Your Fitness Plan Part 2: Specific Fitness Programs
In part 1 of Your Fitness Plan, I identified the building blocks of long-term health as being nutrition, exercise, sleep, and environmental/personal factors. Focusing on the first three, I presented guidelines for optimal nutrition, exercise, and sleep from a general health perspective.
In this article, I will explain how to adjust these guidelines into a specific fitness program (if you are interested in learning the difference between these goals, see Setting your Training and Fitness Goals).
The goals I will look at are weight loss, size & strength, and sports performance & power.
1. Fitness program for weight loss
As always, the focus is on sustainability, which is why I do not promote fad diets. In fact, I will usually use the term "nutritional program", the difference being that a nutritional program is forever while a diet is usually temporary.
Nutrition: Follow the guidelines in part 1 but create a calorie deficit that leads to gradual weight loss. For most people weight loss should not exceed 2 pounds per week. The general rule is that the higher this number, the higher the chance you are burning off your precious muscle and ruining your metabolism.
Once you have lost the desired weight, you simply add a few calories until you reach the maintenance zone, but continue to use the same sound nutritional principles to keep yourself slim and healthy. Once you have learned how to eat right, keeping the weight off will be much easier — unlike with fad diets which offer no long-term tools.
Exercise: In theory, it is possible to lose weight even without exercise, but it is harder and it is far, far less healthy to do so. The ideal recommendations I made in part 1 apply (i.e. 3-5 cardio workouts, 1-2 interval training sessions, and 2-4 weight training sessions per week), with the only modification that cardios should ideally be over 30 minutes (45-60 minutes is an excellent target as you become fitter). It goes without saying that you should build up slowly and always check with your doctor first. Same goes for interval workouts and weight training, where it is always a good idea to hire a personal trainer for a few sessions.
2. Fitness programs for size & strength
Even though these are fairly distinct goals (see Training for Strength vs Training for Size), for the purpose of this article I can discuss them together. Both represent anaerobic muscle-building activities and there is a certain commonality to the approach.
Nutrition: It is widely accepted that the best way to gain muscle is to alternate between bulking and cutting phases. The reason for this is that the body operates best when it is doing one thing at a time. It is hard to gain muscle without also gaining a certain degree of fat.
The solution is to eat healthy but with a calorie surplus, e.g. 500 calories extra per day, for a period of a few months (this is called bulking) and then switch to a calorie deficit until you have trimmed the excess fat (this is called cutting). During bulking you will gain mostly muscle but also some fat, and during cutting you will lose mostly fat but also some muscle. The net gain however is far higher than trying to do everything at once.
The ideal nutritional guidelines from Part 1 still apply during both bulking and cutting. This is important so as not to gain too much fat during your bulking phase. A very common calorie distribution for weightlifters is 40-40-20 (carbs-protein-fats) - see the section on Nutrition in Fitness Plan part 1 if you need to know how this works.
I should note here that certain athletes, like bodybuilders, have far more stringent nutritional requirements due to the need to maintain a very low body fat percentage, while powerlifters and Olympic lifters vary in the strictness of their approach.
Nutritional supplements are very useful for strength athletes, in particular protein & amino acid supplements, creatine, and vitamins.
Exercise: An entire section is devoted to this, so I will keep this brief. Weight lifting (or similar training) is at the core of gaining strength and/or size. There are thousands of routines, but here I will simply point to a few principles:
- Rep ranges below 6 (with correspondingly high weights) will be more geared towards strength.
- Rep ranges between 6 and 20 are more geared towards size as the muscles will store glycogen. Bodybuilders typically train in this range.
- Reps performed explosively or with acceleration focus on building power (see below)
- Heavier sets (i.e. low reps and high weight) require longer breaks, often up to 5 minutes for strength sets. and 1-2 minutes for bodybuilding. Conversely, training for muscle size typically at a somewhat higher rep range, e.g. for bodybuilding, usually requires shorter breaks of about 1-2 minutes.
- Training 3-4 times per week is perhaps the most common schedule.
- The body tends to adapt, so it is good to mix up the routine every few months.
- Everyone's body is different, so there is no such thing as a program that works equally well on everyone. However, if you are a beginner, stick to tried and tested programs and sound principles.
- Cardios are still important for general health, but should be kept close to the minimum suggested number during bulking phases (e.g. 30 minutes, 3 times per week), and ideally they should not be done in the same session as weight training. Also, do not do a cardio within 24 hours of a leg day.
3. Fitness programs for sports performance & power
Nutrition: High-level athletes require considerably more calories and carbs than regular fit people because they train more frequently. Similarly, they may also require more supplements as it can be very difficult to get everything they need from diet alone.
Follow the ideal nutritional guidelines specified in Part 1, but you may want to try a different calorie distribution to accommodate your activity level. For example, a 50-30-20 (carbs-protein-fats) would provide relatively more carbs to fuel workouts.
Exercise: If you want to become better at your sport, the most important thing to remember is that you will get better only in what you train. This may sound silly, but many people ignore this fact. What you need to do is to break down your sport's requirements. Does it involve sprinting, striking, kicking, jogging, changing direction, grappling, etc.? Which muscles does it use?
There are basic several components of a training program:
- Core training: This refers to the central muscles of the body that stabilize us. Core training is more than just abs and lower back, and any good athlete must begin by building a strong core.
- Weight training exercises: Explosive movements are at the core of all sports, so your training needs to incorporate this. For instance, explosive/accelerated weight training with movements that incorporate multiple muscle groups, e.g. squats, power cleans, deadlifts, presses, and pulls. This is not about slow and steady, nor about increasing your 1 rep max; it is about improving your explosive power.
- Aerobic conditioning: e.g. Running, biking.
- Sport specific training: These involve movements, exercises, and drills specific to your sport.