In the past four years, I’ve finally managed to make significant progress after trying and failing for many years before that. Along the way, I learned quite a lot about the process and myself, and I’ve collected the key lessons here. Some of the insights are quite common knowledge, but even though I had heard them before, I didn’t truly understand and internalize them until they happened to me. This is basically what I wish I knew a decade ago, and I hope that it can help someone skip a couple steps and get there faster.
1. Learn to enjoy movement.
The best kind of workout is the one you actually do. Don’t waste time researching what the optimal workout routine is, when you don’t have any kind of routine in the first place. You need to establish a baseline first, and later you can edit from there.
The most important thing is to find a type of movement that you enjoy. Working out can then turn from a chore to your favourite hobby (or at least something you don’t have to force yourself to do).
Spend some time exploring. Try new things occasionally, even when you think you’ve got something good. You could still be missing out on something great. This might mean you’ll often try new things that feel very meh for you, but you’ve got to go through a lot of duds to find the gems. For example, I thought I was just a yoga person for quite a while. I didn’t expect to fall in love with aerials when I first tried it, and even less with calisthenics. It started as a means to an end (strength building for aeriasls), but is now possibly my favourite thing. And maybe next year, I’ll discover a fourth thing I love even more. There’s already several things I want to do more of on my list: climbing, pole, parkour, and I’ve never even tried freestyle calisthenics, aerial straps or rope.
If you find something you like but don’t feel fit enough for it (aerials & pole in my case a few years ago), ideally you should continue doing it occasionally, e.g. once a week, or every two, to keep the enthusiasm up. Meanwhile, work on more traditional strength building the rest of the time to prevent injuries. That can be hard in terms of motivation though. I’ll admit I didn’t really do that properly. While I did get a small injury eventually, I don’t regret it too much. The time allowed me to fall in love with the sport, and made it easier to transition to proper training for aerials. But if you’re smart and motivated, you can do it better from the start.
2. Spend Some Money.
Spend some money and invest in yourself. This is probably the biggest single thing that could have made a difference to me sooner, but it won’t apply to everyone (and depends on your financial situation).
It’s very easy to go in the wrong direction with that piece of advice. The main trap I had fallen into before was thinking that investing in myself meant buying stuff. It’s pretty typical for people to stock up for items that might be needed for a hobby, then never use them. This used to be me with various exercise items. don’t use this to buy things, then hoard them without using). So for me, the more specific lesson was: spend more on services (such as classes), but less on gear.
For too many years I tried to make myself like jogging because it was basically free. I mean, occasionally I do truly enjoy a run, but to be honest that’s at most 5% of the time. But even university sponsored classes (£5 or less a pop) seemed expensive to me as a student. It wasn’t until I had had a real job for over a year that I started to slowly feel comfortable with it (starting with a cheap month long trial at a studio, then seeing the value and accepting the full price). In retrospect, I wish I had considered it more seriously earlier instead of straight up dismissing it. I didn’t have much money to spare as a student, but I could have made some trade-offs to it work (a couple drinks here and there, a piece of clothing or two…).
A more generay way to say this is to leverage your weaknesses. For me, one of the reasons paying for classes works so well is that I hate wasting money. Once I’ve signed up and paid for it, I will not miss it regardless of how lazy I’m feeling. (Yeah, I tend to fall into the sunk cost fallacy, but in this case it can be benefical.) Going to the gym or for a run didn’t have that effect, so I could always find an excuse not to go. Besides frugality, other traits you can leverage are competitiveness, vanity, etc.
3. Progress is slow, but with consistent practice it will happen.
Consistency is more important than pretty much everything else. You need to work on something regularly for a long period of time, not intensely in short bursts.
This can sometimes feel impossible at the beginning, but it helps to remember that maintaining habits is much easier than starting them. Continuing fitness is so much easier once you’re on a roll. (Maybe this isn’t the nicest thing to hear when you haven’t managed to establish a consistent routine yet – but I guess what I’m saying is, what you’re doing now is the hardest bit. It’ll only get easier and more fun, mentally speaking)
For learnings skills, there’s a few additional rules. Firstly, if you’re training without a structured plan, you will make some strength and flexibility progress, but most skills won’t just happen on their own. You need to practice them deliberately.
Secondly, if you want to do skill X, you need to practice the closest thing you can do to X and go from there. Some examples from my own personal experience:
- Aerial hoop twice a week will not lead you to pull-ups, but band assisted pull-ups will
- Headstand next to a wall won’t lead you to a headstand in the middle of the room, but a tuck headstand in the middle of the room will
- Vinyasas won’t lead you to push-ups, as you’re only ever doing the negative, but knee push-ups will.
Doing a negative is often a pre-requisite, but it won’t lead you to the positive on its own. Accessory exercises can help progress, but they won’t be enough on their own either.
4. Don’t try to do it all on your own.
Things can be A LOT easier if you don’t try to do everything on your own. This doesn’t mean you need a workout buddy all the time, or play group sports (although it can!). But for me, just going to a class and exercising for an hour with other people around is miles easier than doing it on my own at home.
Additionally, if you find a good teacher and stick with them, you’ll get a lot of benefits. If somebody knows and cares about your progress, they know where to push you. All you have to do for that is turn up regularly. As long as the classes aren’t too big or impersonal, most instructors will start to notice you and treating you differently (in a good way). A more pricy version of that would be getting a personal trainer, but I haven’t tried it myself.
If you’re fairly independent or just shy, it can be hard to see the value in that initially. Even once you do, it’s sometimes easier said than done. For example, it is fairly common for women to feel intimidated by lifting gyms or classes. You need to remember that “belonging” and impostor syndrome are ultimately in your head. Don’t reject yourself before others have even had a chance to reject you. Being the only X (e.g. woman in a lifting gym) in a space is not easy, but you can get used to it and thrive regardless. Often, this turns out to be a false preconception/stereotype, and you won’t end up being the only X anyway. And even if you do, more often than not people are actually quite welcoming and supportive. If it’s too scary, take small steps towards it. To continue the example, try going to a female-only lifting session if you can find some in your area. However, don’t restrict yourself to those forever, and don’t let it become a crutch.
Another point to add here is that you need to be humble to get the most value out of working out with other people. It’s possible you’ve been doing an exercise wrong for a long time. If an instructor or someone you respect corrects you, don’t take it personally. Take constructive feedback and use it in your favour. (There are exceptions. For example, I have no time for those guys in gyms who only ever correct women.)
5. You could get injured, and you need to prevent it.
A lot of young people feel invincible. Even if you’re theoretically aware of injury risk, you don’t really believe it will happen to you… Until it does. Maybe that’s just me, but I doubt it. As I mentioned earlier on, I hit this during aerials for a couple of reasons (messy schedule, tiredness, lack of proper strength training to support it).
This also applies to form. “Proper form” is usually there to protect you from injury. When you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself, and bad form will cost you in the long run. For instance, if you’re doing shitty form push-ups in class because you can’t maintain good form anymore, just drop to your knees and do them properly. For a different example, if you can only do a headstand by kicking up into it next to a wall, stop it until you can lift into it in the middle of the room. I know that in the beginning, you just want to feel like you can do it, and don’t care too much about how – but that will change quickly. As a side benefit, other people will respect you more if you have excellent form.
6. You’ll never be ready or finished.
Do things before you’re ready. Don’t wait to try new activities until you’ve deemed yourself fit enough. You’ll never feel or be completely ready. Regardless, you’re still probably going to have an overall good time and learn a lot. Fear of failure feels much worse than failure itself. Sign up for things, try them, and push yourself out of your comfort zone every so often.
This goes for big events too. For instance, I put off signing up for Spartan because I was worried that it would go horribly, and set myself arbitrary goals that I thought might mean I was “good enough” (e.g. doing a pull up). After a while of little change, I had a moment of realization that waiting was pointless. I signed up, which meant I trained much harder in the months before than I would have otherwise. I still couldn’t do a pull up or several obstacles, but I had a great time, and after the event I saw myself just a little bit differently. I was now actually the sort of person who runs through mud and climbs over obstacles for fun, not just thinks about it. I call these opportunities identity altering events. The new found pride and confidence can help you stick to good habits and just generally feel happier. Another such event more recently was a calisthenics competition. I was nervous beforehand, and as expected I didn’t place at all, but still had a lot of fun, crushed many fears and learned a lot about myself.
Small tip, related to point 4: big events are going to be much easier if you don’t feel alone. If you know nice people around your level who are going, you’re going to be just fine.
7. Separate the ideas of diet and exercise in your mind.
They’re much more separate than most people think. If you want to lose weight, 80% of it is in the kitchen, and not the gym. If you want to build muscle, it’s the other way around. Falling off one wagon shouldn’t trigger the other. I used to trip up a lot in this area, making plans and then giving up as soon as I failed at one aspect.
It’s hard to build muscle and lose weight at the same time, so pick the one that matters more to you. A lot of people bulk & cut, but (depending on your goals) you don’t have to. If you eat roughly at maintenance, your body will slowly recompose itself. This means you don’t need to starve yourself or constantly watch everything you eat for the body fat percentage to go down. It’s also possible your goals will shift from being appearance based to more strength or skill based.
You don’t have to be thin to train and learn most skills. Of course it can be easier with less weight, but it’s not necessary. This comes back to not putting off trying new things because you aren’t (or don’t look) fit enough yet.