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Designing the exercise portion of your plan

There are more ways to train than you can possibly imagine. Thankfully, there are some fundamentals that underlie all of them, which makes things a lot easier.

I can make it really simple for you: you should probably not do Crossfit, and you should lift weights instead of doing cardio if you only have time for one.

Now, I don’t have any personal reason to dislike Crossfit, but for the vast majority of people it seems to give much higher likelihood of getting injured in a minor or major way. There a few reasons for this, namely:

  • Crossfit is based around explosive lifts (clean and jerk, snatch, thrusters, etc), done to something approaching failure. Going to failure on a lift that gets you to lift a loaded barbell over your head is in most people’s mind Not a Good Thing.
  • Training to close to failure in general is somewhat inherently dangerous. When you are fatigued you make mistakes, and the Crossfit mentality is essentially “go till you puke.”
  • Some Crossfit trainers don’t spend a lot of time focusing on adequate training in those lifts, which increases your risk of injury. Some do, but do you know which ones to pick, or how to properly assess this?

There is nothing wrong with Crossfit when it is properly instructed and controlled, but it doesn’t take much to get “Certified” and open your own box. So just be aware.

You should lift weights before doing cardio, both in a timing and priority sense, unless of course you are a pure endurance athlete and feel like looking like one of those kids on the unicef commercials. Cardio is a time sink more than anything else – yes it burns calories fairly effectively, but if you are not pairing it with resistance training, you will probably lost a bunch of muscle with the fat you are trying to torch off.

Some people recommend High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for fat loss, which is somewhat reasonable, but not something I personally recommend. First, it’s ridiculously fatiguing if you do it right, and this only really possible to do about two times per week. World class athletes don’t do it more than a couple of times per week, even when they’re on drugs, and you think you can recover better than them? Didn’t think so. Working out at this intensity isn’t really necessary, ever. If you enjoy it, go to town – but there are much less fatiguing options out there. Like basically every other thing you can do that gets your heart rate up. I personally prefer hitting the bike and holding my heart rate around 160-170 bpm. This is pretty much the sweet spot for maintainable calorie burn that can be done basically every day.

So, weights. They’re good, don’t be scared of them. And just to go completely against the current grain of things, I think machines are just fine too, especially because it’s a lot harder to hurt yourself if/when you fail. You can push a lot harder on a machine and be safe, especially if you are like me and have no friends to spot you.

How should you lift your weights though? How often, and how heavy? This part depends a lot on your goals.

If you are just looking to maintain your muscle mass while losing fat, the basic principle is to maintain the intensity (weight on the bar) while cutting down the volume you are doing (so it’s less fatiguing and requires less repair). Keep doing what you are doing on the same schedule, just do less on any given day.

If you are brand new to training and trying to lose weight, you could probably do reasonably well just squatting and benching a couple of times per week, which would train both your upper and lower body. This would also leave you lots of time to do cardio if you so desire.

For everyone else, the basic principles look something like this:

If you are training for pure strength, you should spend the majority of your time in the 3-5 rep range. True 1RM max efforts are just too fatiguing to do too often. Something like Starting Strength or Bill Starr’s 5X5 routine isn’t a terrible place to start – I cut my teeth on SS, and made some pretty impressive strength gains in a fairly short amount of time.

If you are training for hypertrophy (bigger muscles), the rep range is essentially everything above the strength range of 3-5, so 6-15 (Anything higher than that will still have hypertrophic effects but will have more of a muscular endurance focus.) This is all wildly over-simplified, and there is a lot of overlap, but this is a reasonable approximation for the vast majority of people.

This is traditional bodybuilding type training and there are many, many reasonable variations on this theme that work quite well. Lyle McDonald’s Generic Bulking Routine, Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training or HST, and Dante Trudeau’s DoggCrapp are all time-tested options in this area.

There are basically as many ways to structure a bulking routine as there are days in the year. Many people default to a body-part (bro) split. Upper/Lower, Push/Pull, and 4 or 5 or 6 day splits are the most common overall structures. Basically, do a lot more volume than the pure strength guys, with a lower average weight on the bar. I’m currently doing a upper/lower four day split.

How many days you train is up to you, with most strength routines falling in the threeish days per week area, and bro splits generally being more frequent at up to six days per week. Because hypertrophy training is generally less fatiguing overall than strength training, it can be done more frequently. When you hear guys talk about being “completely fried” they are probably powerlifters and have just pushed too hard too long and basically bonked. Fatigue is not just physical but mental as well.

In beginners, volume is the primary driver of hypertrophy, while the biggest driver of strength is neuromuscular adaptations. This means you need to do more for hypertrophy, and you need to give your brain time to figure out what you want it to do for strength.

We’ve talked about goals before. Go set some. But make sure that enjoying your every day workouts is part of the plan, or you’ll crash and burn sooner rather than later.

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