You’ve been lied to.

Hornswoggled. Bamboozled. Sold a wagon full of malarkey, if you’ll pardon the Bidenism.

The things all the fitness authorities say you absolutely “must do” to sculpt a healthy, lean physique?

Most are irrelevant. At best they’re window dressing, compared to the stuff that really matters.

The Problem

There’s nothing nefarious taking place, no grand scheme to confuse you. The fitness industry isn’t some photoshopped Illuminati, quietly conspiring with Big Pharma and Big Soda to keep us medicated, doughy zombies shuffling towards type-2 diabetes.

On the contrary, most fitness professionals are sincere. They do want to help you. They just don’t know how.

Okay, that’s harsh. They know how to help people like themselves, as in other fit-pros. The most abnormal, geocentric segment of society you’ll find; to whom a busy day means spending hours passionately arguing on Facebook about the merits of free weights versus machines, resting only to post the occasional status update to remind the world how #grateful they are.

Those folks we got figured out.

But not like, you know, real people. Those with real jobs and kids and Instagram feeds that aren’t just a series of come-hither selfies adorned with hashtags pitching “custom macro coaching.”

I work with a lot of these ordinary people, and what’s holding them back isn’t some set of magic macros or goal setting. And it sure isn’t “one weird trick.”

It’s just a handful of rarely talked about but oh-so-important things that separate a successful fitness quest from an abject failure.

If you hope to change your body, here’s what you need to know.

Enough With Goals. Focus On Consistency.

Goal setting is rarified ground in the fitness biz. You best have clear, S.M.A.R.T goals written down before you so much as set foot in the gym January 2nd, else your hero’s journey to buffness will be but a frustrating series of setbacks, culminating in the gym being swapped for Netflix and Haagen Daaz by Valentines Day.

I used to have crystal clear goals for how I wanted my body to look, right up to having pictures of Arnold and Lee Labrada posted on my wall. Was it motivating to my younger self? Sure. Was it effective? Well, I still don’t look like either physique legend so let’s just say the jury is still deliberating.

For most, long-term goals are at best a distraction and at worst a source of stress. Especially after the initial honeymoon of motivation wanes and the physique staring back in the mirror is decidedly more Mr. Belvedere than Mr. Olympia.

It’s much better to instead focus on a handful of daily activities or practices that ultimately lead to The Big Goal, and work on hitting them consistently.

At first it might be eating 200 grams of protein a day spread over four meals, training for an hour, and drinking three liters of water. Once those are a habit, perhaps add eating three servings of veggies a day.

It’s far from complete but it is achievable, easy to progress, and sustainable. Which is what really matters.

Forget Flexibility, Strive for Structure

Wanna see a newbie suffer a fitness flame-out? Put them on a rigid meal plan. Especially one that fails to account for lifestyle, food preferences, and family, or so much as mentions the word tilapia. Meal plans only work for the truly committed or the certified robot. Definitely not the majority.

But offering too much flexibility right away is an even bigger mistake. As my colleague Jim Brown says, flexible dieting yields flexible returns. While being able to “fit” a few treats into an otherwise austere diet might sound liberating, for most it quickly devolves into “let’s see how much shit that I can eat and still hit my arbitrary macro targets.”

These folks just aren’t ready for the responsibility flexible dieting requires, so for them, regressing to a structured meal plan is the best option. Because structure, when combined with discipline and consistency, leads to freedom.

I’ve found that like most great lessons, it’s best if the “student” discovers it for themselves. So I will start someone off with a modest degree of flexibility simply because they’d flee at the sight of a rigid meal plan.

Yet within a month, most report eating basically the same things every day anyway, very much like, well, a meal plan. As one client put it, “The process is so much easier when you just eat the same things every day and forget about it.” Boring? Sure. But very effective.

Stop Seeing Food As Mere Calories

“Just burn more calories than you take in.” A favorite saying in an industry that loves to reduce things to easily marketable sound bites. I call it fitness reductionism and it sucks, as often when you simplify things too much the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.

Yes, the key determinant in weight loss is a calorie deficit, which is music to the ears of the die-hard calorie counters. But just as there are no superfoods, suggesting that “food is food” and calories are all that matters is equally short sighted.

Whole, natural food is not only a source of energy — it’s a symphony of flavours and textures and micronutrients, some that scientists are just starting to uncover. While going “all organic” or becoming a phyto-snob that only eats stuff with a high ORAC value is unnecessary, doing the opposite and relying on packaged, engineered foods because “it’s more convenient and easier to track the calories” is moronic.

Maybe it’s a lack of kitchen skills that’s the problem? I’ve noticed that those who rely too much on processed food also are also the types that burn water and take an hour to make Minute Rice. Learning how to quickly turn fresh, natural foods into tasty, satisfying meals has proven time and time again to be a key determinant of success.

There Is No Magic Program

There are best practices. There are workouts that will improve your bench or beef up your arms or burn a ton of calories. But as someone who has written a lot of them, I’m here to tell you: no matter what the goal, there’s no magic program that everyone “should” follow.

Naturally, some folks refuse to accept this and spend their time bouncing from program to program in hopes of landing upon The One, that elusive unicorn which will address all of their weak points in a fun and creative fashion, and in only 20 minutes a day.

But all this pointless program pinballing does is set them back to square one on the adaptation board; a rough place to be considering most of the “gains” during the first few weeks of a program are related to improvements in coordination and motor patterning.

Fact is, the point when you start to “get good” at a program is when you start to derive tangible, structural improvements. Too bad it’s also when many people report getting bored.

A well-designed program is one that balances both the wants AND needs of the individual, while at the same time respecting things like equipment, available time, injuries, and work/life stress, and then builds up complexity/demand at a rate commensurate with the client’s rate of improvement.

Turning things upside down just because the calendar flipped a page doesn’t fit the bill.

You’ll Need Way Longer Than 12 Weeks

An experienced fitness pro can make a hell of a “transformation” in 12 weeks. I know guys that can go from downright chubby to a full set of abs in under three months without much trouble. Most normal folks, however, lack the experience and muscle (not to mention dietary “support”) to pull off such a feat.

In a previous life, I worked with a supplement company that staged 12-week transformation contests. And while there was a few very good 12 week before & afters, the overwhelming majority looked like they were just getting rolling when the “after” pic was taken. A 20-week or even 52-week contest would have been far more telling, not to mention sustainable.

For most folks, the magic really happens between month 3 and month 5. You can lose fat faster of course but it won’t be fun, especially if you have a lot to lose, not to mention it’s much harder to keep the fat off once the diet finally “ends.”

Here’s another angle for going slow: the real reward of this process is what you learn about yourself along the way, not what you see in the mirror at the end of the journey.

Because in this age of efficiency “hacks” and speed at all costs, building your body is one of the last remaining outlets of personal craftsmanship that we can experience.

And it’s just that, a craft — something that we can work at every day, at our own pace, regardless of genetics or circumstance; slowly improving until we reach the summit of our personal Mount Everest. Though our reach always seems to exceed our grasp.

Yet with time, we learn to accept and even appreciate never finishing the climb.

Because that would mean the journey is over.