Whether starting an exercise routine, returning to one or looking for a progression beyond what has been a regular routine, a rundown of the basics as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (acsm.org) can help with each of these needs.
It should be noted that any and all increases related to exercise should be gradual. This applies to increasing the time of a workout, difficulty/intensity, weight increases for lifting or any other adaptations that make an exercise or routine harder. While this may sound like common sense, without understanding what the basics or baseline starting points are, it may be difficult to understand where you are and how to keep progression a part of your workouts.
Let’s start with cardiovascular/respiratory work as this is the first exercise type most identify with. The minimum duration for a physical effect according to ACSM is ~twenty to thirty minutes; however, a major point of distinction is that one can only complete what one is capable of and work up from there. Meaning, if you can only sustain a bout of 10 minutes of continuous cardio, then that is your starting point from which you will gradually build. Another point to emphasize based on recent studies and a position stand by ACSM is that cardio benefit can be achieved by breaking up the total “load” of cardio time into shorter bouts. Meaning one can appreciate an accumulated demand on the body of thirty-minutes if broken up into three ten-minute bouts even at different times of day.
This is excellent news for those challenged by busy work schedules or the need to spend most of the day seated. Quick breaks for activity, even slow paced walking, can produce benefits to the body and can be a way of achieving the cumulative minimum while gradually increasing the duration of the shorter bouts. The general preference however is still sustained bouts of cardio work at twenty or more minutes if/when possible or worked up to. The maximum duration of cardio will depend entirely on the individual, keeping in mind that an average bout beyond the twenty-minute mark is between forty-five minutes to an hour. If hydration and caloric needs are met and an individual has developed the gradual increases to endurance over time, longer bouts or events trained for that take much longer are achievable as exemplified by those pursuing marathons and triathlons.
For strength training ACSM recommends a minimum bout of ~twenty-five minutes for physical benefit even for beginners. This duration may be increased as the beginner gradually develops more strength and endurance—usually during the course of the first 6 to 8 weeks of a program. Once progressed to intermediate or advanced, exercisers might strength train in a variety of methods that may involve longer or shorter bouts and higher or lower intensities depending on the activities but still achieving the recommended twenty-five minute minimum. The basic needs of strength training for a beginner or de-conditioned person are often easily met by completing a machine-based circuit. However it should be noted that this has limitation to progress over time as the body is relying on equipment to provide stability and alignment positioning vs. providing it for one’s self with free weights. Therefore at some point, usually around the sixteen to eighteen week mark of a program, some free weights should be worked into the routine. It should also be noted that if simple maintenance of general strength and mobility is the goal—such as for a senior with some loss of bone density—a machine-based circuit can satisfy this need. For individuals desiring progress, continuing only a machine-based circuit can result in stagnancy and boredom and may lead to a loss of motivation. Thus employing more than one method of strength training that includes machines and free weights either on alternate days or in combination during a workout can help keep progression and avoid boredom and plateaus.
As always, consulting with fitness professionals such as a Personal Trainer or taking a group class with an instructor providing guidance can be great ways to learn more, explore progressions and find ways to tailor your workouts to your individual desires, goals and needs. Personal Trainers in particular can be the best way to focus entirely on you the individual as trainers can design programs that incorporate periods of progression up to a year or more with your personal abilities in mind.
As strength training can be done in so many ways, it can be very confusing for a beginner or someone looking to make the step beyond their starting point. Advanced exercisers may be equally confounded by the variety of options. One primary difference in approaches to strength training important to note is total body in one workout vs. a split routine. Split routines serve the purpose of breaking down the body into parts or muscle groups to be focused on for longer and greater intensity during one workout with different muscles/groups worked on successive days during that week. While the total body approach employs a minimum of 2 days per week (not on successive days) up to 3 days per week to allow for recovery in between. Note: longer cardio is typically done on the days between total body routines. The split routine may be broken down to upper body one day and lower on another for a 2 day split up to typically a max of a 6 day split with combined muscle groups that have relationships to each other in their functioning trained on the same or opposing days depending on the desired results. Again, fitness professionals—trainers in particular—can provide the educative background and guidance on understanding the variety of options with specific reference to you. Please note that although not expanded on in this writing, flexibility and rest are also important components of exercise that help the body recover, maintain full range of motion and be ready for the next workout to come.
In general, periods of progression with cardio and strength can take the timeframe of ~6 to 8 weeks with micro increases in duration, resistance/weight and intensity occurring along the way gradually. There are many other factors at play in how our bodies respond to and change with the demands of exercise, but there are also the basics to which we can return when considering what’s next or when looking for ways to keep learning, developing strength, endurance and capabilities which all translate to a stronger, healthier you.