TL;DR – A basic exercise program (BEP) is a better way to get into (or back into) exercise, while short term high intensity programs (STHIPs) are better suited as a way to change up an already consistent exercise routine.
As with many of us, athletics are where I learned how to exercise, learned how to set fitness goals, and how to achieve them. My high school football team had a weightlifting program with attendance and performance goals. At the end of each summer we were able to determine if we had met our goals heading into the season. When I transitioned from high school to college, I no longer had these clear cut goals for exercise. My experience was that without the organization of a sport I was constantly falling short of the new goals I tried to set. If I did manage to reach a goal, I would then be thrown off track while deciding on a new goal.
As I’ve grown through my own health and wellness journey, I realized that I needed to totally re-orient my approach to exercise if I ever wanted to make it a truly consistent life-long pursuit. I learned that for most people the worst way to get back into exercise is with what I call a Short Term-High Intensity Program, or STHIP. These are programs like a 90 day fitness regime or 21 days to get shredded, or whatever other plan you’ve heard about. Now, before I delve any further into this topic, I can already hear the rants, “Well I did the 30 Day Furious Fat-Blaster 9000 and I lost 60 pounds, and now I work out every day!” If it worked for you, that is great! For most people that didn’t happen. If it did, there wouldn’t be a new program, a new piece of home exercise equipment, or a new diet coming out seemingly daily. I’m going to take a bit and examine the pitfalls of STHIPs, and why I strongly recommend NOT using them to get back into exercise.
Pitfall #1 – Most people don’t follow the program all the way through.
Pitfall #2 – These types of programs increase the risk of injury.
Pitfall #3 – These types of programs cause significant muscle soreness
Pitfall #4 – These types of programs have a designated stopping point.
To go from couch potato to gym hero, regardless of the time frame, is a challenging task. People who are typically drawn to STHIPs do not already have the habit of exercise. Using a STHIP allows people to convince themselves that in a limited time frame they can achieve their desired physical results, while ignoring the need for ongoing exercise. For sustained results we need to have integrated exercise into our NORMAL routine. With an STHIP, we are setting aside a short time frame to be ABNORMAL, so when life gets busy (which it always does), exercise is going to be the first thing we drop. Also, if we have been lax on performing vigorous exercise for months, or even years, we won’t have the strength, flexibility, or joint stability to perform intense exercise without a significant risk for injury. Injuries not only delay our short term goals, but they also lead to misconceptions about what exercises are safe to perform. This leads can have life-long ramifications. Even without major injury, STHIPs cause a LOT of muscle soreness. The type of soreness that interferes with daily life activities, like getting out of bed!
Even completing the program creates a problem – a designated stopping point. You then have to decide whether to re-do the same program again (boring), spend time looking for a new program (a new period of inactivity), or the worst yet, be satisfied with your accomplishment and go back to doing nothing The common theme between all of these pitfalls is they all MOTIVATE YOU TO STOP EXERCISING. Rather than using a STHIP which will likely end up demoralizing you, and reinforcing the idea of NOT exercising; I would prefer that when starting to exercise we shift our focus away from short term goals and towards a long term goal of health and fitness.
I personally think that the best way to motivate someone to become consistent with exercise over a lifetime is to create a Basic Exercise Program, or BEP. A BEP is a program which focuses on functional movement and strength – exercises like deep squats, lunges, planks, pushups, dips, dead lift, and/or pull-ups. I’m not actually too picky on what exact exercises you decide are right for your BEP, but it is important that the exercises work a variety of muscles throughout the entire body, especially core muscles, and utilize functional movement. The better your BEP, the easier all your other fitness goals will be to achieve. At this point I’m going to plug a program that I think is a great way to get into weight lifting and is a solid version of a BEP and that is StrongLifts 5×5. The website gives a great explanation of the program and even offers a free app for your mobile device to help get you started and keep you on track. I use this program as my BEP, and when I start to get bored, I will switch out and do a new program. Once my alternate program ends though, I know that I can jump right back into my BEP to keep consistently going to the gym. Having a BEP provides 3 major benefits.
1) You can build SLOWLY. When I am going through a structural correction with a patient we incorporate a VERY gradual exercise program to make sure that we achieve joint stability and avoid re-injury. You will also develop better form and maximize your exercise benefit this way.
2) A BEP will allow you to always have a workout ready to go. A BEP is composed of exercises that can be easily modified based on the time and equipment you have available. Even if it means doing body weight squats and push ups in a hotel room while traveling for work. This eliminates a commonly used excuse for not working out.
3) The biggest benefit though is, there is no set stopping point. With a focus on gaining functional strength and increased mobility through a BEP, you gain a long term goal of health and wellness. Health is not something we can achieve and then move on to the next thing. We have to consistently work to maintain our health.
Once you have used a BEP to gain some muscle strength, flexibility, and joint stability, then STHIPs become a great way to mix things up. You will have the lifestyle and physical ability to avoid the pitfalls, and the variety will keep it from being boring. Another great way to get variety in your exercise routine is by doing a physical activity that you simply enjoy. Love golf? Skip the cart and you just got a great low impact cardiovascular workout in by walking the course. If you don’t know what you would enjoy, join a slow pitch softball league, or take a tennis lesson. Your BEP will help you engage in these activities more successfully, and if you find you don’t love them, you can move onto the next idea. Sometimes they provide motivation to push yourself a bit harder in your normal exercise regimen because you want to improve your skills. Asking a friend to join you on your fitness journey is another great way to get, and stay, motivated while making exercise more fun.
In sum, having a BEP, is safer and easier when trying to form the habit of exercise. You will be able to achieve a level of fitness where challenging yourself with a STHIP is safe and fun versus demoralizing. Incorporating fun physical activities will also help you achieve the long term goal of being happier and healthier for life.