I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel for months at a time in the last few years. I’ve found that coming home after one of these multi-month trips is way more conducive to making changes, starting new habits, and kicking old ones than an arbitrary change in the calendar. January 1 isn’t really all that different to December 31, other than maybe a hangover. But when you come back home after months on the road, there are very real changes. There’s no food in the refrigerator or cabinets, for starters. This abrupt change in scenery is a very effective time to make a change.
A little over a year ago, I returned home after three months backpacking around Latin America. And as my trip was coming to an end, I had a spontaneous thought.
I’m going to start eating really clean and going to the gym six days a week.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough how random this thought was. Before this, the last time I had set foot in a gym was… never. And I had eaten… whatever I wanted. My studio apartment had a tiny kitchen and a mini-fridge like the one you had in your college dorm room, which meant that I usually ate out. All that to say, this thought came to me completely out of the blue.
But I was just getting home from a lengthy trip, and it was a great time to start new habits, so I dove right in. I didn’t know what to do in the gym or in the kitchen, but the internet is a great resource for getting all those questions answered. The important thing was to dive in. This article is about what I learned and what worked for me. It was a lot simpler than expected. A year later, I can say with confidence that it worked. I get comments all the time.
For years, I’ve noticed that I have great self-control at the grocery store, but not at gatherings where less-than-healthy food is available in abundance. I would never buy junk food at the grocery store, but I would devour the entire tray of sugar cookies at a holiday party — to the point where people are nervously commenting on it.
It turns out this is an actual psychological phenomenon: self-control versus self-regulation. Self-control is about our battle with our urges and impulses in the moment that they rear their ugly heads. Self-regulation is about the decisions we make ahead of time that reduce the frequency and intensity of those urges and impulses. We’re better at self-regulation than self-control. That’s why I could make good decisions at the grocery store but would embarrass myself at the party.
We can use this distinction to our advantage because self-regulation is much more susceptible to rationality and planning than self-control is. My plan was to harness self-regulation by meal prepping. I could easily make good decisions about how much and what to cook at the beginning of the week. Then I’d have those delicious meals throughout the week. That’s all self-regulation. The result was to reduce the urges and impulses since I’d already be full from the prepped meals. And that would mean less need for self-control.
Okay, so I was a meal prepper now. But what was I going to put in those meal-prepping trays? I bought a kitchen scale and got a fancy macro tracker. That lasted for all of one day. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
So I settled on a simpler principle: you can eat anything you want as long as you can explain how it used to be alive. It’s a pretty simple principle that ensured I ate actual food instead of processed junk.
And it worked wonders. Fat started melting away and muscle started appearing and growing. I was always full and never had any cravings — the self-regulation was working! And most of the food I ended up making was delicious. People tend to think chicken breasts, broccoli, and rice when they hear the phrase “meal prepping,” but there’s no reason it has to be that. I made all sorts of things that were way more delicious and enticing than that.
Really, it’s as simple as that. Eat real food and you’ll get real results. Notice I didn’t name-drop any specific or trending diets. If you want to go that route, then do that by all means. Just make sure that you’re eating real food almost exclusively — food that you can explain how it used to be alive. Here are a few processed foods that you may think you know how to explain how they were alive. But I bet you would struggle to do so if you were pushed for details.
- Added sugars
- White flour
You’re going to want to stick to lots of veggies, whole grains, fruit, nuts, and some eggs and meat. Those are all things that very clearly used to be alive. For beverages, stick to water, black coffee, or unsweetened tea. If you do that, you’re well on your way to transforming your body.
I wrote a more detailed piece about how I go about meal prepping, if you want more ideas for how to get started.
Now that I was putting the right stuff in my body, it was time to figure out what to do with my body. Whereas I was very familiar with eating, this was going to be very new. I hadn’t ever lifted weights. Ever. Here are the principles I learned. They’re all pretty simple, but when you put them together you can get some powerful results.
This one might seem a little silly, but there are a couple of important reasons for it. First, it’s going to enable you to do progressive overload (see below) for a longer period of time. So I started all my compound lifts (see below) with just the barbell. It’s a little embarrassing when the person next to you is lifting an assortment of plates and you’re just lifting the bar, but don’t worry about it. Everyone is on their own journey. And they likely aren’t judging you — they’re probably excited that you’re getting after it and remembering back to when they started. And they’re definitely jealous of the rapid progress that you’re going to be able to make as a beginner.
Second, it’s important to start light to eliminate the fear of injury as a barrier to getting started. If you’re relatively young and able-bodied, you’re very unlikely to get injured lifting a light weight, as long as you’re not doing anything stupid (jerking your body or the bar around, for example). So don’t be afraid to get started, even if your form isn’t perfect. It’s better to get started and work on improving your form over time than to never start. Use the first few weeks when the weight is light — it’s easy to watch YouTube videos on form in order to improve. Just be sure to get started!
Our bodies are very good at adapting to new challenges that are presented to it. This is how athletes get stronger and faster and can go further: they present challenges to their bodies, and their bodies grow in response to the challenge.
So if you lift 50 pounds for the first time, your body with grow and adapt in response to this new challenge. That’s what getting sore is: your body growing in response to the challenge. But if you keep lifting 50 pounds, your body isn’t going to keep growing and adapting because it’s already used to that challenge. You need to confront your body with a new, harder challenge to get it to keep adapting and growing.
That’s what progressive overload is all about. It’s the idea that when you lift weights, you want to add a little bit more weight to the bar each week. This will ensure that your body never quite gets comfortable and used to the situation; instead, it’s going to have to keep growing and building and developing in response to the increased challenge of more weight each week.
Here’s how you put this principle into practice in the gym. As mentioned above, start with just the bar for each of your compound exercises (see below) the first week. The standard bar weighs 45 pounds. (If this is too much for you to start with, most gyms have a smaller bar that weighs 25 pounds that you can start with.) Then the next time you’re at the gym you’ll want to add 5 pounds to the bar (do this by adding 2.5 pounds to each side of the bar). Now you’re lifting 50 pounds! Next time you’ll want to lift 55 pounds.
We’re finally to the part where we talk about what exercises you should actually do. When they think of the gym, most people think of machines. Most machines work one specific muscle; they’re called isolation exercises because they isolate one specific muscle. You generally want to steer clear of isolation exercises for a couple of reasons. First, think about how many muscles there are in your body. Imagine if you had to do a different machine for each and every one of them. That would be a daunting task. Second, think back to progressive overload. If you’re doing an isolation exercise that only uses one muscle, you’re going to hit a ceiling in your progressive overload pretty quickly because there’s only so much that one muscle alone can do.
Instead, you want to primarily focus on compound exercises. Unlike isolation exercises, compound exercises work lots of muscles all at once. This is where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. And you’re going to be able to keep your progressive overload going for much longer because multiple muscles working together can do a lot more than one muscle acting alone. Best of all, it only takes a couple of compound exercises to do everything you need to get done at the gym since they work so many muscles at once. Doesn’t that sound way better than an endless list of isolation exercises?
Compound exercises may seem more intimidating than isolation exercises, but they aren’t that complicated. And like we discussed earlier, you’re going to start light and watch YouTube videos on them, so you’ll get comfortable with them in no time. And there’s only a couple of them, so it’s very manageable. When I was getting started I didn’t know how to do any of them, so I would watch a YouTube video before starting each one and then watch another one between sets.
So what are the compound lifts? I’m glad you asked.
- Bench press
- Overhead press
- Bent over row
- Pull up
And that’s it. You can easily get started with each of those within 30 minutes just by Googling and YouTubing them.
A quick note about pull-ups. Progressive overload with pull-ups is a little bit different. If you can do pull-ups, you’ll want to add weight over time to achieve progressive overload. Most gyms have a belt with a chain that you can strap weights to in order to do this. If you can’t do pull-ups yet, many gyms have a machine that you kneel on and subtracts weight from your body weight as you do pull-ups. Use this and subtract a little less weight each week to achieve progressive overload.
Putting it all together
Now that you have all these principles, let’s talk about how to put them all together at the gym. There are a couple of ways you can organize all of this, but one of the simplest is to do a day of upper body (bench press, overhead press, bent over row, pull up), a day of lower body (squat and deadlift), a day of rest, and then repeat. So your schedule might look like this.
- Monday: upper body
- Tuesday: lower body
- Wednesday: rest
- Thursday: upper body
- Friday: lower body
- Weekend: rest
If you’ve read this far, you may have asked “what about abs?!” at some point. A lot of these compound lifts significantly work your core. I never did any ab specific exercises in my first year, and I got a six-pack for the first time in my life — all from compound exercises. But if you insist on doing crunches, do them on your lower body day after squats and deadlifts.
I would recommend doing 3 sets of 8 reps for each exercise. So do each exercise 8 times, wait about a minute, and then repeat for a total of 3 sets. This will ll be pretty quick and easy the first few weeks since you’re starting with such a light weight. But don’t worry about it; progressive overload is going to make it a struggle in no time. Use it as an opportunity to watch YouTube videos on form.
The last and most important ingredient here is consistency. You aren’t going to see a difference in one day, one week, or even one month. But each day, with progressive overload and real food, you’re going to experience an imperceptible improvement. Those imperceptible improvements are going to add up, and after a few months, you’re going to notice a difference and the people around you are going to notice a difference. This diagram demonstrates this perfectly.
The trick to getting there is persistence — so do whatever it takes to lock in that persistence. Take progress pics. Put your gym times in your calendar and set reminders. That’s an exercise in self-regulation. Meal prep ahead of time so that the food is already there waiting for you.
Once you see the first little progress, look back on it any time you don’t feel like getting to the gym. Project that progress into the future to know what you’re going to look like in the future with persistence.
With progressive overload, you’ll constantly be lifting a weight that you weren’t able to lift a few days before as your body adapts and gets stronger. Celebrate each of those victories and new accomplishments.
After each gym session, take a moment to sit quietly, close your eyes, and reflect on how good your body feels. Your body was meant to confront and overcome new challenges and it’s going to reward you with feeling great afterward.
Do all these things, and you shouldn’t have any trouble at all with consistency. And if you have consistency in these things, you’re going to completely transform your body over the course of the next year.