How I got in shape
TL;DR version: lift weights, keep a routine, be in a little bit of pain.
When I decided to get in shape last year I found tons of articles about the best specific workouts, but not many day-to-day, step-by-step plans I could take and use. So, since lots of people use the new year as a kick in the ass to start kicking ass, I thought I’d throw together a post about what’s worked for me.
PROLOGUE: MY PAST ATTEMPTS AT GETTING HEALTHY
Historically my fitness level has been [wavy hand signal]. I’ve usually been within 10 pounds of my ideal weight, through calorie counting and the least amount of exercise I could get away with. The last few years I’ve focused my energy on running. I hate running with the fire of a thousand suns, but I decided to become a runner because:
(1) it’s cheap. I like spending money on more important things (beer and pants).
(2) it’s quick. As a #busy #millennial #dad my time is at a premium, so being able to burn a shitload of calories in 45 minutes was a real plus.
(3) it’s easy. It is the polar opposite of fun, but you can go at your own pace and at whatever distance or time you want. Running is for sure the least complicated workout.
So I ran 2–3 times a week, 3–5 miles at a time. That helped me continue to squeeze into my generationally embarrassing tight clothes, but beyond that I didn’t feel very healthy. I was counting calories every goddamn meal, I got sore doing any non-running athletic stuff and just generally was a weak human being. Thin but soft. No bueno. So when I decided to get back in shape last winter, I decided to start over.
STEP 1: DETERMINE MY GOALS
YMMV obvs, but for me my goals were simple:
1. Get Generally Fit. By Generally Fit I mean I just wanted to be in overall good health. I wanted to be able to wrestle with my kids and not groan in agony when getting up from lying on the floor. It meant being able to play touch football or pickup basketball and not be sore for a week afterwards. It meant not having my back hurt constantly. It meant finally not being yelled at by my stepdad for being such a worthless puss when taking the docks out at the cabin. No need to get swole or preparing for a specific race, sport, etc. Basic strength, minimal soreness. Generally Fit.
2. Stop counting calories every day. Diet is everything when it comes to losing/keeping off weight, but counting calories is exhausting and I was sick of doing it so intently. I wanted to keep my daily calorie count on a back-burner simmer instead of having to log every goddamn handful of trail mix on MyFitnessPal. (Important reiteration: if your main goal is to lose weight, your focus needs to be on diet. Almost nothing else matters. Diet diet diet.)
3. Do all of this while working out just two days a week. I’m super busy on weekdays with my EXTREMELY important job as a corporate middle manager, plus I’m a dad to two tiny insane sons, so I know that with few exceptions, I have about 90 minutes each Saturday and Sunday to reach my goals.
STEP 2: RESEARCH
Another reason I’m writing this post is I spent lit’rally dozens of hours reading hundreds of articles about how to get in shape, and I’d like to pass on what I learned to save you the time.
Most of the articles led to two main conclusions for getting Generally Fit:
(1) Strength training is super important. You burn some calories while lifting, but a ton more when recovering, and more just in general day-to-day once you’ve put on muscle. For regular cardio, you burn calories while you’re working but it ends once you stop. Big difference and one I didn’t fully understand until I started my research. (Another great thing about lifting is you need to rest between sets which allows the rare guilt-free moment to check your phone. Huge plus.)
(2) High-intensity cardio is way better than low intensity. Unless you have unlimited amount of time and can get on an elliptical for two hours, you will be much better served doing sprint-walk intervals or something similar to get your heart racing. Same as point #1, high-intensity stuff builds muscle and will burn calories even when you are done working out.
STEP 3: PLAN MY WORK
Once I had a good handle on my goals and the best ways to reach them, I did a bunch more research on the most impactful lifts/exercises and landed on the following routine:
Day 1: Upper Body
- Bench press
- Bent-over rows
- Shoulder press
That’s basically it. Do those four to exhaustion and you have had a Good Gym Day. Those four lifts use basically every key upper-body muscle that you use day to day. If you do them regularly and continue to add weights, you will very definitely be livin dat Generally Fit lifestyle. Your back, arms, chest and shoulders will have all gotten themselves appropriately jacked. Those four are THE KEY workouts. Do them as much as possible and make sure to tire your ass out when you do them.
(Side-note: here is a nice ode to deadlifts that is worth your time. Deadlifts are the best.)
After those four I am not yet at my 90-minutes-at-the-gym limit, so I do one extra lift per key muscle and then 15 minutes of cardio. Some of my go-tos:
- Chest fly
- Tricep pull-down/extension
- Dumbbell shoulder press
- Sprint-walk intervals around the track
Day 2: Lower Body & Core
- Side lunges
- Box jumps
- Decline seat sit-ups
Hate leg day. Squats are the worst exercise on the planet and lunges are a close second. I typically work in a few other exercises beyond the above depending on how much time I have (leg press, leg extension, the ab-oblique machine, various other sit-ups) but those six are my keys to the day.
(Side-note #2: it’s good to alter the routine from time to time, like doing incline bench instead of regular bench, or goblet squats, or rows with dumbbells rather than a barbell. Helps to activate different muscles. Getting comfortable with any specific routine or weight amount is not ideal.)
STEP 4: WORK MY PLAN
It’s been said plenty but the key to sticking with a plan is to make it the RULE and not the exception. For my wife and I, every Saturday and Sunday morning is for the gym, and we plan around that. There are random exceptions, but probably 45 weeks this past year, that’s what we did. When we were tired or hungover or the weather sucked, we went anyway. There have been lots of times when I went and didn’t go as hardcore as usual, and while that kinda sucks it was still helpful. Just go.
That said, another key to forming a workout habit is to NOT come out guns-a-blazing. Don’t max out every lift every day, or be the guy who goes from couch to trying the advanced level spin class and leaving after 4 minutes to go puke in the hallway. You’ll quit before the end of the week.
My rule: be in a little bit of pain. If you aren’t in pain you won’t see results, but if you are in too much pain you won’t stick with it. Stop thinking about the shape you want to be in next week and start thinking about the shape you want to be in next year.
(Side-note #3: I work out at a gym but you can easily do it at home with some free weights and a kettlebell or two. You can be dumb like me and throw $200/month at a gym membership, or be smart and drop a one-time expense of maybe $150 and be all set.)
RESULTS SO FAR
TBH I didn’t buy in to the whole “lifting is better than cardio” thing at first. For one thing, lifting is more fun than cardio, so using the “all things that are good must be bad for you” theory, it didn’t hold up to basic logic. And it feels weird that the exercise that has you drenched in sweat is less impactful than the one that doesn’t. Felt a little gimmicky and too good to be true. I believed lifting would build muscle but didn’t think it could compare to cardio for burning calories and keeping off weight.
But I gave it a shot and so far, so good. I’m not remotely jacked, but I am for real in the best shape of my life. I can do athletic stuff without being sore for weeks, my back hardly ever hurts (for real, my back used to hurt every goddamn day) and don’t need to obsessively count calories. Best of all I barely run anymore. Can’t expect anything more than that with the minimal hours I spend at the gym.
I‘ll keep learning and iterating as I go, just thought I’d pass along the plan that’s worked so far. Have at it.