Your Three Keys to Post-quarantine Fitness Success

As gyms begin to open and our collective agoraphobic tendencies subside, we all have an excellent opportunity to take a step back and create an intelligent plan for our fitness progress.

Most gym-goers understandably source their plans from Instagram fitness celebs, the big guy at the gym, the latest trends, or cookie-cutter trainers – if any plans are made at all.

We highly recommend you, before you start hitting the iron or a treadmill:

  1. Assess where you are at as an individual
  2. Plan progress from there
  3. Keep evolving and changing your approach as your body changes

The road to sustainable fitness progress really is as simple as that!

Jumping right back into your training plan, group class, or trying to make up for lost time may be incredibly tempting, but it is also a surefire way to experience injuries or develop a hefty plateau. Your training must take into account everything that can impact your ability to respond favorably to the stress of training or dieting – both of which really are physiologically stressful demands, and a lot goes into ensuring that your body is able to adapt in the way that you are hoping it will. There is a ton of nuance involved in developing an initial training and nutrition plan for people, but quarantine or no quarantine, it comes down to applying some variation of the three keys of fitness success, which are:

  1. Do some cardio, but not too much.
  2. Lift weights, not too much, then do more.
  3. Create structure in your nutrition plan, and let it evolve. 

We will cover each of these keys in detail, but if you stop reading here, rest assured that those three sentences alone should be enough to set your course to fitness success – whatever your final destination may be. Each unique facet of fitness is rife with myths, misunderstandings, and dogma – but none more so than the loved or hated cardio.

Key #1 Cardio (do some, but not too much)

There seems to be more than one fundamental misunderstanding about exactly what benefits cardio is able to provide. Cardio(vascular) training can do some things very well like improving blood pressure, acutely burning calories, developing endurance, and it can get you really good at doing cardio. Cardio training is not a good tool at all for creating permanent fat loss – at least not cardio in the traditional sense. 

In an attempt to shed the unwanted pounds from quarantine many, nay, most people are likely going to start lining up for an hour on their favorite piece of cardio equipment.

For the sake of saving at least some of these people time, energy, and frustration, send those you love to our article on shedding the “quarantine fifteen”. In the spirit of saving time though, that article could be partially summarized as:

Cardio can be a great tool for creating short-term energy (calorie) deficits to drive short-term fat loss, but that doesn’t play out over the long-term. Your body adapts and becomes more efficient – in the context of weight loss, efficiency with calories is a bad thing.

So why do cardio at all? 

Developing a base level of activity and cardiovascular conditioning is a great way to ease back into fitness post-quarantine. And when we say base, we mean it will set you up for a continued path to fitness success over the coming months and years. This cardio can take the form of walking, hiking, biking, hopping on an elliptical, rowing, or anything that allows you to push your aerobic capabilities a bit. For more than one reason though, we prefer to start clients with the simple task of increasing their daily steps. Although this requires using some kind of fitness tracker, your daily step count is a valuable piece of data and can be used as a relatively reliable proxy for following variations in your total daily energy expenditure. In fact, it should be no surprise to learn that the National Weight Control Registry has found that 94% of individuals who have successfully maintained significant weight loss included an increase in daily activity, most frequently by simply walking. 

You should instead use more intense tools for cardio (like pounding away on an elliptical, smashing some tabatas on a bike, or pulling your heart out on a rower) to accomplish exactly what they are good for – developing your cardiovascular capabilities.

Please don’t fall into the trap of manually burning calories planted on some cardio equipment in front of a flat screen at your local big box gym. If you do so, you will burn calories, you will likely lose weight, but now you have created a very short runway for weight loss progress. Easing back into working out should be a gradual process in every way – including some cardio will be helpful, but it can’t end there. Evolving to the point of being able to safely start an effective resistance training plan should be most people’s ultimate goal. 

Key #2: Lift Weights, Not Too Much, Then Do More

Weight training can, and should be an endeavor that builds you into a more resilient and healthy human being – until it is taken too far, too soon.

To understand the complex and ever-changing boundary that divides an appropriate and effective weight training strategy from one that is the exact opposite would likely take far more than the next few hundred words – but we will give it our best shot. 

“Lift weights, not too much, then do more” is actually more actionable advice than you would find in a whole day of searching “fitspo” accounts on Instagram. Those eight words ring universally true when you understand that the very act of lifting weights is a stress on the body. The resulting strength gain, muscle gain, or fat loss is simply a “hopeful” adaptation to the stressors you apply to it.

Apply the right stress, in the right amounts, at the right times and you should be able to expect changes to occur.

However, apply too much stress (during any single workout, week, etc.) and you will have exceeded your body’s ability to beneficially adapt. Where this threshold will be for you personally will be highly individual, but if you are trying to get back on the wagon post-quarantine you should assume that you will reach that threshold much sooner than you would think.

Because we will all be at least a little de-trained once we are able to grace the gym floor again, you can take advantage of this new-found sensitivity by doing the least amount of work possible to create change. Start with just a few sets per muscle group (or per exercise/movement pattern) each workout and increase by slowly adding sets, reps, or loads as you adapt over the span of weeks or months. This approach will help you to avoid accumulating too much “junk volume”, a term that refers to the point where fatigue being accrued supersedes the imposed stimulus for growth or progression.

If you think that starting small and slowly progressing towards more and more work is a waste of time, consider the fact that nearly every research study looking at muscle growth (almost always on untrained lifters) shows that nearly any intervention, from lifting weights to cycling (even walking) can produce muscle growth in individuals new enough to training. You simply do not need to kill yourself in the gym to see progress!

Pushing your training for too long will begin to create a separate issue that can manifest actual physiological issues that typically don’t occur by simply working too hard during a single workout. The hormonal dysfunction, joint disintegration, reduced libido, inability to gain muscle or lose fat, and more all can occur if you consistently exceed your ability to recover. Consistently creating progress through weight training can be a relatively simple process at any stage of life, but the key is to choose the right exercises for your skill level, do just a little at first, then slowly do more. For more specific guidance on developing a training plan that is directed towards you as an individual, get in touch with one of our Ikon trainers or visit the Ikon blog for more information. 

Key #3: Create Structure With Your Nutrition

No matter how well developed, researched, and promoted a diet is, it still won’t work for everyone.

In fact, it probably won’t even work for most people.

There simply are just too many variables to consider when deciding which diet to apply to which person. Human beings are exceptionally unique in too many ways to be able to make any broad statements for nutritional requirements – except for one:

There needs to be some kind of structure with your diet in order for you to be able to expect progress. 

What most fitness professionals won’t tell you is that it really doesn’t matter which diet you choose to start with. If your goal is to lose weight, any diet that allows you to create a calorie deficit will work at first. Conversely, if you are wanting to gain weight (hopefully muscle), any diet that allows you to create a calorie surplus will suffice. Creating structure of some kind will allow you to gain awareness and build a foundation for future progress. To start building this structure we encourage clients to begin tracking their food intake on an app such as MyFitnessPal. In the beginning, no emphasis is placed on correcting less than optimal habits or decisions. This initial phase is entirely focused on gaining awareness around your diet and it is usually pretty short in duration. Taking the time to track the calories, macronutrients, and even perhaps the micronutrients in your current diet will allow you to make much more informed decisions as you go forward. 

Once you have begun measuring and controlling some objective dietary factors, you should also pay attention to some of the subjective dietary feedback guiding you away from foods you should avoid – signs that you may have been ignoring. This feedback may manifest as indigestion, bloating, brain fog, skin issues, being tired, and a whole lot more. As Americans we tend to eat our way to a lot of our health issues, likely because we aren’t taught to discover how to eat for us as a unique individual. That process of discovery can take years, or even decades for some people – and that’s if you are actually trying! Understandably though, not everyone wants to put in that effort. This is the reason there are so many fad diets – most people want a black and white answer to their nutrition problems.

As we make our way back into the gym and hop back on the fitness horse, we can also advance our knowledge of our own personal nutritional needs. The rough nutritional advice for people looking to build muscle is rather simple:

  • Eat enough protein (about 1 gram per pound seems to be about right)
  • Eat in a relatively small calorie surplus (or a large-ish one if you don’t mind adding a bit body fat)
  • Eat at least a baseline level of fat and an ample amount of carbohydrates

Individual variances will necessitate a greater degree of nuance when prescribing specific diet advice to hypertrophy-seekers but generally those three points will set you on the right path. Advice for weight loss-seekers is no less varied but they can be crudely summed up as:

  • Eat enough protein (about 1 gram per pound seems to be about right)
  • Eat in a relatively small calorie deficit (more isn’t better here)
  • Take a break from being in a deficit every so often

The omnipresent principle of energy balance constantly echoes the fact that any diet that allows us to create a deficit will also allow us to lose weight. Just as any diet that allows us to create a surplus will add weight. Again, this is why there is a never-ending list of fad diets – they all kind of work, at least for a little bit, and for some people. The best diets work more often that just sometimes, but you are still playing a game of chance if you enlist yourself in a dietary ideology based on anything other than your personal experience and individuality at the forefront of the decision-making process.

Start by creating some sort of structure and build on it, but don’t be afraid to change, try new approaches, and let your nutrition strategy evolve as you do. 

Set the Right Course, Now

The advice that no fitness-seeker likes to hear is to “start easy”. Our culture as a whole, but especially those of us into fitness, want to go all-in on the pursuit of progress. This truly couldn’t be further from what the future you actually needs, though. If you take care of the major factors that influence health and fitness with as much focus as you summon when in the gym, your physical goals will manifest with much greater ease.

Make sure that you:

  • Manage your sleep
  • Manage your stress
  • Stay active outside the gym

Maintain these three pillars, progress through and work towards mastering (the work is what is important) the three keys for fitness success and you will have a solid strategy and much clearer path for success. This quarantine has set a lot of us back from our fitness goals. But it has also presented us with the opportunity to take a step back, remove what wasn’t working with our approach before, and replace it with a logically planned progression starting where you are. Right now.

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