Everyone has most likely heard of or hopefully read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It is a great book and one that I have read twice, one of those rare books that’s applicable to any career or life passion as it generally focuses on self-improvement and what you can do to set yourself up for success.
Philosophically, I can really get behind that as that’s that exactly what we preach in the gym. Be better than the previous day. Continuously seek improvement. Never linger in the middle.
Reading that book a second time got me thinking about which habits the healthiest, strongest and leanest people typically follow. I study the industry very closely, keep up on my reading, have eleven years of tracked training progress for myself and a pretty decent hard drive of knowledge and in my opinion the most successful folks have a few actions in common.
Here are my 8 Habits of the Lean and Strong.
They Read the Instructions
Have you ever received a package that requires assembly, purchased an appliance or picked something up from IKEA?
You’re opening it and putting it together and thinking, “I don’t need the instructions. I got this.” Then, forty five minutes later you snap out of a blackout and low and behold your mahogany armoire looks like a desk threw up a coffee table and you want to go all Gary Busey on it?
(By the way, that is me. Big time.)
Your training program is no different and the blueprint is probably the most obvious yet overlooked part of creating success. You have to create a map from which to execute and just going in blind to your daily workouts is a recipe for disaster. It would be the equivalent of trying to drive coast to coast by just “heading West”. Sure, you might get there but only after much inefficiency and wasted effort.
If you don’t map out exactly what you are doing a week in advance then you are just throwing darts at the board, picking exercise and weight with no real idea of how they all blend together.
Chances are you will overwork some muscle groups (back and biceps) while completely ignoring others (hamstrings, glutes) and over time this can create imbalances, asymmetry and even injury.
Additionally, if you are scheduled to do a circuit on Wednesday where you can tangibly see what you are supposed to do, you are far less likely to skip it. On the other hand, if you are just supposed to “go to the gym” on Wednesday there is no accountability or visual on what you will be forfeiting.
With the internet being what it is these days, you should not have any problems finding programming help (including this site). Hell, feel free to poach P360’s programming as a start.
They Channel Their Inner Bobby Flay
Okay, maybe not the Iron Chef himself but at least a poor man’s version. Like, a completely destitute man’s version. A soloists’s man’s version if needed but the point is to get in the kitchen, buy a decent cutting knife, get to know your pots and pans and start creating meals ahead of time.
This one is not rocket science. If you cook food ahead of time you are far more likely to eat it. We tend to eat what’s in our possession so make sure you are putting good, clean food within arm’s reach at all times. When you don’t, that’s when you end up knee deep in Pad Thai and subsequently napping in the parking garage.
I make my meals for the week on Sunday so that I don’t have to worry about cooking while running the gym or worse yet, cooking a full meal when I get home around 8 pm each night. It’s all there so I heat it up and eat it with no effort required.
If you are like me then there’s high chance you’ll use the excuse of not having healthy food around to go to Alberto’s and play tonsil hockey with a Califorina burrito.
Make sure the fridge and pantry are always stocked with clean foods so that you never have to go and spill sauce all over your hands at the salsa bar…why can’t they just give you bigger cups!?
They Avoid Stagnation
Keeping your mental sanity is very important for fitness success and the number one mistake folks can make is to do the same exact thing over and over and over and over and over and…
The culprit could be death by cardio, bodybuilding routines, circuits, fat loss, strength, etc. If you do the same exact thing week after week, the same couple of exercises on repeat then not only are you limiting the results you can achieve but you are most likely slowly driving yourself to take a power drill to the temple.
The easiest thing to do in the gym is what is most comfortable and familiar. When you combine that with the fact that gyms do everything they can to make sure you don’t work hard (limited range of motion machines, treadmills with 42″ flat screen plasmas on them) it’s no wonder that most people don’t get out nearly what they put in.
Learn a new movement, embrace new exercises and do what is uncomfortable. Your body will respond very positively to the new stimulus and you’ll most likely re-start the fat burning and muscle growing engines. The more you break your routine the more muscle confusion you create which is never a bad thing.
(If your goal is one of pure strength, routine is actually your friend and I will be posting about this later, but for general physical capacity and a combination of strength, lean body development and conditioning you want to break the routine.)
They Have Accountabilibuddies
Whether it’s a group training gym, personal trainer or workout buddy you are far more likely to stick to your program if there is someone there to call you out for missing your training. It’s also far more motivating of an atmosphere if you are training with other people who get the hell after it, and there’s nothing that will push you harder than seeing your workout buddy accomplish something you think you can’t do.
This past week in the gym I was lifting with Brandon, one of our stronger members, and we both kind of agreed we were PR’ing hang cleans. That was it. And we both did. I have no doubt we both would not have if the other was not there encouraging.
An accountabilibuddy is the ultimate insurance for avoiding plateaus and ruts, so find one and ’til goals accomplished do you part.
They Keep a Journal
Today deadlifts were SOOOO MUH-EAN to me. I just don’t know why and it really hurtz my feelingzzz.”
Okay, so maybe not like that but preferably a small notepad of some sorts to keep a log of what you do so you can go back and reference it at future use. It goes hand in hand with point number one of having a game plan and knowing exactly what you are doing each day.
You treat your training like a presentation at work. Know the material through and through so that when it gets time to execute you already know what you are doing and you are not left scrambling. Don’t ask someone else. Own the damn weight and take initiative for what you are doing. All it takes is a quick glance down at your sheet and then you are off and running with a systematic execution.
A journal will also allow you to step back from your program from time to time and realize, “Holy shit. I have been doing 5 miles on the treadmill for 11 straight weeks now.”
Track your diet as well and you’ll have it all laid out for you so you can see what works and what doesn’t, and where the culprit might lay if you are not seeing the results you think you should.
They Lift Like Olympians
This is a tricky one since the last time I was at Globo Gym I was mortified at what I saw with folks trying to do bigger, complex exercises like cleans and deadlifts. I wanted to sprint over at top speed, lay out full extension and slap an IcyHot pad on the lower back of the gentlemen doing hang cleans.
“It is O-KAY, everyone. I got him. I took him down in time. As you were. Nothing to see here.”
While I commend his spirit, it was a bloodbath.
The introduction of YouTube to the training community has been both a wonderful blessing and a forsaken curse as exercises like deadlifts, cleans, jerks and presses have been made very accessible for everyone to try. This is mostly good but also sometimes terrible when first timers are incorrectly coached to hop right into deadlifts equaling their body weight or front squats when they’ve never back squatted.
Let me explain.
I love the popularity and public recognition of how awesome these exercises are for our body composition, strength and fat loss, I just feel that too many people are wandering into them without consideration for just how powerful they are, both good and bad. You want to start at very light weight and very gradually work yourself up to challenging load.
That said, if you reach a point where you are comfortable with them and someone who knows what they are doing has assessed and approved of your form then these exercises are your BFF for changing your all around game.
Ready for this? Ready for me to get all Billy Mays on that ass?
I personally guarantee you get leaner and stronger with the following.
-Hang Clean & Jerk
If you don’t, I will give you your money back from reading this blog. (Too bad it’s free, chump.)
I use the term Olympic Lifts very loosely. The only two real olympic lifts are the snatch and the clean and jerk, but I just don’t know how else to categorize and separate the above exercises that work more muscles than Tommy Tricep Extension can count. I realize it’s a slippery slope and pretty soon I’ll probably have people categorizing dips as ‘Oly lifting’ but hopefully my point comes across.
Teach the body to work as more than a some of its parts to pick up something heavy.
Rest is a wonderful thing and there is no better form of appreciation you can show your body then to give it the rest it needs, deserves and is often times starved for like Kate Moss at Golden Corral.
This is a really touchy subject because as fitness professionals it is our job to get people motivated enough to come to the gym and develop habit and then turn around and say don’t do then when people want to overdo it.
Knowing when to tell people to scale back their efforts and knowing when to scale them back yourself are very important to keep yourself healthy, alert and maximizing return on investment. The law of diminishing returns absolutely kicks in if you are completely crushing yourself seven days a week for an hour on end and you start to get far less output for your input.
Believe “bang for your buck” is the technical term.
Less is more.
30 minutes is absolutely plenty of time to hit multiple metabolic pathways and improve in many areas in a single workout.
Most people know that your muscles need the recovery time, but what goes oft overlooked is need for your nervous and endocrine system to recover. Hormones run rampant in a serious training program and your body needs time to dial it back and achieve homeostasis, even if it’s brief trip to that happy place.
Stick to four days a week, keep the workouts short and intense, avoid back to back days of heavy load on your legs and you will be fine.
Here is a great article by Mark Sisson to determine if you are overtraining.
They Cut the Crap
Swear off processed foods and all of their relatives. Many people think processed and they think it has to be some food Frankenstein like Spam when in reality mass-marketed “health foods” like whole grain bread, ‘Madison Ave’s definition of healthy’ cereal and canned vegetables are all processed.
Unless it is taken straight from the source and delivered to market as such, it is processed to a certain degree.
It’s time to nix the unnecessary breads, complex carbohydrates, commercial fruit juices, dairy and all of the foods not classified as lean meat, eggs, vegetables, leafy greens and a little fruit.
Start working these into your life until they become habit and I guarantee you will see success.