I often feel like I'm a salmon. Not in a bad way. More in a "swimming against the tide of outdated fitness information" way.
But sometimes, that tide is just too strong.
Whether it's someone's preconceptions of training, or previous experiences with other trainers/coaches, people are often surprised when they go through one of my sessions or classes. There's this idea that in order for training to be "good" it must be 1) hard, 2) intense, 3) bodybuilding style, and/or 4) cardio based. And really, it shouldn't be any of those four.
So let's start with what "good training" is not:
- Good training isn't how high you can get your heart rate.
- Good training isn't how much you sweat, how hard you breathe, or how sore you get.
- Good training doesn't involve punishing yourself, for whatever reason.
Those thoughts are exactly why so many people - trainers included - get burned out so quickly. After all, most personal trainers don't last beyond 1-3 years, and the drop-off in gym attendance by March illustrates the fleeting nature of New Year's Resolutions.
So what makes for good training? Here are three things it should encompass:
1. Improve your movement
As someone that has over 100 titles in their Netflix Instant Queue, I understand the lure of Netflix on a cold December day. But Netflix, tablets, and smartphones are the absolute worst thing for a population that doesn't move well.
Around 50% of the people I work with fail this test. The inability of someone to get their arms truly overhead is indicative of a few things - overactive lats, underactive abs, a hyperextended thorax - it signals how poor we've become at moving through our own body. Further, 30% of the people I work with are in "chronic pain." In other words, they're constantly bothered by one or more joints and it affects their sleep and daily life. As you might guess, they don't move well either. It's helped me realize a universal truth: people in pain don't move well, and those that don't move well will eventually be in pain.
That's why the first priority in any program should be to create and sustain great movement. Doing so goes beyond a few mobility exercises or stretches to make you feel less tight. You need to practice the fundamental movements - squat, hinge, push, pull - with the best movement, technique, and lowest threshold strategy (so you're not red in the face by simply trying to put your arms over your head).
Things go wrong when movement isn't prioritized, and lifting as much weight as possible or getting fatigued is. Learn how to properly goblet squat, deadlift at least your bodyweight, and do multiple push-ups flawlessly. Learn how to do a get-up correctly, split squat, and how to feel abs when you exhale.
If you feel pain during one of those, you're not exhibiting good movement. But don't worry, because good movement is corrective - you may just need a different starting point.
2. Improve your (mostly aerobic) conditioning.
The biggest - and hardest - connection I try to teach others is that heart rate is a measure of stress. The higher your heart rate, you got it, the more stress incurred on your system. And the more we learn about psychology, the nervous system, and the body, the more we learn that we produce the same stress response regardless of the cause.
So rather than completely rehash this post, the conditioning goals of a training program should be the following:
- Get your resting heart rate below 60 (the closer to <55 the better).
- Increase the amount of work you can do while keeping your heart rate under 140.
How can you accomplish both? By making 80% of your conditioning low intensity, and only 20% high intensity. Unfortunately, many people have those numbers flipped and I use the following analogy to explain why that's a problem.
One of the measures of a great car engine is longevity and miles per gallon. You could really hammer the gas pedal when you're repeatedly late for work, making your car redline everyday. But you're trading the longevity of your car (and terrible gas mileage) for that immediate reward. This is the trade-off of constantly performing high intensity conditioning. You'll feel the reward of working, sweating, and breathing hard, but your improvement is limited and you'll feel the consequences at some point.
On the flip side, if you brought your car to a mechanic and they helped you get 5-10 more miles/gallon out of your car's engine, you'd be pretty excited. Low intensity cardio does exactly that by increasing the functional volume of your heart, increasing your vascular network, and increasing the function and number of your mitochondria. It makes more sense to make our body more efficient before hammering the engine, rather than the other way around.
The lower you can keep your heart rate during an activity - running, biking, swinging a kettlebell - that's the true mark of improving your conditioning. After all, it's really easy to spike your heart rate and keep it there, but it's tough to recover quickly and keep it as low as possible.
Don't get me wrong, high intensity intervals have a place, but only sparingly if you're programming it correctly.
3. Help you learn how to relax.
Not only are we a population that doesn't move well, we're more stressed than ever. And the solution isn't to just train harder - i.e. more stress. Instead, it's to help people learn how to relax.
That's because people that can't relax have:
- chronic pain or seemingly unexplained pain on a regular basis
- difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
- seemingly low levels of conditioning, even though they may do plenty of it
- need to constantly move, check their phone, or keep busy
Here's where long slow cardio and positional breathing drills from the Postural Restoration Institute do a phenomenal job. They help people relax, lower their heart rate, and make someone more parasympathetic (rest and digest). There are times to get amped up and turn the stereo on max volume - heavy deadlift days, for example. But being able to switch quickly into a more relaxed state and drop your heart rate is a highly underrated skill.
This skill carries over to exercise itself. Most people need to learn how to relax during an exercise, using the minimal amount of energy needed. If you've heard or experienced "gassing out" during the beginning of a race or competition, it's because you expended far too much energy from external stressors. Being able to control your energy will help you move better, feel better, and allow you to be better conditioned.