Yesterday I wrote about the complexity of the world of nutrition. This is a 4-part series that reduces the complex to simple, and today I’m tackling fitness.
Important Note: None of the below is intended to be prescriptive. It’s simply my thoughts on the simplest way to accomplish a goal. To actually put any of these into practice, I recommend first and foremost to find a good coach.
Fitness has been a passion, and at times an occupation, of mine since the first time I picked up a barbell in the early days of high school. It started as a way to get stronger for football, and continued in college as a way to impress girls (or so was my thinking at the time). From there my interest in fitness moved from outward appearance and performance to an inward understanding of the body and what makes it get stronger, faster, and leaner.
Fitness became a profession for me when I started a bodyweight fitness app that was used by a half million people all over the world. It was in this period that I learned how to be a better coach to others, and how to simplify convoluted topics into digestible mechanisms for improvement.
I don’t claim to know it all (or even 1/1000 of what there is to know), but I have found a few frameworks that work well for most people. And I’ve been inspired and encouraged by coaches much greater than myself like Brett Bartholomew and Adam Bornstein along the way.
The key to fitness starts first and foremost with understanding what your main goal is.
I’m starting with strength because it’s what I know most intimately and what has been the nearly sole objective of my own training life.
The easiest way to get strong? By lifting heavy weights, preferably barbells, at low reps. When I say “heavy” I mean heavy – like something you can only lift a handful of times without failing. And when I say low reps I mean 5 or fewer.
Strength is built by putting your body under heavy loads several times per week. To increase our strength we inherently having to be pushing the upper edges of our strength capacity on a regular basis.
I always recommend focusing on the 4 most basic movements – squat, press, hinge, and pull. This means doing barbell movements like the back squat, bench press, overhead press, deadlift, and pull-ups (the only non-barbell movement on the list).
I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of the importance of warming up and having a good coach, because that’s not the intention of this post. But if you’ve had experience with these lifts in the past, and your goal is to get strong, start with a simple program of picking up a heavy weight a few times a week, and progressively adding to that weight each week as you get stronger.
Size isn’t something I encourage for anyone other than athletes and bodybuilders. Longevity tends to have an inverse relationship to size, and when we push our bodies beyond their natural size, we may be doing it at the expense of our long-term health.
That being said, if size is your goal then lower weights with higher reps is your tool. By lifting weights that are moderately heavy for anywhere from 8 – 15 reps at a time, you induce hypertrophy, or the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in size of its cells. Which is a fancy way to say your muscles grow.
To assist the hypertrophy in growth you need to be eating enough calories to support the growth. This is what I meant above when I said you push your body beyond the comfort of homeostasis – the weight our bodies want to be. You do that by essentially over-eating and using that excess energy to aid your muscles’ growth.
Though barbells are the king of strength, that’s not necessarily true if size is your goal. Machines, dumbbells, and barbells alike can help you target whatever area you’re specifically trying to make grow.
Endurance is a touchy topic for a lot of people. For the past several decades the school of thought has been that great endurance must be anchored by logging long, slow miles, or LSD (long, slow distance) as it’s often called.
But what most recent studies, and my own personal experience, show is that interval training is significantly more efficient and oftentimes just as effective (if not more). Intervals are simply training at shorter distances, but at a higher intensity, with short periods of rest between.
To put this in practice, a marathon runner that is used to LSD might gradually increase their weekly mileage until they’re running 18-20 miles at a time just weeks before the race. While this works, it’s at the expense of your joints. That’s a lot of pounding to be putting on your ankles and knees, and most of us run with imperfect gaits, which means that we’re perpetuating poor strikes.
By using interval training instead, that same marathon runner might run 6 to 8 one-mile repeats, with several minutes rest in-between at a much faster pace than what they’d run 18 miles of LSD at. And by training closer to our VO2 max, we’re increasing our aerobic capacity in a much more efficient manner. This means fewer strides and less time for similar outcomes.
Again, none of the above is intended to be prescriptive. But I have found all of it to be true both in my own training and in training hundreds of others over the years. But finding a great coach can take you a lot further than any article can. Start there.
Tomorrow we’ll dig into simplifying the complexity of habits.