Applying The Principle Of Simplicity To The Complicated World Of Exercise
Following on from our recent article about the complicated topic that is simplicity—which, undoubtedly, left some of you unsure what to do with the message—this article is an example of the principle it discussed put to use, namely, the principle of simplicity.
In that previous article was mentioned the topic of health and fitness, and how confusing it has become to know which advice to follow—that is, how instead of helping, our incredible wealth of information could actually be making things worse, because we’re unable to distinguish truth from untruth, signal from noise.
I am going to focus on an area in which I have many years of experience, and, I’ve been told, by myself1 and by many others, a huge buffet2 of interesting ideas and practical wisdom. Not to float my own boat, or anything, but when it comes to health and fitness, I do know a thing or two, and I walk the talk; the reality, however, is that it is all rather simple—we complicate it.
Going back to last week’s article, I liked it how Jai spoke about how we think have a tendency to think sophisticated is better; how we overlook simplicity, and therefore, the basics, because we don’t think it can be so simple. This, I suppose, is a product of our resource-preserving biology; we look for the more complicated, fancy answer, in the hope that it will be easier to apply than the simple one. You see, contrary to what is seems, simple is not easy; the simple thing is often the hardest thing to do—both because we overlook it, and so we must rediscover it, and the actual application of it. Take running, for example:
If you ask an regular runner ‘How do you do it?’, they’ll likely answer, ‘Easy! You just put your running shoes on and you go out, and you run!’ Simple, right? Now ask someone who’s struggling with the practice, and they’ll answer something like “ahhhh…. First you gotta buy an outfit, then you gotta fit it into your schedule, and you gotta get your diet right, then you gotta get dressed and then put your shoes on, and “oh, it raining”–so you have to go find your jacket, then you have to actually run!… then you have to shower, and then eat again… … It’s such a drag!!”
See the difference? The regular runner is of course under no illusion: the running part is not easy. For the non-runner, nothing is easy. It is usually the latter-type of person who goes looking for shortcuts– you know, the person who buys all the gear, who signs the gym membership, who writes down the goals and tells all their friends, but who never actually does the work. This is normal; going against this desire is going against our biological makeup, which doesn’t want to get fitter, stronger, healthier, but wants to preserve as much energy as it can, have as much sex as it can, and indulge in as many pleasures as it can. Just because this is our biology does not mean we should succumb to it, obviously. This may sound depressing, but it is truth, and truth can be like that. I very much admire some3 of Nietzsche’s work, an example of which is the following line: “You can judge a man’s spirit, by his ability to handle the truth.” You can of course replace “man’s” with “lady’s”, or better still, “one’s”—but let’s not get bogged down in trivialities.
Truth is the hardest thing to swallow, the most common object upon which people choke—sometimes, to death. Once you accept it, truth can be liberating. Yes, it may be depressing to find out that your own biology is against you when it comes to getting fit, eating healthy, becoming stronger, building muscles, and basically any endeavour that requires getting uncomfortable, but at least you now know why it is always so hard. You also know that the answer is very likely not something complex, some shortcut, or something you don’t know; but something basic, something simple, something you already know.
I bring this up, so that you will better understand the exercise protocol I am about to share with you. It concerns weightlifting in particular, but it is the principle the matters. Everything I have said so far was to remove any preconceptions and mindless dismissal of this protocol, which is called, quite simply, the ‘one-lift-a-day’ plan.
It turns out the physiological benefits of this program are very good, if followed properly; but this, I think, is to be understood in two ways: firstly, the direct physiological benefits of following the plan conscientiously, because it is a shock to the muscular system, and so it responds with getting stronger4; and secondly, the indirect benefits which come much later on, from the change in your mindset. Let me explain the latter. This protocol is the principle of simplicity through-and-through; it takes you right back to the basics, which are so easily overlooked–which, as discussed in the previous article, is never a good thing. Going back to the basics you will discover the superfluity in 90% of everything that is a deviation from them, such as, in this case, 15 different exercises per workout, or supersetting, or having to use a stopwatch with every set you do—not that these things are useless, but they are, by nature, deviations away from the all-important basics. Knowledge is autonomous5—which means a change in your understanding of exercise will have effects later on, that, not only can you not know today, but that you cannot avoid. This is the case whether the change in understanding is beneficial or not: I don’t know the origins of the line “knowledge is dangerous,” but this could be it.
To the protocol, then. It is rather simple and consequently needs very little explaining on my part. Discussed also in the previous article was how you can use simplicity to quickly get yourself out of a rut. When it comes to training plateaus, nowhere is this more applicable than with the one-lift-a-day plan.
# The fundamental philosophy is in the name. Plainly, you do one lift (one exercise) per workout–and only one. If you absolutely must do stabiliser work—such as rotator cuff exercises, glute medius work, etc—then do so; but if they’re not urgent, leave them for another day, which, on this plan, will be your ‘’rest day’.
# The idea is that you restrict yourself to one exercise and, if you want, get creative (but not too much) with the other variables—namely, reps, sets and rest intervals. If you’ve not done this before, this could be confusing, especially if you’re relatively new to weightlifting. However this is not a problem, for getting these variables right is easy. Easy—or, to use our favourite word, simple—to get right, but not necessarily easy to execute upon. I’ll quote another favourite man from history of mine, Da Vinci, who wrote in his notebooks “To conceive an idea is noble; to execute an idea is servile.” I like that.
# Keep your workouts under 45 minutes. 30 minutes work-time is sufficient.
# Follow this protocol for 6 weeks (3-4 weeks if you’re advanced) and then switch it up. Why? You’re body is clever; it will take a while to adapt, but you can be sure it will adapt. If you continue using this protocol—like any protocol—once you’ve adapted, you’re not training: you’re going through the motions. Going through the motions does not result in overcompensation, which is the key to growth, of any type. You could of course, change the variables–for example, decrease your rest period to 30 seconds, or lower the rep range—but you’ll most likely be sick of one lift a day. Being sick is good, because you’ll hit your new plan with a renewed vigour.
# Resist resist resist, the urge to do another exercise. Constraints are the key to creativity, the key to growth, the key to vibrancy; they force the brain and body to make new connections, to strengthen, to evolve. Brain and body use ‘cache’ the same way your browser does: conceiving a constraint is analogous to opening your browser settings; applying that constraint is pressing “delete cache”. You can, however, do a variation of the exercise that you’ve chosen, such as, squats followed by split squats—I’ll allow that. But don’t over-complicate it: 2-3 at most.
# For each exercise, pick a weight with which you struggle to complete the last 1-2 reps of each given set. This is where most people go wrong. Don’t kid yourself.
# The exercises you choose are crucial. Doing tricep pushdowns would work, but compared to close-grip bench press, they’re hysterical. You want to focus on what coaches like to call “most bang for your buck exercises”. Here is the golden list: squats, deadlifts, chin-ups and pull-ups, dips, rows, bench press, incline bench press, decline close-grip bench press6, overhead press, handstand pushups, kettlebell swings, weighted push-ups, standing curls, sprints, and hanging ab work. Essentially, you’re using big, compound, no-bullshit exercises. No tricep kickbacks, no one-arm scott curls, no single leg calf raises; just intense, demanding movements that work. If you’re familiar with olympic lifting, overhead squats, hang cleans, clean-and-press, and clean-and-jerk work, too.
Some examples of workouts:
Day 1— Legs —Full Barbell Squat
Rest: 2 minutes
Rest: 1 minute
Day 2 — Biceps — Weighted and BW Chinups
Rest: 2 minutes
Part 2: (just bodyweight)
Rest: 1 minute
Eccentric (also called ’negative’) chin-ups (lower yourself slowly—this is one rep)
Duration: 20 seconds
Rest: 1 minute
I could give an example of a full week here, but I want you to be creative and write your own plan—and yes, I literally mean write a plan! Because this is such a simple protocol the temptation is to just hit the gym and ‘think’ you way through it. This is a mistake. The beauty of the plan is that you know what you are going to do next. This doesn’t necessarily mean writing every exercise and rep and set down for the next 6 weeks; it might just be writing every workout down before you do it, or planning the week ahead’s workouts every Sunday. Seen as you’re only doing one movement a day, there really is no excuse. If you make an excuse, there is no hope for you. Writing a plan doesn’t mean you cannot change it; it means you know what you’re next step is because you’ve thought it through–as opposed to leaving it to your emotions, or in other words, your biology. We know what your biology wants.
With regards to the variables, pick a range and stick to it for the entire time you’re on the protocol. A good example is 8-12 sets per workout, 8-12 reps, and 1-2 minute rest intervals. You could alter these a little depending on your energy level, muscle target, and goals. You could also alter them very slightly half-way through the protocol (e.g., at week 3), which is a good idea if you’re an experienced weightlifter. But don’t complicate it. The key, remember, is simplicity.
When it comes to exercise, the best protocol is not the perfect protocol, but the protocol you follow. There is none easier, than the one-lift-a-day protocol7.
- I’ll talk about affirmations another time; see Scott Adams—creator of dilbert and a writer you should all pay attention to—talk about affirmations here.
- There are no carbs at my buffet.
- I say “some” because Nietzsche was first and foremost a hater of life and everything about it, and he had some very crazy ideas as a result.
- technically called ‘adaptation’ or ‘overcompensation’
- I should add, that to any physicists, biologists, wordologists or grammartarians out there, when it comes to the quote “knowledge is autonomous” I grant that I could be getting some of the technicalities mixed up, maybe totally incorrect; but this is only a matter of vocabulary, and you should, therefore, not let it affect your understanding of the idea. That would be a shame. (If you notice a mistake, however, let me know in the comments, or send us an email with “Arnold”.)
- With this exercise keep your elbows in line with the bar in both the eccentric and concentric phase
- I have been mainly using the word ‘protocol’ throughout this article, but ‘plan’ or ‘programme,’ or, if you’re that kind of person, ‘master plan’ — these work too.