| January 5, 2017

Fitness, Health & Sports

Which Fitness Program Is Right for You?

best fitness program

It’s a new year, which means many of you are probably setting new fitness goals.

For a lot of guys, their goal is pretty vague — “get in shape” or “start running” or “get stronger” — and they’re not entirely sure how they’re going to get there beyond joining a gym.

This is a mistake.

Without a concrete plan, you just end up in the gym randomly stopping at machines to do a few reps before heading to the sauna.

Any exercise is better than no exercise, but it’s even better to work out in a way that gives you real results. When you observe that you’re getting bigger/faster/stronger, it feels dang good and serves as prime motivation to keep at it.

Deciding on which fitness program to follow comes with its own issues though. There are a lot of options out there, and they seem to increase at an exponential rate. Choosing one can be a confusing and overwhelming endeavor.

To help you decide on a plan to follow this year, below you’ll find descriptions of ten different programs I recommend. I’ve personally tried all but two of them, and I highlight the pros and cons of each to help you make a better decision.

The plan you ultimately choose will have to do with what your fitness goals are and what kind of exercise you enjoy the most. If you like to run, do a program that involves lots of running. If you like to lift weights, do a program that puts an emphasis on barbell training. If you like variety, do a program that regularly mixes it up. If you’re not yet entirely sure what forms of exercise you like best, I suggest experimenting with different programs (giving each at least three months) until you discover where your interests lie. That’s what I did in trying out all these different programs, until I finally found the fitness discipline that I truly love (Starting Strength-style barbell training). One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that when it comes to exercise, finding something that you actually enjoy doing goes a long way in ensuring that you’ll stick with a program.

And no matter which path you take, understand results only come with consistency. Show up to the gym each day and do the work. Regardless of whether or not you’re “in the mood.”

Here’s to a stronger and fitter year!

If you want to get stronger….

Starting Strength

If your goal is to get stronger in 2017, you can’t go wrong with Starting Strength. It’s a barbell-based strength program for novice lifters created by the incomparable Mark Rippetoe.

You do five barbell lifts: squat, deadlift, shoulder press, bench press, and power clean. With all the lifts (except for deadlift and power clean) you’ll be doing three sets of five. Each workout, you’ll be adding five or ten pounds to the barbell. You’ll work out three times a week.

Don’t let the word “novice” lead you to think that Starting Strength isn’t for you because you’ve been lifting for years. “Novice” refers to how long it takes for you to fully recover and adapt from workout to workout. A novice lifter is a lifter who can fully recover and adapt from a workout within 24-72 hours. What does it mean to fully recover and adapt? It means you can add more weight to your next workout without missing the number of prescribed reps. Basically, every workout is a PR day if you’re a novice lifter.

It takes about six to nine months of consistent training following Starting Strength before a novice lifter stops seeing gains at each workout. Once you’ve plateaued following Starting Strength’s novice, linear progression program, you’ll need to move to an intermediate program.

I started Starting Strength at the end of 2014 after doing weightlifting workouts as part of many of the other programs listed here, but being unhappy with the lack of strength progression I’d made with them. After starting SS, my gains have grown at a steady clip. I’ve since moved on from the novice programming, but I continue to work with Starting Strength Coach Matt Reynolds (check out my podcast with Matt) doing the same basic SS barbell lifts, just on an intermediate program.

Thanks to Starting Strength, I’m now squatting 420 pounds, shoulder pressing 200 pounds, and deadlifting 500 pounds. I should be hitting a new bench press PR of 300 pounds in the next two weeks (bench has always been my weakest lift). I’ve also discovered a passion for barbell training thanks to Starting Strength and I have plans to enter my first powerlifting competition this year.

You can follow Starting Strength on your own by buying the book and downloading their app.

However, I highly recommend signing up for Starting Strength Online Coaching. Your online coach will keep you accountable to following the program and critique your form on your lifts from every workout with a video you submit to them online. This form critique is key. If you’re not doing the lifts correctly, you’re more likely to injure yourself and your progress will stall. What’s more, they’ll be able to adjust your programming as you advance from a novice lifter to intermediate, and intermediate to advanced. I’ve been doing Starting Strength Online Coaching for over a year now and have been pleased as punch with the results. The service is top notch.

The downside of Starting Strength is that my aerobic conditioning has suffered. While you can incorporate things like prowler work and tire flips, aerobic conditioning isn’t a priority with the program. Starting Strength’s argument is that people should focus on getting strong first before focusing on aerobic conditioning, because aerobic conditioning is much easier to gain than strength. I’ll admit that I’ve skimped on the conditioning this past year and have suffered for it. When I participated in the Conquer the Gauntlet obstacle course race this past summer, I had to do a lot of walking because I was so gassed.  This year, however, I’ll be working with Matt to add more aerobic conditioning into my programming. Goal is to run an OCR without stopping for a breath like I had to last year.

StrongLifts 5×5

I did StrongLifts 5×5 way back in 2008 when I was looking to get back into barbell training after taking a hiatus after my high school football days. StrongLifts is similar to Starting Strength in that you do basic barbell lifts like the squat, shoulder press, bench press, and deadlift. Instead of the power clean, StrongLifts uses the barbell row as the fifth lift.

Like Starting Strength, StrongLifts is a linear progression program for novices in which you add a bit of weight (5 to 10 pounds) to each exercise every workout.

The barbell lifts are awesome, the program is simple and straightforward, and Mehdi at StrongLifts has a tremendous amount of free and useful content available on his site. The main issue I had with StrongLifts 5×5, however, was how much volume the workouts required. Instead of doing three sets of five (as SS recommends), StrongLifts has you doing five sets of five on all the lifts (except for deadlift, which is 1×5). I was completely worn out after a training session and recovery took a long time. I think the amount of volume required had something to do with how quickly I plateaued on the program. After a few months of following it, I stopped making progress, and I never got past 100 pounds on the press or over 300 on the squat. I’d do the requisite de-loading that the program prescribed to try to break through the plateaus, but still couldn’t. I ended up stopping out of frustration.

StrongLifts 5×5 has worked for other people, it just didn’t work for me after a certain point. I found Starting Strength’s 3×5 rep scheme to be just the right amount of volume to induce adaptation for strength gains without totally wiping me out.

Critical Bench

Critical Bench is a 10-week program geared towards increasing your bench press PR. I was following this program over three years ago. Workouts are divided into 5-day splits where each day focuses on a different body part. Mondays are your bench days and you’ll be incorporating negatives and lower/upper half reps to help increase the amount you can bench. The workouts on other days follow your typical bodybuilder, hypertrophy template (high volume, lower weight).

If you’re looking to increase your bench press, the program works. My 1 rep max went from 235 to 285 while following the program. The hypertrophy workouts combined with a low-carb diet definitely got me lean and jacked. I’ve probably looked my best in terms of aesthetics while following Critical Bench.

The downside is that while your bench press will definitely go up, you won’t see much in strength gains in other lifts like your squat, press, or deadlift.

Homemade Muscle

If you don’t want to join a gym or buy fitness equipment for your home, then consider Anthony Arvanitakis’ (check out my podcast with Anthony) bodyweight strength program Homemade Muscle. Unlike a lot of bodyweight routines that just have you doing higher and higher reps, Anthony programs similarly to what you might see in a barbell training program. He’ll have you modify the exercises to add intensity (the same thing as adding weight to a barbell), so that you can actually get stronger instead of merely increasing muscle endurance.

It’s a program that requires no equipment, no gym membership, and can be done anytime and anywhere. Can’t beat that!

While I haven’t followed Homemade Muscle for a long period of time, I use the program when I’m on vacation and away from barbells.

The downside of it and any other bodyweight-only program is that there’s a limit to the intensity you can add to the exercises. If you really want to up the intensity and get stronger, you’ll eventually need to add external weight.

If You Want to Become All-Around Fit…

Atomic Athlete

If you’re looking to achieve all-around fitness this year, you can’t go wrong with Atomic Athlete. Founded by Jake Saenz and Tod Moore (check out my podcast with them), Atomic Athlete’s goal is to make people who are “harder to kill.” Atomic’s main offering is their Hybrid Programming. It combines strength and aerobic conditioning in intense, hour-long workouts that you do five times a week. You’ll be doing squats, shoulder presses, bench presses, and various Olympic lifts along with bodyweight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups. For the conditioning portion, you’ll be doing a lot of sprints, sandbag work, kettlebells, and sled pushes.

While the Hybrid program looks a lot like CrossFit, it’s a lot less random and more programmed. The workouts are designed weeks in advance and structured into periodic cycles with specific goals in mind — there’s a real method to their madness. I followed the Atomic Athlete Hybrid program back in 2014 and saw excellent results with it. My conditioning was at its peak when I was following it, and I turned in my best performance at Conquer the Gauntlet.

Another benefit of the Atomic Athlete Hybrid program is the variety they build into it. It was always fun to see what we’d be working on with each new cycle. You definitely won’t get bored with it.

Besides the Hybrid program, Atomic Athlete also offers programs geared towards strength, endurance, and getting ready for military service.

The downside is that the workouts do require a bit of speciality equipment like sandbags, sleds, and kettlebells. Most gyms have them these days, but if yours doesn’t you’ll need to adjust the workouts (Atomic offers alternatives if you’re missing a piece of equipment). The workouts also absolutely smoke you, which is a pro or con depending on your taste, and tolerance for feeling beat during the day.

Garage Gym Athlete

Garage Gym Athlete is headed up by Jerred Moon (check out my podcast with Jerred).

Garage Gym Athlete is similar to Atomic Athlete in that the programming combines barbell strength training with aerobic conditioning. The difference is that Garage Gym Athlete, as the name implies, focuses on folks who are working out at home and might not have a lot of equipment.

The programming is top notch and easy to follow. At the end of each cycle, you’ll take benchmark tests to see how you’ve improved in various metrics.

I like how Jerred has focused on folks who are likely working out at home and by themselves (like I do). He provides plenty of content on how to acquire gym equipment on the cheap and even how to make it yourself, as well as how to stay motivated when you’re working out alone.

The downside with Garage Gym Athlete (and any program that’s trying to build both strength and conditioning at the same time, like Atomic Athlete) is that your strength gains will come more slowly compared to if you were just doing a straight strength training program (like Starting Strength). My personal recommendation if you’re just starting out would be to follow a strict strength training program for the first six months of the year and really go after those strength gains, and then move on to something like Garage Gym Athlete or Atomic Athlete.

Besides Garage Gym Athlete, Jerred also has a program called One Man One Barbell that provides an all-around strength and conditioning workout using just a barbell.

Mountain Tactical Institute

The Mountain Tactical Institute offers general, all-around fitness plans, but their main focus is on providing specialized programming that’s aimed at mountain and tactical athletes and designed around enhancing mission performance. MTI is heavy into mining the best research in order to offer periodized, carefully programmed plans not only for skiers, climbers, mountain guides, and alpinists of all kinds, but also to law enforcements officers, fire/rescue professionals, and those aiming to join the military and get selected for special forces.

I haven’t tried any of MTI’s programs, but am impressed with what they’re doing and think it’s worth checking out if you’ve got a job/mission in which you want to stay safe and perform at your peak.

Simple and Sinister Kettlebell Program

Just like the name says, this program is simple and sinister. Developed by Pavel Tsatsouline, the Simple and Sinister program will help get you get strong and aerobically conditioned all with just a single kettlebell. You train every day with two exercises, doing 5×10 one-arm swings per arm and 5×1 Turkish get-ups per arm with a 32kg kettlebell. Eventually, you’ll work your way up to 10×10 one-arm swings and 10×1 Turkish get-ups.

I did Simple and Sinister during a short period between Atomic Athlete and Starting Strength back in 2014. Really enjoyed this program because it was so easy to follow and it was satisfyingly hard. If you’re new to exercise and looking to get going with something that’s simple, straightforward, and requires minimal equipment and time, this program is for you.

Downside is that I did get bored with Simple and Sinister. But I’m not sure it’s really designed to be your sole workout program for life. More like an effective gateway drug to other things.

If You Want to Move Better…

MovNat

MovNat (Natural Movement) aims to help people reach their physical potential and make them functionally fit and proficient at performing the basic movements the human body was designed to do: walking, running, crawling, hanging, throwing, swimming, jumping, balancing, and so on. Once you learn the basics of different movements, you can start progressing into using those movements in more advanced ways — combining them together and trying them in different and more challenging environments — so that MovNat rightly considers itself “the martial arts of movement.” Sure, you can do a pull-up on the bar at the gym, but can you do one on a tree branch? You can lift a uniformly-shaped barbell, but could you hoist an oddly-shaped log? You can run a mile, but could you run barefoot over rocks?

MovNat isn’t really a fitness program to be followed on its own (though you could), but rather a form of training that can complement every other program out there. Kate and I worked with Aaron Baulch, a MovNat certified coach here in Tulsa, last year and attended a MovNat seminar in April. The training really added a lot to our main respective fitness disciplines; while it hasn’t replaced my barbell lifting, it has become a nice supplement to it. I now incorporate crawling and different ground movement sequences on my rest days. I found that they’ve really helped loosen up my body and increased my awareness of how it moves. I can now get up off the ground without using my hands which is something I couldn’t do a year ago. Feels good.

You can learn more about MovNat by visiting their website. Be sure to sign up for the email and you’ll get a free 30-page eBook with some basic movement sequences to get you started. Also be sure to listen to the podcast I did with MovNat founder Erwan Le Corre and its performance director, Danny Clark.

Kabuki Movement Systems

If you train with barbells and want to lift more efficiently and with fewer injuries, then check out Kabuki Movement Systems. It was created by world-record powerlifter Chris Duffin (check out my podcast with Chris) and is designed to help lifters become much more durable. Chris provides in-depth video breakdowns of the mechanics of each of the main barbell lifts, along with easy-to-follow cues to help you perform the lift more efficiently.

Moreover, you’ll find mobility routines that are designed to help you perform each lift better.

I’ve implemented many of the KMS lifting cues and mobility workouts into my own training and have seen immediate results from them.

If You Want to Run Faster and Injury-Free…

Strength Running

If you’ve got a goal to run in a 5K, an obstacle course race, or even a marathon, then you’ll want to check out Strength Running. USA Track & Field certified coach Jason Fitzgerald (check out my podcast with Jason) offers personalized plans to help you reach new PRs no matter the distance you aim to race. His programming includes not just running, but strength-building barbell and bodyweight exercises, as well as mobility work that will help you reach your goals  faster with far fewer injuries. Check out his PR Race Plan as well as his Team Strength Running for more details.

I haven’t personally followed Strength Running programming, as long-distance running just isn’t a fitness goal of mine. But I like Jason’s approach to the sport in that it’s programmed similar to barbell training (mixing volume and intensity), and that he puts an emphasis on strength training to help improve performance and reduce injuries.

Last updated: April 13, 2017

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