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How To Design Your Own Fail-Safe Exercise Program

But you don’t have your very own in-pocket trainer for every day of the week, so there’s no danger of having to follow through on those shape-up promises you’ve made yourself, is there now?

Unless, that is, you really and truly want to!

You see, it’s not impossibly hard for you to design your own fail-safe exercise program. It might not be as personalized as working with a personal trainer, and it won’t be able to teach you the thousands of interesting progressions and variations that a top-dollar session will, but it sure as heck beats sitting on your butt or relying on boring cardio machines day-in and day-out.

The first thing to know is that any good functional exercise program includes a mixture of just 7 key movements. They are:

  1. Squat
  2. Lunge
  3. Bend
  4. Twist
  5. Push
  6. Pull
  7. Gait (walk/run)

By functional, I mean a workout that replicates the type of activity your body was designed for. Hint: this does not include sitting on a weight machine with most of your muscles snoozing happily and your core doing jack-all. If you think about it, every movement you can think of in day-to-day life, whether it’s as a parent, a laborer, a farmer, an athlete, or even a hunter, can be defined by the above 7 movements.

A good program simply puts them together in a way that is appropriate for your strength, fitness, flexibility, coordination, and stability capabilities. Of course this can become a very complex process but it’s also one that we can easily simplify and get you working on right away. The most important thing is for you to understand is the ‘base’ level of each movement.

Step One: Know The Basic 7 Movements

Squat –
Great for your butt, legs (front and back), abs*

Resistance: body weight is fine to start with, but you can also hold dumbells by your sides or at shoulder level.

A sitting-down movement performed with feet approximately shoulder-width apart, your back straight (on a 45 degree forward tilt) your torso elevated, and your gaze straight ahead. Heels should stay on the floor (it’s okay for your toes to turn out), and you should ideally sit-down until your butt reaches knee-level. Using your heels to push, return to fully upright. You’ve now performed one ‘rep’. A ‘set’ is a designated number of ‘reps’.

Lunge – Great for your butt (even more than squats!), legs, calves, abs*

Resistance: as above

A step-and-drop movement. Start with feet together and take a large step forward. Lift your back heel, and keep your back straight as you lower your weight toward the floor. Stop just before your back knee hits the floor. Keep your torso up, and your eye gaze forward. In order to protect your knees, maintain your weight through the heel of your forward foot rather than your toe. Push yourself back to the start position, and repeat on the other leg. This is one rep.

– Great for your back (lower and upper), shoulders, butt, hamstrings, abs*

Resistance: as above, or you can hold a barbell or an exercise ball in front of you

A forward bending movement. Start with tall posture and your feet around hip width apart. Bend your knees about 15 degrees, and then stick your butt out. Keeping your back straight, bend your torso forward until it reaches around 45 degrees. If you hold weights in front of you, they should stay very close to your thighs. Once your weights or fists reach knee level, drop your butt down an extra 2-3 inches (a mini squat). Stand back up in one smooth movement, driving your hips forward and your shoulders back.

Twist – Great for your core and lower back, especially your oblique (side tummy) muscles

Resistance: an exercise ball or gym cables are ideal, as is an exercise band, which is basically a piece of rubber tubing about 3 feet long.

Remember that old dance ‘the twist’? The twist pattern as part of your workout is kinda similar. It’s all about getting movement through your spine. This in turn helps to activate your belly muscles and is great for toning your entire midriff. Loosely clasp your hands in front of you at chest height, or hold a weighted object at chest height. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. With your navel drawn in, start to twist your torso. Your elbows should move side to side as you do this, but the movement is driven from the core. You can pivot on each foot as you move. Progress the movement by holding the weight further away from your body.

Push – Great for your chest (forget the implants ladies!), tuck-shop arms, and shoulders

Resistance – Any weighted object such as a dumbbell in each hand. Cables can also be used. Be wary of putting weight on your back during a push-up unless you are certain you have perfect posture and core strength.

Now I know you’re already up on what a push-up is, but did you know that most people perform their push-ups incorrectly? Not only can this ruin your posture, but it doesn’t do your muscle tone any favors. It’s important that you maintain a straight spine with your head held level. The back of your head, your mid-back, and your tailbone should all be at one height. Keep your belly muscles drawn in to get a bonus core workout. Only go as far down as you can whilst maintaining this form. You can also perform push movements on your back, lying on either an exercise ball or a bench. Either way, squeeze your butt and keep your abs tight. Hold weights at shoulder level and push up in a triangle shape. Bring them down the same way they went up. Do this with a controlled tempo, and breathe out as you push.

Pull – Great for your mid-upper back, the rear of your shoulders, and your biceps

Resistance – Cables, dumbells, weighted objects from around the house, exercise band

If you’re in the gym you can use cables, a ‘lat pulldown’ (which looks like a machine but is really a cable system), or a ‘seated row’ (again, a cable system, not a machine). These make things pretty simple as all you have to do is sit, maintain good posture, and pull an amount that allows you to keep that posture. Out of the gym your best choice is an exercise band. Fasten it in the middle to something at about stomach to chest level. This leaves both ends free for you to grip. If it’s at chest height you can remain fully upright (easier version). Keep your shoulders relaxed and your posture tall. Leading with your elbows, pull the band towards your body. Continue until your elbows slide past your sides and your shoulder-blades squeeze together. If you’ve fastened the band lower, simply squat down and hold that position whilst performing the above-described pull. This is definitely the harder version but it’s a better workout!

Gait – Great for a full-body workout, for cardio work, and for improved co-ordination and posture

Resistance – not necessary, can contribute to poor posture and back/neck tension

As funny as it sounds, many people have no idea how to walk (let alone run) properly. While there is much to be said about technique that can’t possibly enter this article, there’s one really great tip that you can put to use right away. Simply imagine a column running straight down the centre of your body. From the top of the head to the soles of your feet. When you walk or run, visualize either side of your body twisting evenly around that column. Keep your belly lightly drawn in, your shoulders relaxed, and your head high. Sounds too simple to do anything, doesn’t it? Just give it a go – I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

*Abs – By learning to activate your deep core muscles you can work your abdominals with every exercise you do. Simply practice (on your back is best) drawing your navel toward your spine while keeping your upper body relaxed. You should feel a light tension between your navel and your groin – this is your deep core muscle (transverse abdominus) activating. Practice holding for 10 seconds and releasing for 10 seconds, eventually working up to a full 2-minute hold. You should be able to breathe through this. Once you are adept on the floor, practice the same movement when performing each of the above exercises.

Step Two: Put It Together
Sometimes when I watch people workout in the gym it’s quite clear that they have no plan – no direction. They move in an apparently random fashion from one exercise to the next, and often seem to end up doing more social training than anything. And sure, of course it’s better to hit the gym and do something rather than nothing, but if you’re going to allocate your precious time to exercise wouldn’t you rather know the most efficient way to progress and get results?

A good personal trainer will consider many variables when designing your weekly program. While we can’t take them all into account here, there are a few important factors you most definitely can consider:

The basic rule of programming is to choose the most difficult exercise first. In most cases this is the one that requires greater balance and co-ordination, and/or demands that you move in more than one direction simultaneously. For example, a twist causes you to forwards (with your arms), side to side, and in rotation. These are the three directions of movement – most exercises demand only one or two. A squat, of course, or a bend, is straight up and down. Difficulty of performance may also relate to the equipment you use – performing a chest press on an exercise ball is harder than on a bench, and this may elevate its status.

Of course your own strengths and weaknesses must also play a part. If you’re a hockey or tennis guru then a twisting movement may be relatively simple, whereas a basic squat or pull really makes you think. When choosing the sequence for your program you must place your own strengths/weaknesses over basic assumptions about the exercise difficulty.

The final point to be aware of is the importance of doing your weights before your cardio. This is crucial because weight training has a longer-lasting metabolic effect than cardio, and so you want to get the most out of your weights before exhausting yourself on the treadmill. In fact, I’d be quite happy if you gave it all you could in the weight room and left it at that most of the time.

When it comes to choosing the right cardio, my recommendation is interval training – alternating periods of very high intensity (speed/resistance) with slightly longer periods of recovery. This method is time-efficient, churns through an incredible amount of energy, and has a lasting effect on your overall fitness level – a great way to boost your metabolism.

Step Three: Make It Work For You

It’s all very well to have the basis of a great program at your fingertips, but what do you do with it? How do you make it work for you?

First, you need to determine how much time you can put aside for exercise each week. Be prepared to make some sacrifices, but also be realistic. If 10 minutes a day is seriously all you can start with, then that’s okay; it’s better than nothing. An ideal starting approach to exercise is 30 minutes, at least 3 times each week. Split the 30 minutes into two if that helps. Personally I believe we should do some form of activity each day, even if it’s just some stretches. Your body wasn’t designed to sit.

Second, you need to decide how much of each of the movements we’ve spoken about is right for you. To give you an idea, that maximum you’d get out of this program would be to perform 3 groups of each exercise (sets), with each group containing between 8 and 15 repetitions. To keep it interesting, and also to maximize energy and fat loss, perform one group of each exercise back-to-back with no rest, take a 2 minute break, and then repeat two times.

If time is a factor, simply start with just one group of each. You can always build up later, or you may even find time later that day to do another group of each.

Your cardio can be performed at a later time or on a different day if you really need to hurry things along. Remember – weight training and functional everyday movement is the priority for now.

Knowing what type of exercise or how much to do can certainly be overwhelming. And it’s no wonder that many people put off even trying to learn about it. But I know you won’t be one of them, will you? What are you waiting for? Print this page out and get to sweating!

PS – Be sure to let me know how you get on!

Written on 9/4/2009 by Kat Eden. Kat is a Personal Trainer from Australia. Visit her blog Body Incredible to be inspired with the latest nutritition tips, weight loss advice, and motivational thinking. . Photo Credit:
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