull-up, chin up)
- Squat (squat, hack squat, front squat, goblet squat, lunge)
- Hinge (deadlift, swing, clean, snatch)
- Loaded Carry (pushing sled, farmer’s walk, rucking, hill sprints)
- 6th movement/everything else (integrity with the environment: turkish getups, rope climbs, tumbling, breakfalls, chops, ab stabilization)
Try to achieve balance through the whole system. If you bench, incline, military, but only throw in one set of rows and a token set of squats every week, you should look at balance. For reasons that are outside the scope of this article, keeping your push, pull, and squat in balance (in terms of reps/week) is a good idea. Planning Hinge, Loaded Carry and 6th movement is a bit trickier, but programming in “some” is always good. If in doubt, look at a well-designed resistance program that features all of these moves – recommendations below.
Being Better Conditioned
Efficiency vs. Inefficiency
If your goals are to run road races or triathlons, you should include lots of your chosen exercise(s). If you want to build a better running base, you are going to have to run a lot. This is the principle of specificity. Your goal should be to become incredibly efficient at your chosen exercise.
On the other hand, if what you’re interested in is better body composition (less body fat and more lean mass) what you mainly need is inefficient exercise. Riding a 17 oz racing bike isn’t going to work you as hard as pushing a 50lb cast-iron cruiser with one gear up the hill. Further, you want exercises that spread the load across the entire body to prevent any one part of your body limiting the exercise.
Running hills, pushing a sled, swinging heavy kettlebells, Heavyhands walking, burpees, or using an exercise machine with fan-driven resistance (e.g. AirDyne or Assault Air bikes, Concept 2 rowers) meet all of these inefficient needs.
For metabolic reasons that are interesting but not that important to understand, using interval training or a mix of intervals and steady-state cardio is more efficient than using only steady-state workouts. Think “alternating harder and easier” rather than setting a speed and sticking to it.
A simple training template: use a “finisher” at the end of each strength workout – use one or more of these hard moves in a circuit. Do a couple of sessions of intervals on the track or exercise machine per week.
Finally we come to mobility training. You can cover some of this with full range-of-motion, well-balanced strength training, especially the aforementioned squat, push and pull. Going into a deep squat over and over is tremendous mobility training. I also like to include specific pre-hab (exercises to prevent injury) to make sure that I’m retaining range of motion. These can include movements like Steve Maxwell’s “daily dozen”, something incorporating foam rolling (self-massage) and stretching like the Simple Six, or something as in-depth as a 90 minute hot yoga class, depending on what your needs are. If you wake up stiff and in pain, this is an area to focus in. Dial back your other training and look at what you need to do here.
In general, I recommend doing ballistic/movement exercises before you train, and static stretches/self-massage after you train — but it can be more time-effective to stretch or foam roll between sets.
For General Health and Fitness, Do This
Build strength, mobility, and flexibility. Consistency trumps intensity, and your success is built over time, not all at once.