New Years Eve is when many people vow to transform their bodies.
Yet most will finish next year looking about the same.
They might change their hairstyle or sport a new facial line or two. And many will get a bit heavier, even a lot heavier.
But few go in the direction they wanted, and next to none will “transform” for life.
I’ve seen a few amazing transformations in my time. I’ve also witnessed many more half-hearted attempts, epic flameouts, and shocking “what the hell happened to you?” rebounds.
And what separates the fortunate few that perform miraculous transformations from the millions of “thanks for coming outs?”
It isn’t age, education, socio-economic status, or even gender. And it’s certainly not access to a superstar trainer or miracle supplement program.
It’s doing a few little things right.
Not even doing all the little things, cause you can miss a few. You just need to do most of them, most of the time.
Because the little things, done consistently, quickly become the big things.
So consider this your cheat sheet. The stuff you have to do to transform your body, from the perspective of someone who’s both done it and helped others do it too.
I’m starting here because it’s an overlooked yet crucial part of the process. Diet and exercise are key but it’s how you think that gets you off the mat when things get tough. And it always gets tough.
Find Your Why. This is very important and something I wrote about here.
Some fitness types call “finding your why” hippy dippy bullshit, but that’s because it doesn’t sell cheesy diet books. Nor can it be easily marketed as a “fat loss secret.” But everyone I know who is lean for life has done this. And you should too.
Why do you want to lose weight or build muscle?
Be honest. Is it to look better? Get more sex? Drive your former spouse nuts? Great. Your motivation doesn’t have to be “noble” in someone else’s eyes. It just has to be honest and congruent with your values.
And rest assured, your “why” can evolve into something more “balanced” like health or longevity. All that matters is being honest in your motivations.
I started to lift and eat and live the way I do cause it helped me look better. Today I appreciate the way it makes me feel, especially after a stressful day. So I embrace that.
Skip this step or try deluding yourself and you’re basically marching to the beat of someone else’s drum. That never lasts.
Set Goals. This is a well-worn subject and for good reason. The more specific you can make your goal the better. “Next year I will lose weight” is a shitty goal. “I will lose 10 pounds by March 1st” is better. Just not easy.
Sprint then Walk. It’s common to hear fat loss or muscle gain described as a marathon not a sprint. But that’s wrong. Changing your body long term is really a series of sprints, or periods when it’s your primary focus in life, interspersed with “rests”, when you don’t push so hard. Set a goal, commit as much energy as you can towards achieving it, then pull back and evaluate.
Make Your Behaviors Match Your Goals. Good news, there isn’t much you have to cut out of your life to get into amazing shape. Bad news, there’s a lot you’ll have to greatly cut back on.
So expect some FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. It comes with the territory. Though remembering your why will help get you through it.
Focus on Progress not Perfection. This is a favorite of my colleague Stacey Schaedler. You will screw this quest up. You’ll skip workouts, miss meals, and eat the occasional jar of peanut butter at 3 am, alone, and in your underwear . None of which is that important. Only that you’re a little better than last week. Think baby steps.
Keep A Food Log. This is the most powerful tool in your arsenal. Everyone should keep some type of diet journal. It can be a fancy app like MyFitnessPal or a 99-cent notebook. At first you don’t even have to note calories or macros – just what you ate and when.
This not only reveals food choices (and overall reliance on processed food) but also what you eat when you’re stressed, tired, at work, or winding down. Calories and macros are important too but this is square one.
Eat Mindfully. Never eat in front of the TV. Unless you’re trying to gain weight. Then I suggest a monster bag of caramel popcorn and a season or two of Game of Thrones.
Focus on Natural Foods. The “bags not barcodes” line is a wee bit tired but you still shouldn’t build your diet around stuff that could survive a return trip to the forest moon of Endor.
As registered dietitian and all around food Jedi Georgie Fear says here:
“Processed foods, sugars, and alcohol provide minimal satiety, so the less of these in your diet, the better. That doesn’t mean you can never have cookies again, but if your diet is 90% or more unprocessed whole foods, your appetite and hunger cues will be much more accurate than if you choose Poptarts and Pepsi for lunch.”
So yeah do that.
Speaking of which, it’s important to learn your body’s signals, especially hunger. Because boredom isn’t hunger. Neither is stress. Feeling sad or overwhelmed or even “frisky” isn’t hunger either.
Set Three Dietary Goals. Set a protein goal (a portion with every meal), a water goal (up to .66 x your bodyweight in pounds in ounces a day), and a veggie goal (up to 2-3 servings per meal). Being mindful of just these three things sorts a lot of stuff out.
Cook Yourself. I recently got noticeably leaner, which isn’t a bad thing except I was trying to add weight. But my diet hadn’t changed much. Or so I thought.
Looking through my own log, I realized that since leaving New York City I’d switched from eating at restaurants several times a week to barely eating out at all.
Remember, as hard as you may try to eat lean and clean, a restaurant goes broke if the customer finds the food bland and tasteless or the portions befitting an anorexic Ewok.
By the way, many people that stay lean all year use a meal service for 1-2 meals a day. This doesn’t have to be an extravagant luxury – it can actually save you time and even money. Consider hiring a culinary student to whip up your lunches every week.
Skip the Cheat Days. You can do a lot of “damage” in a day of unchecked gorging, especially if you didn’t “earn” the refeed.
While a single cheat meal in the evening is certainly better than a day of gluttony, for long-term adherence it’s best to dump cheats altogether.
By that I mean stop labeling eating what you enjoy as “cheating.” It’s not like you’re rolling around on your desk with Kim from accounting. Quit giving food that kind of power.
If you want something that bad, just eat it. Enjoy it and move on. Just make note of your decision and be accountable.
Keep a Training Log. The key to making progress in the gym is, well, making sure you make progress. Not just from workout to workout but from program to program, month-to-month, and year to year. This is impossible without keeping some kind of record.
To that end, you should try to make some discernible progress every workout. Lift more weight or perform more reps, even shorten the rest interval to increase the “density,” or doing more work in less time.
Pick a Sustainable Training Frequency. Send me a few bucks and I will design you the greatest 7-day-a-week program ever. And it will do sweet dick all if you miss half the workouts because it didn’t jive with your schedule.
There are plenty of different workout schedules that can work for your goals and limitations. My friend JCD covers a bunch here.
Build Your Workout Around The Basic Lifts. Every workout should have some variations of the basic lifts: squats, hip hinges, presses and pulls. It’s okay to do other stuff of course, but the basics always work. Use that to your advantage.
Practice Perfect Technique. In martial arts they say your punches and kicks can never be too perfect. As such, you should practice them every day, whether you’re a white belt or 20 year master. In strength training, the basic exercises above are your kicks and punches – work on them every day, as you will never, ever “perfect” them.
Practice Intelligent Variation. You can’t just keep feeding your muscles the same dose of exercise and expect them to grow ad infinitum. Your body is designed to adapt, which includes in response to resistance training. So you have to change things regularly.
However, with apologies to Weider’s “Muscle Confusion Principle,” that doesn’t mean just making shit up cause you feel like it. It’s far better to stick with the same workout and keep plugging away until you stop getting stronger. And if your goal is to get bigger, you can even monitor if it still makes you sore, and make changes accordingly.
As Charles Staley says here:
“If hypertrophy is one of your primary goals, be on the hunt for techniques and methods your body has never had to adapt to before (or at least in a long time). Then present that new stimulus continuously until it doesn’t provoke significant soreness anymore.”
Now he said “new techniques and methods” not “new exercises.” This is a key distinction, especially in light of the above point about sticking to the basics.
Here are just a few methods that you can apply without switching up the exercises.
- 25 rep sets (last set only)
- Last slow eccentric (negative) rep
- Drop Sets (10 seconds rest between weight drops)
- Rest Pauses or Cluster sets
- Partial reps
- Isometric holds
- Super sets, giant sets, pre-exhaustion, post exhaustions
Now you don’t have to include all the above. I like to use one per exercise (typically on the last set only) and change it up every month or so. It doesn’t take much to keep both your mind and your muscles “engaged.”
Balance Yin and Yang. You must recover to make progress. Most people focus on stuff like resting the “right” number of days between workouts, but it’s the little restorative measures that you can do throughout the day that make as much or more of a difference.
- Breathe deeply for 3 minutes, 3 times a day
- Get 7-9 hours a sleep, with every hour before midnight worth twice as much as hours after.
- Monitor HRV and resting heart rate. My friend Dr. Mike Nelson knows a thing or two about this.
- No caffeine after 3 pm
- Minimize overwhelm
- Watch for negative self talk
- Laugh deeply once a day
- Express gratitude at least once a day
- Call a friend. No, not text. Like use the phone. The talky part. It still works.
And most importantly
Celebrate Everything. As stated, the key to successfully changing your body is consistently doing the little things. And the way to ensure that is to remember to give yourself a little credit every day. You may not be a perfect fighter, but the fact that you’re still in the ring and trading punches with Clubber Lang means something.
After all, it’s easy to knock back a few tall glasses of wine on New Years Eve and declare 2016 the year you finally “get your ass in shape.” It’s another thing entirely to do the tedious, trying work to make that declaration come to fruition.
So celebrate every victory; every healthy meal you eat or workout you get in. All the little things. And watch them become big things.