Photo: Kurt Markus

The Shape of Your Life

You think you've got it all figured out? We used to think that, too. But there's always a day of reckoning. It isn't just about getting winded on a long ride or your pants not fitting like they used to. It's about waking up and realizing you're ready for a whole new fitness paradigm. A strategy for the long haul—your key to all-access adventure. Get in the shape of your life with our award-winning, five-part plan. 

Do it right. Do it now. Surfer and program adviser Laird Hamilton shows you how to shape your life.     Photo: Kurt Markus

Finding (and Keeping) Your Fittest Self

Get ready to maximize the endurance, strength, flexibility, speed, and power you never knew you had.

One fine spring day, not long ago, I took a hard look in the mirror and realized that I had become a wide load on the highway of sloth. The situation was not optimal. You see, I was 33, at least 30 pounds overweight, and approaching my first-ever physical. Climbing the stairs to visit the candy machines at work left me winded, which made it hard to eat my Runts. Then there were the vacation photos, incriminating images of a pie-faced man wearing my clothes and hanging out with my wife. I would stare at them and wonder, Was it the bad lighting

Thankfully, the slide was arrested when a buddy in Manhattan challenged me to a long-distance fit-a-thon—an anything-goes, six-week crash exercise program that would force the two of us into shape before we embarked on a midsummer surfing trip to Ditch Plains Beach on Long Island. If I didn't do something quick, I was going to look like a giant hors d'oeuvre up on that board.

My "plan," such as it was, involved a cobbled-together routine of aerobic exercise and weight lifting. I threw myself into everything at once, thinking, naturally, that I would explode into greatness. My wife and I registered for a half-marathon, and I started running five days a week. I jumped rope 250 times after breakfast, played basketball at noon, and skipped another 250 times in the afternoon. I hit the gym and pushed weights around, though with little rhyme or reason. I ate toast without butter, sandwiches without mayo, dinner without beer. I gave up Chunky Monkey and Chips Ahoy and went to bed with my stomach coiling.

After a month and a half, my running peaked at 30 miles a week, my rope-jumping at 1,000 skips a day. I lost the 30 pounds and—because my fingers had turned bony—my 18-karat Tiffany wedding band, which was torn off by a breaker. (Sorry again about that, Sweets.) I reported to my physical and got the thumbs-up from my doctor, though I neglected to inform him that I craved naps, possessed no libido, cowered at most foods, and had dizzy spells when I stood up.

You can guess what happened next. I exploded all right, but not exactly into greatness. I was chronically irritable, and during the half-marathon, my wife and I quarreled for nine miles, pulled off our numbers, and hitched a ride to the finish. (No one had told us there would be hills.) After a month or so, physiological entropy returned like a bad habit. I hung up my jump rope, stopped showing up for hoops, and reclaimed 15 pounds. I continued to run sporadically, but never again with such purpose.

Maybe this was a good thing, this dark night of my fitness soul. For if nothing else, it wised me up to the importance—nay, the necessity—of a reliable, well-conceived training plan. As a journalist who has written for years on health and fitness, I understood that athletic training is a somewhat improvisational science. But I also knew that during the last 25 years, enough time-tested, athlete-proven strategies, techniques, and guidance had emerged that the editors of Outside and I could craft a truly multifaceted, effective program—one that would forge me (and you) into the best shape possible, but more than that, one that would keep me (and you) there.

You now have access to the result of our quest, a five-month all-purpose workout plan for the outdoor athlete: The Shape of Your Life.

Participate in Outside's award-winning fitness program, with easy interactive software that lets you track your workouts and reach any fitness goal.

There's no getting around it—you have to go far to get fit.     Photo: Kurt Markus

Month One: Build Endurance Like a Pro

Get a solid endurance base through heart-rate training.

A sustainable approach to exercise is tricky business because when it comes to fitness, we are all pilgrims stumbling toward the light. Everyone seems to have a vague idea about what they need to do to get in shape, and stay in shape, but that doesn't mean they know what to do about it. According to the research firm American Sports Data, 60 percent of Americans say exercise is good, yet they never exercise.

The five-month Shape of Your Life program has a solution. The first month, presented here, showcases endurance—both physical and motivational. It's the easiest month in terms of sheer volume, intensity, and complexity of the exercises, but it's essential because our endurance prescription is designed to get you in the habit of working out regularly, establish your baseline, and identify fitness goals. You'll also steadily increase your time commitment from about 30 minutes to an hour a day, five days a week. Subsequent months won't increase the duration of your workouts, but will ramp up the intensity and vary the exercises.

The Dynamic Master Plan

There's plenty of research focused on helping elite athletes optimize, and stick with, their training, but what most of us need is advice on how to fold fitness into a life not sponsored by a power drink. This begins with some rigorous introspection. Why get fit in the first place? What's the point? There are the superficial reasons. Guilt after a physical. Panic over, say, an impending surf trip. Ego. Vanity. Better reasons include the intrinsic value of exercise: how it can help stave off disease; how it stimulates the brain's production of serotonin, a natural mood-booster; how it keeps energy up and blood pressure and appetite down.

But the real answer is more simple and obvious. Getting in shape is nothing more—and nothing less—than a means to an end. You can take off on a surf safari with dignity intact, run a half-marathon with your spouse and not seek couples counseling afterward, or ski black-diamond runs, fast, without sacrificing an ACL to the cause. You'll find troubleshooting tips, but the general wisdom is this: nail down a goal and you've found the wellspring of motivation, the fountain of fit.

Which is all well and good as long as you also have some solid infrastructure that will accommodate the day-to-day logistics of an ostensibly lifelong exercise plan. Convenience—or, rather, inconvenience—is a tremendous gumption trap. "Have a training regimen for every environment you find yourself in," says Ed Jackowski, author of Escape Your Shape and owner of Exude Fitness in New York. "When you can't make it to the gym after work, you have to have something you can do at home."

Got a spare room? A basement? A backyard? Consider turning an unused space into a low-tech home gym. The Shape of Your Life requires only a few pieces of basic equipment—a bench, dumbbells, a stability ball (also called a physio or Swiss ball), a new jump rope, and a plyometric box—that shouldn't run you more than $200. (You can even improvise: milk jugs for dumbbells, a stairs, a bench, or bleachers for the plyo box.) This modest tool kit is all you need to do brief-but-intense resistance training, à la Bill Phillips's Body for Life, the best-selling exercise book that seemed to have everyone who followed it looking like Joe Piscopo in a mere 12 weeks. You may not be after the freakish physique of a bodybuilder (if you're like me, the thought of waxing your chest gives you chills), but reams of research and fitness experts from coast to coast tout the benefits of lifting weights.

Next, you need a strategy, and nothing has proven itself more effective than the concept of periodization—cyclic bouts of expansion and retrenchment designed to build fitness. By following a specifically staggered schedule you give your body a chance to regenerate enough to spring forward a few days later. After all, your muscles, and the capillaries that transport blood to fuel them, grow during rest, not during exertion. Simply alternating cardio and strength days, while important, is not enough. As a diagram, periodization might look something like those blocky steps and valleys you see on preset treadmill programs—go hard, ease off; go hardest, ease off; go hard; ease off. The popular training programs developed by Joe Friel—author of The Mountain Biker's Training Bible and The Triathlete's Training Bible—present a monthly workout schedule in which the third week is the hardest of the four. The key is to create a program with multiple layers of periodization, taking the staggered approach within each workout, each week, each month, and ultimately through the duration of your program. "Periodization is the most likely way to achieve athletic success," says Friel.

Endurance 101

Endurance is the foundation of The Shape of Your Life because this workout plan is about going places—the top of Mount Washington, three weeks down the Back River, the finish line of 24 Hours of Moab. Technically, endurance is a combination of efficiency (lean body mass), physiology (a dense network of mitochondria that produces energy in the muscles), genes (a high percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers), plumbing (an efficient heart capable of moving more blood per pump), and strength in those areas that help transfer force between the upper and lower body (the hips, lower back, abdominals, and other core muscles).

How do you build endurance? First, you need to put in steady, sustained periods of activity—running, biking, swimming, rowing—at moderate intensity to build your muscular and aerobic base. "If you're always running out of gas after an hour, that can be indicative of not enough foundation," says Ray Browning, seven-time Ironman winner and coauthor of Serious Training for Endurance Athletes. "In some sports, like cross-country skiing and cycling, it can be easy to always work at too high an intensity and never develop your low-intensity base of endurance." But base-building workouts in tandem with intensity training can bring about significant leaps in aerobic efficiency.

Brace yourself—here comes the lesson from Exercise Physiology 101. As intensity increases from moderate to high to very high (think jogging, running, sprinting), you compromise your body's ability to produce the energy needed to power muscle contraction. You can sustain a very high level of effort for brief periods because you've crossed your lactate threshold. (Lactate is a byproduct of lactic acid that can't be burned as fuel.) At this point, you shift from aerobic (oxygen-aided) energy production to anaerobic (non-oxygen-aided) energy production, and lactic acid is pouring into your muscles in such large amounts—hence the burn—that they shut down. With proper conditioning, you can push this threshold back. 

To lift your LT, you first need to find out where it is—easily done, thanks to the development of wireless heart-rate monitors—and run an interval now and then close to that number. You can estimate your LT using a simple calculation that approximates your maximum heart rate (see "The Prime Rate," last page), the highest number of times your chest ham can go flippity-flip in one minute. Your MHR isn't a direct indication of how fit you are, and it will vary from sport to sport. But this number is invaluable because the body marshals its different energy systems at various percentages of maximum heart rate with remarkable consistency. At 70 percent of MHR, it uses oxygen to burn fat; at 85 percent it begins breaking down muscles for fuel; and at 90 percent it burns carbs exclusively. Not many athletes can surpass 90 percent of MHR without hitting the lactate wall, when muscle contraction—and therefore you—grind to a halt. Depending on your fitness level, your own LT lives somewhere between the 75 and 90 percent mark.

The first month of The Shape of Your Life dedicates three days a week to aerobic and LT training. These sessions will repeatedly push your LT by way of intensity drills—what you've probably come to know as intervals. At the end of each month, you'll gauge your progress with an easy time trial. As you find yourself running a mile faster at the same heat rate, you'll know you have a bigger engine and a higher tolerance for lactic acid. Congrats. You now have more than a running routine; you have endurance.

Do it right, do it now. Surfer and Outside adviser Laird Hamilton shows you how to shape your life.   Photo: Kurt Markus

Building Better Muscles

Strength training—or, as it's now commonly called, resistance training—is on a tear. More research papers were published on the science of resistance training in the decade after 1987 than in all the years prior. Ever since the mushrooming interest in aerobic conditioning in the 1970s, studies have shown that, among other things, the upper bodies of elite runners who did not lift weights atrophied at the same pace as those of nonathletes, that weight lifting helped burn fat by raising resting metabolic rate, and that it offset the effects of aging by stimulating the production of human growth hormone. Studies on "core strength" make up the latest chapter in the story.

"The core is the seat of all power," says Al Vermeil, strength and conditioning consultant for the Chicago Bulls. "Studies have shown that when you sit down to do a lift at a machine, you remove all the stabilizers, the neglected smaller muscles that don't move as much weight but keep you supported, connect your upper and lower body, and keep your joints in position. These are the hips, back, gluteus maximus, and lower abdominal muscles.

While strength is the theme during month two of The Shape of Your Life, the plan incorporates basic muscle-building drills from the first month: push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, lunges, bent-over lifts, and others. We've tried to streamline your workload in a few of them. Twisting the sit-up at the top adds a rotational component to the exercise. Doing a wide-grip pull-up transfers the work from your biceps (they look nice, but big bi's are only bit players in most sports) to your back. "Simplicity of tools, but complexity of use," says Vermeil. "You can do everything you need with a medicine ball, dumbbells, a Swiss ball, and your own body weight. I used to train guys entirely with things we found in the woods."

Ultimately, the variety of resistance training that you'll encounter here will do more than make you balanced and powerful. It will introduce strength work as a part of holistic conditioning, encouraging you to approach the weight stack not as a way to get buff—which is both impractical and unsustainable—but as a way to make strength a permanent, functional part of your life.

The Big Picture

Excercise plans tend to be conspicuously lopsided. When I cavalierly leapt into my fit-a-thon a few years ago, I saw only one thing: me, ripped, on a board, cutting frontside arcs on a four-foot North Atlantic swell. Rest was for sissies. Don't even get me started on yoga.

I'm different now. Enlightened. My Shape of Your Life odyssey revealed nothing if not the understanding that lasting fitness and a resilient, balanced musculature depend on more than weights, running, and a sensible diet. Of equal if not greater import are mindfulness and flexibility. We delve fully into flexibility by way of yoga during the third month. Why yoga? Not only has it gone mainstream—15 million Americans, including the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants, now practice yoga, up from six million eight years ago—but an expanding body of research touts the importance of the mind-body connection.

"People probably have a genetic set point for flexibility," says Ed Laskowski, codirector of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center. But that set point may be unrealized by some. Laskowski recently led a study that found the range of motion among those who suffered from chronically tight muscles changed significantly under anesthesia. "It might not be the muscles which are tight, but something about the nerves energizing the muscles," says Laskowski. "If people learned how to relax mentally, that might improve their flexibility."

This is where we come in. In the first month, The Shape of Your Life introduces traditional, one-minute postworkout static stretches to aid your recovery. During month three, we'll add dynamic power-yoga movements to help increase your core strength and flexibility, and—perhaps the most enduring asset of yoga—fine-tune your ability to monitor and adjust mental and muscular tension.

The final two months of the program are devoted to speed and power, balance and agility. We'll max out the intensity during the fourth month, then turn you on to some multipurpose dexterity training during the concluding four weeks.

And there you have it: endurance, strength, flexibility, speed and power, balance and agility—the building blocks for The Shape of Your Life. Mix in a few cups of nutrition, sprinkle on some motivational tips, add a dash of how-to, and serve on a bed of fun and adventure.

Had I known all this three years ago, who knows what I might have checked off my wish list by now. A surfing safari in Indonesia? Climbing Mount Rainier? Mountain biking across Chile? (We can all dream.) Hell, I might even have my original wedding ring. Which leads me to my final admonition: Look forward, not back. Put our plan in motion and see it through to the end. When you've reached that end, head out on the grandest adventure you can dream up. I can assure you of one thing: You'll be ready for it.

Start It Up: Month One Workout

Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

This Installment of The Shape of Your Life is devoted to building endurance. This weekday plan (use your weekends for hiking, biking, running, climbing, paddling, whatever) utilizes heart-rate training zones to raise your VO2 max and lactate threshold (see above).

You need to round up a heart-rate monitor, but for the first two weeks, to get familiar with how your HRM works, just wear the unit and mentally note your digits during the aerobic sessions. At the end of week two, you'll determine your personal lactate threshold with a simple test. The interval sessions in weeks three and four are engineered to raise your LT.

We also introduce you to basic strength and flexibility training (see sidebar). For dumbbell lifts, use enough weight to bring you just short of exhaustion in each set. If you struggle with pull-ups, have a partner hoist you at the waist, or get friendly with the weight-assisted pull-up machine at your gym.

Begin each strength session with a warm-up (ten minutes of rope skipping, stair stepping, easy jogging, or zero-resistance cycling) and end with the stretch sequence. As always, if you have health concerns, consult your physician before starting this or any other exercise program. Finally, should you miss a workout, don't panic, just pick the workout back up as soon as you can.

Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

Maximize Your Heart-Rate Training

Heart-rate training is the key to gauging your aerobic intensity and building endurance. Here's how to get started.

  1. Buy a Heart-Rate Monitor (HRM): In order to get the most out of the interval training used in The Shape of Your Life program, a midlevel HRM that can calculate average heart rate and provide target-zone programming with an audible alarm will be the most effective. With those functions, you'll be able to bump into higher and lower heart-rate zones (see step 3, below) without looking at the watch face. Models we like are created by Acumen, Cardiosport, and Polar.
  2. Calculate Your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR): Your MHR will determine the numbers that define your training zones. Use the following formula to determine your baseline MHR.
    217 - (your age x 0.85) = MHR (in beats per minute)
    Example: If you're 35, that comes out to 217 - 30 = 187 bpm. For rowing, subtract another 3 bpm. For cycling, subtract another 5 bpm. For swimming, subtract another 14 bpm.
  3. Establish Your Four Heart-Rate Zones: A little more math and you're done. Using your MHR as a baseline, write down the corresponding heart rates for the following zones: recovery (60 percent of your MHR); aerobic (60-75 percent of MHR); lactate threshold, or LT (75-90 percent of MHR); and anaerobic (90 percent of MHR and above). You'll use these numbers to work out at prescribed intensities during each month's regimen.

Individual lactate thresholds vary widely among athletes. If you've let fitness slip for a while, your LT probably falls at the low end of Zone 3 (maybe 75 to 80 percent of MHR); if you're in good shape already, LT may hover closer to 80 or 85 percent. On Friday of week two of The Shape of Your Life program, you'll perform a workout designed to determine your LT more accurately for the upcoming intervals. At the end of each month you'll take a one-mile LT test to see if you've pushed it back.

Build endurance with the first installment in our interactive training plan.

Someday, you'll move mountains. But start with a log.     Photo: Kurt Markus

Month Two: The Right Way to Strength Train

The ultimate guide to weightlifting for endurance athletes

Inisde the typical foghat-themed weight room you'll find two typical users: bronzed apes getting ripped by hogging the bench, leg sled, and mirrors; and past-their-prime athletes hoping to cut an old squash injury off at the pass with a lazy machine circuit. Too bad. Not only are such routines mind- and soul-numbing, but because they're derived from bodybuilding—a dubious athletic niche that treats muscles as trophies rather than team members—both are fundamentally flawed. For the kind of usable musculature that may not seal the deal on ElimiDate but will sharpen your prowess on the trail, slopes, or river, it's time to embrace functional training, an approach to lifting that mimics movements actually involved in sports.

"You need to train in patterns that reflect life," says Paul Chek, the country's best-known functional-fitness evangelist. Chek developed many of the movement's tenets at his eponymous training center in Encinitas, California. Rather than isolating individual muscles, functional exercises follow the three basic motions of athletics (rotational, side-to-side, and front-to-back) to recruit entire muscle groups, and put you on your feet rather than a padded bench. When you're forced to maintain your balance while moving weight, you strengthen your core, an oft-neglected muscle group comprising your glutes, lower back, and abdominals. A solid core is vital for transferring power from lower body to upper body—like when lifting a 60-pound pack onto your back—or vice versa. "If your core is deficient," says Chek, "your arms and legs have nothing to anchor to."

Much to the weight-machine industry's chagrin, functional training has become more than the pet theory of a handful of personal trainers. The National Academy of Sports Medicine recently developed a functional-training certification program. And prior to the last two Olympics, U.S. athletes were using functional regimens to prepare for everything from triathlon to alpine skiing. "Ninety percent of our training involves movements that mimic sport," says Dana Healy, director of conditioning at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. "It makes more sense—how does a Nautilus curl transfer over to everyday activity?"

This month, in part two of our Shape of Your Life program, as you continue to build your endurance foundation, we'll introduce a functional-strength regimen for the gym. You'll start with only one set (studies show that one set, done right, has the same benefits as two). You'll put equal emphasis on the down portions of each lift, developing your muscles to descend, not just climb, a mountain. And when you plateau, you'll lift less weight for a day before attempting more—a periodization strategy you can think of as "step back and leap."

All this should be welcome news. By lifting less weight in a smarter fashion, functional training won't tap your endurance resources the way traditional approaches can. (Yes, you will be doing aerobic endurance work in month two). Most of the exercises you'll perform can be adapted; almost anything done on two feet, for example, can be done on one. This should help prevent workout boredom. And most important, you'll nurture real muscular movement for the field—not just the mirror. Which is the only kind of strength you'll ever need.

How to Cut a Killer Core

To see a larger version of these exercises, see this page.   Photo: Outside

Weeks five through eight of The Shape of Your Life focus on functional strength. All the moves are simple adaptations of standard weight-room lifts. The key difference is that everything takes place on your feet or a stability ball (you can purchase the latter, also called a Swiss ball, at your local sporting goods store). Lifting on a wobbly platform develops your core, a muscle group that transfers strength gains to real sports. 

Our regimen stresses quality over quantity, so you'll do only one set, but perform each rep in a slow, smooth manner (five to ten seconds each), placing equal emphasis on both the up and down portions of the lift. Use enough weight to bring you just short of exhaustion after ten reps. When it gets easier, increase the weight, slow down the reps, or both. Each workout, complete a ten-minute warm-up before starting, and mix up the order of the exercises; variety will promote continued muscle growth. In month three, you'll perform a simple cable test that can help measure increases in core strength.

For endurance, continue zone heart-rate training three days a week. Weeks five and six use intervals to raise your lactate threshold. To maintain the periodized approach laid out in month one, you'll add time (about ten minutes) to your workouts in week seven, and reduce them in week eight to get you rested for the next phase.

To see a larger version of this chart, see this page.   Photo: Outside

Build strength with the second installment in our interactive training plan.

"People think that training gets you in shape. Training gets you out of shape," says Beryl Bender Birch, N.Y.-based yoga instructor.     Photo: Kurt Markus

Month Three: The Best Way to Improve Flexibility

Have trail and gym work turned you into a stiff? You need some flex time with Ashtanga yoga.

Running builds endurance. It also transforms your hamstrings into inflexible steel rods. Just ask any seasoned marathoner to lie on his back and lift a straight leg 90 degrees to the sky. Fat chance. And it's not just the road warriors who've been literally bent out of shape. Mountain biking puts a padlock on your hip flexors, weight lifting bows your shoulders forward, and over time, too much climbing will tighten your forearms like over-torqued piano wires.

"People think that training gets you in shape. Training gets you out of shape," says Beryl Bender Birch, an East Hampton, N.Y.-based yoga instructor and author of two books on Ashtanga—aka power yoga. "Because their range of motion is so shut down, a lot of weight lifters can't access the strength they've spent so much time developing. Other athletes are in perfect cardiovascular shape for their chosen sport but they may be nanoseconds away from exploding somewhere."

Birch believes you have to be soft to be hard, flexible to be strong. It's a mantra she settled on several years ago after teaching a class to the U.S. Nordic Ski Team and discovering that, even after their first, easy yoga session, the best endurance athletes in the world were so sore in the shoulders, back, and quads that they had to call in sick the next day.

Nordic skiers aren't the only ones who've found flexibility enlightenment: more than 20 million Americans—from hippie chicks to NFL linemen—now practice yoga, and three-quarters of all U.S. health clubs offer classes. Still, many of the elite competitors Birch works with take a little convincing. "Most athletes worry that if they start undoing the tightness they will lose performance," she says. "In fact, it's the opposite. Becoming more flexible enables you to push the envelope further."

Birch's counsel is especially applicable to those of you who have been diligently following Outside's five-month Shape of Your Life fitness plan. By now, strength training combined with two months of pounding the trail have increased your endurance, but likely rendered you as flexible as a certain flat-headed monster with bolts sticking out of his neck. In this, the third month of the program, you'll counteract this effect by learning the easy-to-incorporate set of Ashtanga yoga sequences pictured on these pages. Combining classic stretching poses with deliberate breathing techniques, Ashtanga, a 2,000-year-old Indian tradition, increases flexibility and builds eccentric strength—the kind you need to decelerate while, say, chugging down a trail. You'll also benefit from performing multiple joint movements (like the sun salutation) through all three planes of motion—front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotational—which will help fortify your core.

Sun Salutation A

Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

  1. Start standing, big toes together, ankles an inch apart, arms at your sides with fingers spread.
  2. Inhale, lift your arms outward and above your head, pulling your torso upward.
  3. Exhale, sweep your arms downward, and bend forward. Keep your back straight as your hands reach the floor (bend your knees if necessary), and then relax your back and let your head hang at the bottom of the exhale.
  4. Inhale, place your hands on your shins, and lift your chest and head.
  5. Exhale, place your palms on the floor, and walk your feet back into push-up, or "plank," position.
  6. Inhale, lower your chest to the floor, point your toes back, push your shoulders up so your back is arching, and pull your hips toward your arms. (Those with back trouble should rest on their knees.)
  7. Exhale, turning your toes under, straighten your arms, and lift your waist into "downward dog": butt up, legs and arms straight. Lengthen your torso and rest here for five to eight breaths.
  8. At the start of the last inhale, either lunge or walk both feet to your hands and return to position four.
  9. Exhale and release your back and head.
  10. Inhale, stand straight with arms above you again.
  11. Exhale back into the start position. Repeat.

Lung Power

"Ashtanga is the single best thing you can do for flexibility, breathing, and balance," says big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, our fitness consultant for the Shape of Your Life program. Hamilton recently took up Ashtanga in an effort to boost his all-around athleticism, and he's already seen improvements in his flexibility and his ability to repeatedly extend into tougher poses on the board—and pull back into position without wiping out. "The biggest thing it has done is give me more positions I can be powerful in," he says.

But athletic perks aren't the only reason to embrace the world's oldest fitness practice. The controlled, rhythmic breathing central to Ashtanga benefits your life in ways that extend far beyond your favorite outdoor sports. Two-part yoga breathing involves taking a deep inhale through your nose that fills your rib cage, and then exhaling through the back of your throat—slightly constricted—and out your nose with an audible sigh. By constraining and pressurizing your airflow, you generate heat internally, allowing you to reach deeper into difficult poses. Studies show that yogic breathing also slows the heart rate, decreases tension and blood pressure, and even increases V02 max, the standard gauge of your cardiovascular efficiency. For Hamilton, the breath work—and the accompanying mental clarity—is a great part of power yoga. "There's a certain calmness you get by dealing with pain and pushing through the wall," he says. "You become more comfortable in situations that would be really taxing."

Feel-good stress relief aside, don't be lulled into equating Ashtanga with a retirement-home stretching class; just learning the practice will entail a holistic ass-whupping. Men, notoriously lazy when it comes to doing anything about tight muscles, face a steeper learning curve than women, says Birch, because their greater muscle mass initially makes bending more of a struggle. The best way to confront that disadvantage is to join a class with a knowledgeable instructor—and to check your ego at the beaded door. Sit out the moves when you get winded; exhaustion will lead to bad form, and worse, injury. When asked, be honest about any past injuries; each yoga pose has a variation to minimize strain on problem areas. Most important, resist the urge to compete with the human pretzel next to you—this is Zen land, and no one is competing. And don't stress if you can't quite get into the chanting. The power-yoga drills you're learning can easily be done at home as a post-workout cooldown.

Strike a Pose

Click to enlarge.

For this month's Shape of Your Life regimen, you'll incorporate power yoga into your Monday through Friday workout schedule with the poses illustrated in the sidebar. We've provided instructions for each pose, but to get started on the right foot, we recommend that you sign up for one 60- to 90-minute introductory yoga class per week for the first month. You can likely find a decent class at your local gym or health club, but chances are you'll discover the expert teachers at dedicated yoga studios (ask around, or check out YogaFinder.com). Consulting an experienced instructor isn't mandatory, but he or she will ensure that your form is correct and provide you with alternative poses if you have lower back injuries or other problem areas.

Done correctly, our 20- to 30-minute Ashtanga series will work as a flexibility-enhancing cooldown to your continuing heart-rate endurance work three days per week. Meanwhile, to allow your body the periodized break it needs to learn to stretch, your functional-strength training is slightly curtailed this month—a strategy that will also help to get you rested for month four's speed and power plan. Which is the best reason to start yoga now: You'll build maximum flexibility in the ligaments and tendons, giving your muscles more room to perform. "It's like your body is your tennis racket," says Hamilton, "and you're giving it a bigger sweet spot."

Warrior [5-8 Breaths]
Start standing and inhale while stepping your left leg into a forward lunge with your left knee directly over your ankle. Exhale, keep your back heel on the floor, rotate your hips forward, try to get your left quadricep parallel to the ground, and raise your arms to the sky.

Triangle Pose [5-8 Breaths]
While standing, place your right leg in front of you, keeping both legs straight and your back foot turned out 30 degrees. Inhale, raise both arms straight to the sides; exhale and bend down so your right arm rests on your right shin. Lift your left arm to the sky and turn your head to focus on your left palm.

Tree Pose [5-8 Breaths]
Standing with your feet together, inhale, use your hand to lift your left leg up, and exhale, placing the sole of your left foot on the inside of the right thigh above the knee. Inhale, lift your arms above you, and turn your left knee outward to open your hip. Too hard? Try starting with your left foot on your right calf.

Boat Pose [5-8 Breaths]
Sitting with your legs bent in front of you and your back straight, exhale as you lean your weight back, and lift your legs out straight at a 45-degree angle to the floor. If you're unable to straighten your legs, keep your knees bent, and grasp your legs just above your knees.

The Big Picture

Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

Flexibility takes center stage in month three of The Shape of Your Life, and your first assignment is to include the following 20- to 30-minute yoga routine after each endurance workout, in this order: Sun Salutation, Warrior I, Triangle Pose, Back Stretch and Hamstring Stretch, Full Boat, and Tree Pose. All these poses are pictured with instructions on the preceding pages. Though classes are not mandatory, we do suggest signing up for a few beginner Ashtanga sessions to make sure you learn proper form and yield the maximum benefits from each pose.

As for your heart-rate-zone endurance work, you'll continue increasing duration. The schedule will be the same as last month: zone-specific intervals on Fridays, increased duration in weeks ten and eleven, and reduction in week twelve, with a final-day lactate-threshold test.

Your Tuesday/Thursday strength training, meanwhile, will be abbreviated from ten to eight exercises this month to prepare you for next month's speed and power drills. Twice a week, perform the four strength exercises shown above, as well as the following: upright rows, Swiss-ball flies, bent-over rows, and chin-ups.

Core Strength Cable Test

In the second installment of The Shape of Your Life we told you about a forthcoming standing cable push test you can do to measure your progress in core strength. The test is a favorite of functional-strength guru Paul Chek, who points out that "big benchers" can rarely push more than a third as much weight when they move the bench press to their feet in the form of a split stance cable push. And unless you're training to push yourself out from under an SUV, the man raises a good point: How often do you need your strength while on your back? The following test, which requires a cable or Nautilus machine, can be used every few weeks to gauge your improvement in core stability and functional strength as you work through our program:

Stand in a split stance (left foot ahead of the right) with your back to a cable machine and 70 percent of your weight on your back leg. Holding the cable in your right hand and at your chest with your palm down, inhale, pull your abs in, start the push from your back leg, then turn into it leading with your pelvis, only recruiting your arm when your shoulder is at three o'clock. Finish the movement as though executing a right hand punch. Find the amount of weight that leaves you maxed out—completely fatigued—after eight repetitions. Repeat this test every three or four weeks. If you can increase the weight, you've successfully increased your core strength.

Improve your flexibility with the third installment in our interactive training plan.

It's time to take flight with plyometrics.     Photo: Kurt Markus

Month Four: Unlock Explosive Power

Your foundation is built. It's time to tweak the beast.

As kids we loved to pile-drive our best friends into the couch, but as adults most of us are far too civilized for the explosive work required to build power. Endurance, strength, flexibility—these are all very sane. But power? Power's for short men in bar fights. Professional lumberjacks. The Rock. Unless you have a score to settle with the bouncer or a hole to open off left tackle, why should you hop, leap, or launch the barbells in the gym like an Olympic weight lifter?

"Because climbing, skiing, or whatever, there's a power component in everything we do," says power-training guru Vern Gambetta, president of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Florida. "It's the athletic expression of strength." In other words, whether it's outsprinting the peloton or lunging for a climbing hold, sooner or later you'll need power—the measure of how fast and how far you can move an object, often yourself, through space. And like it or not, your steady-as-she-goes strength, flexibility, and endurance work won't give it to you. Which isn't to say those three pillars of fitness are a waste of time. By now, if you've committed to our five-month Shape of Your Life program, you probably feel better than ever. But just because you've got a sustainable plan in place doesn't mean we'll pat you on the back and send you away. Starting today, the program accelerates: You've built your foundation; now it's time to tap your real athleticism by upgrading your power and accentuating its twin attribute, speed.

To back up that promise, we've turned to fitness authorities who aren't typically beloved by outdoor athletes—football coaches, track trainers, and gym teachers. But don't panic—you won't need a Lycra singlet or have to report to the field house. Like the other SYL workouts, this month's regimen can be done in your home gym and at the local park. You'll build power by adding Olympic lifts with dumbbells to your strength routine (think Laird Hamilton, not those huge Romanian weight lifters of yore), and ramp up your speed by starting endurance workouts with jumping drills, aka plyometrics. Yeah, yeah—this means your workouts will be longer and more intense, but quit complaining already. In four weeks, you may not pile-drive your workout buddy for old times' sake, but your rekindled athleticism will punish him just the same.

Power Training 101

Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

Any time you launch an object quickly through space—be it the weight of your body or the collected works of One Direction—physics and physiology require that you undertake two steps in quick succession: recoiling your muscles into position to prepare to move the object (technically, if counterintuitively, called a stretch) and then quickly throwing your muscle fibers into reverse to shorten them. In fitness parlance, these two movements together are called the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), and the production of power lies in the ability to switch rapidly between the two.

Some of the most effective exercises for improving SSC speed are Olympic-style lifts such as the clean (lifting a barbell from the floor to your chest) and jerk (raising a barbell from your chest to overhead). Unlike typical strength exercises like the bench press, depending on your height, Olympic lifts require muscling a barbell a whopping seven to ten feet in one repetition. To do this you have to utilize strength, speed, and momentum simultaneously, and over time this combination increases your muscle elasticity and primes the pathways for electrical signals to and from the brain, the two keys to speeding up your SSC.

Problem is, traditional Olympic lifting requires excellent technique and sound coaching to avoid injury. The solution? Dumbbells. "If you adapt Olympic lifts to dumbbells, you reduce the safety problems," says Gambetta. "Dumbbells accommodate to your body's structure and individual range of motion."

On Tuesdays and Thursdays of this month, you'll incorporate three Olympic-style dumbbell drills—clean-pulls, rotational clean-pulls, and squat presses—into your strength workout. Starting off lightly with dumbbells weighing 10 percent of your body weight, you'll execute each repetition as fast as you can while maintaining good form. On clean-pulls and rotational clean-pulls, this means keeping your back straight; pushing with your ankles, legs, and hips; and finishing with a shrug of your shoulders, letting your arms bend to accommodate the upward momentum. On squat presses, keep your back straight and descend into a squat before exploding upward, shifting your weight to the balls of your feet, and raising the dumbbells sky-high.

Hot-Wire Your Speed

It's a common misconception that speed is entirely based on the genes your parents provided you. True, your ratio of fast- to slow-twitch muscle fibers defines your maximum potential, but most of us are slow only because we're rusty. "It's a muscle memory thing," says Donald Chu, director of performance enhancement at Stanford University. "If you don't practice speed, it will desert you." To avoid that, you need plyometrics—jump training—which is the most proven way to refresh your muscle memory.

"Plyometrics teach your muscles how to go from responding pliantly, like a tomato, to elastically, like a superball," says Jimmy Radcliffe, co-author of High-Powered Plyometrics. This month, to give yourself more bounce to the ounce, you'll begin endurance workouts on Monday and Friday with a ten-minute plyometric workout. Starting with basic movements (jumping up to a box and stepping down) and progressing to more complex moves (dropping off a bench, landing, and then jumping straight up), you'll relearn the movement required to, say, avoid slamming into a tree while carving a backcountry glade. For sports that require upper-body quickness, such as kayaking, medicine-ball drills—chest passes and overhead throws—will provide plyometric action for your arms and torso. "Whether you're a climber or a skier or a mountain biker," says Stanford's Chu, "plyometrics will help you get out of unexpected situations fast."

As your quickness improves, you'll also need to develop your "reserve speed," says Peter Twist, a National Hockey League conditioning coach and founder of Twist Conditioning. "The kind of speed you get in third or fourth gear." How? Practice high-intensity, Zone-4 intervals, then chip away at the length of your recovery times. On Wednesdays, sometime toward the end of your endurance workout, launch into a full sprint for 30 seconds. Resume running or cycling, and when your heart rate returns to Zone 2 on the heart-rate scale, do another 30-second sprint. Start with three repetitions and work up to six or eight by week 16. Next month you'll reduce the recovery time between sprints. The drill develops your reserve capacity for speed by reestablishing the neurological pathways needed to turn on the afterburners when you're fatigued.

Combined, sprints and plyometrics will get you off the starting line quicker and give you overdrive power to finish a race strong. And trust us, your muscles will remember—you can't blame mom and dad forever.

Upward Bound Plyometrics Progression

Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

The following two-part workout is designed to improve your overall speed and quickness. A word of caution: Tall boxes are for longtime plyometric veterans only. Beginners should find a park bench or any other stable, elevated surface between 16 and 20 inches high (anything below the knee will suffice). Also, try to work out on grass (it reduces the impact on your joints) and reserve the depth jump (exercise #4) for week 16 only. As for medicine-ball drills, if you're training by yourself, get a rubber ball that bounces (find one at www.performbetter.com) and do the exercises against a wall.

Lower Body

  1. Drop and Freeze: (10 reps) Starting on a box, lightly step off—never leap—and land, moving into a crouch stance to stop your momentum. Freeze for three to four seconds before the next rep. 
  2. Two-Legged Box Jumps: (10 reps) Stand in front of a box, crouch, swing your arms behind and then upward, springing high enough to land coming down to the box.
  3. Split-Stance Jump: (10 reps on each side) Stand with one leg on the box and one on the ground. Push off the box and jump straight up and land in the same configuration.
  4. [Week 16 Only] Depth Jump: (10 reps) Begin just like the drop and freeze. When you land, instead of freezing, immediately jump upward as high as you can. 


Upper Body

  1. Medicine Ball Scoop: (8 reps) Squatting, hold a medicine ball between your ankles, then drive your legs up, jump, and throw the ball as high as you can.
  2. Medicine Ball Chest Pass: (8 reps) Kneeling, hold the ball at your chest and throw it to a partner or against the wall as forcefully as possible.
  3. Overhead Soccer Pass: (8 reps) Kneeling, hold a medicine ball behind your head and throw it forward against a wall or to a partner.

Mixing Speed and Endurance

Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

You elevated your general fitness during the first three installments of the five-part Shape of Your Life program—now you're ready to tap your real athletic potential. For starters, ramp up your power by adding three Olympic-style lifts to your ongoing Tuesday and Thursday strength routine. For each of the lifts, start with dumbbells equaling 10 percent of your body weight in week 13, and then increase every few weeks thereafter. After a ten-minute warm-up, do three sets of six reps as fast as you can while executing good form. In week 16, you'll link cleans and squat-presses into one exercise (the clean and jerk) by ending the clean with a catch—turn your elbows down and your palms up, dip under the weight, and "catch" the dumbbells in the start position of the squat press—and then finishing the rep with the dumbbells overhead. Also, complete each power session with the half-dozen functional-strength exercises pulled from the previous months' routines.

Functional Exercises Group One: Wide-grip chin-ups, dumbbell lunges and dumbbell pullovers.
Functional Exercises Group Two: With swiss ball: oblique crunches and one-legged push-ups.

As for endurance work, continue heart-rate zone training three days per week, with Mondays and Wednesdays slated for Zone-2 workouts and Fridays reserved for intervals. Remember, if your motivation for endurance work is starting to wane, shake things up by mixing in a new sport. If you've been, say, running exclusively, try cycling or swimming this month, etc. You'll also add a speed component to the end of each session. After warming up on Mondays and Fridays, try the plyometric workout before each run, swim, or cycle, to increase your quickness; on Wednesdays, incorporate the Zone-4 sprint intervals described in "Hot-Wire Your Speed" into your endurance work. And of course, after difficult endurance and plyometric routines, you'll need a proper cool-down, which is where your yoga routine from last month fits in. Starting again with Sun Salutations, end each session with the yoga routine from the third installment.

Supercharge your speed and power with the fourth installment in our interactive training plan.

You've built the foundation, now unlock your potential.     Photo: Kurt Markus

Month Five: Agility is the Endurance Athlete's Secret Weapon

Fine-tune your fitness with balance and agility exercises. Here's how.

By now you're probably wondering: Are we there yet?

We are. But the journey to total fitness consciousness never really ends—and the road to follow-through is fraught with peril. To maintain the Shape of Your Life and reach athletic nirvana, you must make stamina, flexibility, and reinvention your repeated mantras.

I know what you're thinking: The guy has lost it. Quite the contrary, and you will soon see why. To explain, permit me to briefly rehash my own fitness sob story.

It all began over a year ago, after a botched attempt to get chiseled on the cheap six weeks before surf season left me burnt out and chronically irritable. When Outside decided to mark its 25th anniversary with a fitness plan promoting the performance breakthroughs of the last two and a half decades, I jumped at the chance to learn from my own mistakes. And as I pored over the fitness flotsam of the American media landscape—glossy magazines with six-pack cover models and stale self-help books in permanent residence on the best-seller lists—it became clear that fitness had been boiled down to one uninspiring goal: looking good. Which isn't good enough. Getting fit shouldn't require choosing between advice designed to make you feel guilty or to pander to the vanity of chest waxers. So we decided to create a new kind of plan—one that promised not only to get you primed for inspiring outdoor adventure, but also to sustain you for the rest of your days.

Well, if you've been ghosting me on this odyssey, consider the first promise fulfilled. By now you've rebuilt your endurance engine through periodized heart-rate training; and by lifting weights to develop your core you've acquired strength that translates to real-world sports. You've embraced granola-free flexibility through Ashtanga yoga and, with your fitness foundation built, unlocked your speed and power with plyometrics. Now, in the final installment of the Shape of Your Life plan, we'll explore the secrets of balance and agility. And then? After 20 periodized weeks, you'll be ready for the whole point of this endeavor: to meet the challenge of that autumn triathlon, paddling trip, ten-kilometer run, five-day trek through the mountains—anything, really—in the best shape of your life.

That was the easy part. To deliver our second promise—keeping you there—this month we've done some heavy lifting of our own. On the following pages, we'll show you the only eight items you'll ever need in a home gym, share sage advice from the country's most innovative fitness advisers, and provide the essential principles you'll need to be your own personal trainer. Then we'll explain exactly how to take this five-month plan and turn it into an endlessly renewable blueprint for the Shape of Your Life. Congratulations. You've finished the journey—but the end is really just the beginning.

Completing the Picture: Balance and Agility

Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

Every morning as you roll out of bed and stand up, a continuous neurological process works to keep you upright: Sensors and receptors in your joints and muscles send messages to your brain about where they are in space; your brain then analyzes the data and sends the appropriate response to the small stabilizer muscles that keep you vertical. This process is called balance, and to avoid disaster while spinning down a winding slice of boulder-strewn singletrack, it must be fine-tuned far beyond the ability to stay on your feet every morning.

"Improving balance," says Bernard Petiot, training director for Cirque du Soleil, arguably the most preternaturally proprioceptive group of people on the planet, "is a matter of systematic and progressive exposure to unbalanced situations." Outdoor athletes tend to do this naturally as they learn new sports. "If you look at skateboarders, climbers, and snowboarders," Petiot explatins, "they will progressively increase the complexity of what they are doing." But to develop the general system as a whole, you need to put in time at the gym.

Specifically, Petiot prescreibes taking many of the strength-training lifts you've already learned in the SYL program—flies, squats, lunges, etc.—and further destabilizing them on a wobble board, a platform designed to make you feel like you're standing on a ship while performing each exercise.

But balance is only half of the final equation. To round out your fitness arsenal, you need agility, which from an athletic standpoint is your ability to remain graceful on the fly while making quick stops and stars. "For outdoor sports," says Peter Twist, a conditioning coach to NHL and NBA athletes, "a lot of your training is very linear—cycling or running in a straight line. But most of the situations for which you need agility are multidirectional, with a lot of sudden changes in direction." 

To get you off the straight and narrow, you'll add three agility drills to your Monday and Friday plyometric sessions. In addition to traditional shuffle-step drills, this means playing catch with an exasperating toy called a reaction ball, which bounces in unexpected directions. By the end of the month, you'll be quicker, better grounded, and less likely to take a humility walk through your drugstore's esastic-bandage aisle.

Balance and Agility 101

Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

Did we mention how you need to upgrade your balance and agility? To begin, you'll add five new balance exercises to your strength-training sessions on Tuesday and Thursday. In addition, you'll continue your Olympic power lifts starting in Week 17 with dumbbells weighing 10 percent more than what you were using at the end of month four, and finish off your workout with some core exercises you've learned in previous months . Meanwhile, to address agility, on Mondays and Fridays you'll add three agility drills to the plyometric speed workout you began last month. Always complete these two regimens (plyometrics and agility) before you begin your endurance workout. 

And as for endurance, these last weeks will be the most difficult yet. But don't be intimidated; it's your final month of heart-rate training, and thanks to the gradual buildup since month one, your body is prepared for the hard work. On Mondays, your Zone-2 distance workouts will take advantage of the last hours of daylight saving time by increasing the duration to 80 minutes for runners and two hours for cyclists and swimmers. On Wednesdays, you'll continue your reserve speed work from last month bypunctuating your recovery runs with six sprints (try to reduce the rest intervals between each). Last but not least, on Fridays, you'll finish your interval training with six repetitions.

Finally, to keep you limber and give your body the proper cooldown it needs to recover, complete each endurance workout with the Ashtanga yoga series unveiled in month three, and increase the Sun Salutation count to eight or ten. 

Power Routine (3 sets of 6 reps)

  • Rotational clean-pulls
  • Clean and jerks (combine clean-pulls and squat presses from last month into one exercise)

Core Regimen (2 sets of 25)

  • Swiss-ball crunches
  • Oblique Swiss-ball crunches
  • Swiss-ball push-ups

 (2 sets of 10-12 reps)

  • Medicine-ball chops

Yoga Series

  • Sun Salutation
  • Warrior I
  • Triangle pose
  • Back stretch
  • Boat pose
  • Tree pose
  • Hamstring stretch

Improve your balance and agility with the fifth installment in our interactive training plan.

We gave you the map. Now lead the way.     Photo: Kurt Markus

Maintenance: The Key to Staying Fit for Life

To keep a workout program fresh, you need to make it your own, and some days you need to break the rules—within reason.

In month one, we told you that the Shape of Your Life program would be driven by periodization: the idea that athletic improvement can be sustainable and efficient only if you strike a balance between stress and recovery in every phase of your training cycle. So each time we pushed you toward your max (think Zone 3 interval workouts), we gave you rest and recovery to let your muscles grow and adapt (i.e. those weekends after Friday interval sessions). The stress hormones released by intense training encouraged muscle and cardiovascular growth; the recovery period allowed them the rest necessary to do so. With this same philosophy in mind, month five will be your hardest yet; you'll max out in week three, slow things down in week four, and then peak for your fitness goal by the end.

So what happens after that? Good news: You can back off again—this time for an entire month. But before you drop a grand on a new TV to satisfy your pent-up couch-potato fantisies, let us qualify. By "back off," we mean active rest. If you've been running throughout the program, give the knees a break and get into the pool for a month of easy swims two or three times a week. Or if your sport is cycling, try trail running, only decrease the intesnity (forget intervals) and the number of workouts per week. As for the weight room, just one visit a week will do. Perform one set of reps of five to eight exercises that work your major muscle groups. The whole idea is maintenance anf fun—leave the heart-rate monitors, stopwatches, and workout calendars in your locker. 

There's logic to this brief vacation. Fact is, you can progressively increase your training load only for a limited time before it becomes a physical and mental burden. In small amounts stress hormones help you move faster and rebuild quicker. But when they begin to accumulate over long periods of intense exercise, they can degrade your immune repsonse and cause logy, depressionalike symtoms of overtraining. Even elite athletes take time off at some point. Lance Armstrong, for example, didn't mount his bike for two weeks after the end of cycling season. He knew he needed a break, and so will you. 

Next step: Develop a new goal. Just as you did last April or May, conjure up a grand adventure. Want to run your first marathon this spring? Always dreamed of a trekking trip in the Himalays? You get the idea—a motivational carrot to prod you out of the house during your next push for the peak. And to stay on the safe side, make more than a mental commitment. "Registering and paying for an event that's on your calendar is a good external motivator," says Eric Harr, author of The Protable Personal Trainer. "You're liess likely to stray from the program if you know you're going to pay for it on that 14,000-foot peak in three months." It's also a good idea to try a new sport this go-round. "For me it becomes a challenge to do the same stuff over and over," says surf legend and SYL adviser Laird Hamilton. "It's better to find new things that inspire you. Do them for a while, reach a personal goal, and move on to something else." 

With a month of active rest under your belt, and a new goal, you can restart the program. However, just as your muscles need to adapt, so should this plan. Stick to the basic periodization guidelines and schedule, but adjust the training to fit your own specific needs. If you're planning a marathon, try increasing the mileage every week of your Monday Zone 2 run based on the marathon mileage charts offered in most running magazines and websites. If you're training for an adventure race, try mixing up your events Monday through Friday. The point is to read up on some sport specifics and make the plan work for your individual goal. 

And there you have it—five months on, a grand adventure, a month off to keep you fresh, and a new beginning every six months or so. It's a sustainable blueprint designed to let you knock off a life-list adventure at least twice a year. But the ball is in your court now. It's your life; what shape are you going to make it? 


The Shape of Your Life is not perfect. We'd like to think otherwise, but now's the time to admit that no single strategy can work perfectly for every person, every time. Nor should it. To keep this program fresh, you need to make it your own, and some days you need to break the rules—within reason. Below, you'll find the 25 most important training fundamentals that we uncovered during the formation of the SYL program. Adopt them as general guidelines, and then apply them to create your own smart, rut-busting workouts.

How to Start Getting Into the Shape of Your Life

  1. Create a goal that's not a number (160 pounds) or a look (rock-solid abs), but a state of mind or an achievement.
  2. Periodize. Work in preset phases of intensity and always go easier before going hardest.
  3. Schedule recovery time or schedule burnout. Strength grows during recovery.
  4. Break workouts up when you need to. Studies show that ten minutes, three times a day, equals 30 minutes at once.
  5. Practice complete workouts. Warm up first, and cool down and stretch when you're finished.

Endurance

  1. Go easy (little more than half of your ability or 60 percent of your maximum heart rate). Building endurance requires the patience to go slow.
  2. To boost endurance, use intervals (short bursts over 75 percent of your maximum heart rate).
  3. Manage your interval training wisely. First increase the number of intervals per workout (up to six), then their length (up to ten minutes). Then shorten the rests in between.
  4. Build slowly. When increasing the duration or distance of your workout, don't leap more than 10 percent from one week to the next.
  5. Put in the miles. If you plan on racing, you need to be running, swimming, or cycling 75 percent as much as you will on race day one month beforehand.

Strength

  1. Train movements—front-to-back (lunges), vertical (squats), and rotational (medicine-ball chops)—not body parts.
  2. Practice form first. Three lifts done with good form are more productive than 30 done sloppily.
  3. If you're new to a lift—or to lifting altogether—one set of 10 to 12 reps is fine to start.
  4. Use your body weight for resistance when starting out. Push-ups, pull-ups, and dips are all you need to get going.
  5. When you're ready for free weights, use dumbbells. They're safer and more challenging than barbells.
  6. Let weight down slowly. Lowering is just as important as lifting.
  7. Whenever possible, perform lifts on your feet or on a Swiss ball.
  8. Remember these numbers: 10 and 20. For muscle strength, lift enough weight to wipe you out after 10 reps. For muscle endurance, perform up to 20.

Fine-Tuning

  1. Treat stretching—and specifically yoga—as a workout itself, not a wrap-up.
  2. Learn the the Sun Salutation. Try to finish every workout with five repetitions.
  3. Work slow, be slow: Do power lifts, plyometrics, and agility drills to supplement your slower-speed core strength and endurance work.
  4. Perform Olympic lifts, plyometrics, and agility drills when you're fresh—not when you're dog-tired after an endurance workout.
  5. Work out in the morning. Excuses to skip a workout will be less likely to pop up, and you'll invariably end up feeling great all day.
  6. Find a buddy. Having someone to work out with will keep you on track.
  7. Whenever possible, take it outdoors.

Find a workout buddy who will push you—safely—when you feel like turning back.     Photo: Kurt Markus

Breaking New Barriers: The Top 4 Workout Motivation Secrets

We asked four top fitness coaches for their tape-it-to-the-fridge-door advice. Here's what they told us. (Bonus: We kick your excuses to the curb.)

You're not the only one who's struggled through a training plan. Get a leg up on your colleagues by taking notes from coaches, the people who thrive on taking you to the next level. 

#1: Learn the Buddy System. "Everyone mentions the importance of getting a training partner, but what that leaves out is the importance of choosing the right kind of people. You need to train with people who want you to do your best and are really vocal about it. The guys I work out with are funny, make me laugh, and constantly confirm my performance. I love it when they encourage me, saying things like 'Man, you are cycling out of your head.' If your goal is to get stronger, train with someone who is a little better than you are." —Eric Harr, professional triathlete, author of The Portable Personal Trainer

#2: Shift Gears. "You need to have a plan that will change phases to emphasize the three different energy systems of the body along the way—the anaerobic system, the aerobic system, and the phosphagen system (in other words, power). If you just go out and train, say, slow-and-steady aerobically, week after week, when you come to the final kick at the end of a race or event, you won't have experience making best use of your fuel source to sustain the push. You can't ignore parts of your training." —Chuck Wolf, manager of Sports Science and Human Performance at the USA Triathlon National Training Center

#3: Fitness Is Everywhere. "The best piece of equipment any athlete can have is awareness—and you can't just drop it into your workout. Your workout is everywhere. How you sit in the office, you stand, you eat, you talk—it will all affect how you work out. Ask yourself: How is your breathing right now? How is your posture right now? This is how you build awareness. Anytime the mind starts chattering away in daily life, that's the same mind that's going to start chattering away when you need it during a workout or on the ice-climbing route or during an attack on a bicycle." —Steve Ilg, personal trainer, author of The Outdoor Athlete

#4: Don't Sweat the Details. "A lot of people want to know how far, how long, how many. They want to know exactly what's right; they want to measure it. But what's right can be a lot of things. People get stifled by thinking they have to do the same thing three times a week. Try not to make workouts too technical. You'll feel more empowered when you can come up with the details yourself." —Jenn Varno, California-based trainer, founder of Go Wild! Fitness

From left to right: Eric Harr, Jenn Varno, Steve Ilg, Chuck Wolf. Click to enlarge.   Photo: Outside

Breaking Fitness Barriers

Hit a wall? It's time to diagnose your exercise woes.

Barrier: You Don’t Make It an Adventure
Breakthrough: Establish a goal beyond the weight room. This wee, dream up a giant fitness goal for Month Two—a week-long mountaineering trip in the Cascades, say, or your first trail marathon in Colorado—and post it on your refrigerator. By that time, the SYL plan will have you firing on all cylinders—and no glance in the locker room mirror will motivate you like a looming, butt-kicking physical challenge.

Barrier: You Get Tired of the Same Old Routine
Breakthrough: Vary the place—and the way—you work out. Sure, your lakeshore running trail is heartwarming for the first month. But then comes that fateful morning when the wildlife seems not quite as friendly, the water not so shimmery. “Every day of the week I ride and run a different route,” says Time Deboom, last year’s Ironman World Champion. “It makes it impossible to get bored during my training.” Take it from Tim, arguably the most highly motivated human on the planet: Mix up your workout venues and aerobic activities. Been trail running? Try road biking. You’re a cyclist? Start swimming.

Barrier: You Can’t Rely on Yourself for Motivation
Breakthrough: Find a partner. According to a 1999 weight-loss study undertaken jointly by the Universities of Minnesota and Pittsburgh, those who exercised with friends rather than alone boosted their chances of sticking with a program. Working out with a buddy adds accountability and provides a lift when you’re not on top of your game. “I find it essential to have good training partners,” says Roland Green, the 2001 overall World Cup mountain-bike champion. “To train by yourself, it becomes tough to maintain quality. But if you’re in a group, someone is always feeling good tha can push the pace.”

Barrier: You Skip Workouts Due to “Unforeseen Conflicts”
Breakthrough: Exercise in the morning. Consider these two benefits of a daybreak sweat session: You’ll jumpstart your resting metabolic rate, helping you burn more calories throughout the day; and you’ll be less likely to have family, a job, or other obligations derail your workout. “The number-one excuse people have for not working out is time,” says Rob Skinner, director of sports nutrition for the Georgia Tech Athletic Association. “Well, everybody has time early in the morning, and that way you get it done.”

Barrier: Your Dumbbell Routine Is Stale
Breakthrough: Tap your imagination. Using a wobble board or a stability ball, you can invent your own functional lifts. But can't you get hurt making up exercises? "As long as you concentrate on the following, you can't go wrong," says Chuck Wolf, manager for human performance at the USA Triathlon National Training Center. "To protect your lumbar spine, when you twist, make sure your pelvis leads the way. Second, when you bend forward, pull your abs in. This will reduce the risk of spine injury and keep your back straight." Follow his advice and you can spice up your routine. Tired of push-ups? Try them on one arm. Bent-over flies too easy? Try lying on a stability ball.

Barrier: Stretching Feels Downright Tortuous 
Breakthrough: Remember to breathe. Beginner yogis are often so tight that, when contorted into tough positions, they forget to breathe. The better you get at two-part Ashtanga breathing, the easier it will be to relax and feel comfortable in each pose. "Initially you will have to give attention to it," says Baron Baptiste, yoga instructor and author ofJourney Into Power. "But eventually you rewire yourself so it becomes subconscious." The enhanced focus the technique develops also applies to sports. "I've worked with people preparing to do major climbs," says Baptiste. "When they go back to climbing, they catch themselves in the same breath-flow pattern. It anchors you to what you're doing."

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