Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran, the fundamentals of fitness are the same. Follow these laws to always be in shape.
Words Joel Snape Photography Danny Bird
STRENGTH COMES FIRST
Before you worry about getting bigger, get stronger. “Strength is the foundation of fitness,” says Sally Moss, a personal trainer at UP Fitness (strengthambassadors.com). “The stronger you are, the harder you can train and so the fitter you can get. You will protect yourself against injury and the effects of ageing by strengthening your muscles, joints and bones.
Even endurance athletes will benefit enormously from a couple of strength sessions a week in the gym.”
To work on strength, focus on big, full-body lifts, using more than 80 percent of your one-rep max for one to three reps in any given move. If you don’t know what your one-rep max is, take a look at the one-rep max calculator on the weight-training page at exrx.net. Once you’ve built a base of strength, you can up the amount of volume you’re doing — by increasing your sets and reps — to work on increasing your muscle size even more, or keep the reps low to keep getting stronger without adding bulk.
BIG LIFTS ARE KEY
You may think that it’s better to focus on working the muscles that you want to show off, but this is not the case. You’ll see much better results if you do big “compound” moves that flood your body with the testosterone and growth hormone it needs to pack on muscle, while working every muscle in your body.
The king of the compound moves is the deadlift. “Performed correctly, it works the whole body, including your core muscles,” says personal trainer Roy Summers (bodyline studios.co.uk). “It should be included in every gym program.”
However, if you do want to focus on building your chest then add some variety to the classic pushing chest-builder, the bench press, with the overhead press.
“The most underrated exercise is the standing shoulder press,” says Moss. “It works the entire shoulder girdle and the triceps very effectively and, when performed standing, recruits many of the body’s stabiliser muscles too. It’s also less punishing on the shoulder joints than the bench press, so if you are interested in keeping your shoulders strong and stable for the rest of your life, get pressing overhead.”
If all you do is deadlift, shoulder press and squat, you’ll get strong and pack on size. Throw in some power cleans and pull-ups, and you’ve got a great routine.
VARIETY IS ESSENTIAL
Muscles grow when they’re forced to adapt to new pressures, so to see any benefit from your training, you will need to vary what you do from session to session.
“The basic principle is that you need to overload your system — whether that’s through bar weight, total load per session/set training cycle, or increased cardiovascular demands,” says strength and conditioning coach Philip Learney (phillearney.com).
“But do the same every session, and you’ll stay the same.”
If you’re a beginner in the gym, by far the best strategy is to focus on adding more weight to the bar every week. This is what’s known as linear periodisation and it’s the most fundamental way to get in shape fast, but there are other areas in which you can introduce variety.
“Varying the reps, rest periods, angles and range of movement will give your body enough stimulus to keep making progress for several weeks,” says Moss. “The bigger the movement, the longer you can do it and still make progress. So the squat, pull-up and shoulder press, for example, can all be done for long periods.”
There’s also tempo, which Moss calls “the forgotten variable”. “Varying tempo is an excellent way to kick-start progress when your set/rep scheme is a little jaded,” she says. “Try lifting the weight explosively and then taking four to five seconds to lower it. This puts your muscles under tension for much longer, forcing them to adapt to the new stimulus. This tempo is effective whether you are training for fat loss or muscle building.”
And if you’re focusing on cardio, keep changing your routine. “If you normally do long sessions of cardio work, do interval sprints as well as longer efforts,” says Summers. “This will give you results faster.”
NUTRITION IS YOUR FOUNDATION
You’ll find some trainers who will tell you that the real difference between training for fat loss and training for muscle gain has less to do with what you do in the gym and more to do with what you do in the kitchen.
In reality, of course, it isn’t that simple, but it’s undoubtedly true that fixing your diet will at the very least help to accelerate your progress while eating mostly junk food will eventually see all your hard-made gains in the gym stall.
“Without at least hitting basic nutritional markers the body cannot adapt to any kind of stimulus,” says Learney. “People spend a lot of time doing good things in the gym, so provided that their nutrition is also fine, that will be good enough to build a pretty impressive physique over time in most cases. Have brilliant nutrition and brilliant training, though, and WOW.”
There is, however, one can’t-fail change every man looking to build muscle should make to his diet.
“Eat protein-rich foods such as meat and nuts for breakfast,” says Moss. “It’s the best way to set your brain and body up for a productive day. Protein gives you better focus and concentration — the body uses it to make neurotransmitters that promote alertness — and, along with the good fats from the nuts, keeps your blood sugar stable throughout the morning so you won’t get that craving for a pastry mid-morning.”
BALANCE IS CRUCIAL
No, that doesn’t mean doing one-legged squats on a wobble board.
To prevent muscular imbalances and an increased risk of injury, it’s vital to keep your body balanced. That means working your lower body and upper body equally, and doing a pulling movement to balance out every push. And stick to free weights for your main lifts, says Summers. “Using free weights will stimulate your core muscles much more than machines.
Free weights also allow you to work one side at a time which is much more beneficial for you, because you can’t let your strong side take on more of the work.”
RECOVERY IS KEY
“Rest and recovery run parallel to physical activity,” says Jessie Pavelka, head trainer at the new UK TV show Obese: A Year To Save My Life. “One of the most overlooked aspects of training is resting adequately.”
Straight after your workout, you can kick-start the recovery process with a good-quality shake. “Take a good post-workout supplement containing 0.4g of protein for every kilogram of bodyweight and 0.8g/kg in carbs,” says Learney. It’s vital to get plenty of protein from your food as well — you’ll want to take in at least 2g per kilo of bodyweight each day from sources such as fish, meat, nuts and pulses.
Rest is key to your body’s regeneration as well. “If I had to give just one tip for recovery it would be a good night’s sleep,” says Moss. “Lack of sleep increases insulin resistance and reduces growth hormone, which makes
it harder to lose fat and build muscle. Tips for a good night’s sleep include staying off the computer for at least an hour before bed, not eating a meal too close to bedtime, and sleeping in a room that’s completely dark.A good magnesium supplement can also help.”
Think of it this way: you spend about five hours a week in the gym. What you do in the other 163 can either give your progress a boost or derail it completely
COMMITMENT BEATS EVERYTHING ELSE
Instead of looking for a program that’s going to work miracles, pick a good, simple one and work hard at it — you’ll see results much faster. “One great way to stay motivated would be to make sure you have a target,” says Summers. “Otherwise, how will you know if you’re making progress?”
Trying to improve on a small number of lifts — the squat, deadlift and bench press are all good choices — will make sure you’re progressing. If you’re trying to get lean, aim to improve the number of pull-ups you can do — a surefire indication that your strength/weight ratio is improving. Pick a timed target, whether it’s for a 500m row, a 10km run or a timed workout such as the ones posted daily on crossfit.com.
Above all, stick with it. “Be consistent,” says Learney. “The body is constantly battling to get to a middle ground in many of its systems. It will go backwards almost as quickly as it’ll progress.” That doesn’t mean spending every spare second in the gym — just training hard when you’re there.
The Laws of Fitness
Apply the laws
Put these rules into practice with this guide to the type of moves you should do in a workout.
Any move that involves shoving a weight away from you. Strength in one will transfer to the others, so working on your shoulder press will help your bench.
Moves: Push press, shoulder press, bench press, press-up.
Almost any move that involves pulling a weight towards you or pulling yourself towards a stationary object. These balance out the pushing so you don’t end up with hunched shoulders.
Moves: Pull-up, chin-up, bent-over row, inverted row.
Any exercise that involves bending or “hinging” at your hips to complete the movement. This is one of the most fundamental ways of shifting heavy weight quickly.
Moves: Power clean, deadlift, kettlebell swing, snatch.
Any move in which you push your hips down and back, mimicking a sitting position. These recruit lots of muscles, so they’re great for burning fat.
Moves: Front squat, back squat, overhead squat, goblet squat.
Carrying a heavy object is great for your core, as well as your grip and cardio.
Moves: Farmer’s walk, waiter’s walk, unilateral carry.