What started out as a serious rehab project ended up turning itself into a self-motivated “experiment”, with the intent of nothing more than being able to say I did it.
Until the spring of 2017, I’d done my best to be focused on getting to the gym 4 days per week, generally centering my training around the big, primal patterns or their variations. There were pockets of each year where I held strongly to that commitment, and pockets where I let things slide. It’s the way of the game, and it happens.
After a massive injury, I returned to the gym as quickly as I was able to walk unassisted again. It was the month of July, and I worked hard on getting back to functional form for that entire month. I’d done an unbroken string of 31 workouts in the past. I found it difficult, but it was still a good feeling overall. In both instances, even while rehabbing this particular time, it made me think of people who spend most of their year training 7 days per week. In articles I’d written over the years, I’d always passed judgement on things like this, whistle-blew “overtraining” on the where I saw fit, and was quick to give my two cents, but beyond that training-rich month, I had never truly chased legitimate first-hand experience to back up whatever scientific suggestions directed my thinking.
These days, I’m becoming more and more anecdote-driven when it comes to the way I train myself and my clients. I suspect any trainer who enters “veteran” territory (you know – that hallowed “10,000 hour” marker) would share those sentiments, at least in part. The personal experience of seeing the same phenomenon play itself out with client after client over the years, or from undergoing specific outcomes when training smartly oneself can do a lot to edify any scientific research study, or in some cases, deem it less applicable.
Needless to say, I was driven by obsession at first, and 30 days in a row turned into 60 without a hitch. That’s right about when a colleague of mine planted the seed: I should try to go for the whole year. It seemed unnecessary to me at first, but I decided that if nothing else, it would make for an interesting experiment that I suspected would involve good, bad, and plenty of ugly.
I was right. Here’s what I discovered.
1. If you want to find the time to train, you can
My daily lifting experiment was based around 2 rules: First, each workout had to be at least 40 minutes long. Second, each workout had to involve some form of weight training, with the only exceptions to the rule being workouts that comprised of chin ups, push ups and dips (as the entire workout). Nitpick all you want – these were my rules.
Having these two factors shaping this project made for even more incentive to stick with it. That showed me that going to the gym with any modicum of purpose is much more productive than having none at all, and will likely keep you on track to remain consistent. People who have lifestyles that don’t make training a simple task can surely edit their routines to free up at least two or three sessions each week… if they really wanted to. Just to be clear, for the last 9 months of this project, I had returned to work in full swing, and my responsibilities saw me working with clients 1 on 1, meeting my writing deadlines, speaking locally, being flown out of town to speak, teaching my college classes, and doing work in the media. Sometimes all of the above happened in the same week. To stay committed to my lift-every-day plan, at times it meant training at 6:00AM before a long day. At other times it meant training at 10:00PM after a long day. It meant dragging myself to the gym when I wasn’t feeling it. It meant getting it in at hotel gyms when I traveled for work. But I got it done.
This subheading may come off as braggadocio, but the real reason I decided to include it was to stress one point: You can always find the time to make fitness, exercise, and training a part of your life. Especially when you single out the things you’re doing with some of your time that may be completely unimportant.
2. Diversifying your Training is what Makes you Fit
Like I mentioned at the outset – In the past, was geared towards training the big stuff most every time I hit the gym. This go-around, things were different. I was very injured, and I was also training very frequently. In the first while, I couldn’t do a full squat or deadlift to save my life – and I mean, I physically couldn’t do it due to the limitations thanks to my surgeries. With that said, I had to get creative. I redeveloped a relationship with machines and lifts I hadn’t used for years due to negligence, and I couldn’t help but notice their value.
Sure, I can chalk half of this up to the fact that it was like re-learning a new movement. The anatomical adaptation I’d have to something new would cause a spike in results due to its newness and my inefficiency at training it in a relative sense. But it still taught me a valid lesson. Many people train hard, and even train well – but are exclusionary towards movements and lifts that will really do well to get them in shape. Not just strong. In my books, being ‘in shape’ means having conditioning of your muscles, heart, lungs, and tendons and ligaments to be able to safely handle any athletic challenge that’s thrown your way, within moderation. It doesn’t mean being as flexible as a ballerina while as strong as an Olympic lifter with the endurance of a triathlete. But it does mean being able to hold your own when your endurance is needed, when your flexibility and mobility are tested, and where your general strength and load tolerance are called upon in multiple planes of action.
Many people who get injured as a result of a weight room folly weren’t doing anything more than focusing on one thing at a time, year round, and the only really changing their rep ranges through each training phase. For the human body, that’s a big ask. The worst part is, once they recover from the injury, you can expect most of them to return to the exact method and style of training that got them injured in the first place.
Training 7 days per week was too frequent for me to focus on 6 or 8 major lifts, week in and week out, and I had to get open-minded and sometimes innovative, especially when taking my restrictions into consideration. Part of this process introduced (and forced me to welcome) some brilliant bodyweight movements that served me doubly well as a big guy. It’s important not to forsake the little things that can lay the foundation for our true strength.
3. You Absolutely, Positively, Cannot out-train a Bad Diet
For the first couple of months, I paid my typical, minimal attention towards my eating, but quickly noticed that there was no real change to my physique and body weight despite my training more frequently than ever before. It’s something to put into perspective, especially when the typical business-type client may train 2 days per week and expect to meet physique results with the same minimal attention to his own diet.
I started loosely tracking what I ate and also adjusted my timing habits where eating was concerned, and saw results fairly quickly. This subheading is short, but it goes to show that as far as your lifting performance is concerned, you might get away with cutting a few corners. But if your goals involve making changes to your physique, you’ve gotta eat right for your desired outcome. There’s no way around it. If you’re looking to lose body fat or body weight, it may mean looking at your macronutrient values, and monitoring your overall calorie intake. This is 60% of the battle, and a necessary step for you to attain the body – and the health – that you want.
4. There’s an ideal body type for every sport. Including Lifting.
When you’re a kid, you usually gravitate towards certain sports over others because you’re good at them.
And you’re good at them because you don’t yet know it, but you’ve been genetically gifted to have a body type and skill sets suited for that sport. Most every sport has a “sweet spot” where body types are concerned; an ideal anthropometry, leverage balance, and set of proportions that pander to the demands of the sport and make those demands favour that body type over another, in a general sense. When weight training becomes competitive and ultimately a sport in and of itself, it’s important we don’t forget this. When we think of CrossFit, powerlifting and Olympic lifting, the same generalizations can be made. We can cherrypick hard-working anatomical outliers, just like acknowledging the fact that the world’s fastest 100m sprinter is 6 foot 5. That doesn’t negate the thousands of 5’11 and under sprinters who comprise the rest of the world’s fastest times over the years – nor the thousands that surely will follow.
This nugget relates to my experience of daily training because it reminds me that many compound lifts, fixed workouts and set rest parameters aren’t as friendly to certain body types or leverages – even if they look good on paper and can be backed by a little science too. It’s important to recognize the difference between strength and work to understand what lies within the realms of possibility and what doesn’t. As a 6’4” lifter, I was reminded of that over and over.
5. Humans are as resilient, adaptive and tough as they are prone to injury and sickness. We have to know when to acknowledge both truths.
I hit a lifetime bench press PR during this experiment… without a spotter. And at numerous points in time I comfortably pushed in the low to mid 300’s for submaximal work. Needless to say, especially earlier on in the year, I benched a whole lot. The SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands) definitely holds true if you put your body under a certain stimulus enough times in a row. There’s something to be said about the notion that you can push your body past certain thresholds and unlock potential by making no excuses, shutting up and just lifting.
But there are limits. That truth smacked me in the face the moment I caught a bad head cold around day 240, but was determined to keep the training streak alive. Needless to say, that 2 week stretch saw several of my bare-minimum 40 minute lightweight specials. Deep down, I knew that my overtraining was likely a huge contributor to my weakened immune system. Pushing past your limits can be valiant and even necessary to see results, but you can’t be stupid. Giving your body the rest that it needs can sometimes be more important than any workout – especially when your nutrition becomes compromised also.
6. Training Every Day makes you a Psychological Basketcase.
From the point in time that I gave my diet more attention and onward, I was constantly checking the scale. I was glued to it. I’d weigh in every morning, and usually again later in the day. During busy work days, my mind often became preoccupied with when I’d train to keep the streak alive, and also what I’d be doing each workout. I was planning lift attempts before they even happened. I was making sure my workout gear was ready for use.
“Obsession” is what lazy people call “dedication”. But the truth is, the lazy people got it right this time. The world of fitness can sometimes beat us over the heads with the idea that this ‘training’ thing is about much more than it really is, and that can result in it consuming our lives. If there’s competition involved, it can make things even worse. This wasn’t an aspect of my year of training that I looked fondly upon; it was disappointing for two reasons. First, it’s not an ideal mindset with which to approach something intended to be healthy for your body. Second, it exposed the very grim reality that there are many people who suffer from this – identifying their entire lives through their fitness – who may not even realize they’ve got a problem. A compulsion to train and eat well may look like a good thing from the surface level. But compulsions usually aren’t a good thing.
One more thing. Earlier on, I mentioned that it’s possible to find the time to make fitness part of your life – but let me make one thing clear: The people who say you only need to put aside 1 hour per day to train, are people who work at the gyms they train at. For the rest of us, it’s more time consuming, and sometimes inconveniently so. It takes some time to gather your belongings, time to travel to the gym, time to shower and change clothes after, and time to return home (or to work). If you’re serious about getting solid workouts in to boot, that’ll all take much more than an hour, and that’s also something that requires us to schedule accordingly, and prioritize as important. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
Just keeping it real.
7. Recovery and Performance are directly related.
I had a completely new frame of reference to base my squatting and deadlifting numbers around compared to my old, uninjured self, but my rehab experience was still one that I could base adjusted, new PR’s around to track my progress. Training as frequently as I did made me think of the clients and colleagues I’ve worked with who would get worked up over missing a lift or having a “bad workout”.
Out of 365 days, I’m sure at least 50 of them were days I had zero desire to actually be there.
Another 50 were justifiably “bad workouts”.
Even the most elite athletes in the world have bad workouts, bad practices, and bad outings in competition. It’s just the way it is. My training frequency left no choice but to demand excellent nutrition, excellent recovery, and a really enviable sleep routine. And I’d be lying if I said that was me.
And boy did it show. Give me a bad meal the night before, a truncated 4 hour sleep, or unhappy joints because it was the third Tuesday of the month, and along came workouts where I couldn’t press or pull a smidgen of what I’d done just a couple of short weeks prior.
Your recovery matters. Hey – it’s cool to try to be a hero every day you hit the gym… as long as you’re okay with disappointing yourself on some of those days, and getting hurt on others. Both will happen if your recovery methods aren’t on par with your daily efforts.
It was a tough experiment, but one I’m glad I started and finished. The learning experiences opened my eyes to solid training truths I hadn’t lived, and others that I learned the hard way. On the one hand I respect the fact that if you want better results for yourself and your performance, you need to train more.
In saying that, however, it’s also worth acknowledging that that’s a very loaded directive that should be littered with a host of disclaimers and asterisks. Training more doesn’t start inside the gym. It starts in your bed, in the kitchen, in your workplace, and most importantly, in your mind. Not to sound all “zen”, but you’ve got to prepare the right conditions everywhere else in your life to create the proper platform for high frequency training to really ‘take’.
Today, it still feels weird to take off-days; it’s still too soon for it to have sunken in as normal. The good news is, it’s extremely easy to maintain consistency training just 5 days per week, every week. Like, piece-of-cake easy. My body composition has made some changes over time; I’m more muscular and carry less body fat than before. I started this project weighing in in the low 260’s and now hover comfortably in the mid 240’s. My training frequency made for a general overall improvement in most of my lifts (especially the “rehab” lifts like squats, deadlifts, and really anything lower body oriented).
This was a time investment and commitment that I’m sure many a trainer would convince himself was entirely worth it, with “no regrets”. Despite the lessons learned, the solid gains, the improved performance and the great experience to share with my readers, I can say with relative certainty that I wouldn’t do it again.
M. Night Shyamalan, eat your heart out.