This is New Year’s resolution time. You may know how I feel about waiting for the new year. But a lot of people use this time to reassess their habits & fix themselves, so good for them.
I only know what works (so far) with me. But in the last couple of years, more than a handful of friends have asked me what I did to get into (mediocre) shape & what they should do to get in shape. I tell them some general rules that tend to work for most people, then suggest they find a good gym & learn from someone who knows, because I’m not qualified to be specific & I’m not really all that fit, so who am I to be anybody’s coach? I think they ask me, instead of someone who is experienced & properly authorized to dispense medical advice, because I’m a friend — that’s a plus — & also since I’m still not a raging man-beast despite my best efforts, I maybe might not come off as intimidating the way actual proper in-really-good-shape people can. If you’re an out-of-shape person, getting to my level won’t take long.1 But I try hard & I’m enthusiastic & I’ve been making steady progress for a few years now — so maybe that’s helpful?
Also I try not to steer people toward bullshit.
I’ve told people pretty much the same things over & over:
- Slow & steady works long term: Fast fads do not.
- Accumulate small, workable, positive changes that you can fit into your life: Trying to change all your bad habits at once will never work. Set yourself up for success — don’t challenge yourself to fail.
- Eat the right amount of good, real food: Proteins, vegetables, & fruit, all the time, every day. Consume as little garbage as possible. You don’t need to do anything weirder than that.
- Exercise intensely & rest well: You can’t just faff around & expect stuff to happen. You also don’t need to beat the shit out of yourself to get fit.
- Be consistent with good habits: Setbacks are inevitable, so don’t let them derail your progress. Once you’re in the habit of eating & exercising well, stick to it like it’s your fucking job. If you mess up, learn from it & try again.
- Throw yourself on the mercy of people who are successful: They know more than you do. Find strong, fast, fit teachers, let them tell you what to do & listen. When they say jump, say “how high” & “how many times” & “then what.”
- Lift weights: Even if you don’t want to be a weightlifter. Especially if you don’t. Whatever else you want to do with yourself, lifting at least some of the time will help. It helps everything. It will make you a stronger, more useful human being well into your old age. It helps with fat loss, & it builds muscle mass, bone density, tendon strength, flexibility, speed, & power. The greatest thing it builds is self-confidence.
Nothing too controversial. Easy to explain, harder to do.
If anything’s going to get pushback, it’s maybe #7, because sometimes people who ask me for advice are scared of lifting weights, uninterested in it, or have negative stereotypes about lifting & lifters. To sum up my responses:
- No, you’re not going to “get bulky,” not unless you eat to bulk.
- Yes, you should still learn to use an Olympic bar & plates even if you like bodyweight exercise, b/c among many other reasons a bar can be loaded with more resistance as you adapt & get stronger.
- No, you won’t hurt yourself, just learn how to lift & be careful.
- Yes, it really is more effective than workout DVDs in your living room.
- No, your IQ is not going to shrivel up because you’re lifting, plus saying that is very mean.
- Yes, learning to lift can be expensive. So is being chronically unhealthy.
I tend to steer people who are on the fence about lifting toward a CrossFit gym. Not because I think everyone needs to do CrossFit (I don’t think that) or that CrossFit is perfect (I don’t think anything is universally perfect), but because CrossFit coaches are generally VERY! FUCKING! ENTHUSIASTIC!!! about teaching new people how to use a bar & there’s an atmosphere of inclusion & positivity that’s addictive. Good coaches often have been lifting for a while & can give you the basics of what to do with a bar very quickly. Also, it works fast & is fun. That said, of course people do become healthy, strong motherfuckers every day at other kinds of gyms & in garages all over the world doing many other strength-training methods, as long as they have good programming based around progressive overload of the basic compound lifts, are consistent, & are driven to succeed. But I’m saying, people who are new to lifting or fitness in general, it seems to me easy & effective just to show up to a CrossFit box, keep your ears open, & do what the strong person at the front of the room tells you to do (see #6 above).
Willpower is a skill
There’s one other thing I sometimes tell people who ask me how to get fit, & it’s a thing I wish was impressed upon me much earlier in life, forcibly, like a foie gras duck but with knowledge. It’s particularly appropriate at the new year:
Willpower is a skill. It’s not some special talent that some people are born with & other people aren’t, like how some people can curl their tongues or are double-jointed. It’s a thing you practice. If you don’t use it a lot, you get rusty. If you practice often, you get better at it.
People often drag out the old “I have no willpower” thing. Particularly around this time of year — it’s a frequently stated reason why people can’t stick to resolutions.2 I have no willpower. Bullshit. Everyone has willpower. You. Me. Everybody. Some people are just better at it than others. They’ve practiced more, or they’re naturally a little more skilled. Whatever. Either way, to get better at it, you need practice.
I’m normally an inert, indecisive mush-person. I used to avoid exercise because I didn’t love what I was doing, & I didn’t see results I wanted. I have willpower enough to stand outside in a freezing garage & exercise regularly now because I found something I love & I get positive feedback in the form of muscles & PRs.3 I used to eat garbage. I have willpower enough to not eat loads of crap because I practice that skill every day. Right now as I write this, at work there is a snack table full of chocolate-covered pretzels, peanut brittle, boxed chocolates, & other assorted goodies. I sit less than 20 feet from this stuff — well within diving distance — but I don’t touch it. It won’t kill me, but since it’s not the optimal choice I bring my own snacks. At home I have a leftover 5-pound bag of Halloween candy, the good shit, Reese’s peanut butter cups, Nestle Crunch, Kit-Kats. Plus a bag of limited-edition gingerbread Twix that I only have because my daughter stuck them in the grocery basket one day & insisted we get them4. I like candy. Because candy tastes good. It makes your brain feel nice. Instead I leave them there. I’ve probably had less than 1 “fun-size” piece a week since before Halloween. What keeps me from cramming All The Reese’s into my craw when I bike home from an overtime shift at the office at 1:30 a.m., frustrated, tired, & weak, is that I’ve had a lot of practice not doing that. It’s taken many years but I’ve learned to become better at recognizing in that situation that I’m not actually hungry — I only want to be less frustrated, less tired, & less weak. Sleep is better for all that than candy. So I’ve learned to reject the candy & fix the real problems instead. I’m not fucking gifted. I just do it a lot lately.
I hate it when I hear people say “I have no willpower,” because I used to think that, & now I know it’s untrue. You do — you just need more practice to get better at it. It’s the same mistake people make in assuming that all other people are “genetically gifted” & you’re not, so that’s why they’re stronger, faster, fitter, healthier, thinner & you’ve just been dealt a pack of shitty genes. Wrong. It diminishes the work those fit people have done to get themselves to where they are, & diminishes yourself, & you don’t deserve that.
The point of all this blathering is, I tell people that if they work hard & stick with it, good things are possible. You got this.
Just listen to George McFly. He’s a nerd but he’s right.
The week or so’s log:
- Deadlift: 5 x 155, 5 x 185, 5 x 205, 3 x 232, 3 x 265, 3+ x 300 (moderate 7), 10 x 232
- Press: 10 x 45, 5 x 65, 3 x 75, 3 x 85, 3+ x 97 (moderate 6)
Boring But Big, 5 x 3 @ 97
Notes: The 3 week of 5/3/1 is my favorite. At weights closer to my max, the 5 week is a killer. The 1 week sometimes feels too easy. The 3 week is snuggled right in that goldilocks zone.
- Squat: 5 x 135, 5 x 155, 3 x 185, 3 x 200, 3 x 230, 3+ x 230 (hard 6)
- Bench: 10 x 65, 5 x 85, 5 x 105, 3 x 120, 3 x 137, 3+ x 152 (moderate 8)
Boring But Big, 5 x 3 @ 152
Notes: Did OK for having 4 days off in a row, which I don’t like to do. Missed all my recent conditioning days due to the holidays. Parties, relatives visiting, playing Santa. I start to get very weird with 4 days off in a row, but it’s for a good cause.
- Deadlift: 5 x 185, 5 x 205, 5 x 225, 5 x 250, 3 x 282, 1+ x 315 (hard 6)
- Press: 10 x 45, 5 x 65, 3 x 75, 5 x 80, 3 x 92, 1+ x 102 (hard 4)
Boring But Big, 5 x 3 @ 97
Notes: This is my last deadlift/press session before I test my 1-rep maxes again. I have a whole testing week strategy planned out.
- Squat: 5 x 135, 5 x 165, 5 x 195, 5 x 215, 3 x 245, 1+ x 272 (tough 4), 6 x 215
- Bench: 10 x 45, 5 x 85, 5 x 105, 5 x 127, 3 x 145, 1+ x 162 (tough 5)
Boring But Big, 5 x 3 @ 152
Notes: My bench has made great improvements these last few months after being stagnant for ages, probably because I’ve done some form tweaking & for a few months I was benching twice per week, including heavy hypertrophy sets.
I’ve run a calculator on my maxes, to have targets to aim for next week. The calculator tends to be pretty accurate. Based on these numbers, these are my estimated maxes, with how much of a gain it would be on my actual maxes, last tested in September:
- Deadlift: 376# (+21#)
- Press: 118# (+6#)
- Squat: 312# (+12#)
- Bench: 192# (+17#)
In the summer I’d hoped to pull 400# by the end of the year. Looks like it’s still a few months off. That’s fine. I only own 380# of plates anyway. Pleased with my progress so far these latest training cycles, even though I still press like a goddam senior citizen. Especially happy I’m nearing a 200# bench. I remember once when I almost had to be saved from getting stapled by a 2 x 120# bench press. Awww, so cute. Happy times.¶
- I’m not being hard on myself. The internet is awash with videos of people, not even pro athletes, snatching my deadlift. ↩
- Often the wrong reason, the right one being that I notice most people try to change way too much too fast with some stupid gimmick. See #1 & 2 on the list again. ↩
- It helps a great deal also that lifting heavy weights causes a wonderful thing to happen: your body sends coursing through your system all kinds of glorious chemicals like testosterone that make your brain feel FUCKING AWESOME. Which is why, again, I suggest it for everyone everyone everyone. ↩
- Don’t waste your time, by the way. They taste a little strange. ↩