“Strong people are harder to kill, and more useful generally.” — Mark Rippetoe in Starting Strength
If you do nothing else, follow the CrossFit prescription for “World-Class Fitness in 100 Words”: “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports. “
1. First: determine your goals. If you have no goals, how can you figure out how to accomplish them? You need a mission before you can complete it. As in war, so in peace. So figure out what your priorities are. Are you just trying to look better? What does “better” mean to you? Skinny? Muscular? “Toned”? (Dumbest word in the universe.) Not-as-fat? Or are you trying to get in better condition? If so, what do you want to be better at? Staying on your feet all day at work? Running a mile? Picking up your kid? Playing football with friends? You must figure out your goals. And none of these are goals, by the way. They’re only goals once you put numbers to them: “I want to lose 10 pounds.” “I want to drop 5% of my body fat.” “I want to run a mile in seven minutes.” “I want to bench press 225 pounds.” Have follow-on goals for once you accomplish your initial goals. Have a long-term goal and intermediate goals.
2. Being skinny: if you’re just trying to be as skinny as possible, starve yourself or throw up all your food and run yourself to death. You’ll get skinny. You’ll also be weak and useless, though, and terribly unhealthy. So please don’t do this unless vanity is all that matters to you. In which case you and I have basically nothing in common.
3. Weight loss vs. fat loss: having a relatively low body fat percentage (maybe 10-15% for men, 20%ish for women) is great. It keeps your heart and joints from killing themselves because of all that dead weight. It helps you stay healthier. It makes it easier for you to do stuff: chase your kids around the house, move your own furniture, carry groceries, play sports, etc. Losing weight in many cases entails fat loss, but sometimes it’s a loss of muscle and fat. I lost five pounds in August 2010. My body looked roughly the same (maybe a little smaller). I was not more ripped. I was measurably weaker. I just lost muscle. Weight loss is not always good. Fat loss is almost always good.
4. Form follows function. If your body gets strong and capable, it will look really really good. Anyone who’d like — ask me and I’ll send you the pictures of CrossFit athletes from the 09 CrossFit Games.
5. Diet. This is 80-90% of your body composition. If you are living off of grains — particularly the refined kind — and have snacks of potatoes and corn, you are going to destroy your ability to recover, much less improve. Eventually you will destroy your body. Avoid processed food. Try to eat organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef, etc. Take a fish oil supplement which is USP certified. Stick to foods that cavemen had; it’s what you evolved to eat. If you are looking to work out so you can keep eating cupcakes, you’re only going to be frustrated about how you “can’t” lose the weight. You can. You just don’t want it bad enough. I know, I know, you insist you really do want it but you just can’t. But you really don’t. It’s like any other addiction; you have to figure out a way to break its hold on you. It may take years – decades, even. Better that than to give up.
6. More on sugar: sugar alters your mood. It’s a drug, and it’s addictive. Your body eventually becomes insensitive to insulin (which causes the changes after you ingest sugar). Insulin insensitivity is really, really bad. And dangerous. It may be at least partially to blame for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Eat more fat and more protein. You’ll feel full longer and your body will use it more effectively. Also: sugar-free/zero-calorie shit will probably give you cancer, and will often cause the same insulin spikes as eating actual sugar. The metabolic changes caused by insulin are what will make you fat rather than fit; calorie-counting is unnecessary. Avoid “fat-free” foods. Fat is generally good, and usually “fat-free” means “tons of sugar added so it doesn’t taste like absolute crap.” (Read Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. It’s a huge project but it’s worth every second.)
7. Stop using the elliptical. If you’re injured and cannot run at all, do what you have to do. But otherwise stop using the elliptical. It screws up your running form; it makes running appear way easier than it actually is; it inhibits developing greater muscular endurance and cardiorespiratory fitness. Want something “low-impact”? Get some Vibram Fivefingers or other minimalist shoes and practice running basically barefoot. Your body will absorb the impact the way it evolved to instead of the way Nike and your high school gym coach told you to. (Read Born to Run by Chris MacDougall.)
Additionally, you can get faster at running without running all the time. You can improve VO2 max (cardiorespiratory fitness) with Tabata intervals of box jumps, body weight squats, heavy bag work, or just about anything else: 20 seconds of all-out intensity followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times for a total of four minutes. (All-out means all-out, by the way, not “as hard as you feel like.” As hard as you CAN.) If you’re like me, you may need to do extra muscular conditioning to keep your legs and feet functioning. I’ve found that bodyweight calf raises (toes in and toes out) work wonders.
8. Stop doing bicep curls. They do almost nothing for you; they’re purely for vanity. If you want bigger guns, do chin-ups with a weighted belt or backpack on. Chin-ups will actually make you more fit, and they’ll still cause hypertrophy in your biceps.
9. STOP CHEATING. Nobody is impressed by you benching 315 if you stop six inches off your chest, have help coming off the rack, and bridge up onto your shoulders without keeping your butt on the bench. Do the exercise right. If you have to cheat to complete the exercise, then the weight is too heavy. Suck up your ego and go lighter. This makes it easier for you to measure progress, and it helps you to ensure progress by not allowing you to cheat when you don’t feel like doing things right. If you always do a proper bench, then you know that the improvement of your three-rep max from 215 to 225 is legitimate. If you cheat, you might have not gotten stronger at all. Be consistent in your form.
10. Squat deep. You will injure your knees if you squat shallow, because you will develop strength imbalances which put torque on your joints. (“Deep” means that the crease in your hip is lower than the knee cap, not “till it’s hard at this weight.”)
11. Have a program. You developed goals, right? Well now develop a program to reach those goals. Stick to it. RECORD YOUR WORK SO YOU CAN MEASURE YOUR PROGRESS. Have a plan. If you do not know exactly what you are planning on doing in the gym to improve the moment you walk in, you are not training seriously. Seriously. It’s fine to go into the gym and goof off sometimes because you need a break or you want to fiddle with some new equipment they have. But if you just walk into the gym and sort of aimlessly pick up stuff that’s free, I promise you with absolute certainty that you will make zero long term progress.
12. “Do hard stuff” is not a program. Yes, sometimes you should do extremely challenging workouts as a gut check. But regularly running for three hours or lifting till muscle failure is not only unnecessarily miserable, it’s counterproductive. Your body simply cannot handle the volume of training; so it starts cannibalizing muscle. Yes, if you overtrain you can get weaker.
13. Weigh yourself daily. I say this because it’s much easier to understand changes in your workout or diet if you’re at least tracking your bodyweight. If on Monday #1 you weigh 175 and you weigh the same on Monday #2, while trying to work out and eat right all week, then you know very little. It’s easy to become discouraged. But if you weigh 175 on Monday #1, 174 on Tuesday #1 and Wednesday #1, 173 on Thursday #1, and 172 on Friday #1, then you know your weight was probably affected by your weekend binge on nachos. More importantly, though, you know that you CAN MAKE PROGRESS. It’s much easier to give up those nachos if you see clearly that they were what undid your gains. The more information you have, the less of a “black box” your body is and the more able you are to use it well.
14. Make sacrifices. If your excuse for being weak/fat/whatever is that you are too tired after work to work out, and you don’t like to work out in the morning because you don’t want to have to get up that early, and you can’t work out on your lunch break because it makes you sweaty and you can’t shower at home, and plus what if somebody saw you working out and thought you looked funny, then you don’t want it bad enough. Getting fit may entail giving up things that are important to you: time with friends or family, favorite foods, time to read, etc. (Notice I did not say sleep. Sleep is not optional. SLEEP.) You have to decide if you want to make these sacrifices. Understand, also, that you may not get where you want to be right away. Maybe you can’t afford anything but cheap refined pasta and mystery meat. Do what you can with what you have. You can always do something.
15. BE PERSISTENT. I know some people cry or get self-destructive when they see their weight is still too high, or when they can’t complete a lift, or just have a lousyworkout. We’re not that kind of people, though, right? We’re DOERS. We do not lie around feeling sorry for ourselves, or at least we don’t for long. If we get knocked out of the saddle by eating a box of donuts or a whole pizza or not working out for a couple of weeks, we stand right back up, dust ourselves off, and ride on. Right? Right!