Many people falsely believe that the biggest struggle to getting fit is having enough desire. That’s rarely the case.
Most people want to be healthy, strong, and feel proud of how they look and function.
The real struggle is translating the want to action, and then to results.
What I want to give to you today is not inspiration and rationale for why you can and should get fit. Rather, 4 very simple steps for how to turn the want into action.
This will be helpful if you have already gone through the essential steps I’ve laid out in prior blogs about writing goals, clarifying your “why”, depicting your future self if you do or do not act, listing your obstacles, changing your environment, making an implantation intention plan and other critical details that you’ll need to assure long term results.
This is like starting school. In order to read and write, there needs to be some basic skills and actions taken in order to benefit. You don’t drop a toddler off to a grade school hoping that they will be ready to learn. Certain prerequisites are needed.
So don’t skip those essential pre-requisites.
Listen, I know most people will say, yeah, yeah…prerequisites, whatever. Just tell me what 4 steps to do. I get that. I don’t like fluff, I just want results. I’m busy and can be impatient. I like to strike while the iron is hot and act quick. If this sounds like you, it means that you should simply get a coach to make sure you get through these critical steps efficiently. Skipping those principles in haste is not a good idea and explains why so many struggle with getting results.
Assuming you are now ready, here are the first steps that I have found that lead to long term success.
Don’t over-complicate this. The objective is clear: take action and collect data. When you act, you relieve the stress that comes from knowing you should do something but you are not doing it. By collecting data, you are proving to yourself that you have succeeded (see prior blog here on mastery to increase self-efficacy). You are also collecting information that will be absolutely vital feedback that will direct future workouts and dietary changes. Finally, it will also take away the guesswork for what to do, as you won’t have to clutter your brain with uncertainty.
What follows is a 4-week plan. Done right, you’ll lay the foundation for amazing progress.
Goal: do 12 workouts in a month and collect data
Step 1: Day 1: Get a Calendar and block-off a time
You need to schedule a time on your calendar, just like an appointment, when you will exercise. This is a proven tactic. People rarely miss appointments. If you intended to go see your dentist, but you didn’t make an appointment, you would probably not go. If you make a meeting, social constructs would pressure us to showing up for the meeting, lest you enjoy being regarded by others as rude. This is why so many people find having a personal trainer so valuable.
But you can still use this tactic by making an appointment for yourself.
It needs to physically be on your calendar with dates, times, and a title. Make it as formal and official as possible. Also, consider using the framing effect (discussed here) when you title your workout. Avoid using something bland like “workout 9-9:30”. Instead, try “heart attack prevention appointment” or “training for Chris’s wedding”. The later options conjure up more meaning.
Don’t worry about how long, or how many. Right now, the focus is getting it done. This is true for more advanced folks who are inconsistent with their workouts or beginners who are out of shape.
Remember, the goal is to get it done consistently, 3x/week for 4 weeks, and collect data which we can build off of for long term success.
Some people do better with doing a little every day. Others, just a few times a week is as much as they can handle. Some are a combination. I’ll lay out a few examples that will apply to each preference.
Option 1: Exercise for 15 minutes every day.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday: 15 minutes of resistance training
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday: 15-minute walk
Option 2: 30 minutes of resistance training 3x/week
Monday, Wednesday, Saturday
Option 3: Exercise 5 days a week
Monday, Wednesday, Friday 20 minutes of resistance training
Thursday and Sunday: 15-minute walk
Again, do not get caught up on the time factor. 5 minutes is fine. Yes, it is effective. No, it is not optimal. But right now, the goal is getting started and laying the foundation. How much comes later. Getting it done regularly is the focus now.
Have it etched into your calendar as an appointment. Use your smartphone or regular old school calendar. While you can use both, I strongly recommend you use an old school monthly calendar. You’ll see why this is so important later.
One thing to consider is that you should also have an emergency backup plan. This is the plan you will put into place when something unexpected comes up and you absolutely can not make your exercise appointment.
While it is debated whether you allow yourself to have such a backup plan at this stage, given it can be used as comfort for breaking your commitment to your initial appointment, I believe the pro’s of having a back up plan outweigh the cons. This back up plan, a BTN (better than Nothing) workout can help guarantee that you’ll never miss a workout on account of time or location.
The BTN is a shortened form of your regularly planned workout that you can do in 5-15 minutes anywhere, no matter what limitations you have.
For example; your workout appointment has you going to the gym Thursday pm after work for 40 minutes. However, you just realized that your daughter’s violin concert was rescheduled to that time due to a snow storm that got cancelled for the original time. You also know that you are leaving to go out of town the next day, so bumping your workout to the weekend isn’t likely. This is exactly why having a BTN to deploy can be a huge help.
This means that rather than missing a workout, you’ll do a 15-minute BTN at the office consisting of a circuit of pushups off the desk, band rows from the door, and lunges instead. Check out prior blog here for more insights on the BTN.
Just be sure to not rely on it. If you find you are using the BTN too much, consider re-evaluating your schedule and instead commit to a more realistic time.
Step 2: Day 2: Get a notebook
This might be the most underutilized, yet effective step.
Having a notebook (not smartphone) solves most problems people have with working out:
- Focus: a smart phone is designed to pull you in 100 directions. In your notebook, it’s just your fitness and nutrition stuff. That’s it.
- Visualization/motivation: seeing your goals, your “why”, and your plan written in your own handwriting each time you workout is a proven strategy for success.
- Motivation: seeing progress, whether it be from watching the weight increase, or simply looking back to see that you hit 12 workouts this month breeds a sense of mastery, which is a proven way to increase self-efficacy, one of the most important predictors of long term exercise adherence.
- Crucial data: Finding patterns in your dietary habits, tracking the progressing of exercise volume, of seeing imbalances in your exercise selection are among the many things revealed from logging which are rarely picked up on otherwise.
- Remembering what to do: When your plan is already written out, you don’t have to occupy your mind with figuring out the sets, reps, weight, or exercise to do. Holding that in your head adds to the information overload that has us walking around carrying too many thoughts in our head. Dump them out on paper so you can use your mind to relax and focus on what, and how you are doing, especially if you are new to exercise and learning new motor skills which is critical for maintaining cognitive health as it is for physical health.
In your notebook, you will have your goals, “why” , future self, and implementation intention plans written out on page 1
On page 2, a brief overview of your monthly workout strategies (i.e. resistance train 30 minutes Mon/Wed/Friday)
Each page after that, you will record the date, exercises, and sets, reps, weight, and any other note (i.e. switched to cable rows instead of bands, which felt better).
For each week, you will record what you eat. While apps can work, a regular paper and pen recording describing what you ate, how much, and when is plenty good to start. If possible, arrange the log so that you can track all your meals on one piece of paper. This allows you to better detect patterns. More on this on my past blog post here.
Some will also track sleep and stress as well.
Step 3: Day 3-30: Do a resistance training workout 3 days a week for a month
Now it is time to exercise. The best place to start is with resistance training. It may surprise you to know that resistance training is effective for improving a wide variety of functions, preventing injury and disease to a greater degree than any other form of exercise. All other forms of exercise are enhanced by resistance training, so it serves as a foundation to build upon should you want to expand to include other forms of exercises. It is also infinitely modifiable, making it perfect to adapt to any ability. Finally, it can be done anywhere, regardless of the equipment or space. Thus, resistance training is the perfect place to start.
This is a good place to define what resistance training is. While there are many definitions, the one that serves us best is the one that provides the results most often found in the research. Thus, I define resistance training as a form of exercise that provides resistance to muscles such that more than 15 repetitions is not possible to perform consecutively without voluntary failure.
For example, doing dumbbell curls with 2-pound weights while walking for 15 minutes would not be considered resistance training, as you would have likely performed hundreds of repetitions. The load would be too light to improve bone density, strength, power, balance, increase or maintain muscle or tendon mass, and other factors unique to properly loaded resistance training. Similarly, adding resistance to the stationary bike would be considered resistance training, unless the resistance was sufficiently high so as to not allow you to perform more than 15 repetitions. However, sitting to standing off a chair 10 times to fatigue for someone recovering from knee surgery would be considered resistance training for those who are weaker.
That being said, our goal now is not to focus on how much. Defining resistance training at this juncture is meant to provide clarity as to what movements to consider choosing. Our goal is to introduce you to the movements, ingrain proper motor skills and habits, and prepare the body to eventually tolerance intensities that change our bodies.
Now that we are clear on what type of exercise to start with, let’s get into some specifics as to what exercises to pick.
While this should be individualized pace on your unique abilities and needs, some general guidelines work for most.
Select a few leg exercises and a few upper body exercises. The goal is to work out all your muscles in one workout.
But shouldn’t I split my routine to focus on one muscle group each workout? Studies have found that the optimal frequency for training a muscle group is 2-3x/week is optimal for most. In studies showing less frequency, it was only comparable to higher frequency if they trained for more volume per session (several exercise and sets for one muscle) and trained most days of the week, which you would need to do if only training one muscle per workout. Muscle mags in the 1980’s featuring chemically enhanced body builders were popular for promoting these “split” training designs. While there are some versions of split training that have their place, for most, especially those starting out that don’t have a high amount of time to commit, a total body plan that works all your muscles in one workout is best.
The number of exercises is mostly chosen based on time. Other factors such as tolerance to load, goals, and experience are influencers. 6 exercises allow you to challenge all the muscles and bones in the body and most movements critical to daily function
The number of sets and reps is based on evidence showing that although 10-20 sets/week/muscle group seems to be best for developing muscles, even lower volumes are still effective. However, doing more sets and reps allows for great practice. Finally, too many sets and reps can decrease intensity, increase time, and and exceed tolerance. Thus, balancing these factors, 2-3 sets per exercise of 6-12 reps is a good starting point for most.
So here are the exercises I would choose for most people. Again, this would vary considering based on an individualized assessment. This is also assuming that you have more than 35 minutes available for a workout
1. knee and hip dominant movement like a squat, lunge, or step up
2. Hip dominant movement, like a back lunge, bridge, deadlift, or hip thrust.
3. Lateral hip movement, like band walks, side lying hip abduction, or lateral lunge
For Upper Body:
4. Vertical pulling exercise: Lat pull downs, band pulldowns, chin ups, gravitron pull ups
5. Pushing exercise: pushups, bench press, 1 arm cable press
6. Horizontal pulling exercise: standing cable rows, inverted rows, 1 arm dumbbell rows
What about core?
The above exercises will challenge the core. Push ups are essentially a moving plank. Most of the lower body and pulling exercises challenge the spinal erectors. The unilateral upper body exercises challenge the obliques.
If you have more than 40 minutes, go ahead and add some core exercises like planks or side planks.
What about arms?
The muscles of the arms and shoulders are involved in all of those exercises, especially the pushing and pulling exercises. Studies have shown that those who add arm exercise to the end of a total body routine did not develop significantly increased arm size compared to those who just did the total body program. Although this might not hold true for more advanced lifters, consider arm isolation exercise to be relatively low priority, and only add them if you have more time or are doing a split routine.
Here’s an example of a routine for someone who is training 35 minutes 3 days a week:
- Pull down
- Back lunge
- Push up
- Band walk
2 sets of 12 reps each
Here’s an example for someone who has 15 minutes and needs to train at home with little equipment:
- Push up off counter
- Band pull downs over door
Do these for 10 reps each, in a circuit, 2 times with 2 minutes rest between circuits and 30 sec rest between exercises.
There are infinite variations, but stay within these principles, and you will have a great routine.
What about cardio?
Resistance training is cardio. This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of fitness. Cardiovascular performance is improved by resistance training. Cardiovascular disease risk is decreased by resistance training. You can certainly add some aerobic endurance work, like walking or biking if you have more time. But keep in mind resistance training confers a far greater range of benefits than aerobic training. Resistance training can improve your heart function, but aerobic function cannot improve your strength, preserve muscle mass, bone density, power, and other qualities. See my blog regarding the evidence on resistance training and cardiovascular health here.
This is where the calendar comes in place. In addition to recording your workouts in your notebook that you’ll take with you to use during your workout, be sure to go to your calendar and mark an X on the days that you worked out. There’s something powerful about seeing the string of x’s accumulate over time as you successfully tackle a workout. It drives up self-efficacy and promotes accountability in a unique way. Placing your calendar in a visible spot, like on your desk or on your refrigerator, is a perfect way to visualize your accomplishment of getting your workout in.
Step 4: Day 30: Reassess
At the end of the month, grab your notebook and go to your calendar. Write down answers to the following:
Did you get 12 resistance training workouts in? Why or why not?
Now flip back through your workouts.
What exercises caused problems? Can you modify them, or should you eliminate them?
Did you progress any exercises? (more reps, weight, sets) If not, which ones should you increase? Which ones do you need to practice more to feel more comfortable?
Next, flip through your food log:
Do you notice any patterns? (i.e. pigging out after skipping meals, eating better on certain days, worse on others)
Are you getting enough fruits and vegetables?
Are you getting enough protein?
Are there things you are eating/drinking that you should reduce or eliminate?
When do you tend to eat well?
When do you tend to eat poorly?
This process should help you to identify the behaviors to address, issues to improve upon, successes to celebrate, and areas to progress.
Don’t let this overwhelm you, or think you need to always have clear and profound insights. The key thing is to just do it. For some, just 30 days of acting on a reasonable plan provides all the insights they need to take the next step and keep progressing. Others, it takes a while. Be patient and persistent.
Don’t be afraid to seek guidance. The swiftest way to achieve success is to have a coach that is skilled in assessment, program design, teaching, guiding sustainable behavior change, and providing accountability with support.
Going through these 4 steps will point you in the right direction. It will also reveal to you very quickly if you need a coach. Of course, if this is overwhelming to you, and you’d rather bypass the planning and tracking, definitely a coach is needed. Finally, if you have special needs and considerations, please seek a coach that is particularly skilled in assessment. Our team at Spectrum are the best available, combining skills in rehabilitation, fitness, and nutrition to guide you in all aspects of fitness. Click here to get more help or contact us with any questions.
Meanwhile, use these 4 steps to take action!