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Know the 8 Elements of a Perfect Workout

Perfect Workout

Story at-a-glance -

  • You can enhance the benefits your workout gives you by using a foam roller to improve your tissue quality and release trigger points prior to your workout
  • Dynamic stretching to warm up and multi-joint and multi-plane exercises for improved function and efficiency is another useful strategy
  • Paying attention to core exercises, alternating intensity and the proper cool down will round out your perfect workout

By Dr. Mercola

A 'perfect' workout is one that helps you enhance your performance and function, manage your weight, and tighten and tone your body. At the same time, it must be time efficient and it should work your body from multiple angles to promote muscle balance and injury prevention.

The 'perfect' workout for you will be different from someone else's, and your ideal workout will also change on a near-daily basis. That said, the most effective workouts do share some commonalities, which can be applied to virtually any exercise program to make it even more beneficial.

The 8 Elements of a Perfect Workout

Exercise physiologist Geralyn Coopersmith and Lisa Wheeler, senior national creative manager for group fitness at Equinox in New York City, shared the following eight principles, which they call the 'touchstones of proper training.'

1. Use a Foam Roller Before You Workout

Before you start your workout, use a foam roller, yoga ball or massage sticks to release trigger points, increase blood flow and improve tissue quality.

Many people wait to use a foam roller until they feel a tight spot in a muscle, then simply 'roll' it out. While this can be effective, it's a mistake to regard the foam roller as only an occasional fitness tool. You can actually use it daily (even if it's for just a few minutes) to help prevent trouble spots in your muscles from occurring.

Using a foam roller is actually similar to getting a massage (only less expensive!). As you roll on it, fibrous tissue is broken down and circulation is boosted, helping to relieve tension and pain.

When you perform various exercises with the roller it also helps to engage your muscles and build strength. Plus, because the foam roller is unstable, using it works your core muscles and helps improve balance.

Their effects can be quite significant, as one study found that using a foam roller on your hamstrings may lead to statistically significant increases in range of motion after just five to 10 seconds.1 Separate research also found that using a foam roller reduces arterial stiffness, which may indicate improved flexibility, and improves vascular endothelial function.2

Your foam roller doesn't actually have to be made of foam, either. My favorite is actually a padded plastic roller called the Trigger Point Performance Foam Roller. This one doesn't wear out over time and retains its shape to help you get the benefits.

My favorite is to combine the Trigger Point Foam Roller with the Power Plate. The vibration from the Power Plate provides a powerful synergy with the foam roller and I seek to do that twice a day when I have access to a Power Plate. This combination can radically increase your range of motion and flexibility.

2. Warm Up Correctly With Dynamic Stretching

Warming up prior to your workout is important, provided you do it correctly, and this means ditching static stretching in favor of dynamic stretching. Static stretching is when you hold your muscle in a fixed position for a prolonged period, such as 60 seconds or more. This technique has been conventionally regarded as the gold standard for decades.

However, now research shows that it actually decreases the blood flow within your tissue creating localized ischemia (a restriction in blood supply) and lactic acid buildup. This can potentially cause irritation or injury of local muscular, tendinous, lymphatic, and neural tissues.

In short, static stretching may damage your muscles and tendons, which may be why studies show it worsens muscle performance, particularly when the stretch is held for 60 seconds or more.3

While static stretching is now going by the wayside, dynamic stretching, an active type of stretching such as walking lunges, squats, butt kicks or arm circles, is coming in to take its place. Dynamic stretching has been shown to positively influence power, speed, agility, endurance, flexibility, and strength performance when used as a warm-up.4  It also helps by lubricating your joints, raising your core body temperature and getting your central nervous system prepared for your workout.

3. Get Your Core Ready

Your body has 29 core muscles, which are located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.  Prior to your workout, engaging in a few exercises to help activate your core can help to ensure proper posture and help protect your back during your workout. Try:

  • Planks
  • Quadrupeds
  • Bridges

4. Choose Multi-Joint Movements

Multi-joint movements work more than one joint at a time, which mimics the way your body functions in daily life (plus multi-joint movements are more time efficient). Multi-joint movements can be done for both upper and lower body workouts. As Fox News reported:5

" … for example, dumbbell rows work shoulders as well as elbows while bicep curls work elbows only."

5. Move in Three Dimensions

Seek to incorporate all three directions when you work out, frontwards and backwards, side to side and rotational. When you exercise in multiple planes, it allows you to target muscles from multiple angles so that you don't develop imbalances, which can promote injury. This is the way your body is designed to move and it's also a way to add efficiency to your workout. Exercises that work multiple planes include squats, lunges and side lunges, lateral shoulder raises and movements like a baseball swing. Your body is divided into three primary planes:

  • Transverse plane: divides your body into top and bottom parts
  • Frontal plane: divides your body into front and backsides
  • Sagittal plane: divides your body into right and left sides

6. Pull More Than Push

When you exercise, focus on doing a 2:1 ratio of pull to push, which may help to improve posture, reduce injuries and add balance to your body. This is because most of us need extra strengthening to our back and more stretch to our front.

7. Alternate Heavy, Medium and Light

Alternating the intensity of your workout is important for training different muscles and optimizing your muscular fitness. One day try heavier exercises involving fewer reps (8 or less). The next day, try moderate-weight exercises with 8-12 reps and another day try lightweight exercises with higher reps (12-20).

8. Cool Down Correctly

If you want to do static stretches, the end of your workout is the most appropriate time, as this is when your muscles are warmed up and ready for more sustained stretches. However, while cooling down after exercise has long been promoted as a necessary step to help prevent muscle soreness and improve recovery, research suggests it actually does little to reduce muscle pain or improve recovery.6

While it appears unlikely that cooling down has any real benefit in your post-workout recovery, muscle pain or next-day performance, it may help prevent the buildup of blood in your veins, which can lead to dizziness or fainting.  The cool down also brings fresh blood into areas to help with lactic acid removal, while bringing your heart rate down to resting pulse quicker. A proper cool down also helps lower a raised heart rate down to resting heart rate safely.

Further, it may also help you to simply unwind after an intense workout, easing the transition back to your normal level of activity. Personally I only cool down for three minutes after doing a high-intensity workout. If you are pushing your body to extremes it makes sense to do a cool down, especially if you are close to or exceeding your maximum calculated heart rate (220 minus your age).

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More Tricks for Getting the Most Out of Your Workout

If you're spending the time and energy to exercise, you want to be sure you're using it wisely. Here are even more helpful tips to get the most out of your time spent exercising:7

  • Use a stopwatch. This is particularly useful for when you're doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises as discussed below. Resting too long between sets will lessen the overall intensity of your workout. While you can use your phone or watch, it is easier to use a wall clock that displays seconds.
  • Take notes to track your progress. It helps to continually increase your workout load in order to keep improving. So note the weights, reps, and intensity of each exercise, and kick it up a notch as soon as each exercise becomes easy to perform.
  • Choose the right music for your workout. Research has shown that music can significantly boost your exertion level during a workout. While your body may be simply responding to the beat on a more or less subconscious level, the type and tempo of the music you choose may also influence your conscious motivation. Together, the synchronization of moving to the beat along with being motivated by the music itself allows it to do its magic.
  • Allow your body to recover. While most people suffer from lack of exercise, once you get going, it can be addictive and some people do end up exercising too much — either by exercising too intensely, and/or too frequently. A really important part of creating optimal fitness is recovery. An equation to keep in mind is that as intensity increases, frequency can be diminished.
  • Tailor your diet to your exercise regimen. Research has shown that eating easily digestible carbohydrates before exercise may enable you to work out longer. However, there's also plenty of research that strongly supports skipping eating before exercise … especially if you're interested in maximizing your fat-burning potential and longevity.
  • When you exercise while fasting, it essentially forces your body to shed fat, as your body's fat-burning processes are controlled by your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and your SNS is activated by exercise and lack of food. The combination of fasting and exercising maximizes the impact of cellular factors and catalysts (cyclic AMP and AMP Kinases), which force the breakdown of fat and glycogen for energy. One study8 found that fasting before aerobic training leads to reductions in both body weight and body fat, while eating before a workout decreases only body weight.

    If you are not insulin/leptin resistant (ideal body weight, no diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol) then it is fine to have fruit before or after a workout. If you have any of these conditions seek to exercise while fasting to improve the benefits of the workout. Also using a high-quality whey protein is particularly useful after strength training.

Aim for a Well-Rounded Fitness Program

Ideally, to truly optimize your health, you'll want to strive for a varied and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates a wide variety of exercises. Remember, without variety, your body will quickly adapt. As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, you need to increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body. I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program to reach your greatest fitness potential:

1. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

High intensity interval training (HIIT), which is a core component of my Peak Fitness program, is key for reaping optimal results from exercise. There are many versions of HIIT, but the core premise involves maximum exertion followed by a quick rest period for a set of intervals.

My Peak Fitness routine uses a set of eight 30-second sprints, each followed by 90 seconds of recovery done after a proper warm up as discussed above and followed by a cool down period. Phil Campbell, who is a pioneer in this field, trained me in this technique. Also, while I typically recommend using an elliptical machine or recumbent bike, it can be performed with virtually any type of exercise; with or without equipment.

Ideally, you'll want to perform these exercises two or three times a week for a total of four minutes of intense exertion, especially if you are not doing strength training. You do not need to do them more often than that however. In fact, doing it more frequently than two or three times a week can be counterproductive, as your body needs to recover between sessions. If you want to do more, focus on making sure you're really pushing yourself as hard as you can during those two or three weekly sessions, rather than increasing the frequency.

The video below is a few years old now but you can get an idea of the intensity used. I have modified my application to only doing it twice a week. However, the intensity is identical. The other change is that I now breathe through my nose. I discuss more of the benefits of Buteyko breathing in a recent article.

2. Strength Training

Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff. The following video offers a demonstration of his techniques:

Total Video Length: 03:58:00

3. Core Exercises

Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman, is an integral first step of a larger program he calls "Modern Moveology," which consists of a catalog of exercises. Postural exercises such as those taught in Foundation Training are critical not just for properly supporting your frame during daily activities, they also retrain your body so you can safely perform high-intensity exercises without risking injury.  Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.

4. Stretching

As mentioned, my favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.

5. Avoid Sitting For Prolonged Periods (Non-Exercise Activity)

Last but not least, emerging evidence clearly shows that even highly fit people who exceed the expert exercise recommendations are headed for premature death if they sit for long periods of time. My interview with NASA scientist Dr. Joan Vernikos goes into great detail why this is so and what you can do about it.

Personally, I usually set a timer to do a wide variety of three to ten different three-dimensional stretches every 15 minutes while I am sitting for long periods. The key is that you need to be moving all day long, even in non-exercise activities.  I hope to have videos of these movements later this year so you can do them during your sitting periods. But currently I am still experimenting with what seems to work best.