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Getting stronger with less work

Getting stronger with less work

Training itself doesn’t get you stronger, fitter, and healthier. You get all those things because of how your body reacts to the training you’ve done. Nothing new there.

You want your workouts to stimulate the positive reactions in the body. You know, hormones and stuff. The ones that encourage your body to pour energy into making you a more capable human being. Whether that means not getting out of breath when catching the ferry after a long lunch on the sauce. Or absolutely owning the steepest side of the mountain when skiing.

You don’t want the body to think it’s under attack after each training session

When this happens, the body will limit some or all of the resources needed for the positive reactions that progress your strength, fitness, and health.

It will instead spend the resources on what it understands as trying to keep you from dying. Mostly figuratively speaking. (But not always. The long term consequences are a blog for another time.)

The more severe this staying alive reaction, the less you have to show for your training efforts. You cannot progress when the conditions in your body aren’t favourable for progress to happen. You’re wasting your time. In fact, you might get worse.

Stuff that can trigger a staying alive response

The negative kind, that is. Not the restoring Bee Gees disco vibes.

This first list you’ve heard before: not eating enough calories, carbs or protein, eating mostly rubbish, high stress or other psychological issues, not sleeping enough, dehydration, too many Sunday afternoons on the sauce, listening to Justin Bieber, watching The Kardashians…

Pretty much anything that makes you feel something isn’t quite right. Whether it’s in your body or the world as a whole.

Then there are the negative consequences of training too hard

Approaching each training session like it’s a battlefield. As if you’re David and the stoic kettlebell, the personal trainer in the sleeveless shirt and sleeve tattoos, or the fitness instructor in those tight spandex is Goliath.

But training too hard doesn’t mean going heavy. Because if you can go heavy, have at it. But you have to do it without the triggering the negative reactions in the body.

Which brings us to the juice I’ve been squeezing in this blog.

Training too hard = ignoring the need to rest

The battlefield mentality means limiting rest periods and not letting the body recover enough for the next set. It’s about chasing tiredness. Treating each workout as an opportunity to figuratively beat something or someone into your embracing submission.

Such as dominating an hour HIIT class (an oxymoron in itself) or a workout with rests that are on par or less than the work set durations. And then measuring the success of that based on how tired and sore you feel.

Because getting tired still doesn’t mean getting better.

Getting tired doesn’t even mean just getting tired. Getting tired means getting worse. It forces the body to pour its resources into staying alive instead of improving.

And things only snowball when people do this multiple days straight. Something not too uncommon for fitness class enthusiasts. Eventually, they get to a point where they wonder why their strength, health or fitness isn’t improving. And why, despite all that effort, they’re not witnessing the promised sexification when they look in the mirror.

But wait! There’s more. The risk of injury also goes up. Muscle activation and coordination take a hit when we’re tired. As you can see, it’s an all around shit show for the ages.

Fitness junkies (Hey I should know. I was one.) are not seeing results because their body thinks it’s living under constant artillery fire. It makes little sense to spend energy on worrying about improvement or longevity when the immediate focus is on survival.

Great things happen once you appreciate the importance of rest

You’ll remove the handbrake that’s holding back your progress. You’ll see and feel your strength, health, fitness and body composition improve.

And you’ll turbo charge those results because you can now train harder without triggering the negative reactions in the body. You will notice how much more power, strength and energy you can drive into each set. Instead of feeling like you’re paddling against the current in a river of melted cheddar.

The upside of prioritising rest in the workout is that you don’t need as long breaks between sessions. Even if you went hard in the training.

But limiting rest in both the workout and between the workouts? You cannot have both and still expect to see great results.

Your work:rest ratio shouldn’t be less than 1:1

Anything less than 1:1 work:rest only makes sense when your training loads are so low (for you) that it wouldn’t deliver the positive training response anyway. Rested or not. Which makes me question why anyone would go that light in the first place…

Unless it’s for the social or mental benefits. In which case, yes. I am all for it.

If your work set takes 45 seconds, you need at least 45 seconds of rest to get the most out of the work you’re putting in. And the closer you are to your max effort, the longer you need to rest. Both in strength training and in cardio.

You’re not a powerlifter. But to use them as an example, their rests are often five times their work sets.

Now, obviously you don’t need rests that long since your goal is to not win a powerlifting meet. And since training is unlikely to be your number one priority in life, it’d be ridiculous to ask you to spend a few hours on your training each time you do it. Let alone to ask you to rest most of that two hours.

All of us want the best possible return for our training investment

But we have families, jobs and whatnot. To get any meaningful training done, we have to settle for shorter rests.

And accept that most of us are not getting the best possible response from our body to build our strength, fitness, and health. But if we’re as smart with our rest as we are with our training, we can get pretty close. Ideally above 80%.

To get to that, aim for 1:1 – 1:2 work:rest ratio. Erring on the higher side. And take care of the other aspects that boost your body’s positive response to training. Stuff we covered earlier.

You’ll probably end up doing less work compared to the past. But the work that’s left is going to be hard. And then you need to rest even harder.

Getting >80% return for your training is good enough for anyone whose job, income or survival doesn’t depend on being Batman or Sarah Connor for 24/7.

I happily put my spoon into that soup.


Escaping from lactose intolerant dinner guests

Escaping from lactose intolerant dinner guests

We know that being physically tired has a negative effect on our physical skills.

Climbing a cliff and trying to decide which spot to grab on next. Going for a three point throw in the last second of the game. Deciding on which door to choose when being chased by an angry mob of lactose intolerant dinner guests after you forgot you were not supposed to put cow’s milk in the lasagne.

Then there is the decline of cognitive skills. Stuff that we don’t normally associate with fitness. Deciding on how to disciplining your kids. Picking a meal for dinner. Managing people at work and not being a dick about it.

All of those skills are suboptimal when we get tired.

Some attack the issue by trying to improve the skill while tired so they can then mimic it in a real life situation. Anger management for tired parents, anyone?

And it will not work. Because, being tired has a negative effect on our cognitive and physical skills.

Practicing a skill while you’re tired doesn’t make you better at the skill. You can’t develop your interpersonal or physical skills when you’re exhausted. None of that practice will stick. That’s a fact that even Batman has to accept.

Others focus solely on improving the skill while feeling fresh. But, if you can shoot a three pointer and navigate interpersonal relationships with ease when you’re feeling at your best, it’s likely that working to improve the skill further is not the answer. You know how to do it. You already have it.

By now, you’ve probably figured what you need to do to not be a dick or perform dickishly when tired.

Don’t get as tired in the first place.

Elevate your health and fitness to a new level. So when it comes to go-time, the tiredness is not pulling your skills and decision making into the suboptimal abyss.

This applies to escaping an angry (and likely, farting) anti milk disaccharide digesting mob. As it does to being a calmer parent at the end of a long work day.

– J

ps. to all my fellow lactose intolerant friends, I say this. I feel you. Always double check with the lasagne maker before eating. And even then, proceed with caution.

With a little help from my friend, technology

With a little help from my friend, technology

I’ve said how I prefer to rely on intuition and “feelings” to assess where my health and fitness is at. Part of that is justified. I disagree with the trend of the glorified tracking of absolutely everything. It’ll only distract most people from what truly matters, taking action.

That, and I believe that relying too heavily on data will further dampen our intuition.

Yet part of my tech rebellion is based on a pink coloured, romanticised view I have of the past. A longing for the simpler times (hear me go, I sound like I was born in the 1920s. Someone play Ain’t Misbehavin’ on the gramophone and pour me a boulevardier).

But I don’t live in a vacuum. Harnessing the right technology can and will help us in our quest for a healthier future. Both individually and as a whole.

All of which brings me to a platform that my buddy Nick Harris has been cooking for the last three years. Optimal Humans app, or a fancy pants “personal health and fitness advisor in your pocket”.

And it’s out now.

Unlike other apps, Optimal Humans tracks the relationship between your performance, behaviour and biometrics. Once it knows enough about your current health and fitness, it’ll proactively prescribe solutions to your underlying limitations. Allowing you to reach your health and fitness goals faster.

You can download and use it for free to gain a better understanding of your health and fitness. And how to move past whatever’s holding you back from being your most optimal self. By learning from some of Australia’s top health and fitness experts.

I know Nick’s got big ambitions for what the app can do for your health. Both now and with the future releases. But instead of me trying to explain it, get a front row seat by downloading the app from the App Store.

It’s dope.


The best thing I’ve done for my own training

The best thing I’ve done for my own training

The older I get, the more I am appreciating short strength workouts. Even if the short workouts are by necessity. With two young kids, a coaching business and freelance writing, there’s only so much a man can fit in.

But after two years of Covid imposed short strength workouts, I wouldn’t go back to longer session. Even if I’d figure how to go from 24 to 28 hours a day. A hindrance I am still trying to solve.

When in the past I’d set aside an hour for training, I now get in about 30 minutes. Including the warm up. Obviously, living in the tropics cuts down the need for an extensive warm up. After three or four specific warm up exercises, I can focus on workout specific warm up during the first few sets of the actual training session. If I’d live in a colder climate, I’d take longer to get ready.

So, time-wise my workouts are half of what they used to be. But the actual amount of work isn’t as low. Since I am training at home, it’s mostly distraction free compared to the gym environment where I was constantly chatting to people.

At home, I do most of my workouts when the kids are not at home. And I train at the end of the workday to not get pulled back to the work stuff. Podcasts don’t count!

That’s an unnecessarily long-winded, but a very Joonas-like way of saying that when I train, I can actually focus on training. And get a decent amount of work done in a short time. The goal is to hit 16-18 total work sets within each session. Which is roughly about two thirds of what it used to be.

That and avoiding complete failure in each set means that I am fresher immediately after the session. And (usually) my patience is on the nicer side for the rest of the afternoon.

All of that and the fact that my strength levels haven’t taken a noticeable drop means that my short workouts are here to stay.

But before you go halve all your workouts…

Short workouts are not for everyone.

If the training time is the only time you move during the week, you benefit from longer sessions. Get as much movement in as you can when you can. While pulsing between intense and less taxing movements in the actual workout.

But if you’re already active daily and strength train 3 or 4 days a week, try shorter workouts. I think you’ll be surprised. In a good way.

What does it take?

What does it take?

First, the decision to start. To accept that there will never be a perfect time. So you might as well start now. Even if you’re low on time. Even if you can’t give your 100%.

Because, who isn’t low on time? And can anyone with an actual life give their 100%? Ever? With anything? I don’t think so. Like marriage, having kids or standing at the muesli aisle, it’s all about a compromising.

Not compromising your values or beliefs, but letting other less important things sometimes slide.

Second, the strength and courage to show up. Put it in your calendar. Set a reminder. Arrange your day in a way that you can show up. Book your training for a time that you’re more likely to show up.

Know ins and outs of your energy levels. If you’re not a morning person, don’t decide to train first thing in the morning. Maybe you’ll get there, eventually. But for now, why make it harder than it already is?

Third, the will and determination to build consistency. Regardless of the day, mood, or the circumstances you’re in. Stick to the training days you set in the beginning. If on some days it means that you can only do a quarter of your workout, so be it.

Like Tony Iommi’s fingers, do the best you can with what you’ve got. Turned out alright for him. It will for you too.

Fourth, to expect nothing. Not immediately, anyway. People fail because they expect instant rewards. Focus on building consistency and creating momentum.

The result will follow.

While we’re at it, what do you need help with? What topics you’d like me to write more about?

Reply to this email and let me know.

Or don’t. Either way, we’re cool.


Graceful fitness isn’t about never training hard

Graceful fitness isn’t about never training hard

You can, and probably should, push your limits.

But because I harp on so much about reasonable workouts and a balanced approach to health and fitness, some of you might think that I am against intense workouts.

If that’s the case, it’s on me for not being clear enough. Something that my wife would likely agree on.

Here’s a snippet of a recent text message conversation I had with a client who’s dealing with long-Covid. I’ll share her comment and my reply here slightly edited as it’s a nice overview (for once!) of the whole graceful fitness idea I go on about.

Client’s comment, shared with permission:

“If I remember your story correctly, I think you’ve learned this for yourself as well. Train smarter, not harder. (But you have to admit – it was kinda fun to push the limit and just exhaust oneself every now and then?)”

My reply:

“In the past it [the way I trained] was as hard as possible for as long as possible for as often as possible. Now it’s mostly shorter workouts <45min, mostly medium intensity. Some days I get into the workout and everything just feels off. I stop and go for a walk instead. Occasionally, when I feel really good, I’ll push it.”

”You don’t have to settle for only doing medium workouts for the rest of your life. Just know when to push it and when to hold back.”

There you have it. Hope that clears it up a bit.


If it’s in front of us…

If it’s in front of us…

…we tend to do it.

So much of our success with health and fitness comes down to our environment and surroundings.

Whatever you have in your fridge and cupboard, that’s what you’re going to eat. Buy accordingly.

If you want to reduce the amount of ice cream and cookies you eat, only buy a single portion at a time. Instead of hauling a carton load through the door each time you do the shopping.

Keen to drink less? Hide the wine glasses and only buy enough wine to last an evening. And never keep beer in the fridge for “just in case”.

If the goal is to eat more fruits and vegetables, stack them up. Put the fruits where you can see them. To act as a reminder and a cue for you to eat them.

As for training, leave your weights where you can see them. Drill a permanent chin up bar to a door frame. Never buy a piece of equipment with a feature that “easily folds and rolls into storage under your bed”. You will never use it. And it makes vacuuming heaps annoying.

Want to spend less time doom scrolling and more on reading meaningful books? Put your phone in a draw where it’s not constantly yelling “pick me up!”

You get the idea.

What do you need to put out of sight? And what needs to be more prominent?


Fitness savings account

Fitness savings account

Most of us focus on the relatively immediate benefits of training:

To get stronger, to have more energy, to manage stress, to improve mood and mental health. And, to feel good about the person we see in the mirror.

And all of that is cool. They’re all worth the focus.

If you’re over 35, you’re likely thinking about the benefits that being active has on aging. Avoiding chronic diseases and getting older gracefully motivates you to move. Instead of stumbling through the years, eyes closed, fingers crossed, and hoping for the best.

What we often neglect to appreciate, because we suck at planning for something that might not happen (or like to think that it won’t happen), are the benefits that training has on the life’s “oh shit” moments.

It could be a fall, an accident, a surgery or an illness. Yep, “oh shit”.

Training and being active is literally like building our fitness savings account. And whether we want to acknowledge this, there’s a chance that one day we need to withdraw from our fitness savings.

The longer your training history is, the better off you will be if “oh shit” happens. You’re more likely to recover faster. Or to even make a full recovery. Especially when compared to those who are in the same situation as you, but untrained, overweight and inactive.

So, give yourself a wink, a nudge-nudge, or a high five each time you add strength and fitness to your savings account.

And if you haven’t started accumulating your savings yet, the next best time is today.

We can still reclaim (some of) it

We can still reclaim (some of) it

It’s incredible to watch how little (zero) encouragement most young kids need to move. To watch what they can do or what they’re trying and failing to do. And how little they need to get excited about it all.

I’ve got a two spare double mattresses in my home office. In the past I would’ve donated them to a charity. But now, I am holding on to them. With teeth. Because our kids use them to bounce off the walls.

Tackling them, climbing them (when one’s upright), bouncing around, running circles, rolling, jumping off them, wrestling, somersaults… And it’s not like I am asking them to do it. They’re demanding to enter the padded room.

Usually accompanied by music. Music that, for a standard adult, is the equivalent of a rusty spoon stirring the brain through the ear canal (“Put on Paw Patrol song!”). On repeat.

This circus can go on for an hour. With tight three second hydration pit stops in the middle. It’s incredible to watch. The energy of it all.

But the best part of it is that there’s no end goal to any of this. The point is to just move in any way humanly possible.

Then, at some age, this interest in movement grinds to a halt. Some of it is just biology. We get older. Some of it is environmental. Most of us swap movement for sitting. I think school has a lot to do with this. “Sit still!” “Don’t move!” But I’ll save that rant for another post.

Yet, it’s not too late for us adults to redeem ourselves. We can learn a thing or two from how kids approach movement.

When’s the last time you physically tried something that you haven’t done before, or recently?

For no other reason than to just do it.

Now, I am not saying you need to put on Friends’ theme song on repeat and bounce in your garden or balcony for an hour. (Although, why not?)

For some of us, it might be just as simple as learning to touch toes or sitting in a deep squat. Others might want to try backflips into the pool. Most of us can re-start somewhere in the middle.

When it comes to movement, young kids can teach us a lot. Regardless of our age.

What do you need to move forward?

What do you need to move forward?

If you feel like your fitness isn’t where you want it to be. If you feel stuck.

If you crave for something better. If you can see a stronger, fitter future for yourself.

There’s a good chance you don’t need more training knowledge. You know enough.

You don’t need to find a new training program. That’s not what’s missing.

It’s likely that you’ve already gained enough nutrition information. And you definitely don’t have to wait for the next diet trend.

But you probably knew all of that already.

What you need right now is action. You need structure.

You need to set a specific, measurable and time-based goal.

You need to break it into actionable steps. And you need the accountability to stick to it.

As long as your life circumstances allow it. Now might not be a good time.

After a while, the lack of results is rarely about the lack of knowledge. And even when we know this, it’s sometimes good to get a reminder.

It gets us to pause. We can reflect on the situation we’re in and find our place on the map.

Before deciding on what to do.