As a personal trainer with 10 years experience with my London clients, I always start by asking “what are your 1 year goals?” Then I devise a workout plan to get them there.
If like most people you don’t have a personal trainer, you not only have to set your own goals, you also have to devise your own exercise plan to achieve those goals.
But most people don’t set any specific goals beyond “I want to lose weight” or “I want to build more muscle”. And even if you do set some really specific goals (such as “lose 2 stone in a year, and get my body fat below 15%, and gain some muscle too”) how many of you have a one-year exercise plan to achieve the physical changes you’ve set yourself?
Think back to last year, 2012. What was your weight, body fat percentage, waist size etc? What exercise plan did you have for 2012? Did you stick to it, and if not, how much did you deviate and why? And what was your weight, body fat, and measurements at the end of 2012? Does this sound like the physical equivalent of a grilling on Dragons Den? It’s meant to be!
Now think of this year, 2013. Are you on track to achieve your goals?
Set your goals now
First, weigh yourself, measure yourself, and write down some baseline stats, your starting-point. And get a friend to take a pic of you from front, side and back. Do it against a plain wall so you get a clear picture.
Also get an idea of your weaknesses. The best way to do this is to get a personal trainer to assess you, but you can get a rough idea on your own. Where are you least flexible? Maybe you have particularly tight hamstrings, or internally rotated shoulders from sitting at the computer all day. Maybe you have very poor upper body strength. Or you’re out of breath after climbing the stairs when the lift is broken.
Now set some goals. Say you’re a 15 stone male, 6 foot tall, 38 inch waist, and 32% body fat. And you’ve not exercised properly for at least 5 years. A good set of goals is to reduce your weight by 2 stone (down to 13 stone) in a year, and build muscle, get your waist measurement down to 34 inches, and get your body fat below 15%. And get fitter and stronger too, particularly addressing any weaknesses you’ve identified above.
Plan your year’s exercise
When you plan your exercise over the next 12 months, this plan is not set in stone, nor should it be. It’s meant as a guide, which you’ll adapt as you go along.
What most people do is to go to the gym twice a week, and do roughly the same exercises each time, with roughly the same weights, for a year. Between gym sessions they might go for a 20 minute run once a week. And maybe some sit-ups at home for 10 minutes once a week. For a year. And that’s their plan.
This plan is far better than the exercise plans of the majority of the population, and it’s much better than no exercise at all. But your gains will be moderate. You can do much better than this.
First 3 months
There are three more goals you should add to the ones you’ve set.
First, don’t injure yourself. Sounds obvious, but many people attack the gym with little idea of the risks, and get injured.
Second, don’t neglect any aspect of your physique and fitness. So don’t just do upper body exercises, work the lower body too. Don’t just do chest and arms, exercise your back, shoulders and core too. Don’t just think strength, think flexibility too, so your body and joints are in balance, and function optimally. And don’t neglect cardiovascular fitness, as your heart is your most important muscle.
Third, remember that nutrition is equally important as exercise, so have a good nutrition plan in place and stick to it.
So your first 3 months should focus on whole body workouts, three times a week. Aim to master good form for each exercise, and when you’ve mastered good technique, use moderately heavy weights so that you can perform around 12-15 reps per set, but no more. Make a note of each exercise, sets, reps, and weights used.
Each workout will cover all the major body parts: chest, back, shoulders, arms, legs, core. Do 40 minutes of compound movements such as squats, chest press, lat pulldowns and pullups for back and biceps, pushups for chest and triceps, and some core strength exercises. Then do 15 minutes interval training for cardio. Devote 10 minutes at the end to stretching, paying most attention to your tightest muscle groups.
As the weeks progress, make small weekly increases in the weights you use, never more than 20%.
Your aim in the first 3 months is to master good safe effective exercise technique, build a basic level of strength and fitness, and correct any weaknesses and tight muscles (often the weakest muscles are opposite the tightest ones eg- tight front of shoulders, weak upper back, tight hip flexors and weak hamstrings/glutes).
At the end of the first 3 months, re-measure all your stats and weight.
Second 3 months
Now you can increase the intensity by progressing from whole-body workouts to split routines. One kind of split routine is to train upper body on Monday, lower body on Wednesday, then core strength and cardio on Friday. On Tues/Thurs do a short interval training cardio. And rest on Sunday.
Another kind of split routine is to to upper body push exercises on Monday, legs and core on Wednesday, and upper body pull exercises on Friday. “Push” exercises are chest, triceps, front of shoulders. “Pull” exercises are back, biceps, and rear shoulders.
Aim to lift a little heavier now, in the rep range of 10-12 reps. And keep increasing the weights every couple of weeks as you get stronger.
During your second 3 months, its a good idea to take a week off the gym. This can coincide with a holiday. Sometimes your body needs a rest and change of pace. This doesn’t mean a week with no exercise at all. Focus on core strength at home/hotel room, and keep stretching (ideally after a 30 minute walk and gentle upper body limbering movements).
At the end of the second 3 months, you’re half way through the year, so assess your progress again, and measure it against your stated goals. Are you on-track?
Third 3 months
Now’s the time to start introducing some new exercises, and tweaking some variables during each workout. So if you’ve been doing barbell bench press, switch to dumbbell bench press, and vary the angles. And if you’ve been doing squats, introduce some leg press machine exercises, and dumbbell lunges. You get the idea.
By the way, don’t expect to look like the guy in the pic without having trained hard for years, it’s just there for inspiration.
The variables you can tweak include shorter rest periods between sets, pausing and squeezing at peak contraction of each rep, slow negatives (lowering the weight more slowly in each rep) and so on. There are many more ways to make each exercise more challenging. Aim for heavier weights, in the 8-10 rep range.
Again, take a week off during this 3 month period, and focus on core, light cardio, and stretching. And at the end of the 3 months, measure your progress again. You may have reached one or more of your goals early, in which case aim for maintenance or set a more ambitious goal.
Fourth 3 months
This is your final 3 month phase of the year, so focus on areas where you’re lagging behind, without abandoning the other aspects of fitness you’ve achieved. Keep pushing for greater intensity, new exercises, new variations of split routines, and don’t forget your one week off to let your body recover.
A more advanced exercise technique is the “super-set”. It involves exercising two opposing muscle groups back to back without any rest between sets. So for instance do a set of dumbbell bench press, followed immediately by a set of bent-over barbell rows.
You can also reduce your rest periods still further, and squeeze in an extra set. So if you’re used to doing 2 sets of an exercise, up it to 3. There are so many ways you can keep challenging yourself.
At the end of the year, measure your progress. And use what you’ve learnt in the year to set more goals for the next 12 months.
(Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London)