The Framework Of Fitness Part I; What Matters Most…

This is Part I of a 3-part series I will be writing in the coming weeks on The Framework Of Fitness


A Gift From Dad

People often tell me that I’m, “smart for a personal trainer.”  On the scale of condescension, that’s just above saying, “you’re really cute for a fat chick.”  Of course I am smart, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sensitive…  

And it’s not even that I’m smart, it’s just that I have a high capacity for identifying and cutting through bullshit – the best gift my dad ever gave me, and one I am grateful for each day of my life.  Most of what gets written about, talked about, and shared in the fitness world is bullshit; viral notions spread by memes which become the hard and fast rules of how things should be done in the gym. 

Monkey-See, Monkey-Do

I will suggest everything you are doing in the gym might be wrong – or pretty frickin’ far from right.  Why?  Because you might be following the mindless actions of others in the gym, and have avoided the cultivation of your own exercise knowledge and instincts.  There is a chance you have never asked yourself some of the more important questions which need to be understood prior to assembling a successful exercise agenda.

Before anyone can adopt protocols for exercise, it’s important to ask one’s self and honestly answer, what it is that they are truly trying to accomplish in the gym.  Only from that answer can a framework for fitness begin to be assembled.  However, too many people never ask themselves that question.  They buy their gym membership and seamlessly assimilate themselves into the monkey-see, monkey-do environment that is the modern fitness center.  I believe with a little more thought, one might come away with a little more success and some better results from their workouts.

Inquiring Minds Want To Know; And So It Goes

I hear these questions most often from non-clients,

1.      How much weight should I lift? 

2.      How many sets and reps should I do?

3.      How often should I workout?

4.      Which exercises are best?

5.      How should I divide body-parts in my workout?

My answer to these questions is usually, “It depends, what are you trying to accomplish?”  

Most often I’m met with an, “I wanna get into shape.” 

To which I reply, “What does that mean to you?”

The conversation usually ends right there, for a lack of continued substance. 

Those six questions above are also asked by gym members, every day, in fitness centers across the country.  Unfortunately, they are most often asked of other gym members, who’s answers arrived from other gym members still, when they first joined the gym.  And so it has gone, and so it goes…

Let Me Count The Ways

Quantity of sets, repetitions, exercises per workout, exercises per body-part, workouts per week, etc., matter a lot less than one might be sold into believing.  I suggest that all of these elements are important, but are depended on and adhered to excessively by the fitness masses. 

There appears to be a built-in assumption that there are black and white answers here – only rights and only wrongs when it comes to the questions above.  Really, there are not.  There are instincts, common sense, experimentation, and the elementary framework for your personal fitness which might evolve from the cultivation of these.  

What Matters Most In Strength Training (To Me)

Sets, reps, and the best exercises notwithstanding (I will attempt to cover those in Part II of this series), there are five things I seek from a strength exercise, above everything else:

  1. A complete range of motion.
  2. Being able to feel – to mentally connect with the muscles I am trying to engage.
  3. Perfect form from the first repetition through the last.
  4. That the weight used is challenging, but achievable.
  5. That I identify and respect the line between not doing enough, and doing too much.


I seek these things because after giving it much thought, and regularly revisiting my objectives, what I now want from my strength training are these:

  1. Stronger muscles
  2. More flexible muscles
  3. More functional muscles
  4. Well shaped and full muscles
  5. A meditative state, under the strain of the weights, to help clear my head

That’s it; Part I of this series on the Framework Of Strength Training. 

Please take a moment to comment here on what it is that you currently seek from your strength exercises?  Your answer may influence Part II of this series.

To be continued…


Please check back in a week or two for Part II of this series.  Thank you for taking the time.

Oh, and there is this from a very young Nick Lowe.  Enjoy…

27 responses

  1. Wow, what a perfect post for where I am at in my journey. I thought for a long time I wanted just to lose weight but I have found I like the “feel” of my muscles. I like the focus needed to pay attention to the movements..not necessarily a meditative state but a hypnotic state.
    I want well shaped muscles and just to learn about more than just the common muscles.

    • Jules: One thing I like to suggest to people hesitant to workout for a fear of buring muscles or next day soreness — that the soreness is great inventory of what we are made of. Feeling the muscles, in transit, or the following day, is a supreme connection to the physical you.

    • Hi Karen! Stronger, more functional muscles as we age requires just a couple of efficient strength sessions per week — maybe 45 minutes or so. Moderate weight, supreme form, full range of motion. Lots of multi-joint movements.

      Definition…? That gets done at the dinner table 😉

  2. I have loved being “athletic” for as long as I can remember. Playing the game or competing at the sport was always the most important thing for me. Working out or exercising always came second. I “did” exercise or weight training but they were never my focus. When I became more proficient at Karate I ran for endurance as a boxer would. Eventually running became an event for me and took on a life of it’s own. With age, fewer of my friends, etc, played sports so I did more working out as that didn’t need partners or opponents. Now I work out more than play, but in my mind, the play time is still the best time 🙂

    I have modified the way I work out, however, thanks to your recommendations and examples, Roy. From what I can tell, it hasn’t done me any harm, which is all medicine asks of me 🙂

    • “the play is still the best time”.

      I too love to play. Even when I play though, there is concentration, intensity, and a search to be in that zone. Did a 20-mile bike ride through mixed hills the other day — a bomb could have gone off in front of me and I would have ridden right through it. MY kind of play 🙂

      I think something you and I share, is that as we get older those we once played with are no longer able, willing, or both. We continue on.

      • Sometimes when intensity rules my behavior I picture my horse, taking the bit firmly in his mouth and just running! With the wind or against, there is no difference.

  3. FANTASTIC – now that’s what I’m talking about! Holy moly it’s amazing how you summed up my first 6, 7, maybe 8 months in the gym. Basically let’s rip out as many reps as possible, as quickly as possible and have no connection whatsoever to the task I’m performing. Oh, and let’s start to despise exercise because of the lack of connection…

    To answer your question, what I want is to be able to apply my fitness to my everyday life. Be able to be a good example in and out of the gym. Mold a body that displays my hard work and consistency. Show others you do not need to be ashamed to slow down and lift smaller weights….

    Just a few days ago John and I were working on these core principles: good form, slowing down, and concentration. Almost EVERYONE else at the gym were ripping out as many reps as possible with extreme weight. Appearing to have a disconnect to what they were doing. I looked at John and said, “Oh my. That guy us going to hurt himself. He needs Roy in his life.”

  4. Will address your objective in Part II Bobbie.

    “Show others you do not need to be ashamed to slow down and lift smaller weights….”

    I think people often fail to understand that less weight, more slowly, good form, is actually much much harder — more intense, more challenging than just repping out. It takes guts.

    I can can get a lot more of a 135 pound squat than most I know can get from 300. It’s just a question of making that 135 much heavier by slowing it down, and taking it deep.

    I love getting challenged by my “big weight” friends, and putting them through one of my workouts. They always come back and say they have never been so sore. True.

  5. think of how long I was paying over $700 monthly for heavy training Biggest Loser style that had me hugging the toilet bowl..and *dreading* working out. My only connection to my soul was to please LIVE through the workout. 🙂 The studio promised you a free tshirt if you puked.

    What I currently seek from my strength exercises is to acknowledge my muscles and how they help me move. Very simple presently..and good body mechanics.

    I love to feel sore after a workout because I know I’ve worked my muscles, and they are there somewhere under the fat!

    Presently, however, my main priority is cardio, not just for weight loss and stamina, but most importantly, as an antidepressant to function mentally.

    • “The studio promised you a free tshirt if you puked.”

      No joke. I have been at this most of my life — it’s my livelihood and my career. Every week I tell my fiancée that “I’m done — I’m over it — I’m getting out of the business” because gyms like that, and shoes like The Biggest Loser preach unsustainable fitness.

      I would rather be a Wal-Mart greeter, than offer a t-shirt like that. Fucking kill me.

      Oh, and on the cardio thing — massive props for cardio as a mood stabilizer. I say so often, “my stair-stepper has save more lives than the US Coast Guard.”

  6. You said everything that I want to achieve when it comes to getting to the level of fitness I want to achieve in “What Matters Most in Strength Training.” With this strategy, I am sure that I can attain my fitness goal of losing my excess fat and gaining the type of muscle I want: toned, stronger and more functional.

    I have seen people busting it out in the gym with the max weight with the least proper technique. Mostly, men above 55 years old. I cringe when I see this because I envision serious injury. I have used your technique of focusing on less weight with great form, slow and steady. I find myself lost in this when I exercise. I constantly look in the gym mirror to make sure I am doing the form properly. I injured my arm once doing too much. I don’t want to repeat that mistake.

    Thanks for this post, and I look forward to parts two and three.

    • No joke John, I have been blogging here for a couple of years and a few years before this at another sight.

      Hands down, this is the most meaningful comment I have ever had. Not because you agree with me, but because you get it, and you are using this information to better your workouts and your life. I am truly humbled — no shit.

  7. Roy, I am with you on the answer: Depends on what your goals are & what you want to accomplish along with what “shape” means to you. What I want is different from what my friends want.

    When I write posts about my workout, I always clarify that I WANT to look the way I do. Women don’t need to be afraid of weights. That I lift to look the way I do & I have lifted differently to look differently. Along with that comes the food & how I eat to accomplish those goals too.

    I also do cardio, more than a lot of people but for me, it seems a must as I do eat very clean. Even when I was younger & my bod did not fight me, I still had to do more than most.

    You know I am so with you on your points on form & mind muscle link (many times I work out, I never even hear the music from my iPod shuffle) & all the rest of it.

    All I can say is being this age would have been a lot harder physically if I had not been lifting & working out! 🙂

    • I’m not quite 50 Jody, and I agree that, at this age, without strength training, cardio, and good eating, I would be a much lower functioning human being.

      I also agree that I have different goals than a lot of people who read this. That said, good form in strength training should be universal.

  8. I find it challenging at times to know what weight will provide benefit without causing harm. I spent 4 months healing from an elbow issue that I feel was the direct result of my trainer pushing me to lift increasingly heavy weights before I was ready.

    While my goal is to maintain lean muscle and strength as I age, I’m not willing to risk injury.

  9. Hi Karen: The very first thing I tell all would-be clients is this,

    “Strength training should make your life better, not worse”.

    I think it is the responsibility of a trainer to put clients under weights which they are ABSOLUTELY SURE the client can perform in perfect from. Anything beyond that puts the client at risk. Yes, weights can be increased in time, but that should be a careful and well charted process.

    When good form is used, and the appropriate weight is selected, it is nearly impossible to become injured in the course of strength training.

    Feel free to contact me with any questions — always.

  10. Defining fitness goals often overwhelms me. I want it all. I want to be strong, I want to be flexible, I want to be able to run, hike, backpack for hours, days and weeks at a time. Looking athletic would not be bad either. 🙂
    All this makes my exercise lack direction and since I am not a good plan follower I end up running a little, being able to lift a little and so on.
    Maybe for me it is never going to be about achieving my level of excellence. Maybe I will be forever Jack of all trades of fitness, master of none.
    Or maybe it is time to get more serious and figure out what it is that I really want.
    Oh, Roy, why do you always have to make me think. 🙂

    • Ewa: “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I thought one had to be born American to hold that meager distinction….

      Like you, I want it all. In the end, I will settle for not being a hermit, not being afraid to explore, try new things, and living well enough and fit enough to do them.

  11. Being able to feel the muscle – I do concentrate on that quite a bit and it makes weight lifting so very fun. I can relate with all your most important things list and realized that with range of motion, I don’t think about it consciously but I do intuitively.

    I felt that beautiful meditative state kick in tonight after I was nearly done with legs. It took a good 20 minutes, maybe more, but I knew it when it hit. Then I could finish off with chest and be floating along…

    Love this post and will look forward to the next!

    • Suzanne: Thank you for that wonderful comment. I know most people will never “get it”, but the joy and peace I find in strength training is one of the best aspects of my life. In the gym, time stands still for me. I wish more people would try and connect with it.

  12. Pingback: The Framework Of Fitness Part III; The Weight « Roy Cohen's Contemplative Fitness

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