For me, as I’m sure for many others, getting in shape served as the catalyst for my journey into self-development. I’d argue that physical well-being is a foundational pillar to a fulfilling lifestyle. What’s more, the course of improving your health is both an exciting and rewarding process – one that I’d encourage you to view as simply the synergy of several key habits.
This article will serve as a complete beginner’s guide. I’ll do my best to outline the basic steps in a clear and concise manner. Drawing from personal experience, I will make suggestions to aid in sustainability and injury prevention – both of which are central themes to this piece. I hope, through these suggestions, you’ll avoid making the common rookie mistakes that I, myself, have been guilty of.
First things first, it’s important to note where you are now and where you’d like to go.
In the pursuit of any new habit it can be common to try and start too quickly; we give our all only to snap back in the other direction, like a rubber band that’s been stretched too far. Or perhaps we decide on vague objectives without specifying a clear route to their achievement.
To avoid these typical errors, it’s important to make goals that are specific and sustainable in the long-term. Whether you’re looking to run a marathon, compete in the IFBB or simply become a healthier and happier version of yourself, having a clear plan is crucial.
An example of a specific goal: “Over the next month, I’m going to run 1km on the treadmill, each Sunday afternoon.”
The initial steps you take will depend on your starting position. As an example, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to effectively gain muscle and lose weight at the same time. If you are overweight, it’s usually advised to tackle one and then the other.
The methods outlined in this article are tried and tested. They will work. However, change doesn’t happen overnight. Getting in shape is a gradual process. With that, don’t be discouraged if you’re not seeing immediate results. If it helps, take progress pictures. Over time, the changes will become more apparent (both physically and mentally).
For whatever reason, the act of improving our health often gets entangled in an ‘all-or-nothing mentality’. The new year rolls in and we start by trying to do everything ‘perfectly’ – “no more this and no more that…” Inevitably, this leads to burn out and we pick up where we previously left off.
In his book, ‘How to Make Disease Disappear’, Dr. Rangan Chatterjee stresses the importance of a balanced approach towards health and fitness. He cites the four principal pillars of longevity as food, relaxation, sleep and movement. He strongly advocates ‘doing enough’ in each of these areas, rather than striving for perfection in any particular one.
For most of us, I’d imagine, our fitness aspirations are centered in either one, a few, or each of the following four areas: ‘Strength & Size’, ‘Weight Management’, ‘Cardio’ or ‘Flexibility & Mobility’. For this reason, I’ve outlined a basic roadmap for making progress in each:
Eat. Lift. Sleep. Repeat.
Putting on muscle is far less complicated than you may have been conditioned to think. I’m sure you’ve seen the t-shirts: “Eat. Lift. Sleep. Repeat.” Though it may sound simple, this really is the formula for adding more size to your frame.
There seems to be a misconception among the general public that, in order to get a “Men’s Health physique”, one must dramatically reduce their food consumption. On the one hand, yes, cover models will tend to cut down prior to a photoshoot, but the reality is, to pack on muscle you’ll need to eat plenty of food.
As a general guideline, use a TDEE calculator to determine how many calories you should be consuming. Your TDEE refers to your total daily energy expenditure. Essentially, you’ll want to eat more calories than “you’re using” so that the excess can go towards muscle growth.
During this phase, putting on fat is practically inevitable. However, the exact amount will be determined by how aggressively you choose to bulk up. My advice: take it slow. It’s far easier to put on weight than it is to lose it. Increase your calorie intake slowly and monitor your body’s response. There’s no reason you can’t stay lean.
If you’re struggling to gain weight at the rate you’d like, more often than not, it’s because you’re not eating enough. Personally, I found it difficult to get the calories in, being naturally tall and skinny. To get around this, I bought a Ninja Blender and started making homemade weight gainer shakers (usually consisting of protein powder, oats, almond milk, avocado & peanut butter). In my opinion, this is the easiest way to up your calories.
Naturally, to put on size, you’re going to have to train. You can do this in a gym with free weights or in your living room with no equipment at all. The key is in being consistent and following a structured routine to avoid muscle imbalance.
A few of the more common training splits are:
The idea is that each workout corresponds with one section of the split. For example, if you were to follow the PPL routine, your first session would consist of training chest, shoulders and triceps; the next would be back and biceps, and so on and so forth. The main benefit of using a split routine is that it allows you to focus more time and attention on each muscle group.
If you’re working out without any equipment, it might be easier to stick with a full-body routine. However, with just a pull-up bar your options dramatically increase. In fact, when I first started working out, it was the only piece of equipment I had.
Calisthenics, for example, is a form of resistance training which primarily uses your bodyweight to build strength and size. My advice would be to incorporate some of the fundamental moves (e.g. push-ups, pull-ups and dips) into any practice. These are staples which will provide a strong foundation for you to then build on – they are often overlooked.
How to Progress
With a routine in place, the next concept to consider is progressive overload. The idea is to simply make your workouts more demanding over time; putting continuous stress on the muscles so that they are forced to adapt and grow. This can be achieved in four main ways:
Be patient and listen to your own body. When I first started lifting weights, I was hasty and short-sighted, thinking about the goals I wanted to achieve next week rather than, say, a decade down the line. I was quick out the gates and that resulted in several injuries – though, thankfully, nothing too serious.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t focus on weekly objectives but rather that they should be sustainable and in alignment with a longer-term view.
For most people, the journey of losing weight starts by taking the time to document – or at least, become familiar with – the amount of calories they consume in a day. Though it’s not always as simple as ‘calories in versus calories out’ – research has shown that other factors, such as sleep quality, play a crucial role in our body’s composition – it’s a good place to start.
Throughout the day, our body uses energy (measured in calories) as fuel. The exact amount is what’s known as our TDEE (or ‘total daily energy expenditure’). Our TDEE is comprised of a variety of factors including our age, weight, height and the amount of physical activity in our lifestyle. When we do more, our bodies use more energy and similarly, when we do less, our bodies use less. Fairly intuitive.
Thus, a simple formula to lose weight is to consume fewer calories than your body burns. This is called being in a caloric deficit which can be achieved by eating less, through exercise (i.e. “doing more”) or a combination of the two.
I’d suggest using an online TDEE calculator to gauge an estimate of your daily expenditure. From there, the choice is yours as to how you’d like to go about reaching a deficit. If your goal is health and longevity, you should probably consider a combination of diet and exercise.
However, as previously noted, your first steps should be sustainable; ones that you can see through. As they become more habitual, you can begin to build on them and push your boundaries further.
One strategy that’s often used to help facilitate weight loss is fasting – more specifically intermittent fasting (IF). In a fasted state, our body turns to breaking down fat cells to fuel its activity. Amongst other benefits, studies have shown that intermittent fasting can contribute to stabilize blood sugar levels and reduce inflammation. The nice thing about it? It doesn’t involve counting any calories or tackling a new diet.
Instead, the idea is to reduce your ‘feeding window’ to a specific set of hours. For example, in the past, I’ve experimented with 16 hour fasts. During this time, I’d abstain from consuming anything other than water. For the remaining 8 hours, say from 11:00-19:00, I’d eat and drink as normal. This approach, 16:8, is fairly common and less challenging than you may think. But to reiterate, if IF is something that interests you, try out a few alternatives and see what works best with your goals and schedule.
Cardio is an essential ingredient for overall health. Not only does it burn fat and strengthen your heart, it’s also a great tool to help in building greater mental resilience and improving your sleep pattern. We weren’t built to be sat in office chairs all day.
There are two predominant methods of cardiovascular training: HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and SS (steady state).
HIIT is great for burning calories in a short period of time and this is usually why it’s recommended. The idea is to fluctuate between short bursts of “high-intensity” movement (i.e. to spike up the heart rate) and lighter recovery periods to rest.
For example, you could divide a minute cycle into, say, 20 seconds of high intensity and the other 40 into a lighter pace, repeating this cycle as many times as you see fit (no pun intended). A typical HIIT workout I’ve used in the past has been following this approach on a rowing machine for 12 cycles – or 12 minutes in total.
If you struggle to find the time to workout, HIIT is a particularly great approach; boasting a large ‘bang for its buck’. The idea is fairly intuitive and can be applied across a variety of different training methods (e.g. running, cycling, skipping).
On the other hand steady-state, or prolonged cardio, involves maintaining a constant pace for the duration of the session. It’s great for building endurance, resilience and will also help in burning calories – though it won’t be at the same rate as HIIT.
On that note, I’d highly recommend skipping as a fun way for most people to start exercising. I stumbled upon ‘Rush Athletics TV’ on YouTube a couple years ago and was inspired to purchase his rope and start at it. It’s great because it’s a lot less impactful on your joints than running and can be used for either HIIT or SS workouts. I found it to be a great warm-up before lifting.
Ultimately, it’s important to find something that you enjoy so that you’ll be excited to keep coming back to it.
Perhaps the most overlooked area of fitness – especially for men – is flexibility and mobility training. Though stretching out on a yoga mat may feel less ‘manly’ than throwing some barbells around, I’ve definitely found it to help with the latter. What’s more, yoga is a great tool in injury prevention and for improving mental health. The mind and the body are linked, after all.
Yoga is great for a variety of reasons. The increased range of motion, core strength and level of body-awareness that a regular practice offers will pay dividends in the future. In my opinion, if you’re doing any sort of physical exercise it’s a good idea to supplement it with some flexibility and mobility work – think of it as maintaining a healthy framework to then build on in the rest of your training.
That said, ‘winging it’ will typically only last for so long. I’d advise following some sort of structured video or program. There are a few key reasons for this: (1) it’s a lot easier to follow along then to create your own program (especially when you’re just starting), (2) you can hear from an expert who has likely dedicated many years to their craft and (3) you can find material that’s specifically tailored towards your current skill level.
I’d suggest ‘Yoga With Adriene’ for anyone looking to delve into the practice. Her YouTube page has over 500 videos and 6 million subscribers so it’s a great free resource to get the ball rolling.
In addition to yoga, you may consider purchasing a foam roller if you find that you’re often tight or sore after exercise. Foam rolling is a technique used for self-myofascial release. It’s comparable to giving yourself a deep tissue massage, breaking up scar tissue and improving circulation. Use it as a tool to supplement your training, rather than a quick fix.
To reiterate, getting fit is the result of small habits which are carried out consistently over a prolonged period of time. There will be ups and downs; progress is not linear. If this is new to you, don’t expect to be hitting the gym five days a week, stretching each morning and jogging to work by the end of the month. Be smart and go at a pace that you can keep up, rather than one you feel you ought to.
Habits take time to build. However, once they are, they become autopilot decisions requiring much less effort. The challenge is to sustain new behaviours to the point where they’re no longer a burden, but actually enjoyable. From there, you can ‘stack’ new routines on top of your existing ones. For example, by ending your weightlifting sessions with some cardio, once you’re already in the habit of consistently lifting weights. Consider the analogy of learning to catch a ball; you wouldn’t start by trying to catch two at the same time.
Getting enough rest is vital. This is both in terms of time away from the gym and in the more literal sense of getting enough, good quality sleep. If your sleeping pattern is currently an issue, it’d be the first thing I’d suggest that you tackle. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to check out this fascinating talk on the Joe Rogan Podcast, with Matthew Walker, a British scientist who specialises in the role of sleep in health and disease. His insights are truly eye-opening.
Additionally, if a muscle or joint feels off, rest it. Sadly, if you’re anything like me, this is a lesson you may have to experience first-hand in order to fully internalise it, but it bears repeating either way. Remember that an injury will stall your progress much more than a week off from the gym. That dull pain in your shoulder that you keep ignoring? It’ll probably worsen if you’re not proactive about recovery.
As I’ve mentioned, yoga is a fantastic way to heal your body and to prevent injury. If you’re unsure as to whether it’d be beneficial under your particular circumstance, seek medical advice.
Pareto’s principle states that 20% of the actions we take will typically account for 80% of the results. Though it’s an observation and not a law, it’s worth considering in your approach to getting in shape. Whatever your fitness goals, keep it simple and focus on doing the fundamentals well. Remember Dr. Chaterjee’s advice of striving for balance and ‘doing enough’ rather than for perfection.
Like I said, don’t just ‘wing it’. We have access to an endless array of podcasts, online tutorials, and books that can aid in our journey. What’s more, they’re all accessible from a device that sits in our pockets for most of the day. Be resourceful and seek expert advice/guidance if you’re struggling.
Finally, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. To find what works best for you, there’ll be a period of trial and error – probably a never-ending one, at that. The more specific questions you may have, such as those in regard to the frequency and length of your workouts or the timing of your meals and the specific foods you eat? They’re for you to answer, based on your own goals and your own schedule.