Boxing gloves

Get In Shape, Optimizing for Time

And Now for Something Completely Different?

Today I’m going to bring it back, even if it seems like I’m swerving. “It Can Be Easily Done” is all about effective action whether that be in personal productivity, personal finance, or anything else you want to get done in your life. Today “anything else” is going to be getting in shape, which has been another passion of mine for the past 3 years. I’ve had personal success, dropping my body fat percentage from around 25% to sub-13% without losing a significant amount of weight. I’ve also gotten a lot stronger, pushing my deadlift to 1.5× bodyweight recently (up from barely being able to press the bar when I started…)

I’ve managed to do this without too much time in the gym or any really aggressive diets. More surprisingly, I’ve gone from not liking to exercise to looking forward to it. Once you get past the beginner stage, progress will get harder physically, but it can still get easier mentally. Let’s hit the high points.

As Always, Step 1 is to Define Your Goals

Today, I’d like to show you that the goal setting principles I outlined in my comprehensive guide to setting and achieving your goals apply to getting in shape just as much as a non-physical goal.

Summarized, first you need to get crisp about your exact goal. Visualize the outcome and then write down a description of what you visualized. Be vivid and specific.

Cribbing from my go to example:

A vague goal: I want to be healthy.

A better goal: I want to lose 15 pounds in the next 3 months.

An awesome goal: I want to lose 15 pounds in the next 3 months so that I look good in front of my friends at my 15 year high school reunion.

Note that for a fitness goal, this step is even more critical because it turns out that the popular goals have different effective approaches.

Is your theme:

  • Weight loss
  • Strength
  • Aesthetics
  • Health
  • Performance
  • Something else?

While we’ll learn that there is some overlap between most of these goals, the specific playbook you will follow will be different for each theme. We don’t have time to waste on tactics that aren’t aligned with our goal.

Your Action for Today

  1. Visualize where you want to take your fitness in 3 months time. Write a clear goal like the one above and identify which theme the goal falls into.

Step 2: Be Like Archimedes and Lever Up

Now that you have your goal and your theme identified, your next step is to create a playbook based on how other people have successfully achieved this goal. Today, I’m going to give you some shortcuts since these playbooks are all quite well known and I’ve already done the research.

What follows is a theme and the key lever that you can pull to make progress as well as any secondary levers that are also important:

  • Weight loss: diet is 80%+ of the battle, but cardio can help boost effectiveness.
  • Strength: progressive overload will make you stronger and high intensity trumps high volume, especially if you’re optimizing for time.
  • Aesthetics: here you want to focus on body fat percentage and perhaps muscle hypertrophy; the tips for weight loss and strength apply but need to be tweaked or cycled to work in tandem.
  • Health: stay active and don’t do things that will injure you; if you have more specific goals (like heart health), there are ways to optimize but for overall health optimization probably isn’t necessary.
  • Performance: training varies by sport due to the specificity principle so I won’t cover this in detail.

Your Action for Today

  1. Read up a bit more on your theme and identify its primary lever.

Step 3: Compliance & Shadow Sides

With the biggest levers identified, it’s tempting to just dive in and go all out. “I want to gain 10 pounds of muscle; it’ll go much faster if I’m in the gym every day.” Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger did that, and it’s possible to get close with the right routine, but it’s important to realize that no matter what your approach, nothing matters if you can’t stick to it.

Compliance. As I’ve pointed out before, your commitment levels are the highest right when you decide to do something. You may well be able to get to the gym every day this week, but when you miss a day are you going to completely fall off the wagon? It’s better to pick an achievable goal and then adjust it to up as you experience the motivation that comes with success. If you need a little help, check out the commitment devices I wrote about a little while back.

It’s also important to realize that even without the compliance considerations, more is not always better. Fitness is a balancing act, and overdoing any one aspect can have negative repercussions. Crash diets cause muscle loss. Advanced exercise routines, executed poorly, can get you injured and out of the gym for extended periods of time. Before you dive in, take a bit of time to consider what could go wrong and guard against that.

Your Action for Today

  1. Set an schedule for your fitness endeavors; optionally add some commitment devices to make sure you stay on track. Don’t overdo it.

Step 4: Dial In the Time

In the previous step, you targeted an amount of training that you think you can stick with. For the first month, this is great. Research indicates that it takes at least 3 weeks to build a habit. However, once you’re in the gym regularly or hitting those diet goals, you can afford to experiment and optimize your timing. Just be sure to track your results on a regular cadence (I like weekly) and only make a few changes at a time.

To get you started, here are some pointers to the most time efficient approaches that I’ve found for each theme I’ve explored:

  • Weight loss: for me, low carb diets including slow carb and ketogenic were the easiest to comply with and had solid results, but anything that is nutrient dense and controls your hunger should work if you reduce your calories a reasonable amount. Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle is the most comprehensive overview I found.
  • Strength: pure strength is a skill; low reps with high weight are the way to learn the skill most effectively. Pavel’s Power to the People is a great introduction to this approach.
  • Aesthetics: to grow muscle, you need to eat enough protein and get more time under tension. Dan John’s Mass Made Simple is tough, but works quickly. To get lean, you’ll want to alternate between 4–6 weeks of bulking up with a fat loss phase per Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle or any other program that keeps up the protein but runs a caloric deficit.
  • Health: I’ve greatly improved my heart health, as measured by resting heart rate and blood pressure, by doing high intensity interval training. The One-Minute Workout is a good overview, but I got my very best results for the brutal (but fast) Viking Warrior training protocol with kettlebell snatches.

Depending on reader interest, I’m considering going deeper into a few of these to show you exactly how I did them. Let me know what you want to know!

Your Action over the next few Months

  1. Each week track how much effort you’re putting in and the result that you are getting. Dial your effort up or down based on results. Continue to research approaches that may be more effective for you.

Conclusions & Going Deeper

Now you have what you need to get started on your fitness journey. If you’re a total beginner you have an advantage: once you get past the mental hurdles of starting out, it’s physically much easier to lose your first 15 pounds or add the first 50 pounds to your deadlift than it will be when you’re more advanced. Maybe you’ll love your new body and want to get there. Maybe the last 20% won’t ever matter to you.

Whatever you choose, set your goals, find your leverage, and plan for compliance. With the right approach, you can do it more easily. Now get out there.