A few conversations last week have led back to the hierarchy of exercise. I spoke to a couple of women who were doing more than four 10km runs a week and a guy who has been very inconsistent with exercise who is thinking about buying some home exercise equipment. The best way to advise such people depends on what stage within the exercise hierarchy they are.

Stage 1 – Consistency (Volume )- The base stage of exercise is all about consistency and therefore volume. Most people make the mistake of thinking exercise is about a secret training plan or working hard yet the truth to exercise is consistency. People look on instagram to see some fancy workout or an athlete killing their exercise plan yet miss the base of their athletic foundation. Underneath the spectacular is that they just don’t miss a session. The rubbish average sessions rarely get posted on social media but they get done.

The key to raising volume in your exercise plan is simply doing exercise a few times a week. To ensure this happens do not worry about following any overly specific plans, avoid setting a minimum time or effort level for any specific session. This increases your chances of being able to put the regular sessions in. To really lock this ability into your behaviour patterns you should train yourself to exercise at different times of the day, different modes of exercise and locations. This would cover possible future reasons why you could be knocked off track.

Stage 2 – Effort (Intensity) – Once you are being consistent the next thing to worry about is putting in the effort and raising intensity. Almost everyone starts at this level and as a result never form their base of consistency because they start missing sessions. With a solid consistent base you will relish a focus on intensity as you look to train harder in your sessions or perhaps make the sessions longer. The result of one or both of these is an increase in fitness abilities.

Stage 3 – Intelligence (Specificity) – When you are training consistency and putting in a good effort the next stage is to start applying the fundamentals of sport science. You need to train smarter not harder using methods that athletes use. Central to this is charting progress with some form of fitness data to be able to evaluate your progress on the  plan.

Athletes use different techniques, methods and training sessions. Their plans use different sessions during a week and the plans vary from month to month.  The use of fitness data shows us how the body responds to the plan and therefore how to change it going forwards. The higher level you reach with your body the more sophisticated the training plans must become. Sports Science is a whole field and discipline that really started in the 1950’s with the creation of Periodization by the Russian sport scientists. The key is finding the appropriate level for you.

The Right Level For You – Your current levels dictate how you should be approaching this. If you are not consistent with your fitness sessions then priority one is becoming regular with your sessions. Then it is about increasing the effort within these regular sessions. This can take a little time because often as the intensity increase your consistency decreases. So you must take it slowly enough to raise the level of effort within sessions without missing your workouts.

At this stage you need to start employing more advanced training methods. When you set a fitness plan appropriate to your level you will see a big jump in fitness and also your enjoyment of it.

Fitness Vs Body Shape – Where this priority can run into a little confusion is the application of fitness programmes for changing your body verses getting fitter. In general to become a fitter athlete you will use shorter, harder sessions. If focusing on changing body shape you often will do longer or more frequent workouts to increase energy burn. I have had a few people over the years come to me to get fitter but were really resistant about dropping low quality workouts they were doing which were not aiding fitness. On delving deeper they wanted to keep these sessions to try and lose weight.

The solution is fairly easily achieved, if wanting to do more exercise to aid body changes then simply adjust your food intake to account for any decreases in exercise volume. If wanting to exercise daily for mental, emotional or health reasons then simply use a variety of different training sessions.

Fitness Interference – Another issue that sometimes needs to be programmed for as you reach higher levels of fitness is the interference of different training methods. For example, optimal muscle building is around 4-5 sessions per week and optimal marathon running around 3-4 sessions. To do both at the same time will most likely interfere with each other. However, a way can usually be found to balance different needs. Professional Rugby players are the perfect example of people with high aerobic fitness levels and also high muscle mass. However, you will need to use specific training plans to achieve this.

Photo – The Stage of Exercise Hierarchy

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