I hear the same kind of questions about working out over and over again. While some are still largely up for debate, I have done my best to address some of the most common questions regarding frequency of training, types of workouts and fuel for training, giving you my opinion of what I believe is right and wrong.
How often should I train each body part?
The rule most bodybuilders go by is to train each body part once a week, or twice if you really have an area of weakness. For example, a lot of guys have weak legs so they will train them twice a week to build up muscle more quickly. I, on the other hand, have the legs of an ox (ha!) and only need to train them once a week. Instead, I’m trying to widen my upper body, so I’m training shoulders twice a week.
You need to give your body time to recover and avoid overtraining. While the gym provides the stimulus for muscle growth, all gains actually occur while resting. Always make sure you wait 48-72 hours before hitting the same muscle again and keep in mind that larger muscle groups take longer to recover. If you’re only training a specific body part once a week, however, you must ensure you’re placing enough tension on the muscle to warrant taking a full week of rest. Otherwise, your muscles will recover too early and start to lose the gains you made.
I shake my head when I see people doing crunches every single day. First of all, they say abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym! You can’t spot reduce fat and unless you get rid of the fatty tissue that sits on top of your abs through a clean diet, you will never see your muscles no matter how many crunches you do! You wouldn’t train your biceps every day, so don’t train your abs every day.
If you’re going to devote an entire session to your core, then I recommend you train once a week. If you just want to throw in two or three exercises at the end of a workout, then you can train twice or even three times if you feel that way inclined. Personally, I do abs once a week and I hate it: doing an entire hour of core exercises is quite tedious and the only workout I don’t look forward to! Unless your muscles are actually showing, stick to just a few general exercises to build up your core strength such as the plank. Your abs should constantly be engaged during any workout, so you will always be building up abdominal strength!
Another note on abs: make sure you add in some resistance in the form of weight or slower speed. If you can easily do more than 25 reps of a particular exercise, you’re probably doing it too quickly or with improper form.
Are free weights better than machines?
Absolutely. Free weights challenge your muscles much more, and you need to engage more stabilising muscles to use them. Plus, it’s more functional – how often do you need to sit at a machine and pull and push a lever in your everyday life compared to how often you need to carry the groceries inside?
Machines are quite limited, as most only allow one part of the body to be exercised at a time, and you don’t have to focus on your form as the machine does that for you. It is also harder to work on your weaknesses: if one side is stronger than the other, that side may do more work to compensate. Finally, machines can often give you a false sense of strength gain. For example, think of how difficult a squat is compared to doing a leg press at the same weight.
Compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, chest press, lunges and pull downs work several muscles at once while also improving balance and core strength.
Machines still have their place (especially if you’re a beginner or recovering from an injury), just use them sparingly. I watched a young, healthy guy move from one machine to the other this morning and leave without picking up a single weight. Do you really need to do a bicep curl or tricep press on a machine?!
Should I do cardio or weights first?
Weights. You want to ensure you have proper form during your weight lifting, and that usually involves being full of energy and not exhausted after a huge cardio session! If you do weights first, you should be able to lift heavier and go harder and therefore burn more calories.
If you’re trying to build muscle and lose fat, it’s especially important to make sure you don’t do cardio before you lift, as doing so will eat up all your glycogen stores and hinder the release of muscle growth hormones during lifting. Also, your body will use up all its food stores during the weight training, leaving it to go straight into fat burning mode when you jump on the treadmill.
I split up my cardio and weight training completely, allowing me to focus maximum attention on one or the other. I always do cardio on my non-lifting days, and I sometimes do cardio several hours after a morning weight training session.
Should I work out on an empty stomach?
The idea behind this theory is that, if you work out first thing in the morning, your body will not have anything to burn off in your stomach and will burn fat instead. While this is still a largely controversial topic that hasn’t been conclusively resolved, Strength and Conditioning Journal recently published a study that demonstrated the body burns approximately the same amount of fat during a workout, regardless of whether you have eaten or not.
Generally, people apply this theory to cardio as opposed to weight training: it’s rare to find someone lifting weights who has not had a pre-workout meal. The problem with not eating before you work out is that your body will find whatever source it can to fuel your movement, including by breaking down your muscles! Furthermore, without eating first, you will have less energy to move and therefore the intensity and duration of your exercise as well as the overall calorie burn will be reduced.
I eat as soon as I wake up, hitting the gym 90 minutes later to do weights. If my focus was on losing fat, I would do some light cardio before eating. I wouldn’t recommend jumping out of bed and going for a 10km run on an empty stomach if you are trying to build muscle like I am! Your pre-workout meal should constitute a decent amount of carbs and a small amount of protein – too much will actually slow you down.
How soon after my workout should I eat?
One commonly promoted misconception is that you should wait an hour after exercise before eating to ensure maximum calorie burn. However, the body continues to burn fat after a workout – regardless of whether you eat or not. The reverse is actually true: a lot of trainers refer to the 60 minutes post-exercise as the ‘golden hour’, where the body can absorb the most nutrients and therefore the most important for building muscle.
Your post-workout meal is actually the most important meal of the day. It should consist of protein and carbs and no fat (as it slows down digestion when your body needs nutrients most!). Within 30-45 minutes after working out, make sure you have a meal with plenty of protein and carbs. Depending on your size and the intensity of your workout, you should be having 30-50 grams of protein overall and 1-1.5 grams of carbs per kilo of body weight. The protein will help your muscle recovery, while the carbs will help you replace the amino acids depleted during a workout.
Should I work out in the ‘fat burning’ zone when I do my cardio?
Jump on any treadmill and you will see the description of your heart rate required to be in the ‘fat burning zone’, which will be a low-intensity pace of walking. While it is true that a higher proportion of calories burned during low-intensity exercise come from fat (approximately 60 per cent versus 35 per cent from high-intensity), the idea of a ‘fat-burning zone’ is a myth: overall, high-intensity exercise will still burn more fat overall.
For example, if you perform 60 minutes of low-intensity cardio, you’ll burn around 400 calories, with 240 of those – 60 per cent – coming from fat. On the other hand, if you do high-intensity cardio for 60 minutes, you’ll burn about 800 calories, with 280 of those – 35 per cent – coming from fat. At a lower intensity, you will need to exercise for much longer to burn the same number of calories as you would during a higher intensity workout. High-intensity cardio also has a longer post-exercise burn.
Personally, I would much prefer to go for a 20 minute run using intervals. However, if you’re trying to build or maintain muscle the common opinion is that you should stick to a lower intensity or not even do cardio at all…hmm. I haven’t made up my mind on this one – feel free to convince me!
Finally, I have some good news on my end. This morning at the gym, as I was doing back and biceps, the new trainer (who I had never spoken to before) came up to me and asked me straight out what type of competition I’m training for. So I must be looking pretty buff! That, or the exercises I was doing were a dead giveaway…
So tell me: do you agree with my answers above or have you heard others? Are there any other fitness theories you’re not sure about?