When it comes to exercise or rehab, we hear these types of questions all the time:
- What exercises should I focus on when getting started?
- How many reps should I do? How many times per day/week?
- I’m sore the next day, is that good?
- I know these exercises are helping but I can’t find the time to fit them in. What should I do?
These are all great questions and the answers to them may be quite different from person to person. So the goal of this post is to give you some general tips and recommendations for how to get the most out of your rehab or training program.
Where To Start?
When starting a new exercise program, whether it be rehabilitation after an injury or training for a specific sport or event, you should always start with the basics. Some people may focus on exercising individual body parts. A good alternative, and an approach we like to use with our patients, is to focus exercise around the fundamental movement patterns of the human body. This approach helps train the body as one piece and focuses on overall movement rather than individual muscles.
Using this approach, we can divide exercises into 5 basic categories:
- PUSH (ex: push-ups, bench press, military press, dips)
- PULL (ex: pull-up, rows, pull-downs, bent-over row)
- HINGE (ex: glute bridge, deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts, kettlebell swing)
- SQUAT (ex: goblet squat, back squat, reverse lunges, pistol squat)
- CARRIES (ex: farmer walk, suitcase carry, overhead carry, Turkish get up)
Most of the exercises or stretches we go over with patients in the clinic are based on at least one of these basic movements because they are the movements we perform the most (or should) throughout the day. Regardless of where you’re starting from, a good goal to work towards is mastering these basic movements. Being good at the basics is going to help prevent injury and give you a good foundation of movement that you can then build strength on top of.
How Much Is Too Much?
This is probably the biggest challenge for people starting out with new exercises or activities. What makes things trickier is that everyone is different and what is comfortable for some may not be comfortable for all. When trying to build strength, you have to find the right balance between the frequency and intensity of the exercises that you are doing. When prescribing strengthening exercises, we typically advise our patients to “do as many as you can until you need a break.” Now, what we are NOT saying is “go to failure.” Going to failure is a great way to burn out and potentially hurt yourself.
To build strength in a sustainable way, it is better to perform as many reps as you can until you feel like your form is starting to deteriorate or until you feel like you have 2-3 more reps left in the tank before you can’t do anymore. Some days you may feel awesome and want to do more, but other days you may feel less awesome and want to do less and that is okay. This approach gives you the freedom to pick and choose when to do more or less based on how your body is feeling and helps prevents exercise burnout and injury. Use the 2-3 sets of 10 reps guideline as a reference but know that you can modify the reps or sets to suit your needs (for example, 2 sets of 5 reps, 1 set of 8 reps, 3 sets of 3 reps, etc.)
The number of reps you should do depends on your goals and where you are currently in terms of fitness level. But consistency over time is what truly creates positive changes in strength and fitness. When in doubt, ask your trusty neighborhood chiropractor, personal trainer, or other health care provider for guidance. The important thing to remember is that QUALITY > QUANTITY.
I’m sore after my exercises. Is that good?
Some discomfort or soreness is normal when you are strengthening new muscle groups. Sore is safe in our book. If you are getting what feels more like pain and that pain is worsening the more exercises you do or lasting >48hrs afterward, you may be doing too much. On a scale of 0-10 for pain/discomfort, we want you to be operating in the 0-3/10 range, AKA the ‘green light’ zone. If you feel like you are above this range, just modify your reps and sets until you get back into the green.
It’s okay to skip exercises sometimes if you are feeling like you need a break or if an exercise is too challenging. You can always come back to it later on once your strength improves. Consistency is key to improving your strength and fitness. If you miss a day here and there, that’s okay. Just try and stay consistent over time and aim for performing your exercises at least 3-4 times per week.
In order to stimulate positive adaptation (e.g. get stronger), we have to apply a stressor to the body. For most individuals, this can be done by either increasing the weight/resistance of an exercise or increasing the number of reps performed over time. But if you are just starting out, focusing on the basic movements and technique should be your focus. In either scenario, consistency is key, and exercising on a regular basis is essential for creating the positive changes you want to see. For example, some exercise programs will recommend performing exercises 3-4 times per week in order to stimulate that adaptation in a timely manner. But we all know that’s easier said than done.
Many times, it is not just the physiological limitations that prevent us from putting in the work needed to get stronger and healthier. But rather, the constraints of workout availability times, nutrition, sleep, pain/stiffness, and other life stressors. This is where the micro-dosing concept comes in. Micro-dosing allows us to reframe how we look at exercises and makes the process more manageable.
Think of it this way:
Instead of working out for one hour, 3-4 times per week, why not do 15-30 minutes of exercise 5-7 days per week instead?
This approach allows us to accumulate the volume of work needed to get stronger and prevent pain/injury, without accumulating too much fatigue. By distributing the work throughout the week in more manageable doses, we can be more flexible with our routines and keeps some extra gas in our physiological tank for any of life’s surprises.
Again, use this concept as a guideline to find the routine that works for you. That could mean 15 minutes of exercise 6 times per week or 25 minutes 4 times per week. Some patients will even do 5 minutes of exercise at a time, several times per day, during their work break or whenever they have a few free minutes.
At the end of the day, the best exercises are the ones that get done. But for them to get done, they have to work with your schedule. It may take some trial and error but remember, some exercise and movement is better than none at all.