Getting into shape really isn’t as mysterious as it seems.  An entire marketing industry has pushed the idea that you need expert advice and expensive diet plans to drop a few pounds, but the reality of the mechanism is really pretty simple: burn more calories than you take in, and the rounder parts of your body will eventually begin to square off.  Admittedly though, if your goals are more complex than simply losing weight, your methodology will have to grow a bit more complex to match.

If you played sports in high school or college, or have worked with a personal trainer at some point in your life, you’ve likely already heard about the difference between working to develop fast twitch muscle fiber versus slow twitch muscle fiber.  This simplistic breakdown of muscular training may not be the most biologically accurate depiction of how the process of getting stronger works, but it does serve as a great way to depict the paradoxical nature of functional fitness: the more you work to get better at one thing, the worse you’ll become at some others.

Fast twitch muscle fiber is the sort of muscle professional football players tend to pack on.  Big, powerful muscles that are good for unleashing explosive bouts of force, followed by a long recovery period, are perfect for a sport like football, where you work your ass off for 7-10 seconds at a time, then take a 40-second break.  People who develop a great deal of fast twitch muscle fiber without working to develop muscular and cardiovascular endurance, are often pretty intimidating, but have a tendency to run out of gas pretty quickly.

Those who devote their training to developing slow twitch muscle fiber, on the other hand, develop more of a lean, runner’s build.  These folks can keep moving for extended periods of time, while exerting limited amounts of force.  Slow twitch muscle fiber lends itself, above all else, to endurance, making it perfect for the guy or girl that’s got a lot of ground to cover on foot, but a poor choice for body builders.

One could argue that PFC Hollings was a bit too focused on endurance over strength.

Neither methodology, or fitness goal, is inherently better than the other – it’s all about what you hope to get out of your workouts.  For some people, running a marathon is the ultimate physical challenge they aspire to conquer, while for others, it may be reaching a higher bench or squat.  What’s great about fitness, is that it can be whatever you want it to be, because you’re the person you’re doing it for.  It is, however, important that you decide what your goals are as you begin to develop an exercise regimen, and that you choose your workout routine, diet, supplements or lack thereof, based on those goals.

There are metric tons of entire books out there devoted specifically to how to get bigger, or how to develop better endurance, and although I’ve got a lot of years and plenty of research behind me when it comes to the fitness game, I won’t even try to claim that I can boil the intricacies of best-case-scenario workout plans down for you in a short article here, but what I can do, is give you a bare bones understanding of how to shift basic exercises toward your goals, whether they’re to be able to move more weight, or to carry your own weight further.

Put simply, a higher number of repetitions of any exercise, with less resistance or weight, will help you to develop slow twitch muscle fiber, endurance oriented fitness.  For the sake of comparison, we’ll use squats: if you’re doing squats with an emphasis on slow twitch development, you’ll want to be able to do somewhere between 10 and 20 repetitions before your reach your failing point.  Three or four sets of 10-20 reps is a great way to start training your body to put out over a long period of time.

Conversely, if you want to get bigger and stronger, use more weight and far fewer reps.  When my focus is on strength building, I’ll sometimes do as few as 3-5 reps per set, with so much weight that I’m unsure if I’ll be able to get back up on that last repetition.  Failure, in my experience, builds muscle faster than anything else, so I try to keep my body right on the cusp of collapse when pushing for new personal records.