New Year's Eve is when many people vow to transform their bodies.
Most will finish next year looking about the same.
They might change their hairstyle or sport a new facial line or two. And many will get a bit heavier, even a lot heavier.
But few go in the direction they wanted, and next to none will "transform" for life.
Do Most Of The Little Things, Most Of The Time
I've seen a few amazing transformations in my time. I've also witnessed many more half-hearted attempts, epic flameouts, and shocking "What the hell happened to you?" rebounds.
What separates the fortunate few who perform miraculous transformations from the millions of "thanks for coming outs?" It isn't age, education, socioeconomic status, or gender. And it's certainly not access to a superstar trainer.
It's doing a few little things right.
Not even doing all the little things, because you can miss a few. You just need to do most of them, most of the time. Because the little things, done consistently, quickly become the big things.
So consider this your cheat sheet. The stuff you have to do to transform your body, from the perspective of someone who's both done it and helped others do it too.
Mindset Where It All Begins
I'm starting here because it's an overlooked yet crucial part of the process. Diet and exercise are key, but it's the way you think that gets you off the mat when things get tough. And it always gets tough.
If this is going to work at all, you need to find your "why." Some fitness types call "finding your why" hippy-dippy bullshit, but that's because it doesn't sell cheesy diet books. Nor can it be easily marketed as a "fat-loss secret."
But everyone I know who is lean for life has done this. And you should too.
So ask yourself: Why do you want to lose weight or build muscle?
Be honest. Is it to look better? Have more sex? Drive your former spouse nuts? Great. Your motivation doesn't have to be noble in someone else's eyes. It just has to be honest and congruent with your values.
And rest assured, your "why" can evolve into something more balanced like health or longevity. All that matters is being honest in your motivations.
I started to lift and eat and live the way I do because it helped me look better. Today, I appreciate the way it makes me feel, especially after a stressful day. So I embrace that.
You can try to skip this step or try deluding yourself, but then you're basically marching to the beat of someone else's drum. That never lasts. But when you've got your "why" locked down, the steps become clear.
Set goals. This is a well-worn subject, and for good reason. The more specific you can make your goal, the better. "Next year, I will lose weight" is a shitty goal. "I will lose 10 pounds by March 1" is better. Just not easy.
Sprint then walk. It's common to hear fat loss or muscle gain described as a marathon, not a sprint. But that's wrong. Realistically, changing your body long term is really a series of sprints, or periods when it's your primary focus in life, interspersed with rests, when you don't push so hard.
Set a goal, commit as much energy as you can toward achieving it, and then pull back and evaluate.
Make your behaviors match your goals. Good news: There isn't much you have to cut out of your life to get into amazing shape. Bad news: There's a lot you'll have to greatly cut back on.
So expect some FOMO, or "fear of missing out." It comes with the territory. Remembering your "why" will help get you through it.
Focus on progress, not perfection. This is a favorite of my colleague, Stacey Schaedler. It's so simple, but so effective.
Just to be clear, you will screw this quest up. You'll skip workouts, miss meals, and eat the occasional jar of peanut butter at 3 a.m., alone, in your underwear. None of those end up being that important. This is what's important: That that you're a little better than last week.
Diet Awareness Is Power
Here's where it starts: Keep a food log. This is the most powerful tool in your arsenal. Everyone should keep some type of diet journal. It can be a fancy app like MyFitnessPal or a 99-cent notebook.
Here's where a lot of people get it wrong: At first you don't even have to note calories or macros. Just record what you ate and when. That's enough for now.
This not only reveals food choices (and overall reliance on processed food), but also what you eat when you're stressed, tired, at work, or winding down. Calories and macros are important too, but this is square one.
Once you're consistent with your food log, everything else here will immediately make a lot more sense.
Eat mindfully. Never eat in front of the TV, unless you're trying to gain weight. Then, I suggest a monster bag of caramel popcorn and a season or two of "Game of Thrones."
Focus on natural foods. The "bags not barcodes" line is a wee bit tired, but you still shouldn't build your diet around stuff that could survive a return trip to the forest moon of Endor.
As registered dietitian and all-around food Jedi Georgie Fear says, "Processed foods, sugars, and alcohol provide minimal satiety, so the less of these in your diet, the better. That doesn't mean you can never have cookies again, but if your diet is 90 percent or more unprocessed whole foods, your appetite and hunger cues will be much more accurate than if you choose Pop-Tarts and Pepsi for lunch."
So yeah, do that.
Speaking of which, it's important to learn your body's signals, especially hunger. Because boredom isn't hunger. Neither is stress. Feeling sad or overwhelmed or even "frisky" isn't hunger either.
Set three dietary goals. Set a protein goal (a portion with every meal), a water goal (up to .66 ounces x your body weight in pounds a day), and a veggie goal (2-3 servings per meal). Being mindful of just these three things sorts a lot of stuff out.
Cook your food. I recently got noticeably leaner, which isn't a bad thing, except I was trying to add weight. But my diet hadn't changed much. Or so I thought.
Looking through my own log, I realized that since leaving New York City, I'd switched from eating at restaurants several times a week to barely eating out at all.
Remember, as hard as you may try to eat clean and lean, a restaurant goes broke if the customer finds the food bland and tasteless or the portions befitting an anorexic Ewok.
By the way, many people who stay lean all year use a meal service for 1-2 meals a day. This doesn't have to be an extravagant luxury, and it can actually save you time and money. If you're not up to the task, consider hiring a culinary student to whip up your lunches every week.
Skip the cheat days. You can do a lot of damage in a day of unchecked gorging, especially if you didn't "earn" the refeed.
While a single cheat meal in the evening is certainly better than a day of gluttony, for long-term adherence, it's best to dump the idea of "cheating" altogether. By that, I mean don't label a meal you enjoy as "cheating." It's not like you're rolling around under the mistletoe with Kim from accounting. Quit giving food that kind of power.
If you want something that bad, just eat it. Enjoy it and move on. Just make note of your decision and be accountable.
Exercise Make It Sustainable
This might not surprise you after the last section, but my first advice is to keep a training log. The key to making progress in the gym is, well, making sure you make progress. Not just from workout to workout, but from program to program, month-to-month, and year to year. This is impossible without keeping some kind of record.
To that end, you should try to make some discernible progress every workout. But this can mean different things, including:
- Lifting more weight
- Perform more reps
- Shortening the rest intervals to increase "density," or doing more work in less time
Pick a sustainable training frequency. Send me a few bucks, and I will design you the greatest seven-day-a-week program ever. And it won't do jack shit if you miss half the workouts because it didn't jive with your schedule.
There are plenty of different workout schedules that can work for your goals and limitations. You have options. Explore them.
Build your workout around the basic lifts. Every workout should have some variations of the basic movements patterns:
- Hip hinges
It's okay to do other stuff of course, but the basics always work. Use that to your advantage.
Practice perfect technique. In martial arts, they say your punches and kicks can never be too perfect. As such, you should practice them every day, whether you're a white belt or 20-year master.
In strength training, the basic exercises above are your kicks and punches. Work on them every day, because you will never, ever "perfect" them.
Practice intelligent variation. This where training becomes an art. You can't just keep feeding your muscles the same dose of exercise and expect them to grow ad infinitum. Your body is designed to adapt, which includes adapting to resistance training. So you have to change things regularly.
However, with apologies to Weider's "Muscle Confusion Principle," that doesn't mean just making shit up 'cause you feel like it or you're a little bored.
It's far better to stick with the same workout and keep plugging away until you stop getting stronger. And if your goal is to get bigger, you can even monitor whether or not it still makes you sore, and make changes accordingly.
As Charles Staley says. "If hypertrophy is one of your primary goals, be on the hunt for techniques and methods your body has never had to adapt to before (or at least not in a long time). Then present that new stimulus continuously until it doesn't provoke significant soreness anymore."
Now, he said "new techniques and methods" not "new exercises." This is a key distinction, especially in light of the above point about sticking to the basics.
Here are just a few methods that you can apply, to create change without switching up the exercises:
- 25-rep sets (last set only)
- Slow eccentric (negative) final reps
- Dropsets (10-second rest between weight drops)
- Rest-pause or cluster sets
- Heavy partial reps
- Isometric holds
- Supersets, giant sets, pre-exhaustion, post-exhaustion
I don't recommend including all of the above at the same time. I like to use one per exercise, typically on the last set only, and change it up every month or so. It doesn't take much to keep both your mind and your muscles engaged.
Balance yin and yang. You must recover to make progress. Most people focus on stuff like resting the "right" number of days between workouts, but it's the little restorative measures you can do throughout the day that make as much or more of a difference.
- Breathing deeply for 3 minutes, at least three times a day
- Getting 7-9 hours a sleep, with every hour before midnight worth twice as much as hours after.
- Monitoring HRV and resting heart rate
- Eliminating caffeine after 3 p.m.
- Minimizing the feeling of being "overwhelmed"
- Avoiding negative self-talk
- Laughing deeply once a day
- Expressing gratitude at least once a day
- Calling a friend. No, not text. Use the phone—the talky part. It still works.
And here's the most important one of all: celebrate everything.
As I said earlier, the key to successfully changing your body is consistently doing the little things. And the way to ensure that is to remember to give yourself a little credit every day. You may not be a perfect fighter, but you're still in the ring and trading punches with Clubber Lang. That means something.
After all, it's easy to knock back a few tall glasses of wine on New Year's Eve and declare 2016 the year you finally "get your ass in shape." It's another thing entirely to do the tedious, trying work to make that declaration come to fruition.
So celebrate every victory: every healthy meal you eat or workout you get in. All the little things. And then, watch them become big things.
Reprinted with permission from bryankrahn.com.