Just "working out" won't cut it. Never has. Never friggin' will. No way. No how. You must be on a training program. Ideally, you must be on a training program that is built around achieving your specific goals.
Which brings us to the title of this post. What are your training goals? No doubt they change over the years. They have definitely changed for me. When I first started training, I wanted one thing and one thing only: to be as muscularly big as humanly possible. And, you know what? I achieved this goal by eating everything in sight (and making sure that I consumed plenty of protein along the way), taking the appropriate supplements, and following specific training plans that were built around gaining muscle.
As the years went by, my goals changed. I became interested in powerlifting, and so my new goal was to be as strong as humanly possible while staying at a lean bodyweight. This worked, too. At my best, I could squat and deadlift more than triple my bodyweight quite easily and I could bench press more than double my bodyweight. (All of these lifts were made without the aid of supportive equipment or any kind of performance enhancement drugs.)
And now my goals have changed again. With age comes wisdom. (At least, it should; I've meant plenty of old coots who were not wise in the least.) I no longer just want to be the strongest sumbitch walking the planet, nor do I want to be the biggest. Nope. Now, don't get me wrong, I still want to be strong, and I want to look good. But I also want to feel great and be healthy. I want my mind to function properly. I want my body to perform at optimal levels so that I can do more than just lift big weights and little else.
My training—like so much in my life—has become Integral.
So what follows are I consider to be the three essential "keys" to designing a training program that allows you to be strong, look great, feel great, and be really healthy.
Key #1: Squat a lot. The squat, in all of its varieties, is the best exercise you can do. If you want bigger arms, a bigger chest, or a larger back, trying to do so without the squat will limit your gains. Want a big bench press? You better squat more. It acts as nothing less than an "anabolic stimulus."
It increases your appetite, improves your digestive system (when performed regularly, and when done "butt to the floor"), and even increases your sex drive.
Another great thing about it is that you can train the movement regularly, allowing you to reap its benefits almost continuously. The reason you can train the squat so frequently is because you don't overtrain your movement pattern on squats as you do with other exercises.
Keep in mind that your goal with squats is to not just get stronger and look better, but it's also to feel better and be healthier. For this reason, don't be afraid to mix it up. For instance, one day a week, you could squat heavy for several sets of 5 or 3 reps. Another day could be your high-rep day when you train in the 25 to 30 rep range for just a couple of sets. And a third day could be devoted toward moderate repetition training, doing something such as 4 sets of 8 reps.
Also, try changing the kind of squats you do, too. You can do wide-stance squats. You can do high-bar, close-stance squats like the Olympic lifters perform. You can do front squats, and you can do box squats. Oh, and don't forget about my personal favorite: bottom-position squats done in the power rack.
Key #2: Use a Wide Variety of Training Tactics. This ties in to what I was just saying about squats. You want to mix it up. And mix it up a lot.
When training in the weight room, perform a wide variety of training tactics. Change the number of sets you perform. Change the rep ranges you use. Don't be afraid to do heavy singles at one workout, and then ultra-high rep training at another. (And when I say ultra-high reps I mean high reps, as high as 75 to 100 reps per set.) For a few weeks, perform nothing other than full-body workouts. For a few more weeks after that, perform an upper-body/ lower-body split program.
And don't just train in the weight room, either. Find a sport that you like to train in, and train in it hard for 2 to 3 days each week. (For myself, this means martial arts; which, by the way, is a fantastic athletic activity to combine with weight training. Don't believe me, just look at the mixed martial artists.)
Do some bodyweight conditioning exercises anywhere from 1 to 3 days each week. Push-ups, one-arm push-ups, hindu push-ups, bodyweight squats, hindu squats, and burpees are just a few of the bodyweight exercises that really work wonders.
Key #3: Don't Just Eat for Strength and Muscle Size. Eat for Health, too. You are what you eat. Yeah, I know that's been said so many times that it has become a cliche, but it's the truth. Put good stuff in if you want to get good stuff out.
When I was younger, and my only goal was massive muscle size, I didn't worry so much about health. I have, of course, changed my tune as I get older. But I wish I would have done it when I was younger also.
How do you eat for strength, muscle size, and health. I think it's pretty easy, actually.
First things first. Make sure you cut out your starchy carbohydrates. If you're lean, you can get away with eating a little starchy carbs. If you're not lean, don't go anywhere near the damn stuff. I'm talking about pasta and breads mainly. And anything that comes in a blasted box. (In other words, don't go near cereal or cereal bars.)
You need carbs, no doubt, but get it in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables. And get them from darker carbohydrates: sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole-grains.
Also, stay away from the white stuff. That's a tip I've heard Jack LaLanne say several times: if it's white don't eat it. White potatoes, white rice, sugar, flour, salt. The white stuff just ain't good.
And last, but certainly not least, eat plenty of good protein. Chicken, fish, beef, and eggs (whole, not the panzy-ass egg whites) should be staples of your feel good, look good diet.
I'm sure there are some other keys I could have added, but these three should be the cornerstone of any good program.