So, what’s the best workout?

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 Hemswochris hemsworthrth.  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.  img_2403

Why can’t I just exercise all these extra pounds off?

  • “If I just burn some more calories, those extra pounds I put on will just melt away.”
  • “I’ll go ahead and have that extra slice of pizza/cake/pie, I’ll just work it off at the gym.”
  • “I know I shouldn’t have dessert, but I can just put a little extra time on the treadmill.”

Exercise is not weight control

Do any of these sound familiar? If you’re healthy and at your desired weight and fitness level, there’s nothing wrong with saying these things to yourself occasionally.  If you’re an athlete who does daily multi-hour conditioning type workouts, you can probably get away with poor eating habits for awhile. If you’re not either of these type of people, well, how often are you saying these things to yourself, and does it work?  The answers are altogether too often, absolutely not.

When you rely on exercise only to achieve and maintain your desired weight, you will fail over the long term. I know this may come as a shock to some of you, after all, if  you’re burning more calories than you are consuming, you will lose weight.  That’s correct, to a certain point, but eventually your body will adapt, and if you are still eating a poor diet, you will stop losing weight.  Also, the concept that a calorie is just a calorie, whether consumed or expended, has been debunked in clinical studies many times over.  The quality of your calories is critical to your ability to lose weight, or more importantly, in how fast you gain weight.  If you don’t learn to eat well and to understand the importance of   proper nutrition to your overall well being, when you eventually go through periods in which you can’t exercise, what do you think will happen?   If you haven’t guessed yet, you’ll put on weight.  It’s a common tale, told by many a former athlete.  But not just athletes.   Often, when a person decides to get off the couch and attempts to get fit and healthy, they want to get immediate results, so they embark on a vigorous exercise program.  This is a good thing.  They’re excited about taking the first steps and they jump in with both feet, usually without professional help.  After about 4-8 weeks, the initial motivation starts to wear off, (This is why gym use skyrockets in January, and tapers off by mid to late February) and the daily grind of working out sets in.  Old habits start to look good, the siren’s song of the couch calls to you, that is of course, if you haven’t gotten injured yet. So you’ll revert to your former health and fitness patterns that led you down the path to being unhealthy in the first place.

So what’s a person to do? Stop exercising?  Of course not. Exercise is critical to your overall health and well being.  Maintaining a healthy activity/exercise routine is important to keeping your body moving well and your endocrine system in homeostasis.  The real answer to long term weight loss and a healthier lifestyle is your diet.  But that’s not so easy to change because our dietary habits are hardwired in our brains.  Our daily diet and nutrition habits are deep seated and not so easy to change.  So start small.  Find the low hanging fruit.  We all have those eating habits that we don’t know why we do them, we just do. Maybe they give you a little stress relief, like keeping candy in your desk at work to help you through those stressful days.  Maybe it’s something you’ve been doing so long you can’t even remember when you started, like grabbing a couple swigs of juice or milk every time you go by the refrigerator.  Either way, they are generally habits caused by some kind of cue that you aren’t consciously aware of, which sets of a routine that is adding poor quality calories (usually sugar related) to your daily diet.  So start small, don’t try to make “big” changes in your diet habits.  Identify a couple of these small habits and the cue that sets them off, then come up with a strategy to disrupt those habit loops with a routine that won’t be so bad for you, such as taking a walk every time you get a craving to reach in your desk and grab a piece of candy.  If you can successfully disrupt a small habit loop, you can use that to build up to disrupting bigger habit loops. Studies have shown this type of strategy to very effective in creating larger lifestyle changes.  The best time to start down the road to health and fitness is now, so what have you got to lose?  Give this strategy a chance and see what happens.