We all know that exercising and getting in enough movement is important for our health. But what kind of physical activity is best? How can we maximize the benefits of our workouts despite our busy schedules? Is it important to follow an exercise program, or is it OK to simply just move in whatever way we can?
From my experience working with clients, I’ve noticed people’s fitness routines typically fall into one of three buckets:
- A committed, set routine. This is the person who loves consistency: They usually come into the club on the same days, at the same times, and work through the same routine. Often, the familiar regimen (which may be on the same piece of cardio equipment or use the same strength exercises on repeat) is comfortable for them, allows them to work up a sweat, and is something they stick with for months or years.
- A social, high variety approach. This person thrives on the energy of a community and classes. They usually choose to include several different large group class formats in their plan and stick with set class times. As a result, a core social group is often formed to blend exercise with friendly accountability.
- A goal-oriented, highly specific focus. Aiming to assign a purpose to every minute of exercise, this person has a plan for every workout. Their approach is more prescriptive and has a specific, desired outcome.
So, which method is best? As with many answers in health and fitness, it depends on your individual goals and sought-after results.
What exactly is an exercise program?
Fitness programming uses exercise science and concepts of muscular, neurological, and metabolic adaptation to set up training phases, or blocks, that drive specific, desired changes to fitness with a goal in mind, such as building strength, muscle, power, stability, or endurance. The length of training phases can vary, but 12-week blocks are the most common.
Using a formulaic approach, programs incorporate and adjust several different exercise variables from workout to workout and week to week. For example, with strength training, variables to change and track over time include:
- Weight: The amount you are lifting or moving through a given range of motion.
- Sets: The number of times you repeat an exercise before moving onto the next one.
- Reps: The number of repetitions you complete of a particular exercise.
- Tempo: The speed of movement broken down into four phases, often designated with four numbers. Each number correlates with a phase of the movement: lowering, pause, raising, pause again. For example, a 2010 tempo means two seconds of lowering, zero seconds of pause at the bottom, one second of raising, and zero seconds of pause at the top.
- Rest Periods: The amount of time taken between each set, used to replenish energy and bring your heart rate back down.
In any well-formed exercise program that’s designed to drive a specific result, the variables that are adjusted are not random. Increasing weight, sets, or reps, or decreasing tempo (in weight training) or rest periods progressively overloads the muscles, adding week-over-week challenges to push positive changes and physical adaptations.
Brian Fox, a certified personal trainer and Alpha master coach at Life Time, sums up a program simply as a “planned, structured part of a larger picture.”
Programming can take away the guesswork, making it especially beneficial in light of busy schedules, work responsibilities, and family demands. It can also eliminate trial-and-error exercise approaches, as well as save time and frustration for newbie exercisers. Jennifer Walter, certified personal trainer and master coach at Life Time, explains, “The structure of programs allows you to meet deadlines. By following an established program, it’s one less item you have to manage — your job becomes solely the execution of it.”
How are workouts different than a program?
Workouts are more loosely defined than programs. Generally speaking, if you’re purposely moving, increasing your heart rate, and sweating, you’re doing a workout. This could include everything from a hike outside to a yoga class, game of pickup basketball, or gym session on your favorite machine.
While workouts can have a one-and-done nature or take shape as active play — being fun, random, and unplanned — they also can be built into exercise programming. “Each workout that’s tied to a program is a workout with direction,” says Fox. “You’re on a path leading to a goal of some sort.”
Large group fitness classes, for example, are a great way to stay active. However, if you’re working toward specific fitness goals, they could be an example of when it’d be helpful to have them be part of a program, versus just something you do to keep moving. The key to successfully including classes in a program is to work them in for endurance and cardiovascular benefits, rather than using them to replace a specific, formulaic workout. For example, you might use a cycle class to fulfill the need for a weekly high-intensity cardio session, if that’s what your program calls for.
“If you’re looking to move more, sweat, burn calories, and have fun, hopping into a group exercise class might be all you need,” says Shannon Flood, group fitness instructor at Life Time. “But if you have specific goals in mind, such as losing weight or getting stronger, large group classes may have a place in your plan, but as an approach alone, likely won’t be enough to help you reach those goals.”
Christine Warren, group fitness manager at Life Time, explains, “Every single person in a large group exercise class format has a different goal in mind, so rather than catering to the individual, the classes have to be structured to provide motivation and healthy movement for all.”
While staying active and getting in workouts as you can is great and may be enough for some, if you have specific needs or are going after a desired outcome, it’s important to understand that it’s possible to be very active and still not see the results you’re looking for unless you’re doing so as part of a tailored program.
Limitations of Working Out Without a Set Program
Warren saw firsthand the difference she could have in her fitness when she made her consistent workouts part of a larger strategic plan.
“I was teaching and participating in a total of 14 classes per week, and yet my body composition had been plateaued for two years,” shares Warren. “I had convinced myself that was where my body just liked to be.” Warren found that to be untrue after she decided to connect with a trainer and begin Alpha MetCon, a structured small group, goal-driven program available at Life Time.
“I noticed a tangible increase in my performance and strength almost immediately,” recalls Warren. “Within a few months, my plateau broke and I started seeing the results I was hoping for all along.” Warren continued engaging in large group exercise formats, but this time, she worked with her trainer to plug in specific classes to better complement her broader, outcome-driven exercise programming.
Flood also includes group classes as part of her larger programmed approach. “Like many people, I’m tempted to say ‘I’ve got this’ on my own,” says Flood, “but there’s such a huge difference in efficiency when you have a plan from a professional.”
Some of the limitations those who work out versus engage in planned programming may encounter include:
The needs of the group may come first. Large class settings are energizing, motivating, and can offer a great workout, but because you’re appealing to the masses, it can be hard to hard to progress and build off key fitness variables and concepts. “There’s so much variation in who is there from class to class,” says Flood. “It’s important that we make it engaging for all and that no one feels left out or falls behind.”
There can be equipment restrictions. To maintain safety, equipment tends to be more limited in large groups versus in a personalized exercise program. “When you have a coach helping you execute your specific program, you can learn how to row for calorie burn or to do an Olympic lift with a barbell,” says Flood. “You’ll get individualized instruction on how to do movements correctly and safely. There are so many different exercise modalities you can be exposed to and taught to use.”
There are the same barriers to trying new efforts on your own. “The more weight you use, the more critical it is that your form is spot on to prevent injury, which can be challenging — not to mention intimidating — if it’s a move or machine you’ve never tried before,” says Warren.
Progress can be more difficult to track. Without individualized guidance, it can be difficult to objectively assess if your endurance and strength are improving, and if so, by how much. When exercising in a programmed approach with a coach who’s there to supervise your plan and help monitor outcomes, progress metrics are often more tangible. For example, a program can make it easier and safer to track improvements in your mile time, maximum weight used on a single repetition of a squat, or number of pushups completed in one minute.
Blending Workouts Into Your Program
If you thrive off the fun and variety of random workouts or high-motivation classes, they can still be a successful part of your broader exercise approach. And even if they’re not specifically woven into your program, it doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to doing them.
“Choosing to do nothing because you aren’t following your program is not the answer,” says Walter. “We need to be able to take advantage of all of our options, especially when life gets busy or we get off track.”
Adding in workouts simply for fun can also break up your routine and add more variety — a key component of any well-rounded fitness plan.
“Spontaneity can be a good thing,” says Fox. “Randomly mixing in a workout that you like or that makes you feel good physically or mentally can be super beneficial in the long term. For example, a bodybuilding client might jump into a Pilates class and see beneficial results from engaging and utilizing their core differently, as well as by slowing things down.”
However, Fox does caution to be careful with the type of workout you jump into so you don’t risk injury or significant delayed-onset muscle soreness (or DOMS) from new muscle patterns and challenges.
How Exercise Programming Can Be a Game-Changer
Ultimately, if you have a specific goal you want to achieve, engaging in a structured exercise program is the best way to drive efficiency in your exercise routine. A true program will be tailored to you and customized to your needs and ambitions.
One common frustration I hear from those not seeing results is, “If it works for them, then why isn’t it working for me?” The reason is because there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to any aspect of your health, including fitness.
Walter shares, “A trainer or coach is there to meet you where you’re at,” says Walter. “They can and assist you and all your uniqueness —whether tied to your individual body or your personal schedule — in getting you to your goals. The first step is for them to do a basic movement and range of motion assessment followed by designing a personalized program for you.”
Walter tailors each client’s level of accountability and support and workout schedule based on what that person needs. She emphasizes that it’s crucial to regularly reassess the client’s progress and to make program changes as necessary.
If you’re new to exercise, the thought of a program designed for the next year — or even just the next 12 weeks— might seem like a daunting commitment. However, the efficiency and long-term, lasting results are well worth it.
At one point or another, most people have experienced a surge of motivation to make fitness changes. Without a program, this often leads to jumping into high-intensity workouts that release endorphins and initially feel good, but then fatigue sets in — your results may not match your efforts, and the approach tends to eventually fizzle out. If this sounds familiar, a programmed approach would be the best next step.
“If you’ve never followed a program before, I always advise seeking professional help first,” says Fox. “A program tailored to you will always beat you trying to figure it out or wing it on your own.”
If you’re just getting started or have been out of an exercise routine and are looking to get consistent, your first step might be to simply get in the habit of regular workouts. Find an approach and format that you love that will help get you moving, sweating, and feeling better — and sticking to it regularly.
However, if you’re in a spot where you’re driven by seeing results — maybe you have a set desired outcome, a specific goal you’re chasing, or a fitness or body composition deadline you’re trying to meet — a structured, professionally-designed exercise program is going to be the best use of your time and effort.