I have a history of failing to exercise, and as a consequence am a bit out of shape.
A few years ago I managed to get in shape through means of a personal trainer. After about a year and a half of that I was feeling much better about myself – both in the sense of how I looked and how I felt.
The whole experience was awful. It was expensive, it was painful, and in the long run it just convinced me that I hated exercise even more than I’d previously thought I did. So when I moved away from the company that put me in the area of that personal trainer I lost all motivation to go to the gym. I then spent the next two years losing all that fitness I’d managed to build up at great pain and expense.
I’m now trying again, and this time I’m reasonably committed to not back-sliding. I’ve been tinkering with how this works and I think I’ve hit on an approach that works for me. I thought I’d share some of it in case others have similar problems.
It’s all centred around the basic principle that the single most important thing of an exercise program is that you keep doing it. A minimally effective exercise program that you’re doing can be turned into a more effective one. An exercise program that you’re not doing probably won’t be. Moreover, an exercise program that is great for you but you stop doing after 6 months is much worse than one that is pretty good for you but you’ll keep doing for the rest of your life.
I’m hoping that in the long run I’ll manage both of course, but if I can stick to pretty good for the rest of my life I’ll be OK with that.
You’re going to arrange this as if you’re going to be doing it for the rest of your life. This involves making it into a habit.
Obviously for me “make it into a habit” means “put it into Beeminder”. I recommend this as an approach, but it’s not necessary. A diary, or a recurring calendar event, probably work just as well if you don’t need the kick from Beeminder to help you stick to it.
My current goal is to try to get in about 3 sessions of 40 minutes each on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This seems to be a good schedule, but I’m not really sticking to it yet – I mostly manage to make it Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but I’m not really up to 40 minutes. I seem to be averaging more like 30. That’s OK though – I started at much less than that and was struggling to make it to two half hour sessions a week. The idea is to work up to it. Don’t try to do more time than you can really bring yourself to do – start with something you can fit in, when that becomes normal and habitual increase it slightly.
The second stage is to prevent a rapid burn out. I don’t know about you, but I get… enthusiasms. If I start doing a thing I’ll basically go “Woo, I’m doing a thing. I must do the thing more. Let me do lots of the thing”. In exercise this manifests as my pushing myself way too hard, making some good initial progress and then hitting a wall. I then get dispirited and stop doing it.
So, step 1 is to not do that. I know I can make progress. Partly because I’ve done it before, and partly because well bodies are basically designed to be able to make progress at this. I’m not so uniquely bad at exercise that I won’t make any improvements. So, secure in that knowledge, the trick is to make steady progress.
What does that involve? It involves doing things that are easier than you think you can do. The exercise program should be pitched at basically one tiny notch above “too easy”. Sure you can do that level of weight? OK. Cool. Now take 5 kilos off it. Sure you can do that number of pushups? OK. Do about 2/3rds that (actually for me this manifests in the fact that I’m doing the 100 pushups program. I’m confident I can easily do 10-15 pushups, but instead I’m starting myself on the easiest version of the program and repeating each week. I have a history of trying this program and hitting walls). Once this level has gone from “I can totally do more than this” to “this is embarrassingly painfully easy” you can make it harder.
There are a couple reasons for this.
The first is that if you constantly push yourself, it will hurt. Especially the next day. You might be OK with that, but I’m not. Pain is rubbish, and if I’m going to the gym often enough this will mean that I’m spending about half my life in pain. If anything is going to convince me I hate exercise, that will.
(I know you’ve heard no pain no gain. It’s macho bullshit that has no useful grounding in biology. Your muscles will improve fine without constant agony).
The second is that it stops you hitting a wall. What I’ve found in the past is that the degree to which I can push myself does not improve as fast as my baseline strength. If I’m constantly pushing myself to my limit then my strength will improve, but each time I increase my strength the rate at which I can increase my strength will drop significantly. This will cause frustration
Finally, we’ve already established that you’re here for the long haul. It doesn’t matter if your progress is a bit slow because you’ll get there in the end, and when you do you’re much more likely to stay there.
Step one is to find a gym to go to. You can do this at home if you like, but I’ve found having a place which puts me into exercise mode really does help.
You’ll need a program design. For this you probably do want a personal trainer, but only for a session or so, to design a custom program for you which will be exactly like all the other custom programs that they’ve designed for everyone else. They can show you some good exercises, give you a basic framework to fit everything into, etc. Make sure to ask them what exercises are actually for.
Now you’ve got that program you can basically throw it away.
Well, not throw it away, but basically redesign it to actually fit your needs.
First, take all the exercises you hate, and replace them with something vaguely similar you don’t hate. You don’t need a good reason for hating the exercise, there are just going to be some you don’t like. That’s OK. Replace them. Do some searching online to try to find equivalent exercises that you’re less likely to hate (Example: I really hate situps. Turns out I think leg raises are perfectly fine. I don’t really know why. I also hate plank and have no problem with push ups).
Will this result in a sub-optimal program? In one sense, yes: You’ll probably hate some really good exercises and lose out a bit by not doing them.
In another, more important sense, no: If you hate your workout you’ll resent doing it, you’ll do it less, and then you’ll stop. A slightly sub-optimal workout that you do is infinitely better than a great work-out you don’t.
Also figure out which bits of the program you want to skip at first. Chances are your personal trainer will have over designed for you. Personal trainers are like estate agents for exercise: “I’d like a half hour session design” “OK here’s one that will take you 45 minutes. It’s got a really nice view of the lake”. They’re probably right about how much time you should be doing, but you’re almost certainly going to want to work up with that.
So now you’ve got a gym, you’ve got a plan. Go to that gym.
While you’re going to that gym… Figure out everything that makes it annoying for you to go there. Try and find the best way to fit it into your schedule, try and find all the other things that get in your way (e.g. for me it was bringing the gym kit to work, so I changed things around to just have enough clothing in there for several visits to the gym and only do a wash when they’d all been used. The whole process became much more pleasant).
You shouldn’t follow my advice here. I can figure out the bits about motivation, and some of the bits about biology, but exercise design there are probably way more competent people than me and if you can find them let me know. There are lots of people who say they know what they’re doing but I struggle to take the “BECOME RIPPED IN JUST SIX MONTHS” posturing seriously.
But, for the sake of illustrating what this looks like in practice, here’s my current program:
- 3 minutes on the exercise bike to warm up. I tried replacing this with skipping today and it basically destroyed me. Skipping is hard. I’m going to try to figure out how to integrate that into my workout, but I haven’t yet.
- Do the current week of the hundred pushups program (I’m currently on my fourth week, which is actually the second week for the second time)
- Do a super-set of 3 sets of 10 barbell squats (no weights on the barbell right now, it’s just the bar. I think the bar is about 10kg but I’m not really sure. It might be more than that) with 10 bent leg-raises.
- Do a super-set of 3 sets of 15x 10kg barbell bench press with 15x35kg underhand pull-downs.
- Do about 15 minutes on the exercise bike.
To be clear again: I don’t know what I’m doing and you probably shouldn’t follow the same program as me. I mean, eh, if you want to you can, it’s probably not awful, but don’t take this section as advice.
Also, does this program sound too easy? Do you feel like making fun of me for my puny bench press? If so, I don’t think you’ve been paying attention to this post…
What next is simple: You keep this up forever, because nothing else is going to work.
Keep increasing the amount of time you spend in the gym until it hits the point you want to achieve. When exercises get too easy, make them a bit harder. Keep practising until they get easy again and repeat the process.
Does it work? I don’t know. By all rights it should, and based on initial results it seems to be putting me in the right mindset and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to stick with it, but ultimately I’ve only been doing it for about a month and a half and I intend the rest of my life to be a lot longer than that. I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes.