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.

Finally Noticing Changes

Yes, that’s me making silly duck face. It’s not just for the teenage girls anymore.

It’s taken four weeks, but this morning, I was finally able to see a little difference in my body composition. My waist is a little smaller, my stomach a little flatter, my shoulders and arms a little bigger, and my pectorals (my chest) doesn’t look quite so sad.

As a guy who lost 150 lbs, my chest looked sad. I had what some guys refer to as “Breasticles;” dad-bod chest. I hated that, but no matter how much weight I lost or how many push-ups I did, they didn’t get smaller. How, however, it looks like they are filling up; with muscle.

The best part is that they aren’t just getting bigger; it’s flattening out my chest and the extra skin I had there from being obese is now helping make my chest look normal and strong. It’s actually quite motivating!

I’m going to wait a while before posting photos; probably another two months. I want the change to be clearly evident. I remember when I began losing weight and I posted photos of me after losing 50 lbs, and honestly, it was hard to tell. Only after I lost 70 lbs and more was it evident that a change was happening. I think the same applies here.

However, there’s an important lesson that I learned: meaningful and great change is gradual and slow. What I’m after isn’t just weight loss. I’m after a complete reconfiguration of my body and strength. I know from my weight loss journey that it takes time, but in this case, it takes time, effort, and strict adherence to making workouts and not skipping. I’ve started a very strict day-on/day-off routine that doesn’t include more than one day of rest. This is going to present a challenge in a few weeks when I go on vacation, but I am going to try to find a gym to drop-in at. It will cost me some time and money, but I can’t give up on my progress now.

Final point of the day: make health and fitness a priority. It has made my life richer and has served as a foundation for so many positive things in my life. When you are not worrying about your weight and fitness, your mind is less cluttered and able to concentrate more freely on the things that truly require your attention. I no longer have to consider my ability to help someone lift a box, help them move, or to take on a home improvement project. I know that I can handle any physical task put to me.

Four Weeks of Weightlifting

I just completed my first month of weightlifting and I’ve made some solid gains:

Squat: 45 lbs to 110 lbs
Bench Press: 45 lbs to 75 lbs
Deadlift: 95 lbs to 155 lbs
Overhead Press: 45 lbs to 75 lbs
Barbell Row: 65 lbs to 95 lbs

I’m not going to be entering any Strongman competitions anytime soon (or ever!), but I’m happy with these solid gains. The numbers are getting respectable. In another month, the numbers will almost be impressive. Two more months, and I’m sure I’ll have hit a plateau and will have to de-load to continue.

The bottom line is this: the program works. I’m not interested in bulking; I’m after functional strength. I need to be strong to do what I do. This is helping me get there.

Start Now

My wife Sherry and I started carefully and slowly and have been healthy for four years now.

For those of you already on a diet and fitness plan, this may be a boring post, but many who read this blog are still in the research phase of their health journey. They’re compiling information, looking for the right thing to do, or even looking for that motivation to get started. Let me help those folks: start now.

I started my first Whole30 over four years ago. Now, I’m at the healthiest I’ve been in my life. I’m at a good weight, and I am fit. I am a runner (on hiatus due to injury) and a weightlifter (active). I am a National Guard Soldier, and according to my semi-annual physicals, in excellent health. This is all due to a decision I made over four years ago to get healthy.

A month ago, I started weightlifting. Today, I’ve already doubled my starting squat weight and nearly doubled my bench press and overhead press weights. My deadlift is almost up to my body weight. None of this would be possible had I not started with the light weights and worked slowly.

Don’t start with a boot camp fitness program. That’s the WRONG way to go about starting a fitness plan and will likely lead to you not going back due to the pain. Don’t start with a super-restrictive diet like chicken breast and lettuce. You’ll get palate fatigue and have cravings and you’ll start binging.

Whole30 is a great way to get into cutting a sugar addiction, and can be started with minimal planning. Just eat meat and non-grain/non-legume vegetables and make sure nothing has added sugar. Of course, visiting whole30.com is the best source of info.

StrongLifts 5×5 is a GREAT weightlifting program to get into increasing your functional strength. It starts you off easy and light and you work up to heavier weights as your body gets used to the movements and the weight. Best of all, there was minimal muscle aches and no real pain.

Running is easy enough to get into as long as you don’t overdo it and try to run 4 miles on your first stretch. You can start with brisk walking, get yourself into light jogging, then fast jogging, and finally into actual running. That’s how I did it, and again, I felt no pain.

The key for me and fitness was recognizing two important facts:

1. Your body needs rest. You need to NOT workout the day after a workout. Your body builds muscle on the rest days, NOT on the workout days.
2. Your body needs sleep. At least 7-8 hours a night. This is a priority, and you have to make sure you can get this.

Start now, but start smart. Don’t overdo it. The diet part, for me, was pretty easy to get into. Fitness is easy to get into as well as long as you go slow and steady. That’s what I’ve been doing, and I’ve kept going where many others have quit.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results

Just a black and white photo of an old PaleoMarine.

This quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein, although it appears that this is not true. The earliest match for this quote in all sources appears in a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous organization newsletter. However, when it comes to diet, health, and fitness, it applies.

I know many people who have been trying the same thing over and over to lose weight. Low fat, lots of whole grains, long sessions in the gym without changing their diet, or trying powders, pills, patches, or other products, and yet, they either don’t achieve the results they were working towards, or worse, they see the opposite results. Yet, after a failure, they go back to the same formula and try again.

I know how maddening this cycle is; I did it myself for many years. Each time, I figured that there was something wrong with me or how I was going about implementing these plans. Surely, the information I had wasn’t suspect, so it had to be me, right?

WRONG!

The problem is that the information we’ve been operating with has been wrong the whole time, yet we didn’t know it. When you have the mainstream media, the government organizations and departments, and even the medical community all telling you one thing, it’s hard to believe that they could have gotten it all so wrong, yet they did. Low-fat is killing us. The diet industry is getting rich off of us making little or no progress. The government is in bed with the diet industry and the medical industry is slow to move when it comes to accepting new information that contradicts anything they’ve believed as fact for so long. Yet, the evidence keeps stacking up that low-fat/high-grain diets are what’s killing us.

Once I ditched the conventional wisdom and adopted the low-carb life, things have turned around 180 degrees for me. During my first Whole30, I lost 20 lbs in a month. Afterwards, on the Paleo Diet, I continued to lose 10-12 lbs per month for the next 11 months culminating in a total of 130 lbs lost in one year. I did that without exercise and without suffering. I did have to give up some of my favorite foods, but it was more like a breakup with a bad girlfriend. It hurt in the beginning, but after time, I realized how much better my life was without her.

Stop repeating the cycle of failure. If doing the same thing over and over hasn’t been working, it’s not you; it’s the program. Try something different. You might be surprised at how well and quickly it works!

We All Struggle

Notice the old guy (fourth from the left) is not looking as smiley as everyone else. That’s because the assessment I was taking part of was grueling, and it was a struggle to complete. But I did it.

I hate seeing ads promising painless and simple weight loss or five minute abs. It’s natural for humans to look for the easiest way to accomplish a task; it’s who we are as a species. But certain people take advantage of this fact and make promises that just aren’t fulfillable or realistic.

Was my first Whole30 easy? No. I didn’t suffer, but I did struggle at times. My wife had a much more difficult time with it, and yes, she definitely struggled. But I was there for her when she was at her lowest, and she was there for me in my times of need.

Throughout the past four years, I’ve had times where the struggle was very real. Where I wondered if I could continue with the diet, with the fitness, or with keeping my weight in check. There are still days I struggle with it, and honestly, I think I always will. We never achieve a state of perfect or complete. It’s a journey, not a destination. Journeys are both up-hill and down-hill, filled with ease and also with struggle. Some face more up-hill than others, but know this: we all struggle. None of us have a simple time of it.

I know that in the past, I’ve written many times how it seemed easy for me at times while I was losing weight. This is true. But it’s also true that I had moments of temptation that made me really consider my decision to limit my diet to eating Paleo. There were times when I was sore from running that I wondered why I was putting myself through it. That struggle, the internal struggle, is the worst.

Your struggle is not unique. I can guarantee you that there are many other out there facing the same difficulties and challenges that you are. Reach out and talk to someone about it. Get the support you need. Talk to your partner, wife, husband, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, mom, dad, etc. Get help to find the strength inside you that you need to get past the hurdles. It is much easier with a helping hand. It’s also much easier knowing you’re not alone.

Pizza and me

It’s a funny cartoon, but it reminded me of how I used to eat pizza before I changed my eating habits and lifestyle and adopted the Paleo Diet. I literally would order a large pizza for myself and another large for the rest of the family. I would eat that entire pizza as if my life depended on it, not entirely because I was hungry, but because I enjoyed it. I literally loved pizza.

Of all the foods I no longer eat, pizza is probably at the top of the list of foods I miss. Every now and then, we make a Paleo pizza, and it’s good, but I limit myself with the quantity. I’ve had one pizza in Salado at a food truck there that was gluten-free, and it was probably the best pizza I’ve had in the past four years. It was simply sublime.

As much as I miss pizza, whenever I start feeling sad about no longer eating real pizza or when I get hungry for a pizza, I remember how If let when I was morbidly obese and out of shape. I remember how hard it was to climb even one flight of stairs, to tie my shoes (I had to hold my breath), or to do even the most simple physical tasks like putting up a shelf (it would leave me in sweat). I think about how I can find clothes anywhere, about how I can fit into any seat, how I even have room in economy class on airplanes, and how much betterI feel being fit and in shape. As tasty as pizza is, it doesn’t compare to how I feel the rest of the time.

Eating is temporary satisfaction. Being fit and healthy is long-term. Do I miss pizza? Sure. But I will never go back to eating it with abandon. I won’t return to the obese life. I refuse.