What the Science Actually Says About Exercise
In this post, I disputed the so-called “scientific” exercise program of Little and McGuff. So I figured it was probably worth describing the exercise program that I do believe the science supports. The following recommendations hold for the “average” person who simply wants to be in decent shape for every day life.
The key scientific findings are:
– For strength training, one set is enough. The standard regimen at most gyms is to instruct people to do three sets of each exercise. Sets two and three are a waste of time for the average person. Much better to either save your time or do a greater variety of exercises. See here. (For highly trained individuals, you do need to use a multi-set periodized regimen to achieve additional gains.)
– For strength training, once per week is enough. The standard regimen at most gyms is to instruct people to do a complete weightlifting routine three times a week. However, training once per week gets you about 75% of the benefit of training three times per week. 3x the effort for 33% more gain seems like a poor payoff. See here. (For highly trained individuals, your workouts may be so intense that once per week is actually optimal.)
– For cardiovascular training, high intensity intervals produce the best results in the least time. Long distance cardio is beneficial, but you’ll actually improve your performance about as well with intervals in much less time. See here. (For highly trained individuals in long distance disciplines, you must also do distance of course.)
– For cardiovascular training, running has the most cross training benefit. If you want general fitness, running is therefore the best exercise. See here. (For sports participants, sports specific drills are of course the best conditioning.)
– Stretching is not a very beneficial activity. Contrary to popular belief, it does not reduce the incidence of injuries. The evidence here is really strong. Moreover, stretching before strength training or sports actually dramatically decrease your maximum power, potentially increasing the potential for an injury. The only thing it does is increase your range of motion, which does not even indirectly prevent injury though it may improve the performance of activities that require more flexibility. See here.
– To maintain a healthy weight, you need to burn calories.
Thus, here is my recommended program:
– Do 2, 1/2 hour strength training sessions per week, one for upper body and one for lower body. The issue is that most people can’t maintain intensity for more than 1/2 hour. So splitting strength training into upper and lower body enables you to intensely train the entire body.
– Do 2, 1/2 hour interval training sessions per week, one of which is running on a track or treadmill. The pattern here should be 30-60 seconds of maximum output followed by 2-4 minutes of rest. Repeat 4-7 times. The key here is that you should be completely wiped at the end. Increase the interval intensity and time as well as the number of intervals to achieve exhaustion.
– Walk 2 miles every day. If you weigh 150lbs, this will burn the same amount of energy in a year as is contained in 20lbs of fat. At 225lbs, it’s 30lbs fat equivalent. I also find this is a great stress reliever when done at the end of the day. It’s a great time to make calls to friends and family to catch up too.
That’s it. Not a huge commitment. But the gains for the average person would be substantial.