My thoughts on health & fitness in general

What you are getting into: 8,295 words, 46mins read

Updated: 25th Jan 2017

Introduction

So recently I bumped into an old friend after my leg day gym session and we started talking about working out. He has not been working out for many years, but back then he was fit and strong. I’m the other way around, I wasn’t that fit and strong back then, but I am better than before now.

Then we had a really long conversation on this topic of exercising and I shared like 80% of what I know about health & fitness then it got me thinking, I should document it down and treat it like a repository/arsenal of information which can be pulled out for experimentation, adjustments, inspirations, reflections, and improvements, for myself.

Note that health & fitness is a really complicated thing and this only serves to document and share what is currently working for me.

I will update the contents as and when I improve through knowledge and experimentations.

(Took me 2 weeks to write this 8000+ word article after 5 years of learning)

 

My journey

I have always been intrigued with improving my health since a young age but never really gotten around it because I didn’t know what to do. After my teenage years, I’ve gotten a computer unlocked this thing called ‘internet’.

Despite the internet, I still didn’t know where to start because there’s like literally millions of health tips all over the internet. Some good, some bad, some pure rubbish. Hard to discern what is good or bad.

That calls for experimentation. Not knowing where to start, I tried all sorts of workouts. In hindsight, those experimentations were worth it, though it feels like 60% of the experimentations didn’t work (guesstimate). There were ton of frustration. But what I got out of it were methods which works for me, I hope after reading, you may find that some inspirations. Note that some methods are just absurd because in fitness I’ve learnt, there’s no one size fits all solution.

I started to be serious about my health & fitness (I group health + fitness together, because being fit = good health) 5 years back and below are my muse for what I’ve learnt over the 5 years of experimentation, research, and sweat (literally). Most times I just lift things up and put them down1.

The journey to optimum health and fitness never ends, because one can never be in perfect health or ultimate fit like superman but that can never be a deterrent from trying to reach the goal.

How to read (interpret) this article

  1. If you are already fit and have a disciplined health and fitness lifestyle, you can either:
    1. Neglect or skip this article in its entirety
    2. Quickly browse through the headers for nuggets of information
  2. If you have (kind of) established a healthy lifestyle and wish to improve further: jump straight to specific sections
  3. If you are just starting out: I recommend perusing the article slowly, jumping back and forth from table of contents and specific sections. Never read through the whole thing at one go, the information will not be ingrained in your mind (it took me 5 years to learn this much information packed in a 8000+ word article; unless you are an expert in learning2 then my pleasure). Pick one section and work on it until you are good before moving on. Trying to do too much will result in getting results in nothing3.
  4. Use the search function for keywords based on the table of contents

Goals

Before I write my goals, I first need to know what my level of health and fitness it. This is often the hardest part because my ego refuse to let go of ‘what I think I am’ and ‘what I can do in the past’. What I think I am may not really be my fitness level, so what I do is I take a test to see where my standard is, if I can only do 10 pushups then so be it, I’ll be really honest with myself because that’s my limit. Even if I can do 50 pushups in the past and that is not my current standard now, I need to let go of my stupid ego saying that I ‘used to be fit and I think I am still fit now’.

The key here is to be really, really, really, honest with myself.

Don’t lie to myself.

Okay, after getting past the stage of self honesty (sometimes it takes weeks), I write down why I train. The list below is what I believe in, written after years of experimentation, and finally nailing down to these principles:

  • To be healthy, strong, productive, fit, and ready for any challenges
  • To challenge myself and push my body to it’s limits, to achieve my self defined perfection
  • To train my mind in dealing with uncomfortable situations — Once I get comfortable being uncomfortable, I can deal with anything
  • To feel confident in my own skin
  • Train to the point of not getting into trouble when I workout shirtless
  • Make every workout count
  • To be able to sprint for the bus for a reasonable distance and not get winded or gassed
  • To be able to help out in carrying heavy load without hurting myself

Note that these are my ‘whys’ on why I train, a combination of promotion and prevention mindset4 but more towards promotion, yours may be different, in fact, it must be different, because we are all training for different reasons. But the idea is that you must start with ‘why I train’ first, before actually writing your goals down to the specific and before taking on any workout programming. I feel if there’s no clear ‘why’, all workouts are rendered useless. That said, one should always approach any workout with a goal in mind. Mindlessly running 5k without any intention or any time limit is a workout wasted, in my opinion. Don’t clock workouts for the sake of clocking workout. However, if I know I’m running 5k today because I want to maintain my cardio standard, then it’s okay (that usually means I have a time limit to complete the run).

My progress is in incremental stages. Once I know what’s my limit, I strive to improve just a little bit more. Because I know letting my ego control my progress is really dumb, it risks injury which means stalled progress. Usually the goal is to improve progressively (see progressive overload section) by the week, and pushing past my limits is the hardest part. The body and metrics sometimes doesn’t match. Say I can run 3KM in 16mins on a good day, it doesn’t mean that I can do it again, there are good days and bad days.

Photo below helps in visualising the ultimate overview goal:

Sunshine: Get enough sun

Air: Go out and smell the fresh air

Water: Drink 2-3L of water everyday

Exercise: Exercise enough each week

Rest: Sleep 7-8hrs everyday

Diet: Eat natural food

The first 3 is easy, not difficult, the last 3 is the hard part. And the goal is to master the hard parts.

The tripartite of health of fitness that is in our control.

  1. Exercise hard
  2. Sleep well
  3. Eat natural food

Time available, stress, and convenience also play a big part. However having no time (replace social media time or Netflix time with exercising), high stress (learn how to manage stress, or use working out as a form of releasing stress), and very inconvenient to gyms or exercise avenue (workout at home) is really not an excuse to not prioritise health.

Exercise routines

Below are a list of routines I follow.

Gym

Broken into each session:

  • Chest, Biceps, & Triceps day
  • Back & Shoulders day
  • Leg day: Quads, Hamstring, Glutes, Calves
  • Push workouts: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
  • Pull workouts: Back, Biceps

I switch workout programming depending on my immediate goals.

Motto of going to the gym: Get in, get out.

As well as some rules:

  • No fucking around
  • Focus on mind muscle concentration5 (MMC)
  • Focus on focusing
  • No texting
  • No using of phone other than picking my beast mode song6
  • No talking other than ‘Can we share?’ or ‘How many sets you have left?’
  • No mirin’7 of other dudes (exception applied to chicks with tights)

and…

Running

I hate running. Really hate running. I hate the part where I feel everything is burning when I’m at battery zero. Battery zero is a term I use to describe the part where breathing is really hard, every breath feels like I’m breathing fire, getting stitches, getting stomach cramps, every single fibre in my legs burning, no energy to lift my legs, aching back, or can’t move my legs despite my mind telling them to.

But I still go running because I need to build up my anaerobic threshold8 for endurance.

In order to improve running, we need:

  1. Endurance — Run longer
  2. Power — Every single step forward requires power, the more power you have the fast you go and the lesser energy you consume
  3. Speed — Run faster

These 3 things are to be worked on separately. Each session should focus on a single thing. For example, I want to work on endurance, I should go on long distance running. If I want to work on power, I need to gym my legs or bust my legs in plyometrics. If I want to work on speed, I need to go for speed training.

Getting a heart rate monitor is also useful here. Chest worn HRM works best. I recommend Wahoo Fitness HRM9. Gives you instant feedback on what’s your heart rate10 so you can either 1)run faster or 2) slow down depending on your training session’s objectives.

Long Distance Running

More than 5KM.

Should not increase more than 10% per week11. If this week I clock 15KM (3 x 5KM runs), next week’s mileage should only be 16.5KM. No more than that else I risk injury. Injury in my own terms means experiencing any sudden sharp pain in the muscles, soreness is okay, any pain in the joints means injury sustained.

Short distance running

Usually 2-4KM, mostly 3KM runs. I run short distance to maintain my endurance level by running at 80% of my limit — this means I feel uncomfortable throughout but not to the point of feeling like death. Again, a HRM here is useful to gauge the effort.

After short runs I usually do static workouts. Currently my static workouts are:

  • 3 to 5 sets, 5 to 7 reps, pull-ups, wide arm, close arm, overhand grip, underhand grip — I will end up with minimum of 21 to a maximum of 35 pull-ups each session (for the curious my pull-up limit is 20 standard pull-up at one go, no kipping12)
  • 3 to 5 sets, 10 to 15 reps, dips
  • 3 to 5 sets, 10 to 15 reps, pushups
  • 3 to 5 sets, 10 to 15 reps, inclined pushups
  • 3 to 5 sets, 10 to 15 reps, leg raise

I switch them up depending on my mood and immediate goals. I do a combination of the static workouts, sometimes I do all of them to max out and to the point of failure, sometimes I’m not in the best shape (gymed the day before) and I do maybe a combination of 2-3 different exercises to maintain my fitness level.

I’m also looking to improve from here as I’m plateauing13.

Speed Training

Run fast, run in bursts, run for speed14.

HIIT

What is HIIT?

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a training idea in which low to moderate intensity intervals are alternated with high intensity intervals.

The best way to burn fat. Raises metabolic rate through the roof, this results in feeling really hungry after workout, sometimes lasting through 14hrs15.

Basically a series of exercises which raises my heart rate (again, HRM is useful here) to 80-90% for a prolong period, then rest until heart rate is 60-70%, then repeat exercise until failure. Running is a common way but not all to HIIT, there are other types out there16.

Most of the HIIT feels like death to me. Heavy breathing, lungs burning, targeted muscles on fire.

I also do plyometrics which basically I jump around for like 10 exercises at one go before resting for 3-5mins17. This is a win win workout as it raises my metabolic rate while improving the power in my legs (good for running) as well as improving my balance.

Circuit training also belong to this category. An example is the 7mins workout18. I’m not sure what do you think about the 7mins workout, but I definitely feel that it does not slim you down nor tone your muscles if you only do the 7mins workout. Even if it does, the results will be barely noticeable. For those who are relatively in okay shape, 1 set of the 7mins workout is too easy. It feels more like a warmup. Perhaps 3-5 sets if a good number to look at. It burns you out, tones your body, and it requires no equipment at all. I prefer to pick my own exercises with different difficulty levels for circuit training.

Fartlek

Run HIIT on the track19, or run HIIT outside. Run 400m within 3mins, rest 3mins, repeat for 6 rounds, etc. This feels like death as well. First 3 rounds feels okay, last 3 rounds really require all of my willpower.

Trail running

I’ll run Macritchie trail20 from time to time. I like the tranquility of running on the trail. It’s quiet, cool, full of runners, uphill, downhill, rocky road, and it requires you to be ‘in the zone’ else you’re gonna get hurt.

The downside side is it takes pretty long for me to get there. However, it is worth it.

The full Macritchie trail is 12KM, I only run the 5.5KM trail which starts from the entrance of the trail, touch the rock at the end, and then turn back. I feel that the Macritchie trail run are for intermediate runners.

Swimming & Yoga

Swimming is my rest day workout. Something like a cross training workout for me. I alternate this with Yoga, I just use Pocket Yoga21 and try to perform the poses as best as I can.

It’s also a good time for me to get some sun. Staying sedentary indoors almost all the time is no good.

Like what the internet memes portray: ‘Go outside and play.’

Home Gym

I have a pair of 10KG dumbbells at home and an exercise mat.

At the start I felt inadequate and I practiced my form at home, once I felt a little better, I started going to the gym. Tho I would recommend watching some Youtube videos (the cheapo way) or getting a personal trainer (if you have the money) to learn the correct form before lifting things up and putting them down.

Having weights at home also means if it’s raining, I can skip going to the gym and crank out some workouts at home. Or morning 5AM workouts because I’m a cheapo and refuse to get Anytime Fitness membership.

It’s not as hardcore as what you get when you go to the gym, but it gets the job done.

I often combine this with calisthenics22.

Sometimes the rooms gets too warm and it gets messy when my perspiration starts dripping everywhere.

Sports

Basketball and soccer are the two sports which I like. Though it does not mean that I’m good at it. Sports requires years of deliberate practice23 to get good, and I don’t do consistent deliberate practice for both of them.

I wish to incorporate sports into my lifestyle and also to pick up other sports such as tennis, surfing, and sailing.

Discipline Vs Motivation

Easily the biggest section I can write about.

If we use Pareto rule (80/20), then it can be said that 20% of the people out there are of advance and intermediate fitness, the other 80% is not. The 80% needs discipline and motivation to get started, which is why tons of information is written on this topic, targeted at the 80%.

Discipline and motivation not everything about health and fitness, but it is a keystone habit. The hard work is in the workout and diet itself, which is the process. Discipline and motivation is an idea in the mind, don’t get confused just because of the enormous information floating around saying ‘oh you gotta build the habit, you gotta have motivation bro.’

But once you have gotten past the stage of already leading a disciplined lifestyle and is motivated, the real deal comes — the practice. Champions and world class people have already mastered both, but mastery doesn’t mean already forever living a disciplined lifestyle and forever motivated, it means they know there’s the ebb and flow to being disciplined (seasons, cheat days, dereload week24, etc) and how to get motivated when they have fallen off the bandwagon.

I’m still learning and practicing how to live a disciplined lifestyle and how to get and stay motivated in a very short span of time.

Let me define the two terms first:

Discipline: Controlling and modelling behaviour into your desired mode.

Motivation: An explained force that pushes you to perform an action.

That’s my definition, that’s how I see it.

Let’s deep dive further into it below.

Discipline

Discipline: Controlling and modelling behaviour into your desired mode.

This usually means consistent workouts. The desired mode is controlling and modelling our routines to stay consistent in hitting the workouts. Any deviation is not tolerated and is considered a distraction.

For example, if I commit to doing 50 pushups a day, then by hook or by crook I will do 50 pushups a day. I will find ways to crank out 50 pushups, maybe it’s right when I wake up, maybe it’s before I take a shower, maybe it’s before food, etc. No excuses.

Another example is going to the gym, if I commit to going to the gym 3 times a week, I will schedule the event into my calendar, lock it in. It’s an appointment to me. Like work meetings, I don’t miss them? It’s the same analogy here. I have an appointment with myself:

  • Context of meeting: Lift heavy things up and put them down
  • What do I want to get out of the meeting: Expend & exhaust my energy by lifting heavy things around
  • Location: Gym
  • Duration: 60-90mins

This of course is normal to me after 5 years of practicing it. I’ve came across a million excuses. Sometimes I lose to the excuses I tell myself. Sometimes I win.

I feel that the process of trying to get disciplined is fighting and winning the battles of excuses. And the goal of being disciplined is to not have any conversations in your head about excuses anymore, I just show up and do it. Again, prevention and promotion mindset is useful here. I can prevent myself from being lazy by habit stacking (see habit stack section) it or promote working out by thinking about my immediate goals.

Being disciplined requires being very honest with myself and asking if I wish to integrate this into my lifestyle. Because once it’s a lifestyle then there won’t be much struggle. If it’s just a temporary thing (I’m talking undergoing months training and then suddenly stop working out), then it’s gonna take a lot of discipline and a lot of self conversations (see above paragraph) to make it happen, and that depletes a lot of willpower — which I know is limited25.

Look back at how I define discipline. It is to model my behaviour to a desired mode. If I’m not modelling my behaviour, then I’m not disciplined. No buts. Once there’s a but, then I’m not disciplined. So I’ll go back and practice how to be disciplined.

If I can’t cultivate discipline into in the context of exercising, I simply won’t have any sustainable results, period.

It is very important to understand this, the work begins even before I touch any weights or do any exercise. It begins in the mind, training the muscles in the mind.

Commitment is a subset of discipline, which is simply defined as getting to my end goal with undistracted focus — eyes on the prize. Imagine you are in a 100m race, thousands and thousands of people anticipating your run, you feel weak, you start to question your ability to finish, your knees feel weak, your stomach is churning with mom’s spaghetti. Commitment to me means drowning out all these distraction, only focusing at the end goal — finish line at the end of the 100m, take a deep breath, with only a single thought in my mind (you know what it is), then run.

Discipline is feeling all the nasty feelings I’ve described above, run, fail to finish the race, go back and reflect, improve, and do it all over again tomorrow (commitment) with all the same old nasty feelings. One fine day I will get over the nasty feeling and it will all be natural, that’s where I know I have discipline. If not, keep working.

Motivation

Another major topic when it comes to health and fitness. I feel that motivation comes in between dissonance and practice.

Dissonance <—> Motivation <—> Practice

This is how I define motivation:

Motivation: An explained force that pushes you to perform an action.

It means I know my ‘why’, the ‘explained force.’

It gets a little bit confusing when you mix it up with discipline. Let’s recap, discipline is modelling my behaviour, so it means that I have to practice discipline because I need to remodel my behaviour. And because I am getting out of my comfort zone by changing my habits, I need motivation to change. This is mainly the confusion, people mistaken motivation is discipline and vice versa.

So the question is not ‘I need motivation to go to the gym (what’s the reason of going to the gym tho?), where can I find motivation?’, rather, it should be ‘I need to be disciplined enough to go to the gym consistently (because I am unhappy with EFG, or wish to be XYZ), how can I find the motivation to go to the gym consistently?’. Reframing26 works best here.

Now let’s go back to the motivation equation. Motivation is required when there’s dissonance, because if there’s no dissonance then I won’t even need motivation — I am contented if there’s no dissonance thus no need to practice.

Take the comparison below:

  1. I am experiencing dissonance (e.g. feeling fat that my tummy is budging), and I want to tone is down (my ‘why’), and I know I need to workout to burn it off (the practice), BUT I don’t have motivation to do it… VS
  2. I am experiencing dissonance (e.g. feeling fat that my tummy is budging), in order to make that go away I need to tone is down (my ‘why’), and I will workout to burn it off (the practice)

Oh boy, #1 is a wrong way to think about it. I already know my ‘why’ (tone down my flabby tummy), I know what I need to do (go and burn it off man fat boy!), but it’s not that I don’t have motivation to do it, it’s because I don’t have the disciplined lifestyle. The lack of motivation is failure to remodel my behaviour, and therefore I need the motivation to get disciplined. Once I’m crystal clear on what’s wrong, then I can work on it (which is getting disciplined).

Take note that motivation only lasts a short while, like a very very short burning candle. While discipline lasts a very very long time. At the initial stage you need motivation to get started and the first thing to get started is to build up discipline. Thinking that using motivation to build a healthy lifestyle is not sustainable.

Use motivation to get stronger, break through your limits, restart when you fail (or literally fall).

Consider the following:

  1. I am motivated to get disciplined
  2. I am motivated to run a little longer this time round
  3. I need to get motivated to break through my limits
  4. I get results because I am disciplined enough to show up consistently
  5. I don’t get distracted because I am disciplined
  6. I need to cultivate discipline

Know the difference.

Renewed motivation

As motivation is limited, I need to renew my motivation over and over again. Just like the stock market, there’s highs and lows, my motivation fluctuates from time to time.

When life gets tough, I need to renew my motivation.

When I fall off the bandwagon (i.e. not disciplined anymore), I need to renew my motivation to get disciplined again.

When I plateau (already disciplined, want to improve but not improving), I need to get motivated to push a little bit harder.

See next section for tips and tricks on how to renew motivation.

Tips and tricks

I employ a wide variety of tricks in order to ‘trick’ my mind in getting motivated and be disciplined.

These are some of the tips and tricks I’ve used:

  1. Spreadsheet — Log down my workouts in a spreadsheet so I can visualise my progress in a tangible form, rather than keeping it in my brain which is hard to visualise
  2. Calendar events for visualisation — I’m able to see how many workouts I do for the week and month
  3. Mind control — Telling myself over and over again to fixate my mind on the prize
  4. Putting workout clothes on the table — So that it will remind me that I need to workout today
  5. Get out of the house in my workout clothes — Since I’m already out of the house, might as well complete the workout
  6. Pinterest — I browse Pinterest for inspirational quotes and pictures of fit people
  7. Stare at the mirror — I stare at my naked body, and I decide that I’m not happy with what I see
  8. Pinching my body — I pinch my body for excess skin (fats), and I decide that I’m not happy with the excess skin (fats)
  9. Progress pictures — I take a picture of myself every 2 weeks, and I decide that I’m not happy with what I see
  10. If there’s an escalator and the stairs, I take the stairs — If I get winded at the end of it, I decide that I’m not fit enough
  11. I offer to carry the groceries or shopping bags — If I cannot sustain for a prolong period of time or feel that the shit is too heavy for me, I decide that I’m not strong enough
  12. I have a few Youtube videos which talks about motivation and show fit people working out to renew my motivation when I need it
  13. I have a ‘Get pumped’ playlist saved offline on my phone and I listen to it every single time before my workout to ‘get pumped up’
  14. I preplan what workouts I’m gonna do based on my immediate goals down to the specifics (i.e. how long to run, how fast to run, how many sets of exercises, etc) so I’ll just show up to the workout, do all of it, and go home. I don’t have to think about what I need to do during the workout. The work is done before the workout. The work for the workout is to give my 100%.
  15. Because running is hard for me, I imagine ‘imaginary’ people cheering for me to finish when it gets tough (depending on how twisted you are, you can imagine your best friend telling you not to give up to imagine that Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone is at the end screaming and cheering, go crazy if needed)

Habits

Habit loop

Habit loop

There is always the cue, the routine, and the reward. The whole thing is called a habit loop.

Read this book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg27 if you want to dive deep into habits. Read this article28 if you hate books. Watch this 2:55mins Youtube video29 if you prefer videos.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle.

Having a good understanding of how habits work is really beneficial to everyday life. Exercising is the routine in the habit loop, it is the cue, it is the reward, it is the whole habit itself.

Look at how the great creative Twyla Tharp30 describes it:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual; I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I workout for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.

Habits drives a lot of our behaviour, like literally. Because we don’t think about our habits, we cannot change the behaviour, we have no idea how to change it. Sometimes we do things without realising that we are doing it, that’s where we are in zombie mode and letting our habits take over. As Twyla Tharp describes, it is one less thing to think about — no need to deplete our willpower. Once the habit is cemented in our routines, we won’t have to spend our resources trying to change it, instead we can focus on doing the work.

Here’s a picture to help in reframing our own habits:

How to Create a Habit

Habit stack

Habit stack is stacking a actions over another in the middle of the routine but getting the same reward. This way I’m able to squeeze in a few actions without feeling the uncomfortable feeling in changing the whole habit loop.

Perhaps there’s 5 steps in the routine when getting to the gym, I can include 1 more step so it ends up with 6 steps. You get the idea.

At the beginning, my ritual for getting my fat ass to the gym was all over the place. Going after work, going during the weekends, going when I’m feeling fat, going when I’m stressed, and so on. But now, I use time trigger, I schedule my gym sessions like appointments that I cannot miss. So when it’s time to hit the gym, I just execute the whole series of habit stack which I have created, tweaked, readjusted over the years. Which goes like this:

  • Cue: Calendar popup on my phone or computer
  • Routine
    • Get up and wear the clothes I have laid out on the table (already chosen what clothes to wear the night before, one less thing to decide)
    • Go to the toilet to pee
    • Fill my water bottle
    • Walk back to my room
    • Grab towel, headphones, money, keys
    • Wear my shoes
    • Head to the gym
    • Lift heavy things and put them down
  • Reward: Have a nice cup of coffee

The routine is already pre-decided, I don’t have to make any decision when executing the whole routine, it’s just a series of actions, I can perform it without thinking about it. Even the workout is pre-decided. This of course, is refined after many years of experimentation. Do what works best for you. And the routine will always be changing depending on circumstances, if it needs to be changed, then change it.

Pre-deciding what I’m going to do literally minimise the resistance, therefore eliminating the need for motivation to ‘go for the workout’. Rather, I use my limited motivation to ‘push harder during the workout.’

If I want to push harder during my workout, I habit stack by running up the stairs to the gym (oh yes I find it ironic that people take the lift when going to the gym.)

If I’m going for a maintenance workout, I walk up the stairs. I also finish the workout by walking down the stairs. By taking the stairs, I start my gym ritual by telling myself ‘I am starting the workout; I am ending the workout.’

Rewarding myself

I buy workout clothes. My goals are very specific, for example:

  • Once I can… Run MacRitchie 6.18KM trail < 39mins, then I can buy Adidas camo compression tights and Adidas bag
  • Once I can… Do 20 pull-ups, then I can buy Nike shirt
  • Once I can… Run 3KM < XXmins, then I can eat that Strawberry Watermelon Cake31

It’s a cycle, I buy workout clothes that I look good in, so I am motivated to wear it and workout even more.

Reward yourself with whichever you like and remember to make the goal a little tough but not so easy to achieve.

Patience

Patience is also a big part of health and fitness. Results don’t come instantly. It’s not like I go hard today in the gym for my chest and biceps and I’m going to wake up tomorrow looking like Arnold. More like I’m gonna wake up tomorrow feeling so sore that I can’t even wash my hair.

Patience is also about experimentation. I will tryout different workout programs and see which has results. That means going at it for a few weeks and see if there’s any significant changes in my body. 1 week is too short, 10 days is enough to see if I like the program, 50 days to see some slight changes, 100 days to see if it’s working. Something like that.

I also leave my ego at the door. Depending on the program I’m undergoing, I lift accordingly. I have a small frame32. Sometimes I lift very heavy weights (heavy is a very subjective term), sometimes I lift light weights, most times I lift weights that are moderately heavy — by that I mean 3 sets of 8 reps with good form (for most exercises), the last few reps will have bad form as it’s nearing my maximum capacity. I don’t sacrifice form as much as I can. I cannot do some exercises yet, because my muscles are not that well developed, so I’ll do isolation exercises until I’m strong enough before attempting the harder stuffs. I lift heavy weights to see how strong I am, I lift light weights to determine if the weight is really too light for me, therefore I find the balance in between, moderately heavy weight.

The machines and exercises remain the same, but bodies are different. It does not mean that we start the program together so our bodies are going to look the same at the end of the program. If it’s not working, then I’ll fine tune it.

Going too hard suddenly is just going to shock the body, I don’t like that kind of training. I know some do, just not me. I practice and advocate progressive overload. Your limits is just your limits. For example, I can do 50 pushups at one go, that’s my max. A reasonably hard pushup workout would be to do 5 sets of 20 pushups per workout session (total of 100, 100% increase). A hardcore pushup workout is doing 10 sets of 20 pushup (total of 200, 400% increase). I know that in the reasonable pushup workout my last 2 set will have bad form, and I’m already sacrificing form in order to boost my ego by completing the set. In order words, by doing the hardcore pushup workout, I’m doing 3 sets of good form pushup and 7 sets of shit form pushup. And what do I get out of the 7 shit form pushup? Two busted sore arms, boosted ego, and no significant strength gains and perhaps an injured shoulder. Crossfit is often bashed for this.

I don’t think any athlete will ever perform their skill with shitty form. Good form uses the right muscles and transfer the energy to the right place in order to complete the action. Bad form… just… is shit.

Good form is king, patience advocates good form, and thus patience is king.

Progressive overload

In the same thread as patience, progressive overload is a big part of fitness. Which in a nutshell you increase the intensity bit by bit, progressively over the course of the program, usually by the week, such as 33:

  1. Increase resistance
  2. Increase reps
  3. Increase volume
  4. Increase training frequency
  5. Decrease rest time between sets

I firmly believe in this.

To do this, I log my workouts. Logging eliminates the guesswork and ego. If I can do 3 sets 8 reps of X exercise with Z weight already maxed out, that’s my limit, period. Progressive overload is doing 3 sets 8 reps of X exercise with Z+1-5%kg weight. Again, good form is key here, progressively increasing intensity but with bad form is useless.

Ego is also a big thing here. I remove ego from the equation. My limits are my limits. 20% increase is simply going to get bad form workouts. Slow and steady wins the race. I think world class mentality, like swimming or sprinting, the difference between 1st and 3rd place is in mere milliseconds. Every athlete is at their limit, and pushing their limits only garner maybe 1% improvement. Similar to the kaizen philosophy34 which I practice as well.

Patience is needed for progressive overload, not ego.

Diet

Diet is another major part of health and fitness. You will hear fitness buff dudes saying diet are the building blocks. If you are just starting in training or restarting a training program, you will find an increase in appetite, that’s because out of a sudden your body needs more nutrients which comes from food (aka building blocks) to replenish the lost energy. The body is like a factory, working on and on to power our day to day life, while food is fuel, if we need more power (exercise more), then we need more fuel.

Calories in (food) and calories out (exercise) = Weight gain OR weight loss

Usually there’s 2 phases, 1)bulking up and 2)cutting. Bulking is increasing the intensity of the exercise plus increasing the calories intake, i.e. calorie surplus. This means you increase the calorie intake by having bigger portions of food (not eating anything you want) and work your ass off. This phase feels good and strong but the body will have a little excess fat, usually around the waist area. Cutting is having the same intensity or decrease a little, while lowering the calorie intake 100-200 week by week, i.e. calorie deficit. Note that sudden decrease in calorie intake will make the body go into shock mode (in which weight loss bounce back after we stop the cutting phase) as well as feeling tired all the time. Cutting is hard because it means not being able to eat all the good food. Eating plain chicken breast, broccoli, and just plain food. No sugar, no sodium, very little to no fats. Counting the macronutrients by weighing and measure them. The constant cravings for food. High levels of discipline is needed here. This is only suitable for people who are extremely committed to cutting and getting shredded.

What about bulking up and getting lean together? That means… to slim down and also to tone the body. If we followed and understood the previous paragraph, don’t that mean we want the best of both worlds? Something like a shortcut? Yea sure, no problem. Go straight to cutting phase by eating all the plain food but train with the bulking intensity. It means feeling completely exhausted all the time (lack sufficient food and nutrients) and yet still require tremendous amount of motivation to get through the insane workouts as well as world class level of discipline to keep showing up for the workouts 4-5 times a week and eating plain food, for a period of 8-16 weeks. No pizza, no alcohol, no sugar, no coffee with milk, no pasta, all for 56-112 days. That’s insane man.

It’s the same for women. Just that they don’t bulk up, contrary to the popular myth that they will35.

You gotta eat carbohydrates, protein, and fats. The 3 main food source our body needs. Carbs for energy to power through the day, protein for muscle repair and synthesis, fats for your body to function normally (despite the word ‘fat’.) And no, carbs is not bad and fats is not bad. Too much is bad, too little is bad. You will also need nutrients such as vitamin(s), omega(s), antioxidants, and many others.

Oh yes, you always need carbs36.

So, not only does following a low-carb diet cause you to lose water, it also depletes muscle glycogen which leaves you feeling sluggish when trying to be active or workout. Remember, carbs are stored as glycogen in the muscles and glycogen is what’s used to fuel your muscles.

Another problem with severely limiting carbs is that the brain uses carbs for energy and without enough carbs, you won’t be 100% mentally. While I agree that people are different and that some people do better on lower amounts of carbs, most people will feel like crap after a week or two with no or low carbs.

In order words, if carbs are cut from the diet completely or drastically, you most likely will feel sluggish and definitely won’t be functioning at your full potential (work wise as well) because you lack the fuel to function, which comes from carbs.

Nutrition is a whole world of complexity, and mastering it will bring tremendous benefit to our health and fitness.

I’m still learning.

Supplements

Secondary to whole food. Always eat whole foods. If you have no idea how to count the macronutrients, do not buy any supplements other than vitamins. The whole supplement industry is designed to trick uninformed people into buying stuff that they don’t really need, most of the time it’s not cheap. There’s no magic pill/powder to gain/lose weight in a sustainable way in just 4-8 weeks. If there is, be really really sceptical.

There’s this saying, if you are spending more on supplements than your groceries budget, you are doing it wrong.

I’m just gonna leave this section here.

Rest

Duration of sleep required varies. No point fighting over how little to sleep37. Just sleep which ever duration you feel like, as long as you wake up feeling like a champ who is ready to take on the challenges of the world. That’s how much rest you need.

I need 8hrs of sleep, sometimes more, sometimes less. Any more and I will feel lethargic, any less and my brain starts to function at lesser capacity (i.e. I am more stupid when I lack sleep) and I absolutely abhor that. However getting 8hrs consistently is a challenge, I’m still working on it.

A lot of the work happens when we sleep, such as better learning capabilities38, rebuilding muscle39, and renewed optimism40.

I prioritise my sleep because I want to function at my 100%.

Alternating workouts

On certain weeks I do resistance training, followed by alternating it with cardio the following day, i.e. Monday chest day, Tuesday cardio, etc. This gives the muscles time to rest while I hit the road for cardio to raise my heart rate in order to keep the metabolism going. Usually cardio is done at 60-70% heart rate at this stage as I want to leave the intense workouts for the resistance trainings.

Unless I’m training for running, then resistance training will be on lower priority, while I run with intense effort — 80-95% heart rate.

Switch it up

After a few weeks or months, things get boring, time to switch it up. Unless I’m happy with maintenance mode, then I’ll continue perform the same workout with the same intensity. But that won’t make me grow. So switching it up and shocking the muscles will do the job.

Here are some examples41:

  1. Increase intensity
  2. Switch up exercises (change the exercises you constantly do)
  3. Do drop sets
  4. Switch muscle group days
  5. Superset with compound followed by isolation exercise
  6. Rep cycle week by week
  7. Change the days you workout
  8. Focus on the negatives
  9. Try time under tension (TUT)42
  10. Try partial reps (but not all the time because it looks like a douche not completing their reps, on the same note, please complete the full rep for normal workouts)
  11. Change the order of the exercise during a workout
  12. Pre-Exhausting muscles, a little like superset but on expert mode where you do an isolation exercise followed by compound exercise immediately
  13. Forced reps
  14. Pyramids
  15. Rest for a week (or deload week if just can’t stop)

Conclusion

Okay, there you go! This is probably 80% of what I know. This is also what I would advice my friends if they want to start working out, my principles, my knowledge on health and fitness are all in here. I do my best to cultivate discipline and to follow whatever I know in order to stay healthy and keep fit. I do also try to improve my knowledge from time to time in order to beat out my plateaus.

This motto could be interesting: Train hard like you are preparing for war, sleep like you have not slept for days, and eat like a nutritionist.

The best way is to find something that you enjoy doing and keep doing it. I like to exercise, I don’t dread it at all, therefore I keep doing it over and over again. Like what Arnold says43:

Arnold was always excited about his progress and excited about the work he was doing in the gym. “That’s why I always smiled when I was in the gym,” says Arnold. “People always asked me why I was smiling. Other guys had a sour face or they were pissed off that they had to do another rep or another set. But I looked forward to the work. Why? Because I knew that with every rep that I did, every set that I did, with every weight that I that I lifted, I got one step closer to turning my vision into reality.

At the end of everything, it feels like it is targeted heavily towards exercise routines, discipline and motivation, diet, and sleep. But in fact, these are just a subset of our lives, albeit an important sector to master so as to perform at our optimum level. Imagine where you are working out regularly, have good nutritional habits, clocking 7-9hrs of sleep every single night which results in waking up feeling motivated and well rested so you can take on the challenges that comes. More often than not, when we are stressed out, one of the these is the first to go. Then it becomes a downward spiral. That will be the case only if we let it.

Don’t.

Footnotes

  1. Funny Planet Fitness commercial where a buff dude keeps repeating ‘I lift things up and put them down’ (link)
  2. The Lesson You Never Got Taught in School: How to Learn by Big Think (link)
  3. I am speaking to myself here. Adopt beginner’s mindset always when it comes to learning.
  4. Are You Promotion or Prevention-Focused? By Psychology Today (link)
  5. CAN’T FEEL THE RIGHT MUSCLES ACTIVATE DURING A LIFT? By Scott Herman (link)
  6. Sucker for Pain (link)
  7. If you don’t know this then you are pretty new to the scene (link, link)
  8. What is the aerobic threshold? by RunningForFitness (link)
  9. The one I use, best entry level heart rate monitor (link)
  10. How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor by ACTIVE (link)
  11. Rule #2 of The 25 Golden Rules of Running by RunnersWorld (link)
  12. Seriously, kipping is cheating and lying for yourself (link)
  13. Seriously hitting plateaus is a real thing (link)
  14. Read more about speed training (link)
  15. Because of excess post oxygen consumption (EPOC) that is (link)
  16. 7 other interval training by BuiltLean (link)
  17. That’s how I describe it, but see how bodybuilding.com describes it (link)
  18. This New York Times article blew up the 7min workout (link)
  19. Old swedish game designed to fuck runners up (link)
  20. Best trail in SG, in my opinion (link)
  21. Pocket Yoga’s website, available for iOS and Android (link)
  22. If you despite lifting things up and putting them down, you can use your body (link)
  23. Science says to go from good to great you gotta deliberately practice the hard things with constant feedback (link)
  24. Still doing the same workouts, but with lesser intensity and lesser weights (link)
  25. Willpower is a diminishing resource (link)
  26. Well, really read the whole article on Wiki regarding cognitive reframing (link)
  27. Amazon link to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (link)
  28. Habit guide by James Clear (link)
  29. Video clip from Friends, Youtube (link)
  30. Who is Twyla Tharp?!?! (link)
  31. Seriously, check it out, it’s awesome (link)
  32. I’m a self declared ectomorph (link)
  33. Read this article on Bodybuilding.com to understand more (link)
  34. Lifehacker on Kaizen (link)
  35. Training myths for women by NerdFitness (link)
  36. Read this if you wanna go low carb by Bodybuilding.com (link)
  37. Sleep more to function at your best (link)
  38. To learn better, sleep more (link)
  39. The Importance Of Sleep For Weightlifters And Other Athletes by Breaking Muscle (link)
  40. Oh yes, like willpower, optimism is a diminishing force as well (link)
  41. Literally ripped off from Muscle & Strength website, read more there (link)
  42. This is awesome because it introduces a hell lot of pain into the workout (link)
  43. Bodybuilding.com on Arnold’s blueprint in working out (link)

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