Exercise is just like anything else. To be successful you have to follow a few of key principles. Take the principle of overload which dictates that you need to try and do a little more exercise week by week to continually improve your fitness. Or the principle of reversibility – “you cannot store fitness” (wouldn’t it be nice) and therefore have to work out on a regular basis to maintain your current fitness level.
But probably the most essential principle is that of specificity, which basically states that you are fit for what you do.1 In other words, it’s important that you align your exercise plan to your fitness goals.
Your body adapts to the type of exercise you perform, so you should choose exercises and training methods that target the muscles and movements you’d like to improve.
Here’s a breakdown the best type of training for every major fitness goal.
How to Exercise for Cardiovascular Fitness
Cardiovascular fitness is the ability of your body to take in, transport and utilize oxygen and is usually presented as your VO2 max which is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use at a given time.2
Benefit: The more oxygen you can utilize, the longer and more intensely you can exercise. Cardiovascular fitness is dependent on the condition of your heart and lungs as well as your muscles. Low cardiorespiratory fitness is a strong predictor of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality in adults.3
Activities: To develop cardiovascular fitness, perform activities that involve repetitive movements of your major muscle groups, such as walking, running, cycling, swimming and rowing.
Intensity: In terms of intensity, most experts agree you should exercise between 60 to 90% of your maximum heart rate.45 Opinions vary how to establish your maximum heart rate (MHR). Some studies suggest that 220 minus your age is the way to go, others suggest you should take your resting heart rate into account or establish a true maximum heart rate via a stress test. Or just use this heart rate calculator.
Types of workouts. Cardio training methods include:
- Long, slow distance training
- Tempo training (or fast-paced training)
- Intervals (including high intensity interval training and Tabata)
- Fartlek (or mixed pace training)
Cardio workouts generally last from 20-minutes to several hours.
Read more: Guide to Workout Nutrition
How to Exercise for Weight Loss
Losing weight or, more accurately, losing body fat, is all about creating an energy (calorie) deficit by eating less and exercising more. Any energy deficit will then be met by your fat stores, as your body will burn body fat in lieu of food.
Cardio: Almost any type of exercise can help you control your weight; so long as it uses a decent number of calories and you are eating less than you need to sustain your weight, your body will burn fat.
Popular forms of exercise for weight control include walking, running, cycling, swimming and group exercise classes. Check out this exercise calorie calculator to find out how many calories you burn during your workout.
Strength: Strength training is also important for weight control; lifting weights will help you lose weight by preserving muscle mass while eating fewer calories, and maintain or even increase your metabolic rate.7 Although strength training is primarily anaerobic in nature, it can also be great calorie burner.8
Diet: As long as you are eating less than you need to maintain your weight (calorie deficit), you will burn body fat. The best weight loss eating plans involve moderate amounts of protein, eating plenty of healthy, natural foods, some healthy fats and as little unhealthy sugar and trans fats as possible.
This will result in a slow but steady weight loss of around one to two-pounds per week which is realistic and sustainable. Crash and fad diets seldom work in the long term.
Read more: Calorie calculator
How to Build Muscle
Building muscle. It’s the reason many people work out at all. The process of building muscle is called muscle hypertrophy. However, building muscle goes beyond just sculpting and improving body shape, but also has an impact on health.
Benefit: Muscle accounts for about 60% of our weight. Alas, muscle loss starts to occur as early as our 30s, with up to half lost by our 70s.9 Research shows that this loss of muscle is associated with a greater risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, limits mobility, and is linked to premature death.10
Workout routine: To build muscle aim to perform a moderate to high volume of exercise and training, organized into a split routine where different muscles are trained on different days. This allows you to perform multiple exercises per muscle group.
Sets & reps: Beginners should aim for 1-3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions using weights of around 70 to 85% of your one-repetition maximum. Advanced exercisers may aim for 3-6 sets of 1-12 repetitions using weight of 70-100% of your one-rep maximum. In terms of rest, for lighter loads aim for roughly 1-2 minutes rest between sets, while for heavier loads 2-3 minutes.1112
To make workouts even more demanding, you can use training systems like drop sets, super sets, forced reps and negatives to maximize muscle growth.
Diet: Nutrition is a big part of building muscle – you can’t build something out of nothing! Unlike weight loss where a calorific deficit is needed, building muscle needs a calorific surplus (check out this weight gain calculator).13
- Protein is important for to gain muscle. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, to maintain or build muscle mass you need around 0.7–1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.4–2.0 grams protein per kg body weight).14
- Carbs are also important for fueling workouts.
If you’re not gaining muscle despite training hard, chances are it’s your diet that is the problem and you’re probably not eating enough. Despite the need for a calorific surplus, a muscle building diet should still be healthy.
Supplements: People who want to gain muscle often consume dietary supplements marketed for muscle growth.15 Protein powders such as creatine, whey protein, branch chain amino acids, and pre-workout energizers are all popular but by no means essential.
Most people do not need supplements. They are a convenient way of increasing protein intake without a lot of extra calories, but they also tend to be poorly balanced. It’s best to get your nutrients and calories in the form of whole foods, and avoid making supplements a regular part of your routine.
How to Increase Athletic Performance
Training for sport can be super tricky and the type of training performed will depend on the sport. This applies whether you’re a recreational athlete (e.g. a runner training for a marathon) or a pro.
Most sports involve a combination of different fitness attributes, although the importance of each attribute will differ from sport to sport. While a football player will need lots of strength and power but not very much cardiovascular fitness, a long-distance runner will need more cardiovascular fitness and considerably less strength. Sports like tennis, soccer and martial arts fall somewhere in-between these two extremes.
Sport specific skills: In addition to being appropriately fit and strong for your sport, you also need to practice your sport skills. Being super fit doesn’t help if your technique is poor; being the fastest, strongest player on the tennis court is of little use if you can’t hit the ball well. If you want to a better tennis player, you’ve got practice hitting the ball. Over and over and over.
Training geared towards your specific sport may result in an unbalanced training plan by normal standards. But as training time and energy are limited, you need to focus on activities that give you the most sporting bang for your buck. For example, if you’re a runner your training plan is going to be skewed toward cardio and less on building strength, though both are essential for optimal results.
Seasonal: Athletic-type training is normally conducted in seasons. Each season will have a specific focus, will build on the preceding season and prepare the athlete for the following season.16
For example, depending on your sport you might spend
- 2 months on basic conditioning and preparation
- 3 months developing strength
- 2 months developing power
- 4 months competing
- 1 month of rest and recovery, before starting all over again.
Diet: An athlete’s diet should support their training and may also change during the year. If muscle building is the goal then a calorie surplus is required but if you have to “make weight” for a competition (e.g. rowing), then you may need a calorific deficit. As a general rule, your diet should be as healthy and nutritionally dense as possible.
How to Increase Strength & Power
Strength and power – similar but different.
- Strength is about generating maximal force, for example lifting a heavy weight
- Power is the ability to exert maximal force as quickly as possible (strength + speed = power), for example throwing a baseball.
Both types of activity cross over – strength enhances the performance of power and vice versa, but are different enough that they are developed using different training methods.
Set & reps: Strength is developed by lifting heavy weights for low repetitions. According the the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) beginners should aim for 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps, using weights of between 60 to 70% of their one repetition maximum. While more advanced exercisers may aim for 2 – 6 sets of 1 – 8 reps using weights of 80 to 100% of your one rep maximum.17
Exercises: Select exercises that allow you to lift heavy weights relatively safely, using multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Exercises of choice include the squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press.
Tempo & rests: Because the weights involved in developing strength are very heavy, repetition speed is sometimes very slow and rest between sets are often as long as 3 to 5 minutes. This allows for maximum recovery between sets and therefore maximum weights to be lifted.
Set & reps: Power training also normally involves short sets and long rests but the weight is usually lighter compared to strength training. This is because to develop power, the weight must be moved as quickly and explosively as possible.
To increase power the ACSM advises to aim for 1 to 3 sets of 3 to 6 repetitions. For upper body exercises use a weight of 30 to 60% of your one rep maximum, while for lower body exercises 0 to 60% of you one rep maximum.18
Exercises: Typical power exercises include power cleans and other Olympic lifting-type exercises, jumping exercises called plyometrics, and medicine ball throwing exercises.
Tempo: As soon as the implement being lifted (barbell, medicine ball or even bodyweight) starts to slow down, the set should be terminated because, if you want to train to improve power (strength developed at speed) you need to move quickly. As soon as you slow down in training, you are training to slow down!
Diet: Both strength and power are dependent at least partially on muscle size. Therefore, diet is similar to that for building muscle.
Training for different goals requires different approaches to both exercise and nutrition. This makes it difficult to pursue several different fitness goals at the same time. Trying to increase cardiovascular fitness while developing maximal strength can be counterproductive, while building muscle and losing lots of fat doesn’t really work. To improve one aspect of your fitness, focus on one goal at a time.
However, if you don’t need to make big improvements in multiple fitness components then you can combine approaches. This kind of multi-component approach is called cross training.