I used to have a supscription to Flex Magazine when I was younger.
Y’know, the one with all the posing bodybuilders, adorably drugged to the brim with illegal (well, mostly illegal) substances that help them recover muscle bigger and badder than ever. Some of the information in the magazines was super useful. Workout programs, lots of broscience, a billion ads for supplements that I swear could make me superhuman.
Then I walked into a gym, saw it was crowded, fumbled across the walkways to check if anything was available… nothing. I was too embarrassed to tap anyone on the shoulder to ask if I could “work in” (gym speak for “Can I use the same equipment during your rest periods?”). So I just left.
With all the optimized-for-bodybuilder programs and vast knowledge of body mechanics… with all the wisdom of understanding I needed to work out in order to see any progress… I still just walked out defeated. What the heck just happened?
The Internet Has It Wrong
I feel like every book, magazine, and blog post on the Internet talking about fitness follows 1 of 3 tropes:
- Insanely tactical fitness, nutrition, and lifestyle bulletpoints
- Super motivational, adrenaline pumping motivational videos
- Outright wrong fitness advice
The first trope consists of the Flex magazines, the broscientists, and perhaps your personal trainer. They give advice on what literal protocol to follow. They give you tactical nutritional advice on nutrient timing, when to eat your meals, and how your favorite pro bodybuilders molded their lives to fit to the fitness mold. They give you knowledge.
My experience with this content: I read it, then do nothing with it. Life gets in the way and I have “no time”. Or I am simply too embarrassed to go to the gym, being among the weakest there. Or I have other priorities… I had a billion tactics and a ton of knowledge, but had no habit and no practical application. Flex never went over “just doing it”, so I… didn’t.
I bet you have that friend, the one who knows a lot about something but has never done it. This phenomenon is not limited to fitness, I promise. When exploring new territory, people default to analysis paralysis, feeling they need to be utterly prepared to take action. There’s a fear barrier when it comes to working out, whether injury potential or vulnerability as you compare yourself to others, as there is in any skill learning. I’ll go over the solution in a bit.
Let’s talk about the second trope. This is your “workout of the day” system, your random YouTube fitness videos that have a bunch of ideal body typers doing infinite random pull-ups on a bar, your “77 Year Old Man Does Unbelievable Exercises” bits on TV. They motivate you, and maybe even convince you that simply doing what they do in the video will make you like them. You might even try out this “workout” consistently… but to no end because you see no progress and quickly deflate. They inspire action.
Now don’t misunderstand… Neither of these tropes are wrong. The problem is that they are taken out of context for beginners. What truly works is the synergy of the two together.
FACT: Growth Comes from Goals and Action
So how do you apply fitness advice? Simple. You need both the knowledge to understand it, and the wisdom to internalize and apply it. In other words, you need goals and action.
Know Your Goals – The Science of Focus
Goals are what separate the wheat from the chaff. Goals are what let you know what tactics to focus on, what diet to stick to, what body type is achievable with the workout program you use. They are your guiding light.
- You want to look like an action star with the muscley, abs-visible look? Strength training, maybe cardio if you want. You’ll need to eat quite a bit of food, especially protein, to allow your muscle to adapt and build.
- You want to improve your cardio so you can hike with your friends? Start jogging, sprinting, doing HIIT, a DVD workout program, anything to keep your heart rate elevated for a long period of time.
- You want to increase your agility so you feel like a ninja? Sprinting with a lot of directional change and some leg strengthening exercise will do you good.
- You want to gain/maintain muscle while maintaining/losing fat? Progressive calisthenics. And either eat in excess (gain muscle) or deficit (lose fat) depending on your primary goal. Side effect: lots of strength and command of your body. But note, my primary focus for this system was for looking good and being sustainable by habit.
Your goals dictate how you structure your fitness program because not all workouts are focused on the right goal.
And you know, I don’t blame you for the confusion. Every program out there promises everything, catering to your deepest fears and your strongest desires. It crafts the perfect emotional pitch to make you buy shit.
Examples of these lies?
- P90x promises it can make you lean and buff at the same time – conveniently ignoring that it’s nearly impossible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, and also ignoring that it is not optimized to do EITHER.
- Fitness YouTube videos of a random fit person telling you to do “this ab workout” and “you’ll have abs in no time”. Thanks for conveniently ignoring diet, or spreading some nonsense about how you have to eat gluten-free to save your soul.
- Don’t get me started on all the machines that, “burn more calories than insert-exercise-here“
But goals are only 1 component. The other is…
Acting On Your Goals – The Art of Doing & Learning
Goals have you reflecting on what you want. Action – experimenting, doing, trying – are what get you there. I could read 5 bibles of fitness knowledge. I could have tutelage from the world’s greatest athletes. None of it matters unless I try it, grow from it, and learn from it. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder is famously quoted as saying:
“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
So planning 5 years worth of workout programming will be utterly useless as the circumstances of your body and your life change daily. It’s good to have knowledge, and good to craft a plan. it is good to stay on target with your goal. It is bad to be paralyzed in the planning stage for eternity.
You learn a lot about how your body moves, how you recover, what tactics work and don’t work through experimentation. Reflect on your goals, then test them out. Correlate whether your actions are supporting them or not. Are you seeing visible fat loss on your current workout/diet/recovery system, when your goal is fat loss? Then continue to thrive! Are you losing weight when your goal is to gain more muscle on your legs, glutes, and abs? Then something should probably change.
Eventually, you discover the ultimate fitness formula…
Goals + Action = Wisdom. You’ll know how to achieve what you want, and ways to achieve it. When you hit this stage, you’ve made a feedback habit that gets you in sync with your body. This learned habit of external knowledge to internal experience will persist and continue to positively grow with practice. In other words, you will smash your goals and never feel out of control because you’ll know exactly how to diagnose a problem.
Basically, fitness nirvana.
One Final Thought About Experimentation
I am a huge proponent of understanding goals and acting in a manner consistent with them. It seems logical – have a goal, take steps to reach it, revise as needed. But life is rarely that obvious.
We burn out. We get tired of a program – even those we enjoyed starting out. I often preach that consistency and sticking with it is important, but we occasionally need some novelty and subsidiary goals to keep us engaged. That’s part of human nature.
That’s why I encourage you practice some movements that are not related to your primary goal. For example, locomotive push-ups (like Lizard Walks) are not conducive to my current primary goal of building muscle. For my fitness level, they are more flexibility and novelty. – they “work out my body”, but don’t challenge it enough to cause hypertrophy. Yet I still do them – sparingly, even randomly, if only to test and play with my physical acumen. Sometimes, I roll around on the ground like I learned in Judo just to practice. Or I kick punching bags. All this is just for the hell of it.
The concept is: just because you’re walking down one path doesn’t mean you can’t sample fruits along the way.
While more than 50% of what you do should be focused on what you want to achieve, have 50% to mess around and learn other things. Use that energy to experiment, have fun, go on a hike, play tennis, shoot arrows, whatever. Life is about experimenting and seeing your exercise enrich your life. Rare is the person whose whole life is about a single fitness goal… with exceptions of course. That’s up to you to decide.
Have a goal, act towards it, and have fun with all aspects.
Closing words of wisdom: Enjoy the process. Explore your movement.