Health

How I Train to Build a Healthy and Fit Body

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In Wednesday’s post I talked about how my approach to diet and physical activity has changed over the years. Up until about a decade ago, I mostly did aerobic training, and in particular, a lot of running as part of participating in many different sports. I also did some occasional bodyweight exercises and other types of activities, but it was primarily endurance running, interval training, and some sprints here and there that made up the bulk of my training. Then about 10 years ago, strength training started to take over.

At the time, the general consensus within the fitness & bodybuilding community seemed to be that the best way to build muscle and get optimal results from strength training was to do a bodybuilding-type training split where each muscle group is trained to exhaustion once a week. At least that was what I was led to understand from reading fitness blogs and listening to trainers and more experienced lifters. Also, this seemed to be what most people were doing at the time.

So, I ended up following the standard model; chest and triceps on Monday, back and biceps on Tuesday, legs on Thursday, and abs and delts on Friday. I regularly changed my training program the first couple of years of strength training, but I usually stuck with the type of training split you see featured in most muscle and fitness magazines. I did high volume for most body parts, and I did most sets to failure; rarely going out of the gym without feeling quite fatigued.

When I started to get serious about lifting, I began focusing more on my diet. At the time, I was still submerged in a pool of conventional dietary wisdom, so I ended up “supporting” the heavy lifting with the typical grain-based diet that we are recommended to eat by public health authorities, and of course, a lot of protein, both from food and protein shakes.

As everyone who’s been lifting weights know; when you’re just starting out with strength training, you can do pretty much everything wrong and still get results. The exception perhaps being those who train extremely heavy – doing virtually every set to complete failure – and at the same time eat too little food.

I did get results with what I was doing, but they weren’t as good as I’d hoped. I got stronger and gained quite a bit of muscle; particularly after I started focusing on eating more food. However, the diet I was taking in, which I’ve now realised was highly inflammatory, and the high-volume training I was doing, which certainly didn’t look like anything our primal ancestors did, were starting to take its toll on my body.

While I’ve exercised pretty consistently for my entire life, there have been certain periods over the last decade where I’ve barely been doing any physical activities at all; not because I’m lazy and want to stay home on the couch, but because my body and health simply weren’t up for a lot of lifting, running, or other strenuous forms of exercise. In other words, I can definitely relate to those of you who feel too fatigued or “damaged” to do any real form of exercise.

Organic Physical Fitness

As those who’ve followed this blog know; the poor results and declining health I experienced back then are largely what triggered me to look for another path, delve into the scientific literature, and try to find out what the heck was going on. After having gone through numerous books and scientific articles on nutrition, exercise, and health, I started to realise how important it was to apply evolutionary principles to the understanding of human health and disease. I got increasingly more interested in evolutionary biology, ancestral health, and the whole Paleo thing; something that opened me up to a whole new understanding of health & fitness.

In the ancestral health community there has historically been a lot of focus on the detrimental effects of chronic cardio, with less attention being given to “extreme” forms of strength training. I think this is an oversight, as there are a lot of people out there who could benefit from re-evaluating their perspective on what a good strength training program looks like.

Clearly, if you want to build as much muscle as possible in the shortest amount of time, you have to train heavy. However, that doesn’t mean that more is better – or that you should completely exhaust a muscle group every time you train it. The bodybuilding-type exercise routine featured in Flex magazine is clearly not the type of physical activity routine humans are well-adapted to follow.

I started to move away from my initial approach to fitness many years ago, and today, the training program and diet I follow are very different from the ones I adhered to 10 years ago. The main difference is that I now stick with a physical activity pattern that is better matched with my genetic make-up. Those who’ve followed this blog will certainly know what that means, but for those who don’t, I wanted to include this abstract from a paper titled “Exercise Like a Hunter-Gatherer: A Prescription for Organic Physical Fitness” that helps summarize what I’m talking about:

A large proportion of the health woes beleaguering modern cultures are because of daily physical activity patterns that are profoundly different from those for which we are genetically adapted. The ancestral natural environment in which our current genome was forged via natural selection called for a large amount of daily energy expenditure on a variety of physical movements. Our genes that were selected for in this arduous and demanding natural milieu enabled our ancestors to survive and thrive, leading to a very vigorous lifestyle. This abrupt (by evolutionary time frames) change from a very physically demanding lifestyle in natural outdoor settings to an inactive indoor lifestyle is at the origin of many of the widespread chronic diseases that are endemic in our modern society. The logical answer is to replicate the native human activity pattern to the extent that this is achievable and practical. Recommendations for exercise mode, duration, intensity, and frequency are outlined with a focus on simulating the routine physical activities of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors whose genome we still largely share today. In a typical inactive person, this type of daily physical activity will optimize gene expression and help to confer the robust health that was enjoyed by hunter-gatherers in the wild.

All of this is not to say that I think everyone should follow a strict “hunter-gatherer fitness regimen” – or that I even do so myself. If there’s one thing every good coach/trainer knows, it’s that training programs have to be tailored to the needs of each individual trainee. Not just because people have different goals, but also because it’s important to take factors such as posture, health, and muscle imbalances into account. This is particularly true in the modern, industrialized world, where a lot of people struggle with back pain, poor health, postural issues, etc. However, I think it’s always important to keep our hunter-gatherer legacy in mind when designing training programs.

My training

Okay, so enough about that. Let’s get over to my exercise routine, which is what this post is about. As for my goals, I no longer train to optimize muscle growth or get as strong as possible. That’s not to say I don’t value the importance of strength training or never focus on gaining muscle, I’m just not as obsessed with lifting as I used to be. Rather, now I primarily train to achieve a healthy and fit body.

It’s important to note that my goal isn’t to do everything in my power to achieve a perfect body or optimal health, but rather to find an approach to exercise that I can stick with and that I find enjoyable. I don’t train for a marathon or fitness competition, so why should I bother sticking to a very stringent exercise plan (?). I do believe it’s important to have a rough plan and certain rules to follow though, as it keeps me from getting off track.

Strength training
My approach to strength training today is very different from what it was when I first started lifting. I’ve put conventional wisdom (e.g., drink a protein shake directly after your workout, always give a muscle group at least a couple of days to recover after a workout before you train it again) behind me.

As for my exercise selection, I primarily stick with compound lifts such as the squat, press, deadlift, and bench-press, and bodyweight exercises such as the dip, chin-up, and push-up. I also do some occasional kettlebell training and TRX exercises. I rarely, if ever, do strength training machines such as the chest press, leg press, etc.

The number of times I strength train each way, and how much I do of each activity largely depends on how motivated I am and how I feel my body is functioning and recuperating from the training. Some week I’ll do a lot of strength training, while others, I might not get that many lifting sessions in.

– How I plan my strength trainings depends on what my current goals are:

If I’m just training to stay fit and healthy and have no specific focus on muscle growth or strength development, I tend not to keep a training journal or stick to a strict program. Rather, I’ll just hit the gym a couple of times a week and do “what I feel like doing” each day. That doesn’t mean I just play around though, I do have a rough plan, and I stick to a chosen selection of exercises. A typical day I might do the squat, lunge, dip, press, and pull-down, and some sprints at the end.

If I’m specifically focusing on gaining muscle and/or strength, I tend to train a little differently. To keep this post from getting too long, I won’t get into the details. Rather, I’ll just provide a broad outline of things. The main difference from what I described above is that I put more emphasis on progressive overload and keeping track of my progress. I’ll typically do a 2-split, picking 3-4 compound movements for each day. I might do 3-4 sets of 4-8 reps for each of these lifts. My main focus is on gradually getting stronger in these exercises. I may also include 1-2 additional exercises for each muscle group, which are done for higher reps (usually 8-15). Those periods where I focus a lot on strength training and muscle/strength development I tend to keep a training journal and time the breaks I take between sets and exercises.

Sprinting
I usually do sprints 1-3 times per week, directly after I’m done strength training. I’ll typically do 8-10 sprints, each for 20-30 sec., followed by a 20-30 sec. break.

Walking
I always try to walk for at least 20-40 min. each day. Most people could benefit from sitting less and being more physically active throughout the day – and I’m no exception. Although I’m fairly active when compared to the typical Westerner, I could definitely benefit from doing even more low-intensity activities such as walking.

Rowing

I occasionally do some rowing on the Concept2 rowing machine, usually at the beginning or end of a strength training session. I’ll typically go for 2000-4000 meters or do some intervals. My body is definitely built for rowing, in the sense that I’m very tall (6’5) and fairly lean. When I was in high school I had the school record on the rowing machine, doing 2000 meters in 6 minutes and 40 seconds – and that was without actually training for it. When looking back I realise that I should have joined a rowing club when I was younger.

Swimming

During the summer I tend to do some occasional swimming. I’m not a particularly good swimmer though, as I’ve never done a lot of it or taken the time to learn proper technique.

Now I want to hear from you. Are you currently exercising on a regular basis?
– If yes, what does your training program look like, and do you need any advice on how you can tweak it to achieve better results?
– If no, do you currently have any health issues that keep you from sticking to a good training program? If so, what are they?

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