How to Succeed in Your Fitness Journey to Becoming the Body Beautiful

It’s very probable you’ve already read a dozen such blog posts as this. Go on, open another browser tab and look at some new shoes. You’re already bored of what I’m about to say. Except you can’t possibly know what I’m about to say because I’m unhinged. I’m the Martin Riggs of fitness. You might need to Google ‘Lethal Weapon’. And you’ll want to skip Mr Gibson’s less than savoury historical remarks. I digress. Yeah, I’m a Kosher Riggs. When he was lovable.

Where was I? Oh yeah—this isn’t another motivational blog post with the bog-standard rules about getting fit and how to do it in 5 reps. Nope. I can’t lie to you about all that nonsense. Getting fit isn’t a bloody soundbite—it’s a mission. And it’s not easy; if it was, everybody would be in good shape and I wouldn’t feel the pressing urgency to write more blog drivel. But I am, so lace up your gutties* and stare with utter disdain at those bronzed Instagram airheads. It’s time for a ride.

*Gutties (noun): Scottish slang for sneakers or training shoes

To quote Chuck Palahniuk, “You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake”. Well, if you are, you probably suffer from a genetic birth disorder or life has otherwise altered your capacity for activity. I can say that without fear of reprisal—I have my nerve damage and use a leg brace. I’m still not unique, though. Mobility impaired, but otherwise I still have goals. And all humans have the same initial propensity to achieve those goals. So, what is it that makes it so damn hard to be just like Dwayne Johnson or every other body beautiful icon?

Time. “Time is the fire in which we burn” (Delmore Schwartz, though, more famously used in a Star Trek TNG movie). Today’s a day of stealing quotes. To achieve an incredible physique takes time. We’re not simply talking years of toil. It’s the hours per day, days per week. If you want the physical appearance of a demi-god, you better hope you can work out for 2-3 hours a day, 4-6 days a week. The exquisitely honed forms you see on the big screen, or more likely these days, on your own streaming device, are a product of fantasy. Fantasy and investment. I have nothing against Dwayne Johnson. In fact, I hope he reads this, learns I have a book in the works and wants to play the title character. He’d actually work. Dwayne, or Jason Momoa. Henry Cavill would be great but he’s white. Damn shame, Cavill’s a PC geek like me that does weights. But the lead role is dark-skinned. Come on guys, email me…. Anyway, what Hollywood provides to us as perfect body image is practically unobtainable for the average Joe and Jane. You have a 9-5 job, maybe kids. A small yappy dog that needs walking. You need to fit in your online gaming/gambling/shopping addiction. In short—time is of the essence. Let’s not forget, most folks don’t have a home gym. Even if you do, it’s probably not fit for purpose. Nor will it give you the scope of activity to make you worthy of your seat on Mount Olympus. That means going to a gym. Good god, the thought of it… A public gym. The fact that most celebs that look awesome train for hours a day means time is the first barrier to your own success. So, how do us mere mortals achieve our goals?

Get Realistic. Get used to being a homogenous humanoid flesh sack. You need to look at the life you have now and decide what time you can sacrifice to the gods to allow you to focus on your physique. If you can only offer one hour a day, three days a week, you’ll need to rein in those aspirations. Or, take a lot of steroids. DON’T DO THAT! In fairness, even pro-bodybuilders (who absolutely do use anabolic drugs) train for 2-3 hours per day, 4-6 days per week. And they train hard. If you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of vomiting after each workout, you’ll never be a proper bodybuilder. It’s incredibly icky. So, you need to be realistic about what you can achieve. Even if you don’t desire the build of a condom stuffed with walnuts and you decide upon a simple six-pack, you’re in for a shock. ALL muscular stereotypical templates require huge sacrifice. So, you ask, what can I achieve?

Athleticism. To weigh as much as a normal man or woman and look ‘fit’ is the pinnacle of fitness aesthetics. To be a man-mountain requires a hefty weight penalty. If you and Dwayne had to cross a rickety wooden bridge, I’d make him go second. Though, of course, that would prove awkward unless he wanted to wrestle and you brought a gun. Point is, being light and looking good is achievable. Imagine not having to turn sideways to walk through a narrow doorway. See? There are benefits to not being built like a brick shithouse. Making your ideal physique an achievable goal is the first step on your fitness journey. Dreams are wonderful things but you need to understand they are only dreams. So very few of us get what we want. But, if you can focus on something you can actually achieve, when you get there, you’ll feel on top of the world. But… it still requires graft.

Effort. You’ve scheduled your training time. You can do 4 hours a week. Guess what? Yup, those four hours must count. You want to look amazing? You’ll need to work out until you feel so far from amazing it hurts. If you wanted a health outcome, that’s great. It’s so easy to be healthy you practically only need to walk at a brisk pace for 30 minutes a day. Whoop! Bronze star for you. Healthy and looking ‘okay’? All you need is mediocre effort with some push ups, squats and what-not thrown in. Silver star for you. If you wish to achieve the Gold award, you need to put in some top-level effort. Again, people who look good, no matter how odious they are, train hard. If you can only train for four hours a week and you want maximum return on your investment, you need to train near maximum as well. But what is maximal effort?

Failure. I’ve not quoted someone for quite some time. Let’s quote Mythbusters. Particularly Adam Savage.

Failure is always an option.

But more, in application of effort in exercise, failure is everything. Now, I’m not suggesting you die on a treadmill or burst into flames on a rowing machine. That’s not failure—that’s voodoo. But to push your body until it cannot complete a set of 10 reps… that my friend, is failure. And it means you have pushed the system beyond its energy or strength threshold. What does that mean? Apart from being really sore for a day or two, it means you pushed the limits to the point your physiological feedback mechanisms will try to compensate. Whaaaaat? Yeah, it’s a bit technical. However, in brief, when you ask your body to perform beyond its limits, biological mechanisms will be put into play that will try and adapt to the new stress. The way your body adapts to physical stress is to become ‘fitter’ for that purpose. You become stronger, or develop more endurance, depending upon the training stimulus. Sounds awesome. But there is one massive caveat.

Fuel and nutrition. If you don’t know already, athletes and bodybuilders have the most boring and dull diets. Body fat and muscle mass are intrinsically tied to the stuff you cram into your mouth. You don’t need any supplements to look good. I mean, that’s a separate article and by god that industry is the devil. Stay well away from it. But you do need to eat well. A diet rich in lean meat and starchy carbohydrates is essential. More, you‘ll need to dispense with the pleasures of cheesecake and pizza unless your calorie expenditure is higher than the GDP of a small nation. In short, if you want to look really good, your diet needs to become really strict. As in, awful and dull strict. I also need to address the vegans among us. A vegan diet is incredibly beneficial if done well but it is a challenge. Anyone who says otherwise is a stooge. But if you choose that path (and I absolutely praise you for it) please do your research. Now, you train hard and your diet is good. What next?

Patience. We’re not building Lego here. The only things that grow fast are plants, fungi, and national debt. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. Of course it wasn’t—that’s a stupid expression. My garden fence wasn’t even built in one day. Idiots. Not my contractors, the philosopher that came up with the Rome example. A city, in one day? That’s just lame. Patience is required. I’ve mentioned calorie burn rate in previous posts. I’ll not repeat them here. Yeah—go trawl through my blog. I took the time to write it, you can take the time to find it. The penultimate challenge is being patient. Building muscle takes time. Burning fat takes time. Fine tuning your diet to get that balance takes time. In short, ironically, it takes a long time. And the farther you are from your goal, the more patience you’ll require to get there. It will be worth it. Yet, there’s a niggle bothering you. I said patience is the penultimate challenge. As Yoda said: There is another.

Relapse. It will happen. You’ll see gains for a while and then they’ll stop. You’ll question your approach. You’ll doubt your application, your desire. You’ll say, “Ah, screw this!” and then plunge head first into a pizza laden with so many toppings the delivery guy pulled a groin strain delivering it. Pizza first, then a cheesecake, fifteen beers and a night in the garden arguing with squirrels and fighting sparrows. Never fight sparrows, their sheer numbers will overwhelm you. And the squirrels will steal your smartphone and take candid pics and send them to your mum. That’s the worst part of relapse—we’ve all been there. Your geographic location may require a change of animal voyeur. I pity those with bears for neighbours. Or raccoons. Or skunks. I saw a Skunk while on vacation in downtown Vancouver once. Truly weird.

But don’t worry. Relapse is normal. In fact, as a fitness professional with 26 years-experience, I can say that if you don’t relapse, you’re a liar. It’s human nature to question the futility of endeavour. But it’s also human nature to overcome that doubt. I mean, look at you now, you’ve read almost 1800 words of drivel posted by a guy you don’t even know. By the gods, you must have some crazy mental stamina. I know you will succeed.

Ultimately, the key to achieving fitness success is to understand the challenges you face and to ensure your aspirations are practical. Set yourself a realistic goal. Set aside a few hours a week to work on that goal. Forgive yourself your slips and relapses and climb straight back on that unruly steed. You’ll get there in the end; you’ll ride onto the savannah of success. And in that amber sunset, with the hot breeze on your face, Dwayne might even be there too. He’ll pat you on the back. Say how well you’ve done. And you’ll both stare into the sunset. Just don’t look at his arms. Or his shoulders. Remember, you achieved your goal. But you’ll never be Dwayne.

Failure is always an option

If you’re a little nerdy, you’ll attribute this phrase to Mythbuster’s Adam Savage. I’m unable to verify his exercise credentials, nor would I assume to do so. And though his words had a different arena from that of which I intend to delve, the sentiment remains. Failure, in physical exercise, is always an option.

Having worked in gyms for 25 years, I’ve seen the standard model of exercise intensity, namely, moderate. There’s nothing wrong with that, at least, that’s how we encourage people to do something less enjoyable that washing dishes. The truth is, moderate sucks. In fact, in practically every arena, from politics to astrophysics, a moderate approach implies lack of effort and often mediocrity. Why should your body be any different?

To fail is to be a loser. That’s the mantra obsessive life-coaches end up selling. They’ll use quotes similar to ‘failure is an option – but you can choose to succeed’, which I personally find as meaningless as telling someone, ‘nothing’s impossible.’ Nothing’s impossible? Really. Hmm, last time I tried, I couldn’t make a calorie free pizza. Or change the body-shape of a 5’ humanoid sphere into a 6’ beanpole. I’m afraid to say, some things are impossible and success isn’t always a choice. But I digress; Failure is ALWAYS an option.

Failure has a bad rap. It’s a word synonymous with, well, ‘failure’. You know what I mean, it’s such a foundation word—everyone knows it, it’s taught from such an early age:

‘Young Billy, if you fail math, you’ll never be an astronaut!’

‘Little Samantha, if you fail physics, you’ll never be an engineer!’

‘Donald, if you fail to grasp emotional intelligence, you’ll never be…’ – scrub that one…

Anyway – you get the point. Aversion to failure actually implies a lack of effort. In any given task, reaching failure means you’ve likely tried all available avenues. In which case, you’ll adapt, or you’ll learn. Often a slap on the head from a loving teacher can knock a new idea into the brain box. Of course, that approach stopped a long time ago when it became unfashionable to hit children. Good thing to. I didn’t like getting hit in school… 

In exercise, failure is a moment of adaptation. In truth, it’s very difficult to achieve. Our bodies are machines that require fuel to perform any task. Reaching failure is tough. Our brain chomps through sugar at a crazy rate and our bodies will metabolise carbs (for sugars), fats and protein for any manual effort. There’s a hierarchy of sensation aligned to whatever physical work you’re doing. Different intensities use different fuels in different ways.

Low level effort (such as a stroll, or even typing) uses a large proportion of fat as the energy source. As our bodies are reasonably efficient at low level work, we don’t use many calories doing easy things. Therefore, we can do them for long time periods, without discomfort. Realistically, failure is not something you experience at this level. I can’t recall falling from my chair, clutching fingers and moaning about how extreme typing has caused cramp and stress fractures. Never needed an electrolyte intake and a protein bar after typing for seven hours. Just beer. Writer’s reward.

Medium level effort (a jog, or an aerobic workout) begins to use more stored sugars at a higher burn rate. This is the de facto level of exercise for 99% of people. Whether you wear lose joggers and baggy tees, or painted on Lycra and a brand-new wax, you’re probably in this category. Yeah, on that Lycra statement—don’t be fooled by apparel. Fashion is not an indicator of effort, experience, or ability. Lycra alone isn’t a crime but Lycra plus immaculate make-up usually implies low effort. This may sound sexist but it’s an observation. Similarly, guys who wear tight cycling shorts to the gym, often don’t own bikes. I wish they did, so they’d take away those obscene banana hammocks.

High level effort is all about sugars, and in extreme cases, body resources such as creatine. A rapid burst of power (100m sprint, 5 reps at maximum effort) will tank your creatine phosphate (CP) reserves. Rest for a few minutes you can go again. Slightly lower duration, or effort will be a carb fest. A whole bunch of calories will be expended but the work load isn’t sustainable. Failure is often an option here.

With a brief fashion and physiology lesson fresh in the mind, it’s simple to discuss failure. At moderate intensity, failure is hard to achieve. It hurts like hell. This is the domain of the well-known term, the ‘burn’. It’s real and it sucks. A mixture of fuel shortage, a build-up of exercise by-products (lactic acid) and lowering work efficiency make the ‘burn’ a hellish experience. Taken to extremes, you’ll suffer wobbly legs, nausea, and in some cases, you will be physically sick.  Yummy! That sounds super-awesome. It’s not. It’s awful. Yet, if you want to be the best at some sort of moderate time frame event this is how you’ll train. Now bear in mind this is also where most exercisers tend to gravitate and you’ll understand why people avoid failure. Frankly, if you puke all over the treadmill, I’ll personally send my minions to throw you out the gym. I jest. They’ll just clean your carrots and oatmeal with a congealing gel and call me an asshole boss. Hey, I’ve cleaned poop from a guide dog’s mess—I’ve done my tour of duty.

So, if I said ‘failure is always an option’ but paint it in such a poor light, what’s the point? Ah young Padwan, you forgot about the high-level, short-burst duration intensity. This is where failure works best. This is where glory is found in gritted teeth and high-pitched squeaks. This is actually where we should all train if health is your goal.

Before going any further, it would be wise to add an advisory. In all seriousness, pushing to failure in exercise carries risks to those with certain health conditions. Apathy, lethargy, and low motivation are all…. No wait. I was reading from the Fascist Gym Instructor’s Handbook. Let me get my stethoscope. So, here we are: heart conditions, unstable angina, respiratory problems, and certain joint problems, among other things will not play well with exercising to failure. In short, don’t try it unless you know you are medically sound.

Press-ups. Or push-ups. Whatever. This ‘Failure’ post came from humble beginnings. I was on holiday and thought I’d get back into the press-up regime. Every couple of nights, I’d do a whole bunch until failure. First couple nights I didn’t count. Then, I did. I pushed until about 99% effort to get 52. In my younger years, I’d reached 100—proper ones, arms passing 90 degrees, ankles, hips, and shoulders in a straight line. Regardless, 52 isn’t a huge number but it’s a good start. To make sure I was pooped, I tried more after five seconds. Managed two. I’d say I reached failure. Now here’s the golden moment; when you realise how effective certain things are. I stopped doing them for over a week, after doing them for only one week. When I tried again, I did 60, then 65 to actual failure. To be clear: I worked out ‘close to failure’ on press-ups for about four sessions. Stopped doing them for 7-9 days. Tried again, managed over 60.

What happened to get such an improvement? Simple, I trained to failure. This is how systems work. Your body works within tolerances, as though a finely tuned pedal-bin. Use it within those tolerances and it’ll give you years of carefree enjoyment. Don’t use it (be sedentary) and it’ll seize up. But if you use it all the time, things change. In the pedal-bin analogy, you’ll probably want to get a bigger bin (or eat less). But the body is a wonderful and adaptable thing. When the body is pushed to its limits, it releases hormones. These remodelling chemicals promote growth in active tissues. In effect, the system gets a message that its not robust enough, so to adapt to the immediate stresses, it rebuilds. Without those stresses—that push toward failure—it wouldn’t need to change (that mediocre level).

But what about puking? Short term high-intensity work tends to fail on mechanical grounds. Muscle fibre recruitment maxes out and the system can’t give any more. It takes grunt and a whole world of focus but it’s much less painful than the burn. Mental effort to summon your ‘maximum’ strength isn’t easy. I’d argue that compared to the ‘burn’ it is much more pleasant. Not all things suit failure. Pressing a heavy weight above your head until it collapses on you is exercise Darwinism. But you can train close to failure. It takes experience but learning your body’s limits allows you to push it close. The rewards are high. The pukiness, low.

Wait, you say, I can’t even do a single press-up. Excellent. Try one. Push as hard as you can. Create an air gap between your body and the ground, try, try, try. When you realise you still can’t move, it doesn’t matter—that was failure. You tried (really hard, with all your red-faced effort), you failed. That is good. Better if you accidentally vented some ass-gas. That’s a trumpet of noble effort. Try again tomorrow, the next day. Slowly, that push will rise higher. Your body will adapt.

Failure is always an option.