A Guide to Understanding the Most Popular Forms of Exercise, What They’re For, And How To Use Them
Exercise is a broad term referring generally to physical activity for the purpose of improvement. However, what you are improving varies depending on the kind of exercise, and you can’t get every benefit from every modality.
Most people, even those who exercise all the time, have a small understanding of exercise as a whole. I myself exercised often and regularly for 7 years before I finally decided to learn about the physiology.
I was surprised to find out just how different the many kinds of training affect our bodies. Some of it has to do with the body’s 3 different energy systems: Aerobic, anaerobic, and the creatine phosphate system,
And other factors are the parts of the body engaged.
In this article, I have created a summary of 5 of the most popular exercise methods today. These do not represent all training methods, by any means, but they are 4 of the most common forms of exercise used for the purpose of improving your health or physical ability (as opposed to sports which may have a competitive motivation.)
Most people find one modality and stick with it, but its better to use each modality some, or change training styles occasionally.
1. Bodybuilding AKA The Gym Rat
You may not consider yourself a body builder if you go to the gym, but most people working out tend to adhere to body-building style training.
This form of training is characterized by high reps of isolated movements, and multiple exercises in one session. A body-building workout might consist of 12 different exercises, performed over the course of an hour.
Popular programs such as P90X adhere to this methodology. This kind of training is really good at making you “look” fit, and it can be used to increase the size of specific muscle groups. However, if you don’t have enough variety, it can easily create muscle imbalances.
Think of the guys who are huge but can’t reach back around to scratch their own butt. This training can be good for correcting imbalances and can be a powerful tool to prevent injuries in your other sports or activities.
On the flip side, it can also create muscle imbalances if you don’t know what you’re doing, or if you work the same muscle groups too often.
- Best for gaining size, or making specific changes to your appearance
- Good for strength building, though not the best
- If done right, with a good variety of exercises, it can be good for injury prevention
- Not as intense as interval training, so you can do it more, but not so light as endurance training. You get some endurance and some strength benefits.
- Can create muscle imbalances
- You can gain a lot of size without gaining as much strength. You’ll still get strong, but there are better ways to get strong.
- If you do these workouts too often, you can over-train and often get very specific injuries such as acute muscle tears.
- Takes a long time: 1 to 2 hour workouts are common
- Low cardio benefits if you take long breaks
- Difficult to implement without a high level of expertise in health and fitness. It is best to buy a program or hire a certified trainer so they can teach you exercises and cater to your goals
Cardio, also known more professionally as endurance training, is how we burn fat and build our oxygen utilization capabilities. It has particular and benefits for oxygen utilization, which in turn shows up as cardiovascular benefits.
Aerobic training increases our body’s ability to use fat for fuel and, combined with a fat-based diet and/or frequent intermittent fasting, will cause you to utilize your body’s stored body fat and lose weight.
Aerobic training is also particularly beneficial for our hearts. It has been found that people who exercise regularly at high intensity (which endurance training is not) have a 19% increased risk of heart arrythmia by the time they are 60. On the flip side, those who exercise often at low to moderate intensity (endurance training done right) have a 13% decreased risk of heart arrythmia by the time they are 60.
However, intensity is relative, and many endurance athletes are known for running hours a day and running 30 to 100 miles a week. This type of training will wear the body down and often leads to heart problems too.
The biggest mistake in endurance training is that people don’t train hard enough on their scheduled “hard” days, and they don’t train easy enough on their “easy” days.
Instead, most athletes spend their time in a middle aerobic zone where they are damaging their body, not recovering, not gaining the hormonal benefits of a hard workout but not getting the recovery they need from an easy workout.
- Increased oxygen utilization
- Best for burning fat when combined with a high fat diet or fasting
- Specific cardiovascular benefits that cannot be replicated in any other form of exercise
- Can be used for recovery
- Good for para-sympathetic nervous system (not fight-or-flight)
- Many athletes train too hard on their easy days and too easy on their hard days
- When over-done, high injury rates
- Combined with a sugar based diet, leads to metabolic broken-ness
- Hard on the body when not supplemented by strength training
- Most athletes get into the habit of training far too much and too often
Generally in a mixed training program, you should do light cardio on your recovery days. You should run at a pace where it feels too easy, and you should stop before you feel like you need to. Run on a weekly basis, but don’t run “hard” more than once per week.
3. High-Intensity Interval Training
High intensity interval training, aka HIIT is a form of anaerobic training. The token workout style of Crossfit, this type of training has moved through the fitness industry like wildfire, and for good reason. High intensity interval training is far and away the most beneficial style of exercise that exists.
It has a unique myriad of positive benefits on the hormonal system of the body, and when your hormones are optimized, you get health benefits across the board. Compared to a cardio workout, where you burn fat during the workout, high intensity interval training doesn’t burn fats while you are training, but instead it causes your body to go into a fat-burning state for the next 36 hours or so after your workout.
However, just like crossfit, anaerobic training has a dark side (thought the risks of crossfit are in many ways over-blown.) When health is your goal, it is recommended that you train in this style only once a week, and for no more than 4 to 5 minutes. Your intensity should be high, but your workouts should be short and seldom.
Most HIIT training centers do far more than this, and the average Crossfit workout is 10 minutes to 20 minutes long, and it is not uncommon to do two of these workouts in one Crossfit session. Then you do this multiple times a week, and the same things that make HIIT training good for you in small amounts are what burn you out when done chronically.
Crossfitters who over do it often show bottomed out hormones such as testosterone, and it is not uncommon for a ripped-looking male athlete to have the hormones of a 60 year old woman. People who get into HIIT training often experience overtraining crashes which manifest themselves as injuries, mental health problems, or chronic disease.
They burn out their body’s hormones because they don’t give themselves enough time to recover, and their nervous system is constantly experiencing a fight-or-flight mode.
In moderation, this style of training is amazing, possibly the greatest net-benefit of any training style, but if you participate in HIIT workouts, make sure you are taking weekly recovery days, and that you take 1 to 2 week breaks every 4 to 6 weeks or any time you start to feel burnt out or get injuries.
- Best for hormone optimization
- Best for long-term fat burning. While you don’t burn fats during the workout, it primes your metabolism to burn fat naturally when not training for 36 hours after
- Often exposes you to a variety of movements, which in turn prevents injury
- Great for power, a quality that is sought after by athletes and difficult to maintain
- When done in moderation, has easily the most mental and physical benefits. You’ll feel like superman.
- Easy to over-train
- When over-done, it will have reverse effects. Chronic HIIT training leads to bottomed out hormones and an over-stressed nervous system
- Athletes commonly take too little recovery time
- Injuries are often severe, as the body crashes hard once it can no longer maintain the high intensity training
Separated into two categories, weightlifting involves using full body movements under high loads to build strength, mobility, and prevent injury. Often highly misunderstood by the outsider, weightlifting is actually one of the most powerful and functional training modalities.
Weightlifting uses primarily the creatine-phosphate energy system. It focuses directly on your body’s mitochondrial efficiency. This is not why most people weightlift, though. Weightlifting is the best type of well-known training for pure strength gains, and the types of weightlifting done in sports display this well.
The two forms of weightlifting are Powerlifting, which involves displays of strength in the forms of squats and presses: Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Back Squat, Bench Press, Incline Bench Press, and Strict Press. Then there is Olympic-style weightlifting, which shows off technique and power.
These lifts include the Clean and Jerk, and the Olympic snatch, which both involve explosive power. The fastest recorded power outputs of all time are those performed in the Olympic snatch movement.
These exercises are similar to HIIT in that they have positive hormone benefits, but more than anything they test and strengthen the body’s ability to work as a complete system. Weightlifters often have surprisingly good mobility for this reason, and are often less prone to when participating in other activities.
However, weightlifting requires high levels of skill and technique, and without proper coaching, many people quite simply do it wrong and may in-turn hurt themselves. You also risk burnout, and the consequences can often occur during a lift, creating a dangerous scenario where you have to dump a bar which may way twice your body weight.
- Great for building pure strength and power
- Great for efficient bodies, mobility and ability to express strength through a range of motion is high
- Best training for the creatine-phosphate energy system, which is your immediately available energy
- Powerful hormone benefits
- High skill requirements. You can mess your body up if you don’t learn proper technique
- Dangerous if done without spotters or by doing reckless weight-loads
- Can lead to burnout, though not as intense as HIIT training
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