Engineers. On the whole we have probably some of the best stereotypes: intelligent, imaginative and resourceful. However I rarely see a physically well trained engineer, in fact most engineers are quite average in their approach to fitness. Some run the treadmill, do home workouts, set unspecific goals, maybe throw some weights around. It’s a real shame because engineers have been conditioned to approach problem solving with a very specific process but never apply that process to themselves. Using the engineering design process as an outline I’m going to show you how you can lay your own foundation to engineer a better body and give you some real life examples of me putting this process to good use.
Identify the problem/constraints
Translation: Identify your goals and obstacles. People don’t come to a team of engineers with millions to spend and say “I’d just like to make a better car.” They come in being very specific: “I want it to be at least 10% faster, get at least 6 more miles per gallon and to automatically play the ‘imperial march’ when I enter a parking lot.”
One of the first issues I always deal with when interviewing a prospective client is getting a specific goal out of them. Usually it starts with “I just want to lose some weight and be healthier” and it takes 20 minutes of me prodding to finally get them to admit “I want to look like (generic celebrity) and get excited about being naked!” And this is when we get somewhere. From here we can make specific comparisons and decide how to proceed. Some clients obsess with fat loss when in reality their goals are better accomplished by building a bit of extra muscle and letting the fat loss happen by association.
Additionally, we need to identify the constraints of our situation. Time and materials are the two most commonly considered constraints when engineering an exercise program. By taking these things into account we can maximize the results of our efforts. As a good example of working within constraints: I had a client interested in packing on muscle mass, this is commonly correlated with high volume training which makes it sound like more time at the gym means bigger muscles. Well this needs to be balanced with cortisol being released in response to exercise. The longer he exercises the more of the hormone cortisol is released, inhibiting muscle growth.
For months I had been going to the gym trying to lose fat, build muscle on all of my body, get stronger AND increase my endurance via running. I was overworking myself trying to do literally everything at once. I decided I needed to sharpen my focus, I decided I was going to put my energy into making my squats stronger and not push everything else. This made things extremely easy to research because I didn’t need the most effective fat burning or muscle building techniques, they weren’t the goal.
So you have your specific goal(s) in mind and a list of the constraints. Next you need to research some possible solutions. More often than not you can find someone that has done something similar to what you are trying to accomplish. I typically like to look for people that accomplished a given goal with a minimal amount of effort. These tend to be the cases in which the subject has already distilled a plethora of information into the most actionable bits.
I researched the living hell out of squats, from performance journals debating parallel vs. deep squats to workouts called “45 days to a powerful booty.” I found plenty of “strength experts” and “squat gurus” preaching their patented workout program that guaranteed results. After enough research I began to see a consistent presence of one of two principles: linear periodization and progressive overload.
Brainstorming possible solutions
Based on your research and constraints look up some programs available to you. If they meet all your requirements and pass through the stipulations set by your research then you have an actionable program! If you can’t simply find a program then try to sketch one up (this isn’t advisable for beginners) or, better yet, meet with a trainer to discuss some possibilities.
A progressive overload program would involve consistently squatting close to my maximum and when I could break through a given threshold I would increase the weight. A linearly periodized program would involve squatting lighter weight for more reps at first and work my way towards heavier weight with less reps while trying to keep the overall volume the same. When both programs were put onto paper both seemed quite feasible in getting me to my goal.
Model – Analysis – Simulation – Prototype
This part is simple: follow the program! Record your progress and consistently analyze it. If you programmed too much weight then reduce it, if it all feels to easy turn up the program. Try making only one change per every 2 weeks, I consider 2 weeks to be long enough to consider a prototype time frame. If the change made works keep it in the normal program, if not then toss it and go back to normal. Experimentation within your program is necessary to optimize results but too much tinkering and we have no idea what worked.
I worked with the progressive overload program for 6 weeks first. I’d try to reconfigure my approach every two weeks but always felt like each day was just as difficult as the last. Second I tried the linearly periodized program for 6 weeks. I broke the 6 weeks into 3 smaller 2 week cycles in which I’d monitor my own performance as I progressed but that wasn’t needed, I didn’t need to tweak a thing!
Implementation and Selection
Now that you’ve played with your program 6 different ways over 12 weeks (just an example) you can select which prototype program worked best, point it at your specified goal and knock it out.
I selected the linearly periodized program based on my clearly positive response to it. Nowadays I will select a specific exercise I want to be better at to focus on and apply this same schedule to it. It’s become one of my most reliable tools for ensuring I am becoming more fit each session and I engineered it myself.