Stop using the gym the way a hamster does its wheel. Set goals and achieve them, to get to your personal destination.
As entrepreneurs, we struggle to allocate time for fitness. For those that do, most of us “exercise,” which is merely doing something other than being sedentary. Moving around is certainly better than not, but it is not the best use of time in the gym. Training, on the other hand, is.
What’s the difference? Exercising is like an office-worker that comes into work, checks emails, goes to meetings, chats with coworkers, and then goes home. Is it work? Yes. Is it productive? Maybe. It’s probably more productive than calling in sick, but certainly less productive than working towards a goal.
Training is the productivity-at-work equivalent of going to work with a plan. Showing up to the office with a clear goal in mind (one that looks further out than the end of the day), and performing specifically planned activities to most efficiently achieve that pre-determined goal.
So how do you start training instead of exercising?
Step 1: Set a goal.
Making progress in the gym depends on strategically applying stress to your body, recovering from that stress, and adapting to it to withstand more stress next time. A simple example of this is something we’ve all experienced with sun exposure. An appropriate dose of sunshine, for instance, can make you noticeably tanner (after recovery and adaptation occur). In biology, this is referred to as the stress-recovery-adaptation cycle.
So, what physiological adaptations are worth training? For the purposes of this short article, let’s look at the big ones: Strength (the ability to produce force against an external resistance) and conditioning (the capacity to do work and sustain activity).
Let’s start with conditioning. Endurance athletes rely primarily on aerobic conditioning, e.g. long slow distance (LSD) training. Cyclists. Marathoners. Triathletes. Many entrepreneurs are attracted to these activities because they require mental toughness and it’s possible to measurably improve performance over time, which is one of the most addictive traits of anything that can be trained — and part of the same neurochemical reward system that keeps us motivated to create new products and services as entrepreneurs. That’s the effect of a positive feedback loop, and it’s one of the reasons why LSD training is very popular.
The second type of conditioning is that of the anaerobic (or without oxygen) type. Sprints. Hill climbs. Pushing a prowler. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a popular form of anaerobic work that’s regarded as a great way to burn fat more efficiently than traditional endurance training and with less potential for muscle loss. Putting the pros and cons of conditioning training aside, neither LSD nor HIIT can make you (much) stronger.
Next, let’s move to strength. Strength is at the core of every physical interaction that we have. It’s required for walking, balancing, running, pushing, pulling, and everything in between. Being strong means being able to produce large amounts of force.
To produce force, you must have sizeable cross-sectional areas of muscle mass surrounding your skeleton. A healthy layer of skeletal muscle is what gives you shape (for both men and women). It acts as the body’s largest gland, improving metabolism, glucose regulation, and positively impacts a host of other critical biological functions. When un-adapted trainees train for strength, they get stronger, and more conditioned — which means training for strength is super-efficient. Blood markers improve, bone density increases, tendons get stronger, and perhaps most noticeably, body composition improves.
Based on that abridged analysis, I am suggesting that strength training is the most productive use of time in the gym, for most people.
Step 2: Build a plan (or use someone else’s).
A well-designed strength training program will facilitate rapid stress-recovery-adaptation cycles that can be repeated for several months. Most of you reading this can undergo three of those cycles per week, which results in rapid, addictive progress.
How? Getting stronger depends on recovering from work that’s done in the gym, thus training sessions are spread out across the week, e.g. Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday schedule — that about 48 to 72 hours between training sessions. You might be thinking that training three days a week is not enough, but it is — because strength is the goal.
Additionally, training three days a week is the most efficient frequency for those new to strength training. Stress on Monday, recover and adapt before Wednesday’s session, and repeat. Any extra work (extra conditioning, for example) would simply be diverting recovery resources to something other than getting strong, which is inefficient and unnecessary, especially for the first several months.
The best way to decide what work to perform (within the plan) is to set criteria — like when deciding what piece of software to buy at work, or what vendor to use. Corporate procurement is a systematic process with clear definitions and parameters. Taking a similar approach in analyzing criteria for strength training movements is a wise choice:
- We want to choose exercises that work the entire body — as much muscle mass as possible.
- Since exercises with longer ranges of motion typically use more muscle mass and apply more stress, we’ll want to choose ones with the longest effective range of motion.
- And since applying stress, and then a little more stress next time — in the form of increased weight — is what makes us strong, we’ll need movements that can enable us to move as much weight as possible.
The exercises that best fit those criteria, and that when combined provide a full-body workout, are the squat, the overhead press, the bench press, and the deadlift. If performed with good technique, at the appropriate intensity (weight) and volume (reps/sets), these four lifts alone can make you stronger for many months and then serve as the primary movements in your training for decades to come.
But which lifts should you perform on which days, and how many reps/sets? Try Starting Strength.
Step 3: Get started and stick to it.
If you’ve decided to train instead of exercise, and you’ve determined that strength training is the best use of time in the gym, then all you have to do is pick a program, and stick to it, right?
Yes, if you do to the program as prescribed. After all, a well thought out business plan that isn’t fully executed, does not produce the desired outcome. Same applies to training. For example, if you perform partial high-bar squats, the program won’t work as well then if you performed full-depth low-bar squats. If you modify the reps/sets recommendation or don’t follow the recovery guidelines, the same concept applies.
Many of these common pitfalls can be easily overcome by finding a qualified coach. If in-person coaching isn’t feasible, the next best option is an online coach. While not ideal, many including myself have even taken a stab at learning on your own by reading up and watching YouTube videos.
Getting started is where intentions meet action. Which means just like with any other important plan or initiative, it is the most important step. Find a gym near you that has a power-rack and get started. It’s only 60 to 90 minutes, three days per week. And it will improve nearly every aspect of your physical existence.