Olympic weight lifting, running, powerlifting, cycling, CrossFit, yoga, Pilates, swimming, body building, high intensity intervals, classic strength training, functional training, kettlebells, bodyweight, suspension training…the list goes on for different training techniques and approaches. It’s difficult enough for an experienced professional to determine the best path for a client. For the average individual it’s a confusing mix of names and sometimes very conflicting approaches to achieving fitness, or whatever someone’s individual goals are.
Most trainers/coaches tend to take the “I have a hammer, every client is a nail” approach and train whoever comes through the door with whatever techniques they tend to emphasize and practice. If they teach yoga everyone needs yoga, if they coach kettlebells then that is tool that everyone is going to be driven towards. Even multi-modality approaches like crossfit which use a mix of bodyweight/gymnastics/Olympic/power lifting still have a particular flavor that uniquely defines them. More educated and experienced trainers will have a larger variety of tools and approaches to pull from and have a more flexible approach towards training different types of clients but still tend to have approaches that define how they work and train clients.
If professional coaches have a hard time successfully adapting their training style to best meet the individual needs of a client, how do we expect the general public to intelligently pick the right trainer for them, let alone pick the right type of fitness practice to pursue either with a coach or on their own?
After nearly 25 years of coaching a wide range of clients I’ve begun thinking of choosing the right path to fitness like my drive to work. I drive approximately 18 miles from my home to my gym. That distance allows for a variety of different routes that I can choose. Of those countless choices, there are three main highway routes that I can most logically take. Regardless of all the other options, the quickest, most efficient path is always going to be one of these three routes.
For each of these routes there are multiple ways I can get from my home to the highway however for each main highway route, there are usually two most logical, efficient routes to the highway. Under normal circumstances picking any way except one of the two main routes just doesn’t make sense. Still, there are many times that local traffic blocks my first choices and I have to circle around another way.
Once I’ve made my way to my preferred highway path I may encounter any number of problems. Heavy traffic, an accident, road work, bad weather, flooding or a lack of visibility (ok my drive to work isn’t that fraught with danger but in theory it could be and there is a great chance that traffic and accidents will certainly be a factor). So on any given day I could choose to get off at any number of exits and take any of dozens of surface streets around the delay and get back on the highway further along or even take those surface streets all the way to my final location.
Usually I will get to work fastest if I stay on the highway but other times one of the side routes on surface streets will be a quicker, more sensible path for me to take. Now that you’ve all learned about my horrible commute to work, what does it have to do with choosing the right type of exercise for you? Well, it has a lot because whether you are choosing a type of exercise, a specific trainer for that technique or are coaches choosing the right approach for your client that decision is just like my decision about how to get to work.
Instead of starting from geographical location, your home, you are starting from your current level of fitness, or lack of it. And instead of heading to work, your final destination is your fitness goal. It may be a clearly defined objective like losing 25 lbs, running a marathon, bench pressing 225 lbs or a more subjectively defined goal like not having back pain, being able to go for a run without losing your breath, fitting into clothes that used to be tight, performing your favorite sport better or just feeling stronger and fitter.
Now that we have a starting point and a destination the first big question is what main route are you going to take? If your end objective is a clearly defined activity like running or swimming then it is pretty clear that the path you should be taking most of the time involves performing that activity (don’t worry, there are still reasons to use the other routes to support your main path, we’ll get to that in a further down). If you happen to love doing a particular type of exercise and are drawn to it than that will be the main path. If you want to do yoga then any reason I give for doing a different form of exercise is secondary to your desire to do yoga and you should be on that route.
If your fitness goals would best be served through some form of resistance training then you are going to follow those routes but there are still multiple ones to choose from leaving the question, which one is most efficient? Which one is right for me? Unless your final location clearly reveals that one path is the optimal one or you happen to have enough knowledge on the subject to analyze the options then you are probably going to be steered onto a particular path by whatever outside influence you happen to consult . It could be a friend, family member or trainer at your local gym. Whatever approach they prefer using is the path you are going to be put on. For the professional coach deciding what to do with a new client we would like to think that they would do a careful analysis of your situation and choose the route best suited to you but in reality they are going to put you on a path and train you based on whatever their education, experience and personal preferences are. It might be a great path for you, it might be totally wrong for you or more likely will have some benefits but not necessarily be the quickest or optimal path for you.
The reality is there probably isn’t going to be one optimal route to follow but like my choice of three main routes to get to work, there will be a number of different main routes that get you from your starting point to your objective and they will all be roughly equally effective. It doesn’t matter which one you take but you will probably find a preference for one over the other. Now you are most likely sitting there thinking “Seth, you just spent two pages telling me it doesn’t really matter which path I take. I want those five minutes of my life back”. Yes, we just took a non-optimal route getting to this point but don’t worry, things are about to get much more complicated.
Even though I’ve just said you can pick any of a few main routes to get to your objective, and that you are going to pick one primary path there are still benefits to sometimes taking the time to drive one of the other routes. Just like an event at a the local arena or road work may make you choose to drive a different way to work, you are often best served by getting off your main exercise approach and spending some time using a different approach. Just like an alternative driving route to work avoids certain temporary problems and has different scenery, a different training path offers different stimulus to your body that may allow you to work around problems, emphasize some other elements that improvement in will serve you on your journey and the variety, the different scenery, is helpful in keeping things mentally stimulating. Sometimes you just need to spend a short period of time driving this other fitness route, sometimes it will be a longer period of time and often you will be choosing to drive one main route some days of the week and another route other days.
Now what about those multiple routes to get on the highway in the first place? Just like you need to take a little time getting from your house to the highway, you can’t just get in your car, step on the gas pedal and start driving highway speeds in the middle of your residential neighborhood you can’t go from sitting on your sofa to exercising at full intensity with great form. You may have injuries that need to be addressed before you can do certain exercises. You could have movement limitations that need to be addressed. There might be painful issues that need to be first corrected and you need to learn the basic techniques of the movements you are going to be doing. And don’t forget your muscles and neurological system need time to adapt to the new demands you are placing on them. We’ve all been sore from doing more than we were ready to do at some time.
Is there just one way to do this preparatory work? Of course not. There are a few main ways to get to the highway from your house and there are going to be a few ways to break yourself back into exercise. They will probably involve the activities you are going to ultimately be performing, the exception being correcting movement limitations and addressing necessary rehabilitation prior to regular exercise. For most people this drive to the highway, the preparatory work is going to be a fairly quick process lasting just a few weeks though for many individuals these activities are going to be the main routes to their goal. There are no shortages of people with significant injuries, pain and limitations and resolving them is the big final destination.
Now let’s say you have done your preparatory work and have made it to the highway of fitness. Some days you take you main route; in this example let’s say it is a classic strength training approach. Because you are smart and carefully read everything above, one day a week you take a different highway route, perhaps a yoga class. There are also days when you are only doing the short drive to the highway and not actually getting on. These would be days that we might consider “recovery days” where you are focusing on just that preparatory work, mobility and taking care of your body. But we mentioned that you can get off the highway at any point and take any number of surface streets. In this example if classic strength training utilizing barbells and dumbbells are your main highway path, those surface streets might be a workout designed around suspension training, bodyweight or kettlebells. It could be using the same tools (barbells/dumbbells) you were using but applying them differently doing a period of powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting.
For the experienced athlete or coach these changes would be planned out and part of a periodized training program. Planed periods of time in the overall training plan that are designed to train different elements. Elements that are related but still different and ultimately build upon each other to help the person maximize their results. Traditionally we talk about hypertrophy (muscle growth), muscular endurance, strength and power but as time has gone by the list of objectives has grown to include other elements. For the average person trying to improve their fitness there are benefits to training these different skills and objectives but they can be a bit more relaxed as to how they are integrated into the overall program. Instead of a carefully planned detour onto another path for a prescribed set of weeks it might just be the occasional change in route to mix things up and present something new to the body.
So even if you drive a particular main road to work, take a different highway once or twice a week for different stimulus, there still may be times you pull off to take those surfaces streets. It would be great if it was always like the above paragraph and a well planned detour onto those roads but very often it is the result of unplanned consequences. Just as weather and accidents and the like force me off the highway on the way to work, gym closings, holidays, work and family conflicts and injuries will force you off of your chosen path. Force you to take some surface streets. Change your training focus for a day or period of time. You can be upset and curse at the traffic gods or see this as an opportunity to address something different. To pay some attention to some aspect of training that you normally would not focus on so much. If you are lucky it is just a short term detour and you get back on the highway fairly quickly, hopefully better for your detour. Sometimes however you can’t get back on the highway. Perhaps your make and model car are suddenly forbidden from driving on that highway (yes I know, that doesn’t happen, just go with the analogy for now). No matter how much you want to drive that Jeep Grand Cherokee on the highway you are just not allowed and every time you get on it the police pull you over and force you off. On your path to fitness it won’t be a car model that is forbidden but perhaps an injury that changes things for you on a permanent basis. You might have been a runner before, or enjoyed heavy squatting and deadlifting but a particular knee injury could mean that you can never do those activities again or do them at the intensity and frequency with which you previously did. Usually with an injury we hope the temporary detour onto surface streets allows you to rehab and get back to normal but sometimes there is a new permanent normal that doesn’t allow you back on the previous road. For some people this injury might have happened before they even began their exercise program and certain routes are off limits to them from the beginning. In these cases you either need to be on other highways or able to get off of a particular highway at the same point all of the time and take those surface streets the rest of the way to your destination. It may be slower driving but you will still get there.
Many people never get off their main highway path. Doing the exact same things day in day out, week after week, month after month. Something we are starting to clearly see is a problem. Many trainers have the opposite problem and they never clearly define a route for their clients to take and every day is a new search through the map and a totally random path taken. As there has been a proliferation of new, less educated and experienced trainers/coaches coming into the field, many without a solid background in exercise science this has become a bigger and bigger problem. It is not difficult to pick some exercises and make someone do them. It is not difficult to make someone work hard and feel intense effort. Doing those things for clearly defined purposes, with a clear path towards an objective however is becoming a rarer and rarer thing. You don’t generally drive somewhere without knowing where you are going and how you are going to get there. Your training shouldn’t be completely random either. Now this doesn’t mean that general workouts, random boot camps and the like are all bad. Quite the opposite, they can be very stimulating, fun and contribute towards reaching your objectives. You just have to recognize them for what they are, a stand alone good workout. If you want to get somewhere specific you can have some of them as part of your plan but to do nothing but them, while still a particular highway path, is not going to be the most direct or effective one or even get you all the way to where you want to be. And if you are choosing a trainer, one who only trains this way, is probably not the most educated, experienced or effective trainer. They may make you feel like you are working hard but we’ve established, that is not difficult to do. This doesn’t mean that younger and less experienced trainers aren’t good. I’ve met countless amazing ones. What separates them from the pack, their desire to know not just things to do, but also why they are choosing those exercises/movements, how they work on a physiological level, how they are applying those exercises for specific objectives and how they are best integrated into a well thought out plan.
So there you have it, a roadmap to fitness. Long, complex, often confusing and full of different elements that sometimes seem conflicting (sounds more like a relationship then an exercise plan). Is there one best way to go? Absolutely not. Do different people need different paths? Without question. Do the best plans include different routes and a plan to use them? Yes. Do you have to be flexible and able to change routes for unforeseen issues? You better be. Do fitness professionals know the best way to get you where you need to be? Sometimes but often not, they can be as lost and confused as you. The best of them, and there are plenty of good ones, do know how to read the map and more optimally guide you.
Now get up and get moving. You can’t reach that destination sitting there.