Choose the right exercise to meet your goals
August 17, 2015
One of the more frequent questions that I'm asked is, "What is the best exercise"? My response is always the same. "Best for what exactly?" Frequently, I'm asked what I think about a specific program, diet or stand-alone activity. Most recently, someone asked me what I thought about swimming. Let's not only look at the strengths and weaknesses of swimming, let's examine how to make decisions by considering specific goals. Always work backwards from there.
Swimming is great because it reduces impact on all major joints while substantially increasing one's aerobic and anaerobic fitness and strengthening specific muscles at a moderately low level. The obvious problem with swimming is also its greatest attribute. Again, swimming doesn't impact the joints; the problem with swimming is that it doesn't impact the joints. For a stiff and rickety old body, swimming spares the joints from impact. For a woman with osteopenia, swimming fails to stress the bones in order to increase bone mineral density. Swimming could be the very thing that puts Sarah in a wheelchair if she swims exclusively for her fitness.
The point is that a perfect exercise doesn't exist. Every program and respective exercise selections must be designated intelligently based on the needs of the individual. What are the common goals of most fitness enthusiasts and best exercises for those folks? Let's take a look.
The vast majority of people want to lose weight and look good naked. If this is you, it's critical to eat the right types and amounts of whole foods. The right amount varies between individuals, but most of us need far less than we think. Second, you must pay careful attention to what it means to look good. Having large muscles might be a teenage boy's dream, but a middle aged woman might have a panic attack if the specific program was to promote that. For the teenage boy, heavy back squats for the lower body and incline dumbbell bench presses for the upper body coupled with a robust eating schedule will get him there. For a healthy adult woman, stiff legged deadlifts develop the legs and hip muscles appropriately and band-resisted pull-ups will perform wonders developing the dress line across the back that women so desperately disprove of. Also, genetic disposition plays the largest role in the outcome. I've trained many students who look like they walked out of an Olympic training facility to find they can't even walk and chew gum at the same time. Conversely, some of the fiercest fitness enthusiasts I've known don't even look like they've ever touched a barbell. Accept the blessings and curses respectively.
What about specific exercises for mountain activities? What's best? Given the high aerobic demand required for a host of the activities we enjoy in the mountains, try to be very specific with aerobic development. There is a reason why triathletes swim, bike and run during training. If all three modalities were created equally, why not train the activity that you love and perform best? Because this approach doesn't work. Don't expect to be a rock star on a road bike and expect that cycling performance will magically carry over to running. Always be specific. For non-athletic aerobic fitness development, swimming and walking take the prize. Both are low impact, great for burning calories and most anyone regardless of physical limitations can enjoy and train these activities. Do you want to take it up a notch? Uphill trail running is a great self-limiting exercise that is easier on the joints than the pavement pounding alternative.
What about having the quintessential athletic body? Even though I've had my problems and reconciliations with CrossFit, most people who participate in this, take an Enter the Zone or Paleo approach to eating and progress through the ropes look quite impressive. The take away isn't one specific exercise but a combination of gymnastics, weightlifting, powerlifting, kettlebell training and other fitness practices. Just know what you're buying. The workouts are extremely difficult, and you may run into problems with overtraining and mental burnout. If you can stay injury free, you will likely develop an impressive look. You will pay for it through incredibly hard work and commitment to feeling uncomfortable during most of the workouts.
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Figure out what you are specifically after, and pick the right exercises for the job. Have a great week!
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards' passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.
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