illustration of a woman standing on a punching bag reaching for a barbell
Illustration by Elnora Turner
Health

Getting in Better Shape Seems Like Too Much Work; Help!

I'm supposed to be strong AND do a kickboxing class AND be able to touch my toes in yoga. Who has time for all this?
November 11, 2020, 7:02pm
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Dear Casey,

I am a kickboxer. That’s my favorite form of exercise, and the thing I most want to practice and get better at. I do it 1-3x a week depending on, you know, life. I do a good amount of at home yoga too, to stretch and because it makes me feel better. But I’d also love to get stronger and get the benefits of lifting—I have minor back and knee issues and my doctor prescribed deadlifts, and they do seem to help. I’m a barbell baby and when I do lift it’s like once a week tops and I’ve been doing squats (55 lbs), deadlifts (65 lbs), and recently added a barbell row (just the bar at this point). (I also think strengthening the muscles of my back body would bring some balance. Boxing—and hunching over a computer—both leave you a little frontloaded.) My question is: Time is finite, and I’m not willing to give up these other things to lift three times a week. Can I work in a little bit of lifting and get some benefits, and what’s the best way to do that? Also, how should I think about my food with this routine? All that bulking and cutting seems complicated and designed for someone dedicated wholly to lifting.

Thank you for any wisdom you can share!

All the best,

J

So while you are asking how to integrate more working out into already working out, I think a lot of people have the more-general question of, what type of working out am I actually supposed to do, and how am I supposed to balance all of the different kinds when it seems like I am supposed to do multiple kinds and one is never enough? There are so many different activities—running, swimming, yoga, lifting weights, varsity Goop breathing—and they all supposedly have benefits. Running makes your heart squeeze in a particular way that supposedly helps you live longer; lifting weights, as of last week, may help with anxiety, and preserves muscle mass and bone density; yoga does this, intensity intervals do that, on and on until you wish all of these respective activities could get together and hash out some clear borders. 

But it is not clear at all how someone is supposed to do all of these things. What makes it worse is that most trainers seem to have preferred ways of going about working out, and most of them seem to do a mix of all of these things, but there is not a hell of a lot of guidance on how to combine them. This guide to a “perfect week of working out,” for instance, says strength training should be done two to three times a week, which you are already saying does not work with your preference for doing kickboxing.

As far as the physiology and exercise science establishment knows, it’s not possible to get fit in All of the Ways at once. The processes of building strength and endurance (which is more like what kickboxing is) inhibit each other, though endurance inhibits strength more than the other way around. There are some exceptions if you are a real beginner or really under-trained in some area, but mostly it comes down to limits of energy. Most of us simply just don’t have the capacity to train for a marathon and learn to deadlift 400 pounds at the same time, and thank god for that; it would be too much to live up to. 

So here is the answer: The key is to not think of yourself as chained to one activity for the rest of your life. If you are trying to make progress, i.e. get better, in any type of activity, you need to temporarily make it the sort of main course, or at least a major side, of your whole workout meal.

What is the proof this is the right thing to do? Here is where we take a cue from people who are much better at this stuff than us: pro athletes. 

Do you have a question about working out, eating, health, or why you shouldn't be afraid of lifting heavy weights? Send it to swole.woman@vice.com and follow @swolewoman on Instagram.

It might interest you that professional athletes and their coaches think of their training in cycles. If we take a basketball player for example, she has pretty clear in-season, off-season, and pre-season periods. During the season, her priorities are very specific to her sport. They include “not dying of exhaustion during the game,” or being in great conditioning shape, and being super dialed in on techniques (dribbling, passing, shooting). Her technique is highly enabled by actually being strong—she can pass harder, jump higher, and shoot from farther away with stronger arms, shoulders, hips, and legs. 

But basketball is not about raw force production; strength is the backup singers, not the Beyoncé. Therefore, it’s important for her to be strong, but also important for her to find a way to build strength that positively impacts, but does not mess up, her actual career. 

During the off-season, she has extra energy she doesn’t have during the season because she’s not playing games every other day or practicing with the team, and few other physical demands. Because of this, a basketball player’s off-season is very likely to be where most of her strength-building takes place, if it’s something she needs and it’s a priority for her.

So at this time, the basketball player can entirely focus more of her energy on building muscle, if she wants. The off-season is a good time to do it because it’s the type of activity that is probably most distant from what she needs to be able to do for work, but integral enough to her work that it matters that she fits it in. 

Depending on how far along she is in her strength journey, she might be building strength for the first time and doing a fairly basic program; she might be spending a few weeks working back up to where she was at last season, and then doing some more intense and specific training on her weak points to try and build her overall capacity for strength. As the season gets closer, she would start transitioning away from types of training that are less like what she needs to do for work, and toward the more technique-focused stuff she needs to be doing, layering it on top of her new strength base. She might continue lifting a little during the season, or in pre-season, but only in a way that would help maintain the muscle she worked hard to build and that wouldn’t impact the higher priorities of being good at basketball. 

So what all does this mean for you? In my opinion, consider an “off-season” for yourself where you kickbox once a week (or not at all!) and strength-train three times a week, for a short while. 

I know you said you weren’t willing to give up any kickboxing in order to do more strength training. But the thing to keep in mind here is you wouldn’t be skewing away from kickboxing for forever. Once-a-week strength training isn’t doing anything for you except probably making you unnecessarily sore once a week; you need, at the absolutely bare minimum, two days a week to even squeak out a little progress, and you will get way more out of three days a week, even beyond the raw benefits of simply putting in an extra day; three days a week build on each other way better than two. With that basic commitment, you could get a pretty decent amount of strength-building done in like, three months. 

The benefits of cross-training, as opposed to doing just one same activity for years in and out, are many and ample. Despite that, I’ve encountered maaany people who express interest in getting stronger and trying strength training, but won’t give up their familiar regimens of yoga, or running, or Pilates, or whatever, to make room for a little strength-focus time.

I know it’s annoying to learn a new skill and have to bother with new logistics when it’s so easy to keep doing the same thing over and over. But as I tell myself lately anytime I feel deeply anxious and irritated when I have to leave my house: You have been sitting around the house wishing for anything to do in order to leave the house. Can you go leave the house already? The house will be here when you get back. Committing to a new thing for a bit is not a life sentence in new-thing prison. On the other side of doing something, there can always be a return to “not doing that something anymore,” but with the benefits you gained from trying it out for a while. We all need to leave ourselves room to be patient with ourselves being bad at things for a while, because that is what learning looks like! Please never steer yourself away from new endeavors because you can’t do them flawlessly at first or all of the time.

This is true also for people who have never worked out: You, also, don’t have to do strength training for the rest of your life. You can simply try it out, and maybe you will become obsessed about it to the point of scaring others, like myself, or will ultimately decide it isn’t your life’s passion (can’t relate, but to each their own journey). Either way, you’ll be stronger at the end. That’s why athletes do this this way, and there’s no reason that same process can’t work for anyone, really.

If you are training three times a week, squatting every other session and adding 5lbs each time (which is doable, if you’re training three times a week), in 8 weeks, you will have gone from a 55lb squat to a 115lb squat. In 12 weeks, you would have a 145lb squat—that’s more than one full plate! That is a pretty meaningful difference in strength, and doesn’t require being a hugely gifted strength meathead; it is a fairly basic amount of progress.

After doing that, you will not have only gotten stronger at squatting, but more mobile in all the ways that squatting requires; you will have built up all your little stabilizing muscles (including your core) from handling free-weights loaded on your body; and you will have increased your muscles’ capacity for producing more force generally, so you can kick and box harder than ever.

And I am not talking about some wildly complex program with several different movements for crazy rep and set schemes; I mean like a “3 movements for 3-4 sets” deal, like GZCLP or Nia Shanks’ Lift Like A Girl (hate the name, thanks!). If you have no gym access currently, I put together this guide to at-home workout stuff, Greg Nuckols has a very nice guide to no-gym training (but remember it’s tough to make reliable progress when you’re not working with equipment that can be incremented bit by bit). If you are not like this specific letter writer and can manage to add one day of working out, 2-3 days a week of kickboxing and 2-3 days a week of lifting would be a fine way of going about this (though if you can’t make progress on two days a week of lifting when you are kickboxing three days a week, and you want to get stronger, scale the kickboxing back and stick with three lifting days a week).

The nice thing about building strength is that muscle memory is real, and once you build it, it’s never as hard to either rebuild it or maintain it as it is to build it the first time. Once you become strong, you are strong for life (or at least, never again as far from being strong as you once were). If you are interested in becoming stronger, this is why I would very very strongly endorse taking a play off and making it a temporary focus, rather than trying to do all of the things at once. 

To maintain that strength once you’ve built it, I would suggest maybe tacking on some strength movements at the top of one of your kickboxing workouts, if you absolutely cannot do another day and your kickboxing takes place in a general-purpose gym. If you can get in two days a week of even just basic strength stuff, you’d be in great shape for maintaining where you’re at. I’m talking like, maybe an extra 20 minutes or so to conserve an extra trip to the gym, an extra incident of getting all sweaty, etc. 

If you love kickboxing so much you can’t give it up for even a couple months and absolutely cannot get at the weights a second time per week, I would say do not bother with once a week, or at least don’t expect yourself to make any progress. You’d just be doing a workout, not building strength, and maybe that’s fine for you! You could wait until you get a bit more bored of kickboxing and are ready for a change. But if you’re interested enough in building strength right now, you don’t have to roll back kickboxing for the rest of your whole life; one little off-season might change a lot for you.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.