many ways to get fit

The flip side of the coin of being connected and aware of what all is going on in the world is that there's just way more information that we can process. Everything is good and everything is bad. Or here's the latest greatest thing that makes everything you currently own/do/know defunct and now you have to switch to the new thing.

Fitness (and nutrition) is well and truly a part of this fad wave. There are so many options, so many variations of the same option, and a lot of self-proclaimed experts. And everyone's trying to get heard and say similar things to catch your attention.

fitness group
Photo by bruce mars / Unsplash

There's running, lifting weights, Zumba, yoga, fancy aerobics, cycling, triathlons and so many others. Which one should we pick?

Let me see if I can clarify how to go about processing this by looking at a few underlying principles.

what are we looking for?

We want to get fit. Fitness simply means the ability to do a task - what task are you looking to do better? Well, just general fitness and life, whatever that means. Let's probe a bit deeper.

  • We want to ensure we are healthy for the long-term i.e. all our organs are working well, our mind and body are in good shape and we are doing our bit to stay away from the lifestyle diseases that are all around us - obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure etc
  • We don't want to feel unfit. Whether it is walking about 10 flights of stairs, or playing with our kids, or looking at ourselves in the mirror. The key is to realise that the end goal that we think we are looking at - flat abs or being a beast - is silly. Maybe we will get there if we fall in love with fitness for the longer term. But if you just don't want to feel unfit, then shouldn't you be looking at what the minimal amount of work you need to do is?
the triad

I think we want to look good, feel good and stay healthy. That's it. And this is actually rather accessible. Depending on which of these we want to focus on (the overlapping areas of the Venn diagram), we need to do a few things.

if it is that simple, then what's the problem?

Because there are too many options. Too many options that sound similar but are not at all similar. How do we sift through the factions, the marketing, the "this is better than that?", across the prejudices and opinions and find truly what is the best solution for ourselves?

First thing to realise with looking good, feeling fit, and staying healthy is that these are continuums. That is, we should not be looking at it as 0 or 1. We are unfit or we are fit. Only a 6-pack means you look good and anything else is a 0. Nah!

unhealthy --> healthy as a continuum

There is a line we can draw to help us, sure. But like I said, it is a continuum and not "are you on this side or that side". For example, we can draw the line at a waist-height ratio of 0.5. It does not mean you can indulge in every bad habit if you are on the right side of 0.5 or you are doomed if you are on the wrong side of it. We can start adding in more pieces of this puzzle

  • what is our blood sugar at?
  • what is our body fat percentage at?
  • how about our cholesterol levels?
  • and our stress levels?
  • how often are we connecting with our friends and family?

All of these and a ton more things matter for our health. The more effort we put in, our health will trend in the right direction.

a simple fitness continuum

Similarly, for our fitness levels. Let's say we don't want to huff and puff and want whatever is "general fitness". Again, it is a continuum. The complication is we might need to define a line where we want to be on the right side of it. The continuum can stretch on and on - and it only causes unhappiness if we keep trying to reach unreasonable things. But you can see how we can go from not being able to touch our toes to being able to run 10 kilometres.

So, one important principle in which to think and evaluate - continuums and not binary.

what is the one thing we should do?

Why do we think there's one solution? Between all the things available, it is a matter of choice. Unfortunately.

Running, for example, can provide community, aerobic base, clear-cut goals and targets via events. But it is one-dimensional if running is all we are going to be doing. More important, your running will peter out after a bit if running is all you are doing without improving on your weaknesses. I use running as an example as this is the precise journey I took.

The rest of this article is going to focus on "get fit", while being mindful of staying healthy and looking good. For folks like us (and even athletes), we want General Physical Preparation (GPP). Let me have Pavel elaborate further.

... any "sport-specific" or goal-specific training must be done on a foundation of general physical preparation (GPP).

The Russian concept of GPP got misinterpreted in the West as metabolic "smokers." Nothing could be further from the truth. GPP embraces all attributes: strength, flexibility, endurance, etc. And when Russians talk about "general" development, they imply a wide carryover to a great many applications: "… the ability … to perform any physical work more or less successfully." (Ozolin, 2005)

Thus GPP is about developing all fitness components with means carefully selected to have the widest possible carryover. Consider two familiar exercises: the leg extension and the barbell squat. The former makes you better at one thing only: the leg extension. This makes it a poor choice for GPP. The barbell back squat, on the other hand, makes you jump higher, run faster, hit harder, etc.

Thus the squat is a good GPP exercise and the leg extension is not. GPP is what "functional training" was supposed to be but failed, confused and distracted by random acts of variety.

This is a principle I subscribe to - any activity we want to do needs to be built on a foundation of GPP. At The Quad, we define this as

  • you need to have a base level of strength
  • you need to have good joint mobility
  • you need to have power and speed
  • you have good aerobic and anaerobic endurance

Based on the how serious, how much time you have, what you want to do with this GPP - we set various standards and goals for the above (these are mine). Yes, there are a lot more we can talk about - agility, balance are two examples - but adding more variables does not make it more rounded. It just makes it more confusing. It is hard to have poor balance when you have a strong single-leg deadlift and solid split squats, for example. Let's talk big rocks alone - that's how we focus.

In addition to building these facets of fitness, we want it to be fun. Why fun? Because if you are not enjoying it, you will stop doing it. Sooner or later.

on top of GPP

Running or cycling or playing a sport are all great activities which develop one or more facets of fitness. We believe that all of them can be done at a high-level of performance when you have a solid GPP foundation.

And if you are not interested in any of those, then just GPP work will be ample for you. A lot of our students at The Quad just show up 3 days a week and they do it for years and years - and their GPP is outstanding. There's nothing more they need to do at the gym except show up - any other goal improvement will require focus in something else. For example, nutrition might need to be tightened up quite a bit before they can get to their aesthetic goals.

When we build on top of  this foundation of GPP, we ensure that we are on the right side of the line of all the three continuums I mentioned.

how to improve my 5k

Let's take an example of running faster. There are lots of smart running methods and coaches who can help you - volume and intervals - to get faster. But sometimes, the answer is at the gym. How we can break this down is

  • are my strength levels enough? Can I get my body a bit stronger? How about my core - with a stable pillar, my running form will improve.
  • is my joint mobility good? If my ankle mobility is poor, then big toe and ankle dorsiflexion when I run will not be great. Which can impact my running speed.
  • is my power ample? Can I do some kettlebell swings and sprints to increase the power?
  • is my endurance sufficient? Can I learn to do more work in the same amount of time?

If these are checked off, then the problem is not at the gym.

Defining a goal as 5k, as an example, can allow us to ask specific questions and set specific targets. And we can see which of these can be answered at the gym, which of those in the kitchen, and whether we need to stretch more or sleep more and all that.

It gets us out of doing the same thing repeatedly, especially if it is showing diminishing returns or harming us.

my bias

Like everyone has a bias, I obviously have a bias. I think adequate levels of strength is important. Along with enough joint mobility, speed and endurance. I think GPP is a simple, undeniable concept to build things on top of.

I arrived at this bias after trying out a bunch of different methods.

Today, going to the gym is something I find a lot of joy and fun from. Because

  • it helps me maintain my GPP
  • it provides a mental challenge, a place of constant skill improvement
  • I learn a lot from the process of doing the work
  • and it allows me to partake in most other physical activities that I want to dabble in.
  • It adds to my life.

At The Quad, we make GPP fun. We build on protocols and methods from our favourite coaches, giants in the field, and we adapt them for our students. For a lot of us, that's enough. For those of us with more time to commit, or more physical activities we want to dabble in - we provide the foundation for which one can go and explore these things.

that's where we try to be

As we say, show up 3 days a week. We will take care of it.

Further reading

There are a lot of coaches who talk about this in a similar way. The primary coaches that I steal from are Dan John, Pavel Tsatsouline and Mike Boyle. They say the same things. They say it slightly to rather differently - whichever one makes the most sense to you, pick. These are not the only coaches - there are so many more who are similar in their recommendations. Whoever you connect with, start there. They all say the same things differently.