The basics may not seem like the sexiest thing to think about when it comes to training, especially in our world of fads, hacks, tips, and tricks. But a solid mastery of fundamentals gives you something far juicier and more desirable than your wildest magic-bullet fantasies ever could: actual results. For that reason alone, the basics of training deserve a little more love and a lot more attention. So in that spirit, here are nine strategies you can use to inoculate yourself against the fitness fads and sheer information overload the plague us from checkout line to facebook feed.
Taken together, these strategies form a powerful, foundational mindset for massive, long-term gains, whatever your personal goals happen to be. Some of these might seem little too basic, almost offensively simple. But most opportunities for huge growth are rarely “secrets.” They’re usually hidden in plain sight, and while plenty of people “know” them, few actually put them into persistent practice, leveraging their power across time to attain genuine mastery.
1. Establish a Rhythm
There’s nothing more powerful than getting into a rhythm and sticking to it. That means deciding exactly when you’re going to train and treating it as an inviolable appointment you’ve made with yourself. Once you establish a schedule, you won’t have to waste brain power wondering when you’ll find time for your next workout, or how you’re going to sustain your efforts over time.
You know—it’s there, in your calendar. And though it may take a while to condition yourself to a rhythm, once you’ve established it, it starts to carry you along. It becomes automatic. That’s especially helpful during stressful or lazy times where all you have to fall back on is habit. We’ve all got our bad habits to contend with, but the tendency for the mind to go into autopilot is not inherently bad, as long as you’ve programmed that autopilot to be positive and productive.
2. Be Realistic
People often sabotage their efforts by forcing unrealistic expectations onto themselves, and the people with the most grandiose plans tend to accomplish the least. Don’t try to become Captain America by this time tomorrow (especially if it involves a serum). Work with the reality of your situation rather than against it.
If you know you only have twenty minutes to train on Wednesdays, then train for twenty minutes on Wednesdays instead of lamenting how little time you have. Whether in terms of duration or intensity, a light day is usually way better than a day off, especially when you’re establishing your rhythm. If you think in terms of “all or nothing,” then too often, you’re going to end up with nothing. Take the middle path. Integrate your training into your overall life and goals instead of pitting it against them.
3. Know Your Motivations
What are you training for? If you know, you’ll succeed; if you don’t, you won’t. The key here is to be honest with yourself. Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to get huge? Do you want to compete in a specific sport? Do you just want to be less likely to die at 50 from a massive coronary? Don’t be embarrassed if your true motivations feel a little vain.
If they get you to train, the result is the same as if you were training for the sake of the pure good-in-itself. And while they may evolve over time, no one else can tell you what your true, genuine motivations are or should be. Once you tap into them, you’ll find not only a golden thread through the labyrinth of possible training advice but also an endless source of raw, forceful energy and desire to achieve your true goals.
4. Be Nice to Yourself
Remember, the overall point of training is to do something positive for yourself. It’s not to please anyone else or impress anyone else, whether inside or outside your own head. You’re training because you recognize that by making some sacrifices in the present moment, and by putting in some real effort, you’re giving your future self a profound gift: not only better health and fitness, but hard evidence that you consider yourself worth taking care of.
That’s a beautiful thing, and you should celebrate it. Positive reinforcement tends to build on itself and accelerate progress much more effectively than negative reinforcement. So instead of punishing yourself when you make a mistake or miss a training session, try rewarding yourself when you do something that moves you closer to your goals. See what happens.
5. But Don’t Be Too Nice to Yourself
No matter how motivated you are to reach your goals, no matter how much you love your training, most of what it takes to accomplish anything worthwhile is pure, old-fashioned grunt work and repetition. You’re going to have to do things that you just don’t want to do. That means wrangling the lesser parts of yourself, which would rather stay in bed, eat a carton of ice cream, and watch other people work out on YouTube as “research.”
The key here is to remember that self-discipline isn’t a necessary evil that you have to submit to; it’s a superpower that can make the world submit to you. Just think of the people you know or know of who have an iron grasp on self-discipline. Think of how you think of them. Wouldn’t you rather have that kind of power, respect, and magnetism? Isn’t that better than ice cream?
6. Master Something
You may want to experiment with a variety of training approaches or sports before you settle into something, and even once you do, there will likely be a broad spectrum of degrees of mastery. The danger there is becoming a dilettante, dabbling with one thing after another without ever committing to a single approach long enough to experience a real transformation.
To combat that tendency, even as you experiment, try to find something small that you can master. Maybe it’s a series of bodyweight exercises. Maybe it’s a basic kettlebell swing. Maybe it’s a pushup. Whatever it is, however simple it is, make it an anchor in your training, something that you always do and are always getting better at, no matter what else you’re exploring.
You’ll be giving your training a solid core throughout your experimentation, and demonstrating to yourself that you’re capable of mastery, that once you find your thing, you’ll be able to take it all the way.
7. Keep Going Back to Basics
Whenever you think you’ve mastered something, especially something basic, assume that you’re wrong and start over as though you were a beginner. You’re almost guaranteed to find blind spots or ways to improve that had been hiding under your nose.
Fixing those errors and optimizing those fundamentals will usually provide more overall progress than adding something new, and will help solidify the foundation to build on by adding those additional elements when appropriate.
My first jiu-jitsu coach told me his teachers, after attaining a black belt, would start over at white belt. That kept them humble, kept them sharp, and kept them learning. Once you get the ego of mastery out of the way (not to be conflated with actual mastery itself), and replace it with a perpetual return to “beginner’s mind,” you’ll find a more secure footing for progress, and easily solve problems you otherwise may never have known even existed.
8. Think in Terms of the Long Haul
It’s a cliche but it’s true: you can easily overestimate what you can accomplish in a year, and easily underestimate what you can accomplish in three years. A lot of the tendency to give in to fitness fads comes from feeding the unrealistic fantasy that you can somehow have it all right now if you just find the right shortcut.
Sure, there are more and less effective ways to train, depending on your goals, but if you’re too caught up in looking for a shortcut or instant gratification, you’re probably coming from the wrong place, and you’ll likely end up seduced by the ultimate shortcut: doing nothing and then rationalizing it.
Worse, you’ll miss the true adventure of growth and transformation that only comes from long-term commitment to a training program that builds over time. You may not get the results you think you want right away, but in a few years, you’ll have achieved things you couldn’t even anticipate from where you are right now.
9. Get Moving and Adjust As You Go
As with most things, the real magic comes from getting moving. You can’t optimize your performance while you’re holding still. You’re going to have to start out by accepting plenty of imperfection, and then make continual adjustments as you go. The Japanese term for this kind of gradual, incremental, but continuous improvement is kaizen, and it’s a critical concept to download and install in your overall training mindset. Kaizen fosters solid, cumulative, and ultimately exponential progress over time. It also proved the conditions for the occasional massive sudden breakthrough. But it only works when you’re in motion.
A lot of people stall out or never start because they think they should somehow already be at the finish line. They get caught up in fantasies of their idealized version of themselves and then punish themselves for not being that ideal. There’s no way to win that game. Instead, drop the fantasy, and develop a mindset cooperates with reality and the basic truths that allow you to move toward mastery and achievement of your goals, gradually but powerfully, over time. Your future self will thank you for it.