One of the biggest misconceptions about exercise is that there is "one" program that works for someone all the time. People think that they need to get on a particular workout program and just keeping doing that program over and over again. Although getting on a good program IS a necessary first step, ensuring that your body doesn't adapt to that program is critical to ensuring that your results don't slow down or stop.
In order to maintain the effectiveness of your workouts over the long term, you have to employ a concept known as cross training. Although there is no hard and fast definition of cross training, the basic idea is that you continually change your exercise program to work both your muscular and your cardiovascular systems in a variety of ways, forcing your body to adapt to a new stimulus. Remember that the whole idea behind exercise is to make your body do things that it is not used to doing. In response to that effort, your body naturally adapts in order to meet the changing energy demands of the activities that you engage in. This process happens with your muscles, as well as with your heart, lungs, and circulatory system - collectively known as the cardiovascular system. To ensure you get the most out of your cross training efforts, you should make changes to the activities that challenge your muscles as well as your cardiovascular system.
Challenging Your Muscles
When you are putting together the muscular training part of your exercise program, remember that the primary mission of the activities is to challenge your muscles and connective tissues - tendons and ligaments - beyond their normal boundaries. For example, if you were to pick up a suitcase that only weighed 5 pounds, it would probably not be very difficult for you. However, if that same suitcase had 50 pounds worth of items inside, it would be significantly more difficult to pick up and carry. In response to that increased demand, your body would recruit additional muscle fibers to assist with the work, and in some cases would even recruit a different type of muscle fiber. Although we won't get into the details about the different types of muscle fibers in the human body, you do want to take away the fact that the number and type of muscle fibers recruited for any given task is proportionate directly to the difficulty of the task.
Let's apply this concept to weight training - or resistance training, as it is often called. If you were going to do a basic bicep curl with 5 pounds, your body would engage a certain number and type of muscle fibers. Doing exactly the same exercise with a more challenging weight would cause your body to need additional resources in order to handle the increased demand. However, is that only true of picking up a heavier weight? What would happen if you used the same weight, but did a higher number of repetitions? The same basic concept applies - your body will recruit additional resources in order to accomplish the task. What can be determined from that fact is that in order to change the stimulus on your body, two easy ways to do so are are to increase the weight and/or increase the number of repetitions.
However, there are other ways to challenge a particular muscle group in addition to simply adding weight or repetitions. What about changing the position of your body when you do the exercise? Using the same example as above - the bicep curl - most people do the basic version of that exercise standing up, with their arms extended, elbows at the side, and palms facing forward. What if you were to do the same exact movement, only this time, you turn your palms to face the center of your body throughout the entire exercise? Do you see how that would change the stimulus? You would still be engaging the biceps of your upper arm, but you would also engage the muscles of your forearms in a different way, just because of the position of your palms.
Further, what if you were to change the speed at which you did the exercise? Most resistance exercises should be done as a basic count of 2 seconds during the initial phase (also known as the concentric phase), and then a count of 3 to 4 seconds during the second phase of the movement (known as the eccentric phase). What if you were to reverse that process? Count to 4 during phase one, and only count to 2 during phase two. Do you think your body would need to react differently to handle the different stress? Of course.
There are many, many different kinds of exercises for the biceps. If you normally do bicep curls, hammer curls, and cable curls, what would happen if you started using 2 or 3 of the bicep curl machines instead? Your body would have to adapt to the new stimulus! By sitting down in a bicep curl machine, you are no longer using your leg, back, and abdominal muscles to stabilize yourself like you were when you were standing up doing a bicep curl. However, by locking your body into a certain position on the machine, you are isolating the biceps, allowing you to focus more on the contraction of the bicep muscles during the movement. Does that mean that the machines are better than the dumbbells? No. It also does not mean that the dumbbells are better than the machines - it just depends on what your goal is. What you need to take away from this section is not that one exercise is better than another - just that they are different, and that is cross training.
To summarize, here are but a few of the ways that you can cross train your muscles:
- Heavier Weights
- Higher Number of Repetitions
- Change the Position of Your Body
- Modify the Speed of the Exercise
- Use Machines as well as Free Weights
Challenging Your Cardiovascular System
Just like the muscular system, your body will find ways to adapt to the cardiovascular training that you do, and before long you will stop seeing a high degree of results. Let's try to use some of the same concepts that we applied to resistance training, and see if they also apply to cardiovascular training.
How can you make yourself heavier? Most people are trying to make themselves LIGHTER when they exercise! However, if you are able to find a safe way to increase the total amount of weight that your body is moving during cardiovascular training, don't you think that the activity would be more difficult, and force your body to adapt? Sure it would.
A common method that people use to do this is one that you should NOT do, and that is strap on wrist weights or ankle weights, or to carry dumbbells while you are doing cardio. Although this does increase the total amount of weight being moved by your body, it also puts a stress on your joints that is not natural, and therefore, not a good idea. However, alternatives that DO work include putting on an adjustable weighted vest, or even just strapping on a backpack with some weights or books in it! The idea is to keep the additional weight as close to your body as possible, away from easily damaged joints.
Higher Number of Repetitions
Although you don't normally count repetitions when you are doing cardio, you DO take a certain number of steps, have a certain number of revolutions per minute on the elliptical or the bike, or you take a certain number of steps on the stair master. Do you think that increasing those numbers would help? You bet! Whether it be by staying on the equipment for longer, or just working out harder to get a higher number of steps or revolutions in the same amount of time, either way you have changed the stimulus on your cardiovascular system (not to mention your legs!), and by reacting to that new stress, your cardiovascular system will burn more calories while adapting to the new program.
Change the Position of Your Body
You may be asking yourself at this point just how many positions can the body be in when you are walking on the treadmill? The answer is PLENTY! Changing the incline of the equipment is an obvious way to change the position of your body, provided you continue to STAND UP STRAIGHT. If you hunch over, or grab the machine for support, you are defeating the purpose. What about leaning backwards or forwards when riding a bike, or peddling an elliptical? By changing the angle at which your legs are pushing on the machine, you are most certainly changing the stimulus, forcing your body to adapt.
Modify the Speed of the Exercise
This one pretty much goes without saying! Go faster, and you'll burn more calories, and elicit a new adaptive response from your body. However, what about going slower? What if you are used to the Cycling class where your instructor seems to be made of steel, and can spin his/her legs around 80,000 times a minute for 30 minutes straight? Can slowing down be as effective as that? Sure it can! Trying reaching down to tighten up the resistance knob on that bike past your normal comfort level, and it's guaranteed that your body and your legs will have to find a new way to provide energy, even though you are actually going slower than you were a few minutes ago.
Use Machines as well as Free Weights
Other than what we discussed above with weight vests/backpacks vs. ankle/wrist weights, you really don't use free weights during cardio. However, you DO ride a treadmill or an exercise bike or a stair master on a regular basis, right? Trade those machines in for the real thing! Go outside and go for a brisk walk or a jog. Use a REAL bike and get out for some fresh air and an invigorating ride around your area. Find a tall building in your area and walk up and down the stairs. It's a safe bet that after a few flights you'll be wishing you were back on the stair master with it's motorized movement assistance.
The examples above have been just a few ways that you can cross train your body. There are many different training protocols, and literally thousands of different exercises that the human body is capable of. You should research as many different training protocols as possible, and even enlist the aid of a personal trainer if you need help setting up a program for yourself, or to change the program that you are already on. Remember, the key is to make your body ADAPT to new stimulus as often as possible.
Now get out there and get some exercise.
Aaron Potts is the owner of Aaron's Personal Training based in Jacksonville, FL, and he is also the creator of the Fitness Destinations health and fitness website. Aaron's experience in the industry includes one on one personal training and fitness consulting, as well as the creation of several audio programs and electronic products for health conscious consumers, as well as fellow Fitness Professionals. Email: [email protected]