When I finish up a program cycle, I always look back at my journal notes and evaluate what worked and what could have been better.
While day-to-day ups and downs can be addressed through autoregulation, tracking your progress and performance over the course of a few months can give you much more valuable information about what you should prioritize with your training.
Fitness is about teaching your body to handle the activities that are important or enjoyable for you, so when evaluating your performance with a training program, you should be looking for the practical development of control over your body for these activities. In general, the three essential components of a successful training program are:
- Body Control
Below, I’ll describe what your training method should help you develop within each of these categories. If your training method doesn’t pass the test, it may be time to make a change.
The 1st Essential Outcome of a Quality Fitness Program: Build a Strength Foundation
Strength is a necessary component, pretty much regardless of what your goals are.
If you’re training for an athletic sport, you’ll need to build the specific strength needed for that sport. If your goal is to simply be able to play with your kids without hurting yourself, you’ll need to build a certain amount of strength to do that.
Instead of a never-ending accumulation of strength, seek to develop the necessary strength to acquire certain skills. For instance, if you’d like to do a muscle-up, you’ll need the prerequisite upper body strength. There is no muscle-up without first doing a pull-up.
Strength and its benefits are relative to what you choose to use it for.
It’s easy to identify the person that lifts the most weight as strong, but unless they use that maximum level of strength in their daily lives, perhaps it’s not as useful as you’d think.
A good program takes into consideration the relative nature of strength and steers you to a practical development that will help you beyond the confines of a gym or training center.
So how do you build that strength?
1. Identify the Strength You Really Need
The first step in focused strength training is identifying the minimum strength necessary to perform the skill, and then performing the correct exercises to build that strength.
You could stop there and just continue with those same exercises for as long as you’d like, but I suggest moving on after you’ve laid down your foundation. Within a few months of concentrated strength training, you will have gained quite a bit of strength, and further improvement requires more time but at a certain point, there will be diminishing returns.
Move on to the next step to make use of this new strength.
2. Prepare Your Body for Further Strength Development
The second step occurs because applicable strength in any movement is a skill in and of itself.
Even those that have built good strength through weights and machines often need to learn how to develop specific strength for new exercises.
Combinations of particular exercises should be broken down and practiced to further prepare your body for unaccustomed leverages and stresses. This is the start of moving past “general strength” and towards the specific strength needs you require for your goals.
It’s a rare person that can just jump in to another type of training and excel without practice, so that’s why this combined skills practice should be built in to a good program.
3. Combine Your New Strength Skills
The third step is an even further specializing of strength training directly related to your goal.
For example if you’d like to jump higher or farther, then you’ll need to move past just adding weight on the bar or leg press. You’ll have to practice bounding and jump technique to improve your rate of force development. And after that, you’ll have to incorporate jumping in different environments and contexts.
Rather than focusing on individual sets and reps of a skill by itself, you should practice the skill in concert with other movements in the skills routine. When a move is only practiced in isolation, you’ll often have trouble performing it well outside of that context.
You can alter the practice conditions by combining it with different exercises, changing the speed of movement, or practicing in a different area/terrain.
The 2nd Essential Outcome of a Quality Fitness Program: Increase Flexibility for Your Particular Needs
Just as “strong enough” is contingent upon your objectives, so is flexibility, and as we’ve written before, you may not need to stretch much at all to just get the kinks out.
Flexibility should be seen as a means to an end, rather than just something you need to do, regardless of your condition. Successful training recognizes this and provides the appropriate planning for your particular needs.
As an example, it’s obvious that your hips and legs need to be flexible enough to get a full range of motion in the barbell squat. But you also need to have good motion in your shoulders and upper back! If you have difficulty holding the bar properly on your back because your shoulders are too tight, then your squatting program needs to include specific shoulder and upper back stretches to improve your positioning.
This is directly related to improving your squat since the proper position will enhance your technique and you won’t waste energy forcing yourself into better form.
Optimal flexibility gives you many more options. Follow this process to get the most out of your efforts in flexibility training.
1. Identify Your Personal Needs
The first thing you need to do is figure out what skill or movement you want to learn, and then determine what positions you need to be able to get into in order to achieve that. Find your baseline measurement for that position, and see how far you are from your goal.
For instance, let’s say you want to learn the straddle press to handstand. If you don’t have the open hip flexibility for the straddle, it will be much more difficult to do. You’ll be expending a lot of energy and effort working to either get in a good starting position, or simply have to begin in a poor position. A good test in this particular example is looking at your pancake position.
If you are far from your goal, that doesn’t mean you should give up on that goal, by any means. But you will probably need more work and/or more time than someone whose starting point is further along.
2. Choose the Appropriate Exercises to Address Your Needs
If a program has you spending an hour on 15 different stretches, that should raise a red flag. When you identify a specific flexibility need to work on, you only need to work on two or three specific stretches to address that need.
We’ve used this approach in our customizable flexibility program because, well, it works.
You’re more likely to stay consistent when the work is manageable, and consistency is what leads to dramatic results.
And when you’re working on stretches that specifically target the things you need to work on the most, you’ll see a more direct impact on those areas.
3. Recheck Your Baseline Every 3-4 Weeks
When you stretch consistently, your flexibility should improve pretty quickly, even if incrementally. So, you should reassess yourself every few weeks to make sure you are on track.
One thing that is helpful is to take before and after videos or pictures so that you can compare your progress side-by-side. With flexibility in particular, it can be difficult to feel the difference in just a few weeks, but often you will see a much bigger difference than you thought.
If you’re not improving after a few weeks, you should readjust your plan, perhaps choosing different stretches that target those same areas, or changing your positioning slightly.
Every good exercise program needs a focused approach to the specific flexibility needed to do well in the routine. Make sure your current routine has that in check so you can make the most out of your efforts.
The 3rd Essential Outcome of a Quality Fitness Program: Improve Your Overall Body Control
This essential component in a training program is a little harder to define, especially in programs that are more focused on aesthetic changes like bodybuilding or fat loss routines.
But even in those types of programs, while the primary focus may be on body composition changes, there should still be activities that help you to be comfortable in your new body. And that’s really what body control is about.
I had a new client who came in, and as he walked in and started training, I thought there was something a bit off about him.
Not his personality – he’s a great guy – but I couldn’t put my finger on why I kept doing a double take when I watched him move around. Then, as he came in regularly and we got to talking, he told me how he used to weigh about 80 pounds more than he does now.
That’s when I realized what I was seeing: He was still walking around like he was overweight!
I was seeing this man of average weight move like a much bigger person. He still had that habit even though he no longer had that body structure.
I believe that even just a couple of movement exploration exercises interspersed in his weight loss regimen would have gotten him more accustomed to his changing body and steered him toward a different way of moving with less effort.
Follow this process to improve your motor control.
1. Figure Out Your Specific Body Control Needs
Certain activities and goals will require different amounts of body control than others. For instance, the barbell squat requires just enough control to be able to lower your body down into the squat and stand up again, and not worry about throwing out your back because you’re not moving smoothly.
The press handstand, however, requires quite a bit more control because it requires smooth movement through several different planes of motion.
Depending on what you’re working on, you’ll need to emphasize motor control more or less.
But, like in the example I just gave of my formerly overweight client, what it really comes down to is being able to move comfortably and without fear. The next step will help you address that.
2. Build Motor Control With Exploratory Exercise
As I’ve talked about above with strength and flexibility, body/motor control has to be specifically addressed for the objectives in mind.
But the skills don’t have to be very complex to benefit from body control exercise. Even “simple” exercises can be improved by identifying what you need to change to improve its execution. Sometimes you are flexible enough and your strength is adequate, but you still have difficulty in your performance.
This is where motor control exercises come in.
For our purposes, body and motor control refers to your awareness of how you move your body, and your ability to place the appropriate body parts in the correct places.
If you know you should be doing “X” but you are doing “Y” no matter how much your trainer/drill sergeant is yelling at you, then perhaps you need something better than the “somebody screaming at you method”.
In this video, you can see some examples of waking up some dormant motor patterns to encourage your body out of certain ruts and habits:
And it seems movements in different body areas can change your body awareness enough to improve even unrelated patterns. Working on how your hips move can improve how you walk on your hands, and vice versa.
It’s a fun and surprising thing that happens all the time and points to the value of body control work.
3. Combine Motor Control With Mindful Practice
Motor learning improvements and the technical details of skill performance have the capacity to improve much more than strength and flexibility. Artists and others with mindful practice know that they can continue to refine their craft for the rest of their lives.
As you continue to work on your motor control skills, try to bring a mindful awareness to your practice. This will help you feel simultaneously in control and at ease.
Does Your Training Method Pass the Test?
There are as many exercise programs as there are goals and people teaching and performing them. Regardless, you probably don’t need a “special snowflake” program, but appropriate adaptability should be a part of every good program.
I’ve identified the need to match your individual needs in regards to strength, flexibility, and body control in your exercise regimen.
And I truly believe that every good coach knows how to do this – if even just subconsciously – and that they are hallmarks of the best routines out there. Of course, since these components are built into the GMB Method, all of our training materials meet the requirements 😉
Better Yet, Address All 3 Components With One Simple Program
We designed our introductory program, Elements, to help you build a foundation of strength, flexibility, and control, all in one simple program. It only calls for a few minutes of practice a day, and it builds progressively to make sure none of these essential components is neglected.
Get What You Need From a Fitness Program
With Elements, you’ll build a foundation of strength, flexibility, and control, setting yourself up for a successful lifetime of staying fit and active.