There’s a ton, and I mean an absolutely MASSIVE volume of old DVDs, VHS cassettes, books, magazines, and internet sites dedicated to organizing “the best and most effective exercise programs for shedding those pounds and building that body you’ve always wanted.” But for all of the fads and gurus, there are only a few simple rules you MUST follow to build yourself the most EFFECTIVE exercise program.Physical Trainer Working Out with a Patient in Alexandria, VA

Rule #1: Exercise/Play Harder

Most people don’t exercise nearly hard enough to elicit plateau-free gains and, in some cases, gains at all. Whether you’re working out with free weights, kettlebells, using Olympic lifts, running/walking on a treadmill, using a jump rope, or anything else, the vast majority of exercisers don’t work hard enough.

You know the type: that pair of fraternity boys in the corner decked out in every exercise accessory they could find at Sports Authority. At every opportunity, they take a corner-of-their-eye glance in the mirror in the precise spot where the overhead lights shine down for that confidence-boosting shadow. They take way too much rest and hype each other for WAY submaximal efforts. Don’t be these guys.

If you want to get some numbers about your work, heart rate monitors (hr monitors) can be very helpful. You may also be in tune enough to use a ‘rate of perceived exertion’ scale. Simply put, you ask yourself, “How hard am I working right now?” Use a 1-10 scale or, if you want to be really fancy, the 6-20 scale. Each of these will be relative to each individual, but if you do it enough, you can develop a good sense of how hard you’re working and make adjustments to exercises, weights, and volumes from there.

Lots of exercise machines have built-in heart rate monitors. These are rarely accurate, but they do provide some feedback that the exerciser can go by.

The short story is that you should be exerting yourself.

Target HR=(220-age)x .8 (for math-averse folks)

Target HR=((HRmax − HRrest) × .8 intensity) + HRrest

Many people are now going with fancy wrist or belt-worn accelerometers/pedometers. These are great for monitoring exercise volume (how MUCH you are doing), but not all of them can sense how HARD you are working. Choose one that will perform the tasks you need and give it a shot. Work REGULARLY and STOP RESTING! You don’t need to use EVERY single machine in the gym, and you don’t need to take 5 minutes between each set.

Rule #2: Exercise/Play More Often

The human body is amazingly resilient. It always wants movement inputs and movement challenges. The thing is that we are so good at getting used to a movement that we need to challenge the system far more often than most care to.

It isn’t unheard of to exercise every day of the week. If you’re just starting an exercise program, aim to be doing SOMETHING vigorous at least 5 days per week for 30 – 45 minutes each day. Even if you fall short of this goal, it’s highly likely that you will still be exercising/playing more regularly than 95% of your contemporaries. This is a GREAT start. After a short time, you will see and feel the gains and be further encouraged to follow rule #1 and add to rule #2.

I have one more bit of advice that may be useful — but only if you’ve mastered the first two rules:

Rule #3: Record Everything

Record how heavy, how much, and the variety of your exercise. You don’t expect your physician or physical therapist to treat you by memory, right? It’s likely that they are taking lots of notes and examining specific measures to compare. Your own conditioning is no different. You will be SHOCKED to see how quickly you make appreciable gains if you can actually recall what you did the last time you exercised and then worked to improve on ANY one thing continuously.