If you’re like a lot of people, you made a New Year’s resolution related to exercise. And, if you’re like a lot of people, that resolution is starting to unravel right about now, a few weeks into the new year. To help keep you on track, I’d like to offer up some basic advice based on what’s worked for me. There aren’t any secrets or shortcuts here. Like anything, if you want to get to it, you’ve got to go through it.
Set a goal and put some numbers on it. Then keep track of your workouts so you can measure your progress.
Saying you want to be healthy or get in shape is so vague as to be meaningless. Define your goal in terms of something measurable like the number of pounds you want to lose, the weight you want to be able to deadlift, the number of inches you want to add to your chest, or the time you want for a 5K.
If all of your workouts consist of going through the motions to jog at the same moderate pace for the same duration, you’re wasting your time. The point of practicing anything is to get better, not to just keep doing the same thing. Think of yourself as an athlete. Set a goal for every workout. You’re not doing it just to do it; you’re doing it to get better. You should have a plan of attack before you get to the gym. Know what you’re going to do before you get there, and try to bump up your performance a little each time. It’s amazing how far you can get in a year.
I used to do a little, but a little wouldn’t do
So the little got more and more
I just keep trying to get a little better
Said a little better than before
— Guns N’ Roses, “Mr. Brownstone” (heroin, exercise — same idea)
If you’re lifting weights, every set is a chance to improve by manipulating the weight, reps, bar speed, or rest. No matter where you’re starting, there’s a weight that’s appropriately challenging for you. When you’re always striving to get to the next level, it keeps things from getting boring. Last Friday, I did a set of five squats with 332 pounds — a new personal record. For me, that sense of achievement is what makes it fun and keeps me hooked.
To record your workout activities, I recommend Fitocracy. It adds community and gamification to the mix to help you reach your goals. For keeping track of what you eat (something I don’t do), my friend Jason swears by Lose It!.
It’s all you. And it’s going to be hard.
A resolution isn’t going to work unless it’s something you want to do. Whether you’re healthy now or not, if you want to be, it’s something you have to work at for the rest of your life. Being in shape is not a 12-week program where you reach your destination and quit or coast; it’s an ongoing process that’s never done. The commitment and motivation have to come from you — not your trainer, spouse, or anyone else. You have to want it enough to overcome the obstacles you’ll inevitably encounter. One of the great things about pushing yourself on a regular basis in the gym is that it strengthens your resolve in other areas of life, too. When you do something hard everyday, it makes it easier to do other things that are hard.
I’m not a morning person, but I set the alarm for 5:45 every morning and head to the basement to lift. The only person who cares whether I do it or not is me. I’m only accountable to myself. There are days when the alarm goes off and I’m scared to get out of bed because I know how hard the workout that awaits me is going to be, but I do it anyway. It hurts, but it hurts worse to let yourself down.
Make it a habit.
The more workouts you miss, the easier it is to keep missing them, and the harder it is to get back into it. Do everything you can to take away excuses for not working out. Try to exercise at the same time everyday. Make it a priority. If you can, workout first thing in the morning, before anything happens to throw you off your schedule. Anytime you change your daily routine, it’s hard for the first few weeks, but eventually you’ll get to a point where you have to workout to feel like yourself.
There is never an absolute answer to everything, except of course that you have to do your squats.
— Mark Rippetoe
If you’re going to exercise, you should lift weights. And if you lift weights, squats are the one exercise you should definitely do. They strengthen almost your entire body using a functional movement that has crossover benefits for daily activities like getting out of a chair and picking things up. Whether you want to lose weight or build muscle, and whether you’re male or female, squats will do the right thing. Make sure when you do them that you come down low enough so that the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor. Unless you’re a genetic freak, eating like Michael Phelps, or using steroids, squats won’t make you bulky.
I’ve lifted weights off and on since college. For about the last four and a half years, I haven’t taken any extended breaks. I’ve tried lots of different routines, but I’ve made the most progress since switching to a powerlifting style with low reps and high weight for the last two years. An article in Men’s Journal moved me in that direction. The parts of your body are made to work together. To get stronger, you should focus on compound, multi-joint exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, and power cleans instead of isolation movements like biceps curls. Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program is a simple (in terms of complexity, not effort), effective approach to getting the most out of your time in the gym.