How to Build Your Own Workout Routines – Advice from a Two-time Olympian
Why Should You Listen To Me?
After almost a decade as a full time, elite athlete, it's safe to say that I have built up a pretty good bank of knowledge when it comes to training. Whether it be aerobic conditioning, circuits, sprint or strength training, a career as an international hockey player has, at one point or another, covered it all.
During that time frame, with the help of some of the most knowledgeable fitness professionals in the world, my approach to training has evolved and adapted, particularly in the gym. With that comes a practical experience of how best to build muscle and increase strength and power.
There are huge health and fitness benefits to engaging in long lasting and steady state aerobic activity like running and cycling. If you enjoy that type of exercise then by all means keep it up, it certainly isn't doing you any harm.
If, however, you're anything like me, and the thought of clocking up the K's on the road day in day out leaves you yearning for something a little more exciting, then what follows could be for you!
Benefits of Strength Training
Performed sustainably, a well balanced strength training programme can have numerous health and fitness benefits beyond those obvious positives associated with regular exercise of any nature. These include improved flexibility, body composition (boosted metabolism means burning more calories at rest!!) and better posture.
What's more, from a purely physical perspective, increases in muscle strength and capacity can have significant performance enhancing effects. Play team sports like football, rugby or hockey...? Want to improve your middle and long distance running and cycling times...? Or just simply looking to develop an aesthetic looking physique...? Strength training could be the missing ingredient...
Gym Based Workouts
Generally, I like to break my workouts down into different component parts. Not only does it help me structure my sessions but also ensures that I'm ticking off all the areas that I want to.
First things first, a decent warm up. I will spend a good 20-30 minutes foam rolling and stretching as well as 5-10 minutes on a treadmill or bike before I do any kind of resistance training. This gives me the opportunity to iron out any niggles and tight spots as well as raise my heart rate sufficiently so that my body is ready to engage in short bursts of high intensity efforts.
If you crack on with your session from a resting heart rate, you'll tend to find that you spend the first 10 minutes or so waiting for your heart to catch up with your arms and legs!
The above video takes you through some of my go to foam rolling and stretching exercises, hitting most of the large muscle groups and common problem areas (for me at least).
Spend as much or as little time on this as you feel necessary and for those smaller more awkward areas where a cumbersome roller doesn't seem to quite work, try using a tennis or golf ball.
I would definitely advise buying your own roller. It's something you can do at home and the ones provided at public gyms are often a little dilapidated. Be sure to go for one with a hard plastic inner cylinder as opposed to solid foam. Not only will it prove more effective at what it's designed to do (no pain no gain here I'm afraid) it will also last a lot longer.
#Power Based Exercises
Any activity with the intention of improving your power output, i.e the ability to move with significant speed or force, should take place at the beginning of your workout. There is little point in tackling these exercises when your muscles are fatigued as you simply won't be able to perform the actions maximally. This is a must if you are actually going to see any improvements in the power department!
The power clean is one of my all time favourite gym exercises. Requiring a unique combination of strength, speed and coordination, it is a movement which takes time and practice to master. There are, however, few better vehicles for improving your ability to produce power. An attribute which is a key ingredient to sprinting, particularly from a standing start.
With feet hip width apart and hands gripping the bar either side of your legs, bend your knees so that the bar is in contact with your shins. Pull your shoulders back and push your chest out to help create a flat back.
The movement which follows can be broken down into 3 phases:
- First Pull- Lift the bar by straightening your knees and pushing your hips forward whilst maintaining a nice flat back and keeping the bar as close to your legs as possible.
- Second Pull- this second phase begins when the bar is in contact with your middle thigh. By forcefully extending the hips (pushing them forwards) and standing tall, the bar will naturally travel upwards. Bend your arms at the elbow to keep the bar close to the body and prevent it moving outwards.
- Catch- when the bar reaches its highest point after the second pull, you must drop under it as quickly as possible in order to catch it. As the load increases this may require significant bending of the knees and the adoption of a front squat position.
An infinitely simpler, but perhaps less effective way of training power is the Box Jump. This can be undertaken from a standing or walking start depending on the height of the box. From a standing start (approximately half a metre in front of the box), place your feet hip width apart, bend your knees so that your are in a slight squat position before immediately extending them in order to jump. Land on two feet on top of the box.
With a walking/ running start you may wish to take off a little earlier than when jumping from a standing start as a result of your extra forward momentum. A small skip step immediately before jumping should give you some extra force and therefore a little more height.
In order to achieve maximum clearance on your jump it is vitally important to bend the knees rapidly on take off. If not you're likely to clip your toes on the front edge of the box and end up flat on your face.
Pick one of these exercises to begin your session, concentrating on quality not quantity. I would normally go for something like 4 sets of 4 or 5 repetitions on the power clean, or 3 sets of 3 repetitions on the box jump, with plenty of rest between sets.
Two fundamental barbell exercises entirely about building strength in the legs. Incorporate one of these into regular gym sessions and no one is going to be accusing you of skipping leg day 🙂
Basically the first stage of the Power Clean explained above. The emphasis here, however, is less about moving the bar quickly and more about a slow controlled lift with plenty of time under tension. Remember again to keep the back as flat as possible throughout the action.
2. Back Squat
With the bar resting across your shoulders and behind your neck place your feet somewhere between hip and shoulder width apart toes facing forwards. Keeping a nice flat back (there’s a common theme here) bend the knees and fold at the hip pushing your bottom back. When you reach the bottom of your range, somewhere around 90 degree knee bend, stand up again by straightening your knees and extending your hips.To really maintain control throughout the lift and maximise its benefits, imagine you are trying to rip a piece of paper in half with your feet as you bend your knees and when you get back to the top of the movement stand tall and squeeze your glutes together.
If you want to build muscle (hypertrophy), then you need to be completing somewhere between 3 and 6 sets of 8-12 reps at a weight you can really feel the burn by the end of each set. For pure strength gains, reduce the reps to around 5 and the sets to 3 but ramp up the load to close to your maximum.
#Single Leg Exercises
Single leg resistance exercises are a great way to improve leg strength without having to continually load your spine, as with squats. They are also really useful if you can’t make it to the gym.
Depending on how I am feeling physically on any given day, I will either replace the above compound lift with a couple of single leg variations, or bolt one on after I have finished squatting or deadlifting.
1. Lateral lunges
Great for working the often neglected adductors ( the muscles than run along the inside of your thigh), this exercise can be done with dumbbells to increase resistance without putting undue load through the spine. Or if you're just starting out then ditch the weights and just concentrate on your form. This is a particularly beneficial exercise if you're involved in sports which involve any kind of change of direction.
2. Forward lunges
Much like the lateral lunge, add or takeaway dumbbells depending on your level of training experience. This is an exercise in which you will see improvements quickly so don't worry if you feel a little wobbly to start with.
3. Pistol squat
This is a brilliant replacement for the more traditional loaded Back Squat. It allows you to make significant strength gains without compressing the spine.
4. Bulgarian jump squat
Perfect if you want to feel the burn whilst elevating your heart rate slightly more than normal strength based exercises.
5. Single leg step up
Concentrate on only just touching the floor with your toes at the bottom of the movement. The idea is to work only the standing leg and not generate any extra momentum as you make contact with the ground with your other leg.
These exercises are particularly useful in addressing any muscle imbalances between left and right leg. Something which bilateral exercises such as squats and deadlifts may not achieve. If you're just starting out, they can also be a perfect introduction to strength training. Improvements are normally rapid, and there is much less chance of hurting yourself if there aren't any significant weights involved.
The posterior chain (muscles running along the back of the body) is absolutely an area which your training should target. Too many people, even the most experienced trainers, neglect these muscles in favour of the ones they can see in the mirror more readily.
If you play any sport involving repetitive sprinting or high speed running then you need to spend time in the gym looking after your hamstrings in particular.
How many people in your football, hockey or rugby team spend long spells on the side line because of hamstring strains of varying severity?
I imagine the answer is quite a few. Why? because they neglect hamstring maintenance work in their gym sessions.
The 2 simple exercises demonstrated in the video above should help keep you off the physio table and on the field of play.
Whether you want to build upper body strength to protect you on the rugby field, make it harder for opponents to push you off the ball in football or hockey or simply because you want to look good on the beach, this next section will be of particular interest to you.
One of the most common mistakes people make in their approach to upper body training is a lack of balance. Push push push seems to be the motto of most of the gym monkeys I see on a regular basis. If you want to look daft and have terrible posture to boot, then by all means just do chest and guns.
But if you would rather have a well rounded upper body physique which is functional and looks good then I'm afraid you're going to have to commit, as much, if not more time to pulling than you are pushing.
There are a plethora of different options out there to choose from. To help you maximise the time you spend on this area I have picked my 3 go to exercises:
Dumbbell bench press:
Why dumbbells? Because they require you to use more muscles to stabilise the movement than a barbell. Not only does this mean you have to work harder during your set but it also means you can't rely on the dominant strength of one side of your body to get the job done.
- Dumbbell special:
A slightly unorthodox looking exercise which works a wider group of muscles and requires more control than a traditional chest press machine or barbell bench press.
- Weighted press ups:
A great way of making traditional press ups a little tougher and more about improving strength rather than muscle endurance.
DO NOT NEGLECT THE POSTERIOR CHAIN. This next collection of exercises are the key to a balanced looking phsyique. They will help prevent your shoulders rolling forward and your back from hunching.
- Disc pull
- Wide Grip Pull ups
- Seated cable row
- Dumbbell reverse fly
- Single arm dumbbell row
These movements focus heavily on groups of muscles which make up the back and shoulders, including: the Trapezius, Deltoid, Rhomboid and Latissimus dorsi groups. They will all help to counteract some of the negative postural effects of push exercises.
In a normal full body gym session I try to aim for 2 push and 2 pull upper body exercises, with 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps in each.
Whilst pretty much all of the exercises that we've been through so far should engage your core if performed correctly, there is no harm in finishing your session with 2 or 3 more target specific exercises.
I really enjoy a challenge when it comes to this area of my gym routine and like to experiment with loads of different exercises. Most tend to be variations on a theme and involve hanging from a pull up bar.
The video below shows 4 of my favourite hanging leg raise combinations which increase in difficulty with each exercise.
The knee raise is a great place to start. You will need to be able to do at least 3 sets of 10 before you move onto the straight leg raise, but progress can be quick if you really commit.
There are obviously plenty of other core exercises which you can include in your programme, including front and side plank variations, double leg lowers, and the roll-outs demonstrated in the video. Don't be afraid to experiment and have a go. Half the battle is having enough imagination to keep your work out fresh and motivating.
In my experience, one of the major complaints of people leading busy lives when it comes to the gym is that they haven't got enough time in the day to complete meaningful sessions. Let's be honest, who really wants to be spending over an hour in the gym before they've even started their working day, or worse still when they've been on the go all day?
The solution? Supersets. By combining sets of exercises which use different muscle groups or focus on different areas of the body, you can effectively complete the same session twice as quickly. What exactly do I mean?
Say for instance, you get to the upper body section of your gym workout and you have 4 sets of dumbbell bench press (a push exercise) and 4 sets of seated cable row (a pull exercise) to complete.
Ordinarily you may look to finish the 4 sets of push exercise with ample rest between each set before moving on to the pull exercise. In reality these two movements use antagonistic muscle groups. Consequently, if you move back and forth between one set of bench press and one set of cable row until 4 sets of each have occurred then you are effectively allowing one group of muscles to rest whilst the opposite muscles work.
This allows the muscles you use in each exercise to be sufficiently rested in between each set without wasting time sat scrolling through your instagram feed.
At Home Workouts
Don't have the time, money or inclination to join a gym? I can definitely appreciate that. It doesn't, however, mean you have to miss out on the benefits of strength based activity. The following 2 sessions are some of my favourite routines to do in the house, in the garden, or even whilst I'm away travelling and can't get access to a gym.
They require zero equipment and a maximum of 30 minutes of your time 🙂
#Upper body and core circuit
This is a great session to keep the chest, arms and core ticking over at home. I normally aim for 3 rounds and it should take between 20 and 30 minutes.
#House Of Pain Circuit
If you're looking for a great way of combining cardio and muscle conditioning into one half- hour session which you can do in your lounge or garden, then this is the for you. A whole body workout, which will almost certainly leave you flat on your back in a world of discomfort! The name speaks for itself!
I normally aim for between 4 and 6 sets with 3 minutes rest between each. You should be trying to complete each set as fast as you possibly can so keep an eye on your time and be sure to record your progress.