Strength, cardiovascular endurance, balance, agility and flexibility should be the goals of any well-rounded fitness program. But how do you go about developing these skills? The key is variety. Don't spend all your time in the weight room or on the treadmill. Include different types of fitness training in your routine and you'll see better overall results in your exercise performance and how your body performs and feels in daily life.
Ways to Build Strength
The definition of strength is different for anyone. For some people, it may mean being strong enough to carry groceries, mow the lawn or pick up their children. Others want to be able to climb mountains and flip truck tires. Whatever your goals, you have many choices to get you there.
Weight-Bearing Exercise. You don't necessarily need to lift weights to build muscle and strength. Any weight-bearing activity that forces your body to work against gravity can make you stronger. This is especially true if you aren't used to exercising, because your muscles will be more challenged by activities than someone who is stronger and more experienced. Examples of weight-bearing exercises include:
- Stair climbing
- Playing sports such as tennis
- Jumping rope
Calisthenics. There's nothing fancy about a calisthenics workout, but just because it's basic doesn't mean it's not effective. A 2017 study in Isokinetics and Exercise Science put a group of untrained individuals through a calisthenics program to test the effectiveness of an exercise method that uses no equipment. Participants did a brief workout consisting of four or five exercises three days a week for eight weeks. At the end of the trial, all participants had significant improvements in posture, strength and body composition.
The best thing about calisthenics is convenience. You can do a calisthenics workout anywhere. And calisthenics works for all levels of fitness; exercises can easily be modified or made incredibly challenging. Some examples of calisthenics exercises ranging from easy to difficult include:
- Inverted rows
- Walking lunges
Weightlifting. Lifting weights is the classic strength-building exercise. From triceps kickbacks with 5-pound dumbbells to Olympic lifts with 500 pounds on a barbell, anyone can do weight training. And it's not just dumbbells and barbells; you can use machines, resistance bands, kettlebells, medicine balls and many other pieces of equipment. Weightlifting also often includes accessory exercises using body weight only.
The type of weight training you do will depend on your goals. In the beginning it's a good idea to start out with light weights and just learn the mechanics of the basic exercises such as:
- Shoulder presses
- Biceps curls
- Lat pulldowns
- Triceps pushdowns
- Leg presses
- Chest presses
Once you feel comfortable with these exercises, you can add weight and move on to some more complex exercises such as:
- Split squats
- Kettlebell swings
- Front and back squats
- Hack squats
- Upright rows
- Sumo deadlifts
Determining how many sets and reps to do is a little more complicated. In your early days, keep it simple. Do one to three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions with good form. As you get more experience, you can add more weight and reduce your reps if you want to build more muscle and strength.
Generally, doing sets of six to 12 reps is best for building size, while doing fewer than six reps is best for building strength. Reps over 12 build muscular endurance. A well-designed program consists of periods of lower rep training and periods of higher rep training to avoid overtraining.
There's lots more to learn in weightlifting once you get into it, such as pyramid training, drop sets and rest-pause sets, but that's nothing you likely need to worry about just yet.
Other Strength-Training Modalities. There are plenty of other ways to build strength. Rock climbing, vigorous types of yoga, Pilates, barre classes, circuit training, Crossfit and many other options will help you build strength. Many of them will also help you improve balance, cardio fitness, agility and flexibility.
Building Aerobic Fitness
Any activity you do that raises your heart rate for a period of time and works up a sweat is cardiovascular in nature. Just getting out for a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day can improve your cardio fitness if you've previously been sedentary. Some other popular options include:
- Elliptical machine
- Stair climbing
- Indoor spinning
- Mountain biking
For even greater benefits, the CDC suggests increasing your time to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio exercise each week.
Moderate-intensity exercises include brisk walking or swimming. Running and high-impact aerobics are examples of vigorous cardio.
You can go out for a jog or run or ride the stationary bike at the gym each day to reach your goals. You can also switch things up with interval training. This type of cardio workout involves alternating periods of intense effort with periods of recovery. For example, sprint for 30 seconds and recover at a jog for one minute; then repeat.
Getting your heart rate higher in those sprint intervals may provide added benefits for fitness in less time than steady-state cardio, according to a 2015 study in The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. You can do intervals on the treadmill, track or bike, and when in the pool or jumping rope.
Develop Your Balance
If you've ever fallen in the shower trying to wash one foot while standing on the other, you realize the importance of having good balance. But balance is important for so many other reasons. Especially as you age, improving your balance can help you avoid falls and stay active and independent. Better balance can also improve your performance in your favorite athletic activity.
Many of the activities you do to build strength will also help your balance. Balance is partly a matter of developing your small stabilizer muscles that provide support and keep you steady. Free weight exercises, such as lunges and deadlifts, will help strengthen the stabilizer muscles. Even better, include some single-leg exercises, such as single-leg deadlifts and pistol squats, in your strength-training routine.
Balance is also a matter of proprioception or knowing where your body is in space and being able to maintain your desired position. Most types of exercise activities improve proprioception, but you can also add specific exercises to your routine to work on this.
It can be as easy as practicing standing on one foot. Once you've mastered that, try closing your eyes. Then, bend your standing leg and reach down to pick something up off the floor. Next, try doing it with your eyes closed. Progress to standing on one foot on uneven surfaces such as a Bosu ball or balance board.
How to Improve Agility
Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. For athletes, it's being able to stop, start and change direction efficiently and without injury. In your everyday life, it's being able to avoid an object before you trip over it or hop out of the way when your fellow gym goer almost drops a weight on your foot.
Agility training can be an entire workout on its own that also builds endurance and strength. Or you can add a few agility exercises on to your strength and cardio workouts. Some examples of effective agility exercises include:
- Lateral jumps over a towel or exercise step
- Box jumps and lateral box jumps
- Ladder running
- Tuck jumps
Flexibility for Life
Possibly one of the most important parts of fitness training is flexibility and mobility. Flexibility is the ability of your muscles to stretch, and mobility is being able to move your joints and tissues through their full range of motion. Both are important to athletic performance and for avoiding injury. Muscles and joints that are flexible and mobile — as well as strong — are much less susceptible to sprains and other injuries.
Regularly working on flexibility and mobility will also help you age better. You'll be able to move more freely, do more of your favorite activities without pain or injury and you'll be able to stay independent longer.
It's crucial to stretch and work on range of motion before and after each workout as part of your warmup and cool down. Before your workout, warm up for five to 10 minutes with light cardio; then do some dynamic stretches and mobility exercises. If you're going to be doing a leg heavy workout, for example, pay special attention to the joints and muscles in your lower body.
Some examples of dynamic stretches and mobility exercises for the lower body include:
- High knees
- Dynamic lateral lunges
- Butt kicks
- Hip rolls
- Air squats
After your workout, perform static stretches, holding each stretch for 30 seconds or more. Static stretches help the muscle fibers relax after being stressed. Post-workout stretching can help you recover more quickly, and it may also slightly reduce the soreness that can occur for a few days after a strenuous workout. Examples of static stretches include:
- Overhead triceps stretch
- Runners lunge
- Standing quad stretch
- Doorway chest stretch
On days you're not strength training or doing cardio, try to devote more time to mobility and flexibility. Doing 30 minutes to an hour of these exercises is a great way to practice active recovery.
- NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center: Exercise for Your Bone Health
- Isokinetics and Exercise Science: The Effects of a Calisthenics Training Intervention on Posture, Strength and Body Composition
- NASM: NASM Study Guide Chapter 14 – Integrated Program Design and the Optimum Performance Training (OPT) Model
- NASM's Essentials of Sports Performance Training: The OPT Model
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity Basics
- Mayo Clinic: Rev Up Your Workout With Interval Training
- The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine: The Effects of High Intensity Interval Training vs Steady State Training on Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity
- ScienceDirect: Proprioception
- Peak Performance: Flexibility and Stretching: Preventing Sports Injuries
- Science for Sport: Post-Exercise Stretching