“I want to be leaner and have 6 pack abs.” “I want to have muscles. I want to be fitter. Look, I just don't want to be too fat or too skinny, OK? I'm not trying to be a fitness model, just look better.”
Most of us would like to be a bit fitter if we could flip a switch, and the guys who are already rocking 6 packs and big biceps want to be leaner and fitter and have even more muscles. It never ends. So really what you want is to improve from where you are, and keep improving. But here's the thing: when you're just starting out, you will make very quick progress.
In the past few years I went through the getting leaner part. Then I found I was just scrawny, so I wanted muscles. I did that too. And what I realized is that you get excellent progress when you're a beginner. After the beginner stage things get more challenging but by then you’ve already improved your health. The beauty of being a beginner is that you don't need to be a gym rat that watches every calorie to get results.
So what's the plan then?
1. Identify your goals.
2. Get started with the basics outlined below.
3. Don't over think it.
4. Keep what works, fix what doesn't.
I understand that seems simplistic, and it is meant to be. Keep it that way. Once you start progression, you can add complication. Don't get bogged down on minutiae. I’ve seen too many people over think every fine detail when most of the results come from just making better food choices and being consistent, and active.
Let's go through the two main goals people have to fit their criteria of being "fitter". Lose weight and gain lean mass. For you men out there, the Brad Pitt in Fight Club look is a common reference for "lean". Or maybe you're very lean but have no muscle and you'd rather look like King Leonidas in 300. Either way, you know you want "abs"
For the ladies, maybe you want a fit and firm butt, or a sleek athletic look, or just to be stronger!
For the women I see much more push back on lifting heavy weights, but those that do try tend to love it. They also get fantastic results. I would also caution people to remember that it's not important what your current fitness level is. You can get fitter. You will feel empowered and strong, have more energy and confidence. No, you will not look "bulky" and have veins popping out... unless you take a ton of steroids and work at it 10 hours a day 6 days a week doing only hardcore lifting for several years. Then, maybe... So don't be afraid of heavy weights.
I know there are 2.8 trillion books, articles, pamphlets and motivational speakers who all want to tell you how to lose weight. There are TV shows dedicated to making it a competition and spectacle. So here's the plan to achieving your goal of IMPROVING. In this case it’s improving your body composition by having less excess fat.
Make sure you're eating quality food.
Make sure you eat enough.
Add an activity to your daily routine.
And... done. It’s as simple as that. Don't starve yourself, don't limit your foods to bland chicken and broccoli, don't spend your entire paycheck on organic gluten free imported protein pellets. And add an activity. Any activity. Walking, tennis, weight lifting, swimming, yoga... whatever you enjoy and will do consistently.
Eat Enough Good Quality Food
So wait, what? Eat enough? I'm trying to lose weight dude, this is where you tell me to eat cabbage and extra lean chicken breast for 6 weeks on my way to losing 120 pounds per month. No sir or ma'am. Do not starve yourself. Instead, focus on eating only good, quality food. I don't want you to over think that, just use your gut. (Get it??) But here are some guidelines for you: Don't eat things that are pre packaged and made already. Stick with buying and consuming the stuff that will spoil if you leave it out, not the things that have enough preservatives to last through 2035. Eat food you have to prepare and cook. In fact by far the hardest part of this shouldn't be starving yourself, which again you SHOULD NOT DO, it should be cooking and prep time. So, some super basic examples since that's what helps me the most: Think of a nice grilled shish kebob:
Big chunks of chicken or good cut of beef or maybe even fish. Mix in some peppers, onion, tomatoes. Season with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and throw it on the grill. For breakfast how about some eggs? Note: not a big egg bacon and cheese sandwich on a roll. Just some scrambled eggs with some veggies. For lunch maybe a nice piece of turkey breast, some sautéed spinach, maybe a baked potato. "Great Ceaser's ghost, POTATO!!?!?! I'm trying to lose weight you fool!" OK everyone settle down, don't over think this and don't freak out. On the other hand if you're the type to say "Ok I wont over think it ... and eat 14 cans of Pringles a day"... then I will slap you in public. Be smart about it. Make changes that are sustainable.
So you're investing in real food, and then preparing and cooking it, and you're not starving yourself. You're eating at a reasonable rate, until you're satisfied. It's OK to be a little hungry, but if you're starving yourself you are setting yourself up for failure. The vast majority of people who lose weight and keep it off are those who make sustainable changes.
If you already do something active, push yourself a bit. Go outside your comfort zone, or add something new on top of the existing. Remember, it's OK if you try and don't like something, but try. Another personal story about me: I belong to a gym that is along the lines of the boot camp style. We're always running around, climbing ropes, pushing sleds, barbells, kettlebells, all this stuff. People see this and say "Oh that's too intense for me, I could never do that". But they're wrong. We have people in their 70's and older. We have people who can't hope to do a single pull up or push up when they first walk in. People who are overweight, or skinny and frail come in. Generally out of shape. If you're out of shape then no, you won’t walk in and do what the competitive athletes do, and why would you expect to? They put in a lot of work, maybe they are younger, more physically gifted, whatever. But I guarantee you will improve if you put work in. And the rate you improve will be much greater, effort for effort, than the guys who have been doing it regularly. They'll tell you the same. It gets tougher to make gains the further you go. But for the average person, the beginner, just put your head down and go. You will be the person who everyone admires most. You will be the person people think about and say wow look how much better they are doing. Remember when you first started and you couldn't do chin ups? Now look!
Be that person
OK! So first take some dirt and iron ore and eat that, then lift everything within arms reach several hundred times a day. No? Ok let's reiterate the goal: Improving. That's all we are after, so what's the plan?
Make sure you're eating enough
Make sure you're eating quality food
And... done! Note in this case that although the first two are the same as the plan for losing weight, but the order is reversed. Here we are putting a real emphasis on eating enough. If you do linear progression correctly, you're going to be hungry. Really hungry. And if you're thin and a hard gainer, gaining weight is already tough for you so make sure you eat plenty of food. Make smart choices but remember, you need a lot of calories. If you’re not gaining, you need to eat even more.
So what is linear progression anyway?
Milo of Croton.
Yes, I'll expound on that. Milo was a wrestler back in the 6th century B.C. The guy was a beast. He would also pick up beasts. In this case, as the legend goes, he picked up a newborn calf and carried it on his shoulders every day until it reached maturity. That is linear progression. Start with a weight you can lift fairly comfortably, and keep increasing it over time.
That's all there is to it. As for what to lift, how many times, I will leave that to the many established programs out there. Starting Strength was the one I personally used and highly recommend, but you can also search for Stronglifts 5x5, Greyskull LP, 5/3/1 and a host of others out there. Pick one, and stick to it. Do not rush the progress. It’s supposed to start slowly and ramp up. Believe me it will get difficult soon enough, so go for consistency and good form.
But I don't know how to do exercise X! In the age of information, there are videos on how to do anything. Watch, read, try, learn.
Go forth and conquer!