The Missing Components to Fitness: Slow Progress and Rest

Me in my first week of weightlifting.

Throughout the years, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to exercise regularly. It wasn’t until three years a go when I began running with a careful and well-thought out approach that I was able to stick with it successfully. What was the difference between all the times before and now? Two things: slow progress and rest.

Slow Progress. In the past, every time I went to the gym with a fellow Marine, they pumped hard. So hard, in fact, that they would often leave the gym unable to lift a soda to their faces. They took this as a badge of honor, and would proudly proclaim their spaghetti arms to anyone who was within earshot to listen. “I pumped it HARD!” When I thought for a brief moment that I’d like to join them, they pushed me into their same routine as if I’d been working out with them for years. That was the first mistake; there was no learning moves with lighter weights, no getting familiar with the routines or allowing my muscles to gain the all-important muscle memory. Worse, exerting to 100% on the first day guaranteed DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. This soreness was so acute that I couldn’t wash my hair the next morning in the shower; I couldn’t lift my arms to my head! This also made me want to never go back to the gym and lift another weight again. The experience was so bad, I stayed out of gyms for the rest of my Marine Corps career as long as I had a choice, and I didn’t return to one until 24 years after leaving the Corps.

Rest. This is a curious topic, because I had forgotten that even in Marine Corps boot camp, days of rest were scheduled in between the running days. As a “Admin Private,” or “Secretary” in boot camp, I was responsible for hand-writing the training cards, or what the Drill Instructors called “T-Cards” each day for the Drill Instructors to have with them in their pockets. These were 3”x5” cards they carried in their pockets and would pull out from time to time to help them stay on-task and on-schedule. I remember seeing the entire schedule for the platoon all the way from day 1 to day 88. This information was considered secret, and I was forbidden from sharing it, but I do remember seeing a pattern: running day was followed by non-running day. Sure, the Drill Instructors would still make us do push-ups, bends and thrusts, and other exercises as punishments for mistakes, but I remember that these sessions were much shorter on our rest days. Of course, the Privates/Recruits never knew that these were calculated rest days, but the Marine Corps was in the business of building men out of soft boys, and they had perfected the craft.

When I was putting my own fitness plan together, I remembered how bad I felt after my weightlifting experience, and I decided to start slow and light and build naturally. I remember the advice given to my by Gunnery Sergeant Whiteman, a marathon runner. When I asked him how I should get into long-distance running, he said, “Walk for 30 minutes. When your body is ready, you will find yourself wanting to jog. As you jog, your body will want to push faster and harder, and the next thing you know, you’ll be running. Whatever you do, just do it for at least 30 minutes.” I took his advice, and added the wisdom of Marine Corps Boot Camp to it by implementing rest days between my exercise days. Within three months of starting, I was running sub-8 minute miles comfortably and was able to join the National Guard after a 20 year absence from the military.

A month ago, I began weightlifting. As my Achilles heel is still recovering from an injury over a month ago, I decided I had to do something to not only keep exercising, but to build strength. I began looking into exercise plans and found one that seemed to echo my own exercise philosophy exactly: StrongLifts 5×5. I started in earnest and studied the plan, the different lifts, and techniques. I have been diligent in sticking with the plan, and the result is that a month later, I’ve more than doubled my squat weight and I’m now nearly deadlifting my body weight. This progress has been slow and calculated, but steady and impressive. I experienced a little muscle discomfort in the first week, but that was more due to stretching muscles in a way they hadn’t been stretched in a very long time (squats) and the pain went away with each session in my gym.

I see too many people try to do boot camp sessions or hard-core cardio sessions and then end up never going back. I get it; I’ve been there. The problem is that too few personal trainers or coaches take the time to let you ease into a routine, to allow you and your muscles to learn the different moves, to get accustomed to the new lifestyle of being active. Then, there’s the fact that too many people think that day after day is the best way to go about getting results without thought to giving the body time to rest. It is during rest that the body heals and builds. If you’re always exercising, you’re always tearing down without time to build and recover.

In my one month of weightlifting, I’ve realized incredible results I thought were impossible to achieve in this short period of time. I’m much stronger, my joints feel better (contrary to what I thought would happen, frankly), and my clothes even fit better for the first time in years. Even through running, I didn’t see this dramatic of a change in this short period of time. I attribute that to good genes (my sister is also proof of that) but also to sticking with the plan and eating a good, natural, and consistent diet of meat and vegetables, eschewing anything with added-sugar, grains, legumes, and dairy.

Slow it down and build rest into your fitness routine. It may be the missing link between where you are now and where you see yourself.

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