This morning, did you brush the teeth on your left side before the ones on your right side? Which shoe did you tie first? You probably have no idea and – however absurd it sounds – therein lies the key to strength and fitness.
An estimated 95% of our lives is lived in this automation mode.
From the moment we wake up to when we go back to sleep, we operate after pre-written scripts and well-practiced habits. We eat the same breakfasts each morning, take the same route to work day after day, where we most likely do the same thing we’ve been doing for years.
Broken down and examined in detail like this, life can look depressingly boring. But the fact that we can do this day after day without even noticing is thanks to our amazing brain.
It’s actually a function we should be incredibly grateful for.
Doing something for the first time is hard, especially if it’s dissimilar to what you’ve done before.
Take toddlers for example. I’m sure you’ve seen them drunkenly stumbling about, trying to take their first steps. The simple act of walking seems insurmountable to them. Yet repetition after repetition, one step at a time, they form the habit of putting one leg before the other and they learn to walk.
Governing such complicated tasks takes a lot of energy and so the brain forms habits – new, efficient neurological pathways – to make the activity you’re doing easier and easier.
Today, when you and me walk around, we never even give it any thought – we just walk.
We’ve made it second nature and we can do the same with other parts of our live!
The focus problem
If you’re anything like the typical person (and most are, by definition) I’m sure you’ve had plenty of moments where you swore to yourself you’d stop being X, or that you’d become more Y.
It’s especially common on new years eve. Yet people keep being X and never become much Y.
It doesn’t matter if you want to grow big and strong or perhaps lose that stubborn belly pooch. In both cases you’re faced with the same problem – you’re focusing on fixing the wrong thing.
The problem is not that you’re weak, that your belly jiggles when you walk, or that you get out of breath when walking a few stairs. That’s just the symptom. The real problem is how you live your life – your body and physical performance is simply a reflection of this.
The toddler challenge
Even realizing that you have to change the way you lead your life, doing so can be challenging.
For example, imagine that you’re taking up weight training for the first time. Since you’ve never done anything similar before, you won’t be able to tap into your existing neurological pathways.
You’ll essentially be a toddler all over again.
You’ll have to think about what to wear to the gym. Shorts or tights? T-shirt or vest? Should you bring a water bottle? How about a towel?
Once there you need to decide on what exercises to do. Machines or free weights? Warming up on the treadmill or just some light stretching? Which program should you use?
Next is weight, reps, and sets. Should you lift light but for many repetitions? Or heavy, fewer repetitions and more sets? Maybe do it differently for different exercises?
When you’re home again, there’s the question of nutrition. How much protein do you need? Are carbs dangerous or vital? How about fat? Should you take any supplements?
Overwhelming really, and that’s just one day! The next time it starts all over again. No wonder people – even with the best of intentions – simply quit after a few weeks of this. It’s so much work.
The habit solution
If you keep the above gym routine up for some time, you’ll eventually stop thinking about it. Just like the toddler’s parents, you’ll start to simply doing it.
But we have a limited amount of willpower and taking on too big of a challenge can crush us. That’s why you’ll see gyms packed with people in January but empty the remaining months. They sabotage for themselves by trying to run before they can walk.
Instead of chewing off too much in one bite, why don’t you break it down?
I very much recommend reading The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, which details the process for how to build powerful habits. I read it last year and it’s had a big impact on my life.
Here are three ways you could break different goals down into habit building tasks.
Wanting to grow strong
If you want to get strong you will have to:
Lift heavy weights to stimulate muscle growth.
Practice technique in the different lifts.
Eat enough to support growth.
Sleep sufficiently to aid recovery.
Pick one of the above to start focusing on for a while and give it time before moving on to the next.
Let’s go with practicing technique for this example. The better your form is, the more weight you can lift, the stronger you become, and the less risk of injury you’ll suffer, so you can keep lifting.
First, reduce the number of lifts to the bare minimum: squats, deadlifts, and presses. You don’t need anything else and adding more for the sake of it is best left for trainers trying to impress their clients.
Next, get the Starting Strength book or a similar source of high quality instructions for the lifts.
Then start filming yourself as you lift. When you get home, read through the book while reviewing the videos and see if you can find one thing to improve. That’ll be your focus for the next session.
If you keep this up for a few weeks, I promise you’ll immediately get stronger and you’ll lay a solid foundation for many years of growth to come.
Wanting to lose fat
If you want to lose fat you’ll need to eat less and move more. We all know this already.
Now let’s make it happen too!
One of my own biggest culprits is consuming too many calories in the form of beer. Ales, stouts, pilsners, porters – they’re all my favorites! If I were to simply “cut down on beer”, however, I’d have to make a new decision every time I’m confronted with the choice. Instead I make rules.
Some examples of rules:
I don’t drink beer at home.
I can only have (one!) beer if I’ve trained earlier that day.
I never drink beer on a weekday.
I only drink beer when we’re at least three people.
(I promise I’m not an alcoholic!)
You can probably come up with many more variants for yourself and your own unique challenges. Maybe you’re into pastries, have to have pizza, or you’re always too tired to exercise.
Make one small rule per week, stick to it, and you’ll see your lifestyle – and your body – change drastically over the coming months. Imagine a year and fifty-two changes from now!
Playing the long game
We continuously overestimate what we can do short time but underestimate what we can do long term. One little change doesn’t make much difference, but if you keep at it the habits quickly add up.
Just like the little toddler who keeps falling on his ass, time after time, each improvement you make will change the direction your heading and your results will reflect that.
Before you know it these habits will have you running!
If you use the links above to buy a book (Starting Strength or The Power of Habit), I get a small commission and it doesn’t cost you any extra. It’s an easy (and free!) way to support Athlegan.