Getting into shape really isn’t as mysterious as it seems. An entire marketing industry has pushed the idea that you need expert advice and expensive diet plans to drop a few pounds, but the reality of the mechanism is really pretty simple: burn more calories than you take in, and the rounder parts of your body will eventually begin to square off. Admittedly though, if your goals are more complex than simply losing weight, your methodology will have to grow a bit more complex to match.
If you played sports in high school or college, or have worked with a personal trainer at some point in your life, you’ve likely already heard about the difference between working to develop fast twitch muscle fiber versus slow twitch muscle fiber. This simplistic breakdown of muscular training may not be the most biologically accurate depiction of how the process of getting stronger works, but it does serve as a great way to depict the paradoxical nature of functional fitness: the more you work to get better at one thing, the worse you’ll become at some others.
Fast twitch muscle fiber is the sort of muscle professional football players tend to pack on. Big, powerful muscles that are good for unleashing explosive bouts of force, followed by a long recovery period, are perfect for a sport like football, where you work your ass off for 7-10 seconds at a time, then take a 40-second break. People who develop a great deal of fast twitch muscle fiber without working to develop muscular and cardiovascular endurance, are often pretty intimidating, but have a tendency to run out of gas pretty quickly.
Those who devote their training to developing slow twitch muscle fiber, on the other hand, develop more of a lean, runner’s build. These folks can keep moving for extended periods of time, while exerting limited amounts of force. Slow twitch muscle fiber lends itself, above all else, to endurance, making it perfect for the guy or girl that’s got a lot of ground to cover on foot, but a poor choice for body builders.
Neither methodology, or fitness goal, is inherently better than the other – it’s all about what you hope to get out of your workouts. For some people, running a marathon is the ultimate physical challenge they aspire to conquer, while for others, it may be reaching a higher bench or squat. What’s great about fitness, is that it can be whatever you want it to be, because you’re the person you’re doing it for. It is, however, important that you decide what your goals are as you begin to develop an exercise regimen, and that you choose your workout routine, diet, supplements or lack thereof, based on those goals.
There are metric tons of entire books out there devoted specifically to how to get bigger, or how to develop better endurance, and although I’ve got a lot of years and plenty of research behind me when it comes to the fitness game, I won’t even try to claim that I can boil the intricacies of best-case-scenario workout plans down for you in a short article here, but what I can do, is give you a bare bones understanding of how to shift basic exercises toward your goals, whether they’re to be able to move more weight, or to carry your own weight further.
Put simply, a higher number of repetitions of any exercise, with less resistance or weight, will help you to develop slow twitch muscle fiber, endurance oriented fitness. For the sake of comparison, we’ll use squats: if you’re doing squats with an emphasis on slow twitch development, you’ll want to be able to do somewhere between 10 and 20 repetitions before your reach your failing point. Three or four sets of 10-20 reps is a great way to start training your body to put out over a long period of time.
Conversely, if you want to get bigger and stronger, use more weight and far fewer reps. When my focus is on strength building, I’ll sometimes do as few as 3-5 reps per set, with so much weight that I’m unsure if I’ll be able to get back up on that last repetition. Failure, in my experience, builds muscle faster than anything else, so I try to keep my body right on the cusp of collapse when pushing for new personal records.
Personally, I have trouble choosing between an emphasis on fast or slow twitch muscle goals, because real life is tricky, and challenges rarely present themselves in a way that best suits you. As a fighter, it was always important that I brought a combination of power and endurance into the cage with me, to make sure I was packing a punch, but had enough fuel in my tank to keep delivering those punches well into the later rounds. Because of this, I’ve always tried to employ what I call a “functional” fitness goal: wherein I place a somewhat equal value on strength, stamina, and flexibility.
Okay, so maybe my emphasis isn’t that equal… I really hate cardio, so sometimes I put them together.
The downside to bouncing back and forth between long distance jogging or cycling, then high weight, low repetition lifting is that you never achieve the huge muscles of a body builder or the lean frame of a marathon runner – instead you tend to end up somewhere in between. There’ll always be someone stronger than me, and there’ll always be someone that can run three miles faster than me, but I try to be the guy that feels comfortable doing either, even if it means not being able to beat those who specialize in just one. I’m genuinely not trying to convince you that my methodology is best, because, again, fitness is a personal journey.
Pro-tip when it comes to flexibility training: don’t use the static stretches you learned in school (and likely in the military) before you work out. Instead, use dynamic stretching before a workout, where you stretch while moving and warming your body up. Those static stretches are great, however, to reduce soreness and help maintain flexibility at the end of a long day, maybe before you hop into bed.
So whether your goal is to look more like a Lean Lance Armstrong, the all-powerful Arnold Schwarzenegger, or like me, you just want to keep your chest sticking out further than your gut, there’s a workout out there that can help you attain your goal…. But you’ve got to make sure you know what that goal is before you walk into the gym, if you want to see results.
And of course, there are countless other variables in play when it comes to seeing the best results in the shortest amount of time. Your diet, far more than your exercise regimen, will determine your level of success, and small things, like the recovery time you take between lifts or sets, can also play a big role in what you get out of your time in the gym. Remember though, focusing on these variables can indeed help you to succeed, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in the intricacies of achieving the highest level of workout efficiency. It’s always better to do something, than it is to convince yourself that it’s just too damn complicated to do anything.
Images courtesy of the author