Today’s the day. You’re going to start exercising. Now what?

Or, you’ve been exercising inconsistently for years. You’re ready to learn consistency. How will you accomplish that?

Or, you already exercise somewhat consistently, but the goals of weight loss and increased muscle tone still elude you. You’re vexed.

Let’s be clear about exercising for health. It doesn’t mean you can’t increase your muscle size. It doesn’t mean this is just a walking program. It means changing the way you think about exercise.

If you’ve never been to a gym, it can be intimidating and you might just resort to hopping on a treadmill because that seems safe. If you’ve been exercising for a while, you might be caught in a rut because you’ve just accepted what it is you should be doing when you go to the gym.

Yet, when you boil everything away you’re basically doing one very simple thing: You’re using the S.A.I.D. principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand). See, no matter what you do, if it is above and beyond what you are accustomed to doing, your body is going to adapt—your body is just waiting to improve.

The problems start when people say, well, I want to use that principle to lose weight. I want to use that principle to get toned. Appearance goals can be meaningful, but generally appearance only scratches the surface. Your neighbors have a nice house and nice cars. They appear prosperous. You don’t realize that their credit cards are maxed out and they are living paycheck to paycheck.

That’s the risk of getting caught up in appearances. The other risk is when you chase appearance, you are willing to do things that sacrifice health to achieve appearance.

The good news is that if you pick a more transcendent objective, like health, appearance and performance will naturally follow. Health is at the crux of the points I’ll be talking about in this article.

The criteria for working out for health are pretty simple:

  • Learn to use your body and move correctly
  • Keep your joints healthy
  • Make some kind of exercise or activity a part of your life so it happens naturally
  • When you perform resistance training, use compound movements
  • Exhibit mouth responsibility

Learn to Use Your Body and Move Correctly

Wow! Lucky you. You were given a body. This thing is pretty incredible. Some people compare the body to a machine, but what machine do you know of that can get stronger? My Toyota Corolla certainly hasn’t gotten any more horsepower from use. But my body has gotten stronger from use. So, let’s drop that comparison. You’re body is not a machine. It’s so much better!

I took boxing lessons in Arizona. Before taking the boxing lessons, I thought I knew how to throw an uppercut. Boy, was I wrong. I’m still not perfect, but the power I can generate by aligning things properly is an order of magnitude more than what I was capable of before.

Similarly, people in our sit on your butt culture think they can start running and that they know how to do it. We hardly even walk and now you’re going to jog? And you presuppose you can do it correctly? No wonder runners get injured.

Same thing goes for exercising. People just assume they can do it correctly, that they have the correct mindset, and that they’ll be successful.

Form is critically important. Incorrect form will erode your body, the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve. One of the reasons people start doing things incorrectly is to experience the illusion of progress.

Here are some false indicators of progress:

  • Weight loss due to water weight
  • Lifting more weight due to bad form or momentum
  • Increased strength coupled with increased pain in the body

Let’s talk a little bit more about form and correct movement.

One of the more important items to consider as far as correct movement is how your knees are tracking over your toes. If you’re doing squats or lunges, you knee should be tracking over your big toe (i.e. it shouldn’t be splaying out to either side). Additionally, for the majority of leg exercises you don’t want your knee to extend beyond your toes.

Squatting is a natural movement, yet many people are afraid of it because of knee issues. One reason for knee issues is that many people, particularly office workers, become quad dominant and develop glute amnesia. Because walking doesn’t really work the butt muscles, they atrophy so you start to rely more on the quads and that places more stress on the knee. Lunging is a good way to awaken your butt (especially if you focus on it working). Single leg deadlifts, with a straight working leg also help you remember that you have extremely powerful muscles in the butt.

Another thing that helps is where the weight is on your foot. If your weight is towards the front of the foot, you will be using more quad and causing more problems. The weight should be on the heels, that will help you drive with your butt and your hips.

Another important form consideration is push up and bench press form. The key to this movement is to keep your elbows in. Many people keep their elbows out so their upper arms form a right angle with their backs, this is a really bad position for the shoulders. Bring your elbows in. Once you bring your elbows in, you can begin to use your lats to help you stabilize and drive the movement. You also save your shoulders.

Some mistakes are made by mistakenly thinking of isolating certain body parts in a particular exercise. The reality is that it’s almost impossible to isolate the body and when you try to isolate it, you can impair the way it should function. The bench press / push up error can be caused by thinking those particular exercises are chest exercises. Really, they are upper body exercises.

Chasing the Illusion of Progress Erodes Form and Function

I get it. Progress is great. But chasing the illusion of progress is delusion. Weight loss due to water weight and lifting more weight due to bad form are not forms of progress. Weight loss due to water weight being lost is the lack of hydration and nothing more. Sure, the scale moves down, but it will move up just as quickly. I can spit in a cup for an hour and lose weight—is that progress?

More weight lifted at the expense of proper form is an invitation to pain. What is improper form? Grunting, heaving, jerky movements…lifts that have used momentum to succeed rather than muscular force, these are all violations. Check your ego at the door. Control your movements and focus on the process and let progress come naturally. Two seconds up, one second pause, three seconds down is a good barometer of rep speed. Any faster and you’re cheating, cheater. (I’m not talking about ballistic movements like swings and snatches, FYI.)

The desire to experience something that you’re not ready for is a huge mistake. I wanted to experience a big bench press and pushed it too much and tore my pec. Millions of people wanted to experience a big house and pushed it too much and defaulted on their loans. Bankers wanted to experience fast wealth that wasn’t based on anything so we all suffer. Illusions always come crumbling down: Enron, Bernie Madoff, Barry Bonds—it takes too much energy to maintain the façade and what is built on quicksand can’t last.

Keep Your Joints Healthy

Are you experiencing your full range of motion? Some people don’t ever lift their arms above their head. Some people never go into a full squat. The years tick by. Remember that S.A.I.D. principle? Just why would your body give you any sort of performance if you’re not asking it to? That’s why the body is a great thing to train. You learn so much. If you don’t take care of it, it doesn’t take care of you. You can’t cheat it, either. It doesn’t carry grudges. If you start doing things right, it just responds and works to help you out as much as it can.

But if you don’t use it, it declines. People age artificially because of disuse. Why would you allow this to happen? For a culture with a fear of getting old, we do everything we can to accelerate the process!

“Use it or lose it,” is one case when a popular culture phrase is actually correct!

Not making some of the form errors mentioned in the previous section will help, but you should also consider incorporating joint mobility. There are some simple things you can do like arm circles, hip circles, knee circles, elbow circles, wrist circles, ankle circles, hip circles (get it?! lots of circles) turning your head left and right / up and down / side to side / forward and backward, etc.

I met a guy at the airport who invented his own routine. The idea is to move your body systematically through it’s full range of motion. Why? Because you’re daily life doesn’t include this. Even if you exercise, these types of movements are generally not included. Most people are stuck in frontal plane existence: manning the computer, the car, the couch, the fork and plate.

You can make these exercises fairly advanced so that not only do they develop your mobility but increase your movement skills and coordination as well.

By doing mobility drills you circulate the synovial fluid in your joints which smoothes out joint surfaces, removes waste products, and restores full range of motion in the joint. By not doing it, you allow your joints to deteriorate, giving you the illusion of aging which is really just the lack of movement.

Steve Maxwell is a huge advocate of joint mobility and I recommend you read his article.

Make some kind of exercise or activity a part of your life so it happens naturally

The most difficult part for most people is to make exercise a consistent part of their life. Is that your challenge? If so, you need to make it a routine, like brushing your teeth. Just make it something you do. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to be consistent.

For example, my dad has an activity he loves: biking. Some weekends he’ll bike 60 miles or so. It’s not the most strenuous thing in the world but it is activity. My dad was wounded in Viet Nam and the biking is something that he found help his legs recover and stay healthy. It relaxes him. It’s his meditation. You might not have been wounded in Viet Nam, but you’ll find that incorporating a physical activity in your life will help your body age more gracefully.

In addition to the biking my dad does push ups and sit ups. Nothing complicated. It’s just something that he does and he does it consistently.

Amazingly, he needs no specialized clothing to accomplish this. He doesn’t need an air sole in his shoes, clothing that wicks away sweat, or any of that nonsense. Buying that kind of stuff is like the start up business blowing cash it doesn’t have on desks and office furniture and fancy things. It’s the illusion of progress rearing its ugly head again.

There is a certain discipline that is required to be consistent about something. This is the same discipline that the advertisers have, for years, tried to carve out of our lives. We fall for it because it sounds and feels good. Yet we all know that discipline is a key ingredient to happiness and success.

So, find something you love to do that is physical and keeps you active. Here are some more examples:

  • Walk to the store a few times a week and get some groceries.
  • A daily routine of joint mobility.
  • Jogging. Jogging is great once you learn how to run on your toes and breathe through your nose.

You can create an amazing body just by using bodyweight exercises. I like body weight exercises because they are weight barometer exercises. You gain weight, your performance goes down. It’s just that simple. Plus it seems that if your body knows you’re trying to do things involving your body weight, it will help you streamline your body and eliminate extra weight.

You could wake up in the morning, do 20 minutes of joint mobility to warm up and then do 3 sets of 25 push ups and sit ups. That combined with a walking or jogging habit and mouth responsibility and you’d be doing just fine. It’d be a great habit.

Find a time that you can exercise and stick to that time. You’ll get to the point where it is just something you do because it becomes a habit. That’s all this is, just finding something you can do to make it a habit.

Once you’ve done that you can branch out and begin trying new things if you want to increase your level of fitness.

When you perform resistance training, use compound movements

Forget the curls and do chin ups instead! I’ve been curl-free for over five years and I’ve never felt better!

There are several reasons to do compound movements. Your body naturally focuses on compound movements. This idea of isolation is a bodybuilder thing that they do to “sculpt” their body in particular ways. If you want health, want to move well, focus on doing things that improve your ability to do that. You don’t need any weights for these movements. You can just use your body.

Here are some examples of some compound movements you can perform and work up to: push ups, chin ups, pull ups, one arm push ups, hand stand push ups, squats, planks, reverse planks, side planks, single leg balance, sprinting, jumping, lunging, walking lunges, sit ups, hanging leg raises, single leg calf raises, broad jumps, one-legged squats (pistols), etc.

Most of those exercises have variations with hand position and foot position. Of course, there are millions of variations with sets and reps. They are all compound movements, too. You can add weight to most of these exercises, too. But, why add weight if you haven’t mastered your body first?

When I first started exercising I was isolating everything. Front delt raises, side delt raises, rear delt raises. Regular curls, preacher curls, dumbbell curls, concentration curls. I had this long sheet of different exercises I had to perform to exercise my whole body. It got ridiculous. Tricep kick backs? Seriously? Why?! Push ups and a military press will take care of your triceps. Better yet, a one arm push up. Better yet, don’t even worry about it and just let it take care of itself.

If you think of your body in terms of movements, and work to incorporate key movements, all your muscles will naturally take care of themselves.

Think of your body in terms of push / pull, legs, abs, grip.

If you do a push up, you should reverse the motion by doing a row. (I recommend the bodyweight row.) If you do a military press, you should do a pull up or chin up. That’s push / pull. You can do a superset with push / pull in the same plane back to back. For example, do a set of push ups then do a set of rows, then rest, then repeat.

A mistake that a lot of people make, because they are focused on isolation, is that the front side of the body gets more work than the back side, and the upper body gets more work than the lower. When you’re focused on appearance, you focus on things that you can see. Most people check out their upper body in the mirror. The front of their upper body. But if you go back to push / pull, legs, abs, grip, you won’t make that mistake.

Exhibit Mouth Responsibility

What is mouth responsibility? It’s the idea that you—and you alone—have control over what you put into your mouth. Unless you’re in prison, or in some other controlled environment like the military, you have control over what goes into your body.

No one can force you to eat things you don’t want to eat. You might be persuaded to put certain things into your mouth like soda, beer, chips, and who knows what else. But in between the time your eyes see something and your hand grabs something, you have time to think.

What is this going to do for me? Am I eating it because of the taste? Or am I eating it because of the nutrition value. Am I eating it because I want it, or because I need it? Just what am I doing anyway? Why am I hanging out with these people who just want me to put alcohol in my body?

Do you have a soda habit? Do you add sugar to your coffee? Do you salt the hell out of your food? Do you eat chips? Do you snack a lot? Do you eat when you’re bored? Do you eat until you’re stuffed?

This stuff is all totally in your control.

Yeah, I know, it’s not easy. I used to use my hands to shove alcohol down my throat all the time. I needed several wake up calls before I began to exhibit mouth responsibility. But I did. If you haven’t yet had a wake up call, invent your own. Create your own wall and put your back against it—do what it takes to foster correct action.

I want to be clear that I don’t think any less of fat people or any more of thin people. I have this theory that the majority of people have no self-control. I don’t think any less of anyone for this, I think it is a by-product of being the global economy’s engine of consumption. Hey, some country had to do it. But the result is that we’re not trained to have self-control—we’re inspired to lack it completely!

So, a fat person doesn’t have food control. They might be extremely compassionate and caring and the eating thing eludes them. Then again, you might have a skinny person who is a big jerk that no one likes. Two extremes of mouth responsibility. The jerk uses his mouth in ways that diminish other people, but controls his eating. The fat person can’t control what goes into his mouth, but controls what comes out.

So, there you have it. Five ways to make sure you are exercising for health, a mental program reboot.

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I’d add to this list one extra thing: I know of no better activity than physical exercise to teach people that the limits that are imposed are generally untrue. Whether you think limiting thoughts about your body or your brain, they are probably conservatively calibrated. You can do a lot more than you think you can, and working to exceed your preconceived limits in a controlled exercise environment is a great way to teach yourself this truth.