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Creating a Workout Budget

A couple of years ago my dad asked me to help him design a strength training program.

“But I don’t really want to do any legs,” he warned.  “I’m mainly concerned with upper body.”

I sighed. “Dad–You want me to help you with a program that neglects some of the biggest and most functional muscles in your body? That’s kinda like  planning out a monthly budget without counting your mortgage payment. Come on now.”

Thankfully I talked him into a few sets of squats and deadlifts, but it wasn’t easy. Our little father/son budget talk got me thinking that most of physical fitness can be framed in terms of making a budget. For anyone who strapped for time, or maybe pulled between job, home, and family obligations, you want to make sure you’re getting the most out of those rare moments you have at the gym, the park, or wherever you go to get yourself in shape. You need a workout budget.

Time, Money, and Working Out Wealth

Time = luxury when it comes to working out. If you’ve got time, you can do pretty much whatever you want whenever you want. Time is on your side, and if you waste some of it, big deal. Everyone else needs to make every second count.(Here’s a great post about carving out time to take care of yourself.)

I’m not an expert, but I have been studying, reading, and practicing strength and conditioning since my days as a high school and college athlete. I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes, I’ve wasted a lot time, and I’m still learning. Unfortunately, commercial gyms and conventional wisdom seem to be hell-bent on encouraging terrible workout budget decisions.

They’re littered with machines that encourage isolating one muscle at a time, while exercises that work multiple muscle groups are relegated to the back corner. Armies of treadmills guard the windows, exits, and most of the floor space not occupied by the machines.  Throw in a few murals of attractive people doing biceps curls, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for wasting your time.

Little-known fact: 80% of exercisers reported MORE biceps growth if they stared intently at the muscle while curling. Whispering to the muscle during contraction is also beneficial.

See enough of that kind of wall art, and your budget starts looking like this:

We’d be better off killing many birds with fewer stones. So start off considering your goals in light of the five components of physical fitness:

  1. Muscular strength
  2. Cardiovascular endurance
  3. Balance/Agility
  4. Flexibility
  5. Body composition

Now the question is, what provides the biggest bang for your buck?

Resistance Training

I am extremely biased towards resistance training as a means of meeting many of these goals, mainly because weight-bearing exercise has so many applications and spillover effects.  By contrast, if an exercise or activity  isolates a solitary part of your body or a single dimension of fitness, consider it a luxury: not a good use of valuable time. Long walks on the treadmill, biceps curls, side raises, triceps extensions, leg curls, leg extensions, and various other isolation exercises that often rely on complicated machines are poor choices.

Take the squat, on the other hand:

A squat recruits the quads, hamstrings, calves, and butt muscles, not to mention all the core muscles required to stabilize the movement. You can incorporate squats as part of a cardiovascular routine, and correct form improves (and requires) good hip flexibility. For body composition, consider all the lean muscle you’re building with a squat. Muscle is more metabolically demanding than fat (burns more calories), so now you have spillover effects into fat burning also. This exercise may be the best thing you bought all year. Fun Fact: Most gyms have one squat rack per every 30 treadmills.

The Cardio Question

I understand I may come off sounding like a meat head with all the talk of squatting, deadlifting, pushing, pulling, etc. Where’s the cardio? When most people hear the word “cardio”  (more like part of a word) my guess is they envision slogging away on a treadmill for a minimum 30 minute journey of joint-busting torture. I agree with most people.

But cardiovascular endurance is a big part of physical fitness, and running is one way to get you there. I do run, and I’m learning to enjoy it, but running is not the only way to train cardiovascular endurance. After all, cardio is just putting your heart and lungs to work so that you can continue exerting yourself over a long period of time.  Jumping rope can be cardio. Running up and down stairs and leaping over logs is cardio. Combining a balance of resistance exercises and performing them in a circuit without stopping is cardio AND strength training AND probably requires balance and flexibility, provided you don’t rely only on machines. Body composition improves. Sounds like good use of time to me.

Here’s a sample that looks good to me:

If you can only carve out a few hours each week to get yourself in shape, I’d go with a combination of strength training/circuit training (focus on the big six: squat/deadlift/push/pull/twist/lunge and 20-30 minutes of cardiovascular endurance like running, climbing stairs, hiking, chasing kids around the mall, jumping rope, whatever. After my son was born, I was able to get stronger AND leaner while working out an average of 2-3 days a week. If you have more time, resist the urge to spend it all curling dumbbells or pounding your knees into next week on the pavement.

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