People often ask me how to get into better shape, but some of them don’t even know where to start! They’re completely lost, sometimes with little to no experience in strength or conditioning exercises. And that’s totally okay; fitness isn’t complicated once you know what you’re doing.
What people also don’t realize is that there’s a ton of overlap when it comes to training, diet and recovery. There’s a certain harmony to achieving the body of your dreams; excelling in one of these areas lends itself well to another area. For example: if you achieve high quality sleep every night, you’ll find that your metabolism stays higher and you don’t get hungry as easily. This helps you lose weight much more easily.
Usually when I hear questions about fitness, they're the same ones over and over:
- "How do I build muscle?"
- "How do I lose fat?"
- "How do I sleep better?"
To get the answers to these questions, you don't need to check bodybuilding websites daily like the newspaper. Books are out there that can give you detailed answers, but you might not even need to buy those! Honestly, you might not even need to buy a book or hire a personal trainer to get into decent shape. Many of you have a decent idea of what you’re doing already; you just need someone to nudge you in the right direction.
Eventually, I had a realization:
What if I could summarize everything I know about fitness into 10 basic principles?
Hence the purpose of this list: I’ve compiled 10 fundamentals to fitness. They’re in no particular order; each is very important. Stick to these principles and you’ll get in phenomenal shape in no time!
#1 - Get High Quality Sleep Every Night
Compared to 30 years ago, people’s lives are more hectic than ever. Working 9 - 5 went from being the standard to now existing as a luxury for those in relaxed lines of work. Due to this added pressure and increased time spent at work, people are sleeping less than ever before.
How much sleep should you be getting? Well, for the average adult, it should be anywhere from 7-9 hours per night. Furthermore, the sleep should be high quality. If you’re tossing around in bed only to wake up 3 times throughout the night, then those “7 hours” of sleep you had really weren’t that restful.
In fact, sleeping poorly is probably the most common mistake I see people making when it comes to their fitness. I’ve fallen into this category myself; when I was younger it was common for me to
So how do you ensure that you fall asleep fast and stay in a deep sleep? There are a few tips to achieve that:
- Expose your vision to sunlight first thing in the morning
- Work out every day (but not close to bedtime; leave at least 4 hours as a buffer)
- Avoid blue light and bright lights for 1-2 hours before bedtime
- Eliminate caffeine intake in the 8 hours before bedtime
- Limit or eliminate alcohol intake near bedtime
- Pray or meditate within 30 minutes of bedtime
- Wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day
Start trying out these tips and you’ll sleep better than ever!
#2 - Proper Meal Planning
Calories do matter. You have to take in more energy than you’re currently burning to gain weight. Similarly, you have to take in less energy than you’re normally burning to lose weight. This is a basic principle of thermodynamics.
1 gram of fat elicits 9 calories, while 1 gram of carbohydrates or protein elicits 4 calories.
If you want to bulk (gain weight) then you should do the following:
- 10% caloric surplus
- 50% carbs
- 30% fat
- 20% protein
If you want to cut, then stick to these steps
- 20% caloric deficit
- 40% carbs
- 35% fat
- 25% protein
Now are these macros absolute? No; some people might be better off bulking with 40% carbs if their bodies just don’t respond to carbs well. And maybe some people prefer a 30% protein intake when they’re cutting weight. However, for the average person, 50% of carbs while bulking will lead to impressive muscle and strength gains just like 25% protein will enable someone to preserve their muscle mass while losing fat.
Also, calories and macros aren’t everything. You can’t neglect your nutrition either. You need to eat mostly clean foods everyday if you’re going to transform your body. Here are some of, in my opinion, the most nutritious foods you could eat:
- Milk (2% or whole)
You don’t have to limit yourself only to clean foods either. Each day I try to have some kind of cheat meal at one point, but I make sure it’s reasonable. If I have donuts, I make sure I eat no more than 2 of them (2 donuts would total roughly 600 calories, so even that’s a bit much on some days). By doing this, you can reward yourself for your hard work! If the rest of your foods have been healthy and you’re on track to hit your macros for the day, please treat yourself to some delicious snacks.
#3 - Lift Weights and Do Cardio
Some say lifting is better. Some say cardio is better. I say… why not both? The truth is that unless you’re taking steroids, your body isn’t designed to lift weights 6-7 days each week. I’ve tried it before and it never turned out well.
First and foremost, you can’t lift heavy that often. You’ll be overtrained within a couple of weeks. When you lift in the 5-7 rep range or even heavier, it strains both your muscles and your central nervous system. Some people try to get around this by having light workout days (12 - 15 reps or even higher) that don’t tax their nervous system as much. But even then, those light reps are still breaking down muscle.
Am I saying you shouldn’t work out every day? Not at all!
Lift weights for 2-4 days a week and perform cardio on the other days. Your routines should focus on compound movements such as the following:
- Flat Bench Press
- Standing Overhead Press
- Back Squat
- Chin Up
For the body parts you have trouble growing, or just want to focus on more, use isolation exercises such as these:
- Dumbbell Curl
- Tricep Extension
- Hand Gripper
- Face Pull
- Y Raise
Keep in mind that you don’t need to isolate every body part; I never isolate my back or chest muscles, yet they’ve developed very well over the years.
On the days you don’t do weights, perform cardio. Intervals tend to be the best for burning fat without burning muscle. Also, I tend to prefer forms of cardio that I could do in my home or right outside; there’s plenty of cardio options available with just using your body.
Some great choices for cardio are as follows:
- Shadow Boxing
- Jumping Jacks
Walking and yoga might not seem like cardio at first, but I’ll throw them into that grouping. They don’t tax your body the way that weightlifting does, but they enable you to burn some calories while letting your muscles recover as well.
#4 - Stay Hydrated
Other than not sleeping well enough, I’d say the most common mistake people make is not drinking enough water. Water is a key resource for your body. You can last 5 days or so without any food, but after 2 days without water you will die. Think about that for a moment: water is that much more essential than the actual food you’re eating.
A healthy amount to aim for is 1 gallon per day. Now this doesn’t mean carry around a gallon with you; I’m saying you should consume 1 gallon of liquids each day, which could include coffee, milk, juice, and any water you ingest from fruits or vegetables. Suddenly 1 gallon doesn’t sound like so much, does it? Outside of consuming water with my meals, I’ll usually sip on it every 10 minutes or so throughout the day.
The health benefits of water are many, but here are just a few to note:
- Dispenses waste and unwanted substances from the body
- Maintains higher energy and focus levels
- Aids in fat loss and muscle building
A good rule of thumb to make sure you’re staying hydrated enough is how often you’re urinating. You should be urinating every 1 - 2 hours. Furthermore, your urine should be clear or a very light yellow; if it’s a normal or darker shade of yellow, then you are dehydrated. At that point your body’s been in need of water for a couple hours actually.
#5 - Warming Up Properly
Few people take the time to properly warm up for their workouts. This is important for cardio and even more important for weightlifting.
My weightlifting warmup scheme is as follows:
- Full body dynamic stretching (5 minutes)
- 30% 1RM for 10 reps
- 50% 1RM for 5 reps
- 65% 1RM for 3 reps
- 80% 1RM for 1 rep
What’s the difference between dynamic stretching and static stretching? Dynamic stretches involve constantly moving your body parts through a certain range of motion without pausing, whereas static stretches comprise of holding your body still in a given position.
When you’re performing cardio workouts, you don’t need to worry about calculating your warm up weights since you’re not lifting. However, the dynamic stretching should still be performed; this will help you prevent injuries, especially for intense cardio like sprinting.
Does that mean static stretching is useless? Not at all! I perform static stretching for about 5 minutes at the end of every workout. Whether you lifted weights or performed cardio, stretching at the end aids your recovery and prevents your muscles from staying stiff all day.
#6 - Track Your Progress
One of the best ways to get in great shape is by monitoring your fitness.
First and foremost, keep track of your lifting progress in some type of table (Microsoft Office Excel, for example). It’s important to update your performance on a regular basis so you can see how you’re doing.
Also, track your macros and calories. You don’t have to eat the same exact foods each day, but you should have a rough idea of what you’re consuming on a daily basis.
Similarly, you should track the change in your body. Measure your waist and weigh yourself (first thing in the morning after using the bathroom) once a week. If your waist jumps half an inch over the next few weeks, it’s time to cut down your food intake.
These things sound a bit tedious, but they’re the best way to measure your body’s change over time. Relying on the mirror isn’t enough; when I had gained my first 20 pounds of muscle, I didn’t even notice it. My eyes gradually grew accustomed to my new appearance. People at school, however, had taken notice and complimented me on the growth, leading me to realize how far I had come at that point.
#7 - Drop the Supplements
Supplements are not necessary and they usually don't even help your progress. I’ve tried tons of them in the past (whey protein, BCAAs, sleep supplement, etc.) and they never really made the difference when it came to my fitness.
Also, you don’t actually know whether the supplements have what they claim to have. The supplement industry is highly unregulated; even if a supplement is “FDA approved,” which is rare to begin with, the testing is not very thorough.
But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s say you’re taking 5+ supplements on a regular basis and you’re convinced that they’re working.
My simple question for you is this: how much are you spending on that?
If you’re spending $1000 annually on just supplements, you’re making a huge mistake with your expenses! You’d be better off paying slightly more money for healthy food options instead.
The only supplements I currently take are curcumin and fish oil, simply because they're hard to obtain from a normal diet and have benefits beyond muscle building and fat loss.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: limit yourself to 3 supplements. That’s it; you can’t take anything more than that. For example, maybe you’ll take whey protein, fish oil, and creatine as your 3 choices.
#8 - Preexisting Conditions
Every trend has outliers. Although I genuinely believe in the fitness advice I’ve given so far, there are exceptions. Some people have uncommon conditions that would prevent them from reaping the benefits of some of the tips I’ve given so far.
If you’ve had lower back surgery in the past, you probably shouldn’t be doing Conventional Deadlifts.
If you’re diabetic, then a typical bodybuilder’s foods and macros might not be the best for you.
If you have a heart condition, it might be best to avoid intense forms of cardio.
Like with all things health and fitness related, ask your doctor first. Consult with your physician before making drastic changes to your lifestyle.
#9 - Skeptically Look at Studies
One of the newest trends is that people don’t believe anything related to fitness or bodybuilding unless there’s a study backing it up. I have a few problems with this trend.
First of all, just because one study, or even multiple studies, come to a conclusion, it doesn’t mean it’s correct. The research might have used too small of a control group. Or the actual testing might not have isolated variables as much as the study claims.
Furthermore, you’ll find that there’s a lot of conflicting information out there. One study says the best rep range is 12-15 reps while another one claims it’s 5-7 reps; then you might come across a crazy study saying 30+ reps would build just as much muscle!
And finally, some studies just don’t make any sense. If a study told you that eating your own feces would increase your muscle mass, would you actually try it?
Please tell me your answer is no.
Sure, there aren’t studies quite that insane out there, but others have come close. One study claimed that when testing a Bench Press one-rep-max on a standard weight bench, the weight lifted is the same as performing the Bench Press on a bosu ball. This study was peer reviewed and published despite the idiocy in its claims.
#10 - Mental Game
They say half the battle is mental, and it’s so true. First, you need to believe in yourself to transform your body. Self-confidence is key with everything, including fitness. When you’re sprinting to the point that it’s getting hard to breathe… when you’re trying to lift that final rep on an exercise but it’s unclear if you can squeeze it out… these are the moments where you need that confidence because it will make the difference between succeeding or failing.
Above all else, the key to your “mental game” for fitness is discipline. You have to stay consistent. You have to suck it up and work out if you slept a couple hours less than you planned to. You have to stick to your diet and make sure you’re obtaining the necessary macros and vitamins from your meals.
Well there it is!
Is this an all-inclusive list? Are you going to look like Arnold now that you’ve read this?
Of course not. But these steps are a good place to start! And if you’ve been struggling with your progress before, I’m sure there was a step above you just weren’t adhering to correctly.