Something I wanted to do at the start of the new year was a series of posts about fitness. January 1 seems to bring about a desire for change in that area of life for a lot of people, so I figured it would be worth spending some time on.
This week, I want to talk weight training. Strength is always useful, and maintaining strength is a major component to living a longer, healthier life. If you follow me on Twitter or have read some of this site’s older posts, you know what a big proponent I am of strength training. That’s what I want to go into here.
Too many people go into the gym with no real plan. Or maybe they’re rehashing something their high school coach did. Or mimicking something they read in a fitness mag. My idea: Forget all that, keep it simple, and put together some workouts that will help you do something useful, like building strength and conditioning.
I’m a big fan of what are often called “splits,” or workouts that focus on a particular area. Now I’m not talking about “arm day” or “shoulder day” or any of that. Instead, I like my splits to follow three basic movement patterns: The squat, the press, and the pull.
So, what the heck are these? Quick explainer…
SQUAT: This you know. From a standing position, break at your hips and knees, descend to at least to the point where the tops of your thighs are parallel to the ground, and stand back up. So, this could be a squat with a bar on your back, or a front squat, a goblet squat, or even bodyweight squats.
PRESS: This is an upper body movement where you are pushing against the resistance of a weight. Think bench press, military press, seated dumbbell presses, and standing barbell or dumbbell presses.
PULL: This is broader. But it’s basically what happens when your body’s musculature is contracting to pull a weight. The pull family can be divided into two parts: the hip hinge and the upper body pull. The hip hinge includes all deadlift variations and things like hip thrusters and kettlebell swings. The upper body pull includes pull-ups/chin-ups, barbell and dumbbell rows, cable rows (standing or seated), face pulls and lat pulls.
You might be asking, “Where are things like curls, flies, and tricep presses?” They’re going to be tacked on as accessories. But the truth is, if you major in the three main movements, you’ll get strong arms, shoulders, and so forth. We’ll get to accessory lifts in a bit. The reason I like movement splits better than body part splits is that if you focus on movement patterns, you’ll be doing compound movement exercises. That means instead of focusing on a couple isolated muscles, you’re working a whole bunch of muscles all at once. More bang for the buck, more calorie burn, and better response in terms of gaining muscle and getting stronger.
So, when you’re planning a workout, I’d advise programming two squat, two press and two pull workouts a week. So yeah, you’re going to be working out six days a week. Make your lifting sessions last about an hour or less. At the end, take care of your conditioning, like running, bike work, stair climbing, swimming and so forth. If you can keep your conditioning to 20-30 minutes (and make sure those are INTENSE minutes, not just playing around on an exercise machine), you can be done with the whole workout in 90 minutes or less.
About those accessory lifts: Too many people major in the minors and spend way too much time in isolating exercises. You know the types, the dudes who will spend 30 minutes doing curls or whatever. Piece of advice: Fewer curls, more pull-ups. Trust me. But accessory lifts can be a good way to round out a weight training session.
A basic weekly workout might look like this, with some of the exercises listed here added to the foundational lifts (italicized):
MONDAY: Squat (Squats, lunges, leg extensions, leg presses, hamstring curls, calf presses).
TUESDAY: Press (Bench press, overhead press, tricep extensions, dumbbell lateral delt raises, push-ups, dips)
WEDNESDAY: Pull (Deadlift, pull-ups, barbell rows, loaded carries, bicep curls)
Play around with this but be sure each day is anchored by a squat, a press, and a deadlift of some form. I’d also say that some form of a pull-up needs to be included, and if you can’t do a pull-up, there are variations and substitutionary exercises that can help you get there (future post topic!). These compound exercises build strength and are bricks in the foundation of any fit person. Tack on the other lifts, plus some quality conditioning, and you’ll be well on your way toward reaching your fitness goals.
In terms of weight used and reps performed, that’s all dependent on where you’re at physically, and what your goals are. Lower reps with heavier weights build strength. Lighter weights with higher reps tend to build size. But those are generalities; sometimes strength athletes will use both methods to reach their performance goals. We’ll get to that in due time.
Next week: We’ll examine some more detailed ways to make the most of the exercises that are at the heart of the squat, press and pull movement patterns.