Strength training: Go with the four-by-four program for gains

Literally getting ugly with the iron.

Many moons ago, when I was a college kid with a fascination for all things weight lifting, the dorm director where I was living threw a two-part opportunity toward the guys: Sign up for a campus wide powerlifting meet, and he’d show us some tricks about how to get stronger fast.

That may as well have been catnip to me. I attended a seminar he put on and learned about his “four-by-four” program and immediately signed up to compete.

I didn’t do that great at the meet, but I learned a lot. And that four-by-four program stuck with me. I went from pushing around weenie-weight to rattling some plates in a matter of a few months.

Many years later, I found myself looking for a good program to boost strength in the big lifts: deadlift, squat and bench press. And I remembered that program my dorm director wrote out on a chalk board when I was a scrawny little freshman stuck in the “curls for girls” mentality of strength training.

I’m glad I went back to it. As challenging as it can be, it’s also been rewarding. Over the spring and summer, I’ve tacked on 50 pounds to my squat.

So how does it work? I’ve modified it a little: the original program was heavily dependent on doing singles, right up to a one-rep max. Nothing wrong with singles, but I think that’s a thing you should do very occasionally.

First, you need to figure out what your one-rep max is in the lift you’re performing. And then you’ll calculate some percentages to build the workout. Here’s an example of it looks like:

Warm-up with an unloaded bar, 10-12 reps.

Continued warm-up, 135 pounds, 8 reps.

Six reps, 60 percent of your 1RM

Four sets of 4 reps, 90 percent of your 1RM.

Two sets of 5 reps, lighter weight with a variation of the lift you’re performing.

So let’s say you’re working on your bench press, and you know your 1RM is 200 pounds. The workout would look like this:

1×10, unloaded bar

1×8, 95 pounds

1×6, 120 pounds

4×4, 180 pounds

2×5, 115 pounds, close-grip bench press (or some other chest press variation)

Or, say you’re squatting, with a 1RM of 300 pounds. Here’s what that might look like:

1×10, unloaded bar

1×8, 135

1×6, 205

4×4, 270

2×5, 150, front squat (or some other squat variation)

Finally, here’s what this workout would look like if you were deadlifting with a 400-pound 1RM:

1×10, lightly loaded bar (light bumper plates)

1×8, 135

1×6, 240

4×4, 360

2×5, 225, Romanian deadlift (or some other variation of the deadlift)

They key with making this work is to progressively increase the weight you’re using over an 8 to 12-week span. Back in the day, we were taught to go for about 10 pounds per week. I’m more conservative – I shoot for 5 pounds a week, and if my body ain’t feeling it, I’ll stand pat if I must.

You’ll also want to scale up the 1×8 weight a little as you progress. You don’t have to make that weight challenging; just heavy enough to give you some resistance while warming up your muscles. A lot of times, a 135-pound bar is great for lifters who are in that “intermediate” stage of strength training development.

One other thing: Let’s say you’re lifting legs twice a week. If you’re going to do the four-by-four program, use it once a week. On your second leg day, do another type of workout. Maybe something with the same or similar exercises, but lighter weights with more reps (I currently do a 5×10 workout, increasing weight with each set, but not topping out at more than 75 percent of my 1RM). That way you can still get in quality work, but not fry yourself in the process. And don’t forget to program a deload week every 6-8 weeks.

Include supporting exercises for the back end of your workout (maybe some reverse lunges, calf presses, leg extensions and kettlebell swings, if you’re doing a leg day workout) to round things out.

This is one of those plans designed primarily for strength. It’s not a hypertrophy workout (though as you get stronger, you’ll probably pack on some size), nor is it designed to get you ripped (that happens in the kitchen, homie). But it will help build a good base of strength, and as we know, that can lead to a whole lot of other good things.

Bob Doucette

Strength experiment, part 3: Posterior chain, aka, working your backside

The primal joy of the deadlift. Sah-weet!

It’s been fun recapping the strength workouts I did over the winter. Some are harder than others. Today we’re going to hit on an area that, for most people, offers the greatest potential for growth, and yet is often sorely neglected: the posterior chain.

So, what the heck is that? Simply put, it’s all the musculature on the back side (posterior) of your body, starting with the muscles in your neck all the way down to your hamstrings. So many people focus on the “mirror muscles” – the muscles they see when looking their reflection – that they forget about crucial areas which will make or break you athletically, and will affect your long-term health.

Let me lay out some truth to you. You cannot be strong if your back is weak. You will not stay healthy is your back is weak. You will likely become injured, physically compromised and otherwise headed toward greater immobility if your back is weak. Bench-pressing a truck is great. So is squatting a house. You will do neither if your back is weak.

And think about all the other things you do. Running, skiing, hiking, backpacking, recreational sports – just about anything, really – depends greatly on a strong back, and will be hindered if you are weak in this area. Some of the most debilitating injuries you can imagine are back injuries, and if your spine is not protected by strong back and core muscles, you WILL hurt your back. It might happen while grabbing a rebound. Or on a 20-mile hike. Or while running your next half-marathon. Or picking up a basket of laundry. That’s the truth, folks.

Here’s another: The deficiencies in your back can be solved by you.

Earlier this week, I mentioned the four main movements of strength training. One of those was the hip-hinge. Another was the pull. That’s what we’re going to focus on today.

When describing “pulls,” we’re talking about pull-ups, chin-ups, barbell rows, dumbbell rows, and cable pulls. These will primarily work the lats, those big muscles that flank the spine from your armpits down to your tailbone. Your biceps will also get some work here, as will the muscles on the back side of your shoulders. Being strong in these areas will go a long way toward balancing your anterior workouts and promote shoulder health as well as back strength.

Hip-hinge exercises are deadlifts, hip thrusters and kettlebell swings. The latter two exercises are great at working the glutes and hamstrings. But the deadlift rules them all. Deadlifts work the glutes and hamstrings while also giving your quadriceps some love. But wait, there’s more! Deadlifts will also work all the muscles in your back – from the muscles at the base of your neck to the base of your spine. An added benefit is holding a weighted barbell does wonderful things for improving grip strength. Master the deadlift and you will become strong.

I do two posterior chain workouts per week. The first one is an “easy” day. The second one is the toughest, most taxing workout of the week. Done right, these workouts will become the core of building strength.

Here’s the plan:

“Easy” day posterior chain workout

Lat pulls, 3×8

Cleans, 3×5

Seated cable rows, 3×10

Straight-arm cable pull-downs, 3×10

Mix in some core work and you’re good to go.

One note: If you haven’t done cleans before, go light and practice the form. This is a tricky, skill-based Olympic-style lift that will build back strength and overall explosive power, but get it wrong and you’ll jack up your back.

“Hard” day posterior chain workout

Warm-up: Pull-ups, 8, 9 and 10 reps; Sumo deadlifts with a kettlebell, 3×10

Barbell deadlift, 8, 7, 6, 5 reps (escalating weight with each set). If you’re brave, try adding fifth set of a 2-rep or a single rep with a heavy weight that you’re not sure you can get.

Standing horizontal cable pulls, 3×10 (escalating weight)

Farmer’s walk, loaded trap bar, 3 sets, walk with the weight for 45 seconds per set

Dumbbell bicep curls, 3×12 (escalating weight)

Hammer curls, 3×10 (escalating weight)

Throw in some planks and dead bugs, 3 sets each.

I added in the dumbbell curls to give your biceps a little more love.

But what I really want to address is the farmer’s walk. Such a great exercise. If you don’t have a trap bar, you can carry plates or dumbbells. The farmer’s walk, or any other loaded carry, works your back, legs and core. It will test your cardio. And it will build grip strength. This is one of my favorite exercises, and it has practical applications.

One last admonition: Form on the deadlift is crucial, especially when the weight starts getting heavier. You must brace your core and keep your back straight. A bowed lumbar is a recipe for injury.

So there it is. No lift scares me more than a really heavy deadlift single. No exercise makes me happier than the deadlift. And nothing is more satisfying than loading the bar with a big weight, walking up to it, and hoisting that bad boy off the ground. It’s simple, primal, aggressive and oh so good.

As a bonus: The deadlift is a total body exercise, and if you get strong doing these, you will get stronger everywhere else.

In the next installment, I’m going to discuss what I did for self-care during this strength cycle. It ain’t sexy, but it’s important.

Bob Doucette

Strength experiment, part 2: Leg day

If you want stronger legs, you’re going to have to get under the bar.

In the last post, I went over different variations of the press. Specifically, overhead presses and chest presses. Good stuff to power up the upper body.

But as we all should know, the foundation of any athlete is a good set of legs. All the upper body power in the world won’t do much (aside from looking good) if your legs are weak. Hiking, running, sprinting, jumping – you name it, if there is any sort of land-based locomotion going on, your legs are going to be heavily involved.

Go into the fitness corner of the internet enough and you’re bound to hear the admonition to “never skip leg day.” Sometimes that’s accompanied by a photo of a dude with a stacked upper body and the spindly legs of habitual computer gamer.

As a matter of disclosure, I wish mine were stronger. They don’t look like much. That’s why I never skip leg day. In fact, I make sure I do leg day twice a week and spend plenty of time under the bar.

Going back to my original theme of four basic movements, my leg day workout centers on the squat and its variations. The goal is to strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves.  When I think about these muscle groups, the quads and glutes power you through jumps and quick bursts as well as being the primary “push” engines of your lower body. Your glutes work with your hamstrings to propel you forward when you’re running or sprinting. The calves assist in all of these, but have enough slow-twitch muscles in them to make them ideal stabilizers for everything from all-out sprints to holding your place on a wall when climbing. I know I’m barely scratching the surface here, but it gives you an idea of how these muscle groups make you move.

If you’re strong in your legs, it’s a pretty good bet you’re going to be strong everywhere else. Strength training for legs is hard. Really hard. But it’s also crucial, not only in your athletic performance now but in your mobility as you age. Running alone won’t cut it. You really should be lifting. Don’t neglect the legs!

Anyway, enough of that intro. Like I said, I do two leg day sessions a week, with the core of the workout centered on the squat. Here’s what it looks like:

Warm-up: 3×10 sumo squat with a kettlebell; 3×10 single-leg calf raises w/dumbbell (escalating weight with each set on the calf raises). I include those calf raises because that movement stretches the calf muscles and Achilles tendon, allowing for better mobility once I get under the bar for squatting. I use a 60-pound kettlebell on the sumo squats; nothing too heavy, just enough weight to help wake up the muscles in my legs and hips for the work to come. When I’m done with these, I’m ready for the real deal.

Barbell back squat, 1×8, 1×7, 1×6, 1×5 (escalating weight)

Barbell front squat, 3×6

Barbell Romanian deadlift, 3×6

Peterson step-up w/kettlebell (light weight), 3×10 each leg

Kettlebell swing, 3×12

Leg extension, 3×15 (escalating weight)

The key to this is that both squat variations should be challenging weights. The rep ranges are not high, so the weight must be on the heavier side, relative to your ability. Generally speaking, you’re going to be able to squat much more weight on the back squat than you are on the front squat. The Peterson step-ups are a really good single-leg exercise to build your quads, especially that “teardrop” muscle on the inside of the kneecap. The Romanian deadlifts pound your glutes and hamstrings. Same thing with the kettlebell swing, but more explosively. The leg extensions at the end of the workout are a great way to safely roast your quads before you call it a day.

I usually don’t do core work on leg day, as your core is going to get a lot of work doing the squats. But that’s a call you’ll have to make for yourself.

For conditioning, I like to do three rounds of a barbell complex. The goal here is not really strength, it’s more about quick-burst lifts to raise your heart rate. And believe me, a barbell complex will do it. Mine includes some lifts that aren’t “leg day” lifts, but by this point it’s more about conditioning than lifting anyway. Here’s what a round of mine looks like:

Hang clean x6

Front squat x6

Standing overhead press x6

Romanian deadlift x6

Bent-over barbell row x6

With the barbell complex, you load a light weight (I’ve seen some people do it with an unloaded bar). Perform all the lifts in the entire complex without stopping to rest or put down the bar until the round is finished. It’ll spike your heart rate nicely, and is a good way to end a leg day workout.

My first lift of the week is always a leg day workout. I’ll do it again three days later.

So there it is. Next time, we’ll tackle the hip-hinge and the posterior chain. See you then.

Bob Doucette

The strength experiment, part 1: Presses

My last post was designed to be an introduction to this little strength experiment I did. I told you that I wanted to focus on four main movements: the press, the pull, the squat and the hip-hinge.

Today we’re going to talk about the press.

It seems that only until recently, there has been a decades-long devaluation of overhead pressing in favor of things like the bench press. You know, the whole, “How much ya bench?” question of meatheads everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, chest pressing is a good thing. But overhead pressing is better.

Personally, I suck at both. But I quickly learned why the standing overhead press in particular is so valuable. The act of pressing a weight over your head requires a lot of muscles working together: your shoulders, your upper back, your triceps and your core. Basically, almost your entire upper body.

Bench pressing is great, too, because it works those big muscles in your chest. But because you’re on a bench, the muscles are more isolated and the core doesn’t get much work. For that reason, I think the overhead press should be emphasized as much as any sort of chest press.

I also like to add some other exercises to support the muscles used in these movements. But they are secondary exercises and should never replace the main movements. Support exercises can isolate muscle groups and even improve postural alignment, something we’ll get into in a bit.

I divided these into two different workouts: A chest/triceps day, and a shoulders day. Here’s how it broke down:

Chest/triceps

Flat barbell bench press: 1×10, 1×8, 1×6 (escalating weight with each set); 3×8, close-grip barbell bench press (grip with hands about 18 inches apart).

Dumbbell incline press: 3×8 (escalating weight)

Single-arm cable press-down, 3×10

Cable push-down, 3×10

Dips, 3×10

Shoulders

Band pull-aparts, 3×10

Standing overhead barbell press, 3×8 (escalating weight)

Dumbbell lateral delt raises, 3×12 (escalating weight)

Dumbbell overhead presses, 3×8 (escalating weight)

Cable face pulls, 3×10 (escalating weight)

So, a couple of notes to explain all this: I added the close-grip bench as a way to work the triceps more. The cable exercises for the triceps are also there to help build the type of support I needed to do a good press. The dips are great for your chest and your triceps (though do your dips on a dip bar, not on a bench).

With the shoulders, I want to say that two of the most important exercises on there are the first and last ones mentioned. The band pull-aparts are there to activate (or warm up) the shoulders and upper back at the beginning. The face-pulls work the same muscles at the end. There is a good reason for this: Chest presses, plus all of the other daily activities that emphasize the anterior (front) side of your body (think typing at a computer, driving your car, or messing with your phone) tend to make our shoulders sink forward. This is how shoulder injuries start. You need to strengthen the muscles on the back side of your shoulders to open up your chest and pull those shoulders back to prevent injury and allow for better muscular development all around.

I cannot overemphasize how important this is, not only for shoulder-joint health, but also in overall athletic performance. To wit: If your shoulders are pulled back into a natural position, it opens up your chest. When your chest is opened up, you can take in larger volumes of air when you breathe. Think that might carry over into endurance activities? Yup. It does.

Lastly, it’s OK to only have one day a week dedicated to these splits. Your shoulders are getting a lot of work on the chest/tricep day, and your triceps are getting plenty of work on the shoulder days. If you want more work for your chest, incorporate some push-ups into your weekly routines a few days a week.

My chest/tricep workout is the second lift of the week, and the shoulder workout comes later in the week. With each workout, add in some core moves – three sets each of planks and dead bugs, two of my favorites. At the end of the session, I’d run anywhere from 2 to 3.5 miles at a solid pace, or if I’m really looking to gas out, do some 8x400s at race pace.

In the next installment, we’ll tackle leg day. Yup, we’ll be squatting. A bunch.

Bob Doucette

My strength experiment: What I learned during a season in the weight room

There is a gym I go to with some charts blown up into poster form, and at the bottom of these charts is a short sentence written in small type with a very big message: “Being stronger makes you harder to kill.”

It goes on to qualify this, saying that the stronger you are, the harder it is for things like disease, accidents, the elements and even other people, to kill you. Makes sense to me.

Fitness is a major part of my life. I’m not strictly a runner, and not strictly a weight lifter. I incorporate both (plus things like cycling) in hopes of preventing mushball status.

This past fall, I wanted to try something different. Back in the days before running became a thing for me, I used to lift a bunch of weights and find cardio in other forms of exercise. When I became a runner, I worked to find a balance between the two. But after the end of the fall race season, I chose to focus on strength for a few months. I was OK in terms of strength, but I knew I could be better if I put in a little extra work. I wouldn’t stop running entirely, but the weekly mileage would drop significantly while I emphasized more time in the gym.

In this case, it was about getting back to basics. No fancy programs, no weird new exercises, nothing exotic at all. Just a workout program based on four basic strength movements: The press, the pull, the squat and the hip hinge.

If you know what these entail, you’re way ahead of the game. If not, let me define them more precisely…

Press: This is picking up a weight and lifting it over your head. This could be a barbell or dumbbells. Variations could also include flat bench or incline bench presses, but the most important press here is the overhead press. Presses work your shoulders, triceps, upper back and, in some variations, the chest.

Pull: Pulls include pull-ups, chin-ups, cable pull variations (lat pulls, seated cable rows, etc), barbell and dumbbell rows, and so forth. With these, you’re training the muscles in your entire back, your biceps, and to a lesser extent, your shoulders.

Squat: Most people know what this is. Starting from a standing position, you squat down, bending at the knees and the hips, while keeping your back straight. Barbell back squats, front squats, goblet squats, and so on. The squat is a full-body exercise, but the primary muscles used are the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings. Truly strong people squat well.

Hip-hinge:  The hip-hinge, simply put, is the action of bending at the hips, and with a straight back, powering yourself to an upright position with your hips. If that sounds weird, just watch someone deadlift. A deadlift is a hip-hinge. So are Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell swings and hip thrusters. Hip-hinge exercises are full-body in nature, but they primarily work the posterior chain. Posterior chain muscles include the entire back (from the base of the neck all the way to the tailbone), glutes and hamstrings. Like the squat, a truly strong person will be strong in hip-hinge movements. Deadlifts also work your quads, and through the act of holding something heavy, strengthen all the muscles used in your grip.

There are a bunch of exercises that support these movements, and I’ll get to that in time. But these are where my focus was. If you can master them, you’ll build a strong, athletic body that can be good at just about anything, and that includes activities that most people don’t associate with weight training, like running, hiking, backpacking or even climbing.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a few reasons. This was a bit of an experiment, to see what I could accomplish in four months. I wanted to see what went right and what went wrong, and why. And if I learned anything worth sharing, to pass it along. Some things went very “right.” And that was exciting. Some things went wrong, and for the most part, that’s on me.

Another reason: Strength is often something that is undervalued in the endurance community, and similarly, neglected by a lot of people who are focused on the outdoors. Personally, I think anyone can benefit from being stronger. It doesn’t mean you must be a body builder or a power lifter (those guys usually don’t do well in our chosen activities, mostly because size can be prohibitive of endurance), but I’d go back to that poster I mentioned earlier: Being stronger makes you harder to kill.

So over the coming days, I’m going to post about this and pass along what I’ve learned. And in turn, I’m more than pleased to hear from any of you who have undertaken similar efforts. Stay tuned …

Bob Doucette

Four ideas on dealing with injuries during training

My friends. But they don't care if I'm injured.

My friends. But they don’t care if I’m injured.

Tell me you’ve heard this one before…

You’re training hard, working toward a specific goal. Things are going great, progressing nicely, and then it hits: An injury.

Now what?

I’ve faced this a bunch over the years. A cranky back, tweaked neck, wonky shoulders and sprained ankles. Last spring it was a tweaked hamstring, and there have been elbow, wrist and foot problems, to boot.

Last week, it was something else.

I’ve been working hard on building strength for the past couple of months, dialing back my running and pushing hard in the weight room. I still run, but less frequently and shorter distances. The bike has taken over some workouts where running used to be.

But a little over a week ago, I was doing a deadlift workout and tweaked my right trapezius muscle. The trapezius is a long back muscle that starts at the top of your neck, widens and thickens on your upper back, and runs down the side of your spine.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

It is a crucial muscle in any lift where a hip-hinge movement is involved, and if it’s freaking out, you’ll know it every time you get out of bed, turn your head or try to pick something up.

I did a lot of rehab exercises to try to work out the kinks, but by late last week, it was still angry. The workout I had planned included Romanian deadlifts – a great hamstring and glute move that also works the back, and therefore, the trapezius. Additionally, I’d also be lifting a barbell off the floor to the front squat position for another exercise. Same deal, and my back was saying no.

The rest of my body was fine. But one ticked-off muscle can throw you for a loop.

I ended up doing two things. First, I modified that day’s workout to a lighter-weight circuit that included back squats, calf raises and reverse lunges. Six rounds of that, with minimal stress on the traps. Second, I skipped the next day’s shoulder workout entirely and just ran trails.

By Saturday, I was good to go for another deadlift workout (which also included farmer’s walks, cable pulls and pull-ups, all of which recruit the trapezius). I slayed that workout.

There are some important lessons here, and to be frank, sometimes you have to learn this the hard way, like me. Whether you’re training to get strong, for a long-distance race, or preparing for a major physical challenge (say, climbing a mountain), injuries are going to happen.

How do you handle them? Here are some ideas:

Sometimes you have to suck it up and train through it, but work around the problem. Not every injury requires you to shut it down and wait it out. Think it through and find ways to keep up your training without aggravating the problem. What I described above is a good example. Another: runners facing roadblocks can hop on a bike or swim for their conditioning needs until their bodies are well enough to hit the road.

Many injuries are caused by overuse and imbalances. These in turn put undue stress on others parts of your body, leading to injury. Diagnose that, and find ways to train those weak areas so other parts of your body aren’t overcompensating for the weakness and leaving you sidelined. For runners, “dead-butt syndrome” is a perfect example (lack of glute strength). Many lifters suffer from shoulder impingements (poor postural alignment, or underdeveloped back musculature are common there). The fixes are simple, but they will take time. Commit to it.

Your “form” in your training sucks. Fix it. So many runners I know pound their knees into oblivion by hard heel-striking. Others bounce too much, putting a ton of stress on the Achilles tendons. In strength training, poor form – especially on compound exercises, Olympic lifts and explosive movements – lead to potentially serious problems (and don’t get me started on doing these lifts in a fatigued state). My ongoing back issues can be traced back to piss-poor squat form over a decade ago that left me injured. I’ve had to work on that diligently to keep myself from getting hurt again. Proper form in any athletic pursuit mitigates injury. It’s usually pride that keeps people from fixing the problem, and ultimately leads the prideful to the sidelines, bemoaning a fate that could have been avoided.

Sometimes, you really do need to stop and heal. Injuries happen. If you rip your knee up, wrench your shoulder, suffer a stress fracture or hurt your back, there may not be enough chiro work, at-home rehab, Ibuprofen, inner toughness or other tricks to keep you moving forward. When that happens, you need rest, time to heal, and a plan for rehab and recovery. Whether it’s something as relatively minor as an ankle sprain before a big race or something major like a blown disk or ligament/muscle tear, there are definitely times when you need to swallow your pride, shut it down and get well.

If you're like me, you don't want to stop. But we have to be smart about it.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to stop. But we have to be smart about it.

I was fortunate that I knew what I could and couldn’t do in terms of what was a minor physical setback, but one that was big enough to potentially derail my training. I could do my squats; but the overhead presses the next day? Nope. And it all worked out in the end.

Bob Doucette

Moving beyond New Year’s resolutions

weights

It’s that time of year.

You’re going to see two types of people in the gym and on the trails: The New Year’s resolutioner and the people who have moved past resolutions. There is nothing right or wrong about being either. But there is merit to moving from the former to the latter.

You’ve got two kinds of resolutioners. The first type are the people who are getting in shape for the first time in their lives. This is a good place to be, because this person is a blank slate, ready to learn, and ready to improve his or her health. The second type includes those who have made more than one resolution to get fit, but come December find themselves where they were a year ago. The silver lining is you can look back on mistakes and learn from them, but it also means there is the possibility of learning and entrenching bad habits.

The folks who have moved past resolutions have a few common traits. They’re consistent. They’re patient. And they’re willing to learn new ways of doing things to achieve their goals. The new year presents new challenges instead of starting over. Most importantly, their health has become a priority in their lives. They make time to do the things needed to be healthy, fit and strong. Their achievements are built over years of putting in the work.

If you’re part of the resolutioner crowd, there are some simple things you can do to evolve past that. Here are a few:

Understand that becoming fit is a long-term process. You’re not going to magically sport a six-pack after a month of hitting the gym. Or two months. And there are no pills, devices or other shortcuts that actually work. Getting in shape, becoming strong, getting lean — all these outcomes take time and discipline. Be prepared to spend a good number of months putting in the work, and don’t get let down if you’re not seeing results after a few weeks. Keep at it. With that in mind…

Go into your fitness journey with a plan. Some exercise is better than none, but playing around with the weights and slogging away aimlessly on an elliptical won’t get you very far. Do you want to run a 5K? Find a training plan for it and stick to it. Are you seeking to get stronger? Talk to a trainer, do some internet research or consult with people in the know and learn how to do this. Create a training schedule, follow it and track your progress. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Figure out what you want, find a plan to achieve it, and then execute. It’s that simple.

Leave the phone in your locker. I cannot begin to tell you how many people I see wasting time farting around on their phones texting, updating social media or otherwise staring at their device and not training. You say you use it for music? Fine. If you’re disciplined enough to press play, slip on the earbuds and not do anything else with your phone until your workout is done, go for it. Otherwise, don’t bring it with you. It’s a distraction that prevents you from getting the work done.

Pay attention to what you put in your body. What you eat matters. What you drink matters. Eat real food, and not the fried, sugared or overly processed variety. Sugary drinks and alcohol pile on tons of mostly useless calories that get stored as fat and play havoc with your metabolism. Eat clean, get the right amount of protein and watch those liquid calories closely. An occasional beer or two on the weekends is not a problem, but much more than that and you’re probably going to undermine your efforts.

Set a tangible goal. Amazing things happen when you say, “I’m going to do this,” and then commit to it. When I ran a marathon, I told people beforehand I was going to do it. The result was transformative, and I learned a lot. My nephew Jordan chose a Spartan race as his goal, and now having done a couple of them, he’s in the best shape of his life. People I know have competed in bodybuilding, power lifting, mixed martial arts and more, while others have run ultramarathons, climbed big mountains or completed ambitious through-hikes. Their fitness was honed in on a goal, giving their efforts purpose. You don’t even have to be that dramatic. Maybe it’s competing in (or finishing) a shorter race, or perhaps being able to deadlift twice your body weight. Whatever it is, having a target helps measure progress during the process and success when it’s done.

When January 1 rolls around, where are you going to be? Are you ready to evolve? Get your mind right first, make a plan and make your health part of your daily lifestyle.

Bob Doucette