Think Progress, Not Perfection
The hardest part of starting a new habit is just that. Starting. Working out can be a particularly tricky one if you’re just starting out. Everyone has that friend who makes excuses for why they didn’t hit the gym.
The excuses are endless, and frankly, pretty damn annoying.
The problem isn’t about they should do, that part everybody knows. Eat a healthy diet and exercise. Sleep more. Drink more water. I just have to get up and actually DO it.
Simple enough, right?
Then why do so many people refuse to get up off the couch and get to the gym?
The indecision to take action can range from any number of excuses. Lack of motivation. Reluctance to try something uncomfortable or unfamiliar, even if it’s good for them. Not enough time in the day. Too busy. Too tired. Too lazy. I’ll start going the gym tomorrow. It’ll be my New Year’s resolution. The list goes on and on and on.
This postponement to take action is called learned helplessness. Complacency overrules action and new habit formation, rendering you stagnant. The status quo can be a dangerously comfortable place to be.
Innumerable articles have been written helping people find their motivation to train and get active and healthy; that’s not what this article is about.
This article is about what happens once that decision has been made. Once that person laces up their shoes and answers the call to action; the call to get off their ass and do work in the gym.
Not too long ago, I was that person
Three years ago and fresh out of college, I joined a local gym with the determination to transform my weak boy-body into a strong man-body. Prior to this point I relied on trusty home workout programs like P90x, and while it did get me sweating, it didn’t help me put on size. I wanted pipes like ol’ Tony Horton. I wanted an awesome physique and impressive stature. Instead I had wiry, noodle arms and a lanky frame like I’ve always had.
I threw on a beat up Kiss t shirt, laced up my sneakers, grabbed my gym bag and took a few steps towards the front door of my apartment. With my hand clasping the door handle, I paused. Something was looming in the air.
There is was. Resistance.
It dawned on me that I didn’t have a game plan. I knew I was supposed to do X amount of reps for X amount of sets for X many exercises. Which exercises are the best? How many reps and sets? What’s the order here? Cardio? Warmup?
Rather than approach the gym as an all-you-can-lift-buffet, sampling each station, I dropped my gear and pulled out the laptop. What happened next completely led me astray from the path to Gains-ville, but took me a place wrought with indecision and confusion, and marked the beginning of an unhealthy carbo-phobic phase, I’ll admit.
As our friend Job Bluth put it, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
I never made it to the gym that day. Instead I spent the day reading article after article about the “best” exercises that would add mass to my arms and chest. I read about “optimizing” my diet for muscle gains. I read about “clean” eating (whatever the hell that means). I was brainwashed by the prospect of lean-bulking on a ketogenic diet as I frittered away the rest of the day reading about the latest ergogenic supplements, the virtues of drop-sets, HIIT, and this, that, and the other thing, too.
As the sun eventually set and the rays of light shining into my living room began to dim, I found myself exhausted, anxious, and confused.
I felt deflated like a human, boy-body, meat balloon.
Decisions, Decisions, Too Many Decisions
What I experienced that day (and subsequent weeks and months) was decision-making fatigue. I was overwhelmed with the myriad fitness and nutrition plan permutations and strategies, and wound up stalling out.
Diving head-first into the nutrition and fitness world can be an incredibly bewildering experience. It certainly was for me.
As novice trainees often do, I underestimated the amount of time it would take to see any visible change in my physical appearance. The days that I actually went to the gym, I would run home to look at myself in the mirror, still feeling that glorious pump.
Mirin’ my gains? Not even once. Not then at least.
I didn’t know fitness and building muscle was a long game. It requires patience and focus. Persistence and perseverance. It requires progressive tension overload. It requires eating just enough food to facilitate muscle hypertrophy, but not so much that you become a fat fuck (been there more than once). Lastly and most importantly, transforming your body often requires you to let go of their ego, committing to a training program that someone with far more experience has created, and seeing it through from start to finish.
It requires trust.
I’ve always been the type of person to do things on my own. I like to figure out things by myself, rather than ask for help. I’m the kind of guy who wasted two years getting caught up in the fine, but inconsequential points of training like supplementation and “quick results” fad diets rather than focusing on the few key points that actually matter in the long run.
After two years I had made zero progress. My strength and size were equally unimpressive. Failing to see any growth or strength gains, I came to the conclusion that more is better. It was normal for me to do anywhere from 25 – 35 sets per workout.
Overtraining and under-eating left me a skinny-fat, exhausted, frustrated sap. Woe is me.
When faced with a plethora of options, we end up dividing our decision-making energy in every conceivable direction and wearing ourselves thin. Rather than focusing that energy in the few critical places that will yield the best results, we forfeit our ability to take action and get lost in the inconsequential details.
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”
If someone had told me the following key points to focus on, I would have saved myself an enormous amount of time and frustration.
Focus on these five critical points:
1. Choose a muscle-building program. Choose a program that emphasizes the “big lifts”, that is, the tried and true compound exercises that have been getting people sexy and fit for decades. The program should include a variation of the following exercises: bench press, squat, deadlift, and row. Simple and effective. There are myriad programs out there designed for beginners, many are available for free (link).
Pick a program.
Pick ANY program.
See the program through from start to finish.
Evaluate progress and start the process over again.
2. Focus on mastering movement patterns. If you’re hitting the bench on Monday, work at squeezing your chest as hard as you can at the top of the movement. Just use the bar at first, no weights, and really contract your chest. Practice engaging the muscles you’re trying to work. Find out what it feels like. Bring the bar back down slowly and under control, maintaining that tension throughout the movement. Focus on stabilizing the weight. Focus on practicing good form. By mastering these exercises and practicing good form, you’ll be reducing the likelihood of injury down the line, and you’ll ensure that you are actually putting maximal tension on the muscle groups you are targeting. You’ll also be setting the best possible foundation for when you increase the weight over time.
But before we add another plate…
3. Start light. In the same vein as critical point # 2, start with light weights and focus on controlling the weight and maintaining tension throughout the movement. Don’t be the guy who gyrates his entire body to swing up a 75 lb dumbbell for a bicep curl. Stay away from this guy. Time under tension is the name of the game, folks. Write it on the palm of your hand with permanent marker if you have to. By maximizing time under tension, you provide the potent stimulus for muscle growth, and set yourself up for significant muscular adaptations. Start light, control the weight, and add more weight or volume over time.
4. Focus on having awesome workouts, every workout. This one has made a huge impact on the quality of my workouts and my results. Building muscle takes a long time. This was a tough pill for me to swallow, and I know it is for a lot of people. Building an impressive physique takes years. It is a process and it is a process that never really ends. Because of this, you must love the process. Love the process and understand the bigger picture. Love the process, and trust it. You can always readjust down the line.
Every time you show up for that next training session, make it your top priority to completely annihilate that workout.
Concentrate on every rep of every set for every exercise. Be present. Focus on the muscles you are trying to target; pretend like your biceps are glowing bright red like target points on your enemy in a video game. Visualize the muscles you are trying target while you are performing the exercise. The mind-muscle connection is a powerful thing.
Make every workout count. The feeling you’ll have as you walk out the gym will be once of achievement, confidence, and bliss. Ride the feeling. Do this over time and it will change your body. It might just change your life.
5. Eat enough. This was one of the biggest struggles for me. I never ate enough for the first year or two that I trained. Plagued by weakness and lethargy. The failure to increase the weight. The frustration and lack of progress almost made me quit altogether.
There are fancy macronutrient calculators out there to determine your specific caloric needs, and that route is fine. If that’s too much for you, then listen to your body and gauge how much to eat by your performance in the gym, and the number on the scale. If the number isn’t moving up over time, eat a little more. There is a degree of trial and error, so experiment with making gradual changes.
Less, But Better
Those are the five critical points that I believe will yield the greatest results, without the micro-managing and overthinking. Stay the course. Train like an animal. Trust the process.
“The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials”
Cut the chaff, focus on these five essential points and hit the weights with everything you’ve got.