After hitting the gym hard this year as my main goal for 2016, I’ve learned a heck of a lot about fitness, nutrition, and motivation. Just over 6 months has passed and I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned, especially about motivation and the expectation vs reality aspect.
When I started the year, my main goal was to be consistent. I went to the gym no matter how I felt. Even if I sat there and stretched or walked on a treadmill, I would consider it a win. With nutrition the goal was to eat cleanly (I’ll get into diet a bit more soon) for six days a week and then have a day off to enjoy. With motivation the challenge was to just keep going. Here’s a bit more depth on where I am at, and what I’ve accomplished so far.
What I learned:
Even though I expected to have days where I had no energy in the gym, I found that just being there got me doing a set of something, and as soon as I did a single set of anything, I was instantly energized to do more. I would say 95% of my workouts have been ‘good,’ meaning I pushed myself, fully worked a muscle group, and felt tired afterward. The other 5% were workouts where I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or I did some other form of exercise the day before (like a 10K or obstacle race), or I was feeling sick and lacked the energy.
Most of my workouts lasted only 30-45 minutes, but with a good intensity I broke a sweat every time, and I’ve increased my strength, added muscle, and lost fat. It seems that a workout lasting several hours isn’t really necessary if you push yourself and do the right exercises, though I found I would feel rushed if I had less than about 25 minutes.
I changed routines every 8ish weeks, though I’ve always kept with a Push-Pull-Legs routine, meaning day one is pushing muscles like chest and shoulders, day two is pulling muscles like lats, traps, biceps, and day 3 leg work with squats, deadlifts, and lunges. I would repeat the push and pull days on Thursday or Friday, go for a run, or focus on body weight exercises like pull ups or dips. The ‘right’ exercises turned out to be compound lifts – ones that use a lot of different muscles during the movement. Things like barbell and dumbbell pressing, seated or bent over rows, squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups, chin-ups, and dips.
Balance has been important – work the back as much as the chest, biceps as much as triceps, hamstrings as much as quads. I’ve seen far too many people who work the ‘show muscles’ (biceps, chest, shoulders) and end up with terrible posture and no strength. Though I feel like most gym-goers nowadays know this, and I see a lot more balance in workouts while observing others.
To cardio or not to cardio: I’ve done a bit of both, and I found I go in waves as to which camp I’m in. I had a 10 Km race to train for in May, and that had me spending time on the treadmill, but I found that even lifting in general increased my stamina, as long as I kept the workouts intense enough. I like cardio because it gives me a good sweat at the end of a workout, but it can be boring if I do it every day.
This I’ll keep relatively short and sweet, because there are so many schools of thought on proper nutrition, and it really does depend on your goal. Mine has been to lose fat slowly while maintaining or gaining muscle. This meant a lot of lean protein, a ton of vegetables, and a focus on low Glycemic-Index carbohydrates (Think beans or brown rice as opposed to white bread or pasta). I found that having enough protein and keeping a caloric deficit let me slowly lose fat while still adding a bit of muscle. Though I have had to supplement my protein intake with a Casein-based protein powder over the last few weeks. I just can’t eat that much chicken.
I ate perfectly for 6 days a week and had a single cheat day to have one of my enjoyable-but-horribly-unhealthy fave foods, like a McDonald’s breakfast, a craft beer (or two), or some pizza. As long as I was back on the horse the next day, this was easily sustainable, and I’ve found it much easier to eat clean when I know I have a day off to look forward to. The amazing thing is that I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t crave junk food as much, and am enjoying the energy I feel eating more vegetables and protein.
It hasn’t been linear though. Some days it’s just hard to say no, social situations are always going to be a challenge, and I’ve had weeks where consistency was extremely tough. But just like with fitness, I told myself to keep going at it over the long run, and that even a really bad week could be erased by a good week. And all in all I can say I’ve been successful, without feeling bored or deprived.
I think in general, whatever your goal is, you need to eat well. It really is the most important factor whether building muscle, losing fat, or increasing energy. I’ve had times in my life where I’ve lifted weights and done crazy cardio, and didn’t see any change because I was still eating like garbage.
This is where the real gems of wisdom come in, the most important lessons from six months. This is the stuff that I will never lose, the stuff I can apply to other areas of life.
The first lesson is that routine is reliable. I made a routine out of my workout, my meal prep, and learning about fitness and nutrition. When I am exhausted at the end of a week or don’t get enough sleep the night before, the routine kicks in and I go through the motions. I logged over 100 workouts in a row without missing one, because of this simple idea.
The second is that if you do the right things, you’ll see results eventually. The key word here is ‘eventually.’ I had to learn that it takes a lot of time to see results. And I had to have faith in what I was doing to keep at it for a long time without noticing any changes. Now I look back and I can’t believe how far I’ve come, in only 6 months. (Side note I’ll detail stats and actual progress numbers at the end of the year). Persistence is the only way to succeed.
The third is that rest is hugely important. I never realized how important sleep is to both fat loss and muscle building. Without proper rest, your body can’t properly recover from workouts, and then you can’t give as much in the future. Without proper rest, your mind can’t focus, and it requires a lot more effort to stick to your plan.
And finally, the fourth is to never stop learning or testing. I’ve made so many small changes over the last six months to my nutrition, to my workout routine, and to my philosophy. I’ve added cardio, removed cardio, tried new exercises, and removed exercises from my routine. I’ve added sets, upped weight, lowered reps, replaced barbells with dumbbells, and I’ve done the exact opposite. I’ve added new foods, cut out old ones, prepped different meals in different ways, tried supplements, and toyed with meal timing. I’ve read articles, watched videos, looked at sample plans, seen how other people work out, and changed my goals many times. I’ve used apps, tracked what I lifted, tracked my calories, and have sometimes avoided tracking anything. If it worked and was sustainable, I kept it. If it didn’t, I abandoned it, or I changed it and tried again. And what worked last month didn’t always work this month.
It’s a journey. A journey I’ve loved taking. A journey that has caused suffering, agony, frustration; and at the same time joy, pride, and passion. And yet I still consider myself a beginner. A beginner who is excited to keep learning and keep working. I’ll leave you with a quote that sums it up perfectly:
“A well built physique is a status symbol. It reflects you worked hard for it, no money can buy it. You cannot borrow it, you cannot inherit it, you cannot steal it. You cannot hold onto it without constant work. It shows discipline, it shows self respect, it shows patience, work ethic and passion. That is why I do what I do.”
– Arnold Schwarzenegger
And that’s why I do it too.