Training Secrets For The Outdoor Athlete
Updated: May 1
With all of our fitness articles, the overarching goal is to simplify and demystify fitness. Most of the fitness industry is driven by the idea that there is secret knowledge you have to pay to access. This marketing strategy is so prevalent that we effectively do the same thing by showing you the simple approach to training that works. But we don't charge anything for it, so there's that.
Weird exercises, cult-like diets, and outlandish claims that you can get ripped in 30 days are all just designed to fool you into thinking there is a shortcut to success. Because of this, real knowledge has become secret. In my 25 years of training people, there are things that I have found that stand the test of time. It isn't always fancy or cutting edge but it works.
Achieving your fitness goals is relatively more straightforward than you might think. Depending on your goals, you put together a program and then consistently execute it.
Here are some pieces of knowledge that have helped me with clients and my own training.
Train movements, not muscles
Stop thinking about training individual muscles and start thinking about movement patterns. If you get better at the movements with adequate load and volume, the muscles will improve as a by-product.
Focussing on improving movement skills will help you become more athletic and make your programming easier to understand.
When creating a program, focus on the primary movement patterns as you will hit all the muscles of the body. It is OK to add is some additional work such as direct abdominal or grip training, but don't make it the main course of your workout.
Primary movement patterns
A super basic way to train is to take one movement from each category and do them as a circuit. I like doing Every Minute On the Minute (EMOM) training as you get a lot of bang for your buck. Set a timer to beep each minute. Do a set at the start of the minute. Whatever time is left is your rest period. Your next set starts when the timer beeps again.
Since there are six movement patterns, if you put 30 minutes on the clock, you will get five sets of each exercise done in that time. I enjoy these workouts as you hit more than one fitness trait in a short time. You get stronger and build work capacity. To progress, you can add rounds or increase reps before you have to go up in weight.
Sample EMOM workout:
Squat 5 Double kettlebell front squats
Push 5 Double kettlebell military press
Hip Hinge 10 Kettlebell swings
Pull 5 Pullups
Lunge 5 Rear stepping lunges per leg
Carry 30 seconds Farmers Walk
There is no such thing as toning
Here is my quick and dirty physiology lesson about aesthetics. I hear people say they don't want to get big muscles; instead, they want to tone. Toning is a marketing buzzword. It doesn't exist in exercise physiology.
To affect the appearance of your body, you can change the size of your muscles and the amount of body fat you are carrying. If you don't want to look bulky, then get lean and build a bit of muscle.
For women, if you are worried that you will look like a man or competitive female bodybuilder, then you are in luck. Without years of work towards that goal, as well as performance-enhancing drugs, you have next to no chance of looking like that regardless of how heavy you train. You don't have the level of anabolic hormones that make that a possibility without a trip to the pharmacy.
Building muscle is hard. Skinny guys who want to get big struggle for years so don't worry about getting too muscular.
What are your goals?
When people ask me for fitness advice, my answer is almost always, It depends
It all comes down to your goals. The best approach to fat loss isn't the best way to build muscle.
Avoid the trap of chasing too many goals at once.
You can simultaneously build multiple fitness traits; be aware that you won't maximize any quality. If there is something you want to accomplish more than anything else then prioritize that goal.
When looking at how to prioritize your fitness goals, you need to look at your current condition. If you have a significant amount of fat to lose, then this should be your priority. Focusing on fat loss will make all of the other fitness qualities easier to improve.
If your goal is to lose fat, then the first thing you need to focus on is nutrition. You need to be in a caloric deficit. This can be a combination of cutting calories and increasing activity. But you can't outwork a bad diet.
For instance, McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese Combo has around 1050 calories. It takes you about 10 minutes to eat this. To burn the same amount of calories from exercise will take approximately 2 hours of steady work.
80% of fat loss is what you eat, while only 20% is your movement practice.
Eat whole foods
To lose fat without having to count calories, only eat whole foods. If your diet is fruit, vegetables, and proteins with little or no processed foods, you will find it much easier to cut body fat. Make an effort to get 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. A higher protein intake will help with recovery as well as feeling full longer.
By consuming predominantly whole foods, you will find that you feel full longer. Studies have shown that a whole food diet leads to fat loss without tracking calories or portion size.
Processed foods that come in a box are engineered to be palatable, which leads to eating more. Do your shopping in the produce and meat section. The only foods which don't spoil you should be eating are rice and beans.
Fast for faster fat loss
Combine a whole food diet with intermittent fasting, which is only eating during a set time window. You will have a very potent fat loss diet without having to resort to counting calories and measuring your food.
Consider having an 8-hour feeding window each day, a simple approach that works for most people. This approach will mean not eating until noon each day and not eating after 8 pm. You can vary your start and end times but keep to the window.
Fasting has several health benefits, but when it comes to fat loss, the main one is you will tend to eat fewer calories if you eat fewer meals.
Find your one thing
One of the most effective things you can do for fat loss is finding one thing you can cut out that makes a big difference. This can be cutting out soda, fruit juice, or bread. The most valuable thing is to cut out alcohol.
This is one of the easiest ways to boost fat loss as there is both the calorie cut and the effect of booze. If you need to take the edge off and it is legal, then try marijuana drops. Just don't plan on doing anything else after you imbibe.
Train with complexes
With that out of the way, when it comes to training for fat loss, I've found the most effective way to do it is with resistance training complexes. A complex is doing multiple exercises without putting down the weight. For instance, I like the following:
5 Kettlebell snatch
5 Kettlebell clean
5 kettlebell press
5 kettlebell squats in the rack position
5 Kettlebell swings
These are all done in a row before you put the bell down. If you are doing it with one kettlebell, do all the reps for your weak arm first, and then switch arms. You would rest in between complexes and repeat 3-5 times.
Since you are only doing five reps of each exercise, you won't fatigue any one muscle group to the point of failure. Still, you have a substantial systemic load as you are doing 25 repetitions before putting the weight down. By repeating this complex with adequate resistance, you will have a muscle-building stimulus as well as a sizeable metabolic effect.
You can do complexes with barbells, kettlebells, or dumbbells. While you could do bodyweight versions of these, the magic seems to be in the demand that external resistance places on the body.
Doing complexes three days a week and three cardio sessions is a suitable method of maintaining muscle mass and burning many calories.
Getting jacked is called hypertrophy by the nerds in lab coats. Currently, science believes there are three mechanisms of muscle growth: Mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. I say currently because new data is always coming out.
Mechanical tension is working against a challenging resistance.
Muscle damage is micro-tears in the muscles that grow when they heal.
Metabolic stress accumulates fatigue products in the muscles caused by medium to high reps or shorter rest periods. The pump you get from training is an indication of metabolic stress.
As we are outdoor athletes and not bodybuilders, we will focus on building muscle for performance and not show. Bigger muscles have the potential for more strength.
The process is simple but not quick. 2-3 times per week train against resistance with an eye towards progressive overload. This means adding resistance, volume, shortening the rest periods, or any other factor that makes your workouts harder.
Follow a program with the primary human movements: Push, pull, squat, lunge, hip hinge, and loaded carry. Your reps and sets will depend on what training tools you have available. For instance, it is much easier to focus on the weight when you have a barbell as you can micro-load in small increments.
With kettlebells, you would increase your volume and reps for quite a while before you increased the weight as the jumps between sizes are more significant. Either way, if you once could do five military presses with 20 kg and get to the point that you can do 10 with 32 kg, your shoulders, triceps, upper chest, and back muscles will be bigger.
Get adequate protein intake and enough sleep. Focus on the process and not the results as they are slow.
Most athletes who want to gain some muscle but aren't aiming to end up built like the Rock, I recommend a comprehensive training approach focused on getting stronger. In the course of building volume, you will also elicit enough stimulus for muscle hypertrophy.
To get stronger, you need to progressively challenge your muscles and nervous system to generate more force. There are many approaches to getting stronger that are effective, but certain principles apply to almost all training systems.
To get strong, you have to challenge yourself. This requires relatively challenging resistance. In barbell training, it would be 70-85 % of your one-rep max.
In kettlebell training, we approach it differently because it is hard to find your actual one-rep max with the weight jumps. So we will use rep maxes instead. This is occasionally testing how many reps you can get with good form and then using this to set our target reps.
Another great approach is using a weight you can do at least 8-10 reps with and doing lots of sets of 3-5. When the kettlebells start to feel light, increase your reps and shorten your rest periods. Once you are doing multiple sets of 10 reps, go to the next heavier kettlebell and drop the repetitions back down. This will allow you to go longer with a given weight before you have to increase it.
Don't train to failure
Muscular failure is the point at which you can't do another rep no matter how hard you try. When focusing on getting stronger, you don't want to train to failure as it is taxing on the nervous system and increases the chance of injury.
With rare exceptions, such as doing a rep-max test, always leave a couple of reps in the tank. It will take practice to know where this level is. Don't worry if you occasionally hit the wall but don't make it a regular exercise.
Rest adequately between efforts
If the goal is getting strong, then you want to approach each set relatively fresh. For most people, this means a minute or two, but the stronger you get, the more rest you will need.
Rest as little as possible to keep your workouts from being too long and as much as you need to make sure your sets are of high quality.
Keep reps low
When training for strength, you should keep your reps low. By low repetitions, I mean 1-5 reps. Each rep should have your complete focus. We are improving the neuromuscular recruitment, so keeping the reps low allows you to focus on each one. And maybe, more importantly, low reps will enable you to use a heavier weight which requires more muscle fibers to fire to move it.
Most people bleed strength as they aren't skilled at creating tension in the body.
Take the military press as an example: If your core and glutes aren't tight, you are pushing off a soft platform. Think of firing a cannon in a canoe. The more tension you create, the more power you will be able to display.
Cues to maximize tension
Big belly full of air
Tighten your glutes
Brace your abs for a punch
Squeeze your lats
Lift your knee caps
Push through the floor
Crush the grip
Screw your feet into the floor
Strength is a skill. It is improved by regular sub-maximal practice. To see strength improvements, every workout doesn't have to be an all-out effort. Doing this too often will lead to stagnation as it is taxing to the nervous system.
Coach Dan John's Easy Strength Program has you doing your lifts five days a week, but it will be relatively easy, as the name implies. There are no prescribed loads. You do five movements each session.
Keep reps to a total of 10 reps max per exercise except for kettlebell swings. This can be 2x5, 5x2, or 3x3. Feel free to mix them up. With swings, you will do a total of 75 reps. Pick a hip hinge, push, pull, ballistic like kettlebell swings, with loaded carries or ab wheel as the final exercise.
When a weight feels light, go heavier. This approach is excellent for working out at home if you have the gear, as it takes very little time. When I've done Easy Strength, my workout usually only takes 30 minutes with a warm-up.
This two-month program is a total of 40 workouts. You get very good at the movements, you get stronger, and it is easy. Once finished, move to another program. You can do this twice a year to good effect.
Vary training intelligently
Your body adapts to stimulus very quickly. This stagnation is why slight variations are needed to keep progressing.
Every 4-8 weeks, vary something about your training to keep your body adapting. This can be movements such as switching two-hand swings for one-hand swings. When changing exercises, look for similar but different ones, so you train the same movement pattern. If you are at a loss for what to switch to, send me an email, and I'll help you out. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of my approaches with kettlebells is to cycle strength into conditioning with the same weights. By starting with a weight that I can only do five reps with for something like the clean and press, I will do a cycle with me, starting with 1-3 reps. Over 2-3 months, I will build to the point that I can do up to 10-15 reps with this weight when I retest my rep max.
I will then start using it as a conditioning cycle where I start with a 10-15 minute Every Minute On the Minute program. For this workout, you will set a timer to beep every minute. At the start of the minute, do the prescribed work and the remaining time is your rest. Go again at the beginning of the next minute.
Start with every minute doing 10 seconds of work and 50 seconds of rest. For four weeks, it will build to 45 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest. When you get to the point that you can do all sets with 45 seconds of work, you will be a lot fitter. This is all done with a weight that I could only do five reps a few months ago.
Building strength is a slow process. It takes consistent work overtime to see results. Treat your strength training like a job. Show up, do the work and go home.
Conditioning, work capacity, or fitness.; It doesn't matter what you call it, but the ability to do hard work repeatedly is a vital performance trait to train. All fitness has a foundation in strength, so one of the simplest ways to increase your conditioning is to get stronger. Then a given task is less taxing.
While doing your strength training is essential, you also have to train your body to endure. This is where you have to put the time building stamina in different time and intensity domains.
I break conditioning down into two main areas; General physical preparedness(GPP) and sport-specific fitness. There is carry-over between the two, but if you want to improve running or cycling, you have to lace up your shoes or get on the bike.
Everything you do activity-wise can help build your conditioning. Still, when creating a program to develop your endurance specifically, your training will mix steady-state and intervals.
Steady-state is any activity done at a consistent pace to get your heart rate to a specific level and hold it there for a prescribed time.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), on the other hand, is varying the pace. Go hard, then recover. Repeat until done. This can be anything from 10-second hill sprints with full recovery between efforts to mountain biking, where the terrain dictates a higher effort going up the hills with a recovery period while you descend.
When programing our strength training, I like to do volume cycles where we start with 20-30 minutes of EMOM training and add each week up to 60 minutes. The cyclical nature of this training combined with high loads makes it interval training by default. As such, we don't need a lot of different intervals for conditioning. This is how we train in the winter, as it is our off-season where the goal is to get stronger and build general fitness.
If you follow a strength training program that gets your heart rate up, adding some low-intensity steady state (LISS) training may be all you need. This can be walking, cycling, or any other steady-state activity that is done at a pace that allows you to hold a conversation. If you know your heartrates, then aim for 55-65% of your maximum heart rate. If you do 3-4 sessions a week of 30-60 minutes for general health, you will be doing alright.
For hikers, I suggest doing your LISS training with a loaded pack. Ruck marching like this is sport-specific and will acclimatize your body to moving with a load.
If your goal is sport-specific such as improving performance on your mountain bike, then we need to work on both your steady-state and intervals while on the bike. Generally, you want your training to be either relatively easy LISS training or HIIT.
Avoid spending too much time in the middle, where it is somewhat challenging but sustainable. This tends to tire you out without a considerable return fitness-wise. Everyone's specifics will vary, but a good rule of thumb is to keep 80 percent of your training in the LISS category, with 20 percent being intervals.
The Wrap Up
Training is both complicated and straightforward. Stick to the basics and don't try to improve everything at once. Figure out what is essential now and work on that while maintaining the other fitness qualities. Get stronger as this will increase the potential for improvements in different areas and reduce the risk of injury. And most importantly, have fun as this will keep you training.