If you want to gain or lose weight, develop power or strength, or simply be a more healthy, capable and awesome version of yourself, I suggest that you focus less about body composition, 7-minute abs, or random cardio circuits. These type of interests are fine, but have limited impact. Instead, set a goal to achieve one (physically) Spectacular Thing.
Of course, spectacular is a relative term.
What is something that you cannot currently do? Something that you would like to be able to do, and would cause you to commit to a process? If you have never exercised before and need to develop healthy habits, I would NOT suggest a “Big Bench Press” routine. That’s far too easy.
Achieve 5 full range of motion chin-ups
Complete a 5k in under 25 minutes, with no walking breaks
Then you lay it down in small, manageable increments. You work hard at the goal for 12 or 16 weeks and then allow a respite. What happens, IN THE PROCESS, is that you find yourself more interested in following through with many healthy habits. There’s a lot less internal debate on wether or not you’re going to workout on a given day. You have an agenda that fits into a bigger picture. It’s already scheduled and required of you to hit that goal.
The great “side effects” of committing to a process is that, in the mean time, you find yourself stronger, leaner, and healthier, even though you didn’t micromanage every little calorie and step count. And by the time you achieve something physically spectacular, you genuinely quit giving a damn about your small calves or muffin belly because you can DO things!
And for those really into pushing the limits in training and performance?
I do NOT recommend a constant variety of movements performed at high intensity.
I do not recommend muscle confusion.
I do not recommend making each workout a competitive event (with yourself or others).
I do not recommend pushing the limit workout. This is a recipe for getting sick or injured.
I learned some of these intuitively and as a witness of others. But one, in particular, I learned the hard way.
Let’s say that you take my advice and choose a goal of Barbell Squatting 365 for 20 continuous reps. Yes! A brutal, awesome 20-rep squat plan.
Ten years ago I would have went about this by doing 20 rep squats, once or twice per week, and increasing the resistance by just a fraction during every session. Eight or twelve weeks later, I would be pushing some serious resistance, but feel back or knee strain. I would start feeling overall flat and less than enthusiastic about training days. Back then, the squat program would have looked something like this:
Week 1: (All after warm-ups) Squat 275X20
Week 2: 285X20
Week 3: 295 X 20
Week 4: 305 X 20
Week 5: 310 X 20
Week 6: 315 X 20 (increase in 5 lb increments through week 10)
Week 11: 345 X 20
Week 12: 347.5 X 20 (Yes I have 1 1/4 lb plates)
Week 13: 350 X 20
Week 14: 352.5 X 20
And so on, in ever so small increments, nudging toward 365 X 20. Sure, I would allow a week or two of a slight cut-back if life interfered. But I would quickly get back in the saddle.
Now I go about the actual squat sets/reps quite differently. I also know that in order to really pour myself into a 20-rep squat PR without feeling hung-over, there should be a few other important adjustments.
I will have to cut back on other physical stress, for example keeping a lower intensity in other serious leg work like deadlifts. Toward the end of the Squat cycle, I will significantly cut back on sprints, plyometrics, and any type of grinding workout “finishers” like farmer walks, in order to prioritize recovery. Also, now is not the time to change or get fancy with your diet.
A spectacular 20-rep squat program would look something like this:
Week 1: 285 lbs X20
Week 2: 345 for 3 to 4 sets of 5 rep
Week 3: 305 X 20
Week 4: 355 for 3 to4 sets of 5 rep
Week 5: 315 X 20
Week 6: 370 for 3 to 4 sets of 5
Week 7: Box squats with a pause at the bottom, 315 for 3 to 4 sets of 5 reps
Week 8: 325 X 20
Week 9: 385 for 4 sets of 5 reps
Week 10: 335 X 20
Week 11: 395 for 3 sets of 5
Week 12: 345 X 20
Week 13: 405 for 2 sets of 5
Week 14: 365 X 20
Yes! I know there is a 20-lb rather than 10-lb jump at the end. BUT…you would be surprised at how this works. You see, all along, weeks 1 through13, the resistance is set at something challenging, but you KNOW that could handle a little more. Really, you are working hard and heavy, doing much more than the average fitness enthusiast, but not approaching your maximal effort.
Weeks 1 through 13 are supposed to be TRAINING, not testing. The workload for the day should be something that is hard by most standards. You have to put your “game face” on. But if you show up, warm up, and put some music on, you KNOW that will get the reps in, and go home.
And by the time you arrive at week 14, you will be feeling good, healthy, having recently done a boatload of heavy but not maximal squats, completely ready for an Event. THIS is your test, and if you can find the right Squat Song to put on, I have no doubt that 365 will fall fairly easily!
After you hit your goal, quit while you’re ahead! Relax for a week or two, and pick a new Spectacular Goal to pursue. Maybe it’s 20-rep Squatting 400. Or 5-rep squatting 450. Or deadlift twice your body weight. Or run a sub-6 mile. Or, or, or…do one Spectacular Thing! But don’t try to achieve too many things all at once.
The above 20-rep Squat routine is just an example. Feel free to use it with the resistance adjusted down (or up). Feel free to try other “big bang” exercises. The important lesson here is not any particular sets and reps, but the value of a process of smart, structured and sustainable training rather than any kind of epic berserk high intensity exercises or techniques.
Last spring I used this type of structured programming to be able to squat 315 lbs X 10 reps on the minute, for 10 minutes (100 total reps), and in the summer I used a similar process to achieve a 400 lb farmer walk for 80 yards.
Find a worthwhile goal and stick with it for a while. Keep training as training (not testing), with one goal in mind. Then go ahead and test yourself! Rest and repeat. In the mean time…side effects include feeling good, confident, and being a healthier and more awesome version of you.
Good luck and let me know what’s happening!