How to Choose the Right Training Program

Running?  Crossfit?  HIIT?  Weightlifting?  Bodybuilding?  Barre?  Zumba?  Aerobics?  Boot Camp?  Spinning?  Swimming? Yoga? You'll never be short on options when it comes to exercise.  The real trick is finding what works best for your particular needs.  Training programs are a lot like clothes.  Some are meant to make you look better.  Others give you freedom of movement and protect your body from the elements.  Still others you have to break in a bit before they fit right.

Maybe you stuck with a training program for a few months and didn't see any real results.  Maybe you've been sedentary for awhile or had to limit exercise due to injury and aren't sure where to start.  Regardless of what end of the fitness spectrum you fall on, answering these questions will help provide some direction on which training program(s) would best suit you.

muscle-pain
muscle-pain

1. Does a medical condition, injury, or immobility prevent you from performing certain activities?  When I look at my one-year old nephew doing back bends, crawls, and squats with the flexibility of a yoga master, I've gotta admit I'm a little jealous (and wonder where I went wrong).  As we age, our movement patterns can become increasingly rigid due to wear and tear on joints and tendons.  What most people don't realize is how this impacts exercise selection.  If you're unable to perform a certain exercise due to limited range of motion or continuous joint pain, stop trying to 'push' through it.  First find an acceptable substitute that you're able to execute with proper form and then spend at least part of your workout focusing on your mobility limitation.  Making yoga, stretching, and soft tissue release a part of your daily routine will improve range of motion and help you to avoid a hip, knee, or shoulder injury down the road.  They can also aid with rehabilitation.  If you're already dealing with an injury, there's many suitable alternatives for movements that are contraindicated. Lightweight resistance training and bodyweight exercises put less stress on joints than weighted counterparts and have the added benefit of helping build the mind/body connection of proper exercise mechanics (which leads to greater flexibility).  For those with more severe injuries, isometric exercises (static holds for time) and isolated joint exercises on a machine (ie. leg extension, bicep curl) can still provide a good stimulus for muscle and joint health.

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15ade3f81c9345bd1f0edcfd653ed4a7

2. What (if any) physical recreational activities do you enjoy the most (or hate the least)?  If you've been sedentary for awhile this might require a little experimenting.  A deciding factor when choosing a training program should be how well you're able to remain consistent with it.  If you dread the prospect of walking into the gym as much as getting a root canal, there's plenty of alternatives.  Start small...your initial goal should simply be to move around everyday for 30 minutes - 1 hour to build your cardiovascular health.  This could be something as basic as cycling or walking.  Once you begin feeling comfortable here it'll be far easier to transition into going longer distances or performing exercises that are more physically challenging.  If you're an outdoorsy type, you can walk, hike, run, bike, skate, canoe, swim, climb, surf, or paddleboard just to name a few.  For strength and conditioning exercises outside the confines of a gym check out your local high school track (ie. running, stair climbs, sprints), parks (most have pullup, dip, and situp stations), or even consider setting up some space inside your garage or home.  Enjoy smaller group workouts in an outdoor setting?  Check out Meetup to see what events are going on in your local area.

skinny-to-strong
skinny-to-strong

3.  Are you trying to get thin, enhance mobility, grow lean muscle, build power and/or strength, or gain muscle bulk?  While your goals may overlap to some degree, your answer to this question should be driving your training program.  There are numerous variables to manipulate but the two biggest to consider are exercise selection (what movements you do) and volume (calories burned, distance traveled, and/or total lifted per session = weight x sets x reps).

  • If getting thin is your goal, long bouts of cardiovascular exercise (an hour or more) at an elevated heart rate burn a TON of calories.  Endurance sports such as distance running, spinning, rowing, biking, and swimming all fall under this category.  Be advised that while you will lose bodyfat, it is more difficult to grow muscle mass using these training methods.
  • Want to get more flexible?  Yoga, Barre, Gymnastics, and Aerobics are a few options to consider for alleviating joint pain and developing better range of motion.  While classes can vary, try to seek out those that incorporate flow or dynamic movements over static/gentle stretching as they are more cardiovascular, balance, and strength intensive.
  • Trying to grow lean muscle and lose bodyfat?  Resistance training exercises that target major muscle groups with compound movements and minimal or active rest periods are the most effective for this goal.  Most small group training sessions also fall under this category.  While using only bodyweight exercises can help build lean mass, especially if you're new to training, you'll achieve greater results with weights and progressively increasing loads.  Keeps workouts short and intense and volume medium to high...3-5 sets...8-15 repetitions per exercise.
  • Want to build power and strength?  While there's a slight overlap with the previous category as resistance training will inevitably lead to getting stronger, these goals tend to be more activity specific and involve lifting heavy loads for low repetitions (1-3RM) and/or building explosive power.  Athletes that are training for a particular sport...ie. basketball, football, olympic lifting, and powerlifting would benefit greatly from utilizing these methods either exclusively or as a supplement to an existing training program.  Power exercises such as cleans, snatches, and plyometrics focus more on dynamic range of motion...moving loads quickly with rapid hip extension.  Strength building exercises emphasize lifting heavy on the basic compound lifts....ie.  1-3RM Deadlift, Squat, or Bench Press.
  • Looking to get HUGE?  Hardgainers looking to gain muscle mass strictly for hypertrophy (size) should focus on both compound and accessory movements at a high volume (3-5 sets, 10-20 repetitions) with progressively increasing loads.  This means doing the basic compound movements...Bench, Deadlift, Rows, Press, Squat...in addition to machines, dumbbells, and barbells...Bicep Curls, Leg Extension, Leg Press, Lat Pull Down, etc. to help sculpt your physique.  Nutrition is the other half of the equation and a determining factor for success when it comes to getting bigger.  You need to ensure that your diet is balanced (30% protein, 40% carbs, 30% fat) AND maintain a calorie surplus everyday to help grow muscle.