If you are familiar with this series of articles you will know that it’s all about taking a long view, being strategic and realistic with your goals and approach. Some key assumptions at this point is that you have already fulfilled the two first major criteria insofar as you have decided to make a change at all and that you are have a rough overview of the entire process, the potential time-frames involved, necessary skills required and that there are no short cuts or magic pills worth taking. Let is then jump straight into short-term goal setting by firstly giving an example of how someone with the best intentions can run into trouble.
Let’s call this person Joe.
Meet Joe! He has decided that he wants to lose some weight this year. Nothing too specific he just feels like he needs to trim up because he’s noticed ‘a bit of a pudge’ come on the past few years since he turned thirty. About a stone sounds about right to him because he felt much more athletic in college. He works a standard 9-5 job, eats what he considers ‘well enough’ and plays five a side football with his mates every Thursday evening. He has decided to join a gym in an effort to start getting more regular exercise in his weekly routine. So far so good – Good man Joe.
Joe decides that he needs a plan. He’s dedicated, motivated and knows that he’s about to make a lifestyle change that should see him live a longer happier life. He’s in it for the long run. A quick google leads him to an exercise website on the cover of which is an Olympic weightlifter. He’s lean, strong and apparently very happy. Joe wants to look like this guy. Luckily inside there’s a programme outlining this Olympians training in the run up to his gold medal performance at a recent major international competition. The programme is six days a week training twice a day at times and outlines the need for specificity (Joe adds this to his ‘to google’ list) in exercise selection, increasing intensity (also added to the google list) while decreasing over-all volume, managing recovery (few naps maybe?) and really controlling all the variables in his peaking cycle (probably skipping pints on Saturdays). Joe looks at is new programme and thinks to himself ‘that’s grand, a few press ups and some air squats no doubt’.
Despite not being very familiar with the rest of the exercises listed he watches a few youtube videos and decides they can’t be that hard ‘sure wasn’t Arnie lifting more in the Pumping Barbells film’ he saw at Christmas?’ Joe now has a plan… and an excel sheet. He is now a force of nature and he cannot be stopped. Squats? Easy. Power cleans? If Joe wanted to power clean he’d buy a cordless vacuum cleaner. According to the author all that’s left to do now is to turn up to the gym, follow the simple incredibly complicated plan outlined in the periodised quadrennial Olympic weightlifting program and the results will look after themselves! How hard can it be? Joe looks in the mirror – ‘Be grand’ he tells himself.
Now Joe also noticed that he’s a bit slow compared to some of his friends in the Thursday five a side. Having settled on his gym programme he googles ‘how to be faster’ and is lead to another glossy fitness website. This time he reads an article by a renowned international rugby conditioning coach. Joe reads about things like aerobic capacity, the testing parameters used, all the various sprint mechanics and plyometric movements and loves what he sees. These guys not only look like the weightlifter whose programme he has committed to but they can move like gazelles! Majestic muscular beasts living like gods among men. Joe thinks to himself ‘that’d be fierce sound to look like those lads, but be stronger than them too’. So he prints out the conditioning programme and adds it to his new dossier of exercise success. At the end of the day it’ll be a ‘grand bit of cardio’ he thinks. ‘Keep the heart rate up, show the lads who’s boss at the Thursday five aside’. Right?
Joe isn’t done though. He’s on a roll and he knows that he needs to make some changes to his nutrition to really maximise the contours of his latent eight-pack abs. First thing to go is the pints. The pints kill him, every Friday he has a few and sure that’s the weekend out the window! Joe decides that he is never going to drink again. Literally EVER. Come near Joe with a pint and he will glass you with it – his body is a temple, he’s too serious about his new business for socialising anymore anyway as the programme he has constructed looks like it’s going to take 22 hours of training a week. He now only drinks lemon grass tea.
While perusing the many fitness articles online he also comes across ‘this solid lad’ who gave up carbs and as a result lived to 120 years of age or something. Joe isn’t stupid, he doesn’t think that he’ll live to 120 but he’s not ruling out a crack at 105, maybe 108. Joe is going carb free. Who needs carbs anyway? He doesn’t even know what carbs actually are but he’s done with them regardless. He’s going to be a hybrid athletic demi-god. He has the training and the nutrition sorted, he has his new compression shorts and asics runners packed away in his gear bag and a carton of protein milk in the fridge for when things get intense. It couldn’t be easier right?
Joe is absolutely to be admired for his enthusiasm and commended for his time spent researching different training and nutrition methodologies but he has bitten off a little more than he can chew. Is this his fault? No. The availability of information now means that the most advanced training protocols ever implemented are only a few clicks of the mouse away and it can often be very difficult to distinguish between good and bad information. He also deserves respect for joining a gym, playing sports socially and wanting to improve in general. These are, after all, very positive things. However poor Joe has completely underestimated his current stage of physical development. Can he make progress doing something a little less complicated? Absolutely, and probably more than he knows as long as he doesn’t kill himself or burn out following his own initial plan.
To do this Joe needs to understand where he is now. What does day one really look like? I say this to every new client when we sit down to discuss their project – You simply have to establish a baseline. This baseline is specific to the individual but without it there are no parameters to gauge progress. Your bodyweight, movement ability, training history and a hundred other variables determine how best to proceed and being honest some people just need to get up off the damn couch and keep getting up off the couch every day.
So what can he do to start out in a manner that allows him to learn, progress and have a little fun along the way? Perhaps if he focused on what successful athletes do in their formative years he might learn the skills that create broader parameters for progress instead of focusing on elite programmes design to sell magazines and advertising space.
Perhaps if he learnt how to move, how to breathe, how to control his body through space, how to lift things, throw things, carry and swing things all combined with how to eat healthily he might just end up with everything he ever wanted.
In a nut shell he needs to learn the basics. Now, nobody wants Joe to get disheartened. He may very well have it in him to do spectacular things with his body over the coming weeks, months and years – he just needs to build a better foundation first. Step one is to sit down and set specific goals.
Let’s break Joe down and help him establish HIS baseline.
He’s an average guy, 5’11, 192lbs. 26% bodyfat based off an 8 site skin-fold test (e had guessed he was mid-teens). No injuries or illnesses and can dedicate about 4 hours a week to exercise. A short movement screen shows that he has limited ankle mobility, poor posture and cant squat below parallel without rounding his back, but he has never squatted before. He can run 1.77km in 10 minutes and has never used a barbell before at all. His food diary indicates that he gets under 60g of protein a day, drinks very little water but has developed a set of eating habits over the past few years that he feels comfortable with. We know that he wants to lose weight but he does not know if losing a stone is too much or too little. He likes long walks on the beach and sometimes dreams of world peace. Still with me? All we have here is a composite image of what he looks like, what that image is comprised of, how he moves and what he can do.
We have already given an example of what a bad first week for Joe would look like. Complex multi joint high skill movements performed at high intensity with an associated conditioning programme designed for an elite athlete – all combined with a zero carb diet for no reason and relative social seclusion. So if that is a bad week then what could a good first week look like if we have all the details above?
Step 2 – Write down the goal and be honest with your motivation.
What it the significance of his goal? He mentions that he only noticed last year on holidays that he had put on some weight and felt a little apprehensive about taking his top off at the pool. He has another holiday booked in six months and he doesn’t want to feel like that again. Great! We just established a good time timeline to work within and uncovered the motivation under the desire to change. We tell him about the process of healthy maintainable weight-loss, the benefits of progressive strength training, quality movement and where to look for good nutritional information. He agrees to scrap his initial plan, and admits never wanted to go to the Olympics anyway. Flights would cost a fortune to Rio.
So Six months to look and feel better, now we’re getting somewhere. We noted already that he eats ‘kind of healthy’ but doesn’t understand calories (what they are or how much he consumes) and he commented in passing that he often feels tired in the mornings. Here’s an alternative example of what his first week could look like making small but significant changes:
That is all it has to be in his case, it doesn’t have to be complicated but it sets the foundation for the next week and the next. He might not be where he wants to be after seven days but he’s moving, learning and making changes outside of the training and eating habits. Next week he might learn about food quality, learn a new exercise and decide to start walking to work. Who knows where he could be after one, three or six months – but he will certainly be farther along the path than if he had jumped into the deep end straight away.
Now, Joe does not exist and this is all purely hypothetical, Joe might be Mary, the weightlifting programme could be a swimming programme and the carbs could be replaced by fats but the message is the same.
I meet people like Joe or Mary all the time and I’ll freely admit to being a bit of a Joe myself early on in my training career! There’s nothing wrong with that, we all start somewhere and sometimes we get crazy notions in our heads. However week in and week out in the environment I work in I see the frustrations and lack of success that go hand in hand with trying to do too much too soon. People worrying about losing 100lbs when they really only needed to be concerned about the first pound. People making drastic nutritional choices without any understanding of nutrition and people seemingly training for the Olympics when all they really need to do is to master an empty bar and find a way that allow then to have some fun and keep coming back.
If any aspect of Joe’s story sounds familiar then ask yourself the following questions: Are you doing an exercise programme you enjoy? Is it measureable, repeatable and suitable to your current (and ever growing) skill set? Are you making small but regular changes to the lifestyle within which your exercise and nutrition exists? Do you have a plan for this week and this month? Do you know where you want to be or what you would have liked to have achieved three months from now?
If the answer to any or more of these these questions is no then perhaps cancel those flights to Rio and rethink your plan – Simplify, get strategic and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Write down the answers and revisit them next week. What one exercise, nutrition and lifestyle change did you make and how have they helped you closer to the one month target?
After all there will be another Olympics in 2020 and who knows, if you are smart about your training you might just be in with a chance to actually go.