You hit the weights consistently, six days a week; your training split targets every muscle group; and your set and rep structure includes a variety of intensity and volume.
By all accounts, your workout game is on point. But is it, really? Not if your goal is holistic fitness, optimal performance and functional strength.
Down with one-dimensional training
While lifting weights day in and day out will create shapely muscles and boost your metabolism, this one-dimensional approach will never yield all-encompassing benefits.
For starters, crafting a healthy, balanced and functional body requires a variety of different movements across multiple movement planes, different exercise modalities and a blend of intensities.
Comprehensive and functional training plans also help to improve your posture and balance, increase your range of motion (ROM), develop endurance, and may even reduce the pain and discomfort associated with inactivity and the dysfunction caused by our modern sedentary lifestyles.
Furthermore, creating a holistic fitness program can help to prevent injury and arrest training stagnation to ensure you don’t plateau, while helping to avoid burnout and overtraining. A more balanced routine also makes you more resilient to different forms of stress, not just your ability to toil under those weights.
A holistic exercise regimen helps to correct potential imbalances that can occur when we predominantly perform one type of movement pattern with high volume and frequency.
Weight lifters focus on intensely contracting muscles, over and over again. While this approach builds strength and develops muscle tone, it can also create tight, inflexible muscles and immobile joints.
Without a counteractive force from another form of exercise in your normal routine, you may eventually encounter issues due to a disproportionate strength and functional movement imbalance.
Accordingly, any comprehensive fitness program worth its weight should also include several other elements, specifically cardio training for aerobic fitness, core conditioning for functional strength, and mobility and flexibility exercises for enhanced movement efficiency.
While most gym-goers rely on cardio for conditioning, it is a vital element in any comprehensive exercise plan.
Some form of cardio in your program will deliver numerous benefits. For instance, it:
- Improves insulin sensitivity
- Mobilises stored fat
- Develops a strong cardiovascular systems
- Builds strong cardiorespiratory health
Enhancing your cardiorespiratory fitness is therefore vital for optimal health, vitality and performance, and can benefit your weight lifting too, because it improves endurance.
Strong, efficient lungs and an optimally functioning circulatory system deliver more fuel and vital oxygen to working muscles, which helps to sustain hard efforts and aids the recovery process.
Some low-intensity cardio is also a great way to warm up before a weight training session because it promotes blood flow and mobilises joints and muscles. And cardio is a great way to end a workout, too. The increased blood flow it promotes can help to flush out exercise metabolites to aid recovery, while a longer session after weight training can also help to burn extra fat.
- Frequency: Daily. Some form of cardio-based activity daily (even on rest days) is highly recommended. It doesn’t have to be intense. A simple walk over lunch or a pedal before your workout is ideal.
- Types: You can improve your cardiorespiratory fitness with activities that keep your heart rate elevated for a sustained period of time, such as walking, running, swimming, or cycling.
We all love crunches, sit-ups and leg raises – the bread-and-butter moves that help to chisel that sexy midsection.
But your core is more than just your six pack and neglecting to target all the associated muscles does a disservice to your body and your performance.
This disproportionate focus on trunk flexion often neglects core stabilisation, which is what you need for functional strength. Core muscles work constantly to stabilise your spine and pelvis, which is essential for good posture and control over daily movements like standing, walking and running.
From a performance standpoint, your core is where you generate your power. As such, strong and functional core muscles help to create and transmit force throughout the body from a stable foundation. A strong core also distributes the stresses imposed on your musculoskeletal system during weight-bearing activities and protects your back under heavy loads.
Conversely, a weak core means that other muscles need to compensate by performing stabilising functions, even if that isn’t what they were designed to do. This creates weakness and inefficient movement patterns, which reduces strength and often results in injury.
Research shows that core activation – performing a plank for instance – before a compound lift can even help to increase the force you subsequently produce, which delivers performance benefits.
Pilates is another great way to learn how to engage and activate the core and strengthen stabiliser and postural muscles, while also realigning the spine and body. The form of training was developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century as a method to better coordinate the body, mind and spirit.
Modern Pilates practises help people to improve their strength and flexibility, while also enhancing their body control and kinaesthetic awareness. Pilates is a popular exercise modality for rehabilitation for these reasons, and can also help to build endurance, coordination and stamina, making it an effective addition to any workout plan, no matter your goals.
- Frequency: Every second day, combined with a mixture of other conventional ab exercises.
- Types: Core stabilisation movements that prevent spinal and pelvic movement like planks, side planks, dead bugs and hollow holds, trunk extension movements like ab wheel or stability ball roll-outs, and standalone Pilates sessions.
Mobility and flexibility
Stretching is generally the most neglected aspect in any exercise program due to time constraints or the misperception that it offers no real benefit.
Yet the importance of elongating the muscle, expanding the muscle fascia and helping the muscle remove waste and recover after a heavy training session is well documented and always advised by experts.
Taking active steps to maintain your flexibility helps to keep the body in balance as the forces applied to muscles during exercise shortens them, which can restrict movement, reduce function and creates biomechanical inefficiencies and imbalances.
A deliberate program that includes a combination of static and dynamic stretching and mobility exercises are effective ways to increase your ROM in a joint or set of joints.
Flexibility is also determined by the suppleness of the soft tissues – muscles, tendons and ligaments – which is why stretching exercises focus on the muscles and tissues surrounding joints.
The various forms of stretching include:
- Static stretching: Generally involves isolating a muscle and its surrounding joint structures and maintaining an isometric hold (or stretch) for 15-60 seconds or longer.
- Dynamic stretching: Moves a joint (or joints) and its associated muscles through a full range of motion. This offers a more effective way to mobilise joint structures by working them as part of an integrated system. Dynamic stretches activate the associated and supporting muscles with movements that are similar to the pending activity or sport.
Dynamic stretching is generally a more effective warm-up strategy, while static stretching is ideal for a post-workout cool down.
It is also important to work on your overall flexibility between training sessions. This is where mobility workouts and yoga can deliver significant benefits.
Mobility training offers a proactive approach to maintain soft tissue and joint health. A daily mobility workout, even if it’s just for 10 minutes in front the TV at night or first thing in the morning, will enhance your movement efficiency, improve your performance, and reduce your injury risk.
Mobility work aims to mobilise a specific joint structure through various methods, including soft tissue manipulation such as foam rolling and massage, and dynamic mobility drills, which include movements that emphasise a full ROM to mobilise a multi-joint structure or multiple joints simultaneously.
Including joint mobilisation as a standalone workout in your weekly routine will help to improve mobility and flexibility, and can actively resolve muscle tightness and movement inefficiencies.
The right combination of drills can also improve posture and correct joint alignment to ultimately help you move more naturally.
Additionally, dynamic mobility drills help to switch on neural pathways, which can ‘re-teach’ the body how to move more effectively. This benefit also makes certain mobility drills ideal exercises to include in a dynamic warm-up to prepare the body for the movements that follow.
If you’re looking for additional ways to improve whole-body mobility and flexibility with an integrated approach, try yoga.
While this practise has it roots in ancient India, where it is more closely linked to esoteric spiritual practices, the westernised variants are designed to benefit the body by stretching tight muscles and creating flexible joints, while also clearing the mind and connecting mind and body through breathing. As such, many people now use yoga to improve balance, coordination, mobility and flexibility, while also promoting greater relaxation. Perhaps it’s time that you did, too.
- Frequency: Daily
- Types: Dynamic stretching before a workout but after a warm-up. Static stretching after the workout. Mobility drills and yoga sessions between workout sessions and on active recovery days.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.