If you are just starting your health and fitness journey, you may be completely overwhelmed with the amount of information and promising claims out there. Workout plans are no exception – why do personal trainers even exist when you can just visit a video section in Sainsbury’s and get a “Mega-effective 14-week super diva plan”, or purchase an “Epic Weight Loss Routine” online, right?

Wrong. We wish that succeeding in fitness was as easy as picking a random off the shelf product and sticking to it, but the reality is much more complicated.

Unlike personal trainers, who have spent a substantial amount of time getting their hard earned qualifications, and keep spending endless hours to be on top of the latest research findings, the creators of those generic programs often have very little fitness knowledge. The majority of them haven’t studied anatomy, or exercise physiology, or the fundamentals of nutrition…

The consequences of following such programs are often devastating, ranging from no results whatsoever to full on injuries due to poor program planning.

Another thing is, many of the commercially available fitness programs out there are not suitable for beginners, offering exercises and sequences that would make an elite athlete sweat.

By setting unrealistic goals, such approaches lead to frustration and make people quit before they’ve even really started, putting them off exercising for a long time. And again – inappropriate routines are a shortcut to injuries, sometimes serious.

To save your valuable time and preserve your precious health, today we would like to talk about program planning. We will touch on the basics of goal setting, fundamentals of adapting to exercise and the importance of cardio. Finally, we’ll give you some useful tips and tricks to make planning even easier. Ready to set yourself up for a good start from day 1? If so, keep reading.

Components of an effective plan

Before going on a trip for the first time, you likely prepare the maps, checklists of places you’d like to see and experiences not to be missed. While experienced travellers can sometimes “just go”, being unprepared for the very first journey will likely lead to pointless wandering around and disappointment.

The same applies to your fitness journey. Without knowing where you’d like to be after X months/weeks/years, it’s very hard to craft an effective, personalised training program. This is where goal setting comes into play. Although there are numerous goal setting techniques, there is a particular one that works incredibly well for most people while being easy to understand. Best of all, it’s also evidence-based [1]!

Let us introduce to you the concept of SMART goals, extremely helpful in a variety of settings, including exercise and weight loss [2]. As you’ve probably guessed, SMART is an abbreviation, standing for:

  • Specific – well defined, easy to understand and interpret, not vague.
  • Measurable – has clear indicators of success and failure, and the progress can be tracked at any point of time.
  • Achievable – although there is nothing inherently wrong with shooting for the stars, if you definitely don’t have what it takes to reach the goal (e.g. becoming size 8 within a week would be problematic for someone of size 24, no matter how determined the person is), you will fail and feel miserable, which is not where you want to be.
  • Realistic – within the availability of knowledge, time and resources.
  • Time Bound – time is money, so it’s best to know when you want your result to become true, or for how long do you want to commit to a particular program (when it comes to exercise, the golden standard for the latter is 12 weeks).

If you’re a tad confused, here are a couple of examples related to exercise.

Bad not-so-SMART goal: “I would like to loose some weight as soon as possible”.

Good SMART goal: “Starting tomorrow, I will engage in an exercise program designed by my personal trainer and keep exercising consistently for 30 minutes 3 times a week for 12 weeks, taking control measurements every Saturday”.

Hope it cleared up things a little bit, and if you’re still don’t feel 100% confident, your best bet is to set goals together with your personal trainer.

How Your Body Adapts To Exercise

As the famous philosopher Plato once noted, “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save and preserve it.” In other words, our bodies gradually adapt to exercise, and working out on a regular basis is very important to avoid injuries and maintain optimal conditions for muscle growth and maintenance, as well as cellular repair in general [3].

Structuring training to optimise results, or periodization principle, is the basis to maintain the optimal level of physiological adaptation [3]. To better understand how it works, let’s have a look at the theory behind the principle.

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) is one of the fundamental concepts in the periodization theory [4]. First proposed by Hans Selye 60 years ago, the GAS explains physical and emotional responses to stress. In short, according to the model, the training process triggers a chain of four phases [4]. Alarm phase is characterised by fatigue-induced temporary decrease in performance.

Resistance phase is when the adaptation occurs, and performance jumps above the baseline. New level of performance starts the super compensation phase, featuring the new level of performance capacity. Finally, if the stressors are too high, the overtraining phase suppresses performance further.

 

Stimulus-Fatigue-Recovery-Adaptation Theory describes the modifications in performance depending on how a training stimulus is applied [4]. The name is lengthy, but the concept itself is pretty simple. When training occurs, an accumulation of fatigue leads to a reduction in exercise capacity, proportional to the magnitude and duration of the workload encountered.

As fatigue dissipates after the session, preparedness and performance increase again. If there is no new workload after rest, recovery and adaptation, then preparedness and performance capacity will eventually decline. Therefore, regular training is a must.

 

Fitness-Fatigue Theory outlines the relationships among fitness, fatigue, and preparedness [4]. In short, the two results of training, fatigue and fitness, are perceived as a sum within the scope of this paradigm, and the right balance of the two results in a high level of preparedness of the athlete [4].

Combining the three concepts leads to an inevitable conclusion: appropriate workout planning, which considers individual goals and physiology, is essential to avoid excessive fatigue and achieve desired results faster. Talk to a professional personal trainer to develop the plan that is right for you, based on the above concepts.

 

Don’t Forget Cardio

In our previous articles, we’ve discussed the importance of resistance training, especially early on in the program, to boost metabolism and trigger fat burning by increasing insulin resistance [5].

While this is true, adding regular cardio later in the program has many benefits, which stretch far beyond improving overall fitness. For instance, incorporating cardio into a 12-week exercise program significantly improves insulin resistance [6], which helps you melt fat faster.

Watch out for the kind of cardio you’re using, however. For instance, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), involving exercising at your maximum capacity and alternating exercises every 10-60 seconds, is extremely effective for rapid fat loss [7]. In contrast, steady-state cardio is far less effective when it comes to weight loss [8]. However, for those who can’t sustain HIIT for medical reasons, it’s still a viable alternative – just make sure your expectations are realistic in this case.

Recommendations

As we’ve promised, here are some helpful suggestions to help you plan your workouts and bring the designed program to life!

  • Discover Bodybuilding.com – an extremely useful, welcoming, evidence-based online resource, containing endless health and fitness related articles written by top industry professionals and experienced enthusiasts. Best of all, the resources are written in a light, engaging yet informative manner.

  • Use MyFitnessPal – a unique free online resource, which helps you log in and track your diet and exercise. Basically, it’s your portable nutrition and exercise journal. Both the main website and the apps are very easy to use and are widely recommended by health professionals.

  • Hire a personal trainer – there is no other kind of professional who will help you develop, trial and adjust your individual training program, while also providing support, motivation and nutrition advice along the way. If you are serious about progressing in fitness and losing some weight, there is no better investment to date.

Remember – every single step we’ve covered today is extremely important for your success. After all, “A goal without a plan is just a wish”…

References

  1. O’Neill, Jan. “SMART goals, SMART schools.” Educational Leadership 57.5 (2000): 46-50.
  2. Conroy, Molly B., et al. “Physical activity self-monitoring and weight loss: 6-month results of the SMART trial.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 43.8 (2011): 1568.
  3. Robson, D. “The Importance Of Regular Exercise: How The Body Adapts.”. 2005.
  4. “Understand the general principles of periodization”. NSCA’s Guide to Program Design, National Strength and Conditioning Association.
  5. Clark, S. “Fat Loss Wars: Cardio Versus Weight Training!” 2015.
  6. Nassis, George P., et al. “Aerobic exercise training improves insulin sensitivity without changes in body weight, body fat, adiponectin, and inflammatory markers in overweight and obese girls.” Metabolism 54.11 (2005): 1472-1479.
  7. Trapp, E. G., et al. “The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women.” International journal of obesity 32.4 (2008): 684-691.
  8. Boutcher, Stephen H. “High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss.” Journal of obesity 2011 (2010).