Theology of Exercise

Theology of Exercise

How should Christians workout?

Have you ever considered how your Christian beliefs should affect the way you workout? I suspect that most people haven’t given it much of a thought, but for Bible believing Christians, our beliefs should affect every single aspect of our lives. Scripture does not directly say a whole lot regarding physical fitness, but it does teach many principles that relate to it. The main factors to consider regarding how you exercise are safety and health, time, money, modesty, and vanity.

The discussion below will go over the different details to consider for each of these categories. There are certainly exceptions to all the advice below, so focus on the reason for the recommendation rather than the practice of it so that it can still apply to you. However, I want to discourage you from considering yourself an exception without good reasons for it (e.g. I’d rather watch TV is not a good reason). My ultimate goal is not to tell you what to do, but to give you principles to be aware of, think through, and apply to your own life.

Deadlift

While exercise is important, it is not the only part of the equation for having a healthy body. In fact, it isn’t even the most important. A healthy diet is by far a more important aspect of physical health, followed by sleep, and then working out. Supplements are something worth considering as well and relate to both diet and exercise.

Theology of Fitness

Working out is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. God created us in His image (Genesis 1:27) and knit us together in the womb with bodies that are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14). As beings made in the image of God, we are charged with the call to steward the earth and all that is in it, including ourselves. Moreover, we are told

in the Bible to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor 6:20), that we are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16), and that exercise is beneficial (1 Tim 4:8). However, Paul does say in 1 Tim 4:8 that exercise is only of some benefit, while godliness is of greater importance, but this shouldn’t prevent you from working out, especially because Paul still says in 1 Cor 9:27 that he disciplines his body and 2 Peter 1:6 says that self-control leads to perseverance, which leads to godliness.

On the other hand, the Bible also warns us not to cause others to sin (Luke 7:1-4, Romans 14:13, 1 Cor 8:9-13), which is ultimately unavoidable because just about anything we do might cause others to sin. But the point is that we should not deliberately cause others to sin. Our appearance and the way we care for our bodies needs to fall in between two extremes. We do not want to encourage others to be unhealthy, but we also don’t want to unnecessarily build our bodies in a way that will lead people to lust after us.

Pull-ups

Application

The rest of the article focuses on how to balance and apply the various theological points addressed above. Depending on the details of your life, some or much of it may not apply. If that is the case, don’t completely disregard the reasons for the advice, but adjust it in a way that fits your life. The main thing to remember is that your theology should be the primary factor that influences your fitness habits, not your own personal preferences.

Do Christians need to exercise?

With few exceptions, I would say that the Bible seems to strongly suggest that, Christians should exercise. Not only does it make sense theologically, but on a practical level, the advantages gained from regularly working out will help us better fulfill our God given purpose in a variety of ways. It will help us feel better, have a better mood, give us greater strength and stamina for our work, help keep us from getting sick, improve our productivity, and even aid our evangelism efforts by giving others a better impression of us (research shows that physically fit people are perceived more favorably by others).

Squat

If you don’t have time to exercise, I want to strongly encourage you to get creative in how you workout or to make the time for it. You can workout effectively in only 15-20 minutes, so even the busiest people should be able to work that into their schedule. If not, perhaps you should consider moving fitness up as a higher priority in your life, considering the theological and practical reasons for the value of fitness.

Exercise comes in a variety of forms. Much of the recommendations below involve stereotypical workout exercises that may not apply to everyone, so if that’s the case, try to consider if the principle can still be applied in your life. If you bike, walk, or run to work, live a very physically active lifestyle, have a physically demanding job, or have severe physical limitations, much of the advice may not apply to you. The important thing is that you are legitimately trying to honor God with your body. Ideally, this should include some combination of cardio and strength training in conjunction with a healthy diet and sleep habits.

The way we exercise and how often we do it are dependent on a variety of factors such as your current fitness level, job, age, disabilities, health issues, and many more. If you are out of shape, you may need to spend more time working out until you reach your goals. On the other hand, if you work a physically strenuous job, you may not need to spend any extra time exercising because you are getting enough exercise at work. Regardless of how you are getting your exercise, you should shoot for at least 3 days per week and maybe as many as 6 days per week. Adjust as necessary for your life, but don’t simply ignore it or make excuses because it might be difficult include in your life.

What factors should Christians consider for their workout?

Weighted Dip

Safety

Once you start working out, the most important factor to consider is safety. Injuries may happen, but doing things that increase the risk of injury is not being a good steward of your body. Keeping safety in mind is especially important because I am also going to encourage you to workout hard (see the next point below). If you cannot lift a weight or do an exercise safely, don’t do it. Skipping it completely or doing something else are much better options than putting yourself at unnecessary risk for injury.

If you are new to fitness, severely out of shape, or in poor health, you should consult a doctor before beginning and even semi-regularly after you begin to make sure your body is not responding negatively. It also might be a good idea to hire a personal trainer or workout with someone who is experienced and knowledgeable if you are a beginner. This way, you can learn to do things the right way and discover your limits in a safer environment before you are on your own.

When you do workout, make sure you are properly warming up to the point where you have a light sweat before you begin to push yourself. I will jog for 3-5 minutes before lifting weights, progressively increasing my speed during that time and then I will do a few repetitions (reps) of each exercise with lighter weights for each major body part (back, chest, and legs). If I am running, swimming, or doing other cardio, I will go slow for the first few minutes before increasing the intensity (speed and/or resistance on a cardio machine). Also, make it a habit to stretch when you are finished. Flexibility will help keep you from getting injured and help your body function the right way.

Whether you are new or experienced at weightlifting, slow down, lower the weight, and focus on your form, which may be particularly hard if you are experienced and used to moving as much weight as possible, regardless of form. Do research on how to lift properly. Watch videos (I recommend Athlean-X), read reputable articles, or get personal trainer for a few sessions. I suggest using weights you can lift for 12-15 repetitions until you get the form down and build up the muscles properly. This could take 8 weeks or more if you are new to weightlifting. Don’t get discouraged or let your ego get bruised because you aren’t lifting heavy weights like others in the gym. As you improve your form and build the muscles properly, you will be able to increase the weight.

When lifting, do as many reps as you can until your form starts to suffer, then finish that rep and stop. If you are stopping at the correct time, you can likely do another 1-3 reps with bad form. The reason you should be stopping at this point is because continuing with bad form increases your risk of injury and doesn’t really work your muscles that much harder since using bad form relies heavily on other, supporting muscles that you don’t want to use for that exercise. Keep good form all the time when you are lifting weights.

If you are running or doing other cardio exercises, form may also be important. For instance, when running, you want to take shorter strides, landing on the balls of your feet (not your heels) and not extending your heel out past your knee. There are certainly form concerns for swimming, but I don’t know enough to offer any recommendations there. I’m not sure about biking and other cardio exercises either, so you’ll have to keep this point in mind and figure it out on your own.

Another thing you can do to help keep you safe is to use a full range of motion for each exercise. This will allow you to increase your flexibility and get the same positive effects by using lighter weights  since heavier weights increase the risk of injury. Lifting a weight 20 inches is a lot harder than lifting it only 15 or 18 inches, especially since those last few inches are likely the where your muscles are weakest. Just be sure not to lift in anyway that causes pain. If it hurts to go all the way down on an exercise, don’t do it. Stop just before it hurts or try doing an alternate exercise. Another way you can use lighter weights and get the same or better effect is by lifting the weight slowly, taking 4-6 seconds to lower the weight on each rep and 2-3 seconds to raise it.

Bent Over Row

Muscle imbalances are is another factor that will affect your safety and keep you free from injury. This applies to having equal strength on your left and right sides, but it also applies to imbalances between muscle groups. If your core and back muscles are comparatively weaker than your legs, you will be more susceptible to injury when doing squats or deadlifts, so you’ll want to focus more on back and core strength until those muscle groups catch up. Another often overlooked imbalance is between your back and chest. Your back muscles are more important, but often get less attention because large pecs look good. You can avoid this error by doing more back exercises than chest exercises. Similarly, your shoulders are also important to protect as they are used in many different exercises and can easily be injured. Make sure you are building your shoulder muscles along with your chest and back muscles.

Lastly, don’t push yourself too hard too fast. Wanting to go hard is an admirable desire, but know your limits and work hard within your limits. If you workout consistently (and eat well), you’ll eventually be able to push harder. As part of knowing your limits, be sure to use a spotter and use the equipment properly when applicable. If you’re going to push yourself hard on bench press, make sure you have a spotter to help if you can’t get the last one up or consider using dumbbells or a machine instead of a barbell. Likewise, with squats, be sure to use the racks and adjust the safety bars to the proper height so they can catch the barbell if you can’t get the weight up.

With any barbell exercise, be sure to use the clips at the end to hold the weights on. You may think you can keep it straight, but if you slip a little or struggle too much, the weight could fall off and hurt yourself or others. If you are doing heavy squats or deadlifts and have back issues or weakness, you might want to consider wear a weight belt, at least for the last set or two, in order to prevent injury.

How to exercise

Shoulder Press

Now that we have safety parameters in place, we need to consider how to exercise. We should strive to be healthy while using our time well. Thankfully, we can exercise in a way that maximizes our use of time and produces the best results. The key to doing this is high intense training. Working out as hard as you can (safely) for shorter periods of time will produce better results than doing the same amount of work over longer periods of time. High intensity training will also increase the amount of calories you burn after you’re done working out. In addition to increasing your intensity, you should do a combination of strength training and cardio. They both benefit your body, but in different ways, so they are both necessary for optimal health.

For lifting weights, I recommend lifting heavier weights with only 3-5 repetitions per set rather than lifting lighter weights with 12-15 repetitions per set (obviously this only applies when you have built a strong foundation and have proper form). There are several reasons for this. It takes a lot less time, raises your metabolism for longer periods after working out, promotes better bone health, and leads to a more modest physique (see section below for more details). There are times to use all different rep ranges, but theologically, using lower rep ranges more often, perhaps 50-75% of the time seems to be the best. The other 25-50% of the time you can use a variety of rep ranges, anywhere between 5 and 15, and maybe even much higher if doing bodyweight exercises like push-ups or lunges.

Other things you can do to increase the effectiveness of your workout and decrease the time you spend exercising are to decrease your rest periods to only 20-30 seconds. Even better, you can workout another body part during rest period for one exercise. This is known as a supersets. An example would be doing pull-ups and without resting, immediately doing bench press. You would then take a very short rest before doing the two exercises again. In this way, you only need one rest period for instead of two and you can take a shorter rest.

Even more ways to increase your effectiveness and efficiency are to do all or mostly compound exercises (these are exercises where you move at more than one joint at a time), increase the speed at which you lift the weight (but never go so fast that you lose control of the weight or your use bad form), lift the weights through a full range of motion (don’t just go ¾ of the way through a lift), and do every set to the point of form failure (this is when you cannot lift the weight again with proper form, not the point at which you can no longer lift the weight at all).

I recommend doing full body workouts using the most effective exercises as a time saving measure. The overall effectiveness of full body workouts is arguably the same as targeting specific muscles, but there are other important benefits that I think make it a better choice for most people. This is because full body workouts will burn the most amount of calories in the shortest amount of time with fewer trips to the gym. It also gives you more flexibility on a day-to-day basis. If you follow the plan below, you can get a good, hard workout and hit every major muscle by just doing the first superset, which will only take about 15-20 minutes to complete. So if you have other things going on one day or something comes up while working out, you can leave without finishing and still know you got a good workout in for the day. Also, doing full body workouts means you only need to lift weights 2-3 days per week (maybe only once per week, depending on age and goals) rather than the 4-5 days that are required for many split body routines (legs, chest, back, and sometimes arms all on separate days of the week and then repeated every 4 days).

For cardio exercises, you can increase your intensity by going faster and harder. Instead of going on a slow jog for 30 minutes, do sprints or jog at a faster pace for 10 minutes (sprint for 20 seconds, walk/jog for 40 seconds or something similar for 10 minutes). You can do the same thing if you are swimming, biking, rowing, or any other cardio exercise. You can also increase the resistance if you are on a machine or run up and down hills. Another option might be to play a sport. If it is a low intensity sport, consider working in cardio along the way. For instance, if you are in a softball league, sprint in and out from the field instead of just jogging or maybe do a few sprints after the game is over.

Bench Press

If you are training with high intensity, you will need to mentally focus. On a side note, high intensity exercise boosts mental performance much better than low intensity exercise, so it’s not just good for your body, but good for your mind. Anyway, you may not be able to socialize or listen to the same content on your headphones if you increase your intensity. I like to listen to audiobooks and podcasts when working out. However, I stopped doing that all the time because I couldn’t focus as well on that and my workout. Now I either listen to music or nothing most the time. I only listen to podcasts or audiobooks about once, maybe twice a week now, and usually only when I go on longer runs.

A final point to consider for how to workout is your personal needs. You should shoot for overall, good physical health and be prepared for your specific life demands. This may change your workouts in several ways. If you have an imbalance between your left and right side or a particularly weak muscle group, you may need to spend extra time fixing that issue. If you are older, you may not be able to or have a need to workout as intensely. If you sit at a desk all day for work, it may be more important for you to focus on exercises that will improve your posture such as core and back exercises. Tailor the routine as needed for your life.

Cost

Working out can be expensive, depending on how you’re working out and where. As Christians, we want to be good stewards of our money just like want to steward our time and body. Gym memberships, equipment, shoes, clothes, and league fees if you’re playing a sport can all add up but don’t use this as an excuse not to exercise at all. It’s worth the cost, especially if you’re focusing on getting the most bang for your buck. There are lots of ways you can workout without spending much money. However, it’s important to know that costs are not all bad. Higher costs increase your commitment and make it more likely you will workout and do so effectively. There will be some costs to working out, and that’s ok because being healthy is worth it, but at the same time, don’t spend too much money on it either. You probably don’t need to go to the nicest gym in the area, have the best shoes, all name brand clothes, etc. There may be reasons for some of those things, but be really honest about what is necessary.

Modesty and Vanity

The final thing to consider is modesty and vanity. The purpose of working out isn’t to look like a model or to impress people. It’s to honor God by being healthy and ready to carry out His mission most effectively. Looking good will be a consequence of that, but don’t make it your priority. Focusing on being healthy and obeying God will actually help you keep motivated if you don’t see results right away or if you hit a plateau. It also affects the way you lift weights and the time you spend at the gym. Spending too much time exercising is just as bad or worse than not spending enough time exercising.

Squat

You also want to be modest. This applies for men just as much as it is for women, to the clothes we wear when working out, and the way you build your muscles. Remember that you are the same person while working out as you are when sitting in church. Just because you’re in the gym doesn’t mean you should unnecessarily flaunt your physique. There is plenty of modest workout attire that is just as comfortable and functional as the immodest clothes. Be aware of how revealing your clothes are for your upper and lower body.

Modesty is yet another reason I recommend using heavier weights at low reps (3-5 reps per set) rather than light weights at higher reps (10-15) for a typical workout. Variety should be a part of your workout routine, so it is important to work at different rep ranges from time to time, but the norm should be lower reps. Lifting weights in lower rep ranges builds muscle and strength without building unnecessary muscle bulk. This will give you a God-honoring, yet modest physique. This primarily applies to men because most women will not add much bulk without intentionally trying to and working very hard for it, not to mention that a chiseled physique in women is not typically considered alluring. On top of that, building unnecessary muscle size requires additional calories to build and sustain, which costs more money, requires greater demands from the earth’s resources, and inhibits one’s ability to give to others. For Christians, there just really isn’t a good reason to regularly lift light weights at higher reps, which will build bulk.

Other Considerations

The main purpose of working out is to be fit and healthy, but that’s not the only purpose, at least not for everyone. For some people, working out is a hobby or social activity. Similarly, motivation is an important factor, too. The advice I’ve given so far, if followed perfectly, may take away your motivation because it makes exercise primarily about fitness. Exercising in an enjoyable way is better than not exercising at all. If the changes I recommended will prevent you from working out, don’t do them or add them in sparingly. Time and performance aren’t the only factors. You need to find a way to balance all the factors that apply to your life.

On a final note, always be considerate of others when working out. This has several implications, the most apparent is to clean up after yourself. If you are lifting weights, put your weights back where they belong and maybe even take a little time to organize the weights that others have put away wrong. Additionally, if you are lifting weights and there are a lot of people in the weight room, don’t take up multiple pieces of equipment at one time. This means you may not be able to do supersets or you may have to use a bodyweight exercise for one of the exercises (such as push-ups instead of bench press).

Concluding thoughts

The above recommendations are not absolute in anyway. In fact, you should change this every once in awhile to keep your body from adapting. I lift weights in the 3-5 rep range, but once every week or two, I will go up to 8-10 reps and even sometimes higher, especially if I am doing bodyweight exercises like push-ups in place of bench press.

 

Bench Press

If you really enjoy doing something that goes against the above recommendations, you don’t need to stop. You might consider modifying it, particularly if there are theological reasons for doing so, but you don’t even need to do that if it will inhibit your motivation to work out. Even though it goes against my own recommendations, I like going on long, moderate paced runs because I can listen to podcasts and audiobooks, burn stress, and clear my mind. I do this for relaxation as much as I do it for exercise. However, I know it’s not the most effective way to run, so I don’t do it all the time and I make modifications to make it a more effective workout. I will either increase my overall speed or sprint for 50-100 yards every few minutes. I also play hockey once a week for my cardio exercise, which is much more enjoyable and social than other exercises, even though it’s not as time efficient. In a 60 minute game, I will only play for 25-30 minutes, skate hard for only half that time, and spend additional time commuting and getting my equipment on.

 

Another reason to modify this is if you are training for something. If you decide you want to run a marathon or do some other event, you may want to train in a specific way to prepare for that event. For instance, if you are preparing for a marathon, you may want to limit your weight training to only once or twice per week, at least for your legs, and spend more time running. It’s ok to go through different seasons and have some slightly different goals. The most important thing is that you are always considering how to honor God in this way and act accordingly.

Workout Routine

This suggested routine is very intense, but can be modified very easily. You can switch exercises, change the days, or make a variety of other changes based on your needs. Because it’s so intense, you will likely need to build up to it over a few weeks, and unless you’re in extremely poor shape, you probably don’t even need to workout this often or this intensely.

If you are just getting started in weightlifting, I suggest doing all the exercises with a barbell instead of dumbbells to help you get the form down better. Also, start with very light weights, going very slow, for 12-15 reps. As your neuromuscular system becomes trained in the right way, you can start to increase the weights and start to transition to dumbbells, which are harder to control.

If you have questions or need help, please contact us and let us know.

Day 1/3/5: weight training
Warm up your whole body for about 5 minutes (jog, row, bike, etc.)

Superset #1 (do a light warm up set for each exercise. As a superset, your only rest period should be to go to the next exercise and maybe a few additional seconds between each superset to get a drink, adjust the weights, or just catch your breath a bit more. Try to start the next exercise within 10 seconds of finishing the previous one, and if possible, try to keep it under 5 seconds (this is harder for the first few exercises).
Pull-ups: as many as you can, if possible, do weighted pull-ups
Dumbbell Bench press: 3-5 reps
Deadlifts: 3-5 repetitions each set (decrease weight if necessary to stay in that range)
Rest 20-30 seconds, then repeat so that you do all exercises a total of 4-5 times.

Superset #2
Bent over row: 3-5 reps
Squats: 3-5 reps
Dumbbell Shoulder press: 3-5 reps
Rest 20-30 seconds and repeat so that you do all exercises a total of 3-4 times.

Superset #3 (optional…of course it’s all optional, but this is more optional)
Tricep dips: 3 sets for 6-10 reps
Curls: 3 sets for 6-10 reps
Abs: 3 sets (use a variety of exercises and do as many as you can each set)
Rest 20-30 seconds and repeat so that you do all exercises a total of 3-4 times.

Superset #4 complete any additional exercises you may need to focus on for your particular situation.

Days 2/4/6: Cardio
Do whichever exercises you like, but go as hard as you can for 15-30 minutes after warming up gradually. Any more than that will be too much if you are are going hard. If you want to exercise for longer periods of time, scale back the intensity as your increase the time.

Other Recommended Resources

There are lots of good resources on how to work out or even on developing your own theology of fitness.

Athlean-X by Jeff Cavalier, who is a personal trainer and a physical therapist. He is by far the best I’ve found for sound fitness and safety advice. The only reason my recommendations differ from his is because of theological considerations which He doesn’t incorporate into his training routines and recommendations. Just a warning, he occasionally uses somewhat coarse language, but I don’t think it’s so bad that you shouldn’t watch his videos.

Desiring God – John Piper’s ministry. They have several articles (and videos) discussing the theology of health and fitness.
http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/do-you-exercise-like-a-nonbeliever
http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/physical-exercise-what-i-do-and-why-part-1
http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/physical-exercise-what-i-do-and-why-part-2
http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/strengthen-your-faith-through-physical-exercise
http://www.desiringgod.org/topics/diet-exercise
http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/exercising-the-body-for-the-sake-of-the-soul
Body fat percentage
https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/112/what-are-the-guidelines-for-percentage-of-body-fat-loss

By Jay Medenwaldt
Originally published 12/28/2017
Major updates posted: n/a
Photos by Kaelin Medenwaldt

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