How to achieve a balanced and realistic exercise regimen for your strongest, healthiest body
In college, I decided I wanted to become a runner. I recently quit the dance team and wanted to find a new type of exercise that would help me achieve my strongest, healthiest body. Runners were always lean and toned, so I thought I’d start there. So, without much thought, I began running. On the treadmill at the gym and around campus, I started with one mile, then worked my way up to seven. I wasn’t the fastest, but I pushed myself. I even participated in a few 5k runs.
Despite my attempts at becoming a runner, I gave up after a few months. The reason? I kept getting minor injuries. From shin splints to calf cramps to ingrown toenails, I was struggling. To make matters worse, an old knee injury (I dislocated it in middle school) started troubling me. The main problem wasn’t running itself, but rather my lack of attention to other types of training. My workouts didn’t include any stretching, and I wasn’t strengthening the muscles essential to running. I had an imbalanced training regimen. I was focused on one type of training, and as a result, I took a step backwards in my overall health and fitness.
What type of exercise should I be doing?
Along these lines, it can be overwhelming trying to decide what types of exercise we should be doing. There are new exercise trends popping up every day, and we are bombarded with stories of people who swear by one type of exercise that enabled them to lose weight, build muscle, etc. While there’s a place for new workouts and success stories, there’s also a place for tried and true methods. And, when you get down to it, most fitness programs can be traced back to one or more of these key fitness pillars. These include strength or resistance training, cardiovascular training, flexibility and balance. These are the types of exercise I do weekly for my strongest, healthiest body.
Strength or Resistance Training
What is it?
As you probably could have guessed, strength training is designed to build muscle (not like a bodybuilder; think toned and lean). You use some form of resistance against the muscle, which results in strength gains. Types of resistance can include but are not limited to: dumbbells, machines, bands, and body weight exercises (like push-ups). Because strength training increases lean muscle mass, it aids in weight loss and boosts metabolism (muscle burns more calories than fat). Moreover, strength training improves bone density and posture, along with overall definition and tone!
Who can benefit from strength training?
I have clients as young as 12 and as old as 72 who are doing the same types of exercises to build functional strength. It’s great for anyone looking to lose body fat and/or build strong, lean muscle. And ladies, don’t worry about “bulking up.” Strength Training, even with moderate to heavy weights, will not make you look like a bodybuilder (If you want to know the science behind this, read this article). It will, however, give you muscle definition and tone in all the right places–like the back of your arms, butt, legs, and abs!
Examples of Strength Exercises
- Dead lifts
- Bench press
How often should I strength train, and for how long?
While one strength training session per week will yield some benefits, two to three sessions per week is optimal. It doesn’t require countless hours at the gym, either. You can train for 20 minutes and still see strength gains and muscle definition. A general rule of thumb: the heavier the weight, the fewer the reps you need to do to achieve strength benefits.
For best results, mix up your strength workouts: lift heavy weights at a lower volume on some days and then light to moderate weights (this includes body weight exercises) at a higher volume on other days. For me this involves teaching Les Mills BODYPUMP (which is a high repetition, low weight, strength training class), and on my off days, I lift heavy weights on the fitness floor.
Cardio is designed to build endurance, focusing on the cardiovascular system—your heart and lungs. This includes aerobic steady state exercise such as running, dancing, walking, swimming, or stair climbing. Cardio also includes anaerobic exercises such as plyometrics and interval training, which is taking any cardio exercise and varying the speed/intensity.
Who can benefit from cardio training?
Anyone looking to lose body fat and/or increase endurance. Cardio not only has great potential to burn calories, but is essential for heart health and disease prevention.
Examples of Cardio Exercises
- Stair Climbing
How often should I do cardio, and for how long?
While it depends on your goals, fitness level and your workout preferences, general recommendations are two to five cardio workouts per week. This could mean two hour-long cardio workouts per week, or five 20-minute cardio workouts, or anything in between. Similarly to strength training, the duration of your cardio workout will depend on the type and intensity.
For aerobic, low to moderate intensity cardio, try for at least a 20-minute workout, up to an hour (or longer, if you’re a distance runner, for example). For anaerobic, high intensity cardio (such as HIIT) you can do as little as 10 minutes, up to 45 minutes–because it’s high intensity, you shouldn’t have to–or be able to–do it for long. I’m a big fan of HIIT because I like to get my workouts done in as little time as possible–I already spend hours at the gym every day for my job, so the more time I can spend watching Netflix, the better.
This type of exercise is all about increasing mobility to aid in your workouts. Maintaining flexibility is essential to fitness because without it, your risk of injury increases drastically. Stretching is the main flexibility exercise; it aids in priming the body for physical activity as well as alleviating soreness post-workout.
Who can benefit from flexibility training?
Anyone looking to increase mobility. Whether you’re an athlete or you exercise in a gym a few times a week, flexibility is essential to getting the most out of your workouts. It’s also great for alleviating tension and improving posture—which is especially important if your job requires prolonged periods of sitting (or if you melt into the couch for three hours after you get home from work).
Examples of Flexibility Exercises
- Static stretching
- Dynamic stretching
- Self-myofascial release (foam rolling)
How often should I work on flexibility?
Flexibility training can be done daily, and while that would be ideal, benefits can still be achieved in two to three sessions per week. This can be done in shorter periods of time, such as foam rolling pre-workout followed by static stretching post-workout for a few minutes (this is what I often do). But don’t rush it! Spend at least 15-30 seconds per stretch, which will amount to at least a few minutes for a full-body stretch. I also highly recommend doing yoga for at least 30 minutes a week. From personal experience, this has helped me gain flexibility and stay injury-free as a fitness professorial.
Balance is another key component to fitness, as it increases overall stability and strength. This is essential as we age—and I don’t just mean if you’re elderly. Balance exercises aid in injury prevention and improve muscle strength and stability.
Who can benefit from balance training?
Anyone looking to build and/or maintain stability and strength. Similarly to flexibility, balance training is important for injury prevention. Also, better balance means you’ll be able to exercise more efficiently, and in relation to strength training, lift heavier weights.
Examples of Balance Exercises
- Single-leg exercises/standing on one leg
- Exercises using a stability ball, BOSU ball or balance board
- TRX exercises
How often should I work on balance?
Like flexibility training, this can be done daily. In fact, balance exercises are easily and often incorporated into other types of training. Think: squats on a BOSU ball (strength training), tree pose in yoga (flexibility) and in any type of jumping or impact exercise (cardio). Be creative in your approach and you’ll find that making balance a part of your training regimen both simple and worthwhile. Check out my Pinterest boards for BOSU and TRX workout inspiration.
In short, learn from my mistakes! Incorporate all these training types into your exercise regimen and you will see results like I have–strength, endurance, and improved mobility. While I am not an avid runner today, I still enjoy running a few times per month along with weight lifting, yoga, and more. What’s more, I’m enjoying my workouts more than ever, and you will too!
Furthermore, you will be more capable of adhering to a plan that is balanced and practical. Implementing strength, cardio, flexibility, and balance into your workouts will help you achieve an exercise regimen for your strongest, healthiest body. Stronger muscles, less soreness and injuries, better mobility, increased endurance, and improved overall health–who doesn’t want that? Need ideas for creating an exercise plan? Check out my article here.