The fitness industry is confusing.

Fitness itself is relatively straight forward once you know what you want to get fit for.

If fitness is running a marathon, there is a pretty straight forward path wherever you are starting from.

If fitness is about aesthetics to you and looking the best you can, again there is a logical path to get there.

It’s when we want to look good, feel good and have a body that has the ‘go’ as well as the ‘show’ that fitness becomes a minefield.

Five minutes on the internet will leave you thinking you need to do Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, HIIT, Crossfit, powerlifting, aerobics and Parkour to be in with any hope of hitting your goals.

The reality is that taking any one of these to ‘elite’ level is not good for your body in the long-term and a complete focus on any one of them will leave holes in your overall fitness and appearance.

Of course, if you want to compete at the highest level you can then commitment to one area is necessary often to the exclusion of others.

This article looks at what we can take from the most common approaches when we want a bit of everything rather than being world champion.

BODYBUILDING

You might look at the top bodybuilders and think “I don’t want to be anywhere near that big” but this does a disservice to bodybuilding.

The top guys and girls take drugs and eat copious amounts of food. End of story.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t benefit greatly from the training methods (and nutrition but that’s going to be my next article!)

First, the very nature of bodybuilding means you are trying to achieve an impressive physique or figure which includes balance.

By seeking balance, we seek out weak areas and address them which will often lead to breakthroughs in lifting ability, muscle firing and so on.

Second, bodybuilding is not about just hoisting big weights and grunting in the mirror.

The use of slower tempo’s of lifting on some exercises to maximise stress on the muscle fibres and force more adaptation and growth is a key part.

Go in any gym and you will see Average Joe simply ‘doing 12 reps’.

Watch a bodybuilder move a weight at a 3030 tempo for example and it looks very different and elicits very different results.

Same exercise, maybe even the same weight – very different effects.

The tempo of a lift determines the time taken to complete each of the four phases of a lift.

  1. The eccentric or the lowering phase
  2. The hold at the end range
  3. The concentric or lifting phase
  4. The hold at the other end range

For instance, if I perform my dumbbell chest press at 3030, I will lower the weight under control taking three seconds to get from top to bottom, won’t rest at all at the bottom, lift under control taking three seconds to go from bottom to top, won’t rest at the top, then repeat for the the desired reps.

A variety of tempo’s can and should be used from explosive movements to super-slow controlled reps.

Closely aligned with slower, more controlled reps is a focus on mind-muscle connection.

Set A of push ups involves doing as many as you can in 45 seconds.

Set B of push ups involves a slower tempo with a real focus on contraction of the pecs and squeezing the triceps hard at the top.

Set A is great for a pump and to beat your mate but Set B will do much more for developing the muscles you think you are working.

Again we see that just ‘doing a set’ is not enough.

Bodybuilding encourages a focus on muscle tension and contraction of the right muscles and will do much more from an aesthetics point of view even if all you want is a bit more lean muscle and definition.

OLYMPIC LIFTING

‘Oly’ lifts have had a resurgence recently, larger due to their involvement in CrossFit.

One of the key things we can take from OL’s is that the people with the best looking and best performing body’s take time to ‘practise fitness’.

Some sets are used to practise parts or all of the movements.

It’s a learning experience in which you must be focused and fully ‘in’ your session.

Those people who go to the gym and half-arse around a variety of machines whilst checking their phone and thinking about dinner never get anywhere.

Olympic lifters take time to practise, assess what needs working on, then practise some more.

Linked to this is that becoming efficient is a good approach to life.

Whilst a good Olympic lifter has amazing levels of strength, like gymnastics efficiency is a key part so that strength, power and energy is not wasted in any way during a rep.

Building efficient joints and an efficient energy system as well as efficient programming methods so you get the most out of your gym time will do wonders for your results.

Another great lesson from OL’s is that life starts from the hips!

If you have hips that work well, glutes that fire properly and are able to get full extension at your hips, many things will be better in life from virtually every sport to sex.

You will also likely have less back pain.

Speaking of backs, Olympic lifting involves a lot of pulling because of the cleans, snatches and accessory exercises.

Most people have poor posture due to too much time at their desk and being hunched over their laptop and phone when they go home.

A training program that has a pulling to pushing ratio of around 2:1 will help counteract the effects of such a sedentary lifestyle.

POWERLIFTING

Squat, Bench, Deadlift.

Add them up.

That’s powerlifting and if you’re good at those three, you will be very strong.

And strong people are harder to kill so that’s a good start.

Our first lesson from powerlifting is that focusing on the ‘big lifts’ is a great approach for most people especially for the first 6-12 months of training.

If your nutrition is right, improving these lifts (complete with lots of rowing exercises) and doing the right volume will lead to a better physique.

Like Olympic lifting, to get better at the Big Three, you will need to focus on identifying and correction weaknesses such as knee stability, glute firing, shoulder health and so on.

This bigger picture focus with localised approaches will ensure long-term progression rather than doing what most people do, which is to walk through the gym doors and just do what they feel like or what they’re good at.

Another lesson from a well designed powerlifting program is that if you really want to improve strength (and you’re not a relative beginner) you will need 6+ sets to really wake up your central nervous system and training near maximal weights (technical failure within 1-3 reps).

The same also applies to Olympic lifting.

Traditionally powerlifters are thought of as being huge, bulky guys with big bellies and a look that says “I want to eat you”.

Now that weight categories and females have got involved, we can see that it is very possible to get super strong without ‘bulking up’.

Powerlifting is largely about training the body to recruit more of the muscle fibres you have available as opposed to increasing muscle size like bodybuilding.

Be careful not to lump all types of ‘weightlifting’ into one category and assume that if you’re using a barbell you will become a huge, hairy monster – it’s just not true!

HIGH INTENSITY INTERVAL TRAINING (HIIT)

This has become the ‘go to’ method for most people in gyms around the world in recent years with some taking it WAY too far.

There are of course benefits to be derived from such an approach if you get it right.

First, whatever method you choose, work hard, then work harder, then work harder.

The dawn of high intensity bootcamps has certainly elevated the amount of effort Average Joe exerts in their sessions. If you can develop a good work ethic, you’ve won half the battle and simply need to ensure that work rate goes into smart training.

This is a great way to burn more calories in session as well as elevating EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption).

In English, that means your body continues to work hard to re-establish the status quo or ‘homeostasis’ in terms of cellular function and as this is a calorie intensive activity involving elevated oxygen intake, it ensures elevated fat burning between sessions.

Such classes have also shown us the importance of variety to most people when they train.

How many times have you said in life “If I’d known it was going to be that bad, I’d never have done it!”

The same applies to bootcamps and HIIT training whether it be on a treadmill, rowing machine, athletics track, assault bike or ski erg!

Variety is the spice of life provided we also have things we can measure to judge progress.

Another great thing about HIIT is that you can develop a high aerobic base without long slogs for 30-60 minutes.

Go and run as fast as you can around an athletics track (400m or o.25 miles on a treadmill).

After 60 seconds rest, measure your heart rate.

You will likely find it’s still as high as it would be half way through a steady state run such as a 10km.

This means you can get build a good aerobic base with less ‘reps’ especially pounding your joints on the road whilst increasing lactic acid and general pain tolerance!

Anaerobic training will build an aerobic base but aerobic work will do next to nothing to build your anaerobic capacity or lactic acid threshold.

This is why I prefer to work really hard for 20-90 seconds then rest accordingly.

As I have already stated, if you are training for endurance, I think one long effort per week is a good idea for the purpose of pacing, event practise and specific muscle endurance although even this can be argued against.

MOVEMENT BASED TRAINING

Obviously all training involves improvement of movement on some level but recently there has been much greater interest in gymnastics and training based on hand balance.

As with the other methodologies there are lessons to be absorbed.

There is a certain joy in engaging in a learning process.

Whether you want to be able to do a handstand, walk on your hands or perform more complex holds or movements on gymnastics rings, the journey can be highly rewarding if you have the time and patience to give it.

Fitness isn’t all about destroying yourself and seeing how much you can tolerate before your body breaks.

Such an approach teaches us that in most cases, the obstacle is the way.

If you have a blockage (mentally or physically) it is usually the path to vast improvements of some kind.

If your balance or mobility is appalling, working to improve this will likely affect how you walk, run, climb and lift weights which will clearly enable many other areas of your fitness to improve.

Good joints make a lot of life easier and more rewarding in the short and long-term.

Another lesson from the ‘movement culture’ is that core strength goes well beyond how long you can stick a plank for or other static holds.

ENDURANCE TRAINING

Because of the endorphin highs that endurance training brings us, it is one of the most addictive substances on the planet.

I can think of worse things to be addicted to but in terms of all round fitness and aesthetics, too much of anything is a bad thing.

Too much focus on endurance training will increase cortisol levels which ultimately leads to reduced muscle mass and potentially stalled fat loss leading to a ‘skinny fat’ body.

Fat loss often slows because the very definition of endurance training leads to creating more energy efficiency in the body.

This sounds good and certainly is if you want to run further and further but it also means that less energy is required to perform a given action meaning that fat loss often grinds to a halt beyond the initial favourable stages of it being a new challenge to the body and getting you moving.

What we can take from endurance training is that breathing is good for us.

Oxygen intake is good for us.

Getting our heart pumping is good for us.

However, if we only have limited training time each week and we want to do what’s best for aesthetics (building muscle and losing body fat) endurance training is not the way forward.

What we need is sessions that replicate the heart pumping action of endurance training whilst also increasing the challenge to the musculoskeletal system.

This can easily be achieved with circuit style workouts or simply supersets of non-competing muscle groups and little to no rest.

Remember, your heart doesn’t know if it is helping to move dumbbells, kettlebells or your body from A to B.

If you are breathing heavily and your heart rate is up, you are improving your aerobic capacity.

This is important for health and longevity and should be part of your training schedule even if it’s once per week.

SO CROSSFIT….?

At first glance, this would be a  reasonable assumption because the very foundation of CrossFit is to improve all areas of your physical and mental abilities and (in theory) it takes from all of the methodologies above.

However, in CrossFit there are some big butts (see what I did there…?)

First, if you are going to improve all these areas, you need a LOT of training time.

The top CrossFitters are certainly amazing athletes but they also train 4-5 times per day.

They have time to spend an hour on perfecting Olympic Lifting techniques because they will perform 2-3 WOD’s later in the day to get their HIIT work done as well as taking time to work on soft tissue health and joint mobility.

If you have 2-3 hours per week to train, you simply can’t give all of these things enough time to extract the benefits. This is why most CrossFit classes involve pretty poor technique.

You can’t expect to take a sport like Olympic Lifting that requires sole focus and dedication to get good at and give it 10 minutes of attention at the start of 1-2 sessions per week.

On a similar track, truly developing maximal strength requires very heavy sets with 3-5 minutes rest between sets.

With a warm up, this can easily take up your 60 minute allotted fitness slot.

The temptation is often to rush through strength work with short rest breaks in order to reach the WOD which is most peoples’ favourite bit.

“But it’s okay because we’re doing 3200 deadlifts in the WOD”

NO!

This is sub-maximal work and will not challenge your central nervous system enough to elicit strength increases (aside from shitty technique as efficiency breaks down).

I know, I know…Rich Froning and Mat Fraser can maintain excellent form 4 days into the CrossFit Games.

You are not RF or MF.

They really are playing a different game, with different rules.

So whilst on the surface, CrossFit is an excellent approach, the reality is that the commercialisation of it for the ‘Three Per Week’ers” has killed a lot of the power the ‘originals’ had.

I met a guy in a CrossFit in San Diego who had been in the Top 20 at the CrossFit Masters.

He said that he knew a lot of the original CrossFitters who frequently spoke about how the sessions often seen now are very far removed from what was intended and what was done ‘back on the ranch’ in the early days.

SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

All of these methods can be perfectly right or totally wrong in certain situations when used as exclusive training methods.

As I said at the start, if you want to excel in one for competition then obviously it should be your focus.

However, I still believe you an take elements from all of the others to help improve your progress at your chosen sport.

Adding more muscle through ‘bodybuilding’ can TO A POINT aid with Olympic lifting.

Building work capacity with certain types of CrossFit style WOD’s can aid a powerlifter. With a better ability to recover, that lifter can get through more volume in a lifting session.

Obviously we could talk all day about exact programming but here are three key points to take away if you want to be a great ‘all rounder’ with excellent levels of strength, power, speed, stamina and body composition, with good joints to carry you around:

  1. Understand more about Neurological Profiling

    This is a huge topic I studied with Christian Thibadeau.The summary of this concept is that depending on how your brain is wired, you will enjoy and react best to different levels of volume, different types of warm ups, variety or repetition of the same things and so on.For instance a ‘Harm Avoider’ prefers to repeat the same exercises with little variation until they know they are performing safely and to the best of their ability.Conversely, a ‘Novelty Seeker’ typically gets drawn to CrossFit style workout involving more variety with less regard for whether or not they are doing it perfectly.

  2. Utilize Cyclic Prioritization Again this is a huge topic but ultimately we are saying that you should train everything, all of the time.What changes between training phases is the that one element will be the primary focus.Typically, the categories will be prioritise are Foundation (equal balance of elements), Strength, Power, Power Endurance and Endurance.

    We can also mix in a specific hypertrophy (muscle building) phase.

    At any given time in a year you will see workouts or parts of workouts that address all of those elements but there will always be one that is given more time and attention depending on goals and time of training year.

  3. Do everything, exclusively

    Building on Cyclic Prioritisation, you are best to avoid mixing opposite elements.Train strength and power OR train power endurance OR train endurance.You cannot build effective strength if you are doing lots of exercises with no rest.Similarly if you do a strength and hypertrophy workout and a few hours later do a hour endurance session you are likely to interrupt anabolic signalling from your earlier workout.

    The same would apply if you do some heavy deadlifts then do a grinding 45 minute WOD.

    I would recommend short, sharp conditioning if you have to do things in the same session due to time constraints and keep any more endurance based requirements for a separate day.

    If you have three sessions per week of 60 minutes to train and want an excellent overall structure, I recommend something like this:

    General warm up / pulse raiser (5 minutes)

    Specific warm up / mobility / activation of today’s target muscles (10 minutes)

    Maximal strength / Power work (15 minutes)

    Hypertrophy / Tension work (15 minutes)

    Power Endurance / Conditioning (15 minutes)

    Obviously there are many ifs and buts that go with that but as a general fitness model for all round performance and good body composition (provided nutrition is on point) that will do the job!

Don’t forget to grab your copy of AMPED Conditioning…