On New Year’s Day, I popped into my local gym for a quick lift before work. Being a holiday, I didn’t expect to find many people there, but it was surprisingly busy.
It’s a sign of things to come as people spent time reflecting on 2017 and figuring out what they want to do differently in 2018. Invariably, that includes losing weight and getting in shape for a lot of people. (It doesn’t help that the Holiday Eating Season, which runs from Thanksgiving until News Year’s Day, makes most of us fluffier.)
Habitual gym-goers bemoan the onslaught of New Year’s resolutioners who will soon clog our gyms and fitness centers. I don’t. Kudos to anyone who tries to improve their health, and welcome to the tribe. If this is you, I’d like to offer a few pointers before you embark on that venerable January tradition of “getting back in shape.”
Make a plan: Something is better than nothing when it comes to exercise, but having a goal – and a plan to achieve it – is always better. I see people walk in and try out machines, aimlessly looking for a pump or a burn, then walk out having achieved little. Do you want to lose weight? Get stronger? Build more mass? There are specific ways to do this. Choose you goal, then find a plan that will achieve that goal.
Stick to that plan: Training programs can be great. I’ve used many, and they all have one common feature: They work when I stick to it. Most training plans work in eight-to-12-week cycles. Some may be more. But if you see incremental success and then quit because you’re not magically worthy of the cover of a fitness mag, then you deserve the results you got. See it through. No one has achieved a goal by quitting early.
Be consistent: This sounds like “stick to the plan,” but there’s some nuance here. Being healthy, fit and strong is not just a result from doing one fitness program. It’s something that’s built over time. It’s a habit. Someone who has made fitness a lifestyle will likely use several exercise plans over the course of years to meet evolving goals. But the real takeaway is this: You can have a great workout once, then slack off for a week and it will have done you no good. But string together a few months of “average” workouts and the transformation will happen. One great moment of glory – a race completed, a PR on your deadlift, or a rockin’ summer beach bod – is built on a foundation of many months’ worth of “average” days in the gym, on the pavement or on the trail.
Leave the cellphone in your locker: I know, I know, our phones have tunes and timers and fitness apps. But most of the time I see people in the gym with their phone, they’re texting. Or reading some article. Or checking Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter or whatever else is pumping rapid-fire notifications their way. I’ve seen people sit on a bench for five to ten minutes texting between sets. I’ve seen gym selfies. I saw a guy last week eking out quarter-squats on a Smith Machine, one hand on the bar, one hand on his phone, face craned toward whatever it was that was so important that he couldn’t put the phone down and actually try a good lift. He’s a fixture at my gym, has maintained this behavior for years, and, not surprisingly, has never changed in physique or performance. He’s the same weak dude he’s always been. I’ve seen so much time wasted because people can’t free themselves from their phone for an hour. I never lift with my phone. It stays in the locker. There is no text or social media thingy that can’t wait. Need music? Get a music player. Need a timer? Buy one, or a watch. You came to work out, not to swipe right.
Be a good human: This entails a lot of things, but they’re easy to spell out. When at the gym, refrain from flirting or looking for dates. Put your weights away when you’re finished. Clean up the sweat you leave behind. Keep your advice to yourself unless asked (which almost never happens) and seek advice from trainers when you have questions. Don’t hog multiple stations. Don’t crowd other exercisers. Don’t stand right in front of the dumbbell rack. Don’t slam/drop weights. In general, do the things that are considerate of other exercisers and the gym staff. If you want more detail, check out these 11 rules of the Gym Rat Code.
Remember that you can’t out-train a bad diet: In body builder circles, it’s been said that success is 80 percent in the kitchen and 20 percent in the gym. I’d say that’s mostly true. Just because you’re exercising more doesn’t mean that you can eat whatever you want. Not if you want to succeed. Clean up that diet, watch your alcohol intake and give your body the nutrition it needs to make you healthier and stronger.
Don’t fret the scale: Use the mirror test instead. Too many people view the number on the scale as their only metric of fitness. Don’t fall into that trap. Your weight can fluctuate wildly from one day to the next. As you gain muscle, you might actually gain weight. But as time progresses, you’ll see a difference in how you look. The scale is one measure of progress, but a flighty one. There are others, like how much you can lift, how far/fast you can run, and how you look in the mirror.
And finally, get your rest: Proper sleep equals proper recovery. And recovery is where the magic happens. When you’re sleeping, your body is rebuilding your muscles to be stronger and better. If you short-change your rest, you’ll eventually short-circuit your fitness goals. Also, one day a week should be a rest day where you don’t train at all. Just chill, eat well, and recover. You don’t have to go full-blast every day. And yes, this means steering clear of those 30-day challenges and runstreaks. It might sound cool, but your rest is more important.
That’s the basics from me. Starting out on your fitness journey means taking that first step. But be sure to think beyond that and be in it for the long haul. These ideas will help you get there.