I was recently watching a TED talk given by Dan Gilbert called “The Surprising Science of Happiness,” where Mr. Gilbert points out that too many options actually lower our level of contentment about any given thing. One of the greatest kettlebell trainers of our time, Pavel Tsatsouline, mentioned how in Russia, there are two choices for coffee, with or without milk. When a Russian then enters a Starbucks with a full menu of coffee derived beverages, overwhelmed, he leaves with nothing.
Exercise is the same way for many people: spoiled for choice with no real direction, they often choose to do nothing.
If you’d like to see your body function like it used to or prevent it from losing ability to perform activities you enjoy, you’ll need to develop a good physical practice. Many training modalities pushed by professionals and machine-based exercises at the gym may actually make your body feel worse than before you started.
This can be for a variety of reasons, but is often a result of a cookie cutter approach to what should be a highly personalized practice. You may have goals that differ from another person, and you certainly have a different starting point. This means you’ll have to learn to listen to your body in a whole new way in order to see real, lasting change.
These are a few general concepts to help you know the exercises that’ll give you the most benefit with the least amount of risk and time. Use this guide to help you separate the good from the bad when it comes to gym equipment and exercise advice.
1. Learn some basic yoga.
Some people love yoga, but for others it just isn’t their thing. Regardless of where you find yourself on this scale, it’s highly beneficial to develop and maintain an ability for some of the basics. Contracting your own muscles to lengthen others is an ancient technique, and is about as pure and natural as any form of exercise.
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2. Lift with your legs.
The deadlift is the most important human movement for lifting anything off the ground. Learn to do it properly and practice weekly. It really doesn’t matter how much weight you use — especially at first. Just make sure you get the technique exact. You can advance to heavier weights when your body tells you it’s time.
Another way to lift with your legs is the squat, an excellent move overall flexibility and teaching you to keep anything held at the shoulder feeling as light as possible. Lunges are also a way to use your legs and are great for your hips, create good range of motion and work balance, coordination and core strength.
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3. Push and pull.
Use your upper body muscles to push and pull weights, or your own bodyweight (a push up or pull up, for example). Learn to pull and push in many directions, and how to engage your shoulders and move safely and most effectively. There are many ways to make body weighted exercises easier.
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4. Think of every rep an opportunity.
Bad technique is pointless. Remember that if you aren’t improving your body, you’re probably hurting it. Pay attention to your feet: keep them flat on the ground, toes pointing forward. Align your kinetic chain from the bottom up through your knees, hips shoulders and head.
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5. Keep off the machines.
Most machinery provides limited results and isn’t what’s in sync with human movement. Try not to sit or lie down when you weight train — doing so eliminates the engagement of your pelvic floor (you’ll need that strength if you ever use those muscles in the real world). The same goes for cardio and weight training machines, too. Free weights and bodyweight exercises are all you need for functionality.
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6. Combine cardio and strength.
Not only is interval training proven to give you better results, it’s also safer than endurance training. Using power phase weight training (such as the kettlebell swing) and plyometrics will ensure you get the cardiovascular benefits you need from your physical practice. Use circuits to your advantage or use the tabata protocol for ways to change things up.
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7. Invest in some basics.
You can use kettlebells, dumbells, swiss balls and resistance bands in small places. They don’t take much space to store, but they will give you a bang for your buck.
With all this in mind, remember that flexibility is the key to strength and injury prevention. Always be extremely mindful and develop flexibility through your strength training by using excellent technique. I also encourage you to practice what you enjoy: your physical practice should be enjoyable and something you look forward to.