Fitness As A Lifelong Pursuit: Lessons From Tom Merrick

Tom Merrick is an online coach and fitness YouTuber who specializes in bodyweight strength, flexibility and hand-balancing

Fitness As A Lifelong Pursuit: Lessons From Tom Merrick

Tom Merrick is an online coach and fitness YouTuber who specializes in bodyweight strength, flexibility and hand-balancing

For those who don't know you, can you tell us your backstory and what you do now?

Sure. So, I started my journey in fitness by lifting weights. After training for two years, I then got glandular fever and lost 10-12kg in the space of two weeks. When I started training again, the doctors told me that I couldn’t go back to weightlifting, so I started bodyweight training.

I was at Loughborough university at the time which is where the British gymnastics team trained. So I started off by watching these guys doing full planches, ring somersaults, backflips, all that sort of stuff. It was really inspiring – gymnasts are on a whole other level.

When I finished Uni, instead of getting a real job, I thought I’d do this as a job – teaching calisthenics and making YouTube videos. I gave myself about six months to make roughly what an average graduate would make in the UK. It passed the test, so I carried on and here we are five years later.

What advice has been most useful to you in creating this fitness centred entrepreneurial lifestyle?

As a self-employed person, there is an element of inconsistency which you don’t get with a normal job. One of the best recommendations that I got came from my mentor, Emmet. He said to get clients on a direct debit, or some sort of recurring income. It’s simpler for both of you and it gives you a little bit of that predicted income.

Secondly, you need to set some goals. Monetary goals can be quite useful, say you want to earn £100,000 a year, then that’s roughly £300 a day. So you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘How do I make £300 a day? How do I break that down?

It’s the same with training, if I want to achieve a handstand, it’s like, ‘Hey, what are those made up of? What are the goals along the way that I need to be doing? How exactly am I going to go about achieving it?’ Once you have a plan, you just need to turn up and be consistent. 

My biggest recommendation, and something that I wish I’d done earlier, was to have paid or found somebody to learn from. With the internet and the fact that you can search up everything, it gives you the impression that you know everything, when really there’s a lot of intricacies that you don’t. Just learning from somebody who’s ‘been there, done that and made the mistakes’ can give you some really good insight. It’s invaluable.

How did you go about finding mentors, or like-minded people?

Social media can be a massively useful thing if you use it with the intention of ‘What can I get out of this?’ – rather than comparing yourself to other people. 

Focus on using it for connecting with people, learning from others and being inspired. That’s what it’s all about really, community, meeting people. I’ve met some really great friends through it – pretty much everyone I know in my niche.

Just reach out to people. If I want to speak to someone, I just drop them a message. If someone reaches out to me, I’ll chat to them. I think most people would do the same.

How has your approach to goal setting changed?

I think now I just generally appreciate that fitness is a lifelong endeavour. You don’t just train for a few years and have ‘fitness for life’. You need to keep showing up. 

My approach to begin with was ‘How quickly can I get these things?’ I was in more of a rush. I think social media also feeds into this, people forget that what you’re seeing is usually the top 1% of people in their field – it’s not a realistic comparison.

Now, the time doesn’t really matter. It’s nice if you can achieve your goals quickly, but unless you’ve got amazing genetics, it’s probably not going to happen; it’s gonna take you a bit longer. But there’s really no rush – you’ve got the rest of your life to figure this shit out.

Nowadays, I set a goal, and I’ll be like, ‘Cool, I will achieve this’. There’s less of a focus on time and more on the process – breaking down the goal, being consistent.

You were training a lot more before you injured your elbow, was that due to impatience?

It was more a lack of understanding of good training practices – I was in the mindset of ‘Do more to get better results’.

Now I’m always on the side of ‘minimum effective dose’.

For a lot of people, it’s like, you want to train, but you’ve got other things you want to do as well. So why train for two hours a day, six days a week, when you can do an hour for three days a week and get similar results?

Do you have some habits that you enjoy less than others?

I’ve recently started trying to get up at sunrise, it’s a great way to get outside first thing. That started around November time – I was just feeling a bit crappy with all the lockdowns, I’m sure many people in the UK are. I haven’t stuck to it rigidly, I’d say maybe 4-5 days out of the week I’ll do it. But if I don’t, I still try to get outside first thing. 

Before that I was spending the first hour of my day sat in bed scrolling through social media, and I was like ‘This is just not making me happy’. It screws with your dopamine for the rest of the day – you’re constantly looking back at your phone, it just sets that tone. When I head out in the morning, I don’t take my phone with me, or I’ll take it to get a photo and keep it in airplane mode.

I don’t particularly love getting up early, but looking back on it I’m glad I’m doing it – sometimes you’ve got to do things you don’t enjoy. The amount of sunrises I’ve seen in the last three months has been infinitely more than I’ve seen in my life, and some of them have been spectacular.

It’s the same with sea swimming, which I usually combine with getting up at sunrise, a couple times a week. It’s freezing at the moment – it’s not enjoyable at all. But then afterwards, I’m like, ‘Yes, I conquered my inner bitch and I actually managed to make myself go for a swim’. And when it gets to summer and it’s 20°C and sunny, you appreciate it so much more because you’ve gone through winter when it was absolutely ball-shrivelling freezing.

So when your alarm goes off before dawn, how do you get up, day after day?

So the consistency aspect, I feel, is self-fulfilling. The more you do it, the more you will be like, ‘Oh, this is just something I do’. So if you haven’t done it for a few days, it’ll be harder. 

Most of the time I post a picture on my story. To do that I have to be there at sunrise, so there’s some accountability element there. Or sometimes I’ll meet my friends or my parents down at the beach. That’s another form of accountability – I have to get up or I’ll be late for them.

There’s a book by Gretchen Rubin [Better Than Before], where she talks about different types of people – whether you’re somebody who’s accountable to other people, or if you’re more intrinsically motivated. So whatever it is, you need to figure out what’s gonna work for you.

But I think that doing something with somebody else is the easiest way to stay committed to things.

Any other advice for building a strong work ethic?

I feel like for most people, having a deadline is hands down the easiest way to get things done.

Personally, if anything comes up, I’ll write it down on a to do list. There’s probably 100 things on there at the moment. Each day I’ll pick a group of them that I know I need to do, and I don’t finish work until that’s done. Obviously if I work hard I’ll finish around 3 o’clock. If I piss about and don’t do it, I’ll finish a bit later.

Also, if you can make whatever you’re doing enjoyable, that’s key. I bitch and moan about going in the sea or getting up at sunrise, but I do genuinely enjoy it – for every day that I don’t like it, I have days that I really love doing it. Ultimately, if you don’t enjoy doing something, you’re not going to keep it consistent over time.

What about days where you don’t feel motivated?

What I’ve noticed over the past few years is that the hustle culture isn’t necessarily indicative of the human condition. Some days, working is easy. You just get in the zone, you look at the clock, and suddenly it’s 5 or 6pm. Some days just flow. And on those days, I might do 12-14 hours of work. Then on other days, where I’m not feeling it, unless I’ve got something really pressing, I won’t judge myself for feeling like that.

You can’t be hustling 24/7, you need to give yourself a break, or you get stuck in this position where you feel like you always need to be doing something. You never give yourself the chance to just relax, and just take a break from things. Even if you’re sat there watching TV or something, you feel like you should be doing something.

My recommendation would just be, if you have the luxury of choice, and you’re not feeling it, don’t do it.

It’s the same with training, usually you work to a week structure. That’s just the structure that we have as a society, but it’s not necessarily the best way to structure a training programme.

So if on the day you’re supposed to be training you’re still a bit sore from the last session, and you feel a bit weaker, there’s probably not much point in doing the session. Just take a rest day, do a bit of stretching, do some walking or something else chilled, and do your workout the next day.

As long as you’re not using it as an excuse to not do something, respect the fact you need some rest and recovery – that’s fine.

How do you manage perfectionism?

I feel like I’ve become less of a perfectionist as I’ve worked more. Now my focus is more on consistency. I think turning up is far more important than doing it perfectly.

I think experiential learning is massive, and people who are perfectionists often won’t do what they need to do unless they can do it perfectly, so they don’t improve. 

I know the whole ‘learning through failure’ thing is a generic thing to say, but if you take action, you’re gonna fail at some point. If you’re a perfectionist, you’re probably not going to do anything, so you’re not going to fail, which means you won’t learn anything.

You just have to ask yourself the question, ‘Is whatever you’re doing better than what you did last week or last month? Or the last time you did it?’

I think being overly critical can often be explained by the Dunning-Kruger effect.

A lot of people get stuck in that first [top left] position because they think they know everything, so they’re overly critical much too early. Not just of themselves, but also potentially of new ideas that could benefit them in the future. I think it’s worse with the internet, you read a few things online and you think you know everything about a subject.

The reality is, the more you do something, the better you get at doing it. So it makes much more sense to be more critical once you’ve spent more time in your field learning – you have the experience and the knowledge to refine things more. So as a beginner, you need to be less critical and more creative, more open, more willing to ‘just do’.

I actually learned this during my degree studying design. When we started a new project, we’d have an ideation phase, and the key part of that phase is that you don’t judge whatever it is you come up with, you just chuck ideas down on paper – doesn’t matter if it’s a bad idea or a good idea, just chuck everything down and don’t judge it. That comes later, in the development stage.

None of this is to say you shouldn’t ever be self critical. If you lack that ability, then you just become complacent and you won’t make progress at all. But if you’re overly critical, you’re going to stifle any creativity. 

There’s actually a great book called ‘The Courage To Be Disliked’, I highly recommend everyone read it. It’s a book based on Adlerian psychology, which essentially says that you act in a way that you choose to act, but you may use the things that have happened to you as excuses to act in that way. I think its basis is really in Stoicism. 

Anyway, the final chapter is about the courage to be normal – understanding that you have a place in your community, whatever that is. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the top spot, but it’s the spot that you have right now, so you’ll be happier by accepting that’s where you are now, and then doing the best that you can do.

Which other books have had a profound impact on your thoughts?

My name, ‘The Bodyweight Warrior’ comes from a book called ‘King Warrior Magician Lover’, by Douglas Gillette and Robert Moore. It’s based on Jungian philosophy and young love archetypes. I think it’s very insightful, but also practical – it talks about the good and shadow (darker) sides of each archetype. You read it and see where you’re exhibiting each behaviour.

Another book is ‘Sapiens’. I think that understanding where we came from is a really valuable tool.

I also enjoyed ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’, which is about how the modern world came to be. I just think it’s good to know some context of what people have struggled with in the past, because we live a very easy life in comparison.

Are there any mantras you live by?

Knowing is nice, but doing is better.

That’s from Emmet. Don’t say you’re going to do something, just go do it. Or say you’re gonna do it as well, but make sure you actually do.

How would you motivate someone to get in shape?

I don’t think ‘Do it for the long term health perspective’ works because humans aren’t very good at thinking long term. I think I’d phrase it in a bit more of an ego driven way, that’s an easier thing to get into.

But I’d probably start by understanding what they want to do. Fitness doesn’t mean just going to the gym and lifting, if you like going out for a walk, that’s fitness. I’d start by asking them, ‘What’s something preferably outdoors, preferably physical that you enjoy doing?’ And then work back from there.

Also, when starting something new, it doesn’t help to sacrifice things that you enjoy. I’ll get an email saying that somebody is trying to work out, they’re trying to change their diet, they’re trying to do all these different things at once. Just focus on one thing, and do that one thing really well. Then that ends up being something that raises the tide, and all boats then rise up with that tide.

How do you allocate your time between strength, skill, and flexibility work?

Strength training is usually two or three times a week. I’ll do about an hour of intense work each time, that’s really enough unless you do full body work, then potentially you could do a little bit longer.

For flexibility, I used to stretch every single night before bed, probably about 30-45 minutes. Now I do maybe like 10 minutes before bed, just like a couple of positions to chill out. I’ll also spend 15 minutes twice a week on flexibility.

It takes roughly about a sixth of the energy to maintain something as it does to attain something. So if I was still working towards those flexibility goals [splits, pancake], then I’d want to be spending probably half an hour, two times a week on each skill.

Same with the skill work – when I was working towards the one arm handstand, I was doing about 5 two hour sessions a week. Now I’m just doing 3-4 forty-five minute sessions.

How do you deal with burnout?

So I recently took 10 days off training, in December. If you’d asked me 3-4 years ago, I’d be like, ‘I don’t take time off.’ I’d get annoyed at myself if I did. Whereas now I just kind of respect that some days, I’m not feeling it. And I don’t put any judgement on that feeling.

It comes down to thinking more long term. If you don’t do something for a short period of time, as long as you know you’re going to get back to it, and you don’t use it as an excuse, it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got a long time to do these things.

At the start of this lockdown, I really didn’t feel like doing any vlogs, so I didn’t. I knew the videos wouldn’t be any good anyway, so I took that pressure off myself. I’m enjoying making them more now because of that time off.

But I think it’s important that you don’t use that as an excuse to not do something. You need to be somewhat self aware, to think ‘Am I just being a little bitch and can I make myself do this?’, which sometimes you need to do. Sometimes you just need to grow a pair and do it.

Other times, it’s not healthy. I think it takes a little bit of time to find that balance for yourself – it’s different for everyone.

Do you have a work schedule?

I don’t have a schedule, but I tend to work around 9-5 ish. I get up at sunrise, and I go for a half hour walk. Then I’ll make some coffee, do some breathing – usually Wim Hof breathing. Then I either start my work day there, or I’ll do some reading or learning. So, I usually start work around 8:30, but it depends.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to create and scale your business to where it is today?

I’m currently in the biggest obstacle at the moment, which is going from me doing literally everything, to bringing on people to help me with what I want to do. If you do too many things yourself, it limits your ability to do the things you really need to do well. I recently found an editor, James, who’s really good; he’s helped me a lot, but I’ll need to bring on more people to do what I want to do. 

It’s a tough process, finding people you trust with that. But I think ultimately, it comes down to not being afraid to ask for help. I’ve reached out to Emmet and Keegan Smith, who owns Real Movement. I’m just trying to learn from people to figure it out.

The E Myth’ is a good business book – it’s an old American salesy business type, but there’s some good info in there on the three roles of a business person [Entrepreneur, Manager, Technician].

So the key to running a successful business is understanding those different roles. He talks about how you’re all three at the start, but you need to divide up those roles if you want to grow. The idea is that you need to work on your business, as well as in your business.

Any useful lessons you've learned as an entrepreneur?

For a business or a career, don’t think in terms of quarters or years, think of the next five years or the next decade. 

Apart from that, try to balance always striving for something and never being satisfied, with taking some time to just be happy with where you are in the moment. For the past six months, I’ve just been grateful to be able to do what I’ve been doing. It’s easy to get sucked into pushing for exponential growth without enjoying the process. I think it’s important to take a bit of a step back sometimes to appreciate where you are.

Finally, what is your advice to young men?

Don’t be afraid to be a man. I feel like masculinity in general has been a bit demonised, but if you want to go out and do things in the world, that requires masculine energy.

This comes from that book, ‘King Warrior Magician Lover’. If you think about Yin and Yang, Yin is restorative, drawing in, whereas Yang is pushing out, taking action.

There’s many very good masculine traits, as well as negative ones. The book puts this into perspective, when you read it, you’re like, ‘Okay, well, this is a negative example of masculine energy and aggression. And then here’s a positive.’

Aside from that, I feel like everyone should do some form of strength training, it has so much more of an impact on you than just being strong and looking good. I think it was Socrates who said: “It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

I think that’s really important. I’ve worked with a lot of people where you can just tell that they don’t have confidence in their body’s ability to be strong or robust. At the end of the day, human beings have survived a hell of a lot of crazy situations. And I think strength training is the modern day equivalent of exposing yourself to some form of physical hardship.