Fine tuning your exercise habits

The habit series, part 3.

How to fine tune your training to reduce body fat and develop strength and muscle for a shapely, “toned” and defined figure -that’s functional as well. This part provides a basic workout template, long term programming advice to follow and ways to ensure exercise is both enjoyable and effective so as to make the best use of your time and effort in the gym.

In parts 1 and 2 we looked at how exercise can enhance your life without having to become the centre of it, and how you can create a sustainable and healthy relationship with exercise by starting small.

But, after some time, if you’re failing to see the desired physical changes you may start losing your desire to train nonetheless. Initially, just getting into the habit of exercising enjoyably in some manner is best to start, but if you’re looking to achieve results that may include a change in appearance, and/or improved strength and functionality there are ways to train more efficiently and effectively than others depending on your goals.

This article uses resistance training as an example because I am a passionate advocate for its ability to improve one’s physical performance/competency, body composition (low body fat, increased muscle) and appearance.

Resistance training is defined as any type of training (this includes both bodyweight and weight based) that requires a muscle or muscle groups to work or “contract” against an external load for the development of muscle mass/ tone and muscular fitness (power, strength and endurance).

A lot of people still over-prioritise cardio when attempting to lose weight and “tone up” but avoid, or are only half invested in resistance training. However, resistance training is unparalleled in its long-term ability to help reduce body fat, while helping you to increase or maintain muscle mass both of which help to create “tone”, shape and definition.

It also improves your strength, enhancing your physical abilities, reduces your risk of injury or helps you gain pain-free functionality. It’s also essential to maintaining bone density and muscle into old age, which can reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis, helps prevent falls from causing debilitating injuries and in maintaining muscle strength and function helps you to maintain your independence. All of which act to improve one’s self-image, self-confidence and one’s physical competency, improving quality of life for those of all ages and stages.

To start, there is an important distinction to consider between the terms “physical activity” and “exercise”. The World Health Organisation defines physical activity “as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure”.

Whereas “exercise” is “physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and purposeful in the sense that the improvement or maintenance of one or more components of physical fitness is the objective”. This is where understanding how to train with intention and purpose is important.

Training with intention means considering the specificity of your exercise choices, individualising them to meet your current level of fitness and personal preferences, understanding how the body responds/adapts to certain types of exercise and how to apply what’s called progressive overload to ensure you continue to see results. This is where planning, structure and repetition come into play to ensure you actually see the outward results you’re after.

NOTE: if you are starting a new exercise program or dealing with a new or old injury it is important to gain medical clearance from your relevant health practitioner (I.e. physiotherapist, doctor) before starting an exercise plan for guidance regarding your specific injury history and/or to determine your physical activity readiness.

Specificity

In order to achieve your body composition/performance goals you need to ensure that the type of training/exercises you select can stimulate the desired results. With resistance training in particular choose specific movement patterns to focus on strengthening over time, and/or exercises that work specific muscle groups you wish to develop in size, strength or functionality as well.

If you’re a part of the general population and looking to develop full body strength and functionality or are new to the gym and looking for a way to focus your training; there are seven primary movement patterns we use during daily life that you can strengthen and improve in the gym to create a strong foundation. These movement patterns include pushing, pulling, hinging, squatting, lunging, twisting, and gait.

These movement patterns can be used to provide a basic workout structure that creates functional strength and a well-balanced full body training program.

Benefits of full-body workouts

Full-body workouts are especially good if you’re new to the gym as they ensure you target each muscle group and don’t “thrash” any muscles in particular reducing the likelihood of excessive muscle soreness (more on why muscle soreness post workout isn’t the best indicator of a good workout, later).

They’re also time-efficient if you place two exercises: one upper body and one lower body exercise together and perform them one after the other in what’s called a ‘super set’.

They’re also effective if you have fat loss goals as blood is required to flow to and fuel multiple muscle groups at a time increasing your energy expenditure (calories burnt).

The movement patterns

Push exercises which predominantly work your chest, triceps (back of your arms) and shoulders may include: push ups, shoulder presses, and bench dips.

Pull exercises which predominantly work the opposite muscle groups to push exercises, working the back, biceps (front of your arms) and shoulders including but not limited to: seated cable rows, single arm bent over rows, lat pulldowns, straight arm pulldowns, face pulls.

Hinge movements such as glute bridges, hip thrusts, and Romanian deadlifts (RDL), predominantly work the glutes (buttocks) and hamstrings (back of your thighs). Use glute bridges and hip thrusts to start to establish an effective mind-muscle connection with the glutes. The mind-muscle connection means being able to engage them and feel them working effectively throughout the exercise/movement. You can then use this to help you better engage them during more complex full body movements like Romanian deadlifts (and squats) to avoid the lower back muscles from attempting to take too much of the load (Contreras, 2009).

Establishing an effective mind-muscle connection with any target muscle has been shown to help stimulate an increase in muscle growth more so than just mindlessly moving through an exercise (Schoenfield, 2018).

Glutes are a particularly stubborn muscle to engage for most, so don’t be discouraged if it takes you some time to feel them, experiment with different types of exercises to see which work best for you (Contreras, 2020).

Squatting and lunging movements predominantly work your quadriceps (front of your thighs) and glutes. Lunging or split squat exercises are typically more challenging due to their unilateral nature decreasing stability making them more challenging. There are multiple variations of these two exercises to choose from, from moving from “beginner” bodyweight squats to goblet squats to the more advanced barbell squats, from bodyweight split squats to dumbbell front foot elevated split squats or walking lunges.

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Pictured: Inverted Row (push/back and biceps focused), Lunge (full leg focus), Glute Bridge (hinge, glute-focused), Push-up (push/chest and triceps focused). (Images from Workoutlabs)

Twist movements refer to rotation of the trunk initiated and controlled by the core muscles these include the popular Russian twist, or bicycles. However, anti-rotational movements where you learn how to “engage your core” and resist rotation or lateral flexion (side-bending) and forward flexion/leaning of the trunk I would argue are just as transferable and important in performing everyday activities safely and effectively (like lifting and carrying grocery bags, children etc). Anti rotational/ anti-flexion exercises include pallof press variations, side planks, and bird dogs.

“Gait” and posture: The importance of the glute and back muscles

Due to the nature of our modern day lifestyles our postures and physical performance can become compromised due to weaker or poorly activated glutes, as nowadays and further into adulthood we often spend more time sitting on them than using them. And as already mentioned other parts of our body like our lower back start to to compensate for inactive or weak glutes in certain movements potentially putting some more at risk of developing lower back pain.

Learning how to use or engage our glutes with isolated glute exercises and during functional lower body exercises should be emphasised. One glute muscle in particular, the glute medius helps control knee and pelvis stability while walking, running, lunging and squatting so strengthening and learning how to feel this muscle being engaged should also be emphasised.

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Pictured above are glute-focused exercises, the second and fourth exercise target your glute medius in particular working hip abduction (where the hip moves (abducts) the thigh and leg away from the midline of the body). Images from Workoutlabs.

We also have a tendency to develop tighter chest muscles as they become shortened from constantly leaning over keyboards, sinks, work desks etc. Meaning emphasising back (pulling) exercises within your training over pushing exercises is typically encouraged to simultaneously stretch the chest muscles while strengthening the back muscles improving your posture as a result.

Program example: Full-body

A1: PUSH: Push up or close grip incline dumbbell press

A2: HINGE: Hip Thrust variation or an RDL,

B1: PULL: Close grip or wide grip pulldown,

B2: SQUAT or LUNGE: Goblet squat or barbell box squat, or Split squat

C2: PULL: Chest supported bent over rows or seated rows,

D: GLUTE focused: Single leg glute bridges or seated hip abductions (isolated glute medius exercise)

E: Anti-rotation/CORE: pallof press or bird dogs.

F: Rotational/CORE: Bicycles or Russian twists.

If you have particular muscles/ muscle groups that feel weaker or you’d wish to strengthen or develop more in size in particular i.e. arms, you can add isolated arm exercises to the program as well. Alternating days where you switch between (or substitute) the extra back/glute focused exercises for isolated triceps and biceps exercises (Like biceps curls and triceps pulldowns). You can also alternate between anti rotational and rotational core exercises each workout or add in an exercise for each at the end of the workout. Focus on learning how to “engage your core” in the full body movements as well for added, functional core strength.

Individualisation

You are unique; the way in which your body adapts to certain exercises/training methods may be much different to how the person next to you responds to the same activity. Try to avoid falling into the comparison trap both in the gym and online. We are all at different stages with different strengths and weaknesses, different goals, different personal preferences, lifestyles and priorities. Finding what works for you, what really drives you and what you enjoy can take some trial and error so it’s important to understand that this is a process and also that your goals may change over time. It may also be a good time to mention that very rarely are people looking at what you’re doing as much as you think they are, they’re likely just like you and more concerned with how they look or concentrating more on what they’re doing!

“Not the best, but my best. Not the strongest, but my strongest”

@Katiesonier

If you’re beginning a new exercise program it’s important to take it slow to begin with to reduce the likelihood of injury occurring. Your joints and their surrounding structures like tendons and ligaments are slower than muscles to adapt to training so it’s important to allow them time to strengthen adequately as well.

Don’t feel pressured to train through (joint) pain, find alternative exercises that work similar muscle groups but can be performed without pain. If you overload your body too much, too soon you may compromise your progress. Rest days in this respect are just as important as your training days.

Find a version of an exercise that is well suited to you current level of ability. For example high step ups are an excellent glute exercise but may feel to challenging to start, so you could start with a lower box and build up focusing on keeping your working knee in line with your toes, placing weight evenly throughout your foot (Big toe, heel, little toe) and landing lightly with the non-working leg, focusing on driving up using the glute and quad muscles in the leg on the box rather than pushing off the ground. If you experience knee pain during split squats you could try a bodyweight reverse lunge some find this to be a pain free alternative due to the way it causes you to distribute your weight/place the load. If balance is an issue support yourself during the movement by placing one hand on a wall. Or start with another single leg exercise that’s more isolated and provides less load such as a single leg glute bridge to help build strength and control in the muscles around your knee without causing pain.

There’s always an alternative, do your research or ask for help to take the thinking out of it for you!

Adaption

Important note: Repetitions” or “reps” for short, refer to the number of times you complete a single exercise through its full range of motion, while “sets” refer to the cycle of/ number of reps performed in a row/consecutively.

Initially with any new exercise or activity your body will respond to the newly induced “stress” with alarm this may present itself as muscle soreness. As a response to the newly imposed demands/stress, the body will also respond by producing the appropriate adaptions.

These adaptions could be muscular, neuromuscular, metabolic, cardiorespiratory, hormonal or skeletal creating stronger joints/surrounding joint structures, increased muscle strength, size and function. Again, ensuring that you allow yourself sufficient time to recover before your next training session and managing the intensity during your sessions is essential to ensuring the necessary adaptions can take place successfully.

Types of exercises and the adaptions they produce:

Larger compound (multi-joint) movements such as squats and lunges performed for lower repetitions under heavier loads can stimulate strength through neural adaptions. This is where your body learns how to fire the right amount of muscle fibres, at the right time, in the right order to help perform an exercise more efficiently which results in an increase in strength being produced. Compound movements also require more energy (calories) to perform due to amount of muscle groups they recruit.

Mechanical tension refers to the type of stress or stimulation a muscle is placed under while it contracts/works in both shortened and lengthened positions. This has been found to be the main and most easily explained stimulus for muscle growth (hypertrophy) (Beardsley, 2018). The length of “time under tension” a muscle is exposed to can be increased by performing the eccentric or negative/lowering phase of an exercise in a slow manner making it last 4 seconds and by ensuring you cover each muscle group adequately each week.

Chris Beardsley a highly regarded strength and conditioning researcher, in a 2019 literature review, found that if you train three times a week that at least 15 sets per muscle group per week, with the exercises spread evenly across those 3 days (5 sets per muscle/muscle group per workout) paired with sufficient exertion and rest, stimulated muscle growth effectively.

If you only train 2 days per week he found that 10 sets per muscle group spread between the 2 sessions was also satisfactory for muscle growth (again as long as sufficient effort is put in each set see progressive overload below) (Beardsley, 2019). What’s also important to note, was how the studies found that performing over 10 sets per a single muscle in a single workout had more negative than positive effects potentially causing an excess of muscle damage. Meaning there is a limit to how many sets per muscle you should perform in a single workout to avoid inhibiting your muscle recovery and growth.

Lower body example if you train 2 x per week:

Workout 1 could include (as part of a full-body workout) a:

Squat movement: 3×10,
Hinge movement: 2-3×10,

Workout 2 (as part of a full-body workout) could include a:

Lunge movement: 3×10,
Glute-isolated movement: 2-3 x 10+

= 10-12 sets of glute exercises across 2 workouts. Although this will be effected by how much the glutes actually work during the type of movement pattern or exercise you choose. But offers you a good starting point to work from, and you’ll still have room to increase volume/amount of training per muscle/muscle group if necessary.

Upper body example (as part of a full-body workout) if you train 3 x per week:

Each of your three workouts could have a:

Pull: 3 x 10

Push: 3 x 10

Pull: 2 x 10

Push: 2 x 10

= total of 5 sets per push and pull movement per workout. Again how much focus a single muscle gets will depend on the type of exercise chosen and how the load is spread between multiple muscles. But this gives you a baseline amount of sets to work from.

Isolated/single joint exercises performed for higher reps can create metabolic stress (this presents itself as a satisfying burning feeling in the muscle and increased blood flow resulting in a good-looking “muscle pump”). While we’re still unsure of how much metabolic stress exactly influences muscle growth, lighter loads can be performed for more reps and are just as effective at causing fatigue (Beardsley, 2018). As they’re less demanding and safer to perform than heavier, low rep movements they can increase the total amount of tension placed on a muscle or muscle group across the training week. They’re best performed towards the end of your workout after your compound/multi-joint movements. Choose exercises that target your favourite or weaker muscles to ensure they receive enough tension/stress to improve.

In summary, a combination of lighter and heavier movements contribute to strength development and muscle growth, and compliment one and other well. The stronger you are for example, the greater your 8-12 rep load can become, stimulating more muscle growth. You can improve your heavy, compound lifts and strength by isolating and training your weaker muscles within it.

In the early stages of training, you will find your body will adapt very quickly. As it becomes accustomed to training at a certain level of intensity/under a certain level of load and you will need to find new ways to continue to stimulate it through the application of progressive overload and variation.

Progressive overload

“Don’t chase muscle soreness or a sweat with every session. Chase improvement. Whether that be improved form, an increase in reps, an increase in weight and prioritise rest and recovery”

To continually improve your performance and your physique you need to progressively challenge yourself by exposing your body to increased ‘load’ or ‘stress’ above that of your current fitness level. This is the case for both beginners and advanced/long-time gym goers. To do this in a safe and manageable way you must consider where you are at now taking into consideration current fitness/physical activity level, previous weight or cardiovascular training experience, and what you would like to achieve in future (specific fitness goals, how to achieve lifelong exercise habits). This helps you to identify the steps necessary to close the gap between these two areas.

Start light by performing the exercises you choose with just your bodyweight for resistance and use higher rep ranges (10-20) to help focus on and hone your form/technique and the mind-muscle connection through repetition by stimulating necessary neural adaptions. Bare in mind a lot of exercises feel “unco” to perform to begin with but get better with increased familiarity/practice. If you perform them in a slow and controlled manner, making every repetition count even lighter loads with higher repetitions can stimulate changes in muscle size and strength if taken to fatigue by your last set.

Again starting small and making success inevitable is important in creating positive associations with exercise in the early stages. However, if something is too easy to achieve it can feel less satisfying so once you’ve created a strong foundation, you can start to increasingly challenge yourself.

When you feel confident in your form increase the load by adding a conservative amount of weight with a dumbbell, barbell, or kettlebell to the movement to start and decrease the reps. If you can reach 20 repetitions with the load you chose, it’s likely to be too light. 2-4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions is the suggested range to meet for muscle hypertrophy (growth). You want the last two reps to be considerably challenging for you but not impossible and you should be able to complete them without sacrificing form too much. You can also make an exercise more challenging by changing it to a unilateral/single-leg/arm exercise where applicable, which requires you to incorporate smaller stabilising muscles and increases core engagement.

When you increase the load ensure you take sufficient rest (60-120s) in between each set. A lot of people feel if they reduce their rest time it will increase the calories or fat burnt during sessions but you want to ensure you can put sufficient effort into the actual exercise/s you’ve chosen. This will help ensure that you put in enough effort to stimulate the adaptions you’re after in order to progress and improve over time. This will be what brings you the changes in shape and size you desire. If you cut rest times too short you limit the effort/energy you can put into your actual set.

Your checklist for sustainable, enjoyable and effective exercise programming:

Is it enjoyable and purposeful?

Mix a little of what you like with a little of what’s necessary to progress. A lot of people like variety in their training or they feel bored, while others like to return to the same types of exercises continuously for months. But in order to increase strength, develop muscle and change your physique you need to repeat exercises attempting to improve them in terms of form, load, or increasing your amount of repetitions, each week, for at least a 2-4 weeks before changing your program up. Commit to repeating a few primary exercises or movement patterns throughout the week, but add in a bit of variety with other exercises after or between them to keep boredom at bay. When you’ve committed four weeks to strengthening and improving those primary movements or exercises, you can find a new set of exercises to prioritise as another way to newly challenge the muscles. If you fail to provide enough variety or enough of a challenge due to, too much repetition and/or not enough overload your progress will stall either way.

As you start to feel stronger, and feel more in control of how you progress you’ll likely stay more consistent with and feel more satisfied with your training for longer. You’re also more likely to commit to doing a workout if each exercise has a purpose that is knowingly linked to your goals and/or you genuinely enjoy it.

Is it sustainable?

Focus on form first before adding load to reduce the likelihood of injury. Don’t chase muscle soreness or a sweat with every session. Chase improvement whether that be improved form, an increase in reps, an increase in weight and prioritise rest/recovery (in the form of sufficient sleep, food and rest days) like you do your training. Soreness is to be expected if you’re new to exercise or trying something different but too much soreness, too frequently can effect the quality, or amount of your future training sessions negatively effecting your long term progress.


Track your workouts recording weight used, exercise performed, for how many repetitions/sets. Dramatic body composition changes can take some time to reveal themselves so having performance focused goals to pursue can be motivating and equally as satisfying in the mean time. Not every session or each week will result in a personal best and some days will feel more difficult than others. Tracking your progress can also be helpful when you are having a bad week or weeks and questioning your motivation as you can look back and see how far you’ve come, reaffirming your trust in the process.

Is it specific to your goals, do you know how you’ll gradually and safely continue to challenge yourself?

Sufficient effort each session is essential for continued progression and results. When you’ve honed your form you can start to challenge yourself with increased load/difficulty. Be patient with yourself throughout this journey, don’t be afraid to ask for help, be flexible and adaptable with your methods and don’t be afraid to lift heavy. Your body is capable of so much more than you realise. Patience and consistency is key to achieving continued and long-term results and nourishing a long-term positive relationship with exercise.

Is it value-driven?

When you’ve established how often you can realistically train each week and for how long consider your main goals, and pick a few primary exercises or movement patterns to prioritise and to progressively overload in order to achieve long-term results in the most time efficient manner. Again add a bit of what you enjoy to your sessions too, after your main movements or to finish. As you start to feel stronger, and feel more in control of how you progress you’ll likely stay more consistent with and feel more satisfied with your training for longer. You’re also more likely to commit to doing a workout if each exercise has a purpose that is knowingly linked to your goals and/or you genuinely enjoy it.

During some stages of your life exercise might actually better serve you if it’s less structured or vigourous. Be flexible about how much time and energy you throw into your training sessions based on how they mesh with or effect the other important priorities in your life (work, family, study), continue to find and be mindful of the ways exercise can enhance your life and use them to help motivate and guide the nature of your training sessions.

Strive for progress, not perfection.

Published by kaylamadefitness

A blog combining my two favourite things: resistance training and writing. Striving to educate, empower and enliven the gym experience through genuine support, guidance, information and connection.

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