Ever walk in the gym and wonder “Well, now what?” Maybe you didn’t even make it to the gym because you didn’t know what you’d do when you got there. I’m guilty of this on a regular basis, largely because my gym frequency and workout split gives me some freedom to spontaneously commit to one muscle group or the other depending on how my body responds to my warm-up. Since a warm-up is absolutely critical for preparing the body for physical activity, the first and foremost component of your ideal workout plan is to make your way over to the cardio machines and just start moving on something. You can even jog in place, do some jumping jacks, and perform some dynamic stretching movements to get blood circulating, muscles stretched and warm, and body temperature elevated and primed for exercise.
While you’re doing your warm-up, pay attention to what your body is telling you. You’ll likely want to bounce to one or two more machines, or hit the floor with some pushups so you get feedback from your lower body, frontal upper body, back, shoulders, etc. If you worked chest yesterday or the day before, pay attention to how tight those muscles are. Whether you’re doing legs, back or whatever, make sure you stretch those chest muscles first so your body is more balanced from front to back. Same thing goes for any day of exercise: pay attention to what muscles are tight, and if they’re still tight after your 5-10 minute warm-up, stretch those muscles out for 30 seconds each. Once you’ve stretched, you’re ready to begin hitting your other muscle group(s) for the day.
Maybe you can’t make it to the gym enough days of the week to dedicate an entire day to each major muscle group (legs, chest, back, core, shoulders, arms), but whether or not that’s the case, the important thing for your ideal workout plan is to make sure they’re all getting their due diligence. We can’t expect our whole body to improve if we only use parts of it. Now don’t immediately start going with heavy weight on your first exercise, but work your way up so the muscles are exposed to the movement you’re going to make them perform afterwards. This won’t just help further loosen up your muscles, but it will enhance the mind-to-muscle connection, which is often overlooked in resistance training exercises.
When first starting out, doing a full body workout 3 times a week may be preferable over spending the same amount of time each workout focused solely on one or two muscle groups. This is because your muscles are probably so de-conditioned for resistance training that trying to force them to perform 3-4 exercises of 3-4 sets each and 6+ repetitions each set may simply be too much volume for 1 muscle group to handle at first.
For those who have resistance trained for a few months or more, and whose bodies have adapted well, you’ll want to try to challenge one or two muscle groups with 3 or more exercises each, every time you hit the gym. Obviously you won’t be able to do a full body workout like this, because at the appropriate intensity you would be too exhausted by the time you finished your second muscle group to move on to group 3, 4, 5, or 6. For this reason, you’ll want to alot 3-4 days a week for you to get all your exercises in for each group. For example, right now I like to train chest and biceps on Sundays, legs on Mondays, back and triceps on Tuesdays and shoulders on Wednesdays. Thursday, Friday and Saturday I actually vary, depending on how my body responded to the previous workouts. One of those days may be dedicated to cardio, one to my core, and another to what I call a ‘trash day’ where I spend just one or two exercises re-hitting a muscle group that is further behind others (biceps and my lower back in most cases). Occasionally I take a day off, but I usually try to get some sort of combination of activity in for good measure.
Now keep in mind I’ve been training for more than a decade, so my body is more able to respond and recover to this much stress, so please don’t feel like you need to workout this frequently. Most people will see significant results training each muscle group once a week, provided they’re training intensely, giving those muscles time to recover, and fueling their bodies with the right nutrition.
Stretch. Recover. Repeat.
Stretching after a workout is another overlooked component of fitness. Stretching after any strenuous exercise helps loosen up those tight, worn out muscles, allowing more blood to flow through, which means more nutrients can get in, more tissue can be accessed for repair, and the faster you will recover and grow. It also helps ease the amount of muscle soreness you experience in the days after. Stretching can be done in the form of static stretches (think holding your stretch), dynamic stretches (think lunging forward and back for 10-15 reps) or via a foam roller, which will manually force muscle tissue to elongate. However you would prefer to stretch, just make sure you stretch the muscles you’ve just worked.
After you’ve stretched, it’s time to recover. Go home, get a post-workout meal or shake in, and give those muscles a break. If you’d like to go on a light jog to burn some extra calories, by all means feel free to do so, just as long as you keep the intensity low and the duration mild (15-20 minutes or so). After resistance training, the body begins repairing itself, so you don’t want to expose it to additional stress and compromise the recovery process. 20 minutes of light cardio can assist with circulation and have a beneficial effect on the body, but more than that could be more trouble than its worth.
One week of hard work isn’t going to change your life, just like one week of laziness won’t either. It’s what you keep doing that determines the outcome. If you’re looking for results, keep your workouts consistent. You don’t have to do the same exercises on the same days at the same time for ever and ever, just make sure you’re doing something similar each week. Allow your body to recuperate, keep it hydrated, well fueled, and bring the same intensity again the next week. Within a few weeks, you’ll really start seeing the results and you’ll realize how amazing it is to see your hard work pay off.
You didn’t think I’d miss this did you? You can’t have an ideal workout plan without some cardio! But of course some people may rather be able to run a marathon rather than complete a pullup, so the amount of resistance training may fall secondary to the amount of cardio training they perform. Either way, both are important. I think cardio’s a great measure of health, but so is the ability to overcome resistance, so I prefer to recommend no more than 20-30 minutes of steady state cardio at a time, or 10-15 minutes of high intensity cardio on any given day. Everyone’s ideal workout plan is going to look different, so the important thing to remember is to get in your cardio each week, get in your resistance training, stay flexible and eat the right kind of fuel your body needs to recover and continue performing. Your body will thank you, I promise.
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Thanks for reading.