It’s hard to know which workout program is best for you. There are an endless number of voices and new fad programs claiming to giving you everything you’re looking for. So we’ve read through hundreds of studies to give you a scientific workout program.
Engaging in regular exercise has been shown to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and improve self-esteem, mood and cognitive function. Here’s the science on how to structure a cardio program:
- Low intensity: Prolonged time spend sitting has been associated with increased mortality risks, independent of exercise levels. Taking short low-intensity activity breaks from sitting has been show to counteract many of these negative outcomes. One study had participants sit down for either 7 hours straight or stand up and take a 2 minute walking break every 20 minutes. Those who broke up the sitting time had reversed the negative effects of sitting. Additionally, low intensity exercise has been found to produce the most positive effects on mood. Low intensity activities include standing, walking slowly, and doing most household chores. The more low intensity exercise you get the better.
- Moderate intensity: All of the health benefits of exercise listed above can be attained through 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week (except colon cancer, breast cancer, and substantial weight loss). With 300+ minutes a week you gain the added colon cancer, breast cancer and increased likelihood of weight loss benefits. Moderate intensity activities include walking fast, doubles tennis, and biking slowly. The more moderate intensity exercise you get the better.
- Vigorous intensity: As a general rule, an individual needs 1 minute of vigorous intensity exercise to gain the same health benefits of 2 minute of moderate intensity exercise. Vigorous activity has been shown to improve aerobic fitness better than moderate intensity activity as measured by VO2max. Vigorous activity also appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, body fat and all-cause mortality to a greater degree than moderate activity, after controlling for total energy expended. Vigorous activities include jogging, swimming, singles tennis and biking fast. Unlike light and moderate exercise, you can get too much vigorous exercise though. The benefits of vigorous exercise flattens out at roughly 50 minutes a day. More recent research shows that people who run 25 miles a week or more, actually are barely better off than those who don’t run at all. The best outcomes came to those who ran 10 to 15 miles a week.Furthermore, researchers found that running 2 -5 days a week at about a 8:30 minute/ mile pace is ideal. So too much vigorous exercise can actually be counterproductive.
- Putting it together: Engage in vigorous exercise 2-5 days a week. Get as much light and moderate activity a day as is reasonable (read more).
Strength training offers the additional benefits of muscular strength, endurance, and mass. It assists in the maintenance of basal metabolic rate and lean body mass (to aid weight loss). Strength training also promotes independence and helps prevent falls in the elderly. Here’s the science on how to structure a strength training program:
- Progressive overload: The most important concept in strength training is progressive overload. It states that more stress needs to progressively be placed on muscles for them to continue to adapt. This is often accomplished by adding weight to each exercise as you get stronger.
- Amount of weight: One meta analysis found that untrained participants (lifting for less than a year) should lift an average of 60% of their 1 RM, or roughly 12 repetitions per set. Trained participants (lifting for more than a year) should lift an average of 80% of their 1 RM, or roughly 8 repetitions per set. Another meta analysis found that college and professional athletes should train at least 85% of their 1 rep max (their wasn’t enough data to make recommendations above that number). (read more)
- Number of sets: One meta analysis found that multiple sets were responsible for a 48% strength increase over single sets. Significant gains were found in the 2- 3 set range, with slightly larger, but insignificant results found in the 4- 6 set range. (read more)
- Rest between sets: Studies have shown that 3-5 minutes of rest between sets is ideal. (read more)
- Exercise order: Even with sufficient rest, performance typically declines over the course of a workout. For that reason higher intensity, multi-joint exercises like the squat and bench press are typically performed early in a workout. You also may want to perform any new exercises (that you’re trying to learn) or exercises targeting an especially weak muscle early in the workout.
- Supersets: The problem with resting 3-5 minutes between sets is that your workout can take a long time. One study found that training one muscle group at a time with 4 minutes rest between sets led to the same results as alternating opposing muscle groups (like biceps and triceps) with 2 minutes rest between sets. So instead of doing bicep set 1, bicep set 2, bicep set 3, tricep set 1, tricep set 2, tricep set 3 (with 4 minutes rest between each), you do bicep set 1, tricep set 1, biecep set 2, tricep set 2, bicep set 3, tricep set 3 (with 2 minutes rest between each). This allows you to finish your workout in almost half the time. (read more)
- Rep speed: the concentric part of a movement is when you’re fighting gravity (bringing the weight toward your chest when doing a curl), while the eccentric part of a movement is when you’re going with gravity (lowering the weight when doing a curl). Studies show that the concentric movement should be as fast as possible, while you should control the eccentric movements so that gravity isn’t doing all the work. (read more)
- Frequency: A meta analysis found that untrained participants (lifting for less than 1 year) gained additional strength when training each muscle group up to 3x a week. Trained participants (lifting for more than 1 year), however, achieved maximal strength gains by training each muscle group 2x a week. Another meta analysis found that college and professional athletes gained no additional strength from training each muscle group 3x a week (see below). To clarify, these numbers are days training each muscle group, not total days training. So, intermediates could spend 2 days a week on their upper body and 2 days a week on their lower body. (read more)
- Variety: Varying your strength training program over time has been shown to be effective. (read more)
- Putting it together: Do strength training 3 non-consecutive days a week (if you’re a beginner). Here’s our recommended strength training program:Find a weight that allows you to do 12 reps of each exercise (and no more with good form). When you’re able to do more that 12 reps, add more weight. Superset each pair of exercises with the same number in the chart above. So, you do 12 squats, rest 1.5 minutes and do 12 bench presses, rest 1.5 minutes and do 12 squats, rest 1.5 minutes and do 12 bench presses, rest 1.5 minutes and do 12 squats, rest 1.5 minutes and do 12 bench presses, then move onto the next pair. Perform the concentric part of each exercise as fast as possible and control the eccentric movements. (read more)
- Warm-ups: Studies show that warm-ups improve performance anywhere between 1% to 20%. Warm-up should be between 5 and 10 minutes. Aerobic exercises should be performed at 40% to 70% of VO2max (your max capacity). Stretching should be dynamic, rather than static. One review found that static stretching (holding stretches) reduced performance in the majority of studies. Dynamic stretching (actively moving the muscle through the entire range of motion), however, tended to increase performance. (read more)
- Cool-downs: If you engage in vigorous exercise like sprinting or a marathon a minute or two of light cardio afterwards will help prevent dizziness and fainting. Otherwise, research shows no evidence for improvements in delayed onset muscle soreness, athletic performance, flexibility or injury prevention from cooling down. (read more)
- Short exercise bouts: Exercising in 10 minute bouts has been shown to be as effective as exercising in longer continuous bouts.
- Spread out to at least 3 days a week: Individuals who exercised in longer bouts on 1-2 days a week had a lower mortality risk relative to inactive individuals. However, the overall mortality risk was lowest for individuals who spread their exercise out over at least 3 days a week.
- Best time: Exercise whenever you can consistently do so. However, if your schedule is flexible, performance is optimal between 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm when your body temperature is at its peak. (read more)
- Get outdoors: There’s numerous health benefits to being outdoors, so exercise outside when possible. (read more)
So, doing vigorous exercise for 50 minutes a day, 2-3 days a week is ideal. You should also include 3 days of total body strength training. Here’s how you could structure your entire workout program over the course of a week:
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