Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How Working Out is Just Like Eating a Reese’s

During my 500-hour personal trainer certification program, I learned a lot of things about exercise from the instructor, Barry Fritz. One of the most important was the necessity of having a rationale for whatever it is you’re doing at the gym.

I like to make the analogy to eating a Reese’s. (Actually, I’ve never made this analogy before, but hear me out.) We know there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s. Likewise, there’s no wrong way to design a workout — as long as you have a rationale.

I guess it’s not a great analogy, since it doesn’t matter the slightest bit why you chopped your Reese’s into a hundred tiny pieces, organized them from smallest to largest, and ate every third morsel. Oh well. Back to exercise.

What I mean is that you could put together what might seem to be a completely bone-headed training program. You appear to make every “mistake” in the book. Yet if you can justify all of your choices with sound logic, then your program may not be so bone-headed after all.

A few examples are in order. One of my goals when I’m designing workouts for myself and my clients is to get as much work done as possible in the shortest amount of time. This principle is referred to as training “density.”

The easiest way to increase density is using supersets. A superset is two or more exercises strung together with minimal rest in between. Generally speaking, when designing supersets my goal is to “spread fatigue out.” I accomplish this goal by grouping “non-competing” exercise together, or exercises that use different muscles.

The simplest example of non-competing exercises are upper and lower body exercises (e.g. squats and pull-ups). Of course, you could also throw in a core exercise or “locomotion” exercise to make it a “tri-set" (superset of three exercises).

Here’s where the potential bone-headedness comes in. What’s “wrong” with the following tri-set:

Deadlifts – Pull-ups – Farmer’s Carries

It seems to satisfy this idea of non-competing exercises (lower body, upper body, and locomotion). But there’s one problem. Every exercise taxes your grip. You might be okay the first round through. But by the time you come back around to deadlifts after farmer’s carries, your forearms will probably be smoked. Which means you’ll have to rest longer and density goes by the wayside.

Notice, though, that I put “wrong” in quotes. For Average Joe or Jane, the above tri-set probably isn’t optimal. But for Above Average Joel or Janet who are, say, mixed martial artists who require insane grip strength for their sport, that’s actually a perfect combination.

Let’s play again:

Push-ups – Bear Crawl – Plank

We have an upper body exercise, locomotion, and core. What could possibly be “wrong” with this lovely trio of movements?

Despite targeting different primary muscles, they all rely heavily on the core. It's essentially three planks in a row, the first two just with moving parts. For people who are newer to training, they’d probably tap out due to abdominal fatigue well before maximally stimulating their uppers and lowers.

Moreover, to complete this triad the exerciser would never have to get up off the ground. “Level changes” are a powerful fat loss tool. That is, it’s good to get up and down off the ground and change positions between exercises. A balanced attack of floor-based, seated, and standing exercises is just what the doctor ordered.

Once again, though, for athletes and advanced trainees with strong cores and less fat to lose — or people looking specifically for the ab work  this exercise grouping would be dandy. It's all context-dependent. 

Now that we’re really having fun, how about this bad boy:

Deadlifts – Rows – Ab Wheel Roll-outs

This one may seem harmless, but it’s actually a subtle killer. Although the deadlift is primarily a lower body exercise, it also requires good activation of the back muscles to keep the bar from drifting away from your body. Lo and behold, rows are a back exercise, and ab wheel roll-outs also hit the arms and back (in addition, of course, to the core).

This wouldn’t be a big deal if you were deadlifting light weight. But if the weight is heavy, you probably don’t want spaghetti arms when you're going to lift it. Unless, of course, you DO want spaghetti arms and your goal is to train your deadlift in the presence of a fatigued upper body! Get it?

As you can see, just like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, there’s no wrong way to combine exercises. There are only right and wrong ways to do it for the person at hand and the goal in mind.

Always consider the exercises you've selected carefully — beyond just the primary muscle they target. Consider what position they place the exerciser in. Consider whether they are grip-intensive, rely heavily on the core, or utilize other muscles in an accessory role.

Also consider the person. How long have they been training? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Will this grouping of exercises get them closer to their goals or just tire them out nonsensically?

As long as you have a sound rationale for doing what you're doing, you're cool. It's when exercises are strewn together haphazardly with no rhyme or reason that everything goes to hell, you develop a peanut allergy, and you can no longer enjoy Reese's.

With that, I’m off in search of some peanut butter cups.

None of this.

Share This