IMPORTANT – consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise program!
We previously discussed why High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and Weight training will give you the the best results from your time spent exercising if you have a goal to lose weight/improve body composition, which nearly all of our clients do. (Again, however, there are many benefits to other forms of exercise such as yoga so we’re certainly not discouraging those!)
In this section we cover how to get started and how to get the most out of both. We’ll take look at HIIT first:
The HIIT Plan
What an Effective HIIT Session Looks like
There are many different exercises that make good HIIT exercises, including sprinting, jump roping, running stairs, burpees, star jumps, mountain climbers, squat jumps, swimming (sprints), kettle bell swing, and more. You can combine many different types into a single session and vary them from session to session to keep it interesting and to work your body in different ways.
The essential ingredients of a HIIT workout are these:
- Always warm up with some jogging or light calisthenics and dynamic stretching. Five to 10 minutes worth.
- Each exercise interval should take 20-60 seconds.
- Each exercise interval should be done with high to maximum intensity from start to finish. A good test of this is you should not be able to talk during the interval.
- Between each interval you should rest briefly until you have caught your breath, usually 30-60 seconds, but can be more if needed. Try to keep moving at a relaxed pace during the recovery interval.
- Complete at least 8 exercise intervals.
- Cool down with some jogging/walking and static stretches. Five to 10 minutes worth.
A typical session can be done in about 25 minutes but can be a little more or less depending upon the length and number of exercise intervals you do and the length of your recovery intervals.
How to get started with HIIT
If you’re just getting into fitness, or starting over after an injury or pregnancy, the key to success lies in doing the right moves, at your own pace. Don’t push too hard too soon or the result can be injuries and other setbacks. Be sure to always warm up, listen to your body, modify as needed, and complete each movement with proper form.
Here’s what a simple, lower impact, HIIT session might look like if you are just starting out:
After warming up (such as light jogging in place) and stretching:
Do each as fast and as intensely as you can for 30 seconds. Rest briefly between each interval, just until you have caught your breath. Do each exercise 3 times for a total of 9 exercise intervals for the session.
Cool down and stretch.
Do this routine two to three times a week but always include at least one day in between for recovery (never do HIIT on back to back days). For example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
As you get acclimated to this routine (maybe after two or three weeks) try incorporating different exercises and adding additional intervals.
The Weight Training Plan
There are different approaches to weight training designed to accomplish different goals, such as building muscle endurance or explosive movement. However, what we’ll focus on here is maximizing the amount of muscle you develop during the time spent exercising. Why? Remember, lean muscle mass burns more calories than other tissues, essentially increasing your metabolism.
Maximizing Muscle Development
You probably know that muscle “building” is actually a process of breaking muscles down, through intense, focused work, followed by a recovery period in which the body not only repairs the broken down muscle fibers but enhances them so that they are bigger and stronger than before. What we want to do then is stimulate this repair and enhancement process as much as possible.
How do we do this? We need to subject the muscle to an optimal volume of intense, focused work:
With weight lifting, high intensity is achieved by subjecting the muscle to heavy weights for a sufficient “time under load” (the actual work time). If either ingredient is missing, your effort is not intense enough to stimulate meaningful muscle growth.
For example, if you did single arm bicep curls with a 2.5 pound weight for two minutes, or a 30 pound weight for five seconds, neither would be very effective in developing muscle. In contrast, for most women for example, bicep curls with a 20 pound weight for 30 to 40 seconds would be sufficiently intense. We’ll explain how to choose the right weight and other factors that affect intensity in the “Putting it all together: a Workout Session” section, below.
When the goal is to develop muscle, it’s essential that you focus your exercises on an isolated muscle or muscle group. You do this by using proper exercise technique to target the intended muscle.
To return to our bicep curl example, a common mistake that violates the focus principle is hinging at the hips when curling the weight upwards. This dilutes the work done by the bicep muscle by distributing some of the work to the lower back, butt and hamstrings. Better technique, such as standing with your back against a wall as you do a bicep curl so you can’t swing your back, helps isolate the bicep muscle and ensures it receives the proper focus.
Volume refers to the amount of work you subject a muscle to. Volume is determined by three things:
- The number of different exercises you do to target the muscle
- The number of sets of each exercise you do
- The number of repetitions of the exercise in each set
You need enough volume in a workout session to sufficiently break the targeted muscle down so that it promotes muscle tissue rebuilding and development.
How to Know if the Targeted Muscle has Received Enough Work
As a general rule, you’ve achieved adequate volume–as well as intensity and focus–when the targeted muscle feels noticeably weaker, sometimes shaky, and “pumped,” meaning you can sense the blood flow that has raced to the muscle in attempt to shore it up and begin repair.
How Frequently to Target Each Muscle
When the goal is to maximize muscle development, you have to be selective about which muscles you target in each workout. No one has the stamina (and few have the time) to target all of the major muscles with sufficient volume, intensity and focus in a single workout.
Combine this reality with the absolute requirement to give your muscles enough recovery time to rebuild, it becomes clear that you should stagger your muscle building workouts. If your workouts are sufficiently intense, focused and contain enough volume, you should only need to target each major muscle or muscle group once a week.
Putting it all together: a Workout Session
We know that in a given session we are going to target one or two muscles, and we know that we are going to subject the muscle or muscles we choose to target to some serious, intense work! So what does that look like?
Getting Enough Volume
Let’s suppose we’re going to target our back today. To get sufficient volume, we might do
- three sets of pull ups (or assisted pull ups)
- three sets of pull downs
- three sets of seated rows
- three sets of bent rows
Each set is made up of 7-10 repetitions each. This would give us 12 total sets for between 84-120 total repetitions.
That’s some good volume for a large muscle group like the back. Smaller muscles such as biceps typically don’t require as much volume; three to six sets of 10 repetitions is probably adequate, and legs, the largest muscle group, may require more volume.
Selecting the Right Weight
The above example would be good volume for most people. But it is sufficiently intense? Remember, that’s determined by the weight you use and the muscle’s time under load. As a general rule, select a weight you can lift between 7-10 times using good technique. If, within your set, you get to repetition number 10 and find that you can do more repetitions without difficulty, increase the weight. If you find that you cannot reach at least 7 repetitions within a set with good technique, decrease the weight.
Repetition Speed and Time Under Load
Proper intensity is also determined by total time under load during a set. The repetitions within each set should be a constant motion (meaning there is no or very little resting between repetitions within the set) and should generally take about 30-45 seconds to complete the set.
A typical “rhythm” looks like this: picture a bicep curl. The contraction as the arm comes up (hinging at the elbow) should take about one second and the return to start (as the arm comes back down) should take about two seconds–about three seconds per repetition and about 30 seconds for a set of 10 repetitions. Little or no resting as the weight reaches the bottom of the motion.
Putting it all together: a Workout Strategy
There are several options for structuring workouts that target different muscle groups throughout a week. A common weight training schedule organizes the six primary muscle groups to be targeted into four distinct workouts:
- Legs (the largest muscle group which includes quadriceps, hamstrings and calves)
- Back and biceps (a larger muscle group with a smaller)
- Chest and triceps (also a larger muscle group with a smaller)
If you wanted to do fewer but longer workouts, you could group as follows:
- Back and chest
- Shoulders, triceps, biceps
If you preferred shorter workouts but more per week, you could group the muscle groups this way:
- Arms (triceps and biceps)
When combining two muscle groups into a single workout, do the exercises for the larger muscle group first and the exercises for the smaller muscle group last. For example, if you are targeting back and biceps in a single workout, do the back exercises first and then the bicep exercises.
Getting Started with Weight Training
There is an abundance of information on the internet about different weight training exercises and how to do then properly. Our goal here has been to teach you how to approach and structure your workouts to achieve what most of my clients are looking for: maximum gains for the time spent weight training.
For the exercises themselves, this list of common exercises for each muscle group is a great place to start. You can Google the name of any of the exercises on the list and it will bring up plenty of Youtube videos and other resources to show you how to do the exercise correctly.
If you are new to weight training, I suggest that you spend the first few weeks trying different exercises and focusing on doing them with proper technique. Don’t focus as much on intensity (heavy weights) or high volumes. You can add these principles after you’ve gotten comfortable with the exercises and routine.
Core and Stretching
While these two activities don’t contribute a great deal to weight loss/body composition, core and stretching are a foundation for other active things you do, from athletic pursuits, to exercising, to everyday activities such as loading groceries in your car!
We strongly encourage you to work both of these into your workout routine or find a few minutes to focus on them sometime during your week outside of your workouts.
Here are some good resources to get you going if you are not already stretching and doing core exercises:
20 practical core exercises with pictures and instructions (we don’t expect you to do all 20 of these! Pick three or four to try in one week and three or four more another week.)
If you can stretch every day, that’s certainly ideal. Most people can’t, though, so we recommend 2-3 times a week, perhaps combined with your workouts (done at the end).
Core can be done more frequently than other muscles targeted by the intense weight workouts we’ve described. Like stretching, doing 2-3 core workouts a week is also a good target. But even just one good core workout a week has a lot of benefit!