Thursday, July 31, 2008

My workout routine - part 2

In my previous post, I described the cardio portion of my gym workout routine. Before I get into the remaining details of my workout, I want to talk a little about gym etiquette. The rules that I observe as most frequently violated are:

1. Bring a clean towel and wipe up after yourself.
No one likes to use a machine that's drenched in someone else's sweat. I use a towel not only to wipe up my sweat, but to also act as a barrier between my skin and potentially germ laden equipment. In addition, it's probably a good idea wash your hands (or use hand sanitizers) before and after your workout.

2. Don't hog equipment. Be courteous of other gym members; their time is as important as yours. That means not dawdling at a machine chit chatting or texting, especially if the gym is busy. If you're doing multiple sets on a machine, allow people who are waiting to hop on if you take long rest breaks between your sets.

3. Rerack weights after you're done with them. Don't assume the gym staff will pick up after you. Return your weights to the rack after you're finished using them, so that other members don't have to go hunting for them.

Those are my personal biggest pet peeves. has some other good tips on the subject.

While there's some uncertainty regarding the timing and benefits of stretching, I perform stretching exercises to improve my flexibility, and because it feels good. I use a stretch trainer which makes it easy, but here's some information and slide show from the Mayo Clinic for doing it manually. I stretch for about 5 minutes after cardio, and before weights.

For my strength training, I utilize a circuit training program using primarily weight machines. As stated in my previous post, my goal is to stay lean and toned, not to get big and bulky like professional bodybuilders, so this method works well for me. I try target all the major muscle groups, and the machines at the gym make it easy to perform the exercises safely. I perform one set of 15 reps per machine, and set the weights to reach exhaustion on the last rep. To eliminate rest periods and shorten my workout, I alternate between upper and lower body exercises. Here's what my circuit routine looks like:

  • seated row (trapezius/upper back)
  • seated leg curl (hamstrings)
  • biceps curl (biceps)
  • leg extension (quadriceps)
  • chest press (pectoralis)
  • ab crunch (abdominals)
  • shoulder press (deltoids)
  • back extension (lower back)
  • tricep extension (triceps)
  • leg press (gluteals)
  • lat pulldown (latisimus dorsi)
  • ab curl(abdominals)
  • seated fly (pectoralis)
  • calf extension (calfs)
Since I've been working out at the gym for a long time now, I have been adding additional, more advanced exercises at the end of my workout to further define certain body areas (abs, arms, chest). These include:
  • hanging leg raises (I do them slowly for maximum effect)
  • unassisted pull ups
  • push ups
I'm pretty happy with the results, and I feel that 3 hours a week at the gym is not a huge time drain at all.

Friday, July 25, 2008

My workout routine - part 1

So I promised to document my gym workout routine that I've been following (and tweaking) for the past 10 years. My fitness goal was simple: to become and stay physically fit, which to me means excellent cardiovascular health and strong muscles & bones. Looking built was not a factor in my motivation--in fact I'm not a fan of the bulky bodybuilder look at all. I prefer being lean and toned, and am proud to say that I can still fit into my old college clothes from the early 1990s (without sucking in my gut either!). My body fat level has stayed in the 6-8% range for the past several years, and although my diet has a lot to do with that (which I plan to blog about), it has exceeded my expectations.

Anyway, here are the details of the workout program that I've developed, via my own research and experimentation, and it has worked extremely well for me, but may not be for other people. As always, beginners should check with their doctors before starting any form of exercise if they are extremely out of shape or have medical conditions.

I used the following criteria in mind when choosing activities to include in my workout:

1. Safe. Above all else, I wanted to minimize the risk of injury. For me, that means no running (since it tends to be hard on the knees, which I want to preserve as I intend to be mobile for a very long time), and using machines instead of free weights. While machines offer a limited range of motion compared to free weights, the risk for injury is also far less, so it was a trade off that I was willing to accept. Also, I've never used steroids, drugs, or supplements, as I wanted to achieve my healthy results naturally. Again, the focus is on my health rather than how I look.

2. Effective. I wanted activities that emphasize the three key areas which I consider to be crucial for my well being: my cardiovascular system, core muscle groups, and bones. So the exercises that I selected had to offer a direct benefit to those areas.

3. Efficient. I enjoy the results I obtain from working out, but I didn't want to turn into a gym rat to get them. If it takes longer than 3 hours a week, I would probably lose interest in any exercise program. Currently, I go to the gym 3 times a week, for about an hour per visit. I usually go every other day (Mon/Wed/Fri or Tue/Thu/Sat, depending on the week), giving my body a day to rest between gym visits.

My workout currently begins with 30 minutes of cardio (though recently it has been extended to 35 minutes to reach the 400 "calories burned" mark--at least according to the exercise equipment that I'm using). Some say that doing cardio after lifting weights makes for a more effective workout. I've tried doing it both before and after using weights, and haven't noticed a huge difference. Lately, I prefer to just get the cardio part over with as I enjoy the resistance training more. Alternatively, you could do cardio and strength training on different days, but that means more trips to the gym, and I'd prefer to keep that to a minimum.

I do cardio primarily on the exercise bike and elliptical/crossramp trainers, alternating between them as I get bored with one. I like these machines because they offer safe, low-impact, and effective cardiovascular workouts, although sometimes I will do a brisk walk on the treadmill, play racquetball, or swim for a switch.

When I started doing cardio workouts initially, I couldn't do more than 15 minutes at a time--and at a pretty low intensity level at that. However, I stuck with it, and very slowly increased my time and intensity level. I didn't set specific goals though, because I didn't ever want to feel bad for failing, which may cause me to quit altogether (I've gone through several workout partners that stopped going to the gym once they suffered setbacks, and I didn't want to have that happen to me). Any time that I can make it to the gym--even if I end up doing a light or partial workout--is a victory in my book. It prevents the feeling of guilt for missing workouts, which in my experience also keeps a lot of people from sticking to a fitness program because they feel that they can never make up for lost ground.

Cardio is all about keeping your heart healthy, and to that end I've started using a heart rate monitor to help keep my heart rate in the anaerobic zone, or 80-90% of my maximum heart rate. I find that I sweat a lot when my heart is working that hard, so I always make sure I drink plenty of water to stay hydrated during and after my workout. However, I deliberately avoid energy drinks because of dental health concerns.

In my next post I will go into the second half of my workout program, which includes stretching exercises and muscle training.

Note: I've been hearing a lot of buzz about interval training lately, and some people claim that it's better than cardio. The key is to do what works for you. My workout has worked well for me, and that's all that really matters. If at some point in the future I stop getting the results that I want, then I'll change my routine.

About the 100 push-ups thing...

I've been seeing a lot of the 100 push-ups challenge lately, and while it sounds impressive on the surface, in reality it's just a fad, and one that will probably fade pretty quickly. I'm all for things that will get people excited about exercise, but this fails on many levels. First, it's not a comprehensive fitness program, as it focuses on only one upper body exercise. Getting good at push-ups will not address more important and commonplace issues such as poor cardiovascular health and obesity. Second, it's a very aggressive challenge, one that most non-athletic folks are likely to fail at, which will only make them feel worse about themselves. Finally, everybody's physical ability and fitness level is different, and it doesn't make sense to set the same goal for everyone. Getting fit is not a sport or a competition. It's about being the healthiest that you can be given your medical condition, age, and other factors which vary from person to person.

A better approach is a sensible, balanced, and achievable program with tailored goals based on individual circumstances. Such a program would include core conditioning to strengthen all the important body muscles, aerobic exercise to improve cardiovascular health, and proper dieting techniques.

Anyway, I don't want to rain on anyone's parade--and I'm sure there are people who will disagree with me, but I just wanted to state my own opinion.

Here are a couple of links that I found to be relevant:

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Incorporating exercise into your life

If there's one thing that I'm extremely passionate about, it's living a healthy lifestyle. I would rather have health without wealth than wealth without health, as I think would most people when it comes down to it.

Everyone is aware of the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S.; we merely have to look around us for ample evidence. Even more unfortunate, many of us have friends or family who suffer from some of the health complications related to obesity.

There are many sources of blame for the obesity problem, but the solution is fairly simple and we all have the power to do what it takes to address it. Eating is a big part of it, and I have previously blogged about the topic and plan to continue to do so in the future. However, we all know that exercise is good for us (here's a scientific explanation behind some of the reasons why). There's recent evidence that suggests a healthy lifestyle triggers changes as far as at the genetic level.

It doesn't take a huge time commitment to incorporate exercise into our lives to obtain the health benefits that it provides; as little as 3 hours per week can be all that's required. I have been going to the gym regularly for 10 years now and enjoy being in the best physical condition that my body has known, so I speak from personal experience.

I currently maintain around 6-8% body fat, although my primary goal is to feel good rather than look good--not that it's a bad side effect. For the record, I've never used a personal trainer (although I did take a basic weightlifting class in college), taken supplements, or visited a nutritionist, so if I can do it, anyone can. I have read a few books on the subject, done some research on the internet, and experimented at the gym, but the biggest step is just making health a priority and creating time to get fit.

Exercise can be grouped into three categories:

  • Flexibility exercises such as stretching improve the range of motion of muscles and joints.
  • Aerobic exercises such as cycling, walking, running, hiking or playing tennis focus on increasing cardiovascular endurance.
  • Anaerobic exercises such as weight training, functional training or sprinting increase short-term muscle strength.
While I do incorporate some stretching exercises into my workout, the bulk of my time is focused on cardio and strength training. At least three times a week, I spend an hour at the gym, consisting of half an hour of intense cardio (bike, elliptical, cross-ramp, treadmill, etc.) and half an hour of circuit & weight training to work my major muscle groups. I will go into more detail about my workout routine in a subsequent post, but suffice it to say, the cardio exercise is good for my heart, and the resistance training keeps my muscles and bones strong.

I think a lot of people fail or give up on exercise because of unrealistic expectations and/or boredom. I found it helpful to start slow and do what I can, and gradually build up my endurance over time (as a caveat, always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program if you're seriously out of shape or have medical conditions). Don't get discouraged if you don't see drastic results immediately. It takes time to gain weight, and it will take time to lose it. Those get-fit-quick programs such as "The Biggest Loser", while inspirational, are rather unrealistic for most people who lead busy lives and don't have a significant amount of time and resources at their disposal.

Some studies suggest that checking the scale regularly helps to maintain weight loss, but as stated in the video clip above I found that measuring my waist, chest, and arms make for a better indicator of progress, since muscle gain is an inevitable result of any fat loss activity and may skew weight readings.

The key to a successful exercise routine is to make it a sustainable habit, and everyone has tricks to keep their exercise programs interesting, whether it's listening to music, reading books, or something else. I find that having a dedicated workout partner helps me to stay motivated, and I use a heart rate monitor to keep the intensity of my cardio workouts high. I really enjoy the adrenaline rush after going to the gym, but if you don't quite get the same experience then find other ways to reward yourself for making progress and sticking with your exercise program. Maybe a new iPod will make your workout routine less boring, or a new wardrobe will give you more incentive to hit the gym.

As the Nike slogan says, "just do it."