The Perfect Exercise Program

As a personal trainer, I am often asked fitness questions by people I meet at parties or in normal daily encounters. I hear things like: "What is the best workout?"  "Is running good for you or is swimming better?” “Which group exercise class is the best?” “What about squats, are they good to do?” I barely know the person; we may have just met that evening, or five minutes before. They want a one word answer; one simple answer to solve their fitness-related problems. I hate to disappoint them. But I cannot answer that question unless I have more information; a lot more information. I need know about their lifestyle; what they do for work and how they spend their time. I need to know their past history of exercise and their preconceived notions about different types of exercise. I need to know about their aches, pains, and past injuries. Their body type, dietary restrictions, and medical conditions must be taken into account. It is also important to consider their personality type; are they an introvert or an extrovert, an adventure seeker or risk averse. It’s helpful to know whether they prefer to exercise indoors or outdoors and factor in the climate and location in which they live. There are so many things to consider.

Know What YOU Want

But there I am, standing at a get-together with a person I have just met and they want me to give them a one word solution to their quest for health and fitness. “Heath” and “fitness” by the way, is defined differently by each and every person, thus adding to the complication. What does being “healthy” mean to you? What does being “fit” look like to you? Paint the picture. What are you doing? How are you feeling? What do you look like? Who is with you? Are you hiking a mountain in Colorado? Are you playing with your children or grandchildren? Are you completing a 10-mile run? Are you fearless and confident? Deciding what “fit” and “healthy” means to you and developing those images in your mind will help lead you to your “why”. It is incredibly important to know your “why” because that is what will sustain you when adversity and obstacles come your way. It will help you overcome temptations, doubts, and fears. It is your internal source of motivation, when the outside world is telling you differently. Consider your big picture as well as what is important for you today. For example, is it important to you to fit into your clothes today, or to feel comfortable in a bathing suit this summer, or to avoid heart disease and high blood pressure twenty years from now? You may have one or any number of reasons to get “fit” and “healthy”. Write them down and read them daily.

What Kind of Non-Workout Activity Do You Do?

The next step is to look at your day-to-day activities. How is your time spent? How many hours per day are you seated? Are you working on a computer like so many people in our society today? Or are you on your feet all day, working in retail or as a nurse, doctor, or teacher? Are you doing physical labor, like a UPS worker, mail carrier, or construction worker? As a basic rule, whatever you are doing all day long, your exercise program should help to balance you out. If you are seated at a computer all day long, then you want to choose an exercise program that puts you on your feet. Typing on a keyboard brings your arms forward with your elbows bent, rounds your back, and caves in your chest. Your head sags forward and your hips and spine are flexed.  This posture can create a condition known as forward head syndrome, commonly referred to as “text neck.” To reverse the negative effects of being in this position for extended periods of time, we need to spend time in the opposite position. The opposite position is one of hip extension, spinal extension, and shoulder external rotation. If you’re not familiar with these terms, imagine standing tall with your arms stretched out to a “Y” as if you are starting to do the “YMCA”. Exercises that strengthen the rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, lower trapezius, and gluteus maximus are helpful for those who have a desk job. Examples include rows, pull-downs, rear-deltoid fly’s, lateral shoulder raises, deadlifts, squats, lunges, and planks; assuming there are no existing contraindications to these exercises. It would also be beneficial to move in the transverse plane, like rotational or three dimensional exercises. Sports where you are swinging a bat, racquet, or a club would allow your body to go through a plane of motion that you are typically not experiencing during your workday. This type of exercise can also be done using cable machines, resistance bands, free weights, and even your own body weight. If you are standing on your feet all day, you might benefit from swimming or Pilates mat and Reformer classes.

De-Stress Your Life!

Another factor to consider is stress. If you are in a high stress job, working long hours, and getting less than seven hours of sleep per night, then your body is probably flooded with stress hormones on a daily basis. If this is the case, then you may want to reconsider high intensity exercises. A 2008 study revealed that moderate to high intensity exercise increased cortisol levels in the blood. The same study also found that low intensity exercise actually reduced cortisol levels in the blood. Sleep deprivation is also a stressor that can raise cortisol levels. Therefore, if you are stressed out or not getting enough sleep consider doing Yoga classes, Tai Chi, or other forms of low intensity exercise. Slow, steady strength training while focusing on good posture and deep breathing would be a great option as well. Going on a nature walk, a jog through the park, or a moderate hike would offer the stress-reducing benefits of nature and a much needed break from the daily grind.

Do What You Like and Try Something New!

We often find ourselves participating in the activities that we are best at. If we are incredibly flexible, we tend to practice Yoga. If we have a lot of muscle mass, we tent to lift heavy weights. The reality is, what we like to do the least is probably what we need to do the most. People who are hyper-mobile, commonly referred to as “double-jointed” would benefit from strength and stability training. People who are incredibly stiff or have a lot of muscle mass would benefit from flexibility and mobility training. Those who have only been running long distances for the past few years would probably benefit from interval training or resistance training. Those who refrain from cardiovascular exercise because it is uncomfortable would probably benefit from a form of cardiovascular exercise like swimming or cycling. In my opinion, we need to pick one type of exercise that takes us out of our comfort zone and include that into our program one time per week. If you believe you have no rhythm or coordination, try a dance class or Zumba class. If you feel wimpy and timid, try boxing or kick-boxing. Getting out of your comfort zone will help you conquer fears and build self-esteem as you gradually see improvement.

Enjoy Yourself!The majority of your workouts, however, should make you feel powerful and free! There is so much negativity in this world. We need to seek out positive feelings and positive experiences. It is important for our mind and our emotional health. I feel powerful when I have a kettlebell in my hands. I have trained with kettlebells for many years so I feel competent and skilled. It is a great boost to my endorphins and my self-confidence. Others feel powerful when they run, or cycle, or do Olympic lifts. Some people feel free when they dance, swim, or kayak. Whatever form of exercise makes you feel powerful and free, should be in your exercise program at least one time per week. If an activity moves your soul, like mountain-biking, skiing, or meditation, it should be a regular part of your routine. Just like your style of clothes and the way you dress is a form of self-expression, so is your exercise program. Make it unique to you. Make it a combination of the things you need, the things you enjoy, the things you are good at, and the things you want to be good at; the things that balance you out and make you a well-rounded person both physically and emotionally.

Michol Dalcourt, the founder of the Institute of Motion, developed the “Four Quadrant Training Module” as a guideline for maintaining balance in your workout program. Each of the four categories in this model has specific physiological benefits and responses. Performing all four types provides the greatest range of physiological benefits while reducing the risk of injury. One quadrant is titled “loaded linear movement” which includes your conventional resistance training exercises like bicep curls, barbell squats, bench press, shoulder press, and countless others using machines, barbells, dumbbells, and cables in classic strength training fashion. The next quadrant is “unloaded linear, repetitive movement” which includes exercises like running, cycling, swimming and rowing. You are using your own body weight and repeating the same motion over and over again. The third quadrant represents “loaded three dimensional variable movements” which means moving in all planes of motion with an external load. Some examples of this include lunging in various directions while holding a medicine ball and reaching it in various directions or performing Power Yoga with weights. Michol and Giovanni Roselli of Equinox have teamed up to develop a group exercise class called “Fully Loaded” to represent loaded three dimensional movements. Michol also developed a piece of equipment called the “ViPR” as a means to satisfy our need for this type of movement. The fourth quadrant includes unloaded three dimensional variable movements which includes exercise like Zumba, Tai Chi, Yoga, and SAQ (Speed, Agility, and Quickness) Drills. You are using your own body weight and completing varied movements in multiple directions.

When developing the perfect exercise program for you, considering these four quadrants will ensure variety in your workouts, which is important for being able to maintain your workouts over time. This brings me to my final consideration. The number one determining factor, in whether or not you will reach your health and fitness goals, is adherence. Adherence means “a steady devotion”. Steady means “regular, even, and continuous in development, frequency, or intensity.” If you devise an exercise program that is based on your “why” and you continue to reflect on your “why”, you will remain committed. If you enjoy your exercise program and it makes you feel empowered you will keep going back for more. If your exercise program creates balance in your life you will be healthier for it. If you are overcoming fears in your exercise program you will build your self-esteem and it will further your success, not only in fitness but in other areas of your life. If you have variety in your exercise program you will be able to maintain it over time. You will build your body up instead of breaking it down. If your exercise program is a true representation of you, it will become as much a part of your life as your family, your friends, your career, and everything else you believe in.


Alison Blake is an experienced Fitness Professional in the Washington DC area. Most days you can find her at Equinox DC. She is the creator of Kettleballistic, a series of dynamic Kettlebell workouts that improve strength, power, flexibility, and endurance in one calorie-crushing workout. She is passionate about her role as an Independent Consultant for Arbonne International: sharing pure, safe, and beneficial skincare, personal care, and nutrition products with others.

Alison Blake

Alison is a personal trainer and nutrition consultant. She believes in helping others to live and love fully through a healthy body and mind! A former collegiate athlete, she has been training herself and others to utilize Kettlebells in a fun, safe, and effective way to achieve a variety of fitness goals. Alison helps guide her clients toward healthy nutritional behaviors.