There are entire books written addressing the intricacies of planning workout; targeting various specific goals; such as strength, hypertrophy, power, endurance etc. Advanced athletes have been analyzed and various strategies have been explored with various levels of success. There are also debates in the area of exercise; which are never satisfactorily resolved for all sides. Much like the “low carb vs high carb” debates or “intermittent fasting vs regular small meals”; in case of nutrition/diet planning.
However, such advanced discussions are quite confusing and overwhelming for a large section of people; who are sedentary or lightly active; but wish to explore their options to achieve better health and quality of life while also achieving improvements in aesthetics. This article is meant for such people who are beginners; wanting better aesthetics, functional strength, joint health and bone health. It does not address all types of activity. It is focused on the activity best suited to address the goals mentioned above.
If you are just looking for a sample cookie cutter plan to follow; there are several such plans/programs made available by various experts. Eg: https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/beginner-to-advanced-bodybuilder-in-12-weeks.html
This article is intended for the beginner interested in knowing more about how a plan is created; and what he/she needs to take care about. This is important when you find you cannot follow the typical plans completely; and need to know right way to customize it for yourself.
Another point I would like to address before anything else is said is that; if your primary goal is to gain or lose weight; you cannot address that satisfactorily without planning your dietary intake. Your activity of choice can support your diet in achieving those goals, but it cannot be the prime driver. A simple guide to diet planning according to fitness goals has been shared earlier.
Different types of activity and their benefits
There is such a vast number of activities available now-a-days; but most will fit under one of the categories mentioned in the table below. Please note that irrespective of which activity you choose; in comparison to a sedentary lifestyle, you always benefit by some activity. You get better core strength, circulation and better health. Whenever you start doing something more than your body is used to, it causes some improvement in conditioning or muscle. Each such activity gets easier with time and further benefits are not available. That is why we must always progress in our chosen activity for reaping further benefits.
|Strength training/ Resistance Training||Low risk of injury|
Reduction in rate of osteoporosis and sarcopenia
Metabolic Rate increase
|Learning correct form is mandatory|
|Cardiovascular trainingEg: Zumba, Aerobics, HIIT, Tabata, Treadmill, Crosstrainer||Low learning curve|
|High impact on joints|
|Yoga/Pilates||Low risk of injury|
|Learning technique and breathing is important|
|Walking||Low risk of injuryLow learning curve||Difficult to progress beyond a point|
One activity that is very popular now but difficult to classify is CrossFit. It can involve gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more. Typically these are done in a group and can benefit from a motivating social angle as well. It can be high impact as well as high intensity. Therefore, it is something that people can explore; by finding a local CrossFit group and trying it out for a few days. Any activity has to be sustainable to provide a significant benefit.
Goal specific activity
So as you can see, for any beginner, irrespective of age, gender and body composition; strength/resistance training(lifting) is a great choice. Depending on your current conditions; your workout has to be modified to make it as safe as possible while still challenging you.
Cardiovascular training has its benefits, and in the absence of a good trainer or gym buddy; it can be far more comfortable to do with minimum learning curve. When you first start cardio vascular training, you build on your endurance by increasing the slow-twitch muscle fibers. However, typically not all muscle groups are trained as heavily in a cardio workout. Many of the popular forms mainly focus on lower body muscles. So you end up training a small subset of a specific group of muscles.
You do use energy during any workout; and there are studies which show that the amount of energy burnt in a session is higher for cardio; compared to lifting. However, there are also studies which measure the total expenditure over days; and those show that lifting burns more calories post exercise; and exceeds the total calories burned as a whole. It also provides long term metabolic improvements due to muscle gain. In contrast, cardio sessions can cause muscle loss(in the unused muscle groups) and consequent reduction in metabolism over time.
So if your goal is aesthetics and general health; and you are making a choice between lifting and cardio, lifting is a clear winner. However, if your choice is between a sedentary life and cardio, by all means select cardio. If you are a person who particularly enjoys sports involving cardio; you should include it in your regimen while keeping lifting as a priority for general health and aesthetics. If you want to be an athlete who excels in cardio sports(Eg. Marathon champion), you need to train for that sport and you can include lifting as a secondary activity.
All the above points are applicable to you irrespective of your gender. Women are often concerned about picking up heavy weights fearing masculine features. Here is an article to allay those fears:
Gym vs home workout
There are several reasons why a gym workout is generally superior to a home workout. First of all, a gym workout gives you access to a whole range of machines and weights; which are not available at most homes. Secondly, a gym ambience consisting of people focusing on fitness; can be a motivation to better your performance and get maximum output. Thirdly, it consists of a time and money commitment which can help you focus. Fourthly, at home you end up outgrowing the equipment you need for improved fitness; and outgrown equipment ends up as rusting garbage and unsightly clothes hangers. Fifthly, home workouts have to be designed to be challenging using the equipment you have at home; which is a more daunting feat than planning a good gym workout.
Progressive overload is important aspect of improving fitness and it is possible only if you continually challenge your limits. Please read Part 2 of this article to address the creation and customization of your workout.