Every now and then, I get questions from people I know about some new fitness fad—Vibram FiveFingers, P90X, Insanity, CrossFit, the Spartan Race, TRX training, kettlebells, the Shake Weight… the list goes on. Don't get me wrong, when I call them fitness fads, I don't mean it in a pejorative way—that's just what they are. Each one of them has merit, but none is the all-in-one solution eager exercisers are hoping for.
It goes without saying, but I'll say it, anyway: every body is different. Just as we all react to food substances like caffeine, gluten and sugar in different ways, our bodies also have unique responses to different workouts. It is very rare that you will find one workout template that is a perfect fit for both your body and your goals. We all have unique body types with varying levels of experience in physical activity; throw in different work schedules, sleeping habits, dietary preferences and previous injuries, and you've got a plethora of reasons why "their" workout or diet or fitness plan will fail to yield the advertised results. And since fitness trends rarely tell you how to eat and diet fads rarely tell you how to workout, there will always be a level of inconsistency when you try to copy and paste your life into someone else's template.
Thankfully, there's a much more elegant solution, and it comes from arguably the most famous health and fitness philosopher of all time, Bruce Lee. His philosophy: "Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own." Lee invented the martial art of Jeet Kune Do by doing exactly that—combining the best elements from various fighting styles to create something uniquely his own.
Now, since even the slightest suggestion that you should adopt my workout plan over others would be blatantly hypocritical, I can only offer my philosophy as an example of how I took what I knew about my body and lifestyle habits and created a workout plan that fits me. I call it the Rule of Thirds (not to be confused with this rule of thirds).
Last December, I played a competitive pick-up game of basketball for the first time in two years. For all my hours spent at the gym and protein shakes consumed over the past several years, I didn't expect to have any problem keeping up with a motley crew of playground amateurs. Shortly after losing (both the game and some pride), I found myself in desperate need of a frozen bag of peas to ice down my knees and ankles. Also, my groin. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. For years, not only did I neglect regular cardio, but I also failed to stretch before and after each workout. All of which led up to me standing in the frozen produce section of a Taiwanese supermarket, contemplating whether I’d get kicked out for holding a bag of peas between my inner thighs (I didn’t).
I decided it was time for a new approach to fitness—one that was more holistic, and would not only help me look better naked, but would also prime my body for the occasional bout of intense physical activity that required more than lifting heavy objects and putting them down—like a game of basketball or an afternoon cycling. The problem was, at the time, I was a broke university student in Taiwan, with nothing more at my disposal than a pair of running shoes and a resistance cable, so I had to get creative.
I remember sitting on my bed, thinking long and hard about what areas of my body needed improvement and the simplest way to get started. I took out a piece of paper and drew a pie chart with three equal slices. Each workout would start with 20 minutes of running and 20 minutes of plyometrics (pushups, squats, pull-ups) followed by 20 minutes of stretching. Over time, this basic routine split into separate days but maintained its equal proportions: If I spent one hour on Monday running, I'd spend one hour Wednesday weightlifting and one hour Friday doing yoga (with appropriate warm-ups and stretching before and after each workout). Likewise, if I spent 40 minutes running and 20 minutes stretching on Tuesday, I could spend 40 minutes lifting and 20 minutes stretching on Thursday, and be done for the week.
1. Endurance—increased heart rate over extended periods of time. Example: running.
2. Strength—the use of resistance to increase muscle growth. Example: weightlifting.
3. Flexibility—stretching to improve muscle recovery and prevent injury. Example: yoga.
These days, I block off a few hours each week to work out; I go to the gym to weightlift, attend yoga and spin class, run outside, and of course, partake in the occasional basketball pick-up game. The result? Since February, I’ve lost four pounds (mainly fat), seen an increase in muscle size and definition, increased my maximum push-ups, pull-ups, and vertical jump, and took my personal best in running from 2.4 miles in 25 minutes to 8.6 miles in just over an hour, putting me on track to completing my first half-marathon this Fall—all of which were goals I set for myself when I moved back to the States earlier this year.
The best part about the Rule of Thirds is that it's a principle, not a rigid set of instructions. I'm free to incorporate routines from Crossfit, Tabata, Yoga, Zumba and, yes, even the Shake Weight, as long as I stay within my Thirds. That flexibility allows me to keep things interesting—there’s room to glean insights from fitness magazines and blogs and adapt new elements into my workouts—without sacrificing balance. Now, the only frozen peas I buy are the ones I intend to eat.
Ultimately, I encourage my friends to explore each new exercise fad, but to do so within the context of what you know about your body, your interests, and your goals. I tell them, 1) think long and hard about what you want to accomplish; 2) build yourself a framework of priorities and 3) commit to it. Ask what each new workout is trying to accomplish and whom those workouts would be ideal for. Be curious, but maintain a healthy dose of skepticism of anything bearing a logo and a price tag. And, for God's sake, remember to stretch.
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