I have a friend who knows all about the techniques, tips, and tricks of the fitness industry. He’s not a meathead, someone who’s obsessed with fitness, or anything.
Just someone who spends a good amount of time learning about building muscle and getting lean. And someone who challenges himself with some lofty goals for building his body.
He shows up at the gym, most of the time, and when he’s there, he gets down with All. The. Methods.
Extended drop sets? He does em.
Rest-pause? He knows all about it.
Cardio in the “fat burning zone”? Three times per week.
Same goes for nutrition. He tries to follow a good diet and often researches the latest in muscle building and fat loss nutrition.
He can talk macro splits and carb cycling all day long, and he’ll you how much protein is in 4oz. of grilled chicken down to the milligram.
But here’s the thing: my friend isn’t in very good shape.
I don’t say that to be mean or judgemental. He’d tell you the same thing. For the three years I’ve known the guy, he’s been in a constant yo-yo cycle of “on again, off again.”
He’ll go all out for 6 weeks, hitting the gym almost every day. Then, he’ll get overwhelmed and burnt out and not touch a weight for a few weeks.
And all in all, he’s looked the exact same for three years, despite knowing all of the right things.
He isn’t alone. Hundreds – thousands – of guys are in the same place. Guys who can talk the talk with the best of them but are seeing very little return on the bottom line.
And the answer to the problem isn’t drop sets or a certain workout “split” or carb cycling – as important or effective as those things may be.
It all comes down to the difference between strategies and systems.
Let me explain.
Strategies Vs. Systems
What’s the difference between strategies and systems?
- Performing an exercise for 3 sets of 8 reps is a strategy, strength-training 3 times per week is a system.
- Eating 40g of carbs and 20g of protein following a workout is a strategy, eating 3 meals per day, at the same times each day, is a system.
- Intermittent Fasting is a strategy, maintaining a caloric deficit is a system.
Systems are the “big rocks” that lay the foundation for everything else. It’s the daily habits that, if done repeatedly with relentless consistency, are going to be responsible for 80% of your results.
Sure, the other 20% is important, but it only really matters if you’re first taking care of the 80%.
Unfortunately, in our “must drive people to my site through click-bait headlines” and “discover this secret!” driven world, the strategies are often placed ahead of the systems.
This leads to a bunch of people who are more concerned whether their protein supplement is “fast or slow released” than they are with following a consistent eating schedule (stolen almost verbatim from Facebook post by Bryan Krahn).
And this is the reason why so many people know all the fancy terms and techniques but continue to look the same month after month, year after year.
Don’t get me wrong; strategies are important. But they don’t work without the systems they’re founded on.
Now for the really interesting question:
If you worried less about the strategies and focused more on the systems, would you still get results?
The answer to that question clarifies the difference between a “strategy” and a “system”, and will help you determine whether or not you’re focusing most of your effort on the right things.
Something is a strategy if it can be removed without eliminating results. A system is something that, if removed, makes achieving your goal impossible.
- You can remove drop sets (strategy) and still build muscle and gain strength; but you can’t remove lifting weights consistently (system) and still build muscle and gain strength.
For example, if I told my friend from above to forget about carb-cycling and extended drops sets and instead just focus on maintaining a caloric deficit, getting in three strength-training workouts per week, and sleeping 7 hours per night… would he get results?
I think he would.
Obviously that alone isn’t a “perfect” plan and there’d be room for improvement, but laying a foundation of those three things would be a springboard for progress.
And even if all he did was those three things, it would turn out more of a positive than what he’s seeing now by obsessing over the minutia.
Another example. Over the past 10 years that I’ve been at the pursuit of building a stronger, leaner, more fit body, I’ve followed all kinds of different workout and eating strategies.
- I’ve done powerlifting style workouts, bodybuilding, Crossfit, etc., etc.
- For nutrition, I’ve followed detailed macro splits, counted calories, and tried Paleo (to name a few).
Despite all these changes and variations, here’s what was constant:
- I did 3-4 intelligently designed strength training workouts (programs, not just random stuff) each week consistently (I haven’t missed more than 1-2 planned workouts in 10 years).
- I ate mostly whole foods, rarely ate to the point where I felt “stuffed”, and followed a consistent eating schedule (timing/frequency) each day — which allowed me to be in a caloric deficit.
- I (mostly) went to bed 7 hours before the time that I had to wake up.
The strategies changed, but the systems stayed constant.
And the bottom line is this: too many people are giving strategies too much time and attention without first securing their systems.
If you have been working out for a few years and still look the same… you are probably too focused on strategies and not giving enough focus to your systems.
If you are stuck in an “on again, off again” cycle and can never seem to stick with consistently working out or eating better… you are too focused on strategies and not giving enough focus to your systems.
Three Systems You Must Master Before Worrying About Strategies
There are three key areas that we need to address in order to put the systems in place to support a life with a lean, muscular, fit body.
- Eating habits
- Exercise habits
- Sleep habits
Let’s talk about three foundational habits you need to start practicing daily in order build and maintain the body you want.
Dedicate 3 Hours Per Week To Training
There’s one thing that trumps all else in the pursuit of building muscle and gaining strength: showing up consistently. So start there.
And you don’t need to become a “gym rat” to get this done, either.
Three good weight lifting sessions is optimal for genetically average, “ordinary” guys to balance stimulus with recovery to build muscle and gain strength.
That’s only about 3 hours of your time each week. I know you’re busy – so am I – but this stuff is important, so you gotta carve out 3 hours per week to hit the iron.
“But what should I do there?”, is what you may have just said in your head.
Truth is, it doesn’t matter what you do all that much, as long as it cover the short list of “non-negotiables” for building muscle and gaining strength:
- Provide enough stimulus for growth without overtraining
- Progress over time in some way (lift more weight, do more reps, or create more intramuscular tension)
That’s simplifying it in a big way, but any program that does those two things consistently will net a positive in strength and muscle gains.
Shaking your head in disbelief? Listen, I have my methods – and I think they’re freaking awesome – otherwise I wouldn’t do what I do. But my way isn’t the only way.
So truthfully, there’s a lot of different workout styles and programs that will help you build muscle and gain strength. The important thing is that it’s designed intelligently by someone who knows what they’re doing and that you progress over time.
So if you have something that fits the bill on standby, run with it.
The key to progress is sticking with workouts long enough to see results. You don’t wanna be a “program hopper”, they rarely get impressive results. More often, they spin their wheels for months and years on end chasing the newest workout trend.
It really doesn’t matter what type of program it is, as long as it’s intelligently designed and is something you enjoy.
Maybe you prefer “powerlifting style” workouts that focus on strength in the bench, squat, and deadlift? Go for it.
More of a “bodybuilding-style”, suns out guns out kinda guy? Have at it.
As long as it fits with your preferences, lifestyle constraints, and aligns with your goals, there’s no “right or wrong” answer. Those specifics trend more towards strategies, so as long as you have the system of consistent workouts down, you’ll see positive progress.
Here are a few good options for 3-day per week workouts, based on preferences:
- Huge in a Hurry (strength + bodybuilding hybrid)
- 5/3/1 (powerlifting style strength focus)
These programs aren’t perfect. But they are stupid-simple and really hard to screw up, which, if you’re trying to nail down the habit of consistently hitting the gym is just the kinda thing you want.
Once you’ve picked a program to follow, run it to completion.
Don’t second guess it. Don’t try to tweak this or that or toss in some advanced technique. Just show up three days per week with ruthless consistency and try to progress over time.
Follow a consistent Eating Schedule
There a hundred different things we could focus on for nutrition. We’re going to start with something that’s incredibly basic. But it’s also something that everything else will build off of.
So before you go trying to perfect your macro split or completely overhaul what you’re eating at each meal, nail down the habit of eating at the same times each day.
Once you have a consistent eating schedule, adjusting things like the types of foods you’re eating becomes much easier.
Plus, when you have a clear plan, you can eliminate the “mindless” eating most people do between meals “just because” (which is really where most people get caught up, anyway).
People who get and stay in great shape don’t do it by “winging it.” They are able to be lean, strong, and fit because they plan ahead. And the first step, nutritionally, is following a consistent eating schedule.
You need to decide how many times you will eat each day and when you will have those meals and stick to your plan consistently.
Now, there’s not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes to meal timing (when you eat) and meal frequency (how many times you eat per day).
There’s room for individual preference. But after 10 years of doing this, here’s where I’d suggest you start: three meals per day + 1 snack. With this approach, you get the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus you get to toss in one snack per day.
Use the snack at whatever time of day you struggle most with cravings. For me, that’s mid-afternoon around 3-4pm. But you can add a snack in wherever you prefer. A piece of fruit and a handful of mixed nuts is great for this.
Beyond that, the specific times that you eat your meals are up to you, but you need to decide now when you will be eating each day.
Once you’ve set your three meals and snack, you stick to it, period. No handfuls of M&M’s here and there, no random donuts in the breakroom. If it’s not part of your schedule meal time, then you avoid eating until it is.
We’ll get more to what you should be eating soon enough, for now, master the habit of following a consistent eating schedule.
Your current sleep schedule is either working for you or against you. And make no mistake, sleep is “top 3 worthy” important.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, nothing about your body is running optimally.
Things like poor concentration, depression, low immune function, lack of energy/sluggishness during workouts, and inability to lose body fat (to name a few) can all be tied back to lack of sleep.
Of course, you probably already know this. So why the heck aren’t you making more of an effort to get more sleep? Because it’s hard – I get it.
And while quality is arguably just as important as quantity, we gotta start somewhere. So here’s the new plan: you are going to start getting 7 hours of sleep per night.
That means you need to think about what time you have to get up in the morning and count back 7 hours – that’s your new bedtime.
For example, I get up at 5:30 most week days. That means I need to be in bed by 10:30 in order to get my 7 hours.
If you have kids, this may not be totally uninterrupted sleep. So be it, but you’re still going to aim for 7 hours. A consistent schedule like this alone will work wonders.
What You Should Do Now
First, before you go over-looking what we’ve talked about here and write if off as too “basic”, take an honest assessment of where you’re at…
And know that sometimes, the signs are more subtle than the examples I’ve given above.
- If you read 10 muscle building articles per week and know all the lingo, but you’re starting a new workout program every 3 weeks… you need to cut back on the reading and master the habit of completing workout programs.
- If you’ve calculated your perfect “macro split”, but you’re eating a bunch of stuff you’re not logging/counting in-between meals… you need to focus on a consistent eating schedule before complicating things with specific macros.
So go back and look at the systems I’ve listed above. Are you doing those things 90% of the time?
If “no”, then 100% of your attention should be on mastering those things consistently.
The three things we discussed today are foundational-level systems. For some people, this is the next step they need to move towards their goals.
Others are farther along, have mastered these things, and are ready for next-level stuff.
So in the next few articles, I’m going to cover the systems, habits, and strategies that give you the biggest bang for your buck.