Ask a Trainer (Vol. VII)

Hi everyone, and welcome to Ask a Trainer, Volume VI.

If you’ve missed some in our running series, here are the first five volumes: Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III, Vol. IV, Vol. V, and Vol. VI

You got questions? We got answers! Send an email to with all your fitness, health, and wellness queries. You might even end up in the next Ask a Trainer!

Today we’re going to talk about where to start if you’ve never exercised before, improving flexibility, full-body versus split workouts, and why you should be running obstacle course races. Cool? Good. Let’s do this!

I have never exercised before. Where should I start?

Slow and steady is the pace that gets you from Couch Potato to Fit while avoiding injury. The first thing to remember is to start slow, and build the intensity of your workouts over time. If you’ve never done any dedicated fitness activities before, then start with the following basic routine:

  • When: Monday, Wednesday, & Friday
  • Length: 4 weeks (to start)
  • What: Every workout day, you should do all of the following routine:
    • Cardio: 20 minute walk (preferably including a few small hills/inclines; minimal rest)
    • Strength: 3 sets of: 5 push-ups, 10 squats, & 10 sit-ups
    • Perform all the strength moves in the order presented to complete 1 set. Rest 1 minute, then repeat until you complete 3 sets.

The goal with this workout is to get moving and keep moving with the express intent of getting more fit. By the end of four weeks of this routine, you should be able to:

  • Walk for 30-40 minutes without needing to rest
  • Do at least 1 full push-up
  • Do at least 20 squats without rest
  • Do at least 15 sit-ups without rest

In addition, you should start seeing minor aches and pains being relieved a little bit, though you will have soreness for the first 10-14 days of a dedicated fitness program. If any of these moves are outside your current strength level, then you can “scale” them to an easier movement that works the same muscles. We won’t cover a lot of scaling now, but some examples might be doing Wall Push-ups or Negatives instead of regular Push-ups, or doing Crunches or Planks instead of regular Sit-ups. There is always a way to make it work!

Also keep in mind that this is only the framework to get you started for the first month. It is designed to get you moving and to build better fitness habits over time. If you can stick with a simple routine three days per week, for four weeks, it makes it more likely you will be able to stick with a harder, longer-term program. Think of this as “cutting your teeth” on not just the Physical aspect of fitness, but also on the Mental/Emotional aspect. Without the discipline to follow a plan, results will be extremely slow or won’t come at all.

How do I improve my flexibility or mobility?

Your body is organized into a complex musculoskeletal system that partially relies on two major structures to keep you moving: muscles and joints. A joint is any place where bone meets bone, and the moving examples you’re familiar with are your knees, elbows, hips, shoulders, etc. Basically anywhere part of a limb meets another part of the same limb or the body itself, is a joint for our purposes.

These joints are held together by a combination of tendons, ligaments, and muscles that pull on the bones around the joint to create movement. Note that I said “pull” and not “push”. Even though we often call movements a “pushing” movement, muscles are not capable of actually pushing against the bones to which they attach. In order to bend your elbow, for instance, the bicep needs to contract while the tricep relaxes. To straighten the elbow the reverse occurs, with the tricep contracting and the bicep relaxing. This interplay of contraction and relaxation is what makes the bones move around their respective joint.

Flexibility versus Mobility

So why do you care? Because the idea of being Flexible is different from the idea of being Mobile.

Flexibility refers to being able to use the full, natural range of motion that a joint is capable of, but that being out of shape might limit. A gymnast, for example, can probably do a split without too much problem because their hip flexors and accompanying muscle groups are sufficiently elastic to allow their legs to spread out to a 90 degree angle from the body. Someone who has never trained like that, however is probably limited to only 45 degree angles (about half way down into a side to side split).

In contrast, Mobility refers to being able to use enough range of motion around a joint to function normally. We usually talk about working on Mobility in relation to recovering from injury or illness. In your natural, uninjured state you will be Mobile around all your joints even if you are not particularly Flexible. If you undergo a trauma, for instance breaking your arm, you may lose natural Mobility in joints associated with the injury. In the case of breaking your arm, you may notice that you have issues straightening your arm all the way, or bending it past a certain point – both of which you could do before the injury. At this point, you have Mobility problems.

Improving Flexibility

Training to become more flexible is fairly simple, and can be done every day as part of your regular routine. For 15 minutes in the morning, before exercise, and for 15 minutes at night you should be working on any trouble areas where you do not yet have full range of motion. This could easily be an entire book by itself, so we’re not going to go into a lot of detail here. Pick the joint you want to be more flexible, and search the web for “how to stretch….” that joint. Many good sites are out there to help you with specific stretches. Each time you do a stretch, try to push a little past your comfort area, so that it feels tight but not painful. Stretch at that point every time, and you will start noticing greater range of motion over time.

Note that it generally takes a while of dedicated stretching to see results, much like with dedicated cardio and strength training. Don’t stretch for 3 days and expect to be knocking out splits and back-bends on Day 4. Slow and steady is the way to go!

Improving Mobility

Mobility is very similar to Flexibility, but you will usually be starting from a much narrower, much more deconditioned range of motion. The name of the game here is “Moderation” and it’s surname is “Patience”. It can take weeks or months to go from limited range to full natural range on a joint, and if you try to rush the process you run the very real risk of injuring yourself again; either a similar injury to before or something new, neither are good news.

When it comes time to rehabilitate a joint, make sure you are working with a competent professional who understands your needs and can help you tailor your efforts to what you need to accomplish. Stick with the routine, make note of any problem points or areas of confusion, and clarify everything so that there is no doubt what you should be doing. Give it time, and you’ll get to where you need to be.

Should I do full-body workouts, or split up muscle groups into different days?

The short answer to this is: Yes, you should be working out. Do whatever works for you!

While that may sound a little flippant, it’s actually one of the better answers to this question. When it comes to exercising you need to be planning for your goals, and depending on what your goals are, that should inform your fitness routine and training. Not just your goals, but also your preferences and any time constraints are going to play into this as well. First, lets define the two workout styles we’re discussing:

  • Full Body: a full-body workout uses the majority of the muscle groups in your body during the same workout session, on the same day. Typically you would do this kind of workout every other day, with 24-36 hours of rest between sessions to allow for adequate recovery.
  • Split Routine: a split routine workout targets different muscle groups on different days, which allows you to exercise on back to back days without over-training any one muscle group. Typically you would do this style of workout 4-5 days per week with no days between, working different muscles on back to back days.

Here are some factors to consider while choosing which one works for you.

Full Body

  • Pro: requires fewer days in the gym, more overall feeling of work completed, more variety in a single day, easier to program routines
  • Con: often requires more time per day training, requires a rest day to avoid over-training, more intense single workout sessions

Split Routine

  • Pro: can often train 2-4 days in a row, targeting may allow shorter workout sessions, more variety for each muscle group, good for muscle group-specific goals
  • Con: often requires more days in the gym, can be complicated to program multiple movements for the same muscle group,¬† may feel redundant in single workout

Keep in mind that you can always change your plan! If you choose Full Body for a couple months and then your goals/time/etc change, you can always switch to a Split Routine. The same goes for the reverse, going from Split to Full. Be willing to adapt so that you can maintain good health even when life throws you curve balls.

Why should I run an obstacle course/Mud Race?

Ever hear of these weird races: Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, Savage Race, Rugged Maniac, Go Ruck Challenge, and probably a hundred more? These are obstacle races, often also called Mud Races for the fact that most (all?) contain some kind of mud obstacle to make you look like you just got dragged through a swamp by the face.

And they are awesome!

An obstacle course race is typically a 5k, 10k, or half-marathon run with anywhere from 20-30 obstacles to tackle during the run. Things like jumping hurdles, climbing over cargo nets, carrying logs, scaling half-pipe walls, and traversing angled monkey bars are all examples of what you can expect to see in such a race. These things may seem pretty crazy – and we’re not saying they’re not a little bit – but they are also a great test of overall fitness! Running on obstacle race will show you exactly where you are on cardiovascular endurance (running), upper body strength (climbs and carries), lower body strength (wall runs and balances), and mental toughness.

Not just a good test, they are also fun! Take some friends, run the race, and then at the end realize you just did something both crazy and awesome and, hey, is that guy handing you a free beer?! Mud Races can be a strong team building experience not just with the friends you run with, but also with the other racers who will often help you up, over, and through obstacles as they themselves are being supported by others. An obstacle race builds community with many people who all want the same things: to finish the best they can and really see what they’re made of.

And, of course, a free beer at the end!

Interested in running your first race? Come to the Rugged Maniac with CrossFit Catonsville on Saturday, November 1st. Sign up at the Rugged Maniac site and use the discount code CFCatonsville for a healthy chunk off your sign-up fee.Our team name is “The Dirty Snatchers” and we’re running the 10:15 AM wave. Come out and have some fun!

CFC is not affiliated with Rugged Maniac in any way. It’s just going to be a good time!

And that’s it! Join us next time for more fitness and health goodness!

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