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What Exercises Should I Focus on If I Haven’t Worked Out in, Let’s Say, a Few Years?

A decade is technically a few years, right?

Let’s hypothetically suppose that it’s been years since the last time you stepped into a gym. Aside from a few false starts — and a couple of impromptu, spur-of-the-moment attempts to jog around the neighborhood — you haven’t even made any good-faith efforts to get back into the swing of things. Now, with the end of the year just two short months away, you’re thinking you can get a head start on the New Year’s resolution crowd.

The thing is, so much time has elapsed since the last time you dared to contemplate the discomfort of a workout, that you’re absolutely dreading the havoc that those first few training sessions are going to wreak upon your unprepared physique. 

Here’s the good news: You have a hand to play in determining precisely which form of havoc is wrought and whether you should focus your initial efforts on flexibility, strength or cardiovascular conditioning.

Yeah, so which one is it, and how do I decide between the three of them?

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t have to decide on just one, but we’re running a bizarre version of a Crusoe model where you have limited time to maximize your productivity, and you can only focus on one thing at a time. Well, this model becomes far easier to establish when you factor in the particularities of your own life. 

To get started, we should impose a few stipulations. First of all, no matter what size you are — whether you’re significantly underweight or inescapably overweight — we’re going to assume that your daily nutrition will be immaculate from this moment forward. Second, we’re going to assume that you have no debilitating injuries or pre-existing health conditions that would make it hazardous for you to even attempt to undertake measurable improvements in any of the three areas of health that we’re considering. Finally, we’re going to assume that you’re not initiating your training with any athletic goals in mind that might cause us to logically tailor a training plan toward those goals.

That works!

Great. So the first thing we’re going to do is remove flexibility from the equation. This isn’t because flexibility isn’t necessary; it’s because flexibility is best improved in conjunction with one of the other forms of training, and always following one of the other forms of training. 

A consensus has been reached that pre-workout stretching is almost entirely harmful, and that warming up muscles is the best way to achieve the desired level of flexibility in them prior to exercising. Aside from that, stretching after your workout to enhance flexibility is always preferred, because you won’t be disrupting your body’s understanding of its muscles’ natural limitations at that point, and your muscles will be warm and less apt to incur an injury as when cold.

Wow. Okay, so what about strength and cardio?

Whether you choose to focus on strength or cardio has a lot to do with whether or not you’ve amassed a detrimental quantity of weight over the years. One of the most limiting characteristics of obesity is its tendency to prevent you from creating sufficient movement to effectuate a significant per-minute caloric burn, and to accelerate overall cardiovascular conditioning. 

Or to use a more concrete example: Two people reemerge from their fitness stasis at the same time; both have been similarly inactive, but one is still at a recommendable weight level while the other is well into the medically defined range of obesity. They may be of similar fortitude and equally desirous of achieving results, but the person who starts off at a healthier weight is going to be able to generate more motion immediately, and is going to be able to train at challenging speeds that burn greater numbers of calories per minute far more rapidly. 

Quantitatively speaking, the person who weighs less may be able to sufficiently upgrade their conditioning in one month to consistently create enough motion to burn up to 1,000 calories in an hour-long training session, whereas a larger person will be hamstrung by their weight and forced to devote far more time to weight loss. With that said, the person carrying more body weight in our theoretical model should still focus first on cardio — paired with a superb nutrition plan — in order to burn body fat as expeditiously as possible. Once that happens, they will be able to burn calories at an increasingly greater pace as their body shrinks and their limbs are freed to move more nimbly.

Got it — cardio first.

Not exactly. If you’re not overweight, honing in on strength gains is the optimal thing to do. Muscle mass enables you to burn more calories at rest than you otherwise would. Therefore, the more muscle you have, the less essential it is to retreat to the cardio area to burn off the meal you just consumed. Strength training also improves your posture and balance, which will come in handy during your other training routines. In short, strength training will provide you with a valuable foundation upon which to erect the rest of your training strategy.

Or for the sake of our phony scenario, at least allow you to stretch, lift and run (or bike or stepmill or row) all within one gym session. You won’t necessarily be Simone Biles, but you will be able to kinda, sorta train like her.