Guide to Fitness
The purpose of this guide is to provide the reader with information on how to increase their levels of physical activity and thereby improve their fitness levels. This guide will appeal to people who are looking to tone themselves and/or burn off fat. Now this isn’t a bodybuilding guide or a guide to push the body to any kind of extreme. One will have to look elsewhere if that is what one seeks. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not the goal, nor is Usain Bolt. Think more along the lines of Bruce Lee. Hugely developed muscles that weightlifters sport are very useful for heavy duty work but these kinds of muscles can often tire quickly. The thinner muscles that marathon runners have are great for endurance because they demand less oxygen but the drawback is the overall power output from such muscles can be very limited. As this guide is written focusing on the average human who simply wants to get stronger, the aim therefore is to cultivate and then maintain an all-round lean but muscular body through a combination of cardiovascular activity, strength training and flexibility exercises. Anyone can benefit from exercise. It doesn’t matter if one is as fat as a cow, as skinny as a monkey or as lazy as a sheep. Age does not matter. The approach that one takes will inevitably vary as one gets older but certainly one can exercise in their later years of life. Finances do not matter either. Seriously, the vast majority of the exercises I will run through can be done with little to no financial investment. A little creativity goes a long way. That being said, if one can invest in their training it can certainly take them further but one need not do so at an initial stage. They say that self-investment is the best investment one can make but start small and slowly build up as required.
My Fitness Journey
Before I dive into the main details of this article, I will talk a little about my own journey so that one may understand where my experiences in developing fitness are derived from. I have been doing martial arts training for around twenty years and for the past five years I have been supplementing this training with strength and conditioning workouts. While flexibility has always been a part of my martial arts training, it is only a year or so ago that I started stretching on an almost daily basis (Sunday is my day of rest – I will discuss rest periods later). I have been competing in international level Karate tournaments for the past five years - Karate is not a seasonal based sport so it is vital that I keep my body in peak condition all year round. My resting heart rate is around forty five beats per minute.
Relationship between Strength and Flexibility
Repeat after me - Strength and flexibility should be developed side by side because each supports and augments the other. This is a common problem I see with many people. Typically they focus too much on weightlifting and then neglect stretching the muscles. There have been some occasions where I have seen people with great flexibility but fall short in the strength department. Now let me explain why it is so important not to focus so much on one of these two aspects while thereby neglecting the other. If one focuses solely on building muscle without flexibility, the muscles will eventually cramp up and will lose mobility. Blood circulation will become increasingly restricted to the muscles and this in turn deprives the muscles of much needed oxygen and nutrients for recovery. The body will ache for greater periods of time and the user will be unable to work the body as hard as potentially capable. Progress will become increasingly limited. On the other end of the spectrum, improving flexibility without building strength will indeed grant one with great mobility within the body but without the strength to support this increased range of motion, the user runs the risk of hyper extending their muscles / joints which can lead to pulled muscles, muscle tears or ligament damage. Such injuries will certainly put a damper on any progress the user was hoping to achieve. When one develops both strength and flexibility together, they will have a strong, durable, injury resistant body that recovers much more quickly after each workout. I dedicated an entire section of this guide to explain this concept in depth because of how crucial it is to not only understand this relationship but to consciously apply it. Now I will discuss the three different areas of exercise required to help one attain that strong, lean and flexible body.
If one wishes to burn off fat, one must be prepared to elevate their heart rate to great heights and sweat. A lot. There are many forms of cardiovascular training out there (HIT / interval training is quite popular) as well as actual exercises one can perform. Swimming is probably the best form of cardiovascular activity one can get. Cycling, running and skipping rope are also good options, the latter two requiring almost no financial investment. I personally supplement my cardiovascular training from my martial arts with cycling. Swimming and cycling do not put much stress on the joints due to the effect of weightlessness in the former case and in the latter case; the upward reaction force from the ground is in direct contact with the wheels on the bike and not the feet of the peddler. So if either of these can be done, I would recommend doing them for safety reasons. Skipping rope with good technique also puts little stress on the knee joints even though the body is in direct contact with the ground. This is because the light footwork generates little impact against the ground and therefore the upwards reaction force from the ground is also small. Running however will stress the knees, especially so if poor running form is utilised, so be cautious if planning to run regularly for long periods of time as this can wear down the lower body.
Strength and Conditioning
The idea is to work the entire body during each session. Bodybuilders will target specific muscle groups during each of their workouts such that they can drive that particular muscle group much harder and then have a longer duration for recovery time. With strength and conditioning however, the whole body is worked over each session but not to the extent that a body builder would work a particular muscle group. The recovery time is then reduced and it is this frequent breaking down and subsequent repairing of all the muscles that will grant one the toned and high definition body that they seek. Below I have listed the major areas that one should target during each of their strength and conditioning workouts as well as some example exercises for each area that I use. I suggest partaking in such workouts two to three times a week; ensuring one does not do two days in a row. Again, if one does not have weights at home or one does not have access to a gym, there are workarounds. For example one could load a backpack and wear it while squatting. I do my strength and conditioning training at home and use a ledge to do my chin ups on. A creative and determined mind will find a way. Begin each strength and conditioning workout with five to ten minutes of light jogging to raise the heart rate.
Split squat / Bulgarian split squat
Chin-up / pull-up
Reverse chin-up / reverse pull-up
Stiff legged dead-lift
Half-kneeling overhead press
Standing military press
Dumbbell incline bench press
Ab wheel rollout
Thanks goes to KaratebyJesse for providing this routine - http://www.karatebyjesse.com/strength-cardio-karate-guide/
I like to do three sets of twelve repetitions (can be six on either arm / leg where applicable) but there are many different set / rep ratios that can be adhered to. The individual should find what works most effectively. It is advisable to switch exercises in each group every four to eight weeks and incrementally increase the weight by a couple of kilograms or whatever is comfortable. As the body adapts to a particular set of exercises, the exercises in question lose effectiveness. By swapping the exercises around somewhat often, the body has to adapt accordingly which will work the body much more than just performing the same routine for six months.
Dedicated flexibility exercises are best done after a workout, once the muscles are already warm. Of course one should warm up and cool down before any kind of exercise and such routines can consist of light stretching. The great thing about flexibility exercises is that it is safe to stretch each and every day as the muscles are only being extended, not torn down. That being said, it is important not to overstretch to the point of pain in any flexibility exercise. The muscles should feel like they are being pulled but if one experiences pain or a tingling sensation akin to pins and needles, they should immediately cease the exercise. In the case of flexibility, pain is definitely bad and pain most certainly does not equate to gain. There are a variety of flexibility exercise types, ranging from static stretching to dynamic. Below are a couple of pages of flexibility exercises that I personally use in my own training.
Courtesy of Sang H. Kim for providing these exercises in his book titled - Ultimate Flexibility
It is safe for one to run through each of the exercises shown above on a daily basis. I will now discuss alternate training methods and tools which can assist one in their physical development.
I know I mentioned that one need not financially invest themselves into their training but some people can find it difficult to motivate themselves to train on their own. An option would be to attend some exercise classes and/or join a gym. Another alternative is to find a training partner to exercise together with or hire a personal trainer. Plenty of classes do exist for developing cardio (Boxercise and Spinning classes etc.), strength (weight training and power-lifting classes etc.) and flexibility (Pilates and Yoga classes etc.), so options certainly are available but these do cost money.
Over the past years I have come across some useful exercise tools that I regularly use to assist in my development. One need not invest in such equipment but having the knowledge of some of the options available is certainly useful. I promise I am not secretly a sales person for some fitness product company.
One of my favourite training aids
As a martial artist, the speed drills that I do on the ladder help develop my footwork and coordination. That being said, this is a great tool to use for warming up and elevating that heart rate for anyone. There are plenty of exercises that can be found online but I typically hop through it on one leg as well as speed run through it facing forwards but also sideways.
Transportable alternative to standard weights
These are useful for training with an elasticated resistance. They are light and easy to transport which makes them advantageous over standard weights when travelling or on the move. As a martial artist, this elasticated strength is important for striking as the attacking limbs can be compared to a whip. A whip is elasticated and loose until the moment of impact where the rope tightens. This same concept can be applied for striking, the attacking limb should be relaxed and loose until the point of impact.
The bread and butter equipment of strength training
If one has a gym membership this can be omitted. If not however, getting a pair of dumbbells, a barbell and a bench would be useful. I personally prefer the option of using the interchangeable weights rather than using the fixed weight dumbbells but get whatever works best. If one plans to frequently lift, get a pair of weightlifting gloves to support the grip and to prevent the weights grinding against the skin. A weightlifting belt to support the lower back is another worthwhile consideration.
Yet another weight alternative
These are weights one can strap onto their arms and legs. Best used with cardiovascular activity to increase resistance. I train with a Russian instructor each Saturday morning who specialises in Muay Thai fighting. He was the one who introduced me to these weights and we would often start the first half an hour of training with them equipped. After taking them off, the body experiences a pseudo weightlessness in the limbs which allows for faster, more dynamic movement and striking. I also equip the arm weights during my strength and conditioning routines so that even between resting intervals, there is a constant (albeit fairly light) load being applied. They are also fairly discreet so one could wear them for extended periods of time while on the move.
Not for the beginner or faint of heart
This is an advanced training aid and has been trending a fair amount lately. While there is some skepticism around them, I have used mine to great effect. I will say that this is not something a beginner should invest in as it is quite expensive and not for the faint of heart. It is worthwhile understanding that the mask does not simulate high altitude training, not in the truest sense of definition. One won’t be able to wear this constantly for two weeks and then find that their lung capacity has increased once it has been taken off. What this mask will do however if used while exercising, is that the pulmonary muscles will be worked much harder. The mask provides a unique way of training the pulmonary muscles which by nature are difficult to specifically target. Think of it as akin to applying a load on the pulmonary muscles - in a similar manner weights are used to strengthen the body muscles, the mask is used to strengthen the pulmonary muscles. I think the mask is best used with cardiovascular activity rather than strength and conditioning exercises because the mask will work most effectively when the heart rate is elevated through constant, dynamic movement in a situation where the body is pushed to its limit. I personally use my mask while I am cycling but I do not recommend this practice because it can be too dangerous. I almost suffocated myself the first time I used the mask on my bike (in hindsight I probably should have used it first in a safer environment) and I have had a couple of other occasions of near fainting. Safer alternatives would be to wear the mask on a treadmill or while skipping rope as these will more readily encourage the runner to keep going, rather than slowing down when the going gets tough. The point needs to be stressed that the body should be forced to keep performing the exercise while the mask is being worn, otherwise one may as well not wear the mask and just perform the exercise normally. This is why cycling or the treadmill will work well with the mask.
Great for commuting and building cardiovascular fitness
I love cycling. As previously mentioned the bicycle is my primary source of cardiovascular training and when combined with the resistant mask, I take it to a whole new level. Bikes can be quite expensive but if one is able to combine this exercise tool and double it up as a means of commuting, the cost can be more readily justified. I personally use a single speed bike but there are plenty of bicycles around to suit all types of people with all kinds of different budgeting options available. The cycle to work scheme is quite popular in the United Kingdom and this can prove a great scheme to take advantage of in order to get a bicycle at a reduced price.
A great asset for speeding up recovery
Okay so this is to aid recovery and rehabilitation. Heat packs are good for general soreness and stiffness whereas the ice pack is more effective to initially treat injuries during the first day or so. I personally have a tendency to suffer from a stiff neck and shoulders so I often sport the heat pack during the evenings to relieve myself from some of the upper body tension. This leads nicely into the next couple of topics which both subset from the term recovery.
Unfortunately there may come a time when one suffers an injury. I have sprained both of my ankles within the space of a year. It can be frustrating if this occurs, especially if one is passionate about their training as one will suddenly find that their rate of progression declining. Upon sustaining an injury, one should seek to treat it immediately and not ignore it (a lesson I learnt the hard way with my first sprain). In the case of a sprain, the R.I.C.E (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) method works well as an immediate first step. If one believes the injury is serious, then see a specialist and get advice. As aggravating as it can be, know that there are ways to continue training with an injury and I recommend doing so, once a specialist has advised it is okay. One can always reduce the load or avoid exercises that put a strain on the injured area. As mentioned earlier, a creative and determined mind will find a way. Light training through an injury will aid in speeding the recovery process. When an injury occurs the body has to adapt to alleviate the pain from the vulnerable area. In the case of a sprained ankle, the body would place more weight on the supporting leg while walking. The back muscles also have to adapt and compromise to support the sprain. By continuing to work out, the supported leg and back are strengthened and therefore less likely to succumb to added injury during day to day activities. This viscous cycle of an injury begetting additional injury elsewhere is highly detrimental and great care should be taken to ensure this does not happen. Continuing to train through an injury is a good preventative measure and for lighter injuries, sports massages can help relieve tension in the supporting areas. Physiotherapy should be considered if the injury is serious. As one becomes older these concepts become increasingly important, something I have begun to understand first hand. Prevention is always superior to treatment so whenever possible, take precautions when exercising to try and minimise the possibility of injury. Above all else, listen to the signs that the body gives and use those signals to take appropriate action.
Another important measure to prevent potential injury is to allow the body adequate rest. Strenuous workouts should not be conducted on consecutive days however a tough workout followed by lighter training on the following day is fine. This is what I do in order to train in my martial arts and undertake my strength and conditioning routines. I do each three times a week on alternating days. I would also advise to take at least one day out of each week and dedicate that to rest and recovery. For me this is Sunday but it can be any day of the week. I also find that it is nice to simply take a day away from all of the training that I do. Even if sometimes I feel I could train on the Sunday I have made it a rule not to do so. I would also advise to take a week off heavy duty training every four to eight weeks or at the very least when one has planned to go on holiday. One can still continue to train lightly during such reprieves. Once a routine is established, for some people – myself included – it can be very tempting to increase the training to try and get results faster. Getting carried away with such recklessness can be devastating to attaining the goals that have been set, especially if this over training results in an injury. Strength that is attained through haste is unreliable and can dissipate just as quickly as it came. The body needs to undergo the transformation slowly and steadily, over a long period of time. It is arduous yes but strength developed in this manner can be relied upon.
If the reader has found even one thing remotely useful from this guide, then it has served its intended purpose.