It’s a New Year and everyone is excited about 2020. Lots of perspective about where you were ten years ago. Ten years ago, I moved to my current city and had to start my practice back up from nothing – not knowing a soul in the city besides my girlfriend. Thankfully I met a ton of great people and today I’m thriving and well.
One thing I read about a lot in January is people wanting to get back into good habits, which 90% of the time means the gym. They resolve to lose weight, set goals and really kill it for this new decade ahead. Well, not to be a David Downer, but here’s the truth: 70 percent of them will fail by mid-February!
Here’s a couple of strategies I always tell my clients (and anyone who asks me) that over my two decades doing this job I have always found more effective than resolutions.
- Focus on health FIRST, weight loss or body changes after that.
So many people want to get into shape, they decide to go on the latest fad diet or new book they read over the holidays. This usually leads to drastic changes that aren’t sustainable once you get back into your normal routines. Or, life gets in the way and then you have to take a break and get discouraged and quit.
Here’s my strategy to fix that – focus on HEALTH first. Getting healthier means eating better (cleaning up your nutrition), exercising moderately but not all out, and then focusing as well on things like sleep, overall stress reduction and creating positive habits that make you feel better, not worse.
The good thing is, that if you do these things that weight loss and better body composition will come along as a by-product. It’s guaranteed over time.
2. Make one change at a time.
If I was going to prioritize what you should change, it would go in this order:
Eat better. Sleep better. Cut down on stress. Exercise.
Yes, exercise is LAST on that list. Why? Because exercise means ADDING something, not REMOVING something. For example, eating better can mean simply eliminating sugar and alcohol. This will have a profound effect on most people. All you have to do is simply NOT EAT IT. Sleeping better means that you simply have to NOT watch that last episode of Netflix and go to bed earlier. Stress reduction means you have to NOT react poorly to when someone gets you upset or things don’t go your way.
Exercise is important, for sure – but if you simply eliminated starchy carbs, alcohol and most sugars from your diet you would lose ten pounds in a month. I’ve seen it dozens of times.
So change one thing – make it stick for at least 2-3 weeks – then change something else. And that brings me to my third point:
3. Focus on long term change and goals.
I tell my clients all of the time, we want to PREPARE you for what you are going to experience in 3-4 months. In the spring, you will be going outside more. In the summer, you may take up a new activity. For my athletes, they are typically in an off-season mode and focusing on re-establishing enhanced strength for upcoming seasons.
Think about where you want to be in six months. It is kind of like if your car starts to slide in the mounds of snow in my city. You look into the turn and focus on what’s ahead, not on what is going on around you. And inevitably you will come out of it straight and further ahead. Don’t worry about January, except for establishing the proper habits (with SMALL CHANGES) that you can be consistent with over time.
I hope that you all have a fantastic first couple of weeks of 2020 and if you ever want any information or to ask questions, I’m always happy to help you! Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Linkedin or find me at @strengthottawa on Twitter.
Last week a long term client of mine came in and proudly announced that she biked for two hours last week. And she was completely fine (maybe a bit tired) even after a recent tweak of her hip flexor. She’s 59 years old and only started biking a year ago. It was the first time she had ever biked for that duration of time.
I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast last week and he was interviewing a man who brought up a very good point and I wanted to share it with my readers because it was an ah-ha moment for me. Without getting into massive detail he basically stated that for whatever you want to be able to do, you need to realize that the things you do in the gym are for training towards that purpose – the gym is not the main event.
The time working on skills and strength in the gym allows you to be able to perform outside of it. It’s a chicken and egg thought that many people don’t apply properly. They think that if they just show up at the gym that’s enough.
So, what is your main event? Well, like my client it can be biking for hours. It can be keeping up with your kid on the ice during hockey like another client of mine. It can be jogging on the beach in February in Florida like another client of mine. It can be a half marathon like many participated in yesterday at the Army Run. It can be competing in a powerlifting event. But the bottom line is this:
THE TIME IN THE GYM IS THERE TO GET YOU TO THAT GOAL, WORKING OUT IS NOT THE GOAL ITSELF.
Many people, especially at this time of year think that they will go to the gym and magically everything will change without this chicken and egg theory in mind. I’m always asking people what they want to be able to do with their new body and strength once they have it instead. Setting that type of goal, no matter what it may be is important.
Sometimes you don’t even know what that goal is until it happens. For example, a lot of my clients want to eliminate chronic pain. Often after a few months, they will wake up one day and realize that they don’t have pain anymore. That’s when we have a conversation about what they want to be able to do now with their pain free body.
Here’s some examples of goals I’ve experienced in my career:
- I want to step on stage in front of hundreds of people in a bikini and feel good.
- I want to complete an endurance event (ie running, triathlon or cycling).
- I want to climb a monument, mountain, hike or simple stairs without getting winded.
- I want to play my sport again at a competitive level or take up a new one.
- I want to carry, play with or keep up with my kids for long periods of time.
I want you to notice something: not one of these goals involves being inside of a gym. The gym is there to provide the tools you need in order to achieve these goals, not the other way around.
So your first priority in 2019 and forward should be to set that target. My recommendation is always to have a short term and a long term goal.
Again as an example, one of my clients is starting back up again this week with the short term goal of consistency and getting his strength back to where it was after a three month layoff, with a long term nine month goal of being able to run pain free in the spring. It is completely achievable with the right consistency, progression and guidance.
So again, I’ll reiterate the question: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE ABLE TO DO?
And let’s begin there this year and moving forward. If you need any guidance, I’m always happy to provide it. Just remember that the time in the gym is training. The real world is out there just waiting for you to use the body you’ve created.
Recently a client texted me to ask if she should start taking BCAAs for improved results. This is a typical type of question that I get from clients quite a bit once they start back into the gym after a layoff or even starting out for the first time. Since every person they run into is going to offer some type of tidbit on how to increase results, often I have to be blunt with people, as is my nature.
So I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject and share basically what I told her and would tell anyone in the same type of situation, and here it is in plain English:
If you aren’t doing the first 80% of what you need to do, don’t worry about the final 20%.
So then you ask: “What’s the first 80%?” of course. And here they are:
Exercising regularly – that means 3-5 times a week depending on schedule for at least 6-12 months without more than a week break due to holiday, illness or injury. Do you have your fitness time prioritized so that regular life doesn’t get in the way? No? Work on that.
Establish a system that works for you and you can remain consistent with. It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 minutes at home doing bodyweight or 45 minutes at the gym. Just get regular.
Exercising properly – are you getting hurt or sore all the time? Do you know what you’re doing? Are you focusing on the right things ie strength training instead of hours of cardio? Do you track your workouts consistently? No? Consult an expert and work on that. Get a game plan and follow it.
Today there are literally millions of online resources that are free and can guide you, or spend the money and hire a (competent) trainer. It is worth the investment to do things right the first time.
Eating properly – that means within the caloric guidelines for either gaining/losing weight and/or body fat consistently every day. No? Work on that.
Don’t even know what that is? Google it. Your body has an energy requirement and this is where everyone should begin to focus on before any type of details.
Eating for health – meaning real food, not relying on supplements like shakes and powders. Whatever eating profile you decide to go with, just make sure it is healthy – for you. No? Work on that.
My big three are sugar, processed carbs and alcohol. If you can cut out those three things and also increase your fiber intake, it will dramatically change your body and mood in no time.
Recovering properly – that means are you sleeping, taking rest days and trying to lower outside stress levels so that your body can repair itself. No? Work on that.
Stretching, mobility, meditation are all a part of this process. Also, if your sleep hygiene sucks and you’re barely getting six hours a night, you’re going to have a problem. Easy hacks are available so that you can enhance your recovery and feel better every day.
Enjoying the process – Life isn’t about suffering unless you’re a Buddhist. If you are forcing yourself to do things it likely isn’t a good choice for you. An example is people who are in a gym when they would much rather be outside or doing an active sport or other activity. Have you found what you enjoy? No? Go find it.
So, here’s the thing. I get questions often where the answer is simply – it doesn’t matter unless you’re already doing the above. Do I need BCAAs? Should I do Wendler 5/3/1 or Starting Strength? What about Intermittent Fasting? Or keto? How many reps and sets? How long should I do cardio for? What should my heart rate be?
Too many people focus on the details that aren’t important until the above is in place and consistently followed for a period of time. And as much as other people will moan and say it’s important and other trainers’ heads will explode, let’s be honest and say that the difference is generally negligible. If you’re not doing the things above consistently then you are much better off starting there.
There are a ton of people in the industry that will tell you that you should be focusing on things that in the larger picture really don’t matter nearly as much as consistency, strength work, regular recovery and a good diet. Usually, these people are trying to sell you something. Don’t worry about the small details until you have mastered the first amount for a period of time.
Most of the fitness industry is based on sales and marketing, not getting you actual results.
Kind of scary, huh?
As I’ve stated before, there is a lot of marketing garbage that most fitness companies use in order to get people to spend money and not get anywhere. This is how profits are made. If people who owned gym memberships used them frequently, gyms would go out of business. Their pricing model is even based on it being JUST expensive enough to have one and not cancel it for years, even though you never use it.
And how many fitness gadgets have you purchased over the years hoping that one would finally get you to be consistent, just to order another one that’s almost the same for Christmas a year later? An Apple Watch, a FitBit and a Garmin all do almost the same things when it comes to exercise recording. But some of you probably one of each.
I’ve compiled a very basic and sometimes downright frightening list of stuff to watch out for, either in person, on social media or especially through careful marketing tactics:
Most personal trainers are very under-qualified to design proper exercise programs.
Most commercial chain gyms sell a lot of personal training, simply due to the fact that sales of training are pure profit for them. Unfortunately, this has also led to some companies (and any major chain does this frequently) having trainers on the floor who haven’t even taken a certification course yet and simply “know how to work out”. In fact, this is how they are recruited to work there.
In my career, I have worked with every level of the spectrum, from a high school dropout who was recruited to be a trainer because of her looks, to a kinesiology grad who actually couldn’t coach someone through a bench press or name any of the muscles involved beyond “the chest”. Even those who have one certificate have had about 25 hours of classroom instruction, which is less than one course for one semester at any post-secondary institution.
However, some trainers go above and beyond this and are constantly looking for new educational opportunities – these are the ones you should be investing your money in. There are some brilliant people out there who really care about their craft and are willing to take the time to really learn the why behind what they do to people. Seek these people out and you will reap the rewards.
Don’t just accept any old trainer that a gym throws at you, because frequently it is just “who is available?”. Your money should go towards what you are paying for – quality, qualified attention with proper program design. If you decide to get training at a chain gym, buyer beware.
That ideal physique online or in magazines doesn’t really exist.
Having trained many fitness competitors and bodybuilders in the past decades, I know a lot of methods to help people drop fat fast and get more defined so they look great under lights or in front of a camera. The trouble is that absolutely none of these methods are in the slightest bit healthy or realistic for most people and require a ton of restricting.
When a competitor is so lean that they are about to step on stage, they typically have manipulated their sodium and water levels dangerously and are on little to no carbohydrates, sometimes for up to weeks at a time. They will also gain back massive amounts of weight in the form of water and carbohydrate after competing, sometimes up to 10% of their body weight in a matter of two weeks. This is not anything close to what an average person should go through.
When you see someone in a magazine, they are typically not this bad, but are not too far from it – airbrushing takes care of anything else. Never, ever look at a person in a magazine at more than a model and believe the promise that if you follow their “super effective” diet then you can look like them unless you are willing to suffer through the same regimen that they do. There are also trainers out there who swear up and down that if you follow their “magic program” you can look just like them, which is ridiculous.
Instagram is rampant with this. What the girls and guys there don’t tell you is that their photos are highly filtered and it took them about 20 shots to get the perfect angle. Don’t think for one second that they stepped into the gym looking like that.
You really don’t need a gym membership at all
I design workouts for clients all the time using simple bodyweight movements, with no equipment and very little time invested. If you are truly motivated to make a change, it takes nothing to put on your shoes and go for a fast walk, do some simple bodyweight squats, modified push-ups and mild planks and believe it or not – that’s a workout!
The things that gyms have is lots of fancy equipment that 75% of which you never need to touch and for some people, they enjoy the social aspect and group exercise, which is great. But it’s not anything that you really need in order to start the process of getting healthier. And choose weight training over cardio – every time. Walking and the like is a good start for most people, but once you can transition into strength, do it and stay there.
As I said in one of my previous articles, if you can just clean up your eating and get in 30 minutes of (extra) activity (ideally strength work of some type) 4 days a week, you will start to see some significant changes. You can work every muscle in your body easily with bodyweight and resistance bands if needed. Once you are in the habit, a small investment can get you a really decent home gym without having to worry about lineups or travel (or monthly expense).
Very few supplements have been proven to do anything useful and are mostly a waste of money.
Often I’m asked “which protein powder is better?” or “I heard that x is good for you.”. According to scientific research, and not the studies done by the supplement companies themselves, of course, there is little evidence to show that any supplements will actually make a big difference for you physically when it comes down to quick changes.
There are exceptions to this, but when you think of protein powders (eat animal protein or vegan options), creatine or other supplements and one type of brand versus the other, the differences between them are at best negligible. You can save a lot of money by going for something less expensive without the marketing hype behind it.
And for athletic performance, there are very tried and true methods to increase the ability to perform for any workout and recover from a workout. We just tend to believe marketing hype and “research” from companies like Gatorade and Nutrabolics. More money = more ads. It does not equal better results. For people strapped for time, these things can be worthwhile and sometimes I actually recommend them based on the person involved and their situation. But please, don’t make it your first choice and don’t fall for marketing hype or ads in magazines, or what is recommended by the latest “fitness pro”.
That really fit person has been training that way for a very long time.
Most really fit people that you see winning races, have ripped abs and big muscles or just look great in an outfit have more often than not been going through years of exercise and eating properly (or had artificial help – but I’m really trying not to go there for this article).
Sometimes you will get people who were athletes when they were younger and they tend to respond very well to exercise, but for the majority of people just stepping into a gym, it is a matter of years to see big changes that will stick with you for a lifetime.
And, if you have never been active before you need to give your body time to adapt to the physical changes you are going to put it through. This only adds to my previous posts that training is a long term solution and that you need to give yourself at least a year of consistent training for about 3-5 hours per week at a minimum to see long term results.
If you have a friend, co-worker or relative who is really fit, ask them how long they have been regularly working out for. The answer will probably be for many years. That’s how you get results for life.
There are no quick-fix solutions (that really work) short term that isn’t incredibly unhealthy or dangerous or requires surgery.
Going on a crash diet? Your body will pack on whatever you lost plus reinforcements. Desperate and going for bariatric surgery? Have fun not being able to eat properly or absorb proper nutrients – for the rest of your life. Going to train super hard for that sport or event because you started really late? Risk of injury increases exponentially. I can’t say it enough, but I’m going to again.
There are NO quick fixes when it comes to the human body. It takes time, effort and proper guidance to get to where you want to be, and how long it takes depends on what your body will allow and how effective your program is. Your body is not stupid. It will tell you when anything is too hard when it is not happy and cutting something out, depleting it or taking it beyond its capacity is asking for trouble somehow.
Give yourself proper planning, time and apply things consistently and you will get there. Instead of months, it might take years, but the only way you’re NOT going to get there is by stopping.
Why doesn’t the industry want you to know this stuff? Because then you won’t spend your money on supplements, poor personal training, and cash grab quick-fix solutions. Don’t fall for it. Get into a habit, make it a permanent change and give yourself time. Being healthy isn’t something you do for a little while. It should be something that you do for the rest of your life in order to live longer, healthier, not have aches and pains and be on medications and be a good example for your family and friends. Feel free to comment if you disagree.