What kind of workout should you do?

There’s a passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland1Some light pedantry: Alice In Wonderland is a Disney film. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the first book in the two part Alice book series by Lewis Carroll; the second is Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. that I adore. It’s a little exchange between Alice and The Cheshire Cat, and while it’s a silly moment in its original context, it also works surprisingly well as a more-fun version of Coleman’s rant about defining your terms.

It goes like this:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
–Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The reason I’m sharing it today is that it works particularly well for a question that seems to show up in my inbox on a weekly basis:

What kind of workout should I do?

That depends a good deal on where you want to get to

This question is almost impossible to answer without more information. What are your goals? What are you trying to get out of the workout? What is your previous experience? Do you have any injuries or other short- or long-term limitations on what you can do physically? What do you enjoy doing?2Surprise: if you like doing something, you’re much more likely to actually do it — meaning you’re much more likely to get the results you seek. Just like the best diet is the one that you’ll actually follow, the best workout is the one you’ll actually do.

Today we’re going to focus on those first two questions: what are your goals, and what are you trying to get out of the workout? We’ve already talked extensively about the myriad benefits of exercise that have nothing to do with aesthetics, but that article simply lists all the benefits; it doesn’t sort them by goal. So we’re going to do that.

I want to lose weight/gain weight/manage my weight

Like Coleman mentioned last week, 99% percent of people who talk about wanting to lose weight actually want to lose body fat; most of the people who want to gain weight want to gain muscle. We’ll be working from those assumptions.

But before I say anything about exercise, I need to point something out: to see actual results on the weight loss/weight management/weight gain front, you’ll need to combine any exercise plan with some kind of modification to the way you eat. With the exception of gaining muscle, where some exercise is required, diet-only strategies are more effective than exercise-only strategies, but both do significantly worse than combined strategies.

To put a finer point on it, trying to meaningfully change the calories-in-calories-out equation (which, yes, is not the whole story when it comes to nutrition, but it’s certainly the most important part of it) through exercise alone is at best inefficient and inaccurate. That is, we’re not actually trying to “burn calories” when we exercise for weight management (or at least, we shouldn’t be).

What exercise does help you do, completely separate from calorie math, is achieve is better nutrient partitioning.

Nutrient partitioning is a fancy name for a simple concept: when you eat food, your body can use almost none of it as-is, and has to break down and send basically everything, at least for a short amount of time, into your tissues to be converted into forms that can be directly used. When your body is doing this storage work, it makes ‘choices’ based on your hormones as to where to put the food energy and what to use it for, shuttling a small amount directly into energy production (mitochondria), as much as is ‘necessary’ (again, determined by your hormones) into muscle repair, maintenance, and growth, and the rest into medium-to-long-term storage in the form of adipose (fat) tissue. Similarly, when your body needs additional energy that it’s not getting from food, it has to choose whether to break down fat or muscle to get that energy.3This a slightly reductive version of what really happens, but it’s good enough for the point I’m trying to make here.

It’ll always choose some of each, but the ratio at which it adds or draws from fat and muscle can be manipulated with exercise.4What you eat (and when) also impacts nutrient partitioning, as do a number of genetic factors and probably some other stuff too, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

So then, the real question becomes “what is best exercise to improve nutrient partitioning?” The answer is strength training — be that via bodyweight exercises, weights, or some other method. When we do strength workouts, our bodies kick off a whole chain of biological and hormonal processes that encourage the body to send more resources towards muscle growth and/or preservation and less to storage. Some key changes include an increase in testosterone, a decrease in cortisol, and an increase in insulin sensitivity (which is useful when trying to gain muscle but not particularly useful when trying to lose fat).

Cardio, on the other hand, doesn’t have much effect on nutrient partitioning beyond producing small increase in insulin sensitivity — but even then, strength training is better for that too. That’s not to say it’s not beneficial — cardiovascular exercise is excellent for improving cardiovascular health, and makes you much less likely to suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, and other metabolic diseases.

I want to get “lean”, or “toned”, or “ripped”

Please see the above. All of these words are marketing words that describe a look with low body fat and some amount of muscle; gaining muscle and losing fat is the way to achieve that look, and some combination of strength training and appropriate eating are the best way to do it.

If you fear “getting bulky” like one of those massive gym bros, know that they spent years of dedicated effort (in a caloric surplus) to look like that — it’s not likely to happen overnight. And if you’re a woman, you don’t have enough testosterone to ever get that muscle-y anyway.

I’d like to get rid of my aches and pains

Up to now we’ve mostly talked about the relative benefits of strength training and cardiovascular training, but most fitness literature actually defines four distinct kinds of exercise: strength, cardio, flexibility, and balance. Many workouts incorporate each of these modalities to various degrees (certain kinds of yoga probably hit the most at once), but for aches and pains, it’s important to focus on flexibility and balance training.

Most business travelers’ aches and pains come from spending too many hours crammed into airplane seats and borrowed desks, which leads to all manner of musculoskeletal issues. The solution? Flexibility-based training. I personally prefer some combination of yoga, passive stretching, and the kind of tool-assisted mobility that Kelly Starrett teaches, but there are many ways to skin that cat.

If your aches and pains come not (or not just) from musculoskeletal issues but also from falling down and running into things, doing some balance-based workouts (again, like yoga) might also be wise.

I’m just looking for stress relief & fun

Do whatever you want. Seriously.

Physical activity for recreation and enjoyment should be treated as a totally separate thing from exercise for results, and if you only have time to do one, I’m of the opinion that you should do the thing that makes you happy, not the thing that’s ‘optimal’.

If it’s not, then you run the risk of fun physical activity turning into a chore and subsequently getting ignored. If you love running, run; if you love basketball, go find a pickup game. Don’t think about it too much, just do it.

I only care about general longevity and quality of life

There are certainly a non-zero amount of people who are just interested in exercise because it can help you live longer and have a better quality of life in those extended years.

I’ve already written pretty extensively about how much you should exercise if you just care about longevity and quality of life, but as a quick recap: you want to do about an hour and a half of moderate-intensity cardio (think jogging) and two sessions of strength training per week. It wouldn’t hurt to do a little stretching and mobility work too.

You should probably find a way to do strength training on the road

You may notice a theme that runs throughout all of the goals in the previous section. Unless your only goal is stress relief, and you actually enjoy cardiovascular training5Back when we were coaching, our intake form had the question “Are there any exercises you hate doing?”. Most common answer: running., then you’re going to want to do at least some strength training.

The best way to do strength training on the road is an extensive topic for another day, but quickly: find hotel near a gym if you can, see if your company or client will pay for the gym, and then do normal barbell-based strength training; if that doesn’t work or you aren’t ready to hit the iron for any reason, band-and-bodyweight based workouts in your room or in a hotel gym can get you virtually all of the same benefits — Reddit’s r/bodyweightfitness is a surprisingly good resource for learning how to do that — they have two very well-considered beginner programs in their FAQ, which you can find here and here.

You’re bound to get somewhere

After all that, I think it’s important to remind you of the second part of the Alice quote:

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

If you’re unsure what kind of health or fitness goals you want to pursue, don’t worry about it too much. Perhaps this isn’t true in Wonderland, but in the fitness world, any of the places that various kinds of training and workouts will take you to are better than being wherever non-exercising people are. Doing something is decidedly better than nothing.

So if you’re not sure what you want, just pick something that you think might be fun, or interesting, or enjoyable, start doing it, and stick with it long enough to see results.6This depends on what you pick, but six weeks is a decent benchmark. You’re bound to get somewhere.

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