Monday, August 17, 2015

Are You a Generalist or a Specialist?

Some guys love to lift and get big. You'll find them in the weight-training section of the gym -- usually by the free weights.

Some guys love nothing more than a good 10-mile run. You might find them on a treadmill, but more likely on the side of a road, bopping along.

And some guys like a little bit of everything. You never know where you'll find them. And one of those guys is me.

First, the Specialists
If you have a singular passion, by all means, you should do what it takes to pursue that. For example, if you want to run a marathon, you need to focus your training on that. Coaches will suggest weight training, but only in limited doses, and with your specific goal in mind. Frankly, your running regimen will take up enough of your time and energy by itself -- my peak when I ran one was 48 miles in one week.

Similarly, I have a neighbor who's a competitive bodybuilder. He spends a lot of time picking things up and putting them down. He does some cardio to keep his body-fat percentage low, but ultimately, he has to focus on a lot of max-strength lifts to build muscle. But he's also having a blast doing what he's doing, so why shouldn't he keep at it?

And of course, there are specialized workouts for just about every team sport. In some sports, it varies by position. For example, an offensive lineman in football needs to work on explosive strength (i.e. fast-twitch muscle fibers), a hugely strong lower core for leverage, AND endurance to make it through 60 minutes of banging against other huge guys. If you look at most offensive linemen, they are big and strong, but they generally aren't "ripped" like bodybuilders, because that sort of hypertrophy comes at the expense of explosive strength and flexibility. Here's an example of the kind of training offensive linemen do -- very little one-rep-max or even 5x5 work, plenty of sprints and core work, and a big push to build endurance by minimizing rest.

Even your diet is going to vary if you're specializing. Runners are going to seek out high-carb diets, which will keep them lean and provide the energy they need for 25+ miles per week. Bodybuilders will go for protein -- my neighbor says he gets 300 grams a day, nearly six times the USRDA for the average American. And an offensive lineman needs to eat A LOT just to keep up with his tremendous energy output.

So if you're involved in a particular sport, you should seek out the fitness regimen that best fits what you're looking to do. Just about every sport has plenty of information online, or you can seek out the help of a qualified trainer.

But What About the Average Regular Guy?
But being a better runner, or bodybuilder, or offensive lineman doesn't mean that your overall health is where you want it to be to keep fit and live your life.

Most Regular Guys I know are just looking to improve their overall health without making a huge dent in their schedules. My goals are to build some modest muscle, have the strength to accomplish the things I need to around my house, keep my heart and lungs in good shape for the long haul, and have some endurance.

It should come as no surprise that I have a number of friends who consider themselves endurance runners. So their training is directed at improving their performance in distance races. As you know if you've been reading the blog for a while, I love running, too. But I think that the specialization-vs.-generalization discussion is, in some regard, a chicken-or-egg argument. Are you exercising to improve your fitness, or are you trying to improve your fitness to get better at a specific exercise, such as running?

Some months ago, I wrote about Cardio vs. Strength Training, and that's a good starting point for the discussion of specialization vs. generalization. The bottom line in that piece is that regardless of your endeavor, you really need to do both. How much of one vs. the other depends on your starting point and your goals. For example, Usain Bolt and Meb Keflezighi are both elite runners, but the similarities end there.

And of course, there are other Regular Guy variables. How much time do you have in your day and your week? What are you actually interested in doing? Do you have access to a gym? Do you have access to a treadmill or other cardio machine for bad weather? Do you have old injuries that preclude you from doing certain things?

The Benefits of Being a Generalist
You Don't Have to Focus on One Thing. One major factor that keeps many Americans from exercising more is that they see it as pure drudgery. But when you generalize, you can -- and should -- change things up from day to day. Not just "cross train" once a week, but actually do different stuff. Run one day, lift the next, play a sport on another day, go for a bike ride on a nice morning, or even get some solid yardwork in.

You're Probably Going to Look Better. I really hate the criticism of marathoners that they look "skinny-fat." They do because they actively avoid hypertrophy, which would slow them down. But the thing is, endurance athletes generally do lack muscle tone. Bodybuilders, frankly, have too much muscle -- there comes a point when it's unappealing. And offensive linemen, despite their strength and athleticism, look kinda fat. If you meet a retired offensive lineman, you're often shocked at how much smaller he is compared to when he played. The generalist -- if you commit to a fit lifestyle -- is going to achieve solid muscle tone and a low body-fat percentage. In other words, you're going to look like the Regular Guy your wife wants you to.

You Don't Need as Many Rest Days. Most workout regimens, regardless of specialization, force you to take two, three or even four rest days a week. That's because the repetitive stress on particular muscles, joints and bones leads to injury, and because part of the process of strengthening is allowing muscle fibers time to regenerate before breaking them down again. But if you work different muscle groups on different days, you don't have to spend so many days being inactive. If I work upper body at the gym one day, I have no compunction about a long run the next.

Doing Stuff You Like Counts. Most specialists like to do things aside from their sport. But often they can't, either because they're maxed out by their sport-specific workouts, or because they're concerned about injuries. For example, runners training for a race are advised not to play sports with a lot of jumping or lateral movement, such as basketball or tennis. But you can.

Regular Guy Life Doesn't Specialize. Do you never have to lift furniture or heavy boxes? OK, then don't worry about strength. Do you never have to chase your kids? OK, then don't worry about speed. Do you never have a four- or five-hour yardwork or home-repair job in front of you? OK, then don't worry about endurance. The rest of us could use a little of all of these.

You Can Do What Works for You. You know that's a mantra of Fitness for the Regular Guy. But this is where the rubber hits the road. No easy access to a gym? Do some bodyweight exercises. Old knee injury that keeps you from running? Get on your bike or hop in the pool. Gotten bored with that stuff? Grab a football, basketball, tennis racquet, whatever.

You're Not Slave to a Schedule. When I was training for the marathon, I had a pretty strict schedule. Mondays and Fridays were rest days. Tuesday and Thursday were short-ish runs, Wednesday was for a kinda-long run (8-10 miles), Saturday was long-run day, and Sunday was strength or cross training. But if I had a little sniffle, or was just tired, or had car trouble, or had extra work responsibilities, or whatever -- that would all throw me off. But now, I worry far more about keeping my overall activity level up and much less about when I get specific things done. It's a lot more flexible, and I feel healthier.

So Are You a Generalist or a Specialist?
Does one thing really do it for you? Do you get joy from shaving a few seconds off your 5k time, or adding five pounds to your 1RM at the gym, or increasing your shooting percentage on the basketball court? Then keep rockin' it! The kind of fitness regimen you embark on has a particular focus, but it makes you happy, and you're still in better health than anyone who's still sitting on the couch.

But if you want to feel better, stronger, healthier, more attractive overall, and you don't have that singular focus, do a little of everything. It's all good for you, and you're working both your aerobic and anaerobic systems. You're building muscle and cardiovascular health. And you're a lot more likely to enjoy your exercise, rather than finding it to be a chore.

I want to hear from you, Regular Guys. Are you a generalist or a specialist? What does your regimen look like? What are your goals, and how closely does your exercise program align with those goals? How do you fit everything into your Regular Guy life? Sound off on Facebook, on Twitter or in the comments below!

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