In order to improve your fitness, you will need to manipulate one of the following three training variables:-
·The duration of your work out (how long each session is).
·The frequency that you work out (the number of sessions per week).
·The intensity of your work out (how hard you train).
first two variables (duration and frequency) quite obviously refer to training longer and more often as a means of improving fitness, or performance. The third variable, intensity, refers to how hard you work out and how much effort you put in, and there are numerous ways of adding intensity to your training. Our aim here is to provide a no-nonsence guide on exactly how to do that. Let’s face it, many of our lives are busy and hectic enough without having to try to find even more time to exercise. So here is some practical advice on how to get more out of your existing work out time.
It’s all about overreaching
Sucessful training is all about providing a positive training stimulus. A training stimulus will cause the body to adapt and get stronger. Another word for this is “over-reaching” and the higher the overreach, the bigger the improvement. For example, if you normally lift 10kg in a bicep curl and repeat the exercise ten times (10 reps), you can overreach by either forcing yourself to do more than 10 reps, or by increasing the weight slightly and doing the same number of reps as before. The more reps you do, or the heavier weight you lift, the larger the overreach. Do you remember the old saying “no pain, no gain”, well it’s as true today as it was then.
(2) Don’t forget how important recovery is
The flip side to the coin is that the larger the overreach is, the longer you will need to recover to allow the adaptations to occur. Many people make the mistake of not resting for long enough after a hard training session. Always remember that overreaching and recovery have equal importance. I have known of many over motivated athletes that hover well below their true potential because they don’t rest for long enough after hard exercise.
(3) Load up on your carbohydrates
Our two main energy sources during exercise are carbohydrate and fat. Most of us have plenty of the second one, and generally speaking, there is more than enough of this “fuel” stored about our person to be concerned about deficiency. You don’t need me to tell you to cut down on your saturated fats, as it has been said a thousand times before, so I won’t. Carbohydrate on the other hand is our most important metabolic fuel and without it our metabolism would grind to a halt. You should try to eat the starchy carbo’s, namely pasta, rice, potatoes and the cereal crops (oats, wheat, barley, corn etc). These contain complex carbs, which release energy more progressively than the simple sweet sugary ones. They also contain a little protein and a lot of fibre to aid digestion. Carbo’s give you the energy to train hard and recover quickly. They are very important. If you are training particularly hard, I suggest that you purchase one of the commercially available complex carb drinks and use regularly, they are excellent. At the end of the day, a high carb diet will help you train harder and recover quicker
(4) Eat sufficient protein
Muscle and the enzymes that regulate our metabolism are both made of protein, and therefore we need a regular supply in our diet. In general, aim to consume two high grade protein sources per day (high grade means meat, fish, soya or dairy products). If you are vegetarian, you will already know about mixing your pulses (beans) and grains (cereals). These are lower grade proteins, which when combined form a high grade one. Again, if you are training very hard, you may benefit from buying one of the commercially available protein supplements, but don’t get too carried away. The body building supplements industry thrives on Joe Public buying far more protein than is actually needed. I suggest you use it to supplement your existing diet by adding a third high-grade protein meal, or use it to replace a meal that you may have missed.
(5) Pay attention to your technique on the resistance machines and free weights
Slow down! If your movements are too fast, the weights will gather momentum, which actually helps you through the movement. If you want to overreach, you must control the movement so that the forces through the muscle are maximised. I have seen people swinging a dumbbell like a pendulum during a bicep curl. You may be fooling yourself into thinking you are lifting a bigger weight, but you will achieve a far greater overreach if you use a lighter weight and lift it more slowly in a controlled momentum-free movement.
Check your movement patterns! Poor movement patterns involve muscle groups that shouldn’t be being used, lessening the load on the muscle group you should be targeting. If you are a member of a gym, book in with an instructor tomorrow and ask them to run through all your exercises with you (even if you’ve been training for years). A good instructor will show you how to execute the movements smoothly, maximising the load on the muscles you are aiming to work. If you are not a gym user and train at home, seek the advice of a qualified Personal Trainer, or fitness consultant (It will probably be the best money you’ve ever spent on training).
(6) Push to failure
How many times have you been told to do 3 sets of 10? Stick with the 3 sets, but change the philosophy to 3 sets to failure! Failure means, “until you can’t go on”. This way you will overreach three times in three sets instead of two sub-maximal sets (warm ups), leading to a final set to failure. Some people don’t even fail on the last set. Always remember the overreaching principle outlined above… push to the max.
The best way to structure this type of training is to set yourself a range, so instead of 3 sets of 10, aim for 3 sets of 8 to 12. If you manage to get more than 12 out of your first set, keep going until you fail, but be sure to put the weight up next session. It is quite normal for you to experience some decay in the number of repetitions as the sets move on, in fact, this decay proves that you are pushing to failure. For instance set 1 = 13 reps, set 2 = 11 reps, set 3 = 8 reps. I suggest you give yourself a warm up set with a lighter weight before you start pushing to failure, but don’t include it as one of your sets.
(7) Don’t stick to the same rep range
If you want power and bulk, you should be training at a lower rep range (typically failing at 4-8 reps) than if your goals are muscular endurance and definition (typically failing at 8-15 reps). Many people get stuck in a rut though and always train in the same rep range, without realising that they will gain improvements if they switch to a totally different range for a change. For instance, if you are after bulk and power, train for three weeks at 4-8 reps, then for a week at 8-12 reps. Alternatively, you could push 3 sets to failure at 4-8 reps, then add a final set using a lighter weight and higher repetitions. I have noticed significant strength gains in clients of mine that have embraced this system of training.
(8) Prepare yourself psychologically
Be optimistic! If you managed 11 reps in your first set last time, aim for 14 this time and count yourself through it. Push through the 11 mark and see how many you get.
Use imagery to help you achieve a higher standard. Research has shown that those who imagine that they are going to succeed do succeed. A good positive image to use when you are lifting a weight is to imagine that your arms are like powerful pistons that will continue to move slowly and purposefully, at a constant speed regardless of the load they are under. Nothing will slow these pistons down. Keep this image in your mind when you next train and you’ll be amazed at the results.
Similarly, if you are partaking in cardiovascular exercise, relax and focus on visions of strength and power. Also, the more tense and tight you are, the slower you will go. If you are running for instance, relax those shoulders and arms, and you will soon notice that you are running at the same speed, but under considerably less strain.
(9) Add a bit of incline to the treadmill
If you run outside, your muscles are forcing your limbs to propel you both forwards and upwards. If they only propelled you forwards, your feet would never leave the ground and if there were no forward force, you would be jogging on the spot. If you run on a flat bedded treadmill, you are simply adding upward force with minimal forward force. The mass of your body is after all stationary. By adding an incline to the treadmill bed, your limbs are forced to add more forward propulsion as a means of stopping your body sliding backwards with gravity. If you are using the treadmill to train for a marathon, or similar running event, it is vital that you add approximately 2-3% gradient to the bed, or you’ll have a shock when you try to compete in the event.
(10) Use CV equipment in the gym that works a large total muscle mass
When you next train at a high intensity on CV equipment, try to establish whether you feel your limitations are Central (your heart and lungs are struggling and limiting you to your current pace), or local (your limbs are aching, preventing you from going any faster). It is more than likely that machines producing large movements of the limbs, or multi-limb movements will cause you to be limited centrally. This means that if you want to train and expand your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs), your best exercises are running, rowing, nordic skiing machines, and some of the latest cross training machines which work both the upper and lower body. Exercises like cycling and stepping often use a relatively small total muscle mass, resulting in a fairly small appetite for oxygen and hence a low strain on the cardiovascular system, but a larger strain on the muscles that are working.
(11) Introduce some interval training
Interval training is the ticket to superior cardiovascular performance. If you usually exercise at a steady pace, you are mainly working your aerobic system (aerobic means with oxygen). If you want to run, cycle, row faster you will need to train your anaerobic (without oxygen) system as well. Think of anaerobic training as being the icing on the cake. Your anaerobic power will combine with your aerobic power to give you a higher maximum power. Interval training simply involves working intermittently with hard and soft efforts, where the interval is a hard, high intensity effort, and the active recovery period between intervals is kept light. The interval focuses you, making you work harder than usual and hence causing your body to “overreach” as discussed earlier.
A good guide is to break your usual 20 minute CV workout up into 10, 1 minute intervals with 10, 1 minute recovery periods. Work up the intensity of these intervals as you gain fitness and confidence. You can train similarly outside running, or on your mountain bike (just find a big hill). Please be aware that Interval training is a pretty complex subject and this is just one way of doing it, but give this one a go and watch your performance improve.
(12) Train at your anaerobic threshold
Your anaerobic threshold (AT) is your maximal sustainable intensity of exercise. If you exercise even slightly above your AT, you would have to ease up or stop within minutes. Exercising at this intensity will result in major improvements to your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, making you fitter and faster. It is almost impossible to exercise at this intensity for more than 20 minutes because it hurts so much, but as I mentioned earlier “no pain, no gain”.
If you have a bike, set yourself a 20 minute loop. If you are a gym user, set the console time to 20 minutes and push yourself at a consistently high sustainable pace. If you could have gone on for more than 20 minutes, you weren’t working hard enough!
The chart below should help you to monitor your individual level of effort.
(13) Hold for 2 seconds when you Ab-crunch
An Ab-crunch is that simple little exercise where you lie on the floor and crunch the torso. The aim of the exercise is to work the muscle group collectively called “the abdominals”. This is tip is simple. Firstly, slow down the movement, so that you don’t gather momentum (as discussed under technique above). Then as you crunch, try to move to your maximum range of motion ie) on each crunch, try to move further than you’ve ever moved before. Finally, when you get to the highest point of the movement, hold still for two seconds before slowly letting yourself down. You will find this technique far more effective than any you have used before.
(14) Make sure you Drink enough
Dehydration has a dramatically detrimental effect on cardiovascular performance. Research from the 1980’s showed that a 1% loss of body weight (through sweating) lead to a 5% reduction in performance. If you are unlucky enough to loose 5% of your body weight through sweating, expect a 30% drop in your performance. Any more than 5% and you may not be around to tell the tale. The secret, believe it or not is to drink regularly. Most drinks will do the job, but try to avoid the beverages that contain caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic (makes you pee) and will help to dehydrate you.