Every new year, this year more than most, we ruminate on the future. For many, this means another yearly attempt at building exercise into their routines.
Often, they fail. I failed every year from 2010 to 2019.
Personal fitness has become a poisoned well of mis-information and cash-grabs. Information is either outdated, complex or designed to mislead you. Gyms leech your finances, paying for equipment you don’t understand and don’t need. Motivation becomes resignation as no matter how hard you try to enjoy it, running sucks. Your dreams of sculpted abs and strict form pull-ups fade away.
Is there a simpler way?
We’ve lost our relationship with simple movement. You are not an athlete, you are not a body builder, you are not a professional gymnast. You are a human being. The body already knows how to move. Improve your functional strength in day to day life by committing to simple routines.
You don’t need a training plan, you need simple movement.
How we forgot how to move
In the rich west our lives have become sedentary. The average adult of working age in the UK spends more than nine hours in sedentary time every day1. The NHS estimates physical inactivity causes 1 in 6 - 1 in 6! - deaths, the same as smoking. Costing the UK an estimated £7.4 billion every year2.
Chronic illness and obesity seem a foregone conclusion of life. Our lack of movement is the primary cause. Fitness has become a hobby for few who choose it. Physical activity is a casualty of modern convenience.
Movement is no longer part of our human condition3. We no longer travel long distances on foot. Our goods and services are digital, and our heating provided at the touch of a button. I am not trying to disparage modern innovations and technologies. Our modern lifestyles have eliminated regular strenuous movement from our lives.
When the fireplace heated the home; we chopped wood and carried inside to heat our homes. Before cars; we walked long distances to and from work and travelled by horse back. We carried our shopping. Workers wield keyboards now, not hammers. No one needed a training plan, because life was physical enough.
We don’t move like this anymore. Our activity needs are not met through normal discourse.
Why gym memberships, running plans and home HIIT workouts aren’t working.
We live in a distracted world. Modern life pulls on our attention in more directions than ever. The onslaught of notifications, social media, news cycles and emails seems never ending. Try to find an uninterrupted hour to focus, and you’ll find how hard it is.
If you aren’t fit, exercising for an hour is going to be unpleasant. It’s going to hurt, and it’s not going to be fun. A lucky few find that they can commit to this. But for us mere mortals, it leaves us sweaty, tired and defeated.
We commit to using the gym three times a week and fail. We needed to try harder. We needed to be more disciplined. Exercise isn’t for us.
The notion of it all seems absurd. We find ourselves unable to commit many hours a week to unenjoyable torture. After our motivation fades we remember how hard it is to find an hour for ourselves. Let alone for our new exercise habit. Social media seems packed with fitness success. So we conclude that there are some people that exercise and some people that don’t.
Running is worst of all. For some reason it seems to have become the default option for finally “getting into shape”. If you’ve ever tried running after years of inactivity you already know that it sucks.
I know that, because I’ve been there. I felt hopeless. Fitness belonged to an unreachable elite. I wasn’t worthy because I couldn’t suffer enough.
The problem isn’t you.
The problem is our approach.
Redefining “getting into shape”
The goal is to get into shape. But what does that even mean? For the vast majority of people their fitness goals are all wrong. Running, weightlifting, gyms, HIIT, 5x5, spinning, hot yoga. Whatever flavour, it fails to train for what most mean by getting into shape.
I’m not saying these programs don’t work. I’m not saying you can’t get fit at a gym, or find success with classes. What I am saying is that these programs train for a different definition of fitness. If you love exercise and it’s your hobby; that’s great.
But, for everyone else when they think of ‘being in shape’ they think of a more pragmatic approach. Playing with their kids with out getting tired. Carrying home shopping with ease. Not feeling stiff. Being able to touch our toes. Feeling energetic rather than sluggish.
The goal then; is not to make exercise a core part of who we are. But to achieve functional fitness with the least effort.
Your body is intelligent.
The reason why training has become complex is because the body is complex. I do not pretend to be a strength coach. Dip your toe into sport science and you get lost in information soon enough. To train for top-level performance requires complexity. Functional fitness does not. All you need to do is move more. Simple!
We are what we repeat.
To form a habit you must repeat an action. Almost everything in our life is a habit. Acceptance of this fact is fundamental to a positive relationship with exercise. The body reinforces neural pathways that provide positive outcomes. By repeating a desired action, we ingrain it so that it becomes unthinking - a habit.
At a basic level, when we use a muscle it becomes stronger. The pathways to the muscle develop allowing it to pull harder. The muscle fibre grows stronger, allowing it to generate more force. By repeating a movement over and over we form a “muscle memory”. This is a physical habit.
The adaptation of the mind and the body is one.
These are the seven fundamental movements4. By repeating these movements, our ability to do everyday things improves.
- Bend at the Hips
- Walk (or gait)
How do you train them?
Remembering how to Move - Greasing the Groove
What if I told you that you could have more energy, look better and feel stronger every day? And that all it would take is 3 x 10 minute sessions?
This is the power of Greasing the Groove (GtG).
Recall that our goal here is not to become athletes, or run marathons. Our goal is to feel strong and healthy in day to day life. Feeling sore and tired because of mammoth efforts isn’t in line with our goals. By aligning the training to our reality - we make it easy and fun to train. If you find your self failing to keep to commitments - take a moment to better align them with your goals. When we commit to an activity that fulfils our actual needs the brain will reward us with making it easier.
Pavel Tsatsouline coined the phrase in his book ‘Power to the People’.
GtG is a training philosophy based on a simple premise.
Training to failure takes time, is unpleasant - and leaves us tired and needing rest.
Training little and often, and never to the point of failure, makes you feel strong and energetic.
By repeating the movement every single day the nerves get “greased”. They become stronger and more efficient at doing what you’ve asked. Over time this translates into increased strength. It achieves the same goals of heavy lifting without the pain and discomfort.
Because the muscles have not failed there is no need for rest days. You are much less likely to incur injury or overtrain5. Your new exercise habit will feel easy and exciting. The number of times per day will reinforce it as part of your life - making it stick in a way that going to the gym never did.
How to get started
Here’s the big win: No equipment, no memberships, no videos. It’s movement patterns you already know. Three 10 minute sessions (or less!) a day is all it takes.
You can train all seven fundamental movements with simple bodyweight exercise. I recommend starting with push. We’ve attached a lot of emotional baggage to ones ability to do a push-up, so let’s start there.
First, limber up and do as many pushups as you can. If you can’t do any, move on to an easier variation. If you can only do one or two, make it easier6. This is your benchmark.
Now take your benchmark and times it by 0.4. For example, if you did 8 pushups, your new number is 3-4 pushups (choose whatever feels easier).
Take your number, and do it 3 times, in 3 sessions a day. For example;
AM - 3 x 4 pushups
MIDDAY - 3 x 4 pushups
PM - 3 x 4 pushups
Do it every day for 7 days.
This should feel easy. Remember our aim is to establish a routine and remind our body it knows how to move.
Think you could do it every week? Good! You should, because it will feel good. If you worried that it’s not working because it feels easy; remember that the most important thing is to move.
It might not feel like a lot but in 7 days that would be 252 push-ups. 252 push-ups you didn’t do while feeling guilty about not going to the gym.
In 8 weeks I’ve gone from 350 push-ups a week to over 600.
Now keep going. Every 2-3 weeks increase the numbers, always trying to stay within 40-60% of your top effort. If you were on an easier variation, after a few weeks try out a normal pushup to see how it feels. Surprise yourself at your rapid improvement.
Give it a go.
Can you afford not to?
By our human condition, I’m specifically referring to my own experiences. I’m more than aware that my lifestyle is full of convenience many lack - they are not the target of this article. ↩︎
While there is a massively reduced requirement to rest, it takes experience to feel when the body really needs it. I reccomend that if your new to it, to take a rest every 3 days. When your feeling more comfortable, look into variation and deloading as a further research topic. ↩︎