Weights, Reps, and Form - Where to Start and When to Increase

What is a good starting point for weights and reps, and when do we decide it is time to increase them?

First, let's look at this rule of thumb:

  • Muscle Tone: Low Weight/ Many Reps
  • Strength: High weight/ Few Reps

Personally, I am looking to increase strength, so I opt for the latter option. In that regard, I began with a weight that I knew I could lift correctly for at least two sets of 4 reps. When I was able to build up to two sets of 6 reps on consecutive days, I would increase the weight and only expect 4 reps. If I could get 5 or 6 on the first try, I would keep 'leveling up' each session until I reached the point where the last rep of the second set of 4 was difficult to lift correctly. Normally, I like to get 8 - 12 reps per exercise per session with the last rep being almost impossible. 

When you are starting out, you may find that sometimes your starting weight is ridiculously easy, or it may be too difficult. I say stick with the easy weight and learn the correct form, increasing weight or reps next time. The more complex the movement, the less weight I would add on. Example: for a push press, I would only increase the weight by 5 pounds, but a leg press, I may add 20. If the weight you choose is too difficult, there is no shame in lowering the amount in order to get your reps. It will happen; you will get there, so don't worry.  

Remember, it's not about how much you can lift, it's about how well you lift. It means nothing if your form isn't correct. A correct push press of 20 pounds trumps a sloppy one at 50. So the first month or so of any new exercise should be a learning period to find the perfect intersection of weight and form. 

To recap: Two sets of 4 reps, the last rep should be difficult while still keeping correct form. When you are able to do 2 sets of 6 reps, increase the weight and lower the reps back to 4. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. 

2 Books and 1 Website

Outside of the coaches, instructors, masters, and grandmasters under whom I've studied, 2 books and one website helped form my core attitude towards fitness and exercise. 

What is my core attitude?

Functionality - The exercise must contribute to more efficient transference of energy.
Proportion - Muscles must maintain proportion to effect an efficient transference of energy.

1. "Arnold's Bodybuilding for Men" by Arnold Schwarzenegger with Bill Dobbins 

This book lays out the basics in a clear and easy-to-understand manner. Excellent for beginners as it outlines a progressive exercise routine that can be done without the need for expensive equipment. Don't let the title fool you. While the author does touch on bodybuilding in later chapters, the exercises and methods are transferable to most fitness goals. It's money well spent to get started, and a go-to resource as you grow.

2. "The Art of Expressing the Human Body" by Bruce Lee and John Little

The most comprehensive resource that chronicles Bruce Lee's complete journey to generate functional strength for his performance as a martial artist. This book covers everything from weight training to cardiovascular endurance, circuit training to stretching, nutrition, philosophy, etc...  There is something for everyone here, and a great inspiration for those of us who aren't genetically gifted with a giant frame!

3. Steve Reeves International Society (http://www.stevereeves.com/)

Steve Reeves, Mr. Universe 1950, was a pioneer not only in Bodybuilding, but fitness as well. His accolades came at a time when muscle definition, proportion, and function were valued over sheer size. In his day, 'musclemen' valued both strength and endurance of the total body. Many of his training methods and nutrition ideas have remained key elements of athletic training to this day. Check out his ideas on Power Walking. This website provides a wealth of information for those who look to build functional muscle and maintaining an active lifestyle.

Choosing an Exercise Regemin

Now that we have a way to script our exercise and track our progress, we need to come up with a list of activities that will satisfy our fitness goals. As mentioned previously, this could be a list of stretching, cardio, lifts, or some combination of these.

I'm not going to delve into specifics here, because everyone is different in terms of goals, body type, limitations, etc... What works for me may not work for others. Given the nature of progressive resistance, what works for me today may not work for me tomorrow.

Here are good places to find movements that best suit your needs, with some pros and cons of each:

Internet

Pros:

  • Unlimited information
  • Ability to convey form/ movement through video
  • Free

Cons:

  • Unlimited information
  • Qualifications of contributor unknown
  • Quality of information directly related to instructor experience

Books

Pros: 

  • Easy to locate and isolate Information
  • Great for Reference
  • Portable

Cons: 

  • Text/ Pictures may not fully demonstrate or articulate correct form
  • Finite scope

Smart Phone/ Tablet Apps

Pros:

  • Portable
  • Interactive

Cons:

  • May require Internet Connection
  • Charges may apply for premium content or features
  • Requires phone/ tablet be available during exercise

Friends

Pros:

  • Team environment/ Fellowship
  • Excellent motivation

Cons:

  • Perpetuate bad habits
  • Convey incorrect information

Certified Personal Trainer

Pros: 

  • Trained and Certified in sport and exercise curriculum
  • Customize fitness regemen to fulfill client needs
  • In-Person/ Hands-On coaching
  • Immediate feedback

Cons:

  • Expensive (Some Require Gym Memberships)
  • Some may be sales oriented (future training sessions, nutrition products, equipment, etc…)

Scripting and Tracking Fitness: The Basics

Scripting and tracking your exercise routines is a simple but excellent tool to sustain motivation and increase performance. The best part is that you can find ready-made templates in most fitness books, on the Internet, or as smartphone apps for free!

The basic parts of any fitness tracker are:

  • Date - The date on which the exercise occurred.
  • Exercise - The activity that you did. 
  • Reps - Short for "repetitions". This denotes the number of times you did the exercise.
    Example: One dumbbell curl = one Rep. 5 squats = 5 Reps. 10 push-ups = 10 Reps.
  • Sets - Groupings of the same exercise usually separated by a short rest period. 
    Example: 5 squats, 3 times, with a 90 second break between each 5. This means you would do 3 sets of 5 squats for a total of 15 squats. 
  • Resistance Unit/ Weight - The amount of weight used in each rep.

Certainly, if you choose to add the ability to track stretches, cardio, and other specialized movements, your template will require more customization. 

Using the terms above, our tracker may look something like this:

Date
Exercise Reps Weight
Weighted Hip Bridge 5
5
Dumbbell Row 5
5
Chest Press 5
5
Leg Press 5
5
Dumbell Laterals 10
10

Notice that each exercise has two rows? This means we would do two sets of each. 

Or, we can show the same thing like this:

Date
Exercise Reps Sets Weight
Weighted Hip Bridge 5 2
Dumbbell Row 5 2
Chest Press 5 2
Leg Press 5 2
Dumbbell Laterals 10 2

Each template assumes that we will fill in the weight after the exercise. 

Again, the basics can be modified to fit your exercise plan. If you wish to do an exercise that is measured in time, laps, or distance, then you can track those as well. 

Once you found a template that you like, you can make a photocopy or transpose it to a piece of paper (like a 3x5 memo pad or notebook), spreadsheet, or app. Personally, I prefer keeping mine stored in a spreadsheet template which I print for use. The best option is the one that is easiest for you to carry to the gym and keep current.

Scripting Your Exercise Routine

Thus far, we have defined our root motivation for choosing an active lifestyle, and in that process we came up with at least one achievable goal in which to initially measure our progress.

Now, here is where most people adapt the shotgun approach to exercise and throw all of their energy into a random flurry of activity unrelated to their goals and motives. As we've discussed before, this method is usually short-lived and unsustainable. 

Let's avoid that trap now by adopting a more reasonable tactic; I strongly encourage scripting an exercise routine in advance.

What is a scripted exercise routine?

Quite simply, it is a list of exercises (stretching, cardio, weights, etc...) we plan to accomplish in a single session. 

What are the advantages of using a scripted exercise routine?

By understanding what we plan to accomplish in each training session before hand, it maximizes our time and effort spent exercising. Thereby, it assists in allowing us to realize positive gains more readily. It is an excellent tool to guide our activity and document our results.  

What good does it serve to document our results?

Documenting our results during each training session has a several benefits. First, it gives feedback on performance as to whether we are ready to progress in weight or duration the next time out. Secondly, keeping records helps to easily identify areas where we may need special attention in order to progress, sometimes pointing to auxiliary exercises or modifications in technique. Third, the records we keep today set up the script for our next session. Finally, being able to see tangible results of each session over time becomes a powerful motivator. Even after only a few sessions, seeing the result of our accomplishments makes us more likely to continue and progress towards even more amazing results!

Bear in mind, professionals who rely on fitness for success or survival approach their training with a purpose. Why shouldn't you?

Next time, let's talk in more detail about how to script our exercise routine!  

Brief Recap

Remember, we are exploring the following steps to getting active:

  1. Define our Motivation
  2. Plan our Workout
  3. Execute on that Plan
  4. Measure our Progress

We just finished discussing step 1, Defining our Motivation.

Next, we will discuss step 2, how to Plan our Workout.

Stay tuned.....

Step 1: Define our Motivation - Getting to the Root

What makes exercise, or any activity enduring and worthwhile is not the goal, but our underlying motivation. 

Goals are to motivation as leaves are to the root of the tree. 

Great. What does this mean?

It means that goals are great tools to measure short-term progress on our true motivations. Nothing more. 

By nature, each goal has a definitive end whereby success implies the cessation of activity. Prolonged failure has the same result. Either way, it's "game over." Basing a lifestyle on a subjective outcome that has a limited scope doesn't bode well for long term engagement. 

Looking back to our example in the last post, by focusing on just that single leaf, all of our awareness and energy was tied up examining the temporary product of an infinitely dynamic organism. So, when the leaf dies, we are unaware that the rest of the tree eminating from the root remains. We lose perspective; we become lost. 

Just as a tree has many leaves, our motivation can be realized through numerous, interchangeable goals. The art herein is to utilize a particular goal until it no longer suits our motivation, and swap it with another goal that is a better fit. This method ensures a higher probability that progress over the long term can be sustained.

Getting to your root, or motivation, may take some time pin down what you really want to achieve. Sometimes, what we say we want and what we really want are  two different things.

Many people list losing weight as a reason they want to become active. Excellent start. Now, ask yourself "why?".   

A possible answer may be, "To look and feel better".

But why do you want to look and feel better?

"To have more confidence and control". 

Why?

See where this is going?  

Try this on your own by writing down each answer, following each with "Why?". The deeper you go, the longer it should take. I encourage you to try this out over the course of a week to see how far you can go. I normally go 4 to 6 levels deep, depending on the topic. You may be surprised where this takes you, and all of the wonderful opportunities for motivation this provides. Remember, no two people will be alike and there are no wrong answers.

We do this so that when we lose 10 pounds, we don't pack it in and say goodbye to exercise. It affords us the option to keep going down this route to lose additional weight, or choose another active path altogether. Perhaps one may chose to switch goals and tone muscle, build endurance, or become active in a sport? Losing weight may no longer be important, but being active still is

Your motivation keeps you centered and engaged. Once you discover the root, you are free to explore and enjoy all of the fruits of the tree.

Next time we will discuss Planning and its importance to exercise.
 

Step 1: Define our Motivation

Let us take a step back and think on why fitness should be an important part of our lives.

I'm sure many people would say something along these lines of losing weight, getting stonger, getting back into shape, etc..

A good start, yet I would argue that the real reason, your true motivation, runs much deeper than this. 

Imagine your initial thought as the leaf on a tree. As you touch the leaf, you can inspect it's color, shape, and texture. Your leaf is very tangible in this moment. However, if you stand back, you will notice that this leaf is attached to a little stem, which may be attached to a bigger stem, and then a branch. The branch attaches to the trunk which held firm by the root. 

Your motivation is the root.

When the seasons change, that leaf may be gone, but the rest of the tree remains, only to replace that leaf come spring. Thusly, it is so with motivation. 

Motivation is not a static end unto itself, it is an ever evolving blueprint for our life.

As one leaf leaves us, thousands more emerge, all from the same root.

"Leaves, roots, blueprints? How does this help me do situps?", you're probably asking. 

In my next post, we will get to the root!

Planning Success !

In order to get back on track at the gym, here are some easy steps we can take now to organize our time and effort, make things fun, and experience results. More importantly, these steps will go a long way to making fitness a lifelong habit.

  1. Define our Motivation
  2. Plan our Workout
  3. Execute on that Plan
  4. Measure our Progress

I will talk in detail about each of these steps soon, but for now I will briefly describe each. 

Motivation: This is your reason for wanting, or feeling the need, to make exercise an important part of your life. Some people want to gain strength, lose weight, tone muscle, train for another sport, work out with friends, etc... Whatever your motivation, write it down and start your plan.

Plan our Workout: In a notebook or a spreadsheet, write down a small group of exercises that will help you realize your motivation. Start small and keep things simple for now. You will take this list with you so you can follow your plan without having to remember your routine. There's nothing less motivating or less productive than having to randomly guess at what to do next. 

Execution: This is actually following through on your list! You pick the time and the place, take your list, and get started ! Remember, keep it simple at first, and don't overdo; we want to make our exercise time fun.  

Measure our Progress: After each exercise on our list, make sure to note the date, the activity, and how we did. This way, we will know how to set up the exercise for next time. Trying to remember weights, repetitions, times, distances, etc... over the course of the next few crucial weeks will hinder progress. Additionally, this incredibly simple tool will transform your effort into a tangible body of work in no time at all. Every minute of every activity becomes permanent matter that we can see and touch ! When you look back on this list in a short few weeks, you will realize how far you've come and will be more likely to continue. Motivation becomes success, which fuels motivation; a circle of productivity that transforms effort into a healthy habit.  

Once you get started, you can always adjust your plan and your methods to better suit your needs. 

Details coming soon!

Failing to Plan...

"Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail" - Alan Lakein

Whether you've given up on your fitness resolution or wishing you had, now is the time to re-evaluate your approach. Jumping into the deep end just doesn't work for the long term. What we need is a good plan that is easy to follow and fun to do. 

How will a plan help?

Let's look at it this way. When was the last time you went on vacation and aimlessly drove random roads hoping to reach your destination? Vacation time is precious, so most people like to know where they're going and the best way to get there. That way we can maximize our time spent in an enjoyable place. 

Then why is working out any different? This time is just as precious! Yet, many choose take the 'shotgun' approach to exercise. That is, they manically scramble from one one activity, exercise, or machine to the next with little sense of purpose, hoping that something works. 

A good plan is a road map that will guide us to our fitness goal. It is a tool that eliminates guesswork and wasted time and effort. It will allow us to focus on the execution of the tasks at hand. Our plan will also allow us to measure our progress and make targeted adjustments along the way.

I will leave you with this for now. Until next time, reflect on what you did and did not like about your fitness resolution.

An Empty Gym

Like clockwork, it's the middle of February and the gym is a virtual ghost town. I half-expected to see a tumbleweed roll through, despite it still being winter! 

For the last few weeks, the place had been packed. There were lines at every machine, weight rack, mat, and workout station. Everyone was brimming with new-found urgency and manically working themselves until exhaustion. If one could harness this energy, it could probably power a major metropolitan center for the next year. 

Where did everyone go? 

For many, 'Happy New Year' just turned unto 'This Sucks'.

Why? 

  • Workouts were too long
  • Expectations were too high
  • Results weren't apparent
  • Injuries and exhaustion were just too much

Who wants to spend a ton of time doing unpleasant and painful things with no reward?

New habits must be enjoyable to be sustainable, and fitness can be enjoyable. 

I can show you how.

More later...

My Method for Prioritization

"Which method would I choose?", you may ask.

I find a lot of truth in the old saying, "Take care of the small things and the big things will take care of themselves." 

That said, I prefer knocking out the easier, less time consuming goals first, i.e., the "Low Hanging Fruit". As stated previously, this will give us some quick wins, give us a sense of accomplishment, and promote an environment of achievement. Furthermore, we can begin developing good habits that can be applied to more ambitious projects later. 

Developing the habit of accomplishment is more important than any individual resolution or goal, because it is a transferable skill.

Which to Choose?

When looking at your list of goals, categorize them once in terms complexity or duration, and once more in terms of satisfaction. These can be arbitraty numbers for now, say 1, 2, 3, etc... 

Next, order the first list with by complexity/ duration from least complex to most. Then, order the second by satisfaction level from highest to least.  

Here is an example:

Complexity/ DurationSatisfaction
1Volunteer at Food Bank (easiest)9Write a Novel (highest)
2Clean Basement8Earn Master's Degree
3Paint Front Porch7Exercise/ Lose Weight
4Live in the Moment6Travel to China
5Travel to China5Save more Money
6Exercise/ Lose Weight4Volunteer at Food Bank
7Save more Money3Live in the Moment
8Earn Master's Degree2Paint Front Porch
9Write a Novel (hardest)1Clean Basement (lowest)

As you see in this example, there is somewhat of an inverse relationship between the two. I would expect to see something like this from most people. If your number one goal is the same on both lists, then you are lucky; by all means, this is what you probably should get started on right now! 

However, if your lists are ranked similarly to those above, then there are three general strategies on which route to take: 

1. "Low Hanging Fruit", or in other words, tackle the easiest items first. The advantages with this method are that they will promote the habit of being productive, provide immediate results, and instill a sense of accomplishment. This strategy will de-clutter the your list and build momentum, putting you in a great position to take on bigger challenges later.

The drawback? Time-sensitive goals that score high in satisfaction would be at risk. For instance, someone who is turning 60 may not have the luxury to wait to get off the couch and begin training for that first triathlon.

2. Focus on the one item that would bring you the most satisfaction. Dive into writing that novel or get started on that degree. To quote Confucius, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." Success in these areas may reward you the freedom or opportunities that will fulfill your lesser goals. 

The drawback? Results and accomplishments aren't as pronounced, nor as frequent. We're putting in for the long-haul and we need to be mindful that the journey does not turn into a death-march. Going down this path may take a lot more planning and discipline in order to realize success.  

3. Use the two lists to find a nice comprise. In the example above, "Travel to China" appears to provide a moderate level of satisfaction, and seems relatively straight forward to achieve, all things being considered. 

The drawback? Not being the easiest nor the most satisfying goal on our list, we run the risk of giving up on this one all too easily.  

As you see, it really is up to you. 

Bear in mind, one look online and you can find a myraid of prioritization models that can help you statistically score your choice, but I wouldn't overthink this. When you see your list, generally the top ideas jump right off the page. 

How would you choose, David? 

Strategic Goal for a Singular Purpose (part 2)

Why choose just one strategic goal?

If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.

Attempting to manage too many changes at once, on top of an already cluttered schedule, is just not practical, nor productive. Bouncing around from one task to the next without sense of purpose is a futile proposition. Any gains will be too small to stay motivated. Before you know it, we're right back doing what we've always done, wondering why nothing ever seems to work. Typical of resolutions that are dead by February.

When we have one clear objective, it is easier to stay focused and direct our efforts. Noticeable and measurable results will come quicker and will are more likely to stay motivated. This motivation will breed consistency, and through consistency, we develop new habits.

"But I still have so much I'd like to do! Which should I choose?"

Strategic Goal for a Singular Purpose

To begin, we need a strategic goal; a primary sense of purpose to which you will become dedicated. This is a thematic statement about what you would like to achieve in the most generalized terms.

Here are some examples:

  • Exercise/ Lose Weight
  • Save more Money
  • Live in the Moment
  • Travel to China

You may come up with quite a few. Once you get thinking, it may be hard to stop coming up with ideas! After all, at this point, time, cost, location, etc... doesn't matter. We're dreaming with a purpose right now.  

If you came up with a list, now I want you to focus on trimming that list down to the topic about which you are most passionate. Given one wish, on which one goal would you spend it?

"But I have so much I'd like to do! Why just one? How do I choose?"

More Later...

Happy New Year! Resolution Time...

Happy New Year!  

A time for beginnings and fresh starts. Relationships, Finances, Health, Career, you name it; we all make promises we intend to keep. What better time to do this than the start new year, right? After all, from Halloween through New Year's Day, we've had the license to splurge, with the promise that we would make good on our goals once the holidays were over. Never mind the fact that we've never once seen any of our resolutions make it through February.  

But here we are! It's now January and time to make good on those hasty promises. 

Happy fun time is officially over. 

Time to dig in, buckle down, and get to work.

And this is why most resolutions die so quickly on the vine.

No more fun?

Buckling down?

Getting to work?

There's nothing enjoyable about this whole setup. Enjoyment must be the underlying motivation of anything worth doing consistently. Consistency is what breeds habits. 

Consider this. 

As humans, it is in our DNA to take the path of least resistance and to seek pleasure over pain. No sense in making things harder or more time consuming when they don't have to be. Therefore, our habits are the routine choices we make to maximize our quality of life with our allocation of time and resources. We rely on these habits because they give us a feeling of control over life. Even when the habit is bad or becomes obsolete, we cling to what we know because it makes us feel normal, and normal is safe. 

Then we wake up one day and realize that our habits aren't meeting all of our needs. Some habits may even be leading us down a very bad path. This usually comes in the form of an empty wallet or not being able to see one's own feet when standing up. Sometimes it is more severe, like walking out of a doctor's office with news that your bad cholesterol is the highest your doc has ever seen and you have high blood pressure to boot! So, we eventually come to grips that a change is overdue. 

Now we're talking talking swapping out bad habits that provide us with perceived efficiencies and feelings of safety for a new method of living that only hints at a long term benefit. Sounds overwhelming, doesn't it? 

Putting that way, it is

One just doesn't completely jettison a way of living for something completely new, overnight, and expect to maintain it for long. 

It's even more difficult to overlay a new set of rules onto existing habits, because there are only so many hours in a day. 

So, how does one flip that switch and commit to a major lifestyle change?

More to come....