I get asked that question all the time. The most common refrain I hear is “I’ve seen your workouts and I could never do that.” It’s as though I’m doing things the average person couldn’t do. The problem is, I’m not doing things the average person can’t do, I’m doing things the average person doesn’t do. There’s a big difference. I’m not some physical specimen that defies human genetics like Chris Hemsworth. I’m an average 56 year old who has slowly adapted over years of working out to be able to do some slightly above average physical activities for my age. My body has adapted to doing a lot of functionally useful movements, which in turn makes me less likely to get injured while performing my activities of daily living. I do a lot of pushing, pulling, squatting, and lifting heavy things, but the key is to not limiting myself to any one modality of working out. One of the core principles of physical fitness is the SAID principle, that is, specific adaptations to imposed demands. The body goes through a stress, recovery, adaptation cycle for all different types of stimulus imposed. The body will adapt to the stimulus your are putting on it, but once your body has adapted to that stimulus, no more change will occur until you change the stimulus. There are a myriad of ways to change the stimulus such as doing more weight, reps, sets, intervals, changing he leverage, changing the rest time between sets, changing the time under stress, or the interval periods. Tweaking any of these variables will create a different stimulus for the body and thus create a new adaptation. Unfortunately, there we do have genetic limits, so short of using pharmacological help, your adaptations will be limited to your bodies genetic potential. So if you weren’t born with the genes to have the physique of Chris Hemsworth, blame your parents. Fortunately, most of us have a long way to go to reach that genetic potential, which leaves a lot of room for growth.
Getting back to the initial question, what’s the best workout? My first answer is, the one that you’ll actually do on a regular basis. If you have been relatively sedentary, you’ll want to start with some cardio (walking, treadmill, elliptical),. Concurrently you’ll want to build up some core strength and stability. After you build up some base conditioning and have built up some core strength, you can venture into some movement based resistance exercises. Whether those are body weight exercises, banded exercise, weight based exercises, or a combination, doesn’t really matter (all are forms of resistance training) as long as you take it slowly and stay focused on proper movement patterns. You don’t want to create any chronic conditions by loading poor movement patterns, so this beginning period is crucial for creating good movement patterns and avoiding injury down the road. Muscles will start adapting relatively quickly because they usually recover quickly from the imposed stresses, but tendons and ligaments don’t adapt as quickly, so take it slow and don’t increase the stimulus so quickly that the tendons and ligaments don’t have time to go through the recovery and adaptation process. If you go too fast you will create some kind of chronic tendinitis. I have done this, and it’s not fun. Proper recovery from tendinitis takes a long time and is very frustrating, so I can’t emphasize enough to take it slow. Once you’ve built a good base of cardio and resistance training, you can start venturing out into a variety of different exercise modalities. You can combine your cardio an resistance work and do HIIT (high intensity interval training) type training. I personally like HIIT because you can combine any number of different modalities into an anaerobic workout that doesn’t require a lot of time and keeps things interesting. An increasingly popular form of HIIT training is crossfit. This combines a stressful HIIT type workout in a social setting. You can use TRX, kettlebells, steel clubs, maces, TRX rip trainer, slosh pipes, sand bags, land mines, slam balls, tires, chains, farmers walks, sprints and an almost endless variation of body weight exercises to create a HIIT workout that will both tax the body and mind. The real beautiful thing about HIIT training is the long lasting endocrine effect it has on the body.
The stimulus provided by exercise elevates the stress hormones in your body. Exercise can range from easy stretching and yoga type work up to a hard core crossfit workout. HIIT and heavy weights elevate stress hormones, which is critical for creating adaptations. Growth hormone, testosterone, endorphins, epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), cortisol and aldosterone all increase during exercise. All exercise puts the body into a state of crisis by endangering the oxygen supply to tissues, increasing body temperature, reducing body fluids and fuel stores, and causing tissue damage. Intense exercise creates endocrine and defense reactions that are similar to those elicited by low blood oxygen, high blood carbon dioxide, acidosis, high body temperature, dehydration, low blood sugar, physical injury and psychological stresses. Hormonally, your body basically freaks out and then it brings out the big guns to deal with the problem so that it’s forced to adapt. Not only is the adaptations created by HIIT style workouts greater, but you can do a HIIT workout in much less time compared to a long cardio or weight session at the gym. Along with the physiological effects, HIIT workouts create other adaptations such as:
- losing body fat (while retaining lean body mass)
- strengthening the cardiovascular system
- developing sport-specific energy systems (e.g. training for that weekend warror team)
- developing “work capacity” (i.e. the ability to tolerate a high level of intensity for a longer period)
- improving fat and carbohydrate oxidation in skeletal muscle
- developing “mental toughness
- challenging the fast twitch muscle fibres — the fibres that are great for strength, power
So what I think I’m saying here is that while the best workout is the one you will do regularly, my go to workout is definitely a HIIT workout. So lift, push, pull and run with heavy things, you can’t go wrong.