2013-04-08

Adventures In Body-Building

Not long ago, I blogged about what I call Incremental Fitness, or the process of adding small but progressive changes to your fitness plan over an extended period of time in order to achieve better fitness goals. As I put it then, my goal was to take on a training regimen that emphasized muscle strength over endurance training, the exact opposite of my general fitness tendency. Last week I wrapped up the first phase of my year-long fitness goal, and today I am about to begin the second phase. At this point, I would like to pause for a moment and discuss the plan I have been following for the past 10 weeks or so.

Jim Stoppani's "Shortcut to Size"
The plan I decided to undertake was Jim Stoppani's "Shortcut to Size" program, available (for free, no less) at Bodybuilding.com. I selected this program because it struck me as being well-balanced, comprehensive, and intelligent. Truth be told, when you scour the internet for weight lifting plans, you come across a lot of crap. There are a lot of poorly designed one-sample-week plans out there that may make sense for absolute beginners, but which fall a little flat for those who are more experienced with exercise and fitness. The "Shortcut to Size" offers a full twelve weeks of workouts, separated into three, month-long "phases" that are further divided into weeks. A program that offers this much planned variety seems to have a lot going for it.

So how did it go?

Well, first let's consider the positive. Over the course of the past ten weeks, I have experienced major gains both in muscle tone and strength. Nearly everyone I know has noticed the changes in my body build, and that's saying something, considering that I am not someone who receives those kinds of comments ordinarily. If we compare the weight I was using to perform the exercises at the beginning to the weight I finished with, my muscle strength increased a full fifty percent (!). This fact alone is somewhat staggering, and I suspect that my strength gains are somewhat of an outlier. That said, a friend of mine who took on Stoppani's other program at Bodybuilding.com reported similar strength gains, so I believe that this program and others like it offer a great deal to all those who want to build more muscle strength. Finally, my blood glucose control improved dramatically and stayed consistent, for the most part, over the full course of the program.

But it wasn't all good. Perhaps the most significant "problem" (I use that word loosely, however) is that I didn't actually gain any weight. I was surprised by the gains in strength I made, but stunned that this didn't translate into gains of pure muscle mass. I would have liked to have gained more, although I must concede that I did not follow the dietary recommendations (owing to my own unique dietary needs as a diabetic), nor the supplement regimen (owing to my belief that supplementation beyond a daily multivitamin is probably a bad idea for most people). Furthermore, while the "Shortcut to Size" seems to offer a good variety at first glance, in reality the regimen is highly repetitive. I was bored of it after just six weeks. The third and fourth week of every month were low rep/high weight weeks, which I found difficult to perform but not at all challenging from a fitness standpoint. After giving my all to three or four sets of low-rep motions, my body quickly recovered as though I had done no exercise at all. During these weeks, my interest in the program waned considerably, and my blood sugar levels rose predictably. I also found the program extremely weak on abs.

All things considered, I would rate the program as "just okay." For someone who needs an introduction to self-directed weight lifting, this is probably a good fit. For someone seeking to make major gains in size and strength, I would recommend getting a personal trainer, despite the expense. For someone like myself, who merely wanted to increase muscle mass and tone as the first phase of a comprehensive, year-long fitness plan, this was a decent - though not amazing - fit for my objectives.

Ten weeks into the twelve-week program, staring into those final two unpleasant weeks of low repetitions, it's time for me to seek another program, one more appropriate to my body type and fitness interests. That means: more plyometrics, more endurance.

Phase Two, And Choosing The Right Fitness Regimen
Let's be clear: the "Shortcut to Size" was not a failure for me. The pros definitely outweighed the cons. The only reason I'm moving on early is because I feel that I have extracted as much benefit from that particular program as I can. I do not stand to gain much from the final two weeks, and I am anxious to get started on a new plan. So, my experience with the workouts available at Bodybuilding.com is certainly positive, and it was my first choice when thinking about what I wanted to accomplish next.

Over the past three months, I have definitely missed how it feels to be a strong endurance athlete. While increased muscle strength comes with a long list of benefits, I simply feel as though I am at my best when my endurance level is high. So, my first objective in phase two is to increase my cardiovascular activity level.

Having written extensively about the benefits of plyometric exercise (see for example here, here, or here), I already know that I want my next phase to rely heavily on plyometrics. I cannot stress this enough: if you want to take your overall fitness to the next level, plyometric exercises are the only way to go. A couple of weeks of such training will suffice to make you start feeling like a new person, and dedicated, consistent plyometric exercise will turn you into a superman or superwoman. Guaranteed.

As a third goal, I do not want to lose the muscle strength, tone, and whatever additional muscle size I've gained thus far. Whereas in previous years, I may have simply reverted to a classic endurance athlete training regimen with thrice-per-week plyometric training mixed in, this year I would like to stay consistent in my resistance training so as not to lose out on the benefits conferred to my blood-glucose control and physical appearance.

All of the above considered, I have selected something at Bodybuilding.com called "The 365 Circuit Trainer." This week-long sample regimen, designed by martial artist Julien Greaux, seems to offer everything I'm looking for: plyometric training, upper body training, heavy abdominal/core training, and plenty of "off" days, during which I can pursue a greater endurance base.

Like every training program I ever take on, I intend to make subtle modifications to the prescribed exercises, tailored to my own specific needs. Because this plan only shows a week's worth of training, I will have to rely on my own good sense to increase the weights I lift and choose alternatives for some of the exercises as time goes on. (Examples might be using cable machines as opposed to free weights or swapping out an incline bench for a dumbbell incline press.)

All said, I'm confident in the new direction I'm headed, and I'm excited to get going.

A Final Word On Changing Fitness Programs
There is one last thing I should discuss here. Faithful Stationary Waves readers know about the Myth of the Perpetual Beginner, and know how important it is to rise above the world of "always beginning something new."

One of the real health risks associated with taking on a new fitness program is this: If you've very recently completed a new fitness regimen (as I have), then immediately moving to a new regimen may put you at risk of over-training. At best, over-training will make your whole body feel fatigued, which will prevent you from extracting the benefits of your daily workouts. At worst, over-training can injure your muscles and ligaments. Obviously, any period of time you have to "sit out" due to injury is a period of time when you are not benefiting from regular exercise. Recovering from injuries can take anywhere from two weeks to two years, and perhaps even longer than that.

Hence, it's important to rest and recover between fitness regimens. One week of rest and light training can save you many weeks of injury recovery time. I spent all last week training lightly in anticipation of this week's new plan. If you've recently completed one workout regimen and want to begin another, I recommend you also take a week or two off to let your body recover and gear-up for the next set of demands you make of it.