Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...Tell Me More
Last week, I went over a few ways Primal Blueprinters experiencing a weight loss plateau (or fast approaching one) might be inadvertently sabotaging their own weight loss efforts. This week, I thought I’d do a similar post on how we tend to sabotage our pursuit of fitness. What do I mean by inadvertently sabotaging your fitness routine? For a PBer, they do this a little different than the average person. You’re probably not wasting your time with endless amounts of bicep curls. You’ve probably seen the light and avoid excessive amounts of Chronic Cardio. You’ve got the basics down pat, you’ve got calluses from holding barbells, and you know the difference between Olympic lifting and powerlifting. All that said, you’re not perfect. Mistakes can be – and almost certainly are being – made. By identifying some of these common, sneaky mistakes, and hopefully identifying with a few of them, you’ll be able to make real strides toward improving your fitness.
Let’s take a look at what I’m talking about, shall we?
Simplicity is great, and less often is more. Sticking with the Primal essential movements – squats, pushups, pullups, planks – will get you strong and fit. No question about that. And I’ve always said that making your short workouts shorter and more intense is the key to an effective training program. However, if you end up taking that “less is more” too literally and reducing the load, the variety, the volume, the duration, and the intensity, you’re making a mistake. As Clifton Harski explains in a recent blog post, zeroing in on the basic movements can get you strong and give you good body comp, but many trainees interested in overall fitness would be well served trying out new things, new movements, new lifts, new activities. In other words, “less is more” should be applied to certain aspects of fitness, but not to all of them. Otherwise, you’ll end up doing almost nothing at all (and “something is better than nothing”).
Reading “Starting Strength,” discovering Leangains, or joining CrossFit can be a revelation. In the case of SS, it offers the sort of no-nonsense, extremely detailed form instruction for the major lifts that you’d usually have to get from a highly skilled coach in person. With Leangains, you get a way to gain strength and lose fat that seems effortless. And the camaraderie, variety, and intensity of CrossFit becomes addictive and truly effective, especially at first. But I’ve heard from people who read the book, followed the program, and now feel like anything less than low bar squats three times a week for perpetuity is a waste of a workout routine – even if it’s no longer the most effective way for them to train. I’ve heard from people (like a Worker Bee who did Leangains a couple years back) who felt like having a bite to eat before a workout was sacrilege and whose fitness suffered as a result of paralysis by overanalysis. Then you’ve got CrossFit, which can be a dangerous tool when wielded by an inexperienced coach. These are just examples of popular and effective fitness schools of thought that, if hewed to without question, might limit your options and overall development. It’s not an indictment of the programs themselves; it’s a warning against inadvertent, self-imposed limitations. So, if you’re a low-rep, high-weight guy or gal, try adding a bit more volume. Try 20-rep breathing squats. Do some easy “cardio”; haul out the old bicycle for a day or hit the trails for a hike/jog/fractal persistence hunt. Try MovNat.
Maybe it’s been three years and you’re still trying to maintain linear progression. Maybe you’re on an advanced program when you’re actually a beginner. Whatever the case, you need to be on the right program if you want to get the results you should be getting. Obviously, I can’t tell you what program you need, because there are thousands of “yous” reading this. What I can say is that you should make an honest appraisal of your progress. If you’ve been keeping a training log, review it. Have you been getting stronger, or have you been stalled out for a few weeks or months? Are you getting faster, or are you running in place? See where you fall on the scale of strength standards to determine if you’re a novice, an intermediate, or an advanced lifter, then pick your program accordingly.
You don’t need to work out in nature to get good results, but it definitely helps. Research shows that exercising outdoors is superior for improvements in mood, self-esteem, stress reduction, and mental health. Though the research doesn’t show any difference between strength gained or stamina accumulated – the most common barometers for fitness progression – we do know that reducing our stress load will improve our response to training and improving our mood will help us be more consistent with our workouts. Try taking your workouts outdoors. Ditch the treadmill for the forest path, the trail by the creek, the beach, or even the suburban street. Lug the kettlebells (or even the barbell) out to a park. After all, nature is our baseline. It’s not just extracurricular; it’s home.
You don’t have to be a jack of all trades, but you should be able to ride a bike, swim a lap, hike for an hour, run a mile, and lift some heavy things if you want. I find extreme feats of athleticism impressive, of course, which is why I was drawn to marathons and triathlons for so long: there’s something, well, awesome about being a top performer in an elite sport. But you definitely have to sacrifice your overall athleticism to make it. You have to give something up to make it. Back when I was one of the top runners in the country, I was far, far weaker in the weight room than I am now. I was stiffer, less mobile. I couldn’t do anything but train for my specific sport. Today, I’m probably an overall better athlete (accounting for age, of course) than I was then, and I’m doing just a fraction of the work I did back then. I’m not going to win any marathons, of course, but I’m far more able in just about every other physical arena.
As PrimalCon presenter, CrossFit coach, doctor of Physical Therapy, and supple leopard Kelly Starrett would say, “position is power.” If you are unable to get your limbs and your joints into advantageous positions, you will be unable to generate as much power as you otherwise would, you’ll be forced to rely on inefficient movement patterns, and you will open yourself up to injury. By definition, selling your power production potential short is limiting your fitness. Being inefficient with your movements is limiting your fitness. Being injured prevents you from training and moving effectively (or at all), which absolutely limits your fitness. Get yourself some lacrosse balls, a foam roller, and maybe some bands, and get to work on your joint mobility. Sit in a Grok squat whenever you can – when you brush your teeth, wait for the bus, or even when you use the toilet. Incorporate mobility into your everyday life and your mobility under load will become that much better.
Workouts should be hard, they should be challenging, but they should not make you dread their arrival (except maybe heavy squats), nor should they make you hate your life. Taking on a workout routine needn’t require Norwegian death metal, head butting the power rack until a mild concussion sets in, and the reception of three to five hard slaps to the face to get you psyched up. Any one of those is perfectly acceptable, but if you require all three, you’re likely not having any fun. If not having fun is your thing, cool. What I’ve found, though, is that the perpetually hard and miserable and balls-to-the-wall workout routine is a recipe for disaster and ruin. Remember what I always say: I train so I can play. If you can make your workouts look and feel like playing, even better. Play some sports, get a workout buddy, get a dog.
Now, I don’t want people rushing into full-on all-out sprints if they’re not prepared. That’s a sure fire way to blow a hamstring. And if you’ve got bad knees/ankles/hips/feet, I don’t expect you to leap out of your chair and head down to the track right this instant. But if you’re able-bodied? If you regularly sprint to catch a runaway child, pet, or train without hurting yourself? If you’re lifting religiously? You need to be sprinting, too. Pound for pound and minute for minute, sprinting is the best exercise for transforming body composition, improving strength and power, and bestowing stamina and speed. It’s over quickly, it doesn’t take an hour, and it requires no equipment. If you aren’t quite so able-bodied but still want to get the benefits of sprinting, you might try cycling, swimming, stair-stepping, elliptical riding, pushing a car or weight sled, or even uphill sprinting (reduces the impact on your joints and the distance your leg travels, thus reducing knee pain and the threat of hamstring pulls; plus, it’s more intense than running on a flat surface).
These aren’t necessarily huge deal breakers, obviously. You can probably be fairly happy with your progress even if you have some deficits in the areas outlined above (plenty of people do; I see it everyday). But you can do better. I can. We all can. And by taking an honest look at your own fitness routine with these issues in mind, I think you’ll find that addressing the deficits will be in your ultimate best interest. Fitness will become more enjoyable, more effective, more sustainable, and safer.
Thanks for reading, folks! Be sure to let me know what other common mistakes people make when putting together a workout routine!