Say the word “fit,” and a different image will pop into each and every exerciser’s head. That guy on the treadmill might picture a marathoner breaking through the finish line. That girl at the squat rack likely pictures quads of steel. And that yogi? He’ll probably picture something akin to a pretzel.
In reality, though, being truly fit is all of these things. “If you want to work toward being your fittest self, you have to train all of the fundamental pillars that support your overall health and fitness,” says Erica Suter, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Baltimore. After all, if you don’t train every aspect of your fitness, you’ll stunt your recovery and risk overtraining or getting injured.
So whether you are new to the gym scene or simply looking to fill any gaps in your longtime training plan, here are the four pillars your workout plan needs to consist of. Consider this your guide to getting really, truly fit.
1. Resistance Training
“Muscular strength and endurance allow our bodies to move well in everyday life,” Suter says. It doesn’t matter if that means hiking through Patagonia, carrying your kids or hoisting your carry-on bag into a plane’s overhead compartment.
In fact, when Harvard University researchers followed 10,500 healthy men over the course of 12 years, those who performed resistance exercise were better able to fight off visceral (also known as abdominal) fat compared to those who spent the same amount of time performing cardio.
How to Train for Th**is:** “Resistance training should be the meat and potatoes of your workouts,” says Gavin McHale, a Winnipeg-based kinesiologist and certified exercise physiologist. While the American Heart Association recommends performing resistance workouts at least two days per week, it is best to incorporate at least some resistance work on most if not all days that you work out, he says.
Your resistance workouts should hit all of the body’s basic movement patterns: squat, lunge/step-up, deadlift, hip-hinge, upper-body push, upper-body pull, core stabilization and rotation. Do large, compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, etc.) early in your workouts, using heavier loads for fewer reps. Finish with isolation exercises, using lighter loads for a higher number of reps, McHale says.
Lifting heavier weights for smaller rep ranges (six or less) will contribute primarily to strength gains, while lifting lighter weights for more reps (12 or more) will swing the pendulum toward muscular endurance. Middle-of-the-road rep ranges (six to 12) will score you a combination of strength and endurance and make the greatest contribution to muscle size.
2. Cardiovascular Exercise
“Cardio tends to get a bad reputation in today’s fitness world, but it does have many benefits, including improved recovery, heart health and aerobic capacity,” Suter says.
In fact, research published in a 2011 issue of The American Journal of Cardiology01783-8/abstract) shows that cardiovascular exercise is the most efficient form of exercise for improving cardiometabolic health — including blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. (Hence the name “cardio.”)
However, it’s important to remember that there are various ways to perform cardio. Besides switching up the mode (think running, cycling, swimming), incorporating a wide range of intensity levels is a great way to improve all aspects of your aerobic fitness.
High-intensity training hones your aerobic power (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and use in a minute), while slow, steady-state cardio is ideal for boosting endurance. Low-intensity cardio is also a great way to recover between intense sweat sessions as well as for warming up for and cooling down from resistance workouts, Suter says.
How to Train for Th**is**: The American Heart Association recommends performing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic activity or some combination of the two per week.
“The best ways to incorporate steady-state cardio into your regimen are in between high-intensity strength training days or as a dynamic warm-up before or cool-down after strength training,” Suter says.
Meanwhile, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) works great as a sort of “metabolic finisher,” or way to empty to the tank at the end of your resistance workouts, McHale says. They can also function as standalone workouts to do along with resistance moves, circuit-style.
3. Mobility Work
“Mobility is the foundation for performing all strength and athletic movements,” says Suter. But contrary to what many gymgoers assume, flexibility and mobility are not the same thing. Mobility is all about being able to move through all functional movement patterns with a healthy range of motion, she says.
While having a certain degree of flexibility allows for mobility, being able to touch your toes doesn’t mean you have the mobility to run, jump and lift with proper form. Poor mobility in your ankles, for instance, can actually keep you from being able to lower far into a squat.
How to Train for Th**is**: While stretching can help improve range of motion, it is best not to stretch immediately before or after your workouts. Current research shows that, contrary to what most of us were brought up to believe, static stretching before or after your workouts may impair performance and recovery.
Meanwhile, research from 2011 published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that moving through your full range of motion during all of your workouts and exercises can help increase your range of motion just as well, if not better than, stretching.
4. Balance Training
“Balance, just like mobility, allows us to stay injury-free, complete everyday activities with ease and improve our sports performance,” Suter says. After all, you won’t go very far with your workout routine — whether you’re running, hiking, biking or performing lunges — if you can’t stay stable on one foot.
Even more important is to remember that balance training is the best way to prevent falls. And since an older adult falls every single second of each day in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the sooner you start training for balance, the better.
How to Train for Th**is**: Single-leg exercises, such as lunges, pistol squats, single-leg Romanian deadlifts and single-leg hip thrusts, are great for training balance (while doubling as strength training), Suter says.
So make sure that when programming your strength workouts you include at least a few single-leg moves. You’ll notice that over time you’ll shore up any strength differences between your left and right sides. And increasing the volume of your core-strengthening exercises — such as the plank, Pallof press and farmer carry — will also help you increase your balance, she says.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you consider yourself fit? Does your fitness regimen contain the four things listed above? What else do you consider to be an important part of your workout routine? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!