This is a series of posts covering that most cherished of all activities, sports. I will only discuss those sports that I tried and formed a studied opinion about. Those include a handful. I decided to start with fitness first, because it is a broad sport that serves as a good introduction and complement to others.
Young and old, male and female, fat and skinny, there’s a reason that fitness is such a widely adopted sport. The other is that it’s both for experts, newbies, and hobbyists (which can mean both an infrequent practitioner and one that does it as a supporting sport).
Unlike other sports that favour a specific kind of body type, fitness caters to the main three types: ectomorph (thin build), mesomorph (median build), endomorph (wide build). Each body type requires a different approach. I am not an expert on all of these, so I’ll cover it only superficially—read a more detailed description here.
Ectomorphs have trouble building muscle, but no trouble shedding pounds, so their area of the gym should be more focussed towards strength, rather than aerobics. Mesomorph are nicely placed in the middle, they respond well to both and risk putting on a few pounds if they ignore the aerobics. Endomorphs are strong through genetics, but benefit extremely much from aerobics.
The key to finding the best approach is really the ‘running in the rain’ approach: if you don’t feel like doing it, that’s probably the area you should focus on most.
That said, fitness has one particular goal that may not be compatible with the goal of other sports. Fitness in the purest sense wants to optimise your body in a general way, they want to turn us all into Clark Kent or Diana Prince (Wonder Woman’s secret identity). Basically a balanced sport for a balanced body, while some other sports like running or olympic weightlifting require bodies more geared towards either of those activities.
There are a variety of gyms that do or do not offer a combination of the below. They are ordered in no particular preference, though I would classify free weights as the most advanced and dangerous.
Machines vs free weights: You body benefits most from diversity, and machines don’t necessarily offer the best possibility to do that. I compare it to running in the sand vs running on pavement. On pavement, i.e. an even and unbending surface, your legs will always receive the same stimulation and grow accordingly. In sand, which is decidedly uneven and shifts constantly, your legs have to both run and keep balanced. There is a stimulation overload and the result is much stronger legs.
Machines are the pavement, they offer predictable and reliable movement, which is extremely safe and thus a good way to build basic strength. Free weights offer more flexibility to focus on either combination muscles or targeting more specific areas, but also force the muscle to constantly balance, creating the ‘sand effect’ on any muscle you train.
Free weights are however a decidedly advanced technique, where you can do much damage to your body and should not be exercised in isolation without education and thought. Any good gym should provide a basic explanations into what each weight and movement does and should be part of the introduction to this sport.
Classes vs. Personal Training: To the non-shy among us, there are a variety of classes available, ranging from ‘boot camps’ (allround, intense exercises regimes that range from 30 min to typically 1 hour) to aerobic classes (anything from dance to ‘rhythmic boxing’). The advantage of a class is the motivation aspect. 1. you have a teacher to guide you and 2. there’s a structure to it, both schedule-, content-, and music-wise. If you ever find yourself lacking motivation to just lift weights, a class may be the right change for you.
Personal trainers also range in orientation, from gymnasts to olympic bodybuilders, and offer the advantage of personal attention, as well as the disadvantage of cost.
Niche Gyms: Whether you’re a runner, boxer, or simply hate the traditional gym model, there’s probably a gym that’s more geared towards a particular area. Running clubs may have a gym on site or attached to them, same as other sports, with equipment geared towards optimising for that sport. Then there is the relatively recent trend towards Crossfit ‘boxes,’ which is a combination of gymnastics, weightlifting, HIIT training, and various other sports. There is some controversy around it and similar to free weights requires a well-reputed trainer to guide you.
When you get really creative, the world can become your gym, from parkour, to playgrounds, to bouldering, but that’s outside the scope of this article.
Support Through Technology
The modern gym is on your phone or wrist. While before, I used to read Muscle & Fitness magazine, or read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Bodybuilding Bible for workout tips, now every exercise program I use at the gym, as well as a timer and distance tracker, is in my pocket. Though they change over time, here are few that I’m enjoying right now (iOS only, sorry!):
The StrongLifts 5×5 App (free with in-app purchases – download and read about the method here): This one is geared towards some very efficient core exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, and various back, chest & shoulder exercises. I use it as a basic structure these days, training my own exercises, but using the 5×5 methodology and timer.
Hot5 Fitness (free with in-app purchases – download here): What I like about this app is that it has different difficulty levels and blasts an area in 5 minutes (5 exercises each 1 minute long) with some good and clear video-based teaching. I use it mainly for abdominals, core training, but it can easily be integrated into a cross fitness routine.
Moves (free, now owned by Facebook (yikes!), download here): Though there are many trackers, I used it from the very beginning to track any move I make, from walking to running. It allows for automatic activity setting per location (e.g. I go to the gym and it tells me how much time I spent there), provides daily and weekly reports on activity, and generally serves as a calendar and motivator. I have a feeling Apple’s Health app will replace much of it for me, but we will see.
There’s some other ones that I do not use often, such as a Tabata or HIIT timer, and the Pocket WOD (the official Cross Fitness app, but I’m not sure they are absolutely essential to mention here. Important to mention that any good workout benefits from great nutrition, and for instance Pocket Wod has a recipe database, as well as other specialised cooking apps.
The Pros & Cons
Finally, let’s evaluate. Fitness is a sport that’s easy to get into, for a wide audience, and has many options. One of the pro’s is that it allows for great time management, to go whenever and however long you can.
There are several con’s: it’s not a supplement for other, more *interesting* sports (insert your own here), though it can be a great complement to or launchpad for them. Advanced exercises can also lead to some pretty serious injuries, though the learning curve is decidedly not steep (the motivation curve can be). Finally, as with any sport, it can become monotonous, but again, it doesn’t have to start and end at the gym.
Feedback request: did you like or dislike this post? Should something be added? Let me know in the comments. Over the next coming month, I’ll continue to add similar (sport) introductions, hopefully making a nice collection out of it. Stay tuned!