Most guys want the same thing when they hit the gym: girls to gawk at. Kidding! Wait, no I’m not. But other than the girls, they want to build some muscle, lose some fat, and feel “in shape.” And don’t even question me; if I had a dollar for every time I heard a guy talk about Brad Pitt’s physique in Fight Club… So due to their popularity, these goals are what we’ll define as “your best workout routine.” And to reliably achieve and sustain these goals you don’t need a fad workout or “shred” program; you need to understand a few fundamental principles.
Like Mr. Belding, principles don’t get old. (See what I did there?) But seriously, most of what we know and put into practice from exercise science — yes it actually is a science — has been known for quite some time. In this piece I am going to focus on principles, and most certainly not the “holy-crap-it’s-March-and-summer-is-around-the-corner-and-I’ve-been-gorging-since-Christmas-and-bailed-on-my-gym-resolution” approach. Actually just reading that description five times fast is a nice little cardio workout!
If you’re the type of lawn-trampling shortcut-seeker who doesn’t even have the courtesy to use the sidewalk, this article isn’t for you. If you want actual results — one’s that can help you gain strength and muscle, lose fat, and feel fit, you are in luck. Read on.
Determine your goals and your commitment
Relax, I’m not your girlfriend. You can be honest here. Before you get into the nitty gritty details, you must first ask yourself some questions. Specifically, what are your goals with your workout regimen? And how many times a week can you invest in a workout? Generally speaking, most men will have the same answer to the first question — to build strength and muscle and lose fat. It turns out that you don’t need to take an entirely different approach to do either of those. More about that below.
Your workout frequency will determine the finer details of your routine such as your exercise selection and set/rep ranges. Quite simply, the more you can workout, the more varied your exercise selection can be. The less you can workout, the more you have to focus on the big rocks and exercises that will actually be worthy of your time. (Translation: don’t you dare do wrist curls.) Expect too, that the less you can make it to gym, the more intense (and possibly longer) your few workouts during the week will be.
Now, onto the workout structure itself.
Get moving (Dynamically)
When it comes to warming up in the gym, your warm-up should reflect the movements you are looking to do in your workout. Most importantly, a lot of fitness professionals now agree that the goal of a warm-up is just that: to GET WARM. By doing this one simple thing, you are already setting yourself up for success.
This is why I’d recommend that you stick to dynamic movements and leave static stretching out. It’s a better use of your time. Do what you need to do to loosen up your ankles, hips, and shoulders. And don’t spend too long trying to become a supple slab of veal on the foam roller. Get moving and get strong. Spend about 10-15 minutes on movements specific to your exercises, and you should be good to go.
Strength and compound movements first
If you could only do a handful of exercises for the rest of your life to stay fit, what would those exercises be? I’d strongly recommend compound movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges, and bench presses. I’d throw pull-ups, rows, and shoulder presses into that mix, too. All of these movements have a few things in common, such as movement through multiple joints and generally speaking, the ability to go heavy. This is exactly the recipe to building full body strength, and thus, building muscle and burning fat.
I’d pick one movement here that you consider your “big rock.” It’s the one exercise you must do or else you feel as if you haven’t worked out at all. (Please don’t tell me you said curls.) It’s your bare minimum. This exercise is the one that matters, and in most cases, will probably take the most out of you. It’s also not limited to just the exercises I specified above. Maybe you like deadlifts better with a trap-bar than a barbell? Or maybe you like front squats over back squats? Have at it. They’re still multi-joint compound movements you can load up.
If you can workout twice a week, your big rock on Day 1 might be the squat, and on Day 2 the deadlift. Three times a week, and you can go with a classic powerlifting split of squat, deadlift, and bench press. For this big rock exercise, you should be doing somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-4 sets of 3-6 reps. High intensity, low reps is the objective here. This should be heavy and challenging.
Accessory movement second
After your first exercise, it’s prime time to move into what can be considered accessory/assistance work. This is stuff that contributes to your overall fitness goals and helps with your big rock movements. It should also be used for higher rep ranges to be effective.
In this category, I’d choose two exercises. If my big rock movement was the bench press, I might consider dumbbell benches on a low-incline and one-arm dumbbell rows. If I squatted or deadlifted, I might consider walking dumbbell lunges and lat pulldowns. Sets and reps ranges should be in the neighborhood of 2-5 sets of 6-20 reps for these exercises. Depending on an assortment of variables the range on reps and sets is big here. (Remember when I said this is a science?)
Throughout your training week, you want to make that your heavy compound movements and accessory work cover off all the bases when it comes to “primal” movement patterns: bend, squat, lunge, push, pull, twist. You should utilize variations of the major movements to accomplish this: squat, deadlift, lunge, bench press, row, pull-up, and overhead press.
High rep targeted work and core exercises third
Yes, the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself made the pump famous with this classic description from “Pumping Iron.” Many classic bodybuilding routines advocate doing some accessory movements first as a way to “pre-fatigue” a targeted muscle group. For instance, this might consist of doing high-rep leg extensions prior to squatting. But much like having your wife find out you’ve been shtupping the maid, this scenario is, well, suboptimal.
“Don’t fill up on the salad bar!” sums it up. The reason for this is because of the importance of having a fully-primed central nervous system for the big lifts. If you do high rep accessory work prior to a big lift, think about it as eating into your ability to execute your main lift properly, just as loading up at the salad bar will eat into your ability to finish that porterhouse. (But you’ll prove them wrong anyway, won’t you?) But seriously, your poundages and reps will likely suffer. Instead, opt to throw in the accessory work towards the end of the workout to get some more volume in for specific body parts you want to work on. If you’re in a pinch for time you can also pair two accessory movements together in a superset format to get a good amount of work done in a short period of time: biceps curls, triceps pushdowns, and cable chops/lifts, and ab work but just make sure it’s done after the meat and potatoes component of your workout. And go ahead – make Arnold proud like…you were the project manager on Celebrity Apprentice!
The set and rep prescription here should be something like 2-4 sets of 10-15 reps
Finish with a finisher
Short “metcon” (metabolic conditioning) finishers at the end of the workout are great to finish up getting your heart rate up close to max and increase the overall energy expenditure during and after your workout. A short metcon of 5-10 minutes will make you continually burn more calories after your workout because of increased oxygen consumption (EPOC). For the metcon think about dynamic and explosive movements such as kettle bell swings, along with variations of medicine ball slams and tosses, and loaded movements like Farmer Carries. (Note: Both lifting heavy weights and performing an exercise until muscular fatigue or failure on accessory movements will accomplish EPOC as well.)
Leave the recovery and cardio for different days
Some people wind up performing steady state cardio after their workout is finished because they want to get some extra work in and burn more calories. The big downside to this is that it causes an “interference effect.” This simply means that since it’s on the other side of the energy spectrum from strength training, i.e. long and slow vs. short and fast (for simplicity), you won’t get the optimal physiological and hormonal responses to the strength work you just performed. Succinctly: It will hurt your “gainz” faster than a “you’re small” comment on your #FlexFriday post. Instead, get this work done between your strength training days at a moderate intensity. Doing it on a separate day will help you keep all your gains as well as recover better between your strength days.
The prescription for this is steady-state cardio on “recovery days” lasting 20-40 minutes long.