Notes On Working Out

I have been on a health kick lately and been lifting weights my entire adult life. I have developed a system that works for me which is specifically tuned to my current lifestyle as a busy adult. The system is pretty basic and I have made effort to keep things extremely simple. I used to workout like a madman when I was younger and saw larger gains but my current system has allowed me to methodically work toward my goals despite having far less time and energy. I follow the basic principles below fairly rigidly but will break any of the rules in the name of keeping things interesting or mixing things up:

  • Focus the entire program around progressing in strength in a handful of compound lifts and hitting a specific target weight
  • Each workout do a compound lift and then hit every muscle within the target muscle group with at least one isolated lift
  • Use progress in the compound lifts as primary feedback mechanism, then adjust intensity or supplementary lifts as necessary
  • Keep it fun, keep it fresh. If it’s boring or feels like work, you’ll quit. So do something else that you actually enjoy
  • Anything that aligns with your goals is fair game even if it’s not strictly weight training

Goals

My primary fitness goals have always been around building muscle and increasing athletic performance. I have more secondary goals such as balance, flexibility, and losing weight (at times) that I will focus on less regularly. Specific, measurable goals (as with anything) are the only way to see progress. I mix up my goals every now and then to focus on a new set of muscles, engage a new part of your brain, keep things fresh, and give my joints/tendons/muscles a break from doing the same activity over and over.

Weight Training

My primary activity is lifting weights. I do the somewhat classic splits (see table below) and work out 3-5 times per week (when life allows it, I often won’t have time for long stretches). I also mix in abs (Day 1 or Day 3), grip strength (Day 2), and/or cardio (any day) depending on my current goals. I can usually hit everything in 40 – 60 minutes.

Compound LiftAlternativeBodyweight Alternative
Day 1 – chest / triceps / shouldersBench PressIncline PressPushups
Day 2 – back / biceps / lats / traps / forearmsPower CleansRowsPull-ups
Day 3 – quads / hamstring / calvesDead LiftSquats*One legged squats
* I put too much strain on my hamstrings when I do “real squats” so I will do squat alternatives

To keep progressing I will increase the weight and/or number of reps every 2-4 workouts. It takes some trial and error to figure out how to improve the most. I think of it like indoor rock climbing; sometimes you make continuous iterative steps upward, other times you have to make more of a leap and really reach, other times you have to backtrack before going up again!

After 3 months or so I will take a month off and either continue towards that goal or pick a new one. You lose some progress with breaks but I found it’s the best way to keep progressing longer term and avoid getting stuck at a dreaded “plateau.”

Sample Workouts

Below are the last workouts I actually did at the gym, off the top of my head

Chest / triceps / shoulder

  • Bench Press
  • Pectoral flies
  • Tricep pull down (rope)
  • Shoulder circuit (forward raises, side raises, overhead press
  • Weighted sit-up machine
  • Side to side leg lifts (abs)

Back / biceps / lats / traps / forearms

  • Power cleans
  • Pull-ups
  • Reverse fly (upper back)
  • Rows
  • Bicep curls
  • Reverse curls (forearms)
  • Towel Rollups

Quads / hamstring / calves

  • Deadlift
  • Quad extensions (machine)
  • Hamstring pulldowns (machine)
  • Calf raises
  • Weighted sit-up machine
  • V-ups (abs)

No time, do what you can

  • Didn’t have time for the gym, walked up and down my apartment stairs for 30 minutes
  • Threw and caught tennis ball against the wall from a few feet away while staring at a fixed point, training hand-eye coordination and reflexes

Work smarter, not harder

People feel the need to do a ton of reps and burn themselves out completely. I have found it’s better to size the weight appropriately such that you work your muscles to exhaustion in 3-4 sets of 4-12 reps, focusing on doing each rep perfectly. A perfect rep isolates the correct muscle, doesn’t strain your tendons or joints, and no cheating by using any other momentum outside your muscle contractions. This reduces the risk of injury that comes with doing too many reps while tired and it’s just easier. You burn fewer calories this way but I don’t find working out to be the best way to lose weight.

I often use a spotter for the compound lifts as I am generally struggling on the last few reps. If you work out alone, just ask someone with big muscles to spot you – they will probably be happy to help. You will progress much faster if you safely work yourself to true exhaustion. Over time through trial and error I have been able to sense how much weight I need to keep progressing and to completely exhaust the muscle in 3-4 sets.

The same goes with abs. People go nuts with abs for some reason. They will take a regular approach with other muscles and then for abs will do a million reps, all bodyweight, high intensity. I used to fall into this trap but I have progressed much faster by doing weight training with abs with a handful of sets and 4-12 reps just like the other muscles.

Consistency Is Everything

I’ve found it’s more important to be consistently training your body over time than it is to be worried about maxing out one individual workout. I try to find a rhythm and get as many workouts per week in a period of time, taking advantage of compounding gains, before taking extended breaks. I will often work out hard for 3-4 months and then take a month off. During the time off I will either do nothing or focus on something totally different like balance and flexibility before getting back to weights.

Mix It Up

Changing things up keeps things fresh and is important to keep progressing. I generally throw an alternate exercise every 3 workouts or so, either in the compound lift or the isolated muscles. After about month the workout will look totally different. I will also break my 3 sets and 4-12 rep rule occasionally to bust things up. For example, sometimes after finishing 3 sets, I lower the weight and do 12-20 reps – a drop set or burnout set.

Other tricks are negative reps (light weight, do the rep and return to rest very slowly, doing the work on the way down), doing a circuit (do 3 sets of say, 3 exercises in a row), or drastically changing up the number of reps and sets (such as doing 5 sets of 2 reps). Other times I will do something entirely different like run on the beach, play basketball or soccer, or do a bodyweight workout at the park.

Phone, Focus, and Tracking

I leave my phone in the locker or otherwise out of reach. The phone kills my focus, does nothing to improve my workout, and just wastes time. It’s too easy to be distracted bu some external message or just to wander to any number of distractions like social media.

Some people use their phone for music and that’s fine. Anything to keep it fun or to keep you focused. Personally I find listening to my own music at a place that’s already playing music to be insane and will make you go deaf.

Others will track progress on their phone and that’s fine too. I always found it too tedious to constantly be doing data entry or feel like a scribe scratching notes in a notebook so I just keep track of progress in my compound lifts. I find it to be a good enough proxy for overall strength and it’s easy to track progress when you focus on just a few lifts. If I stall in that progress, I know I need to either mix something up or take a break.

Ignore Everyone Else

90% of people at the gym have no idea what they are doing. Don’t copy what other people are doing or how they do it, no matter how fit they are. Some people are quite fit despite having bad habits that they overcome due to genetics or consistency (consistency is more important than perfection). It’s better to focus on your goals and how you are going to achieve them.

My Advice For Newbies

Just start. It takes some time and repetition to get the form figured out, the confidence, and trial and error to figure out what works for you. You also need to form your habits such that going to the gym is easy. Developing a workout routine is secondary to fitting gym time into your daily routine. Start by going to the gym and doing one thing – anything. Have the mindset that for a few weeks you’re not concerned about gains – instead focus on building habits, building confidence, exploring the options available, and practice doing physical and mental reps perfectly.

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