Here’s a question you probably haven’t heard from your trainer – and it might be one of the many reasons your workout plan doesn’t deliver what you need.
How many pillows do you have on your bed?
No, this isn’t a joke. It’s part of an assessment created by world-renowned fitness coach Dan John.
“If the answer is more than one, you’re a mobility client,” says John. In other words, unless you improve how you move, then you’re doomed to have limited results or multiple injuries, as well as unnecessary aches and pains.
“You might think those extra pillows are just for looks, but if you wake up sore or your hips and back hurt when you don’t sleep with a pillow between your thighs, mobility is another big need.”
Welcome to the world of personalization, where a workout plan isn’t just a series of good exercises – it’s a prescription for your body based on your needs. Before anyone should hands you a workout plan (or you select one online), you need to understand what your body needs.
Think of it this way: Imagine that you are starving and feel like you would eat anything. Because you know you’re hungry, any food will do, so you head to the kitchen.
Then, imagine you can pull out anything and in any quantity – but you can’t see what it is. You figure that you’re hungry and it doesn’t matter because food is what you need. If you eat, your problem will be solved.
You take your food, open the contents, only to realize it’s a meat-filled dish and you’re a vegetarian. You’re hungry – craving food – but this isn’t a good fit. Maybe you’ll eat it and maybe you won’t, but what seemed like an “anything will work right now” was far from the case.
While workouts are a different beast, selecting blindly can leave you in the same situation. Your body might be starving for exercise, but you need to give your body what it needs. Do the plan that’s designed for someone else, and you might work hard and never see the results that you expect. And nowhere is that truer than when starting a workout plan after a long layoff, or try to chance your program after you’ve been stuck in the plateau for far too long.
Rest assured, getting started in the right direction doesn’t require a degree in exercise science or nutrition, but it does mean a little more pillow talk and answering a few more questions to point you in the right direction.
One of the easiest things to do when you’re feeling ready to get back into training is to get carried away. “This time it’s going to be different!” You tell yourself. “This time I’ll make myself eat the vegetables! And I’ll spend two hours a day at the gym! It doesn’t matter if I don’t actually have that time. I’ll make time!”
Look, that sort of enthusiasm is admirable. But it’s not necessarily realistic or sustainable. And when it comes to fitness, sustainability is what matters the most. I’ve seen great workouts that require 5 days per week in the gym given to people who only have time for 3 workouts. Far too many fitness professionals will tell you, “Three days of training isn’t enough to get fit.” That’s ridiculous. Just ask Kristen or David.
Now, the three-a-day week plan will be very different than 5 days per week, but both can work. Nearly any type of workout will help you get fit—especially if you’re coming off a baseline of inactivity. The key is finding something you’ll do consistently. To help yourself do that, you should…
Before plunging back into the gym, buying a training program you found online, or hiring a competition-style coach to spearhead your return to the hard body club, look at your calendar app.
How much time are you going to be able to set aside for fitness, given your family, work, and other pre-existing obligations?
Does the plan you want to follow fit within the confines of your actual life?
Two to three one-hour workouts per week are all some people can realistically wedge into their schedules. And the best news is, that’s all you need. “Research tells us you only need 100 minutes of exercise a week—that’s five 20-minute walks,” says John, a strength and conditioning coach with more than 36 years of experience working with clients at nearly every level. “If you add in a couple of squats and presses, or deadlifts and presses, you’d be good.”
Other people don’t even have a block of time that big—which is fine because 30-minute workouts can be extremely effective — if they’re designed correctly.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of liking what you do. Studies have repeatedly shown that when people enjoy an activity, they’re far more likely to actually do it. So, while this might seem like a no-brainer, if you cringe at the thought of dancing, you should steer clear of Zumba. If you love bike rides, consider spin. And of course, if picking up heavy objects is your thing, then ease back into lifting. In fact, John has a program below that’ll help you do just that.
Most people know what they want—to lose baby weight, have six-pack abs, lift more weight, or look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s. But people have a more difficult time figuring out what they really need, much less how to achieve it. If you’re being honest, this is the real struggle: knowing what to focus on, why it’s a problem, and how to fix it.
So instead of trusting that anything is a solution for you (even if it’s worked for others), take the time to ask the questions that will make the answer more obvious. It’s something Born Fitness does with all coaching clients; no one gets a workout plan until questions are answered.
To help you determine whether your priority should be body composition, mobility, or strength, John recommends taking three simple tests (the first was the pillow test). The others are:
The height/waistline test helps you take a look at your body composition. The math here is simple. “If you waistline measures in at more than half of your height,” John says, “you’re a body composition client.”
The plank hold is to gauge your strength. “See if you can hold a 2-minute plank,” John says. “If you can’t, then you’re a strength client.”
It’s worth noting that you can be more than one type of client. In fact, John says most clients have several needs. If that’s the case, then you want a workout plan that will improve all of your needs.
There’s one more assessment you should take before you dive headlong into training, but it’s not exactly something you can do on yourself. Go see a doctor. And not simply the one who administers a physical.
While there is some value to that exam—it’s always good to know your cholesterol levels and check that your blood pressure falls within the normal range—John says you might learn even more from having your eyes and teeth checked. Sound strange? It is…but it’s also smart because it considers not just what is wrong but what could be causing your problems.
“There’s value to seeing a doctor, but honestly there isn’t one who’s going to say that exercise is bad for a person,” John says. “I usually send people to an optometrist or a dentist because if I’m going to tell you to eat more vegetables, and you have crowns and cavities that make it painful to eat them, you’re going to revert to the brown-and-gray family of foods—hash browns and potato chips. Fat loss happens in the kitchen, but if a person can’t chew, then they’ve got bigger problems to address.”
Ready to get started? Good—but before you do, don’t make yourself vulnerable to your mistakes of the past. For one, don’t judge a workout plan until you perform it over and over (and over) again. John says you can see big results with fewer exercises that take advantage of lifts that offer a lot of bang for your buck, like squats and presses. These lifts challenge a whole lot of musculature at once. There isn’t a tissue in your body that isn’t firing during a properly executed front squat. These full-body movements should form the bread and butter of your workout plan.
In fact, John says that a good workout plan only really needs five types of movements: squats, hinges, pushes, pulls, and loaded carries.
Squats are exercises in which most of the movement takes place at your knee. But you don’t have to throw a bar on your back in order to perform them. There’s the aforementioned front squat, of course. But beginners or those returning to training after time off might be even better served with the Goblet squat, in which you hold a dumbbell vertically, wrapping both hands around the underside of the top weight stack. Keep both stacks in contact with your chest throughout the movement as you squat down until your elbows make contact with the insides of your knees. Then push back up.
Hinges include any exercise in which the majority of the motion takes place at the hips. Deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and hip thrusts are all good options. But if you’re not ready for a weighted version, a simple glute bridge will do the trick.
Pushes describe any movement in which the implement in your hands starts out close to your body and winds up farther away from it. Bench presses, standing overhead presses, and even push-ups all fall into this category.
Pulls are the opposite of pushes. In these exercises, the object in your hands starts out far and ends the rep near. Pull-ups and any type of rowing fit the bill here.
Loaded carries are exactly what they sound like: You pick up a load and carry it around. Farmer’s Walks, in which you hold a dumbbell in each hand and walk, are probably the most well-known. But another simple way to get this effect is to try what John calls the Horn Walk. In the Horn walk, you hold the handle of a kettlebell with both hands against your chest and walk. Want to take that up a notch? Try pushing the ‘bell away from your chest, then pulling it back toward it, as you walk.
Here are two examples of what a program using this format might look like. The first workout plan, labeled “Planks as a Program,” would be ideal for people who didn’t pass the plank hold test described above. They need to work on their strength before they start performing a bunch of exercises under load.
Don’t be fooled by this seemingly simple workout plan—it’s tougher than you think. “I use it when I’m training Special Forces guys,” John says. “I was on a beach in Pearl Harbor and realized that these guys could do everything, but they couldn’t do anything.”
Basically, even elite tactical operators—guys who could run all day and rifle out pushups by the dozen—needed to work on the stability, strength, and ability to create tension that this program teaches.
For the rep-based exercises, John suggests doing 2-5 sets of 2-5 reps. “Planks are a little different, obviously, because they’re for time,” John says. See if you can build up to the two-minute hold. And don’t get frustrated if a workout that seemed easy on Thursday suddenly feels difficult the following Saturday. “You’re working your nervous system here,” John says. “So you might find huge swings in your efforts, just based on how you’re feeling that day.”
How many days per week should you train? John recommends aiming for between two and five workouts per week, with shorter and more frequent being preferable to longer sessions you can’t do as often. “Five days of very short training sessions would trump a bunch of punch-yourself-in-the-face workouts,” John says.
The second workout plan, labeled Strength, would be for people looking to develop exactly that: full-body strength. In this phase, you work lifts for a limited number of reps—no more than 10 total per exercise. That could mean doing 5 sets of 2 reps, 3 sets of 3, 2 sets of 5, or doing three sets with different numbers of reps: 5, 3, 2.
Start with a weight that feels light in your first workout. You can bump up the resistance on successive sets if you want, but you don’t have to. The goal isn’t to keep ramping up the weight until you struggle. You want to feel strong on every rep, and build strength through consistent performances. John calls it “easy strength.”
“If what you did on the first day feels light, go heavier in your next workout,” John says. “You’ll just keep coming in and doing that until you come in one day and you’ll notice the weight feels different. It’s heavier but feels easy. That’s easy strength.”
This workout plan might look like a lot less than what you’re used to seeing on an exercise sheet. Again, don’t be misled. The workouts are tough and get results. They also are time-efficient. You could finish them in 15 to 30 minutes depending on how much rest you take between sets.
And how much rest should you take? One minute between sets is a good place to start. Try to keep that time consistent throughout the workout. You can increase or decrease time from session to session depending on your goal.
A good general rule; rest more between sets when you use heavier weights. That said, keeping your rest periods consistent from workout to workout allows you to more honestly gauge your progress.
Dan John is the author of eight books and many fitness articles. His next book “Now What?” comes out later this year.
|Push||Plank||(Bench) Press or Push-Up|
|Pull||TRX Row or TRX I-Y-T||Pull-Up or Row|
|Squat||Goblet Squats||Any Squat|
|Hinge||Glute Bridge + Hold||Hip Thrust or Deadlift|
|Loaded Carry||Farmer’s Walk, Horn Walk||Prowler Push|