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The keys to better workouts will depend on who you talk to but most experts on the subjects would agree that flexibility and metabolic conditioning will be the primary factors of how to improve your workouts that you are currently doing.
Flexibility is a simple concept and stretching should be included before, during and after any good workout.
We will concentrate on metabolic conditioning which simply refers to any structured pattern of sets and reps including rest periods required to achieve the desired response that you want from your body. The desired response you want from doing exercise is to maximize efficiency of any particular energy system you might be using.
Our bodies have several methods of getting more energy and the different ratios of weight lifting or cardio to rest periods will call on different energy systems and therefore cause specific adaptations to the workout you are doing. In the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research they published a conclusion that any metabolic conditioning workout should always be based on desired outcomes.
Metabolic conditioning is taken from the metabolism of our food and applied to the elements that make up a good workout plan. The sets and reps and tempo of your training should work just like your metabolism. Everything we eat must be broken down to smaller digestible particles so that it can be used by the body. There are three pathways that your body uses to metabolize the food you eat with each having a specific purpose.
Obviously adaptations will vary depending on your fitness level, for example if the objective is to add more muscle and increase strength your workout will have a different ratio of work to rest than someone who is looking to run farther or get leaner.
Results come from planning your attack when you train, just going through some random circuit with no regard to timing or weight lifted is not going to get the desired result as quickly as a carefully considered plan. Metabolic conditioning can be divided into three main sections.
The Immediate System:
This system is referred to the creatine phosphate pathway, this is the most powerful and fastest method of getting energy. The system is used by the body to get energy for 10 seconds or less, like sprinting or Olympic lifts being fast explosive power requiring 3 to 5 minutes in order to fully recover.
The Intermediate System:
The intermediate system of energy is the glycolytic pathway where energy is required for longer than 10 seconds like doing a 400 or 800 meter run or lifting weights and completing a set of 5 to 20 reps depending on the tempo you use. When the glycolytic pathway is used it usually takes between 1 and 3 minutes to recover.
The Long-Duration System:
This energy system is used when long lasting energy is required like doing cardio or any other form of aerobics. This can be done in any form from low impact walking and cycling to jogging, elliptical, stair-climber, hiking, rowing that can be done for hours without stopping. Recovery from this type of training is fast usually just a few seconds depending on the intensity.
It is important to understand that no matter what type of training you do all the three metabolic systems listed above will be working together. There will be a contribution from each different system depending on your fitness and strength but if you manipulate your work rest ratios you can call on only one of these primary systems of energy.
This means that your metabolic conditioning will be determined by your work to rest ratios. The key to success when training is to know exactly what you're specific objective is and what you are trying to improve. So a sports person will or bodybuilder should develop his/her intermediate pathway that mimics the demands of a sport using a 20 second play with 40-50 second rest.
If your objective is to become better at endurance you would train longer circuits with as little rest in between exercises. Keeping the intensity of the set you are doing should always be as high possible to elicit the desired response, your body must be pushed to get results.