Getting In Shape When It Seems Impossible
Being prepared means being fit. Here's how you can get started even when you don't think you can.
Physical fitness is one of the most overlooked aspects of preparedness but may be one of the most important. Can you run from danger? Could you pick up a family member and carry them to safety? If you were hanging from a ledge or cliff, could you pull yourself up? How far can you march with your go-bag?
Of course, we that not everyone can exercise due to medical conditions or physical disability. But if you can, then you should. I had to learn this the hard way. After spending my 30s sitting at a desk most of the day, my health took a nosedive. I had constant neck and back pain and was starting to have trouble walking. After an intensive round of chiropractic, I joined a gym and have been working out at least three times per week ever since.
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If you’re in lousy shape, or were never in great shape in the first place, it can be tough to get out of that hole. Nothing is more discouraging than not being able to do a single pushup or pullup, or being unable to spend more than a couple of minutes on an exercise bike without your legs cramping. Or to hit the gym and wake up feeling like you’ve been hit by a Mack Truck. Exercise is supposed to make you feel better, so why does it make you feel so bad?
Disclaimer: I’m not a physical trainer or medical professional. If I were to “post fizeek” I’d get laughed out of the room. However, I am a guy with lousy genetics and fitness who has made significant progress after learning things the hard way, and if I can get in shape, so can you.
Your Motivation to Train
Maybe you’ve tried to work out in the past and it just didn’t take. You know you should, but it’s hard. You’re not good at it. Here are some things you need to internalize:
You’re going to suck at it at first, just like anything else.
But there’s zero point in beating yourself up about it. Body shaming and negativity aren’t going to get you anywhere. Action and hard work will.
Fitness is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s going to take weeks, months, and years of training to get the results you want.
You’re going to need to start with the lightest weights and steadily add to them, and you’re going to need a program that doesn’t break you physically.
It’s going to be a little unpleasant at first. It might be uncomfortable. You’re going to be sore. It will get better. (Of course, you don’t want constant soreness or an injury. We’ll discuss those later.)
I’m more motivated to train as I approach middle age than I was as a young man for a very simple reason: when you get older you tend to hurt all the time anyway. Sure, working out will make you hurt, but so will being an inactive slug. As trainer Mark Rippetoe says: you wanna hurt and be strong or you gonna hurt and be weak?
Another thing that motivates me is historical fact: in Ancient Greece, slaves weren’t allowed to use the gymnasium, only free men. Which one are you?
The Problem with Minimalistic Workouts
To get into shape, you need a plan, and you want to focus on two things: strength and cardiovascular health (cardio). My recommendations are weightlifting and an exercise bike.
A lot of preppers have the mentality that your strength training workouts should have minimal equipment in order to reduce dependency loops: pushups, pull-ups, dips, running, etc. The Jocko Willink sort of stuff. That’s fine for a genetic beast like Jocko, but you ain’t Jocko.
The problem is if you’re really out of shape, you may not be able to do any of those things. For instance, if you’re doing pushups, you’re pressing about 75% of your body weight. So if you’re 250 pounds, you’re going to be pressing 187.5 pounds, which is a lot for a new lifter. If instead, you do bench presses, you can start with the 45-pound bar — which almost anyone can lift — and slowly move up from there.
When I first started lifting, I couldn’t do a single pushup. Now I can easily crank out 15 at a time.
The same goes for cardio. Running is the most basic and useful form of cardio. But if you’re overweight, it’s going to be tremendous stress on your hips, knees, legs, and feet and put you at risk of a debilitating injury. And Heaven help you if you run a mile away from your house, get a cramp, and have to hobble all the way home. I’ve done it, and it sucks.
I recommend buying an exercise bike and parking it somewhere prominent in your house. You can usually find them cheap second-hand because people buy them and don’t use them. I spent $50 on mine years ago and set it a few feet from my bed. I haven’t always used it consistently, but its placement makes it hard to forget.
Plus, an exercise bike is low impact, so even if you weigh 300 pounds, you’re not going to blow out your legs and knees while adapting to it.
The exercise bike might make your butt hurt at first. Get a seat cushion big enough to fit. Make sure it’s a seat cushion for an exercise bike because regular bike seats are much smaller.
“But I don’t want to get big and muscular!”
I’ve heard this a lot, especially from women. Here’s the good news: it takes a long time to pack on muscle. I’ve been lifting consistently for over six months and despite being much fitter and stronger, I don’t look that different. Muscle comes on slow and it’s easy to lose. You’re not going to just wake up one morning looking like The Rock.
And most women don’t muscle up like men do, at least without chemical assistance. Casey Johnston is a “swole woman” and she doesn’t look like The Incredible Hulk.
If you want to lose fat, weightlifting is the best way to do it. Lifting weights burns fat and increasing muscle mass raises your metabolic rate because muscle is more calorically expensive to maintain than fat. Plus, fat turns testosterone into estrogen, which in turn makes it harder to pack on muscle and easier to put on fat. It’s a vicious cycle, and weightlifting can help reverse it. (And yes, ladies, you need testosterone too.)
On the other end, you have to have realistic expectations. It’s going to take time and effort to build the body you want, and your ultimate potential is dictated by genetics. Some are naturally leaner, some are naturally bigger, and some pack on muscle more than others. Even with the strictest regimen, you may never look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many of the hyper-muscular people you see on stage and screen take anabolic steroids (Arnold did). Some are more honest about it than others. Did you really think some 45-year-old actor could go from playing a rail-thin character to a musclebound superhero in six months just by lifting and eating liver? Please.
While I don’t advocate steroid use, if you’re not progressing after months of good effort, it might be worth getting your testosterone levels checked. Low T levels make it hard to gain muscle or lose fat, and it’s very treatable.
Join a Gym
We’ve established that you want some strength-training equipment. As it happens, there are facilities that have pretty much all the equipment you need! They’re called gyms and you should find one you feel comfortable in.
The prepper mindset would tell you that you should build your own gym. Not a bad idea, but that’s a lot of money upfront and a lot of space. Plus, you don’t know what equipment you need yet. You might spend $1,000 on a power rack only to learn the hard way that you can’t squat for crap and need a leg press or a hack squat machine. A home gym is a good idea, but only after you have some experience and know what you need.
There are lots of bad gyms, and you might have had some bad experiences with some. My advice is to scope some out near you, walk in, and either ask for a tour or buy a day pass and work out for a while to get a feel for the place. A good gym should let you buy an inexpensive day pass and check it out. If they don’t, I see that has a huge red flag.
Some gyms attract a general audience. Others cater to hardcore bodybuilders. Some cater to women, sometimes to the point of making men feel unwelcome (no grunting!). You just have to visit the gym and get a feel for the vibe.
Things I look for:
Cheap day pass and no-contract options. My gym doesn’t push contracts, but you can ask for one to pay less per month.
Lots of squat racks / power cages. They’re useful for not only squats, but lots of other exercises, and you don’t want to have to stand in line waiting for one. My gym has five, so no one gives a damn if you curl in a squat rack.
Open space, and a good amount of space between workout stations. Cramped gyms suck.
Hard floors. I was once a member at a gym with a carpeted floor, and it stunk to high hell.
You may not have so many options, but pick a gym you can be comfortable with. I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere and have two gyms nearby.
“I don’t have time!”
Yeah, I don’t either. I have three kids and juggle three gigs. But you have to make time for yourself and your health. Because if you don’t take care of your health, you’re going to end up with even less time.
The other thing is that exercise is a force multiplier. It’s going to make your sharper and more focused, thus making you more productive despite having fewer hours. There’s a reason rich people all work out.
The people close to you may not like you going to the gym at first. They may resent you spending less time with them, or maybe they’re envious of your fitness. Your spouse may even think you’re cheating.
You have to be firm and straight with them. You’re taking care of your health and that’s key. I also do it to set an example for my kids. It really impresses my 100-pound son that I can pick up him and carry him like a sack of potatoes, and hopefully, that will instill a desire for fitness in him.
If they love you, they’ll eventually get over it. And if they don’t, they can kiss your ass.
Dealing with Self-Consciousness in the Gym
One of the hard things about working out in a gym is being seen by other people. Especially when other people are lifting multiple plates and you’re struggling with the bar.
Let’s set the right expectations up front: you are a gym newbie are not there to impress anyone. But if you hit the gym long enough, you might impress people outside the gym. And most people in the gym are totally self-absorbed with their own workouts and aren’t paying you any attention at all.
The few people who notice you fall into one of two categories:
People who respect you for making the effort.
Assholes, and we don’t care about their opinions.
Disregard haters. They’re everywhere, and they’ll hate on anybody. For instance, there’s no lack of people shitting on LeBron James’s squat technique.
Here’s the thing: whether you love him or hate him (I lean toward the latter), there’s no question that he’s a world-class athlete and one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He’s made hundreds of millions of dollars from physical fitness. He knows far more about it than any of these clowns ever will. So if they’ll dump on the workout of one of the world’s top athletes, why should you give a damn about their stupid opinions?
(That said, that is a really shallow squat and you shouldn’t emulate it. He’s probably doing it to improve his jumps.)
Pick a Plan
Don’t be one of those people that walks into the gym, goofs around on your phone, does random sets here and there, and then leaves. That’s fine if you’re new and just getting comfortable, but sooner than later you need to get focused and walk in ready to work.
Broadly speaking, you want to lift three times per week, with at least a day in between sessions and do 5-10 minutes of cardio on your off days (I do 20-30 minutes now). Don’t start off too aggressively or you’ll be in pain and get discouraged. Remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
You’re looking for two things in a program starting out:
An emphasis on compound lifts, which are lifts that work several parts of the body at once: squats, bench press, overhead press, deadlifts, etc. These also tend to be useful for real-life functional strength.
A program that doesn’t leave you feeling horribly sore all the time.
There are two popular weightlifting programs often recommended for beginners: Stronglifts 5x5 and Starting Strength. I encourage you to check them out, but I’ve tried both, and while many people have had good success with them, I’m not a fan of them for a few reasons:
They’re too rigid and focus heavily on squats. But what if you can’t squat or can’t squat well? It’s a recipe for discouragement.
They repeat the same few movements over and over, which is a setup for injury.
Starting Strength encourages newer lifters to do power cleans. Frankly, I think instructing a weak and clumsy newbie to throw a 45-pound barbell at their face is a recipe for disaster.
I’m not hating on those programs. Lots of new lifters have found success with them. Mark Rippetoe, creator of Starting Strength, has fantastic YouTube tutorials on the basic lifts. Stronglifts 5x5 is freely available and has a fantastic phone app. I just think there are better programs for new lifters. But I did Stronglifts when I got back into the gym because it’s simple and free. Whatever gets you started.
I’ve found that many women don’t like taking fitness instruction from dudes, even if the exercises are exactly the same. You might like Casey Johnston’s Substack and her book, Liftoff: Couch to Barbell.
Just pick something that gets you moving and doesn’t make you feel like shit. And don’t spend months deliberating. Just pick something, try it for a couple of weeks, and if it doesn’t work for you, try something else. The program is just a guide. You have to do the work.
My personal favorite program at the moment is BowTiedOx’s three-day upper/lower split, which he makes available for free. I get good results without being overly sore, and it offers some flexibility in your lifts. Here are some notes on it:
The split can be confusing, but it’s simple: Do Upper 1, Lower 1, Upper 2, Lower 2 in that order. You’ll end up doing upper two days one week and lower two days the next week.
He says to do “abs,” but what does that mean? I started off with simple crunches until I could do a 100 at a time, which was boring. Now I switch up my ab exercises. I do decline situps on Upper 1 day, ab wheel on Lower 1 day, decline situps on Upper 2 day, and hanging leg or knee raises on Lower 2 day. That way, I hit different parts of my abs and don’t get bored. Many of the lifts will work your abs anyway, so these are just additional accessory exercises.
If you do a proper 3-minute rest between lifts, the whole program takes me 90 minutes, which isn’t ideal. I also injured my forearm from curls and face pulls, so I’ve dropped some exercises. I dropped the curls, barbell shrugs, and lunges (mostly because I hate doing those).
Also a note on warmup: warmups are important, but if you’re out of shape, you don’t want to wear yourself out. I do a full ten-minute warmup on the treadmill now, but I only did five minutes of warmup when I started out. And if you start out just lifting the bar, there’s no need to do warmup sets.
Generally, the workouts go from most-important to least-important exercise, so I go full effort on things like bench press, deadlifts, and squats, and if I’m short on time or energy, I’ll only do one set of the last exercises or skip them entirely. However, I do encourage you to do the entire program starting out so you get a sense of the workout and what your body responds to.
Don’t Get Fixated on a Single Exercise
One of my roadblocks in weightlifting was my inability to do certain exercises or do them well. I’ve never been good at chin-ups or pull-ups. Stronglifts and Starting Strength drill squats into your head with messages like, “If you can’t squat below parallel, you can’t get strong!”
It’s true, squats aren’t very effective unless your butt drops below your knees. But for most of my adult life, I just couldn’t get down that far, no matter how hard I tried, which discouraged me and kept me out of the gym for years. What a terrible waste of time.
How can you get strong if you can’t do the lifts? It’s hopeless, right?
Nonsense. Every exercise has an alternative. Can’t do proper squats? Do leg presses or use a hack squat machine. Can’t do a single pull-up? Do lat pulldowns, a machine every gym has.
I personally think the hack squat machine is miraculous. It’s angled in such a way that practically anyone can squat low, and if you’re been struggling with crappy quarter squats, you’re going to feel that difference in your quads (the front of your thigh). After some time alternating between hack squats and leg presses, my quads are now strong enough to do proper barbell squats.
And some exercises may not be right for you. If you have bad shoulders, dips may just be a bad idea entirely. Try a close-grip bench press instead. Find something that works for you that works those muscle groups.
Free Weights vs. Machines
A lot of trainers say you should only use free weights like barbells and dumbbells and eschew machines entirely. There is logic to this. Machines restrict your movement, which doesn’t work stabilizer muscles and in some cases can contribute to injuries. But machines also have a lot of advantages:
They save you time, because they’re easier to set up.
Are less dangerous in a way, because you at less risk of dropping a weight on yourself if your muscles give out.
They can sometimes more effectively target muscles.
Machines can help you troubleshoot movement issues.
Here’s a troubleshooting example: I thought my problem with squats was flexibility. I just couldn’t get my butt below my thighs. Then I tried a Smith Machine squat on a whim and nearly dropped my butt to the floor. I realized then that my problem wasn’t hip flexibility, it was quad weakness. After a few more weeks with the hack squat and leg press machines, I could do a barbell squat and break parallel for the first time.
I let barbell purists like Rippetoe hold me back for years. Don’t make the same mistake. If an exercise doesn’t work for you, find an alternative that works the same muscles. Even Rippetoe, who hates machines, has a leg press machine in his gym. Why? Because a lot of people can’t do squats!
I encourage you to learn the free weight exercises and try those first, but don’t be afraid to experiment with variations. Ignore dogma. Every body is different, and those machines in the gym exist for a reason.
Avoid Online Fitness Forums
Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like going to some messages board or subreddit and soon learning that the way you train is hot garbage. In fitness, everyone has opinions, and you know what they say about opinions…
Online forums are full of eternal arguments:
Bodybuilding vs. powerlifting (Bodybuilders want to look good. Powerlifters are fine with having a gut as long as they can lift a school bus.)
Free weights vs. machines
Squats vs. literally every other exercise
It’s all an enormous waste of time and another way to get discouraged. Focus on what matters:
Get your heart pumping
Lift heavy things
Don’t hurt yourself
Consistently lift heavier things
Maybe you get in good enough shape that you become an “enthusiast.” Then you can worry about optimizing and tweaking. For now, what you need is to get off your ass and move.
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