While the reality is that most people generally want to exercise to improve their body composition (or more bluntly “to look better naked”), this is not all the case. In some cases, individuals just want to know how much and what type of exercise they should to do develop general health and fitness.
General Guidelines for Health and Fitness
And the answer is not much. The basic American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines are going to be more than sufficient. These guidelines target the primary factors in basic health and fitness. These are cardiovascular health, muscular strength, flexibility and balance. I’ll only address the first two.
I’ve presented the general ACSM guidelines below and you can see that they include flexibility and balance Honestly, full range resistance training tends to do most of the work to improve both. In some cases, specific stretching or mobility work is indicated.
I will focus on aerobic and resistance training guidelines.
Aerobic Training Guidelines
For basic cardiovascular fitness, a minimum training frequency of three times per week is necessary. Certainly more than that can have other potential benefits in terms of body composition. But three times per week is the minimum. So far as duration, 20 to 60 minutes is considered optimal.
The typical way of gauging intensity for aerobic training is heart rate with 65-85% of maximum being typical. Estimates of maximum heart rate is problematic at best. First, there is huge variability in actual maximums. The equations are often very wrong on an individual level.
As well there is the issue of functional threshold, which refers the person’s maximal sustainable intensity. Setting exercise relative to this level would be far superior but cannot be easily done at the moment.
For this reason, I recommend the use of Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE), a scale that lets people subjectively estimate their intensity. I discussed this in some detail when I talked about training the obese beginner. I use the 10 point scale where 1 is nothing and 10 is maximal exertion. A target RPE of 3-4, challenging but not impossible, puts most trainees where they need to be.
The talk test is equally valid and is easier to use. If someone can hold a broken conversation, that will also work just fine
Consider Interval Training
Interval training, or High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). HIIT is a type of exercise which alternates periods of very high-intensity exercise with periods of recovery exercise. This inherent variation make HIIT less boring for some people. HIIT may also have a greater effect on some aspects of overall health and fitness.
As I’ve discussed rather endlessly on the site, it can’t replace all regular cardiovascular exercise. However it can provide variety and act as a nice adjunct. For trainees seeking general health, HIIT can be incorporated in multiple ways.
One would be to alternate blocks of traditional cardiovascular activity with HIIT. With this approach, 6-12 weeks of regular aerobic training are alternated with 6 weeks where 2 HIIT and 1-2 aerobic sessions are done. An alternate approach is to perform a single HIIT session per week with 2-3 regular aerobic sessions for relatively extended periods of time.
The structure of interval workouts can vary massively. All HIIT workouts should start with a 5-10′ warm-up. The intervals themselves can range from 30 seconds in duration up to several minutes with relatively equal easy recovery bits. Shorter intervals require higher intensities and vice versa. The workouts ends with a 5′ cool down.
A typical workout would be a 10′ easy warm-up followed by 5-10 sets of 1′ hard/1 easy (10′ total on-time). The intervals should be done at the maximal intensity that can be sustained for that duration. The easy bit should be done at a very low intensity for recovery. A 5-10 minute recovery would follow. 3-4 of 3-4 minutes with a 2-3′ rest might be done instead but this would be at a low intensity.
Weight Training Guidelines
It’s now well recognized that regular resistance training is absolutely critical for health and fitness. Early ACSM guidelines for resistance training were exceedingly moderate (e.g. 1 set of 8-12 repetitions done twice per week). Certainly this is more than sufficient for rank beginners although excessive volumes are not needed most of the time.
More recent guidelines have embraced more periodization concepts with different ‘levels’ of training for different populations. Beginners, as discussed in my Beginning Weight Training series need very little training. A total of 2-3 days per week at low volumes (1 set often gives the same gains as multiple sets in this population).
At the intermediate level (after perhaps 6-12 months of beginner training), a frequency of 3-4 days/week with a basic split routine would be done. The ACSM guidelines recommend 4-5 days/week for advanced trainees but this is approaching overkill. For all but the most performance oriented trainees, 3-4 days per week will be sufficient. Two to three days/week is probably more realistic for most.
Repetitions can vary and there is probably benefit for even the general health seeking individual to go to lower repetitions ranges (perhaps sets of 5-6) from time to time since that will tend to have benefits for bone health and other important parameters. Constant pounding in that range can become problematic, especially in older folks for whom connective tissues are often the limiting factor. Heavy work is good but too much can cause joint issues.
The ACSM resistance training progressions appear below.
One the trainee has performed basic resistance training continuously for 6-12 months, more complex programs can be considered. It’s not exaggeration to say that endless options exist here.
Someone might start with sets of 12 and add weight while dropping repetitions until they get to 6’s. Then they would back-cycle to 12, lowering the weight and start over. This gives the benefits of the heavier work along with some variety. But it avoids the potential for joint injury. This might be as simple as 2-3 weeks at 12 reps, 2-3 weeks at 10, 2-3 weeks at 8, 2-3 weeks at 6. Then take 1-2 easy weeks and start over.
Alternately, a simple double progression using a repetition range of 6-12 would be workable. So the trainee would add reps until they hit 12 before adding some weight to the bar (bringing the repetitions back down) and building back up. Many people suck at adding reps and this wouldn’t bea good approach for them.
Another option would be some sort of undulating periodization scheme. Here one workout is done in higher repetition range (perhaps 10-12) and a second is done in a lower repetition bracket (6-8). The possibilities are fairly endless here and finding a training style that the person enjoys and will do consistently is arguably more important than anything else.
Depending on the repetition count, anywhere from one to perhaps three sets should be more than sufficient (as reps go down, the number of sets should go up). This also helps to keep workout length down. Individuals with more lofty goals in terms of muscle growth or performance might do more than this but this Q&A is meant to be talking about general health.
For exercise selection, the general health and fitness trainee has many many options since there are no strict requirements for any exercise to be done or not done. For basic muscular strength, 1-2 exercises per muscle group is plenty. However, this depends on the number of sets being done. Someone doing 4 total sets per day might do 1 exercise for 4 sets, 2 for 2 sets of 4 for 1 set each. This can provide some variety.
There certainly appears to be some benefit of heavy axial loading (e.g. squats, overhead press) in terms of bone health. Including those movements, or at least movements that load the spine and extremities from time to time would seem useful. Of course, doing those movements properly tends to require some amount of competent coaching which isn’t always available. Even a horizontal type leg press will load the spine and lower body like this.
But trainees can mix and match exercises to their hearts content. Here it is far more important that the training is done than when it is done. Again, the possibilities for mixing and matching are fairly endless here. Some trainees may prefer to use the same exercises for a complete block of training (perhaps 6-8) weeks and then switch everything out.
Others may prefer to perform one batch of movements for one workout each week and a completely different batch of movements for the other workout (I’m assuming an average frequency for each muscle group of about twice/week). Personally I’m not a huge fan of switching things out much more often than that (it makes it hard to track progress) but certainly boredom can be avoided more easily with more variety. The second option, doing different exercises on each of the training days avoids boredom.
Overall Training Structure
As far as overall training structure, there are many possibilities. Individuals just looking for basic all around fitness may want to put equal amounts of energy into both their strength training and cardiovascular work. That might mean 2-3 basic weight workouts per week and 3 cardiovascular fitness sessions per week with workouts done on the same or different days.
Doing both resistance and cardio on the same day can make for long workouts. But for people who only have three days/week this may be the only option. Even 30 minutes of effective weight training and 30 minutes of aerobic training will do wonders for basic fitness.
Trainee who can train more days per week would alternate days. So they might do weights on Monday,Wednesday,Friday and aerobic work on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. If they only wanted to lift weight twice per week, they might lift on Monday and Friday and do aerobic work on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Folks who prefer to push one or the other can simply alternate blocks of training. In a strength training focused block, the trainee would emphasize weight room work and maintain aerobic work. That means that 3-4 weight room days with 3 short (20-30′) aerobic days would be done.
After 6-8 weeks, the trainee should switch focus. The trainee would now do 3-4 aerobic sessions (with 1-2 sessions of intervals) with 2 days of maintenance weight room work. I’ve talked about how to integrate interval training with weight room work previously.
Of course, eventually the general health and fitness trainee will be as fit as they need or want to be (or they may decide to become more serious about it and move into some type of competition and train more) and can simply move everything to maintenance. I would note that things like mobility/flexibility work (e.g. dynamic or static stretching) and foam rolling type stuff can be done as part of warm-ups.
That’s an overview of how someone would train for general health and fitness. In the big scheme of things, the only real difference between this type of training and something more goal intensive is that of scope. Individuals seeking maximum hypertrophy or strength or endurance performance will be doing far more work than this. For general fitness, the amounts of exercise described in this article are sufficient.