“Fitness” is defined as “the condition of being physically fit and healthy.”
I think that definition is fine, but I think we can go more in depth on what fitness actually means. I have been reading about some different exercise principles and programming lately. As I am starting to run again for the first time in five years, I am also thinking of my personal goals as much more “fitness oriented” and not just lifting weights to “look better.” I wrote a blog a few months back titled “Is working out to look better enough.” In the first part of this three part blog series I want to talk about my personal views on what “fitness” means to me, how my goals are changing to be more all encompassing and give you some tips on what I think is the best progression for styles of workouts to see results but ALSO stay healthy.
So first, I break down “fitness” into four categories (see below) that I would say isn’t overly unique to me (most fitness professionals break down fitness into these categories):
- Strength: lifting “heavy” weights, or doing bodyweight strength movements such as pushups, squats, pullups, planks etc
- Endurance/Work Capacity: your ability to do a certain amount of “work” in a certain amount of time or such activities as running, biking, swimming etc that work primarily on your cardio vascular system (heart and lung health)
- Mobility/flexibility: warming up properly with warm up drills (not stretching), yoga, foam rolling and stretching
- Sport specific: training specifically for a sport such as tennis, football or triathlon training (the technical work of cycling, swimming, running not the actual endurance work needed to do a triathlon)
Secondly, I wanted to share how I have noticed one area of fitness that has suffered for me the past five years as I have focused almost solely on gaining muscle and “working out to look good.” I thought I was doing enough “cardio” in my lifting workouts because my heart rate was often elevated, but this wasn’t true cardio. I was getting some cardio benefits, but I was actually losing much of my endurance. I wasn’t completely oblivious to this, as I knew I couldn’t just go out and run a 10k without wanting to die (I could physically do it, but it wouldn’t be enjoyable), but I didn’t realize just how important my endurance was until I started running again. As I started running a few months ago, one thing I noticed right away was how much faster I recovered during my lifting workouts! This is something many of my clients with endurance backgrounds (runners, spin classes, group exercise classes) always had in workouts with me, but something I really did NOT have. I was strong, I had gained muscle and I had hit many of my goals in the weight room over the past five years, but sometimes you just “don’t know, what you don’t know.” My endurance sucked and it was affecting my lifting workouts. I noticed as I started running and as my recovery improved, how my lifting workouts became more productive and efficient. A light bulb kind of went off in my head…
…I need more endurance work in my life now that I have gained the muscle I wanted to gain. I am not looking to gain any more muscle or get any bigger than this in the long run. Yes, more strength, or a little more muscle here or there would be nice, but I would be very happy maintaining my current body…but with better FITNESS 🙂
“You are good at what you practice.”
Over the past five years I have gotten very good at doing a difficult set of squats with a couple hundred pounds on my back or weighted pullups, then resting for 2 minutes and being ready to go again. There was a rude awakening when I started running and after 10 minutes my body was like “where is the rest break!!.” My mind too was gasping for rest..even 60 seconds of walking is what I wanted. I was good at intense bouts of exercise for 20-30 seconds, but now really sucked at any continuous exercise, even if the running that I started doing was VERY low intensity. This frustrated me and I wanted to get better. “You are good at what you practice.” Often times my new clients are in the opposite position as me though. They have been runners, or have done LOTS of cardio in the past, but never have done any specific and true strength work. This has lead them to be able to do a lot light weight lifting circuits with no problem, but they are wondering why they are feeling weaker as they age or have lost muscle. Those circuits were working more on their endurance and not truly helping their strength anymore. Just because you are doing a bunch of half ass, poor form squats in your “strength” classes doesn’t mean you are getting stronger. And you most definitely are NOT getting stronger by putting most of your focus on running or biking. Learning proper form with progressions of weight, tempo, reps etc through FULL RANGES OF MOTION is the real way to get stronger. That is true strength and what I work on with most of my clients. They had also gotten good at what they practiced and needed a more well rounded exercise program…hitting more strength work….just as I now need more endurance to help my lifting workouts (and not leave me out of breath on a hike or running up a flight of stairs HA).
This leads to my next point. How to progress your workouts so you can see results and stay healthy IF your ultimate goal is to look better, feel stronger, be leaner and in the end perform better at a sport or race. If your end goal is only to perform better in specific sport such as football, this progression is probably not for you, but most of my clients don’t have specific sport goals. This is how I progress most of my clients and how I suggest you do as well if you are wondering how or where to start. This is often turned around, with not enough focus here or too much focus there….this leads to injuries or lack of sustainable results.
- Newbies to exercise (first time EVER or first time in years) should do some mobility work first and foremost. Get the joints moving with no resistance. Continuous flow yoga is a great example of this. This helps you warmup and prevent injuries. At least start your first workout with mobility work, but if you have patience, just do mobility work/yoga for a couple weeks.
- Next is building at least a small base of endurance or work capacity. This means just enough endurance so you don’t feel like puking in your workouts. Besides injuries, feeling nauseous in workouts due to lack of endurance or work capacity is the number one thing that scares newbie exercisers away from progressing and continuing with their new healthy habit. It just isn’t fun and anyone who says they like getting sick from their workouts…I don’t believe them. So, to build this base of cardio you can walk, do easy pace elliptical, swimming, rowing machine…anything that is low impact on the joints and NOT super intense at first. I do NOT suggest running at this point (I get to this later). This phase again, can be 2-4 weeks so your heart and lungs can get used to what it feels like to have an elevated heart rate. If you have ZERO work capacity and you start lifting heavy weights right away you will be gasping for air after a set of five goblet squats and need three minutes rest…that is often not a super efficient workout.
- After getting your joints used to moving again with some mobility work and your heart and lungs can handle 20-30 minutes easy paced cardio, you are ready to move on to the next phase which is learning to properly perform the “eight core strength movements.” These are: squat, hip hinge, lunge, upper body horizontal push, upper body horizontal pull, upper body vertical push, upper body vertical pull, loaded carry. My clients usually don’t touch a weight the first couple weeks of workouts with me if they have never exercised before. We instead, work on the movement patters I listed above. Bodyweight squats, lunges, pushups etc. The light weight lifting circuits and then “heavier” lifting workouts down the road (see next).
- Once you have improved your mobility, have a small base of cardio endurance, learned the movement patterns about you are ready to progress to a true strength phase. This means more than 500 half range of motion, bouncing squats in your step class at the YMCA. This means moving in a FULL range of motion squat, or lunge, or pushup, or pullup as you progress by adding weight to the bar each week, or more reps, or slower tempo. THIS is the phase that most people I work with have never actually done. Lifting weights is finally becoming more mainstream and I love it because it is the key to people changing their bodies how they want to….and not getting “bulked up”..unless you want to 🙂 Stay in this phase until you are happy with your body. What I mean by this is, you must first have the strength and muscle needed to do more intense cardio to avoid injuries, but you also must be HAPPY with how you look and feel before you will truly be able to be successful with other fitness goals. Too often, I talk to people who do endless 5ks or triathlons because they think that is the key to finding the body they want. And too often they are disappointed that they are seeing no change in their body and might be getting weaker. This leads me to my last phase …
- True FITNESS. A combination of strength work and endurance work (where you might be doing races or competing if you choose to). Why is this last on my list, but often much higher on the list for most people? Well, running and endurance races have been mainstream for much longer than lifting weights has. And endurance has always been thought of by the majority of the population as the BEST way to lose weight. So, what does everyone do? Start running or cycling and neglect lifting weights. This is fine for awhile and you might lose a little weight, but you will also lose muscle and will probably end up hurt. Then when you hit your 40s (most of my clients can attest to this who never lifted weights before their 40s) you will wonder why you are weaker than ever, feel flabby, but can bike 100 miles no problem or run six miles every morning. Don’t get me wrong, your endurance is something to be proud of and is very important for heart health and your blood pressure numbers as you age. But that doesn’t correlate well to your day to day QUALITY OF LIFE and how you are moving. Are you achy? Are you struggling to do daily activities that used to be much easier? Do you feel weaker? Your daily runs aren’t helping your strength. When you should be putting most of your focus on endurance and work capacity is AFTER you have spent months (it not years) focusing on gaining strength and muscle. It is never too late to start lifting weights. Never too late. You can gain muscle at any age! By focusing on gaining strength and muscle first, you will find your body you want (let’s be real…all those runs you are going on is partly because you want to lose a little body fat), then be ready to focus on a well rounded fitness routine, which might include racing!
So, I do not regret my intense focus on lifting weights the past five years. I have written now extensively about prioritizing goals and I truly believe more people needed to get obsessed with lifting weights, as it will not only lead to less injuries during your endurance work, but also give you the results you want with your body…don’t lie…you want to look leaner…who doesn’t 🙂 Overall, I have felt great as I start running again. Very little joint pain and this is so important for endurance athletes…those nagging injuries aren’t nagging forever…they turn into full blown injuries if you don’t have strength to back up your cardio. Lift weights FIRST, then start running or cycling. Then continue lifting weights…never stop.
The time has come for me to move on to the Phase 5 of Fitness….actually working on true fitness, by running and maybe even cycling. I need new challenges, but was also kind of embarrassed how bad my endurance was. I now want to be able to be able to run some fast 5ks (maybe longer distances or duathlons down the road), but ALSO keep the muscle and strength I have worked so hard for the past five years. Deadlift over 300lbs still, but run a sub 20 minute 5k. Bench press over 200lbs still, but crush some tough track workouts. Keep my weight around 180lbs (no loss in muscle), while being able to run 20-30 miles a week with no injuries. Those are my current goals. It has taken me five years to get to that point and it might take you that long too, or it could be only six months of lifting. Either way, be patient with the lifting, it takes time to gain strength and muscle. Get stronger, gain muscle and your endurance work will come with less injuries and in the end more success because you can LOOK good while racing 🙂
That’s enough for this post…next post in the series is on exercising for run OR for results.”