Welcome back to my Beginner’s Guide to Workout Types!
In Part 1, I covered the basics and pros and cons of cardio exercises (check it out here). Now, let’s turn our attention to some other popular exercise options--strength training and everything else non-cardio--weight lifting, HIIT, competitive activities, etc!
I won’t give ya the full run-down again (see Part 1 for the introduction and background on my workout guide), but a few quick reminders before we get started...
Don’t let the unknown or intimidation stop you from trying a new activity! I’m asked so frequently how I stay motivated to work out, and for me, a lot of it comes down to variety. So I hope my overviews and simple pros and cons to consider help you find new ways to be active that work for you!
There are health benefits to changing up your workouts--like building new muscle, keeping your mind stimulated and healthy, overcoming a weight-loss plateau, and preventing overuse injury. BUT…
The MOST important thing about being active is that you move your body in the way that works best for YOU!
I love all things fitness, and doubly love helping people set goals and stay motivated--so please reach out if I can be of any help for you!
Alright, lace up those tennis shoes, let’s jump into it!
Strength training and its health benefits
To over-simplify, strength training (often called resistance training or weight lifting to differentiate it from cardio training) involves using objects--like barbells, kettlebells, or resistance bands--or your bodyweight to enhance muscular strength, mass, and endurance. While cardiovascular workouts can also help strengthen muscles, and resistance training can also build cardiovascular capacity, resistance training focuses much more heavily on the growth and enhancement of the muscles.
There’s SO many techniques for resistance training that allow you to hone in on specific fitness goals (like lean muscle vs. muscle growth, core strength, fat loss, etc.). But overall, aside from developing a more muscular physique, engaging in strength activities regularly can benefit your health by:
Increased bone strength and density, helping prevent injury
Stronger joints and joint stability (again, key to prevent injury!)
Improve heart health and blood pressure (not as effectively as cardio exercise, but still helps)
Increase flexibility, balance, and posture--all key to improving fitness performance and helpful in everyday activities and injury prevention, too
Benefits mental health--lifting has been found to boost self-confidence and lessen symptoms of depression
Heart health--helps prevent cardiovascular diseases and maintain healthy blood sugar levels
Weight Training Options
Weight lifting exercises typically fall into two categories--resistance machines and free weights. Most weight lifting trainers and programs combine machines and free weights to target and challenge different muscles for maximum effectiveness. But since there's different pros and cons for each, I'll break them down separately.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a whole host of different techniques for weight lifting depending on your goals--you might hear words like circuit training, supersets, or hypertrophy. These get pretty technical, so I'll dive into weight lifting tips and techniques in future posts!
Resistance Training Machines
When I say resistance machines (sometimes called fixed weight machines), I mean just that--machines designed to build targeted muscles by forcing them to work against resistance. This includes your typical gym machines where you must pull or push a part of the machine toward or away from the body--see the picture for few examples. Also included in this category are cable machines and resistance bands, since again, your muscle is being challenged by having to work against resistance--not gravity, like free weights. The variety here is HUGE, but most fitness clubs have a standard lineup of machines designed to work muscles in the arms/shoulders, legs, and back. Larger or more extensive gyms will also have machines for abs, hip flexors, and more minor-group muscles--like triceps, calves, etc.
I’ve always liked resistance machines. They’re usually pretty easy, and make me feel comfortably in control of my body while using them--no worries of losing my balance like I sometimes feel when heavy squatting or doing deadlifts. My parents have always been proponents of weight lifting, and taught me about various machines when I’d lift with them while in high school. With how self-explanatory they are, they became my comfort zone--so when I began to lift more frequently in college (which was like TEN years ago now, yikes!), I really only used machines. But in the last 5 years, as I’ve spent more time practicing strength training (and researching it), I’ve tried many different trainer-recommended lifting routines that incorporate more free weights and have become less reliant on machines. Once you see the health benefits of free weights, you'll see why!
Machines are pretty self-explanatory, which makes them great for beginners. Although machine adjustments can differ based on the manufacturer, they typically have clearly posted instructions with pictures.
They’re designed to control (and limit) your movement to a certain range of motion, helping to prevent injury--especially to the joints, which can be over-extended when you’re in charge of controlling your own movements (like with free weights). This means they're a great option when you’re recovering from an injury.
The controlled movements means you only train one or two target muscles, so you can be more targeted and correct muscle imbalances.
You can do them yourself--no spotter needed like there is when you're lifting HEAVY free weights and have a chance of dropping or falling.
The limited movements don’t promote “functional” strength. Meaning, where in real life will you ever need to sit on a chair and pull your legs underneath you (like the leg curl machine)? They build muscle, but don’t contribute to the flexibility and overall body stabilization that helps with everyday needs and activities.
Machine weights only work one, maybe two, muscles (while most free weight moves work multiple).
Machine can’t always adjust to the body dimensions of every user--sorry, super short or tall friends!
Unless you have an AWESOME home fitness space, using a variety of machines requires a gym--this means $$, plus, you’ll have to work around other people trying to use the same equipment (ESPECIALLY in Jan/Feb when New Year’s resolutions are still a thing).
Free weights--they're "free" in the sense that they’re unattached to anything (unlike machines) so you can move them in any way or direction you want to. You can pick 'em up, swing 'em, throw 'em, you get it! They’re different than resistance machines/bands in the sense that your muscles aren't working against resistance--you’re moving the object against the force of gravity. Common examples of free weights include dumbbells, barbells, squat racks, bench presses, kettlebells, and medicine balls.
Free weights are my main jam now! Every lifting program I’ve followed in the last few years includes squats, deadlifts, and some form of bench press at least once, usually twice, a week, along with some other barbell/dumbbell lifts. And I LOVE the variety, there’s so many combinations and muscles you can work with a single set of dumbbells. My favorite free weights right now are kettlebells. There’s so much you can do with them, and they’re typically easier for me to hold and move than clunkier dumbbells. But admittedly, it took me awhile to get comfortable doing free weight routines on my own, especially the ones that work the “big” compound muscles. Squats and deadlifts, for example--I still sometimes feel like I'm losing my balance when trying to increase the weight! But don’t be intimidated, and know it gets easier the more you do it! Since solid lifting routines involve mostly free weights (see Pros below for why), try a new routine and you’ll likely end up trying some new free weights in the process.
You control your own movements--you’re not leaning on a back-rest or sitting on something--which means you can work multiple key muscles simultaneously (compound lifts), and
build the general flexibility, coordination, and stabilization that are helpful in everyday life and injury prevention.
You burn more energy (aka, calories) lifting free weights because of the need to stabilize your body and use multiple muscles simultaneously.
There’s SO much variety in the movements, combinations, and muscles you can work with just a few free weights--a single set of dumbbells, resistance bands, or kettlebells can easily make a full-body workout!
They’re great for home use if you want to cut out the gym. Prices can vary, but you can find some pretty quality equipment for a good price, and most is small enough to be tucked into a closet.
There’s a higher risk of injury since you control your own movements and don’t have anything stabilizing you.
Your grip strength might limit the amount of weight you can lift. Like me--I have a hard time increasing my deadlift weight because my hands/grip get too tired to hold past 10-12 reps, even though my legs can!
You don’t have a machine guiding you through the proper movement, so unless you work with a trainer or know what you’re doing, you can end up with improper--and dangerous--form. Don’t let that stop you beginners from trying them, though--just make sure to do your research or ask a trainer or experienced friend to show you the ropes!
Strength training classes
Most gyms that offer trainer-led classes have some that are focused on strength training, but the style, equipment used, format--there’s so many variations that my review can’t possibly encompass all of them. The same can be said for the millions of workout videos available on the internet! But while I haven’t tried them all, I think the pros and cons below apply pretty generally across the board.
Gym Strength Classes = Usually there’s the use of some equipment and bodyweight exercises (think push-ups), but the format can vary--some would be considered HIIT if you’re doing the strength training moves in timed intervals.
I’ve done some strength classes that I really loved, and some classes that I haven’t liked or found beneficial at all. But again, there’s a crazy amount of variety here. Typically, I’ve liked strength classes that use more reps with lighter equipment and follow interval formats--doing bicep curls with dumbbells for 40 seconds, followed by 20 seconds of rest, for example. These are more like a mix of strength and cardio, which I love. Classes that try to use too much rotating equipment or heavier equipment for lower reps aren’t my fav because it can be hard to keep up or focus when you’re so focused on using the equipment right (especially if it’s a move you haven’t done before) or didn’t grab the appropriate weight, etc. But like other classes, it also really depends on whether you vibe with the trainer, so make sure to give a class a few tries before deciding you don’t want to return.
These can be great for beginners, because the trainer can help make sure you’re doing the moves correctly.
Especially for newbies, classes can introduce you to a range of different moves and equipment you might not try otherwise--meaning you can continue to do them on your own even if you don’t stick with the class.
There’s typically a lot of variety--you can usually expect a new routine from every class.
And if you aren’t interested in findingor planning your strength routines, classes are a great option--just show up and follow along!
Strength classes can be intimidating for beginners because they often move through the different equipment and moves quickly, which can be a lot if you’re still learning the ins and outs of strength training.
You have to workout at your gym’s pre-determined class schedule.
Home workout videos = strength training routines accessible on the internet so you can do them anywhere! Again, lots of variety and formats.
I don’t do much of these, because my lack of home equipment limits the videos I can do effectively. The only classes that work with my limited space and equipment are ones that rely mostly on bodyweight moves, like mountain climbers and push-ups. But if I did have the equipment, I bet I’d like the convenience of getting a good lift in at home on my own schedule!
There’s so many videos to choose from, it would be easy to find ones that work for you!
No need to plan your own varied strength workouts, and no need to leave home.
The biggest con, and it’s a BIG one--you (usually) need access to the strength equipment being used in the video to do the workout effectively. If the trainer is using dumbbells between 15 and 35 pounds, and you only have 5 pounders (or none at all!), it's likely not going to be a great workout. Plus, you need the space, and the budget, to accumulate this variety of equipment at home.
Alright, there's my strength training rundown. Let's transition to the other exercise types...
HIIT (High Intensity Internal Training)
HIIT is a fitness trend that first gained popularity in the late 2010s. At a high level, HIIT workouts include short periods of intense exercise followed by periods of rest or active recovery (which is just a fancy way of describing a much more low-intensity exercise). HIIT workouts can include periods of aerobic exercise, strength training exercise, or both!
Tabata, which has also risen in popularity, is simply a type of HIIT where you give your ABSOLUTE ALL, 100% effort, for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest--you then repeat that pattern for 4 minutes straight. Typically, tabata uses explosive cardio moves that can really spike your heart rate. You’ll also find tabata classes that are 20-30 minutes long, where these 4-minute or 8-minute intervals are strung together.
There’s a lot of research backing the effectiveness of interval-based workouts, and I plan to dive into HIIT science deeper in future posts. But at a high level, benefits include:
Heart health - interval exercising leads to a greater increase in cardio-respiratory capacity (aka, heart and breathing functions) in a shorter amount of time compared to types of continuous exercises. This means better cardiovascular endurance, oxygen consumption, and/or a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure.
Calorie burn - short but intense interval workouts can result in greater calorie burn relative to longer but continuous exercise forms (like stationary biking). It also includes "after-burn"--an increase in calories your body burns for a period of time even after the workout is over.
Fat reduction - similar to the calorie burn, HIIT can result in fat loss similar to traditional continuous exercise forms, but in a shorter amount of time.
Blood sugar levels - HIIT has been found more effective at reducing blood sugar than traditional continuous exercises.
It’s important to note when analyzing these results, however, that research defines interval training as when “a person’s heart rate reaches at least 80 percent of its maximum capacity usually for 1-5 minutes, with periods of rest or less intense exercise”. That just means you can’t necessarily expect these health benefits if your interval training doesn’t meet that definition.
This is definitely my favorite, and most practiced, type of workout! And I began to rely on it heavily when COVID shut down local gyms in March 2020. Finding a new no-equipment HIIT video on YouTube to do at home (especially one from trainer Sydney Cummings!) or attending an interval class at the gym that differs every week is a great way to add variety to my routine without having to do much planning! Plus, unless I’m training for an event, I get bored easily of cardio-only workouts (treadmills, ellipticals, etc.) and lifting programs that demand same lifts multiple weeks in a row. HIIT is both a way to spice things up and a way to combine strength AND cardio moves into a single, highly effective workout!
I also like that, since the moves are done for a set amount of time, you can adjust the workout to your desired intensity--speed things up when you’ve got the energy, or take things slower on days when you’re sore or tired! Lastly, it’s hard to not feel good when I check my Apple Watch and see a great calorie burn even after a short routine. The ONLY downside for me personally is that, since you often go into a HIIT workout not knowing exactly what moves it'll include, it can be hard to incorporate interval classes/videos while following more intense lifting programs--you might end up doing a lot of arm work in a HIIT workout the day after you lift upper body, for example.
The biggest positive here is the variety--you can combine any moves and equipment, which keeps you entertained, your brain stimulated, and your muscles guessing!
Interval training is an easy way to combine cardio and strength--just alternate between cardio moves and strength/bodyweight moves for a well-rounded, full-body workout.
It’s highly effective in terms of achieving a high energy/calorie burn in a relatively short amount of time when compared to other workout types.
You can find interval-based workouts to fit literally every exercise need or preference. Whether you have a full home gym and like a 60-min daily workout or 0 equipment and quick 20-min blasts are more your thing, you can find suitable HIIT routines on YouTube!
It's a great option for people short on time, and can be done both at home or at the gym.
It can be hard to know what to expect from a HIIT workout. With so much variety, I sometimes have a tough time picking a class/video that fits what I’m looking for fitness-wise (some are too easy and others feel impossible!). And since no two HIIT classes or videos are the same, just because you loved the class last week doesn’t mean you’ll like it again this week. My advice here is to find a trainer (virtual or in-person) that you vibe with and try going to/doing their routines whenever possible.
Training for an organized fitness event is a very popular way to be more active, especially for people who are motivated by accountability (like me!). Event options typically include running/walking events (from 5Ks to Marathons and every distance in between), duathlons (biking + running), triathlons (swimming + biking + running), as well as more unique events like mud runs, color runs, and themed runs! And there’s more of these “fun runs” popping up every day (at least there were pre-COVID…), so there’s something for everyone! And the BEST part? Many events are put on by non-profits or charitable organizations as fundraisers for their causes--and others give the registration fees to causes, too!
I did my first 5K in my sophomore year of college--one that was put on by a non-profit my mom works for--and I immediately fell in love! The adrenaline at the starting line, the supporters, the beautiful forested course, the post-race party--it was so fun and energizing, especially to be part of the proud group of finishers! And for the first time since my high school sports days, I had COMPETED--engaged in something where I could push myself to be better than the others around me. It was electric! Since then, I’ve done over 15 5Ks and 10Ks (some of them fun themed events), 2 half-marathons, 1 marathon, and 2 triathlons. And while they’ve all been fun and rewarding, the best have to be the marathon and the triathlons-- when I look back on it, it’s because of all the training they required! The longer and harder the training, the more rewarding the finish for me. But, let me be clear--a marathon, a triathlon, these aren’t for everybody! All I’m saying is that setting events as fitness goals are a very motivational and rewarding experience for me, and might be the same for you.
Training for events can be a great motivator to be more active--especially with the event day as a “deadline”.
They’re usually fun and extremely rewarding, especially for you competitive folks like me!
There’s so many different options for distances and themes, and you can find events almost everywhere.
Doing them with family and friends is a great way to stay active AND connected!
Events have registration fees (and sometimes other equipment requirements if you’re doing biking or swimming events).
There’s a chance they could be canceled due to severe weather or other issues (um hello, COVID), which is a huge disappointment after all the training. Plus, many races don’t offer full refunds so be sure to read the fine print when you sign up.
Yoga / Pilates / Barre
Yoga is unique because its purpose is often not just for physical exercise, but for mental exercise and focus as well. There’s a wide variety of yoga techniques and styles, but typically, yoga involves a combo of physical moves that focus on posture and flexibility, along with breathing techniques that promote mindfulness and relaxation. I’ve done two yoga classes and they were so long ago that I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to give any pros or cons, but in short--I just didn’t like them. I felt too incapable of doing and holding the moves, and I think my frustrations kept me from achieving the meditative component. But, I do have it on my goals for 2021 to give yoga another try!
Pilates is a strength exercise technique designed to build muscles while enhancing flexibility, balance, and posture. It’s low-impact, and can be done with a special equipment/machine (called reformer Pilates) or just a mat. Pilates classes focus a lot on the core--a key for strong balance and posture--but many other muscles are worked as well. You can find Pilates classes at most gyms, or at studios dedicated to Pilates. Since I’ve never tried it, I won’t give pros and cons, just wanted to give you an overview and its purpose.
Barre is a unique type of workout that combines high-intensity, full-body moves and techniques based on elements of yoga, ballet, and Pilates. Similar to Pilates, it’s low-impact, but the moves are meant to strengthen the muscles while building balance and flexibility as well. The name comes from the fact that many classes use the barre (like in ballet), but other equipment can be used too, including resistance bands, exercise balls, etc. I’ve also never tried barre, so I won’t give pros or cons. But if you’re interested, there’s fitness clubs dedicated solely to barre classes, like Pure Barre.
And that concludes my workout type rundown!
What did you think? Do you have similar experiences with these workouts? Any Pros or Cons you disagree with? Any workout types I missed? I'd love to hear YOUR thoughts, experiences, and recommendations, or just to connect with other fitness junkies--so shoot me a message! :)