It’s 2020 and you’re super pumped to hit the gym/living room/garage/trail and do…
- What’s queued up on the whiteboard at your CF gym (👏)
- That workout I saw my fav fitness celeb post on Insta
- Go for a walk
- A H.I.I.T. workout
- The YouTube videos where you do exactly what they’re doing
- Cardio for 30 minutes + Machines for 30 minutes
- Whatever my gym buddy is doing
- An online CF style program that I subscribe to
What’s the difference between these options? Does it even matter?
Let me try to explain what does matter, and then see if you can evaluate which program works best for you.
- Consistency – Whatever you do, do it regularly, 3-5x/week. The difference between nothing and something is a vast ocean, and in the digital era with so many options to choose from, it’s easy to get stuck on deciding what to do, and then never getting to putting your shoes on and doing it. For this reason, I like walking as a starting point for many people new to exercise, because there are hardly any decisions to make. Pick a starting point, invite a buddy, and GO for 30-60 minutes, get your heart rate and circulation up a bit, get those endorphins up, enjoy the bay trail views, done. #MoreThanNothing
- Mechanics – If you can’t or don’t know how to do the movement well, it’s probably better that you stick to what you know (e.g. walking) than to execute something novel poorly. If you’re making regular “type 1 errors” — which just means doing the movement incorrectly in a fundamental way — you are putting yourself at risk for pain and injury, and just reinforcing bad habits that are hard to unlearn.
- Variance – The problem with only walking 3-5x/week for 30-60 minutes is that you are hammering the same muscle groups and joints in the exact same way with a bunch of volume. This can quickly lead to overuse issues with your feet, ankles, and calves, for example. It is like “reading the same book over and over and being frustrated that you’re not learning anything new” (shoutout to Louie Simmons for that line). You can only get so much out of doing the same low intensity exercise, you won’t progress in any meaningful way unless you change things up and add some variety. Squatting and Deadlifting are staples that improve leg strength, and make you stronger walking up hills, for example, than simply walking further, or up more and/or steeper hills alone will. Pulling/pushing a sled is another type of exercise that can do this, because you can easily vary the loading and time domain.
- Functionality – The main reason functional movements are the premium stuff for fitness (squats, deadlifts, presses, pull-ups, burpees, etc.) is that they enable you to work your major muscle group proportionally and with intensity, which causes the body to adapt and change remarkably. This means that you can, for the most part, only do these exercises and not a lot else, and still see amazing results.
Further, by reducing the number of exercises you regularly cycle through, you become proficient at them much faster, because you are practicing them often. If you have 100 exercises to choose from, and you do 3 each day, it would take you over a month to get back to the top of the list. Whereas if you have 15 functional movement archetypes (which is generous) to choose from, you would be back at the top of the list within a week, and have the opportunity to recall and improve upon what you learned the last time you did them.
- Progression – This is where the field is going to separate a lot. A good workout fits as a puzzle piece in a longer-term progression. That means that it complements other workouts you did in the days and weeks leading up and following, as well as fits into a longer term progression where you may work on specific sub components of the workout or exercise. It’s like when playing a musical instrument. Do you just keep trying to power through the entire song start to finish? Of course not. You would work on pieces of the song, master those, then come back and play the song start to finish again, see where you are still making mistakes, then focus in on those. And what if you’re just holding/playing the instrument the wrong way? Well then we need to focus in on that and make adjustments there too with corrective drills and scales, before going back to practicing even pieces of the song. Zoom in, zoom in, zoom out, over and over again. This is the problem with picking and choosing random workouts: there is no progression in mind, and there are almost never corrective exercises (you would need someone/some way to evaluate this in the first place).
- Maintenance – Your mobility and recovery practices are super important, because if you start accumulating knots and tight areas of your body, it will inhibit your ability to stay consistent in your routine, and can stop you dead in your tracks even if you allow it to spiral into impingement or chronic pain. Any good workout routine should have targeted mobility exercises, and even classic stretching built in.
- Intensity – All the way down here? Yup. Intensity is valuable and important, but only following the above items. Pushing yourself seems like “The Thing” to do, because your drive to start exercising in the first place is mentally similar to the drive to go harder in a workout. But they are not the same thing. It is primary that you do something. It is 7th on the list that you “bring it.” I would rather everyone just stayed consistent and healthy, working at 50-80% everyday, than going 90-100% without the appropriate foundation in place.
- Novelty – Our brains are wired for novelty. We get bored repeating the same thing easily, which reduces our motivation to do it, which jacks with #1 Consistency. It is therefore important that your workout regularly introduces novel elements or variations so that you get that new shoe/car smell feeling often enough to keep things interesting. A lot of the online workout options listed above actually meet this criteria, because most programs understand this element is critical to keeping their followers engaged.
- Specificity – Is the workout designed to help you reach your goals, or just going to get you spinning your wheels, sweaty, but not actually geared towards what you were trying to accomplish in the first place?
- Flow – Move like water? Maybe. But more move like it matters. This is about flow state, which is a new term for an old concept: “In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” If your workout is designed well, it should be a pretty even match for you, which enables you to get “in the zone” or in “flow.” Meaning that if you are present and focused, you should be able to feel like you’re either slightly ahead of or behind the curve, but not by a lot either way — you’re “in the game.” I like to think of this in terms of scaling: if the workout is scaled the right way for your abilities, you will feel like you have a fighting chance to conquer it. If it’s obviously much too difficult, there’s a sense of “why bother?” The funny thing is it’s the same for something obviously too easy: “why bother?” again. We need an appropriate challenge — one that meets us at our current ability level — to get in a flow state. And that means an inherently well-balanced workout design in terms of movement archetypes, loading, reps, and time domains, as well as appropriate scaling for you in the moment as well. So that you can flow!
So what is the perfect workout? Well, based on #5 – Progression alone, we can see that no one workout is “perfect,” because the context in which it falls matters a lot. It also depends a great deal on your starting point. Someone coming off “the couch” is going to get a lot out of just walking for a while, because they’re going from 0 to something. Someone doing Cardio + Machines at a conventional gym is going to get a lot out of making the switch to any kind of functional movement program with some variance. And someone practicing functional movements with variance but without progression, or doing a H.I.I.T. style workout, is going to make their biggest gains by getting in a system that has a long-term plan. Ok, you’re in that type of system, but there isn’t intelligent Maintenance, Correctives, or Specificity. That’s where having coaches to show you what you might be missing, and regularly checking in on things is going to make the biggest difference.
I originally was going to re-order the list to give “my top 8,” but after writing this I think it’s better that you decide what works best for you using the criteria listed above, and just regularly doing a self check-in to see if improvements are needed. If there are any metrics for your success, such as body composition, strength levels, benchmark workouts, etc., regularly evaluate them to see if it’s actually working.
Personally, I like workouts that meet a lot of the criteria above, but especially the “flow” one. It should look like a fun, playful challenge for which I’m not sure what the best approach is. This makes the lead up and doing of it exciting, because there is a process of self-discovery built into the experience. How should I pace the workout? Where will my sticking point be? Will I be able to find another gear, or is today a day where just clocking in feels good enough? This type of thinking makes the putting-on-my-shoes part a lot easier, because I’m engaged with the material and not questioning whether to start in the first place.
If you’re consistently putting on your shoes, enjoying your routine, at least semi-regularly finding that elusive flow state, and getting the results you want, that’s it.