So you’re looking to get started with a workout routine for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, and the question is, “what exercises should I do?” Starting your fitness program off with the right exercises and the right routine will play a significant role in not only your results, but also with reducing your risk of injuries.
Most people who are unsure about what to do so simply watch others in the gym and mimic what they see them doing or follow a workout on-line. This isn’t a very effective strategy for making sure there’s proper personalization for individual needs. Simply put, the exercises that someone else performs may not be best suited for you at this time.
In today’s post I’ll share with you some strategies to follow when starting a personal fitness program.
Look to begin with functional exercise when developing a foundation for resistance training.
At my Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios, we frequently start off our personal training programs with functional exercise incorporating things like suspension straps, medicine balls, resistance bands, Vipr’s, and other implements to perform basic human movement patterns.
The reason for this is because we want to develop a solid foundation of movement and proper patterns. Basically, you want to be able to do the foundational human movement patterns with stability and mobility before attempting to load these patterns with heavier forms of resistance, and/or higher degrees of intensity which often results in compensations.
If there’s little or no attention paid to the quality of movement patterns in the beginning of your fitness program, you’re setting yourself up for diminished returns and risk of injury.
I’ve seen this time and time again with people who went right into small group exercise or some DVD / on-line workout program without first having a fitness professional advise them on the best exercises for their current needs.
In a lot of small group classes or more of a bootcamp or circuit style workout, often times the instructors will simply suggest an “alternative movement” for some exercises. This is often a regression to the exercise that was given. Now sometimes this can be fine, but other times it’s nothing less than negligence as some individuals simply shouldn’t be doing certain exercises.
I can remember one particular situation where a woman who came in for a personal training consult with me was telling me about how she suffered a knee injury while doing box jumps at a small group workout facility here in town. Now mind you, this woman was in her mid- fifties, looking to lose thirty to forty pounds, and had suffered from arthritis in both knees. Now why in the heck would anyone in their right mind have this woman doing box jumps?!?
It's no secret that box jumps are a plyometric exercise programmed for the development of explosion (often trained for sports performance). Obviously, this woman wasn’t needing to work on her vertical jump!
But they likely had everyone doing these jumps with various box heights to get up their heart rate up. It’s not hard to imagine there being a host of other exercises that could have been prescribed for this individual to help get up her heart rate. There most certainly are, but again more often than not, instructors in these settings simply offer a lower box or step. The reality is she has / had no business doing jumps period. Hopefully you get my point, I’ll digress.
Here's an example of working on the pattern first before loading that pattern with heavier resistance:
The squat pattern is one of the most frequently used human movement patterns. Every time you sit and/or stand you’re doing a bodyweight squat. Now the squat pattern would be observed during an assessment with bodyweight only or with a light implement like a medicine ball. If the pattern isn’t able to be done with proper technique, we’d want the individual to work on the squat (via an exercise “regression”) along with developing strength in the core and pelvic stabilizer muscles.
This most definitely should be done prior to the individual say begin performing a barbell back squat. Why? Well because they’ll be doing it with compensations and a bad pattern, which at best will lead to diminished returns, at worst will lead to an unnecessary injury.
What is a exercise regression for the squat you ask? An example would be an assisted squat by holding onto say a suspension strap or rail.
The best way to explain all of this is the muscles in your body work together in one big kinetic chain. No muscle works in isolation by itself. The muscles in your body assist one another in basic human movements through integration. When you’re sedentary and not using the major muscles groups in sequence with regularity (ex. sitting too much), it’s not uncommon to develop muscle imbalances and faulty patterns.
This is simply a situation where one set of muscles get weak and inhibited and the opposing muscles get short and tight (due to their over-compensation). This is very common with people who haven’t been active recently or who spend a lot of time sitting down at their job. I’d say the majority of middle age or older adults we observe during movement assessments have some degree of “lower crossed syndrome.”
What is this? It’s a common condition where muscles imbalances develop from spending too much time in anterior pelvic tilt. The low back muscles get tight along with the hamstrings and hip flexors. At the same time, the core muscles and glutes on the other hand become weak and inhibited.
The imbalance is easily spotted when the client performs patterns like bodyweight squats and reaches during their movement assessment. Falling forward when squatting and not being able to stay on the heels or go parallel to the floor are both indicators of lower-crossed syndrome.
This should ideally be corrected before progressing to heavier loading with weights. Again, another reason why it’s recommended to start with functional exercise. We want to establish the proper foundation of movement first. Functional exercise essentially helps the body develop integration with the major muscle groups and works on stability, balance, proprioception, and control during movements.
When you break it down everybody does the same basic foundational movement patterns. The intensity, instability, speed, etc, may be different but the movements are basically the same.
Functional exercise works the body through the five main pillars of human movement which are listed below:
- Level Change (squat down, step up, etc)
- Locomotion (walk, run, etc)
Every activity you’ll do today will involve one or more of the above movements. Functional exercise mimics these movements and works on developing the integration of all the muscles, just like in everyday life. It’s the best way to build a foundation for higher intensity weight training to come later.
How to build a beginner workout program
A simple yet effective strategy you can use in the beginning of a workout program is incorporating 6-8 functional movements in a circuit workout done three times per week. You can start with one round (one time through all 6-8 exercises), then progress to two and then later three rounds for each workout. You'll want to do between 10-20 repetitions for each exercise in the beginning.
Listed below is a sample functional workout for beginners:
10-20 reps each exercise (15-30s for the plank)
(1) round is the completion of all eight exercises
Move through the circuit and provide a brief recovery between each round.
Complete between 1-3 rounds
If you’re new to exercise or starting back after a long period, I’d highly recommend meeting with a certified personal trainer to help you build the right program to suit your specific needs and goals. In my opinion, a fitness professional should always put you through an assessment of your movement patterns before prescribing exercises. Something you’ll want to look for and consider when selecting a trainer.
I hope this article has given you a better understanding of the benefits of functional exercise when starting a fitness program. If you have any questions about how to put together a routine for your needs, I’d be happy to assist you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can ever be at your service. Be blessed. - S
Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a fitness professional and expert on exercise and body transformation for middle age and mature adults. He seeks to make a difference in the lives of others by providing instruction and coaching with a servant-based attitude. Since 2004 his Charleston personal training programs have helped over 3,000 Lowcountry residents.
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