Training for General Health and Wellness – Q&A

Question: Obviously folks wanting to change body composition (lose fat or gain muscle) or maximize strength gains have to put in a proportionally larger amount of training to reach their goals but my question is this: what if my goals are simply basic overall health and wellness?  What type of overall training program would you recommend for that?

Answer: The above question, in one form or fashion, has come up on the support forum and is certainly relevant enough to be worth addressing.  Because while I tend to focus on the goals of bodyrecomposition (losing fat and/or gaining muscle), clearly that’s not the only reason that people choose to work out.

Certainly, I think that, to put it somewhat crassly ‘looking better naked’ is a primary goal for most people who get into training but clearly some people are simply interested in basic overall health and wellness.  For that explicit goal, what kind of training is necessary?

And the answer, really is not much.  Here the basic American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines are going to be more than sufficient in that they target the primary factors involved in basic health and wellness which are basic cardiovascular health and muscular strength.  Of course there is more to overall health than just those two factors.

For basic cardiovascular fitness, a training frequency of three times per week minimum has been found to be necessary.  Certainly more than that can have other potential benefits (in terms of body composition or what have you) but three times per week is the basic minimum. Durations of 20-60 minutes at an intensity that is typically defined relative to maximum heart rate (i.e. 60-85% of maximum heart rate) are what’s recommended.

I’d note that using estimates of maximum heart rate is problematic at best since there tends to be a great deal of variability here both in terms of maximum heart rate (which can vary massively from prediction equations) as well as functional threshold.

Using Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) as I discussed in Training the Obese Beginner (e.g. an RPE of 3-4 on a 10 point scale, challenging but doable) or something like the talk test are not only equally valid but are probably easier to use than heart rate monitoring and will put people in the right range.  And an intensity of 3-4 on a 10 point scale puts most people where they need to be.  The talk test I mentioned in that same series, working at a level that allows for a broken conversation to be maintained is another easy way of putting people at the right place.

Certainly interval training, the alternation of bouts of higher intensity with lower intensity, is being found to provide some potential further benefits for both health and fitness.  If nothing else, it can help to avoid some of the monotony that tends to occur when folks do the same types of training day-in and day-out.   As I’ve discussed rather endlessly elsewhere on the site, it can’t substitute completely for steady state type training; but it can provide a nice adjunct for people who want to push things a bit harder from time to time.

Intervals could be incorporated in multiple ways for those seeking general health.  Either a block of intervals, for example doing them twice weekly for 6 weeks (along with 1-2 lower intensity steady state sessions), could be done between every 6-12 weeks of steady-state training or one interval session could be done per week for longer periods of 6-12 weeks (i.e. two to three steady state sessions, one interval session per week).

Interval durations of anywhere from 30-60 seconds all the way up to several minutes with an equal rest interval at varying intensities would be done after a warm-up with a total of maybe 10-20 minutes of ‘on-time’ during each workout; as the duration goes down, the intensity should go up.

So following a 10 minute warm-up, someone might do 10 sets of 1 minute hard/1 minute easy (10 total minutes on-time) at a near-maximum pace during the on bit and a very easy recovery pace during the rest interval and then cool-down.  Longer sets of 3-4 minutes with a 2 minute rest or so could be done for 3-4 sets but at a lower intensity.

While early ACSM guidelines for resistance training were exceedingly moderate (e.g. 1 set of 8-12 repetitions done twice per week), 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, 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 might be used.   Some type of basic split routine would tend to be used at that level.  The ACSM guidelines recommend 4-5 days/week for advanced trainees but, honestly, I can’t see 5 days/week in the weight room when the goal is simply general health and wellness.  Four days/week would seem to be more than plenty for all but the most performance oriented folks.  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.

Some type of basic periodization scheme, starting with sets of 12 and gradually adding weight and dropping repetitions every few weeks until heavier sets of 6 are hit before back-cycling and starting over would give the benefits of the heavier work, along with some much needed variety (needed to avoid boredom), without causing the potential for joint issues down the road.  So 2 weeks at 12 repetitions, 2 weeks at 10, 2 weeks at 8, 2 weeks at 6 before backing off and starting over or something very simple like that.

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.  I’d note that some people simply suck at adding repetitions in this fashion, but discussing that would take another article.

Another option would be some sort of undulating periodization scheme where one workout was done in higher repetition range (perhaps 10-12) and a second was 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 3 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 trainee has many many options since there are no strict requirements for any exercise to be done or not done; I generally wouldn’t see much reason to do more than one exercise per muscle group/body part in any given workout.

There certainly appears to be some benefit of heavy axial loading (e.g. squats, overhead press) in terms of bone health and 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 axially.

But trainees can mix and match exercises to their hearts content.  This is a case that it’s more important that the training gets done than how it gets 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.

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.   These workouts could be done on the same days (which can make for long workouts) or on different days (e.g. weights Mon/Wed/Fri or Mon/Fri and cardio on Tue/Thu/Sat).

Folks who prefer to push one or the other can simply alternate blocks of training.  So in a strength training focused block, weights would be emphasized (with perhaps 3-4 workouts/week in some type of split routine) and cardiovascular fitness maintained (with 3 low to moderate intensity aerobic sessions to avoid interfering with the weight work too much).

After 6-8 weeks, a switch would be made with weights being moved to maintenance (lowered volume and frequency perhaps 2 short workouts per week) and cardiovascular fitness emphasized.   Two to three short maintenance weight workouts per week along with perhaps 4 cardiovascular workouts (2 steady state workouts and 2 higher intensity sessions).  I’ve talked about how to integrate interval training with weight room work in Steady State vs. Interval Training: Part 1 and Steady State vs. Interval Training: Part 2.

Of course, eventually the general health 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 as described in Warming Up for the Weight Room.

In any case, that’s an overview of how someone would train for general health and wellness. 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 generally do more total training and put more emphasis into that singular goal.  For general health, a more all around approach to training and less overall emphasis and total training is done.  But the fundamental principles of overload, progression, etc. are still relevant.

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