The Tao of Fitness
People looking to start or change their workout plans all have one thing in common: they want to change something about themselves. It can be as simple a change as a very fit and physically active person looking to get more defined shoulders, or as complex a change as a sedentary and morbidly obese person getting healthy and becoming a gym rat. For anyone looking to make change, they are going to have to be disciplined and calculated in their approach; desire that is not coupled with planning and discipline leads inevitably to disappointment and a misplaced feeling of hopelessness. Changes in our body must be accompanied by changes in our mind.
One thing that the Yin-Yang teaches us is that everything in life requires balance. While athletic talent is innate to some degree, the truly successful athletes in every sport acknowledge that training the mind is just as important as training the body. They dedicate themselves to doing the things necessary in order to succeed. For us to make changes in our health, we need to take the same approach.
We might think of our workouts as “doing cardio” or “getting my lifts in,” but we need to take a complete mind/body approach. Stretching and disciplining the mind will not only allow you to become more effective at shredding fat and packing on muscle for an elite physique, but the improvements in balance, coordination, and flexibility that you’ll experience will greatly aid you in your daily life. You will overcome challenges that you never thought were possible, and you will emerge with a confidence that will follow you into your work, family, and everywhere else.
So what does a workout cognizant of these principles look like? Its primary objective is to build a pathway between your mind and your muscles. First comes awareness, then familiarity, then command. For those of you who know what it is like to learn a musical instrument for the first time, fitness is a lot like that. Secondly, an effective workout will incorporate all of the smaller muscles, joints, and ligaments that stabilize your body. Too many people train only their “mirror muscles” but neglect the parts of the body that make them possible. Finally, this type of workout will push you past your limits and leave you soaked and gasping for air. Again, we need to be disciplined because nothing worth having comes easily.
Warming up our minds is just as important as warming up our bodies before a workout. Take a few minutes to meditate and clear your mind before you put on the boxing gloves, hit the running trails, or strap up to pump some iron. To be at our best, we need to block out all our worries for the length of our workout. This sharpened sense of focus is necessary as you prepare to push your limits and break new barriers.
After you warm up the mind, it’s time to warm up the body. When it comes to coordination-building, there’s probably no better exercise than skipping rope. Grab a rope, find your rhythm, and stay pushing for five to ten minutes. Try to mix up your footwork. Alternate single-leg jumps, hopping from front to back and side to side, running with high knees, crossing your hands, crossing your feet, and other such variations. Get creative, and always push your mind and body to new levels of synchronization.
Resistance training is imperative to developing pathways between the mind and the body, which is why this workout will utilize weighted equipment. A lot of people shy away from weight training because they don’t want to “bulk” or get big and muscular. This fear is based upon a common myth. In general, women naturally lack the testosterone that allows men to become bulky, and anyone eating on a calorie deficit will simply become more lean rather than large.
The benefits of weight training are too great to ignore. Training with weights accelerates and prolongs your body’s excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)–the time after your workout during which you are still burning fat and building up muscle. This means that you can be sitting in the office, watching TV at home, or sleeping, and your body will still be hard at work. Resistance training will keep your bones and joints healthy while helping you in all your day-to-day activities. Additionally, weights give you concrete numbers which allow you to measure your progress for as long as you stick with it; make sure you have something to record your workouts in, such as a small notebook. And resistance training actually reduces your risk for injury, and it will add a new dimension to the challenges you’ll overcome.
That being said, it’s time to get to work. Below are two exercises per major muscle group that require your concentration (building your coordination), pay special attention to the often-neglected stabilization muscles (building your balance), and burn lots of calories (building a toned physique).
Chest & Triceps
1. Underhand-Grip Incline Dumbbell Bench Press. Everybody loves lying down on the bench and pumping the iron. Any sort of bench press variation requires that the whole body work together in unison to push something heavy against the force of gravity; your legs and core build and stabilize a base that your chest, shoulders, and arms use to push the weight. Anatomically speaking, however, using dumbbells with an underhand grip requires the most stabilization and concentration. Because the motion does take some getting used to, your mind will draw connections between it and muscle movements that might feel foreign. These connections (in this exercise and others) serve as an essential step toward greater coordination in your everyday life.
2. BOSU Ball Push-Ups. If you want to be strong, you have to do your push-ups! While the push-up is already a classic move for the chest, triceps, and even your back, placing your hands around a BOSU ball forces your muscles to work even harder to keep you stable. The movement is similar to that of a standard barbell bench press, but keeping yourself off the ground during its eccentric portion will allow gravity to overload your triceps and chisel out your abdominals. Additionally, pushing down on the ball rather than simply keeping your hands on the ground for support will work your chest more intensely and develop your stabilizing muscles. For some added emphasis on the triceps, try doing diamond pushups on top of the plate, and then try doing them one-handed!
Back & Biceps
1. Neutral-Grip Pull-Ups. Pull-ups are one of the best ways to prove that you are serious about your strength and fitness. Having your hands in a neutral grip makes the motion easier than an overhand-grip pull-up by recruiting the biceps while keeping the rear delts and lats in focus. Additionally, the core has to work to keep your body from swinging all over the place. For some extra burn, try adding a leg raise to the bottom and/or top of the motion. Check fit815.com for our previous article about building up to pull-ups if you are unable to do a pull-up yet.
2. Split Stance Landmine Row. The landmine is an oft underused piece of equipment that can yield some impressive results. It’s no secret that the bent-over row is one of the best exercises to develop a strong and well-balanced back. Doing so with a barbell has been the subject of debate recently as the posture with which most people perform the exercise reduces its benefits and can actually be quite harmful. Single-arm rows using dumbbells while kneeling on a bench are good, but using the landmine will keep both feet on the ground and give your pull a little bit more power. You’ll be surprised at heavy you can load the bar; this is because the angle and increased range of motion will activate more of your biceps. Be careful to focus on pulling with your lats, though, rather than muscling it up with your arms or turning your body.
1. Landmine Shoulder Press. If you were just at the landmine to do your rows, stay there! The shoulder press makes a great superset with the row if you are so inclined. If you don’t have access to a barbell at all, this same movement can be done with a heavy dumbbell, kettlebell, or medicine ball. Hold the weight in both hands with the attachment facing you, and place the tip of the bar on your shoulder. Recruit some momentum from your legs, and press the weight up and over to your other shoulder. The vertical motion brings your chest into play as well, making this exercise more inclusive than other standard shoulder presses. It also means that your muscles work together, along with your mind, to create one fluid movement.
2. Face Pulls. The rear delts are easy to neglect and hard to target. Most people opt for the lying rear delt raise, but I think that the movement isn’t nearly as effective as face pulls are. Face pulls keep you on your feet, which means that your entire body needs to work to keep you standing and stable. While face pulls are most effectively performed using the rope attachment on a cable machine, you can accomplish something similar with dumbbells. Alternatively, find a stable and well-grounded object to do inverted rows (holding on and doing the reverse of a push-up).
1. Bulgarian Split Squat. Squats are often called the king of weight lifting exercises; they engage nearly every part of your body and burn massive calories, setting you up for an effective afterburn. Take the squat up a notch by placing one foot on a bench behind you. This gives your muscular support system double the work and translates into real-world functional improvements. The balance and coordination necessary to do these make them a better overall exercise than leg extension and curl machines. Stay upright to emphasize the quads, or lean forward a little to engage more of the hamstrings and glutes. Squats are better than simple box step-ups as well. Given the eccentric portion of the exercise, your joints and supporting muscles will have to work harder than ever if you don’t want to fall over.
2. Conventional Barbell Deadlift. If squats are king of weight lifting exercises, then deadlifts are certainly queen. There’s always some debate in fitness circles regarding which variation of the deadlift is the best and whether to include them with leg exercises or back exercises. The conventional barbell deadlift is both the most comprehensive and the most accessible of them all. If you don’t have a barbell lying around, opt for a heavy box left unpacked in your basement. Press through your heels and push your hips forward at the top of the motion. This a great developing motion for your quads, glutes, and posterior chain.
1. Stability Ball Mountain Climbers. There’s a lot to love about mountain climbers. Your arms and abs are positioned like a plank, another great stabilization exercise, but they have to work overtime by keeping you straight throughout the movements and balancing you while you’re exploding off of one foot and contracting during the crunch-like portion of each movement. Putting your forearms or hands on a BOSU plate or Swiss ball will fry your triceps, recruit your chest, and overload your abdominals, making this variation of mountain climbers grueling but worth it.
2. Farmer’s Carries. Loaded carries in general must be the most underrated exercises of all time. They are also the most simple, and probably the most functional! All you need to do is pick up something heavy and carry it around. Try it after your next grocery shopping trip. The traditional variation–walking with an object in each hand at your sides–forces your grip to hold the weight, your back and shoulders to keep you upright, your core to propel you forward, your legs to keep you standing, and your lungs to keep you, well, alive. Try alternating single-arm farmer’s carries for an extra blast to your obliques.
Always remember to include some static stretching after your workouts. You should be tired at this point and maybe want to call it a day, but remember what we said about planning and discipline? Be sure to hit all of the muscle groups you worked and then some. You will break up the lactic acid gathering around your muscles, gradually become more flexible, and give your mind one more chance to connect with your muscles. Your training won’t do you any good if you don’t recover properly. And speaking of that, remember to eat well and get a good night’s sleep!
Any elite athlete will tell you that training the mind is just as important as training the body; your toughest opponent will always be the one you see in the mirror. Whatever the change is that you are looking to make, devise a balanced plan and commit to it. Setting yourself up for and achieving fitness success will teach you lessons that will carry over and improve the rest of your life.