The new rules of fitness
GIVE A MAN A FITNESS PLAN AND HE’LL WORK OUT FOR A WEEK – OR 12, TOPS. GIVE A MAN THE KNOWLEDGE TO UNDERSTAND WHICH FITNESS PLANS WORK, THOUGH, AND YOU GIVE HIM THE MEANS TO STAY FIT AND HEALTHY FOR LIFE
RULE 1: HARDER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER
Nobody can go hard all the time, whatever that guy in the office who just started CrossFit says. Intense activity raises your levels of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol, with the effect of shutting down some of the body’s major functions, including digestion. That’s fine if you’re running away from a lion, but less so if you’re in the gym trying to lose fat. “Stick to activities that provide a little discomfort, rather than distress,” says trainer Rannoch Donald. “Drills create skills, so we focus on exercise that challenges us just enough to keep us coming back. A few good reps are more beneficial than struggling to finish a set, and making movement fun is key.”
RULE 2: FAT LOSS IS ABOUT INEFFICIENCY
Or technically, it’s about inefficient exercise. “Any sort of exercise works for fat loss,” says strength coach
Dan John. “But as you get better, you become more efficient. This is the problem with jogging: when you start, doing 3km works fine, but as you improve, you need more distance to get the same benefit. Inefficient exercise is different for everyone – I’ll burn up kilojoules dancing, say, but a skilled dancer won’t get anywhere near the fat loss hit.”
The takeaway? Try new sports, or rotate your cardio from rower to bike to treadmill. Alternatively, add another element to your workout: according to studies of muscle response to stimulation, using two kettlebells rather than one increases muscle activation – and fat burn – by 40%.
RULE 4: STRENGTH IS THE GLASS
Whatever your goals, strength is key to a better quality of life. Or, to put it another way: think strength, not cardio – at least for now.
“Absolute strength is the glass,” says John. “Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. What does that mean? The stronger you are, the more of the other stuff you can do.”
Muscle withers when it’s neglected and the process only speeds up as you age. Getting weaker means gaining fat, a higher risk of age-related disease, worse balance and a decreasing ability to carry sofas/ romantic partners/children/crates of beer. John’s two biomarkers of adequate strength? Ten pull-ups, and three deadlifts with 1,5 times your own body weight on the bar.
RULE 5: YOU DON’T NEED AN HOUR A DAY IN THE GYM
Good news for the time-strapped: doing one hour of exercise every two days and then lying on the couch isn’t as productive as introducing small amounts of activity throughout your day. “Think of it as vitamin EDA: Every Day Activity,” says Donald. “It’s daily movement, done regularly, that provides a foundation of fitness. We live in a culture of convenience, so we have to seek out movement opportunities each day
– taking the stairs or getting off the taxi a few blocks away from your office.”
He suggests what he calls “basket walks”. “Next time you’re at the supermarket, use one or two baskets, rather than a trolley. You’ll be less likely to load up on non-essentials and you’ll work your core and grip in the process. It’s these little EDAs that make all the difference.”
Finally, for a quick workout you can do before you even get dressed, try the “Let Me In”: wrap a towel around a door handle, sink back into a squat, then use your arms to pull yourself towards the door.
RULE 6: WILLPOWER IS OVER-RATED
It’s not about wanting it more – it’s just about getting it done. Willpower, according to research from Florida State University, USA, is a finite resource: use it to stay off Twitter while you do your taxes, and you’ve got less to spare when it’s time to resist the biscuit tin. Ignore the motivational Instagram posts and set yourself up for success with healthy, time-efficient habits instead.
• Cook in bulk: “When you cook, use all four burners,” suggests fat loss expert Josh Hillis. “Two for meat, and two for rice and vegetables. Aim for three meals with one type of protein and carbohydrate, and three with another. Store enough for two or three days in Tupperware containers and freeze the rest – that way, you set yourself up to win.”
• Use “if, then” planning: Plan ahead with statements like: “If everyone orders dessert, then I’ll have a coffee.” A recent review of 94 studies found that this technique aids success in everything from drinking less to recycling more and negotiating better.
• Find yourself skipping gym? Your new mantra: “If I miss a day, I’ll do 100 press-ups at home.” Stick to it.
• Say “don’t”, not “can’t”: “If you claim you can’t do something, it sounds as if you’re being victimised by your plan,” says Hillis. “‘Don’t’ is stronger and doesn’t require justification – it’s a declaration about what you stand for.”
RULE 7: THE FIRST TIME YOU EVER HIT THE GYM WILL BE THE WORST
Three weeks after that, it will be all fist-bumping the regulars and feeling that sweet endorphin rush. The most important truth about training is a pretty simple one: most people don’t like things they’re bad at, but by setting simple goals and aiming to improve, you’ll soon reach the point where you miss training more than you dread it. Here’s how to get it done:
• Ignore everyone else: Don’t worry about what everyone else in the gym is doing. You don’t know their training history or goals, so there’s no point in competing with or feeling intimidated by them. Having the discipline to stick with the weights and exercises you’ve chosen will see you a long way towards your goals.
• Embrace the process: Stop reading social media posts between sets or while you pedal your bike. The rest between sets is your time to catch your breath, mentally run through form and psych yourself up. Besides, if you’re reading Tweets in the saddle, you should probably be going faster. Training should be a release from daily distractions. When you’re really focused, it’s almost like meditation.
• Just show up: If there’s ever a day when you can’t face the gym, just go there and do something – have a sauna, have a shower, do two minutes on the rower, whatever. Not only will this get you used to the process of going to gym, but once you’re there, chances are you’ll do more than you planned. A nice corollary to this is that many solid training plans only require you to do two or three moves a session, not the dozens most people attempt. Go to the gym, warm up, do some squats and leave.