Most people who hit the gym self-select moderate weights, perform exercises at a moderate speed, and complete a moderate amount of reps. Notice the trend?
Now, there is a place for this type of workout—a day when you don’t have the energy to push yourself or are in “maintenance” mode—but you don’t want that to be the staple of your workout program.
Granted, coming to the gym at all for a moderate workout is a victory over skipping the trip but, if you want to make actual progress, you’ll want to focus on pushing your boundaries.RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
There are lots of ways to do this but the top three elements of a workout that I don’t see people doing (and should be) are:
1. Bodyweight Control
2. Heavy Weights
3. Fast Speed
Why are these elements so important?
The basis of efficient and safe movement comes from your ability to move your body with precision in space. That’s why most great coaches spend years with their young athletes getting them to refine and master the basics.
If the fundamentals aren’t perfected then it doesn’t make sense to move on to more complex patterns, which have a greater possibility of deteriorating when the athlete is under pressure or fighting fatigue.
However, the focus of most exercise advice tends to be on the quantity of exercise (i.e. 30 minutes of cardio, 15 reps of curls, 5-minute abs) and the movement quality gets overlooked.
It’s great that you can eke out that last rep of curls but if you are lifting ugly—using contorted “body English”—then you might be putting yourself at risk of an injury at worst or, at best, practicing sub-par patterns (a.k.a. bad habits).
It’s quite humbling, and instructive, to be challenged by seemingly simple bodyweight patterns when you’ve been able to lift decent weight on several conventional exercises.
Later in the article I’ll show you a sample bodyweight workout that will challenge you and help refine your patterns so that you have greater success when pushing yourself with heavy weights.
So, what is considered heavy?
First off we have to distinguish between “heavy” and “hard.” Bodyweight squats can feel hard after 30 reps but that doesn’t mean you are lifting something heavy.
In fact, if you can perform more than 10-12 reps of any exercise with great form then you are actually working in a relatively low-intensity range, despite how challenging it feels.
Most trainers consider “heavy” weights anything you can lift up to 5-6 times, but no more. (For an in-depth discussion of high-intensity lifting, please read my previous WatchFit article, entitled “Why Do High Intensity Workouts?”).
If you choose weights that feel heavy but with which you can squat 10, 12, or even 15 times without losing form then you are not lifting heavy.
Why do we need to lift heavy?
Think about how you move about in your life. You carry a packed purse, briefcase, or backpack to work, carry shopping bags (brimming with healthy produce), open heavy bank doors, and perhaps throw your child in the air to get some giggles.
OK, even if you don’t do any of those things you need the capacity to move heavy loads when you are called upon to do so.
I distinctly remember an incident on an Amtrak train that highlights this exact need for lifting heavy. Two other female fitness professionals and I were headed to Providence, RI from NYC to attend a large fitness conference.
Two ladies were in the aisle near us struggling, and eventually failing, to lift their suitcases into the overhead compartment. We couldn’t believe the sight and were embarrassed for them, especially when they asked the nearest male to help them with their bags.
Situations like this are bound to happen and if we don’t train with heavy weights then we won’t be prepared to handle such challenges.
If you have increased your capacity to lift heavy weights due to your gym training then needing to lift a heavy load in the real world won’t be as taxing, making life easier.
Another critical reason to lift heavy is based on our physiology.
Our muscles are composed of two main fiber types: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. The former are designed for endurance (smaller contractions that can last a long time) and the latter are designed for power (larger contractions that only last for a few seconds).
Think of them as the difference between a marathoner and a sprinter.
When we exercise using light and moderate loads we are developing our muscular endurance (slow-twitch) and when we lift heavy weights we are developing our muscular strength (fast-twitch). Most goals you are training for require a balance of both fiber types.
Also, when you lift for strength (4-6 reps) rather than for endurance (12+ reps) your metabolic system is working harder. Translation: you burn more calories when lifting heavy weights.
As I mentioned in the introduction, most people move at a relative moderate speed when they work out. Whether it’s jogging on the treadmill, doing curls in front of the TV, or simply checking out squat form in the mirror, exercisers like to move at a comfortable pace. However, life doesn’t always work that way.
You sometimes need to sprint to the bus stop, bound up a flight of stairs, or quickly evade an oncoming car. If you don’t practice for speed then it won’t be there when you need it. Use it or lose it.
One of my clients is a yoga instructor who teaches or takes yoga classes 3-4 times per week.
If you don’t already know yoga is very much concerned about proper form and holding postures for extended periods. So, my client’s form is excellent, even when it comes to the strength training moves that I have her do.
One day I asked that she begin speeding up her perfect, yet SLOW deadlifts. On her first set attempting to go more quickly she immediately tweaked her hamstring.
It was as if her fast-twitch fibers had been lulled to sleep over the months of slow training and didn’t know how to contract. Ever since her muscle strain she’s implemented faster training on her own and hasn’t had a problem since.
You don’t train for a half-marathon to be the slowest person in the race. Nor do you practice tennis drills with a molasses pace so you can miss balls when rallying with a friend. Life happens quickly and so should your training.
Putting it all into practice
For overall fitness, health, and aesthetics your goal should be to do three workouts a week, each featuring one of the qualities discussed above (bodyweight control, heavy weights, fast speed).
You don’t have to do these workouts in any particular order throughout the week. In fact, you can vary them based on how you feel coming into the gym.
If you are feeling sluggish and tired then that’s a perfect opportunity to hone your bodyweight skills. If you are pumping with energy then push yourself with some heavy loads.
Hit warp speed on your lunges if you’re still amped from the day. This is a very flexible set of workouts but the important thing is to be consistent.
Check this motivation tips
(Check out my YouTube channel for instructional videos)
Workout 1: Bodyweight Control
Recommendations: As you are first learning these movements, go slowly. The goal is to master the basics without your form breaking down from fatigue. Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps but stop if you can’t maintain good control. You can cycle through a few different exercises before resting for 90 seconds.
Deep Squats (Box Squats)
Pushups (perfect kneeling before moving on to full)
Goodmornings, 1 leg
Turkish Getup Bridge
Workout 2: Light and Fast
Recommendations: Start each movement by going as quickly as you can on the “up” phase of the movement (concentric) while keeping a more moderate pace on the descent (eccentric).
After you’ve developed control then switch the emphasis by going as quickly as you can down with a moderate pace during the ascent. Finally, do both phases of the movement as quickly as possible.
Pick a weight that you could do comfortably for 15-20 reps but you will only do 10-12 reps for 3 sets with 60 seconds of rest.
Also check this workout to run faster
Workout 3: Heavy Weights
Recommendations: Form is king. Always make sure that you are able to lift correctly to minimize any injury potential.
Because of the heavy loads involved, which will be very taxing on the body, you’ll only need to focus on 3 exercises for each heavy workout. Use the following procedure on exercises that you are most familiar with (and that you can perform with great mechanics).
Warm up with a relatively light load with which you can do 8-10 reps
Do 2 sets with a heavier load that you can only lift 6 times (not 7)
Rest for 2 minutes in between
Do 2 sets with an even heavier load for 4 reps
Rest for 3 minutes in between
2 sample heavy workouts
Day 1: Squats, Kneeling Rows, and Reverse Lunges
Day 2: Deadlifts, Shoulder Press, and Step Ups
Good luck implementing these new workouts. As long as you are pushing your boundaries outside of the “moderate” workout zone then you’ll be burning more calories, challenging the brain and body, and staving off boredom. Let me know how it goes or email me with questions.
Keep on Movin’