Another birthday came and went.
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
I would’ve completely missed it were it not for the wonderful Facebook. (And my lovely wife and mother of course).
I used to think that people who said they “forgot” about their birthday were attention-seeking douchebags. Then I grew up and got busy and skipped my 43rd birthday entirely, and almost forgot about the big 44 Magnum.
Growing another year older is hardly noteworthy. But feeling you’ve learned more in the past two years than you have the previous 20 is.
And much of what I’ve learned these past two years has been from the very people who hire me for help, and from friends and colleagues I trust and appreciate.
So in the spirit of yet another year on this beautiful blue rock, here are 44 things that I’ve learned (or at least re-discovered) in the past two years.
To keep it interesting I’ve broken it up into Coaching (my career), Building a Better Body (my passion), and Manhood (my journey).
I hope you might find value in some of these observations. Because as much as I like to read my own writing, the real reason I do what I do is to connect with people and help solve problems. Or at least insert a little positive energy into what can be a decidedly negative world.
1. The key determinant of fat loss success is consistency, not complexity. A so-so diet and exercise plan that you can execute every day is far better than a “perfect plan” you struggle to hit more than two days in a row.
So don’t adopt a fitness lifestyle. Weave fitness into the current lifestyle. As a coach it makes no sense to turn someone’s life upside down on day one just to fit in an “optimal” number of meals or weekly training sessions. It only makes achieving initial consistency that much harder.
Start by improving the current way of traveling. Then shift toward the best practices down the road.
2. Losing fat isn’t complicated. It’s actually really simple — but NOT easy. And that’s a key qualifier, because “simple but not easy” problems can’t be addressed with complexity. They need equally simple solutions.
To that end, there are just a few things you NEED to do to lose fat. I call them the Big Rocks of Fat Loss and if you just did these 7 things and NOTHING else, you’d lose fat.
Sure, there are other things to consider that help. But scouring the ground for pebbles when they’re still Big Rocks left to move is a mistake.
3. The past few months some potential clients have contacted me for help knowing “exactly what they need.” They say “my training is great, it’s just my diet that needs help” or “my diet is spot on I just need a training program to do XYZ.”
Thing is, upon closer inspection, often what they THINK they have down pat is what’s really holding them back. This is especially true with guys from a strength training background that try to apply those rules & expectations to bodybuilding. It doesn’t work that way.
4. I’ve been following fellow Canadian Scott Abel’s work for over 20 years but have recently taken a real shine to it.
Something I picked up from Scott is how faulty illusions of control permeate the diet industry, which runs off consumer anxiety and insecurity.
I’ve said for years (the late Dan Duchaine actually said it first in the 90’s) that the number one diet killer isn’t a lack of willpower, it’s anxiety — from being bombarded by conflicting diet advice and not knowing who or what to believe.
What assuages* this anxiety are promises of control, and is why all these fat loss “hacks” and hyper-precise calculations and quantifications are so seductive. You get to feel like the puppet master, not the helpless marionette hanging by the strings.
But the body is designed to adapt and survive and metabolism is more than just calories in vs. calories out. So what happens when the latest fat loss hack doesn’t deliver as promised or you fail to lose 1.5 pounds a week like the online calculator promised? That sense of control quickly evaporates, resulting in even MORE anxiety. A nasty cycle.
* (I love that word, it makes me think of sausage)
5. Telling someone what to do is easy. Showing them how to do it consistently takes more effort. But the hardest is getting someone to do what they KNOW they can do, but “for whatever reason” won’t or can’t do. Because that “whatever reason” is usually something way beyond sets, reps, or macros.
6. Similarly, reframing is huge. Getting a busy guy to do steady state cardio can be challenging. Talking up the health and stress management angle and calling it “restorative work” or “active recovery” helps. What works even better is to lump all the benefits together and play up the time efficiency card.
“Thirty minutes of cardio and you improve cardiovascular health, lower stress, stimulate recovery, AND it counts as active meditation. Holy shit bro, that’s like 4 for the price of 1.”
What guy doesn’t like a good deal?
7. I laugh when clients apologize for cheating on their diet. Why? This process is HARD and everyone makes mistakes, especially when starting out. Just dust yourself off and move on.
But there are still lessons to be learnt. Be mindful of what triggered your screw-up. Was it stress? Overwhelm? Food abundance? Hunger? Cravings? Or just boredom? Acknowledge the trigger and how you could respond better next time.
8. Good people have a hard time justifying the resources required to lose fat or improve their body composition. They feel guilty investing in their “vanity” (and to some extreme health is also vanity) when they could be helping someone else less fortunate.
To counter this you can cite pedantic, ham-fisted airline safety analogies (“you have to place your own oxygen mask first before assisting someone else”) or you can go deeper and try to connect their fitness goals to something much bigger than they are.
That starts with identifying values, and how pursuing fitness goals can help express those values, not detract from them.
The day I did this was a game-changer, both as a “mature physique athlete” and especially as a coach.
9. A frustrating part of online coaching is when clients go dark. My usual MO is to pester and bug and send smoke signals until they finally surface and say the usual “sorry coach, life got crazy and I couldn’t follow the plan.”
My response? So you got stressed and overwhelmed and couldn’t make good choices, and THAT’S when you ghost me? Knucklehead, my job starts when shit hits the fan.
I may not be able to solve your problems but I sure can help find workarounds on the diet and exercise front. And even if I can’t help, at least I’m here to listen. And being heard is wonderful.
10. Regular meals work. Eat the same breakfast, lunch, and evening snack, and maybe inject a little variety at dinner. Your inner epicurean can wait till cheat day.
11. I’ve NEVER sent out a program that I haven’t personally done at least once. That said, I do occasionally send out routines that make me grin and think, “Boy am I glad I don’t have to do this shit.”
12. I don’t like deadlines. Yeah, a deadline turns a dream into a goal. But for some (especially the inexperienced) it also sucks out the joy like an industrial strength Hoover.
Here’s how it works. Jane is a newbie and decides to lose 25 pounds in three months. She hires a smart trainer, who tells her she’ll need five months. Cause you “should” lose 1 to 1.5 pounds of fat per week, right? Right.
But remember, she’s never done this before. She’s never been lean. She doesn’t know how much food she really needs to maintain her weight, nor can she discern between hunger and cravings, or how certain foods and stressors trigger overeating.
Now that smart trainer will try to teach Jane these things and get her to focus on the process, not the outcome. But with that big fat X on the calendar it’s all for not. The deadline is like the 800-pound gorilla in the room, dropping a massive steamer on the carpet. You can’t ignore it.
Things go okay for a while – losing 1 to 1.5 pounds per week, woohoo – and then things “stop working.” Her smart trainer says to “just stay the course, the body never loses fat in a linear fashion.”
But with the deadline looming even the trainer is getting nervous. His or her reputation is on the line. Is Jane eating Ben & Jerry’s before bed? Do we have to “kick it into overdrive?”
The deadline gets even closer and stress starts to mount, which affects fat loss, digestion, sleep, water balance, and especially cravings. Now Jane looks like she’s losing ground, a sure sign she needs a diet break. But with the deadline that’s just not possible.
So the trainer stops being smart and decides it’s time to press – twice a day cardio, zero carbs, then finally cracking open the Pandora’s box of dieting drugs.
The plan works. The deadline arrives and she’s reached her target weight. She’s also exhausted, insatiably hungry, and in two months is back to her original weight and then some. Because the harder you press, the greater the rebound.
Had she just stayed the course and let things work and made gentle adjustments along the way she would’ve reached her goal, eventually – when she was ready to reach it. And she would’ve been able to stay there, versus being lean for two weeks before rebounding back to square one.
Until you know what you’re doing, ditch the deadlines.
Focus on the process and listen to your body.
13. The best coaching tool I have is still the phone/Skype/FaceTime.
14. The more playful you make the journey, the better. Sure, I take my job seriously, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun along the way. I mean, if you HAD to be super serious to get great results, then I would. But that’s just not necessary. Never pass up an opportunity to have a little fun. It worked for Arnold.
15. Whenever I question the value of what I do I hire someone who does the same thing.
Some of my best training was when I lived in New York City and hired Dan Trink to get my squat up. Since then I’ve hired Trevor Kashey to help with my diet, consult with human performance wizards Jim Brown and Jay Campbell monthly to call me on my bullshit, and pay an overworked business guy named Sly to do everything that doesn’t involve sets and protein. How can you expect someone to invest in your craft if you won’t invest in it yourself?
16. When a clients asks, “Does this ever get easier?” my answer is always no. But you will get used to it, so it just seems easier. And eventually you’ll become addicted to the struggle, almost crave it, and will seek out bigger challenges. That’s when you realize that the struggle is the reward.
On Building a Better Body
17. To build your body you need a mentor. When I was 16 I’d take the bus to the “rough part of town” to train at World Gym. I say “train” but it was more like “stand back and copy what the big guys are doing.”
Eventually I got the nerve to ask to work in with those guys, which led to me asking a LOT of questions between sets. In hindsight, much of their advice was questionable. Yet a lot of it was gold that I still practice today.
But I don’t see that much anymore. Today everyone has their headphones on, closed off from the potential mentors lifting and grunting next to them.
Sure, there are online support groups and forums and certainly online coaches. But there’s simply no substitute for an in-person mentor.
18. I wrote a book recently with Lou Schuler on over-40 training. As I was mapping it out I realized there are jacked 40 year olds everywhere. And their secret? They started lifting as teenagers and never stopped.
If you do anything for 20 years without stumbling into the usual traps (injuries, burnout, ego lifting) and have the humility to re-think your positions versus digging in your heels, you’re going to develop a degree of mastery.
And that’s really it. But please, buy the book anyway.
19. Deloads and weeks off help you re-charge but sometimes you need to truly let it all go. Last winter I joined an outreach to Cambodia, which meant a two-week break from weights, protein, and reliable internet. But due to a combination of injuries and being busy, I also took two weeks off prior to the trip, and another full month after I returned home.
The extra month off was more a mental experiment. I missed working out like crazy while overseas, but after some introspection, I realized that training had become something that I “need” to do – for my career, my health, my self-esteem – and less something that I love to do. That didn’t seem right to me. So I decided to stay away from the gym until I truly wanted it.
During that downtime I focused on my coaching and writing and doing projects that had been on the backburner, which itself was a huge stress relief.
Sure enough, by month end the fire returned. So after a full 8 weeks off I made my back to the gym, 10 pounds lighter yet fatter, and certainly hairier. But the cool thing was, I regained my pre-break physique in under a month.
In short, I was back to where I’d left off — except I’d travelled halfway around the world, experienced a different culture, toured the most disturbing example of human suffering I’ve ever seen, helped some needy people, drank a lot of beer, ate a LOT of rice, and even got a ton of work done.
Ebb and flow.
20. It’s an exciting time to be in the fitness industry. Scientists are finally studying many of the hypertrophy training tricks that bodybuilders have practiced for decades. This industry has always been a bit like the Wild West, so it’s good to identify some best practices for everyone to follow. But just like the Wild West had outlaws, bodybuilding will always have outliers.
Experience is still your greatest teacher.
21. Pre-exhaustion can work. Briefly, pre-exhaustion is a training method from the 60’s where you perform an isolation exercise immediately before performing a multi-joint exercise for the same muscle group. Think leg extensions before squats.
The logic is, because in the squat the low back often fails before the quads, why not “pre-exhaust” the quads with leg extensions to ensure they receive ample overload.
While it’s a nut busting technique it also forces you to use lighter loads in the big lift, which means reduced high-threshold motor recruitment. So it’s the shits for limit strength.
However, context is everything. I can think of many scenarios where getting a solid training effect with reduced loads is a very good thing. Once you’re over 40, getting the most out of the least is cash money.
22. Post-exhaustion can also work. Post exhaustion is the opposite of pre–exhaustion in that a multi-joint exercise is followed immediately by an isolation lift for the same muscle group. For the pecs, think bench presses, resting 10 seconds, and then a set of dumbbell flyes.
In a way this arrangement makes more sense. Doing the big lift first allows for maximum loads to be used, so it’s better if strength is a priority. And if the second exercise is performed for higher reps you can still achieve serious metabolic stress.
However, if a lifter has poor recruitment patterns (like every chest pressing exercise becomes a shoulders and triceps lift) or if they’re old and beat up, I’d lean more towards pre-exhaustion, preferably mechanical advantage type pairings (dumbbell flyes switching immediately dumbbell presses).
I’ve even found studies to support both systems. So I know it works. 😉 Though I usually first ask Dr. Bryan Chung to tell me if any of these studies are even worth mentioning. Most tend to fall short.
23. Got a weak bodypart? Before you bust out the fancy specialization routines, verify technique first. A fellow fit pro recently posted a video of him doing barbell biceps curls with the worst technique I’ve ever seen. He never once performed elbow flexion – it’s all shoulder flexion and lower back extension. In a way, it was kind of impressive.
24. Use all the rep ranges. There’s gold in them there sets of 15-20 reps.
25. My favorite weak point system? Train the weak bodypart twice a day, twice a week. Impractical as hell but it works. I stole this from coach and long time friend Luke Leaman.
It certainly worked for my client, fellow fit pro Chase Erwin.
26. High frequency training works. But you need to take an intelligent approach. That not only means adding volume cautiously, it means using a variety of rep ranges and varying what former Iron Man editor Steve Holman called positions of flexion, even choosing different forms of tension (such as cables versus free weights).
My favorite high frequency “hack” for arms is to train them twice per week for 4-8 sets using moderate reps, and the next day do just 1 or 2 sets of cable work for 20-25 reps. Christian Thibaudeau calls these next day exposures feeder sets and like everything he says, it works.
27. If you don’t feel an exercise where you’re “supposed to,” again, verify your technique. If you still don’t feel it, scrap it. There are no “must do” exercises. But if the “stubborn exercise” is also a weak bodypart, try positioning the stubborn lift in the middle of a tri-set or as the second part of a pre-exhaustion superset.
28. Occasionally revisit exercises you’ve scrapped. I’ve never been a fan of the Smith machine –until I saw John Meadows do a close grip bench press in the Smith, lowering the bar to the upper pec/neck. Wow. Winner winner chicken dinner.
29. They say a sure sign of gym burnout is no longer making progress. But if your goal is hypertrophy and not limit strength, then what are you measuring? Because if you’re trying to build muscle and all you consider is the weight lifted and the number of reps, then you’re missing out on a lot of potential progress markers.
So I say the reverse is true: believing you aren’t making progress in the gym is what leads to burnout.
30. If you can differentiate between a craving and hunger then you’re well on your way. If you can do that even when stressed, even better. Cause that’s tough.
31. Using veggies to add volume to your diet is a wise, healthy idea. But there’s a limit. If you’re eating low carb and need pounds of broccoli to keep hunger at bay, your body is trying to tell you something. Try adding a small serving of starch. You won’t get fat son, and your digestive track will thank you.
32. Doing 30-60 minutes of cardio a day doesn’t mean you have to do it all in one session. Try 15 minutes on the treadmill in the morning, a 15 minute walk at lunch, and maybe a session before bed. It will still work. I thank Dr. Trevor Kashey for that little nugget.
33. In a fat loss plateau? Step one is ALWAYS verify food (calorie) intake. Calorie counting may be flawed and decidedly impractical but good Lord, you still need to be in an energy deficit to lose fat.
34. Unless you have a specific medical condition that’s been diagnosed by a legitimate physician, there is no need to complicate nutrition. The simpler the diet, the better the long term outcome.
35. You can’t train high volume and high intensity at the same time. Few sensible people will dispute this. Interestingly, the same rule also applies to most things in everyday life. Sometimes you go all out but not for long. Other days you put in more time but not as hard. Never both.
Ebb and Flow.
36. I’ve discovered that notifications stress the shit out of me. I’ve deleted them from my devices and feel much better.
Few things are truly urgent.
My friend Roman has a great approach to incoming text notifications. He leaves his read receipts on. So people texting can see that he received their text, and that he read it. He just doesn’t respond right away. When or if he does respond will happen at his discretion. And that’s how it’s done folks. Game, set, motherfucking match.
37. Here’s a fun exercise. Think of everyone you deal with in your everyday life. Most we either like or mildly dislike. Next make a list of the people you truly love, those you can’t imagine living without. While I hope the list is long and makes you smile, for this exercise they’re irrelevant.
Now flip the page and make a list of the people you straight up can’t stand. Wouldn’t even cross the street to piss on them if they were on fire. For your sanity’s sake I hope it’s a short, bitter list.
Take a close look at every name on it. What do they have in common? Are they arrogant? Dishonest? Abusive? Or are they just more successful than you, harder working, better looking, more jacked, even just luckier?
Hating someone because they’re more successful or have nicer toys or are just more gifted is wrong. And making up some dubious moral underpinning to conceal your simple jealousy all but ensures that you’ll never reach your “enemy’s” level of success.
There’s much truth to the statement “don’t hate, appreciate.”
That said, hating someone because they’re treacherous or two-faced or like to shoot lions and elephants or insert themselves into every argument on Facebook gets a green light. Though it’s more efficient to just block them from your life.
Hate takes energy. Save it for the list on the other side of the page. The people you love.
38. I’m getting increasingly disenchanted with the NFL. It’s too corporate, too manufactured, and the recent handlings of both domestic violence and concussions is appalling.
Yet the whole Sunday ritual — sleeping in and then running a few errands before collapsing in the couch to watch a game with family and friends — is pretty special. Moving forward, I can see that being the real attraction to me. Plus I’m a Vikings fan so I can’t rely on my team’s performance for pleasure.
39. The older I get, the less I allow my time to be wasted. I see my life as a long list of unchecked to-dos, and every passing month seems to whiz by like a week or even a day. So my apologies if I don’t take your bait to argue about program design.
40. Living in a state of gratitude is ideal. But it’s also hard. I’m a fairly introspective guy yet I still find myself wanting more than what I really need. I guess I’m a work in progress.
But I do know that for gratitude to “work” it has to be legit. Just writing in your gratitude journal every night so you can sleep better and have more energy to beat the competition and then buy more shit kinda misses the point.
The only way I ever got to a state of gratitude was by going one step further and forcing it, by putting myself in environments where everyone I met would LOVE to have my problems, never mind my gifts.
It’s the ultimate kick to the balls but also an essential part of the human condition. I feel bad for happy, content people who miss out on this transformative pain.
41. I’m unsure about the trendy practice of shedding people. I know, you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. And some people can be downright toxic, or trigger self-destructive behavior in you.
Yet as I get deeper into middle aged, I think about some of the people I’ve shed. Most were simply a case of life and circumstance and growing apart. But a few I did consciously walk away from.
Now today I wonder, we’re they really so “bad” or “going nowhere?” Maybe they were just a little lost like I was? And maybe the day I walked away was the day they needed me the most?
Then I find them on Facebook and see they have a joint account with their spouse. Then I know I dumping them was the right move.
42. I’m at a point where I have to consciously make time to do the things that bring me joy. So yes, at times you will see “drive through the mountains” or listen to music” and “watch a movie” in my day planner. If you see “have sex” then you know I’m truly lost. And if you see “run my Facebook analytics” then someone has stolen my day planner.
43. My friends Jay Ashman and Sol Orwell have both suggested I do a “style” blog. I’m not too keen on the idea as unlike fashion, men’s style is trend resistant and timeless – what Cary Grant wore to the Oscars in the 40’s isn’t much different than what George Clooney wears today – but also highly individual.
It’s about doing YOU, and doing it with understated confidence.
But doing you doesn’t mean being utterly oblivious to how dorky you might look. I’m talking to you, cargo shorts guy. Yeah, I get it, they’re functional. So are the Crocs I put on to pick up bulldog poop. But I don’t wear them when I take my wife out.
44. Men need fellowship. As someone who works from home in a new city I miss having “my crew” around every day.
But an online network of quality bros can serve as fellowship. I’ve found that when you know who you are and put the most honest representation of “you” out there, you’ll naturally attract other quality humans who see life the same way. And some might even make up for your own shortcomings. I can be a real moody SOB at times; thank God I have my podcast partner and fellow Physique Mastery Movement coach, Scott Tousignant, whose effusive positivity is the Ying to my dreary Yang.
Truth is, there are quality bros linked throughout this long post. That was deliberate. These dudes are more than my network, they’re my crew. And they’re the reason I’m still here, still trying to do good work, still staying passionate, still grounded.
They help me remember that a good life is one where you take nothing of value for granted, whether it’s your health, your family, your friends, your work, your reputation, your freedom, and especially your time.
And to use that life boldly facing greater, more meaningful challenges.
As they say in Haiti (a place that knows challenges all too well): “Beyond mountains there are mountains.”
That’s what I’ve learned these past two years.
See you on the climb.