By Dan John
There is one truth to long-term fitness: there is no perfect program. Yes, I said it: There is no perfect program. If I could give one piece of fitness advice to most trainees it would be to stop doing what you are doing and try something else. Let’s be honest, Monday is National Bench Press and Curl Day. Every single guy in the gym does Upper Body on Monday. And, after three years of it, your body might just possibly adapt to it! In truth, ANY change will help progress. That is why shifting to just one set of each exercise or subbing dumbbells for barbells works so well: it is a change.
I suggest at the very least that most people adopt four different seasonal plans. I suggest a disciplined set and rep scheme for autumn when many of us go “back to school” and football rules the television sets. Autumn seems to be a time to organize our lives. In winter, I recommend going heavy and hard. I also tell my athletes to use their slow cookers and enjoy hearty stews and soups this time of year, so you can “warm your belly” after you train. In spring, start getting outside again and add some fun to your workouts. And, as summer comes around, make your fitness lifestyle as active and fun as your budget can allow. Simply following the four seasons approach can add years to your life as well as benefiting your body composition goals.
Attack fat separate from any other goal. I fought this for years, but I have to come to this simple conclusion: if you are doing this and this and that and this…you can’t also have the energy to lose fat. I recommend two week to four-week periods of commitment. Doing something as simple as the Atkin’s Two Week Induction, literally a feast of fish, meat, eggs, and cheese for two weeks, can allow you to focus on the single goal of losing fat. One or two concentrated two-week fat attacks a year seems to do better than the 52 week a year diet failure that most people endure.
People tease me about one of my key training principles: I recommend that you floss twice a day. Yes, floss. Why? Well, if you ask any dentist or dental hygienist, they will tell you that not only does flossing save your teeth, but new research tells us that it might be the best thing you can do for your heart health. It seems that keeping small dental infections at bay is a great thing to do for the rest of your system, too.
But, there is a point beyond the issue of cardiovascular health. If someone asks me to design a multi-year training program that peaks with an Olympic championship or a Mr. Universe victory, but can’t set aside two minutes or less a day to floss, well, then why are we all wasting our time? And that is the issue here: what are the secrets to long-term fitness? Sadly, most of us “know” this already, but let’s decide right away to rededicate ourselves to taking these simple concepts and running with them.
Cultivate the free resources that can keep you in the game for a long time. Here is one thing: sleep. I can often improve an athlete’s career simply by insisting on going to bed earlier. Sleep is free and it does wonders for the hormone profiles, recovery process and fat burning. Fat burning? Sure, do you eat while you sleep? For most of us, the answer is no. The other free, or nearly free, resources include drinking water as your chief beverage. Don’t swallow liquid calories, or, at least, limit them to special days like the Super Bowl or College Game Day. Finally, don’t sit in the car waiting for the parking spot next to the gym. Park a little farther away and get some extra work for the whole body. Take the stairs, too. Over a decade or so, the extra flights of stairs and the extra paces across the parking lot are going to add up.
Your P.E. teacher and the Drill Sergeant were both right: Push-ups do wonders for you. Not only does the standard push-up work the upper body’s pushing muscles, it is also a great exercise for that loathsome term, the “core.” I’m amazed as I work with adults and adolescents who simply cannot hold the plank as they do push-ups. Not convinced about the value? Plop down on the ground with a dictionary lined up on your sternum. Crank out as many push-ups as you can in one minute. If you can’t do 40, I don’t allow you to lift weights until you can! And, tomorrow, that odd soreness in your muscles is reminding you that maybe the simplest exercise of all is still one of the best.
Always choose intensity over volume. When in doubt, do less sets or less reps, but go heavier. When in doubt, go faster, not longer. If you are truly interested in being ripped, join the track team and run the 400 meters. I see “skinny fat” joggers every single day at the park where I train, but you can’t find a person who runs a sub 50 second 400 meter who is anything but cut. When in doubt, go to the track and run one lap as fast as you can. Enjoy the last 100 meters of the “fat burning zone.” That thing on your back is called the “bear,” by the way. In the gym, don’t waste your time with lots of sets and reps of not much more than baton twirling. Pack the plates on and go heavy!
When you rest, rest. I used to believe in light days and easy weeks, but as the years in the gym add up, I began to notice an interesting thing. When I stayed away from the gym for a week or two on a vacation or work trip, I began to miss the sights and smells and fun of training. I looked forward to my workouts. So, I took the advice from my mentors and decided that on work out days, I work out. Rest days, I rest. I no longer have those “easy” days that do little more than cut into my time with friends, family and football games on television.
Eat more protein. Eat more fiber. I know you think you do, but you don’t. Not long ago, I experimented with adding two additional low carb protein shakes a day to my diet and, besides the fact my belt got too loose in a week, my energy and general level of happiness soared. I then started adding an orange flavored no sugar psyllium supplement to the protein and my blood profile improved at my next check up.
Here is the deal: I have my athletes who are struggling keep a two week food journal and overwhelmingly the biggest lapse is protein. “But, I ate chicken with dinner,” they will argue. Right…a 200 pound guy eats 40 grams a protein and thinks that is enough? Try to eat a palmful of protein at every meal and a palmful of veggies or beans, too. Eat breakfast. Eat!
Cultivate Community. Whether at the gym or the park or a rec league team, try to get training as a part of your social world, too. I have buddies in lifting and Highland Games and here and there that I genuinely look forward to seeing in competition. I also have “Fitness Buddies” that are always happy to try something new in the world of training. Walk your dog, at least. Many have noticed that fat dogs have fat owners and, for the love of the dog, walk your puppy back into condition. Finally, try my favorite training idea: invite some friends over for a workout and a BBQ afterwards. You will get the workout of your life and a great protein rich meal, too.
Avoid things that hurt. You know, every so often I will read somewhere about a puke inducing workout or a program that guarantees sore joints or whatever. It is hard to work out for more than a decade throwing up three days a week. In fact, there is probably a disease named for this! Certainly, soreness and fatigue are part of the deal, but learn, and learn quickly, the difference between “good soreness and fatigue” and agony and injury. You can’t always avoid it, but use a dose of common sense occasionally and look to the next decade of training…and the decades after that.