Keep it Simple

Simplicity

I only do 4 lifts per training session. There are a few reasons why. Mainly, I don’t want to be in the gym all day long. I want to get in, put in the work and get on with my day. I keep the sessions to about an hour.

You can always add complexity. Starting with a few things allows you to make progress faster because you’re more focused. If you based your program on a leg exercise, an upper body push movement and an upper body pull movement, you’ll be set up nicely.

You will quickly find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Not everyone is going to respond the same way to every stimulus. You may find seated dumbbell shoulder pressing yields you better results than standing barbell shoulder pressing. Or it may just feel more comfortable.

Do the things that work, scrap what doesn’t.

It sounds obvious.

Most people don’t need to do three different types of calf raises in order to see improvement. The marginal benefits are usually outweighed by the opportunity cost of the time spent. Concentrate on the most important lifts.

Every minute you spend doing one thing means you can’t spend it doing anything else. Choose carefully how you spend your time. Get the most out of your training time.

Training hard in 4 exercises over 45 minutes to an hour is going to be more productive for you than training 8 over the same time span. (In this instance “core” means central and important, not necessarily the body part we think of as the “core”).

When you get to a point where you stop making gains with a certain lift, it doesn’t mean you have to necessarily add more exercises. Yes, adding more sets and/or more exercises can help you make more gains. But it will also make your sessions longer.

Instead, when you find yourself stalled on a particular exercise, try replacing it with a variation. For instance, you can swap barbell bench pressing with the dumbbell version. You will give your muscles a different stimulus to progress and your sessions won’t be any longer.

 

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Take a Break!

For every 8-12 weeks of hard lifting, some people recommend a deload week. A deload week is when you either cut the workload significantly or take the time off from training entirely. It gives your body a chance to recover from the stress of 2-3 months of training.

The truth is, I hate it.

I’d prefer to skip it and keep working out. It’s hard to fight the feeling that my progress will backslide, even though I know that’s false.

As I get older, I’m 40 now (an age up until very recently I thought was ancient), I find that I need to take the breaks.

After 10-12 weeks usually some joint starts to feel uncomfortable. It’s not injured enough for me to consider it injured. Just kind of a creaky knee, shoulder or (newly) an elbow. I want to just train through it and expect it to go away but…

You’ve got a choice:

Option 1: train through it and hope the minor discomfort doesn’t lead to a significant injury that will keep you from training for weeks or months.

Option 2: take a week off, give your body and mind a break, and come back refreshed.

I’ve learned that taking a week off from the gym is usually enough for the discomfort to go away. Right now it’s usually one week every 12 weeks.

In addition to helping Repetitive Overuse Injuries, a well-timed break can alleviate CNS (Central Nervous System) fatigue. You don’t need to feel achy to benefit from deloading. If your progress has been plateaued for a few weeks, giving your CNS a break may lead to a breakthrough.

It’s not a reason to be completely sedentary though. I stay away from the weights but I focus on mobility (something I need to work on more) and get in some low intensity cardio with an hour of walking 2-3 days.

Part of me still feels like it’s slacking. But when I get back to regular training, my mind is fresh. I’m excited to get back to it. It’s okay to take time away so you can miss the weights!

My joints are much less cranky, too. The part that really surprised me is that you don’t lose any strength.

If you absolutely can’t imagine taking a week off, there are other ways to deload:

  1. You can reduce the weights of your working sets. Keep the repetitions and sets the same but you’ll use 50-60% of your normal working weights.
  2. You can reduce the repetitions. Keep the number of sets the same and use your normal working weights but you do half the repetitions.

Yes, it will feel easy. That’s the point.

Training hard and consistently is essential to progression but don’t grind yourself into a nub. You’re in this for the long-term benefits of fitness, right? A week off every few months is nothing over the course of years of training.

Visualization

Visualization is imagining a thing before you do it. Before I start a set on a lift, I visualize doing all the repetitions. Take the weighted chin-up for example. After my warm up, I take a few seconds to just imagine myself doing the reps with the top weight.

It’s not magic, but I believe it helps me lift more. I know it helps as a reminder of the cues I want to keep in mind during the lift. I see myself starting and finishing each rep before I even attempt them.

It “greases the groove” also. Remember when you first learn a movement, any movement, it feels stilted and awkward. Most of us probably don’t remember learning to walk. But do you recall learning to ride a bike? How wobbly it was? Or maybe the first time you used chopsticks? With practice, the movements become like second nature.

“Greasing the groove” describes that process. Each time you repeat a new task it becomes more comfortable. Visualization can help with this. Obviously visualizing a thing is not quite as good as actually doing it, but it’s still very useful.

It’s like rehearsing a speech in front of the mirror before you deliver it before your audience. Even if you’re a pro at making speeches, chances are you still read it aloud a few times before you do it in front of a crowd. You can think of visualization in training the same way.

Seeing yourself through the entire session before you do it might seem a little weird. Instead of going through the whole thing, try visualizing each exercise just before you do it.

Let’s say your session (for the sake of simplicity) is 3 sets of 10 repetitions for 4 different exercises. After your warm up, but before you begin your working sets, visualize the entire working sets. See yourself unrack the bar; walk it out; you brace your core; your hips and knees flex; you hit your depth; you drive back up to the starting position. And then you actually do it.

‘Cause you do have to really do it, if you want to see results. It would be nice if we could imagine our way into being fit, but we do have to put in the work. The visualization is a nice way to get in some mental repetitions to help guide the path to progress.

And… I bet it has some carryover into other aspects besides training and public speaking. I don’t know if visualizing yourself avoiding a traffic jam would actually work, but who knows, give that a shot too and let me know how it goes.

Confession Time

I had a bad week at the gym. I was out of town last weekend, having fun. It was worth it. When I got back on Monday afternoon, there was plenty of time to go to the gym but I had a strong case of Not Feeling Like It.

So I skipped.

Not a big deal. I schedule my workouts for Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Missing one Monday just means I bumped that day’s training to Tuesday, and Tuesday’s to Wednesday.

Without going into too much detail about it, Monday and Thursday have a lower body focus, Tuesday and Friday are more upper body focused. Saturday is a short session on lagging parts.

It turns out Tuesday morning (my schedule dictates I train before work) I still didn’t feel like it. But I went anyway. I believe training when you don’t feel like it is almost a double-bonus. You get the training plus the benefit of strengthening discipline.

It’s easy (or at least easier) to go when your enthusiasm is high. But when it’s not, that’s where discipline comes in. Discipline is doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done, whether you feel like it or not.

This is the part where I’d love to brag that it was an awesome session and I hit new PR’s on everything. But the truth is, none of the sessions this week were great. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes.

My goal for each workout is small: just one more rep (repetition) in just one exercise than last week’s session. Consistent progress by small increments. If you’re first starting out the progress will happen quickly and the increments will be larger. As your training experience increases, progress gets harder to come by.

Unfortunately, basically there was no progress for me this week. In fact I regressed a little bit in one exercise. It’s mildly frustrating but I’m glad I went. I’ve never regretted a work out. Progress in any endeavor is rarely smooth and linear for long. Ups and downs and stalls are part of the process. The key is to keep the trend moving upwards over time.

The point of this post is that even when you don’t feel like going, go. Giving into laziness will never move you towards your goals. Not every training session will result in personal records.

Put the work in consistently and be patient.
This is what I tell myself.

Cheat Meals

We all know the importance of having your nutrition dialed in. I think it’s smart to keep track of caloric and macronutrient intake. But that doesn’t mean I eat perfectly. I don’t even want to.

Having a cheat meal, or even a cheat day, isn’t going to erode your progress. Think of it this way: if you ate terribly (chips and soda) 80% of the time and then had a salad 20% of the time, you wouldn’t expect to remain fit, would you?

Logic tells us the inverse of that (eating healthy 80% and not so great 20% of the time) won’t torpedo your gains, and it’s true.

In that vein, I’d like to share a couple of my favorite cheat meals.

I love a good burger. There’s nothing like it. In fact, it’s probably my favorite food. A beef burger or a lamb burger medium well always hits the spot. And fries, too. I make sure to enjoy it at least once a week, totally guilt free.

On the rare occasion I’m not in the mood for a burger for a cheat meal, then I’m definitely down for pizza. Pepperoni or mushroom are my favorites. I know, nothing too exotic, but c’mon.

Being fit doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite foods forever. That kind of drudgery is just not sustainable for most of us. Depriving ourselves tends to lead to bingeing anyway. While a cheat meal won’t sabotage you, a cheat week definitely might.

So enjoy your favorite foods once in a while and don’t feel guilty about it! The key, though, is “once in a while”.

What are some of your favorite cheat meals?

Focus on the Process

I make an effort to always focus on the process of attaining my goals, not the outcome. It’s a bit of a small distinction, but one I think is important. The process of going after a goal, is what you put into it. In fitness, that process will be training, nutrition and recovery. You lift the weights, eat proper food and make sure to get enough rest. The goal would be a stronger, better body. That’s the outcome.

The thing is, you can’t always control the outcomes. You can control the process.

For instance, you may have wanted to be 6’ when you were a kid. (I was a short kid. I didn’t ever make it to 6’ and I’m okay with it.) As a kid you could eat well and get plenty of rest (Process). This would help ensure you grow to your maximum potential height. But if your parents are 5’5”, there’s a good chance there’s nothing you could do to become 6’ (Outcome).

This isn’t meant to bum you out or frustrate you. Quite the opposite. You see, in any given situation, there are only 4 possible outcomes.

Good Process Poor Process
Good Outcome Expected Good Luck
Poor Outcome Bad Luck Expected


An example of a Good Process is forming a good training, nutrition and recovery regimen and sticking to it for a period of time. If you do this over time, you will most likely achieve a Good Outcome (a.k.a. those six-pack abs of your dreams!).

I say “most likely” because there aren’t any guarantees in life. Sometimes you can do the right things and not have things turn out as desired. This is Bad Luck. This isn’t meant to be a deterrent. You may have wanted a six-pack but maybe your abs turn out to be asymmetrical or look different than those of the Instagram model in the picture. Or maybe you got hit by an asteroid. This is just Bad Luck. There’s nothing you can do about it, so don’t sweat it.

A Poor Process would be forming a half-assed training plan and halfway adhering to it. There are a lot of ways to mess this part up. It’s important to form a good plan with all three pillars (training, nutrition, and recovery) accounted for.

Someone following a Poor Process is not likely to see the results they want. They’re not even really trying to achieve them, are they?

There are some people who will be able to follow a Poor Process and still see results. This will not be the case for the vast majority (and I’m confident their results are temporary). This is called Good Luck. Relying on it is not a good life strategy.

I’m hardly perfect at this. It’s tricky to come up with a desired outcome, form a plan and then act on it without thinking about that outcome. But I’m learning to focus mainly on the Process and am actually enjoying it more.

Let me know what you think.