How to Workout for the Whole Year

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There’s an epidemic in the strength training world: we have people who can’t seem to decide on what to do in the gym. They either do too much….or too little. Lost in this spectrum is the concept of results: for all the people who can rattle on and on about their workouts they have very little to show for in terms of weight loss, muscle mass, or strength gains. Let’s fix that.

                Strength coach Paul Carter introduced me to the quote: you can’t ride two horses with one ass. Pretty sure he didn’t invent it, and he certainly didn’t say it to me in person, but it’s stuck with me ever since the seven words slapped me on the forehead. It’s the concept of multi-tasking: something that doesn’t go very well on the gym floor. A lot of times people want the body of a Greek God and they want it now.  That’s when they start to get desperate and working themselves into a frenzy trying to detox, Crossfit, and run a marathon all at the same time.

                Being a good personal trainer is about simplifying things. There’s a lot of fitness information out there – just do a simple search on this website alone and be prepared to get blasted with all sorts of info in regards to six pack abs and going keto. A side effect to all this content is the concept of paralysis by analysis. People get so saturated with information that they fail to actually take action. But that’s a problem for another day.

                The more enthused clients want to run the gauntlet of fitness: they need to look chiseled while being all go with that show. Now more than ever, clients want to be jacked all while having the engine to run a marathon or knock out a heavy set of deadlifts. It’s all admirable but it’s the equivalent of working on 3 Phds at the same time. Sure, on a long enough time line you can nail of these goals but trying to do all of them at once means you’ll be very average at a few things.

                And that’s where we’re at. We have some clients who stockpile their workouts. These sessions turn into endless workouts of Olympic lifts, powerlifting, and some bodybuilding work. There’s a few problems with this approach. For one, your body releases a hormone called cortisiol in response to stress. Since exercise training is a stressor, the body pumps out cortisol so you have a steady supply of blood sugar for your brain. Cortisol also causes adrenaline to be released, which is great in small spurts but counterproductive if it last’s too long. In the end, all that training makes it counterproductive for the body to actually get in shape.

                There’s also the issue of your nervous system. In control of those big muscles of yours are your nerves, and it’s your nervous system that is responsible for learning. It also calls upon different types of muscle to do various skills. In this case, the nervous system has no idea what to adapt to because you’re throwing the kitchen sink at it. As a general rule of thumb, your nerves will respond to the easiest form of stress.

                If people aren’t jamming their workouts with every single little thing, then people are suffering from training ADD. They end up doing random things every day of the week. It looks like this:

                Monday: Arms and abs

                Tuesday: Run on treadmill

                Wednesday: Group class

                Thursday: Stream a workout that you can do in your living room

                Friday: Arms and abs

                Saturday: Group training with friends

                Now the problem is that body needs a repeated stress to respond to. You know that soreness you feel after doing a new workout? That’s your muscles literally trying to rebuild themselves so the next time you do the workout, the body is better prepared. While things like inflammation go on at the cellular level, the body now has more muscle, stronger tendons, or is better suited to burn fat all- in case you decide to suffer through the same workout. At that’s how you get in shape: not by killing yourself, but progressing through sensible challenges.

                So there’s the problem, now what’s the solution? There’s a fancy term in sport science called periodization, but I just refer to it as “seasonal training.” I call it that because you can literally train based on the season (if you so choose to do). Now you can spend the entire winter adding muscle and use your Summer for sprinting. You don’t have to do this way and can set up the blocks however you’d like. It also works well for those of us with responsibilities outside of the gym. Therefore you can tailor your training to whatever fun things are going on with your spouse, kids, and work.

                The reason for this goes back to Paul Carter’s quote – we need to settle down and focus on one task at hand. My job as personal trainer is not just about directing the client on how to squat but also on how to strip the things away that are halting the client’s progress.

                Plain and simple, we want to be in better shape by the end of the year. We can do this by setting up specific training blocks. Each block focuses primarily on one goal and one goal only. You only get several weeks to get good at something and then it’s on to the next thing, so this leaves no time to dibble dabble on the training floor. But each period of training will also help the next: adding some muscle to those hamstrings should only help your deadlift.

                Okay- so we know that we’re going to focus our training on one goal. We do this by avoiding training ADD and setting up these predetermined blocks with an actual plan. Here’s how we do it.

Length of Your Block

                To start, we need to select the length of your block. The minimum amount of training you want is 6 weeks – and from there you can do 6,8,10, or 12 week blocks. Use your experience to guide the length of the block. If you’re new to training, 6 weeks will be plenty. Noobs respond to pretty much everything, and in six weeks you could easily add some poundage’s to your back squat. 

                Before we get into the specifics, we also want to be clear that the blocks are goal centered. So if you’re more concerned with performance, you can double up on blocks. It would look like this:

                                Weeks 1- 6- Strength Block

                                Week 7- Deload

                                Weeks 8-14 – Strength Block

                                Week 15- Deload

                                Weeks 16-22- Bodybuilding work

                There’s a lot of options as to how to get organized and you’ll only get better at it the more you do it. If your goal is to simply get in good shape, just alternate a strength block with a body composition block. 

                Speaking of those blocks, let’s discuss them in greater detail.

Strength and Conditioning Block

                The strength block is for….getting stronger! Quite a shock, right?  But in all seriousness, this is to where you want a minimalist approach. The “one person/one barbell” concept fits pretty well here, as this period of training should just focus on a couple of few lifts that are compound movements.

                With that being said, you can select one or two exercises from the following movement patterns:

Hinge: Conventional Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, Deadlift from pins

Squat: Back Squat, Front Squat, Box Squat

Horizontal Press: Flat Press, Incline Press (barbell versions)

Vertical Press: Push Press, Overhead, 80 Degree Incline,

Vertical Pull: Pull Up, Chin Up all grips

                This provides a few options as to how to make up your training week. You can simply make each day a movement day: So Monday is squat day, Tuesday you do chin ups, Thursday you deadlift and Saturday is for bench pressing. Since Monday is international bench press day across every gym in America, you should have clear access to any bench if you did this training split. The other option is to simply go upper body’lower body; with this you have two movements per day but one is of higher intensity, such as:

                A. Front Squat, Narrow Stance – 4 x 3, 3010, rest 210 seconds

                B. Conventional Deadlift – 2 x 5, 2110, rest 120 seconds

                However, this section is called the “strength AND conditioning” block. We use the minimalist approach because you’ll also spend some time working on energy system training, which is just a fancy way of saying that you’re going to try and build different forms of endurance. Now a disclaimer here: while we’re not doing a ton of stuff, you still are human and can only recover from so much work. So conditioning sessions can’t turn into hours spent chugging away on the treadmill. In the end, progress indicates if you’re doing things right. If you can’t add weight to the bar or crank out more reps, it’s time to re-evaluate the plan.

                In terms of conditioning, you have quite a lot of options to play around with here: feel free to make use of battle ropes, medicine balls, kettlebells, sprints, sleds, and hills to just name a few. If you insist on running everytime you work out, just make sure not to sprint back to back workouts. You’ll have to do some form of low intensity running, like a steady jog.

                Here’s a sample workout to get the creative juices flowing:

                A1. Flat Bench Press, Wide Grip – 6 x 2-4, 3010, rest 120 seconds

                A2. Pull Up, Wide Grip- 6 x 2-4, 4010, rest 120 seconds

                B. KB Swing/DB Thruster- 10-1. Do 10 swings, 10 thrusters, 9 swings, 9 thrusters, 8 swings….all the way down to 1

                Body Composition Block

                This period of training is all about changing your body. Since the strength block focuses on movements, the body composition block is all about body parts. This is to where you hear “chest and back” or people claiming their “leg day” nearly killed them. Pretty much everything you did in the strength block is now going to do a 180, such as:

                -Instead of just using barbells, make use of dumbbells, cables, machines, and even bodyweight

                -While you were resting 3,4 and even 5 minutes in the strength block, rest could be as short as 30 seconds here

                -In the strength block the reps shouldn’t go above 5-6; here consider that the bare minimum. Prepare yourself for sets of 8,12,15, and even 20 reps.

                -You’ll really want to cut down on conditioning, and maybe ven cut it out all together

                The goal here is to either add muscle mass or drop bodyfat. You can add muscle through a variety of ways, and dropping bodyfat just means you’ll use weight training to design a nasty circuit. Regardless of the goal, you should literally be “feeling the burn” as you try to bring each muscle close to failure when you train. “Close to failure” means getting to the point to where you could do another rep of an exercise, but it would be pretty hideous looking effort because of how tired you are.

                You can workout as little as three times a week or up to 6 times. In the case of approaching a workout by training bodyparts, it makes things a lot easier to simply divide your days by the muscles worked. So Monday is chest and back, Tuesday is legs, Thursday is shoulders, and Friday is arms.

                You’ll have an inverse relationship between the length of the workouts and how many days you’re at the gym. This means that if you workout 5 days a week, the workouts should be shorter than when you only train 3 days per week. Good so far?

                As a minimum, you’ll want to do two different exercises for each muscle. This will vary depending on how you set up the plan and the level of experience you have working out: those who are pretty strong may want to do 3-4 exercises.

                A sample mass gain workout would look like this:

                A1. V Bar Dip, 4 x 4-6, 4011, rest 10 seconds

                A2. 30 Degree Incline DB Fly – 4 x 12-15, 2010, rest 120 seconds

                A3. Neutral Grip Chin Up – 4 x 4-6, 4010, rest 10 seconds

                A4. Rope Row to Neck – 4 x 12-15, 2010, rest 120 seconds

                Optional Performance Block

                If you’re an athlete – or you’re like me and think you’re one- you can also give yourself a performance block. The same concepts apply – you can make it anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks- but now you’ll focus mostly on power activities. This is to where you’ll do plyometrics, heavy medicine ball work, and even the Olympic lifts.

                Some people in the sport science world think lifting a barbell above your head without 10 years of supervision is more dangerous than walking down the freeway backwards during rush hour. Look, the Olympic lifts are like learning poker: they take about 10 minutes to learn and a lifetime to get good at them. A good coach can show you the two lifts – snatch and clean and jerk – in an hour and then you can work on them over time.

                But again, this is an optional block and many will be limited with what they can do. If you can’t back squat more than your bodyweight than you really don’t even need this block.

                Wrapping it Up

                It’s been said before that if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. Dissecting your training and getting rid of nonsense, all the while implementing blocks that allow you to tackle a specific objective, is a surefire way to make sure that the last thing you’ll do is fail. You’ll find that you’re working out less but actually getting results- which is what good training is all about.

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