Back when I started seriously exercising eleven years ago, I had no clue what I was doing. I wasn’t sure how many reps and how many sets of each exercise I should be doing – I wandered the gym aimlessly for an hour and a half every day, sitting down at every machine for an arbitrary amount of repetitions before moving on. I wanted to get bigger, so I spent my afternoon reading Muscle & Fitness and scouring websites promising to help me “get bigger now!” I read so many different sites and followed so many different routines that I felt horribly lost…not suprisingly, I got ZERO results.
Whether you’re trying to gain weight, lose weight, build muscle, or just get healthy, I bet you can relate.
When it comes to fitness and health, there are a MILLION options, choices, routines, diets, exercises, and plans out there. You’re reading Nerd Fitness, which means that you’re most likely incredibly good looking, wildly intelligent, and modest. However, it also probably means that you have an overactive brain that causes you to overanalyze and overthink things (like these good looking intelligent rebels).
I know I often get “paralysis by analysis,” though not nearly as bad as I used to. I would jump from one complicated workout to the next because it made me feel like I was accomplishing something (I wasn’t) and jump one diet to the next because I chased the fad that promised the fastest results (I got none). It wasn’t until I made one crucial decision that things finally clicked for me:
I simplified the **** out of everything.
Simplify your diet
If you are just getting started on your journey to a better life, the concept of a diet probably freaks you out. I’m guessing this is true because I get a few emails like this per day:
- Exactly how many calories should I eat?
- Can I eat carbs after 5pm/8pm?
- What about this particular cleanse/diet/meal plan?
- Should I eat this and not that?
There are so many different methods out there that promote weight loss that it’s horribly confusing and incredibly intimidating. Most people see all of these options, try a whole bunch of options for a few weeks, and then quickly move onto the next one. Either that, or they get so overwhelmed with all of the options that they do the worst thing possible: nothing.
If you are trying to get healthy, throw away the chaos and simplify things!
Calories - Track your calories for a few days so you have an estimate of what you’re eating and how many calories you’re putting into your body. Use a free site like Dailyburn to keep things easy. Once you know how many calories you are eating, it’s shockingly simple: consistently eat more or less depending on your goal. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat LESS. If you want to gain weight, then you need to eat MORE. Step on the scale once a week and then adjust your calorie intake depending on whether it’s moving in the right direction.
Clean eating – If you don’t want to count calories, then there’s an even easier option. It’s called the “you’re smart and you know what real food is so stop eating crap” diet – more affectionately referred to as the Paleo Diet. You have a list of things you can eat and a list of things you shouldn’t eat. Load up on the good stuff, cut out the bad stuff. Don’t count calories, eat when you’re hungry, and watch your body change.
Small changes – If either one of these options seems like far too drastic of a change, that’s okay. Focus on one small change per week. Cut back on the number of Mountain Dews from 24 a week to 22. Next week, drop down to 20. You don’t need to change everything at once, but you do need to constantly make changes that you can live with. This is clearly influenced by momentum – tough at the beginning, but easier once you build up a few weeks of positive behavior.
Cook one thing - The best thing you can do for healthy living is to learn how to cook healthy meals. However, if you think like I used to think, then cooking is a scary and intimidating activity that takes away time from playing Xbox. Don’t worry about becoming the next Top Chef – just follow the direcitons and learn to cook one thing. That’s only 1 more than zero! And then grow up, recipe by recipe, from there. This is how I got started.
Analyze and modify – Most people give up on healthy eating because they’re not seeing results (i.e. they step on the scale, it’s up a pound since the day before and they go berserk). The scale is just a number – it doesn’t factor in how you feel, how many inches you’re losing, or what your body composition is like. Take a picture of yourself, and then take another one in two weeks – do you look better? Do you feel better? If so – keep doing what you’re doing. If not – then it’s time to make a few more changes. Make sure you’re properly tracking your progress and its easy to tell when it’s time to adjust.
A good friend of mine (we’ll call him the Kapster) has been on a weight loss journey for quite a while. He’s tried every diet fad in existence, he’s done every cleanse diet out there, and he’s never gotten results. Two months ago, he was fully indoctrinated to the Paleo Lifestyle, and something clicked. No more calorie counting, no more evenly portioned meals timed every 2.5 hours – he now only eats certain foods, and only eats when he’s hungry. Simplicity. Kapster is now down 20+ lbs, has stuck with the plan for a full 60 days with absolutely no signs of slowing down, and is more active and healthier than he’s ever been in his life.
Don’t get caught up in the minutiae.
Simplify. Analyze. Modify. Dominate.
Simplify your training
Even more so than diet, people are so terrified about doing the wrong workout that they end up doing nothing.
I get emails like these with regularlity:
- Should I do 4 sets of 10, 3 sets of 11, 5 sets of 5? help!
- Should I wait 30,45, or 60 seconds between sets?
- I do ________ circuit with these 15 different exercises, how can I modify it?
- I found this [super complicated] workout in a magazine, what do you think?
- Should I run for 14 minutes at 5% incline or for 15 minutes at 4% incline?
Relax amigo! Unless you are training to fight for the heavyweight title in UFC, trying out for the Olympics, or busting your butt to become a professional athlete, these tiny details will only drive you crazy. Luckily there’s a solution:
Simplify the **** out of it!
Yeah, it’ll seem way too easy and boring compared to the routines prescribed by underqualified trainers at commercial gyms: “balance on a bosu ball while doing squats on one leg and bouncing a tennis ball, and then do fifty crunches in between sets!” (no offense intended to qualified trainers in commercial gyms).
Back when I had a gym membership (and a home), this was my routine:
- Monday – squats, overhead presses, pull ups
- Wednesday – deadlifts, bench press, body weight rows
- Friday – lunges, dips, chin ups
That’s it! In and out in just 45 minutes. Yeah, it might not be optimized for peak athletic performance, but it’s simple as hell, easy to remember, and very simple to track. Big, compound movements that works the whole body in just a few movements. None of this “hit the three heads of the tricep with these three exercises, five calf exercises” crap – isolation is for suckers!
When I started permanently traveling back in January, my routine had to change but the simplicity remained the same. Although I’m rarely on a MWF schedule due to travel days, my workouts contain these movements and not much else:
- Pistol squats
- Push up variations (handstand, one-hand, plyometric, regular)
- Pull ups and chin ups
- Gymnastic work
If you are getting started with strength training or weight loss, get really good at these movement and THAT’S IT: squats, overhead presses, push ups, deadlifts, and pull ups (if you can do them, inverted rows if you can’t).
As for how many sets or reps you do – pick a number and stick to it: whether its 4 sets of 5 (mostly strength gain), four sets of decreasing reps with increased weight: 12, 10, 8, 6 (better for gaining size), or 4 sets of 8 (strength and size), they will all get you results if you stick with them!
“But Steve, I don’t know which one to pick! $(*&@!!!!”
It doesn’t freaking matter! What DOES matter is that you PICK ONE and keep track of it. Let’s say you are doing over head presses, and you did 65 pounds for 4 sets of 8, try for 70 pounds next time at 4 sets of 8. Or maybe you did 4 sets of 5 of squats at 100 pounds. Next time, do 4 sets of 5 squats at 105.
When starting out, pick a plan. Keep track of your weights and sets. And then do the same thing the next time you do that workout, but with more weight. Keep doing that.
If you are still terrified, start with 4 sets of 8 for each exercise. There, decision made. You’re welcome.
“But how long do I wait between sets?! $(*&@!!!!”“
Again, irrelevant! What matters is that you keep it consistent. If you want more of a cardio workout, you can do just 30 seconds between sets. If you want to build up muscular size and endurance, keep your rest to 30-60 seconds. If you’re going for strength and power, you can take up to 3-5 minutes between sets due to the amount of weight your lifting and intensity.
Okay fine I’ll pick one for you! 60 seconds between sets. There, you happy?
Now, once you have your workout (I always advocate a focus on getting stronger), you can combine it with your newly simplified diet:
- Want to get bigger? Get stronger by adding weights while eating a calorie surplus.
- Want to get thinner? Get stronger by adding weights while eating a calorie deficit.
One final tip: when you’re exercising, exercise. Don’t be watching TV, talking and texting on your phone, chatting it up with people around you. Get in the moment, focus, and take care of business. It’s just you and the weight, you and your sneakers, you and nature.
Although this isn’t a minimalist/simplify life site, since packing my life into one suitcase and my business into a laptop bag…I’ve come to see the benefits of such a lifestyle, taking my cues from zen yoda Leo Babauta. Not coincidentally, I’ve become a big fan of injecting minimalism and simplicity into this whole “getting healthy” process too. After all, life is only as complicated as you make it – fitness and getting healthy is no different.
If you get one thing out of today’s article, let it be this:
Take action and track progress.
Don’t worry about doing the wrong number of sets or reps or eating five calories too many. Do the best you can, track your results, and make adjustments based on how your body reacts. As you start to learn how your body works and how it changes based on your workouts and diet, you can make adjustments, modify a few things, and then get back at it.
Simplify. Analyze. Modify. Dominate.
What else can I simplify for you?
PS – San Diego meetup tonight! I’m in the Pacific Beach area, head on over to the event page for more details. Looks like we only have a few people so we can decide on something that works for everybody.
PPS – We’re coming up on the end of the next 6-week challenge over on the Nerd Fitness message boards. The next one will be starting on October 24th!