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Fitness Training for People Who Could Care Less About Getting Big or Ripped

Mike Mahler

Many want to get as strong and as muscular as possible; others want to get ripped to the bone, but most people couldn’t care less about either. At my kettlebell workshops, whenever someone asks me about training, I always ask what his or her specific training goals are. The response, 90% of the time, is an improvement in general fitness. Many trainers, including myself, find such responses frustrating, as they’re too general. We want specifics so we can design personalized training programs for goals such as losing thirty pounds or adding fifty pounds to the deadlift. The bottom line is, most people aren’t that dedicated to training. Something trainers forget since we think people should take their training goals as seriously as we take our own. Well, we can’t worry about what people should be doing, we have to look at what they are doing and what they want and what most people want is to feel better, improve appearance, and have more energy. These goals are achievable with a well-rounded general fitness program.

What is general fitness? There are a multitude of ways to answer this question. Some say it’s the ability to run several miles without having a heart attack. Others say it’s the ability to bench press 200 pounds without your butt lifting a foot off the bench. None of these answers are wrong, but let’s look at measures of fitness that actually enhance your life: having a good level of general fitness means you have a good amount of strength to get through daily living with ease. This means you don’t have to pay someone to carry your luggage at the airport or require assistance to lift your carry-on baggage into the overhead compartment. It means you can carry several bags of groceries from the store to your car by yourself. Having a good level of general fitness means you’re fit enough to walk your dog every day instead of paying someone else to do it. It means you can walk up several flights of stairs without huffing and puffing like a locomotive. While serious trainees won’t find these measures of fitness exciting, this article isn’t for so-called serious trainees but for everyday people who want a high level of general fitness.

A good training program will get you in shape so you have more energy for daily life and a higher threshold for stress. Moreover, a solid training program will help your body release “good-feel” hormones so you’ll feel better than ever.

Now that we’ve got a general idea of what we’re talking about, let’s get specific, there are five important areas we need to address when addressing general fitness:

  1. Strength
  2. Cardio
  3. Joint Mobility/Flexibility/Balance
  4. Nutrition
  5. Restoration

Let’s look at strength first. When it comes to strength in the modern world, we want to focus on improving two important areas: One, getting better at lifting things off the floor, such as heavy boxes, five-gallon water bottles and big bags of pet food. Second, we want to improve our ability to place things overhead, such as carry-on bags on the plane or putting away stacks of dishes into overhead cupboards. When you’re too weak to do basic activities in life, the quality of your life diminishes.

Two great strength exercises to develop both areas, and as measuring tools for progress, are the barbell deadlift and the dumbbell military press. Deadlifting teaches you how to lift weights off the floor in the most efficient manner. You learn how to load up the legs to take the stress off the lower back, at the same time developing a strong, resilient back. Most people have weak backs and frequently complain of back pain, consequently, they avoid back exercises, which is a big mistake. You want to crush your weaknesses, and develop strength, rather than pamper your weaknesses. The deadlift is the ticket to a strong and functional lower body and back. It teaches you how to work your body as a unit and recruit the maximum amount of muscle fibers to get the job done. As an added bonus, the deadlift is a great mid-section exercise and is more effective at developing a strong core than the moronic exercises in vogue today.

You can do deadlifts with dumbbells, kettlebells–or even sandbags–and get great results, but the barbell deadlift is ideal since it addresses both ends of the strength spectrum. In other words, if you’re a beginner, you can simply use the 45-pound bar (or a lighter one) to get started. On the other hand, the barbell can be loaded up to 500 pounds, or more, in increments, which makes it ideal for strength progression.

Next, let’s talk about the dumbbell military press. If barbells are so great, how come I’m recommending the dumbbell military press instead of the barbell military press? The barbell military press requires either a squat rack–or stands–so you can pick up the bar at chest level at the starting point of the exercise. A high-quality squat rack is pretty expensive and, while a great tool for serious trainees, not a necessity for general fitness practitioners who want to keep things simple. The other option for getting the barbell in place is doing an exercise called the clean to get the barbell into place. Sure, you can use a reverse curl when the weights are light, but eventually, the weights will be too heavy for that and you’ll have a difficult time getting the bar in place and risk injury.

For those of you who don’t know what a clean is, it’s an exercise in which you move the barbell from the floor up to the rack position, at chest level, in one swift motion. It’s a great exercise, but requires a good deal of coordination and has a long learning curve. Those who disagree are probably using poor technique themselves or trainers teaching poor technique. Sure, serious trainees and elite athletes might learn the clean fast, but most people are neither and getting injured isn’t part of a solid general fitness program.

Again, we want to keep things simple for general fitness trainees and dumbbells do just that. One, you can start with the one-arm dumbbell military press and use two hands to get the bell to the starting point at shoulder level. Even a pretty heavy dumbbell won’t be a big deal to get into place. Further, if you have the strength to press an eighty-pound dumbbell, you certainly have the strength to pick it off the floor with two hands and get it into place. The one-arm dumbbell press also allows the trainee to work on imbalances since one arm is generally stronger than the other and this will be readily apparent with the one-arm press. Finally, the one-arm press engages the core to keep you stabilized so you get the added benefit of developing a strong mid-section.

I’m sure all the minimalists out there are excited at the idea of having only to do two exercises for strength training but…that won’t work, not in the long run. While the press and deadlift are great exercises for developing and measuring strength, they’re not the only two exercises you should do. Just as a baseball player doesn’t only play baseball to stay in shape, you need to do other strength exercises for balancing your development and avoiding injuries–which are inherent with imbalanced programs. Fortunately, you don’t have to do as many exercises as you might think. Here are the five areas you need to cover:

  1. Press (example: bench press, military press, push-ups)
  2. Pull (example: pull-ups, bent-over row, and lat pull-down)
  3. Quads (example: barbell squat, dumbbell squat, front squat)
  4. Hamstrings (example: one-arm swing, Romanian deadlift, glute/ham raise)
  5. Abs (example: hanging leg-raise, sit-ups, dumbbell side-bend)

These five areas are what I like to call the five pillars of strength training. For a balanced program, pick one exercise from each category and do two or three sets per exercise, three times per week. For example, do a full-body workout on Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Now, the men are probably looking at the pillars and wondering where are the curls while the women are probably wondering where are the glute-isolation exercises. Well, this is why I get paid to give training advice while you wonder why your arms are still thirteen inches, flexed, after years of doing ten sets of curls several times a week. Doing a lot of isolation work is majoring in minor things while focusing on compound exercises is majoring in major things and provides the greatest payoff. Men, your arms get plenty of work with presses, pull-ups, and rows; in fact, they’ll get bigger and stronger than ever. Women, your hamstrings, quads, and glutes get plenty of work with squats and deadlifts, so don’t freak out.

The compound solution to strength training is the most efficient way to go, especially for people concerned with general fitness who don’t want their lives revolving around strength training.

Here’s a sample strength-training program for general fitness:


  • A-1: One-arm Dumbbell Military Press 2×6 (two sets of six)
  • A-2: Pull-up or Lat Pulldown 2×6

Do a set of A-1, rest for one minute, then do a set of A-2. Rest for one minute and continue with another set of A-1. Repeat until all the sets are done.

  • B-1: Barbell Deadlift 2×3 (start the exercises with the legs bent as much as possible for quad and glute engagement. The hamstrings will come into play as well)
  • B-2: Slow and controlled Sit-ups 2×10 (four seconds up, four seconds down)

Do a set of B-1, rest for one minute, then do a set of B-2. Rest for one minute and continue with another set of B-1. Repeat until all the sets are done.


  • A-1: Double Dumbbell Military Press 2×6
  • A-2: One-arm Dumbbell Bent-over Row 2×6 each side

Do a set of A-1, rest for one minute, then do a set of A-2. Rest for one minute and continue with another set of A-1. Repeat until all the sets are done.

  • B-1: Dumbbell Squat 2×6
  • B-2: Dumbbell Lunge 2×6 each side

Do a set of B-1, rest for one minute, then do a set of B-2. Rest for one minute and continue with another set of B-1. Repeat until all the sets are done.


  • A-1: One-arm Dumbbell Floor or Bench Press 2×6
  • A-2: Pull-up or Lat Pulldown 2×6

Do a set of A-1, rest for one minute, then do a set of A-2. Rest for one minute and continue with another set of A-1. Repeat until all the sets are done.

  • B-1: Barbell Deadlift 2×3
  • B-2: Hanging Leg Raise 2×5

Do a set of B-1, rest for one minute, then do a set of B-2. Rest for one minute and continue with another set of B-1. Repeat until all the sets are done.

The above is just one option. You can also limit your strength training to Monday/Thursday and do three sets per exercise. Or, you can do an upper-body focus on Monday/Thursday and lower-body focus on Tuesday/Friday with higher volume work. Regardless, if your goal is a basic general fitness program for strength, the above program is a great way to go. Follow the program for four weeks, then change the rep ranges or pick different exercises for variety. If you need help with a personalized program, click on the link at the end of this article.

Next, let’s look at the cardio component of a general fitness program: we need cardio to strengthen our hearts, increase our lung capacity and general circulation, plus develop our stamina–the last thing you want to be is a strong guy who can’t get up five flights of stairs.

There are a lot of things that you can do for cardio and ideally, you’ll find an activity you find enjoyable. For most people, riding an exercise bike for 30 minutes isn’t enjoyable. This is why people don’t stick with cardio programs since cardio is associated with excruciatingly boring activities. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you like playing tennis, make it your cardio workout and play three times a week. If you enjoy swimming or hiking, do them as cardio, and make time three times per week.

Unfortunately, life schedules being what they are, we don’t always find time to engage in enjoyable physical activities. But you have plenty of options, and one is power walking. Legendary bodybuilder Steve Reeves, a big fan of power walking, came from the era of bodybuilding in which bodybuilders were genuinely in great physical condition. Put on some headphones with your favorite music and go walking for 30 minutes. Keep track of your distance–your goal at the next workout is to go farther in the same time. If you don’t like the idea of walking with long strides and flapping your arms up in the air (power walkers do look funny) wear a weight vest. Putting a forty-pound vest on and taking a walk turns walking into an intense cardio workout. Whichever option you choose, start out slowly and invest in high quality-walking shoes.

If you prefer doing cardio indoors on exercise machines, choose interval training. In addition to building a strong heart, interval training–otherwise known as high-intensity cardio–burns fat big-time and provides a great cardio workout in half the time of a moderate cardio workout. You’ll be a believer after a single twenty-minute session. Here’s how it works: warm up with a moderate pace for five minutes, then do ten rounds of thirty seconds at a rapid pace followed by ninety seconds at a moderate pace. End your workout with a five-minute cool down to get your heart rate back to normal, and you’re all done. As the workouts become easier, shorten the moderate pace segment of each interval–for example, do thirty seconds all out followed by fifty seconds moderate. Eventually, get down to thirty seconds fast, followed by thirty seconds moderate, adding more intervals as your stamina increases. Other interval options include jumping rope or circuits of bodyweight exercises, such as push-ups, squats, squat-thrusts, and jumping jacks. No need to pick just one! Do different routines at each workout to keep things interesting. For example, swim on Tuesdays, power walk on Thursdays, and do a high-intensity home workout on Saturdays–but do get three cardio sessions in each week for heart health, energy, and appetite for life.

Next on the list: joint mobility, flexibility, and balance. While some elite lifters are content being able to bench press seven hundred pounds while they’re unable to touch their toes, it contradicts general fitness. While you’ve no need for the adeptness of Cirque du Soleil performer, you do need reasonable levels of balance, mobility, and flexibility for fitness and optimal quality of life, and being able to touch your toes is a basic but excellent indicator of flexibility. Bottom line: if you’re unable to touch your toes with slightly bent legs under minimal strain, you’re too tight. If you can’t stand on one leg for thirty seconds, your balance is poor. Finally, the ability to do a “rock bottom” bodyweight squat, followed by sitting in the bottom position for thirty seconds indicates good mobility. These minimalist standards for joint mobility, flexibility and balance are measures of general fitness achievable by anyone with two arms and legs.

You may have a lot of work to do or perhaps your body’s natural flexibility and balance are entirely adequate. Either way, I suggest supplementing your general fitness program with these exercises, and the first thing in the morning is a good time loosen up. Two great joint mobility exercises that come to mind are the Hindu push-up and the Hindu Squat (if you’re unfamiliar with them, just Google.) The Hindu push-up loosens up the lower back and shoulders, while the Hindu squat loosens up the legs and gives the circulation a boost. Twenty-five reps of each exercise is a good starting point. To make both exercises more effective, practice deep breathing: take a deep breath as you rise from the squat and breathe out as you lower yourself to the floor; doing the Hindu Push-up, take a deep breathe in as you approach the floor and breathe out as you push back to your heels. The deep breathing will release epinephrine, the “good feeling” hormone, a lung builder and stress eliminator.

Another great exercise to increase circulation and loosen up is the kettlebell swing. Grab a light kettlebell with two hands and swing it back between your feet as far as you can; quickly reverse the motion and swing it up and overhead. Do twenty-five reps and you’ll be nice and loose and ready to go. You can use a dumbbell if you don’t have a kettlebell.

Follow this routine with a walk to further loosen up. What you want to avoid is getting out of bed after lying in your lymphatic fluids, sitting down and eating breakfast, then moving on to sitting in the car and finally, sitting at a desk for eight hours–sound familiar? I do a lot of work at home and my commute is from the bedroom to the couch in the living room where I work on my laptop. I find that getting up and having a few glasses of water to hydrate, then taking my dog for a walk, followed by some joint mobility exercise gets me energized and ready for the day. I hate the idea of sleeping for eight hours, then getting up and sitting down for several more; you need to get up and move.

Doing joint mobility exercise followed by cardio in the morning isn’t a bad way to go, but avoid weight training in the morning. People are naturally tighter in the morning so it’s not the best time to weight train. You can also use joint mobility exercises to warm up before your strength training workouts. What about stretching? I’d save stretching for after your strength and cardio workouts. You’ll be warmed up, more flexible, and get more benefit from stretching while reducing risk of injury. Refer to the stretching program at the end of this article for a good general fitness option. For balance, do some one-leg stands with your joint mobility sessions: start by standing on one foot with a goal of thirty seconds. Keep adding seconds until you can stay up for a minute or more. Then, work on one-leg stands with your eyes closed for thirty seconds working up to ninety seconds.

No doubt about it, strength without adequate cardio, flexibility, and mobility isn’t enough. You need to be able to move pain-free, have the heart health to cruise through the day, and the strength to conquer; however, the physical aspects of health are only part of the equation. Let’s move onto the next pillar of general fitness, which is nutrition.

All the exercise in the world won’t compensate for a crappy diet. Sure, you might stay thin by working out four hours a day while eating a dozen Krispy Kremes each night, but there’s a difference between thinness and healthiness and they don’t always go together. It’s true that when you’re following a solid training program you can eat occasional junk food and not worry about it. Moreover, as Joel Marion writes in his excellent book, The Cheater’s Diet, cheating on your diet once a week is a great way to increase leptin levels, which is the most important fat loss hormone. The good news is that not only is it o.k. to splurge once a week, but it’s also even beneficial to staying lean! Keep in mind we’re talking about one day a week here, not seven. The other six days you want to do as Ori Hofmekler, author of The Anti-Estrogenic Diet, recommends and focus on eating as low on the food chain as possible. This means eating low-glycemic fruits and vegetables, such as berries, tomatoes, oranges, apples, baby spinach salads, red peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower. It means getting protein from organic beans, nuts, and seeds. Finally, it means getting healthy fat from sources such as olive oil, avocados, almond butter, nuts, and seeds. If you eat the majority of your food from the aforementioned sources you’ll be adding a tremendous boost to your general fitness program. Once a week, splurge and eat whatever you want, guilt-free, since how we relate to food is important.

What about meal frequency? Should we eat five times per day, three times, once a day? There are various answers to this question. Many trainers and nutritionists feel that five small meals is the way to go, but I disagree for two reasons: one, it’s too much of a hassle to prepare meals that often. Most of us have no patience for food preparation and feel irritation just thinking about making five meals a day. Marketers are well aware of this and provide a solution via protein shakes and bars. With such a high mark-up on something made from industrial food by-products, they’re a risky proposition. Second, the five-meals-a day-plan doesn’t work well because you’re never really satisfied: you leave every meal hungry and disappointed and all you’re thinking about is your next fix, in the form of another small and unsatisfying meal. Let’s face it, eating a large meal is enjoyable, though not to the point of being stuffed and bloated, only to the point of satiety.

The key is limiting the large meal to once per day as recommended by Ori Hofmekler in The Anti-Estrogenic Diet and The Warrior Diet. The best time to have this meal is dinner when we’re done with the day. Having made it through another day, we get to enjoy a large, healthy and satisfying meal. This doesn’t mean you should water fast throughout the day–very few can maintain such a rigid program for long. Instead, snack during the day on protein shakes, salads with pecans and walnuts, fruits and vegetables, any food low on the food chain, thus easily digestible and assimilable. Digestion takes a lot of energy, which is why so many people are tired all day. Having a big breakfast sets you up for an unproductive day. Eating a big lunch is fine…if you have an hour to nap afterward. You’ll have to experiment to know which meal pattern is optimal for you. Some people get through a day with few to no snacks while others need to eat more. Save the biggest meal for the end of the day, preferably after your late afternoon workout, and you’ll be set. Make sure your main meal isn’t too close to bedtime, not because you’ll get fat–that’s a myth–but because you may have trouble sleeping.

All right, we’ve made it to the last pillar of general fitness, which is restoration. (Especially appropriate since you’ll need some after reading this long article.) We’re a stimulus-addicted society wherein busy-ness is a status symbol, i.e., the busier we are the more important we are. We despise laziness though as a nation we’re fatter than ever. Being productive is important, as is living a full life but your ability to lead a full and pleasurable life is directly related to your restoration program. Just as a car can’t be driven continuously without eventually breaking down, human beings need time to slow down and get tuned-up.

The most important part of a restoration program is quality sleep. We’re sleep-deprived as a country so it’s not surprising there are coffee outlets on every corner. Hoping to defy nature, we trade quality sleep for artificial stimulation–the crash and burn of adrenal fatigue is inevitable. Critical things happen when we’re deeply sleeping: one, we have vivid dreams, which are important for mental health and sanity; two, we produce abundant anti-aging hormones, such as testosterone, DHEA, pregnenolone, and growth hormone; three, the body goes into repair mode when we’re sleeping and rebuilds the damage of daily living. Sleep deprivation literally puts one in an aging state and the less sleep, the more rapid the aging. When we avoid sleep, we not only cheat ourselves but the important people in our lives, since you’re never your best when sleep deprived.

One reason we might not sleep well is poor stress-management skills. Stress is in the mind of the beholder so isn’t necessarily created by what’s happening in our lives but how our brain is interpreting what’s happening. We need to build stronger reserves to handle stress and meditation is ideal. Meditation can take many forms, for instance, you can practice chi gong or tai chi as a form of meditation, or simply walk around the block focusing on the breath and staying in the moment. You don’t have to sit in the lotus position and chant; personally, I walk while deep breathing and I listen to a meditation CD called Holosync for an hour, after workouts, or before going to sleep. I sit in a comfortable chair and listen to the Holosync program using noise reduction headphones and breathe deeply through the nose for the duration of the CD. More often than not, I fall asleep during this process and wake up refreshed. Meditation isn’t a new-age fad but something wise people have been doing for thousands of years and I suggest you add it to your program.

Another effective component of a restoration program is massage therapy. A good massage each week will do wonders for your muscles, overall well-being, and decrease stress. If once a week is cost-prohibitive, get one every other week. If that’s too much, then once a month, and if that is cost-prohibitive, cancel your cable and cell phone service…or get a better paying job. Any massage is only as good as the practitioner, so do your homework; you may need to visit several therapists until you find the best one for you. Make sure you look for someone who gives you a personalized massage rather than a generic sequence.

Something to complete your restoration program–that doesn’t cost a dime–is deep breathing. Anytime you feel stress, focus on deep breathing. Breathe in through the nose to a count of five, hold for ten seconds, and breathe out to a count of five. Work on taking slower, deeper breaths and holding for longer periods of time. As bodybuilder Steve Reeves noted, deep breathing increases levels of the good feeling hormone, epinephrine, and is an effective way of producing a natural high. Animals intuitively know this and breathe deep naturally. Right now, my dog, Mona, is relaxing and practicing deep breathing; she’s breathing through her nose into her stomach rather than the chest. The only times she doesn’t breath deeply is when she’s sick. When we’re stressed, we constrict our breathing, which is unhelpful, creating more stress in the body. Breathe deep and feel better anytime you need a boost.

There you have it, general fitness in a big nutshell! Next time you come across someone saying his or her goal is general fitness, send them this article and tell them to shut up and put the advice into action. General fitness training isn’t complicated: more isn’t better and neither is less more. The key is a balanced program with time spent on the five pillars of general fitness. Build strong muscles, strengthen your heart and lungs, increase mobility, eat a healthy diet, and take some time to rest. Much easier to read about than put into action. Make a decision; start today and follow through.


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