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It’s never a bad time to set new fitness goals. Yours may be dropping a few pounds before the New Year, building endurance for an upcoming race, or simply becoming stronger and more flexible than you were yesterday. Whatever your goal, it’s important to have a game plan. You know the saying: If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. Top trainers will tell you that recommended exercises vary depending on the results you are looking to achieve. Not sure where to start? We tapped some of the best pros in the industry for tips that will help you reach your fitness objectives faster and safely. Get ready to become your own #goals.
Goal: to lose those last five pounds
When it comes to weight loss, there’s a constant debate on whether diet or exercise is more important. But in this case, it’s a combination of both. “People who exercise while ignoring a balanced nutrition plan, typically don’t lose weight, says James Shapiro, an independent trainer and owner of Primal Power Fitness in New York City. “People who focus on their diet alone, won’t keep off the weight in the long run.” The gold standard, according to weight loss research, has been maintaining a caloric deficit, along with increasing your protein intake and working on resistance training. Active individuals should eat between 1,700 to 2,400 calories daily, depending on height and lean body mass.
It’s also important to note that if you want to significantly change your body’s composition, losing a few pounds isn’t going to cut it. Lowering your body fat percentage by dialing in on your macronutrients and overall lifestyle is key. According to Shapiro, having lower amounts of body fat means you will have less visceral fat (the excess fat that surrounds your organs and is considered dangerous), and your body will have more definition. An ideal workout schedule for someone looking to lose weight and lower their body fat percentage includes strength training two to three times a week, as well as moderate cardio two to three days a week. Monitor your success by how your clothes fit.
Goal: to become more flexible
If your desk job seems to have done a number on your hips and they feel tighter than normal, then your goal may be to improve flexibility. Your flexibility is also important for gaining strength and avoiding injuries caused by muscle imbalances. Your lifestyle choices, injury history, and movement patterns influence how flexible you are. Nicole Katz, a certified yoga teacher at Yoga216 in New York City, says, “There is a general degree of range of motion, or ROM, for each joint action that most bodies are able to achieve in order to live a full and pain-free life.”
Taking a regular yoga classes is a good way to learn different methods and strategies that will improve your body’s ROM. Practice poses that feel right for you. Shapiro adds that static stretching and self-myofascial release (a.k.a. foam rolling) are two ways you can also improve your flexibility over time. Although improving your flexibility won’t happen overnight, Katz recommends taking a yoga class three times a week in addition to your regular training sessions.
Goal: to put on muscle
If your goal is to build serious muscle a la Wonder Woman, your training schedule and diet approach is going to be very different than someone looking to lose weight. Carlo Filippone, a three-time National Bodybuilding champ and founder of Elite Lifestyle Cuisine, says a workout routine devoted to resistance training and a protein-focused diet will help you put on muscle. “Muscle building comes from regular, repeated, and consistent exercise that targets specific muscle groups on the body,” he says. Shapiro adds, “Increasing your carbohydrate levels also benefit hypertrophic gains because the body uses the ATP cycle of energy during hypertrophy training.”
In terms of a muscle-building workout schedule, Shapiro says most research has found that strength training at least three time a week is ideal. Make sure to take a rest day in between those workouts for proper repair and recovery. As for cardio, if your primary goal is to put on muscle, then medium-intensity cardio can be beneficial—after your strength training. It’s best to strength train first when your glycogen levels are fresh, meaning you will have enough energy for more reps, as opposed to doing cardio and burning yourself out before even get to the iron.
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Goal: to build up endurance
Improving your endurance is important if you’re training for your first half-marathon or looking to compete in an obstacle course, like the Tough Mudder or Spartan Race. One mistake to avoid in the beginning, though, is doing too much too soon. “Many newbies want to run at their competition pace, but you really should be at a pace in which you can carry on a conversation with someone,” says Jacquelyn Mitchell, a NASM personal trainer and fitness nutritionist. By keeping a consistent pace, you’ll have more control over your breathing and will be able to go a longer distance.
Ideally, Mitchell advises that Long-Slow-Distance (LSD) exercises are key to building endurance. “This helps increase your capillaries, the blood vessels that carry nutrients to your muscles and builds more mitochondria where fat is burned for
fuel, so you can go longer during your workouts without hitting the wall caused by lack of glucose in the body,” she explains. In addition to eating a balanced diet of carbs, protein, and fats, she suggests following a training schedule that includes LSD workouts twice a week, two days of weight lifting in the high repetition range, one day of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or sprints, and one day of stretching.
Goal: to get stronger
It’s important to remember that building strength and building muscle aren’t necessarily interchangeable. In the case for strength, the focus is more on intensity, volume, and lower repetitions. Similar to putting on muscle, the goal is to focus on hypertrophy with an emphasis on the quality of the repetitions. “Strength training focuses anywhere between three to eight repetitions and the volume is dependent on a person’s experience, endurance level, and goal,” explains Shapiro. He adds that the repetitions are normally within two to five sets, though some programs ask for cluster sets, which are usually two to four repetitions when more than five sets are done.
It’s important to make sure you are getting quality nutrients in your diet, otherwise your ability to get stronger will be halted. Additionally, you should be mindful not to overdo it with the cardio, which has been found to impair strength “gains.” Your focus should be on muscle-fiber recruitment and not your VO2 max or your endurance levels. “Endurance is vital for strength training to a degree, but it should not be your primary focus,” says Shapiro. The best way to test if you’re getting stronger is to practice your maximums based off your one-rep max. Shapiro recommends setting a three rep max, five rep max, eight rep max, 10 rep max, and 12 rep max. By training sub-maximal (under 90 percent), you should have consistent progress as you go through a daily undulating program focusing on progressive overload.
Goal: to improve your mobility
Mobility is the factor that ensures every part of your body moves the way it was intended to. If you lack mobility, it may limit how well you can squat, lift overhead, or simply get through the day. Shapiro advises doing mobility workouts before and after your workout. “Most of my clients go through a banded series of exercises that focus on a passive range of movement with resistance, and others go through static release of certain muscle groups that restrict their range of motion,” he says.
If you’re uncertain about your body’s mobility, Mitchell suggests simply testing out basic movements like arm circles, ankle circles, bicep curls, and push-ups. Then, observe any discomfort or pain. Discomfort can be managed with mobility workouts. “If anything painful, go to a chiropractor who can tell you what is out of alignment and inform you of exercises to help improve it,” she says.