The Framework Of Fitness Part II; The Cornerstone Question…

This is Part II of my 3-part series on The Framework Of Fitness.  Please check back later this month for Part III


The Cornerstone Question; Sustainability

Before one seeks an answer to the question, “how many times per week should I be working out?” one should first ask the question, “how much time do I really have each week to exercise?”  Only after that block has been put into place, can the framework for your fitness be assembled.

If it has been suggested to you by a fitness-minded friend or coworker, a fitness expert on TV, on the web, or in a magazine, that you must work out X times per week to make progress, and you don’t have X times per week to workout, then you have lost the battle before it could begin. 

However, if you can determine in advance of setting up your fitness program, how much time you realistically have to exercise each week, you can now adapt a protocol of exercise which has been suggested to you, or that you have read about, and trim it down to allow it to fit into your personal circumstances.  Progress might come more slowly, but sustainability will allow that progress to continue in the long-term.

This perspective also should be applied to how much time per workout you should/can invest.

Mass Vs. Definition; The Framework Continues

The utility of strength training is vast and has many applications; conditioning for athletes, muscle toning and shaping, muscle building, retarding the aging process (which is an umbrella over many other virtues), building strength, increasing flexibility, and the list goes on.

Most will seek multiple aspects of that list.  When I ask someone why they want to lift weights, among the more common answers I hear are as follows;

  • build strength
  • tone muscles
  • shape muscles
  • increase flexibility
  • add muscle mass

People may seek those to different degrees, and with varying priorities, but most want some combination of these. 

I hear this regularly,

“If you want to build mass, use low reps and heavy weights.  If you want definition use lighter weights and higher reps.”

The single biggest crock of shit I’ve heard in my entire life.

Mass:  Gaining muscle mass is the result of effectively fatiguing muscles beyond their previous capacity for managing a load, and doing so in successive workouts.  This can be done with high or low repetitions, heavy or light weights.  Primary to gaining muscle mass, beyond regular muscular fatigue, are nutrition and recovery. 

With the (possible) exception of the first few months of a workout scheme, there is little connection between the amount of weight lifted and an increase in muscle mass.  Nor is there a direct relationship between using lower repetitions and heavier weights to gain that muscle mass.  High-reps, low-reps, heavy weight light weight, matter much less than muscular fatigue, nutrition, and recovery.

Definition:  Creating definition within the musculature is dependent almost exclusively on nutrition.   Definition – the increased visual clarity of muscles, can only be attained when the body-fat covering the muscle is reduced to a point where the muscle is clear and distinct.  The shape of the muscle under the body-fat is influenced much more by range of motion under a load than the quantity of repetitions performed.

Since it is commonly accepted that spot reduction does not exist, adhering to a scheme of higher repetitions will have little impact on definition, but for the negligible increase of calorie burning in doing 20 reps over 10.

Days, Time, Sets, And Repetitions

For the more common objectives of strength training (bulleted in the section above), I suggest these simple guidelines for sets and repetitions be applied.  This is not rocket science and I am not suggesting these be taken as absolutes; just offering a few beams which, when lashed together, will allow your fitness structure to continue taking shape.

Revisiting the cornerstone question; how many days per week can you workout, and how long per session, I suggest that a realistic protocol for most people is 2-3 strength training sessions per week, lasting 45-60 minutes.  If your life deals you less, take what you’re delt and go with it.

I suggest attempting to intermingle 6-8 exercises, performing 2-3 sets per exercise, 8-10 repetitions per set, with minimal rest between sets.   If your life deals you less, take what you’re delt and go with it.

Again, there is no magic number here.  Your body will not know 8 repetitions from 15, so long as the load chosed suits the number of repetitions desired.   Your body will know good form, full range of motion, and muscular fatigue – all of which can come together in the 6-10 repetition range. 

Body-Part Pairings

Another question,

Which body-parts should I combine when I workout?”

Based on the more common objectives stated above, I’m a big believer in total body workouts.  In particular, I suggest workouts that include multi-joint movements which combine upper and lower body movement simultaneously, such as SCAPs, and Deadlifts.  I also suggest alternating (supersetting) between upper body and lower body exercises.  An example of such a pairing might be to alternate between an overhead pull-down (lat-pulls) and a squat for several sets back and forth between the two.

There is efficiency in alternating between upper and lower body exercises in the manner stated above.  While the upper body is at work, the lower body is resting, and vice-versa.  This enables one to exercise with a minimum of rest in-between sets, and (possibly) establish a cardio element within the workout as well.

To be continued…


Please check back in a week or two for Part III of The Framework Of Fitness; The Weight.  Please feel free to comment on how you select the poundage for a given strength exercise. 

Oh, and there is this all-growed-up version of one of my favorite 80’s songs by Deacon Blue.  Enjoy…

20 responses

  1. I truly appreciate this series. As I have once again returned to the gym, I am finding a whole new experience. For the past year, I worked out in the morning at home. But I am finding the evenings better. I sleep better at night and eat more of my healthy calories before 2 in the afternoon. I am not hungry after an evening workout and have a “snack” for dinner instead of visa versa. As far as time constraints, I finding working my muscles and doing my strength training in the pool far more time efficient. Weekends, when I seem to have more time, I can put in longer hours at the gym.

    • Jules: Glad you are back in the gym. I also have a great appreciation for evening workouts and the diminished appetite. I always suggest though; the best time of day to workout is when it fits into your schedule. Glad the evenings work for you!

  2. Great info here. As I’ve told you before I was advised to complete a routine that indicated the largest amount of weight, 12 reps each time and as quick as possible. It was very trying for me and there were times I started to hate exercising in general. While I am grateful for the introduction to the gym and that initial experience, it’s mainly as a rememberance on what I shouldn’t do. It’s only been since I’ve begun listening to my body, slowing down (what is the big rush while lifting anyway?!) that I’ve reconnected with myself and truly found something I enjoy greatly. I also like the idea of full body workouts. I always detested “leg” days so I wouldn’t put much effort in. Now I perform the exercises I love approximately 75% of the time and things that are necessary the remainder. Who wants to do exercises you hate? It’s a sure fire way leading to self sabotage in your routine.

    • Bobbie — two things:

      1) Exercise should make your life better, not worse. When one performs fast repetitions, one significantly increases the opportunity for injury since fast reps allow momentum to enter the equation. Momentum is where most gym injuries come from.

      2) With 60% of your muscle mass being carried from the hips down (legs), every day should be leg day in the gym.

  3. Thank you for your work here (have you ever thought about writing a book?). I definitely need to rethink and revise my strength training approach. Step one: doing my strength workouts on more regular basis; there are so many exercises I could do at home instead of waiting for the day when I have time to go to the gym. I know I can do that.

    • Ewa: A book? Someday. Just waiting for the $$$ to self-publish. Hopefully soon.

      As far as exercises at home go, most functional fitness strength exercises do not need to be done in a gym. You could live and die off PCLs; push-ups, crunches, and lunges – all of which are free 🙂 and can be done while watching TV commercials.

  4. One of the most informative posts I’ve ever read. I’m thrilled to hear that heavier weights aren’t always the key. (Could you have a chat with my former trainer about that one, LOL!)

    Just to be clear, if I lift a 12lb weight 15 times to fatigue rather than lifting a 20 lb weight 8-10 times to fatigue I can get the same result? If this is so, thank you, thank you. My elbow gives me major problems when I lift heavy.

    • Karen: To answer your question in a single word, YES! I get more out of a 40 lb. leg extension than most get from a 130 lb one.

      Your body does not know how heavy a weight is; it only knows how heavy a weight feels. Slow movement, concentration, and a willingness to accept (some) burning can go a long way. Lighter to more moderate weights done properly can be much more useful than heavy weights done in a heavy weight kind of way — sloppy.

  5. Good info Roy!

    I think like so many other things in life, once you learn the basics & establish that & good form, people need to find that program that works for them & usually that changes over time or at least with me…. as my age, body, life & other things changed.

    Like you said, take what you have time wise & put it to good use. If time is a prob, you can still put together a great program & add the intensity to it.. don’t talk to people in the gym. Do your workout! Turn the cell phone off at home.. make it your time for you.

    When people see me, they most likely think I lift heavier weights than I do. If you put your all into it, eat the right foods & stay focused, you can build muscle.

    I do a lot of drop sets but it turns out more like 3 sets of 12-15 reps. I just drop set instead of rest.

    I will say with age, I am lifting a bit heavier as my bod does not want to stay as tight. I also put together my routines based on the areas that need the most work getting worked on first in the workout.

    With age, my legs need a lot of work so I am putting more priority into them. Don’t stay as tight as the arms with age. I have to develop a program that works for me. Personally I am not a fan of SCAPS only because I want to use a certain amount of weight on certain body parts & that is just me…. I think they are great but not for my personal goals right now.

    • Jody: Well said all. You are the leader here, not me. I will say this; since I know commute 90 minutes a day on my bike, I have dropped my leg work to once every 2 weeks and am loving it. Legs are actually growing — at my age.

      Also, I think the SCAPS are a good functional exercise for so many people, but the hardcore ones like you and I can get by without them. That said, I still mix them in a couple ties per month because I need to practice what I preach.

  6. This is a great read, Roy!!

    It’s been an evolving process for me – fitness evolving as my life has evolved. And so, I take what I have (however much time that might be in a week), and use that as best I can.

    Great to hear your thoughts on this, and see how it applies to where I’m at today. Thanks!!

    • Thank you Lance. One of my favorite sayings:

      “Show me a man who has the same values and ideals at 50 that he had at 25, and I’ll show you a man who has wasted 25 years of his life.”

      Muhammad Ali — paraphrased.

  7. Wow! A lot of really great information here – tracked you down through Suzanne @workoutnirvana. Love your piece about “quitting” before you ever start because we don’t have “enough” time. I’m a squeeze-in-minutes-any-way-I-can, and now I get more minutes than I would have ever imagined 6 months ago.

  8. Thanks for dropping in Kris!!! I love the term, “exercise grazing” and I do a lot of it myself these days. Of course I do love my longer, more intense workouts, but when there is not time for them — I simply settle for a few of this and a few of that when I have a few minutes!

  9. Love it. Absolutely, there are so many damn myths out there. Plus so much of your results will depend on diet, and some even genetics. To just exercise when you have time takes the pressure off! Media gives people a zillion “rules,” when in fact people should lift weights with a just few basic concepts in mind. I always recommend lifting enough weight so that the muscles are fatigued by 8-12 reps. And as far as definition goes, that has a lot to do with diet & genetics. No idea where the high reps connection came from.

    Btw, I replaced my FB “like” button with a “share” button. You can read about the difference here:

  10. Suz: Thank you. I am going to write, after the first of the year, on just how important genetic predisposition is. Most people truly don’t understand that there is such an important connection between genetic predisposition and results, speed of results, and maintenance as well.

    Daggle scares me and so do like buttons and share buttons….. But I will read

  11. Fitness is all about the individual. What works for one person won’t work for another. And we all change, too, so what worked for us at one point won’t necessarily work for us several months or years later. It’s a constant learning process! And so much of it comes down to listening to our bodies.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s