I have previously discussed the importance of exercising with proper technique, but even if you have great form, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a good workout routine. Technique is certainly an important element, but the design of your exercise program is equally important. Program design includes things like how much weight you use, the number of reps, how long you rest between sets, etc. There are many important elements in program design, but the one I will focus on today is choosing the actual exercises you perform.
Selecting the right exercises is critical if you want to design a training program for a specific purpose, such as improving performance in a sport. For example, soccer players should focus on exercises to improve their leg, core, and neck muscles and not design a training program made up of only arm exercises. This example is common sense, but many people end up performing workouts or designing training programs without really thinking about why they are including each exercise in their program.
Each sport or activity has different physical requirements and fortunately more and more schools and athletic teams are hiring people trained to design appropriate exercise programs for the individuals participating in those activities. However, a large segment of the population exercises for general health and fitness or to improve their quality of life and these people rarely receive advice about how to design appropriate training programs. As a result, people often end up creating routines without really understanding how different exercises and workouts affect their body.
There is a common belief that as long as you are doing some type of exercise, you will be improving your body. While this belief is somewhat true, things are definitely not that simple. Doing any type of activity will increase your heart rate, burn calories, and give you some cardiovascular benefits, assuming the activity is sufficiently challenging, but most physical benefits vary significantly between different types of workouts.
When people say things like “any type of exercise will do the job,” they are usually just referring to exercise as a way to burn extra calories and ultimately burn fat. These types of statements do not take into consideration the specific changes that occur to your body as a result of your workouts. Since most people are primarily concerned with losing fat or losing weight, statements about calorie burning are what they are primarily interested in. Unfortunately, it is all the other effects from your workouts that will really determine how your body feels and functions over the long run.
In terms of program design, the exercises you choose to perform during your workouts will essentially determine which muscles will improve. Since many people’s workouts are designed only to make them look better, they tend to focus on exercising the muscles that are most visible. Muscles such as the pecs (chest), biceps (arms), and abs are some of the most popular muscles to exercise, especially among men, because they stand out the most. Some people even refer to these types of muscles as “mirror muscles,” because they are the muscles people look at most when they look in a mirror.
This focus on the way muscles look tends to influence the way people design their workouts as well, with many people’s programs emphasizing exercises for these mirror muscles. On the flip side, muscles that are not typically visible are often worked to a lesser degree or even completely ignored in many training programs. The big problem is this approach to training leads to significant muscle imbalances that can cause major problems years down the road.
For example, one of the most popular exercises is the bench press, which focuses on the pecs, front shoulder, and tricep muscles. People often perform many sets of bench presses and other pec exercises, yet they may perform few if any exercises for their back muscles. Your back muscles are the opposing muscle group to the pecs and it is important to maintain a proportional amount of strength between opposing muscle groups. Otherwise, the stronger muscles can put too much stress on the opposing muscles and pain, injury, or physical disability can result.
In this scenario, if your chest and front shoulder muscles become too strong for your back muscles, your back muscles will become overworked and your posture will change. Specifically, your shoulders will start rounding forward and you may start hunching over as well. If this problem is not corrected, the amount of postural change will increase over time and it often becomes so bad that people can no longer stand completely straight anymore. This is often seen in elderly individuals, but in most cases it is not a normal part of aging, but rather the end result of years of muscle imbalances and postural problems.
These types of muscle and posture problems can occur in any part of your body and it is always important maintain a relative strength balance between opposing muscles and ideally between all muscles throughout your body. Other common sets of opposing muscles include the quads/hamstrings, biceps/triceps, and abs/low back, although there are certainly others. To keep things simple, just know that if you are training for general health and fitness, you should avoid focusing on one area of your body and you should never ignore training any major muscle groups.
Focusing too much on one muscle group or one area will always result in problems down the road, although it can take a very long time for these problems to develop, sometimes even decades. There are dozens of inexpensive and effective pieces of exercise equipment you can use and hundreds of exercises that can be performed, yet so many people still get stuck working the same muscles and performing the same exercises over and over.
If you want to create a good overall workout and improve the way your body looks, functions, and feels, then your program needs to include a mix of exercises to work all the major areas in your body. It may be tempting to always perform your favorite exercises or spend the majority of your time working the muscles you enjoy training most, but this will almost certainly lead to problems later in life. Do your body a favor and perform workouts that have a good mix of exercises and work your whole body without overemphasizing specific areas or muscle groups.