Here are two statements that are both true:
- Details don’t matter
- Details matter a LOT
When you read articles like “7 Ways to Get More Energy” or “6 Exercises For Huge Arms,” how often do they motivate you to do new things?
Sure, there are times where you come across an exercise or activity that you haven’t seen before and it seems like it’s worth a shot. You’ll probably try it a couple of times before shelving it.
But most of the time, especially when the article claims are big (6 Exercises that Will Destroy Anxiety Forever, anything related to making money), you’ll read for a little bit, think “huh, that’s cool,” and go back to your life.
Because even though there are times that details can make a difference, there are many more times where they do not.
First, let’s talk about why they don’t matter. Then we can cover when they do.
Why Details Don’t Matter
When you are trying to start a fitness habit, you don’t need six separate exercises to work your arms.
You don’t need to know which of the million deadlift variations targets which ratio of hamstrings to glutes to lower back.
You don’t need to time the rest between sets to the microsecond, and you don’t need to know the difference between five sets of five reps and four sets of six reps.
You need to actually work out. So things that get you closer to that goal should be your priority.
And yes, you want to be doing a workout that’s effective. You want to make sure that you aren’t spinning your wheels, doing a lot of “work” without making a lot of progress.
But for someone starting out, the things that help you make progress are simple:
- Do compound exercises
- Make them harder over time
- Do it consistently
That’s it. Until you reach a certain level, you don’t need to be doing much more than that.
(This is naturally for lifting. If you’re focusing on running the steps are, roughly, 1. Run and 2. Don’t Stop)
A friend once asked me if they need to be doing jump squats to help their squat get more explosive. Maybe a serious powerlifter could think about how to train their squat’s bar speed (it still might not be jump squats), but you don’t need to worry about it when you’re only squatting 135.
I know that there are objections to this. How do you know which exercises to do? How do you know how quickly to add weight? Aren’t those six-exercise articles helpful in answering those questions?
Most of the time? Not really. Coaches and experienced lifters are well aware of “program hopping,” the tendency for new exercisers to get excited about a new routine, drop everything, and switch from what they’re doing.
We know about it because it’s a problem. You can’t make progress if you don’t give a routine time. If you’re constantly looking for new exercises, chances are good you wind up doing a lot of things that don’t help very much.
What if you’re just trying to optimize your routine, trying to find the best combination of exercises to get the most benefit out of the smallest amount of work?
Even at the highest level of coaching, experts disagree. There is no “perfect combination of exercises.”
Three examples, just off the top of my head:
- Eric Cressey, who works with a lot of pitchers and baseball players, tends to be conservative with even slightly risky shoulder exercises
- Mike Boyle, who has a lot of hockey clients, argues against squats (hockey players have weird hips)
- Bret Contreras heavily advocates glute exercises
More generally, a powerlifting coach will emphasize the Big 3 (squat, bench, deadlift) over most other exercises. A physical therapist will look at the relationship between stability and mobility, and focus on that. A trainer at your typical gym…well, your guess is as good as mine.
Where do these different perspectives come from? Often because of the narrow area of research a coach has chosen to focus on, or because of the specific kind of client a coach takes, or some other reason. It doesn’t matter.
The thing is that, despite their differences, these coaches agree on 80% or more of their programming. Ultimately they agree about so much more than they disagree; what they disagree about is just more noticeable.
If you want to lose weight, these guys are going to say lift weights, do some aerobic stuff, eat less.
If you want to gain weight, these guys are going to say lift slightly different weights, do some aerobic stuff (probably slightly less), and eat more.
If you want to get more athletic as a total beginner, they’re probably going to say you should start by getting stronger.
When you constantly switch up your routine in search of the perfect combination of exercises, you’re focusing on micro-optimization. You focusing on the controversial areas of disagreement instead of the widely accepted truths.
You sacrifice the 80% of success that you could get easily in search of the last 5% you’ll never see.
Ask yourself this before diving in. via GIPHY
That’s why the details are unimportant: they distract you from the fundamentals of what really matter.
Details Matter a Lot
If details don’t matter, how can they also matter a lot?
Details matter a lot in two settings: when you’re advanced enough to use them and when you think you need to know them.
When You’re Advanced
There will be a point in any activity where you start to plateau. Your lifts have stalled, the characters in your book are interesting but not intriguing, and you’re bringing in freelance work (but not quite enough to quit your job).
When you start to plateau, the first thing you should do is check your fundamentals.
Have your lifts stalled because you dropped volume on compound exercises in favor of individually strengthening lagging body parts? Or because you deloaded to work on form for 6 months? The answer is still in the fundamentals.
Are your characters embedded in an interesting world and story, but you find yourself recounting a lot of their thoughts and feelings? Unpack the setting, show don’t tell.
Is your business growing, but too slowly? What’s the key value you offer to your clients?
You get the idea.
If you’ve checked your fundamentals and still aren’t making progress, then you can change up your approach and look at the details.
Do you have trouble locking out your deadlifts? Work those rack pulls and hip thrusts. Are you getting stuck in the hole for your squat? Box squats and paused squats may be the answer. At a certain point details become important.
And of course, you can keep getting more and more detailed as you keep advancing. If you’re Tom Brady, maybe that even means you avoid eating tomatoes because they increase inflammation.
But most people will never reach that level of detail, and can get more mileage out of fundamentals than they think.
When You Think About Them
The other reason details are important is as subtle as it is important: because you think about them.
So, so many people never start exercising (or writing a book, or building a business, or switching careers, or even building a goddamn treehouse) because they’re worried they won’t get everything right.
If you think you need the perfect set of exercises, an immaculate plot, airtight revenue projections, the perfect connections, or the best-crafted brand of nails, you’ll never get started.
Thinking about the details puts the focus on what you don’t know, and what you don’t know is scary.
It’s natural to be afraid. The unknown is inherently terrifying. On my first day at the gym, I stood awkwardly in the middle of the room before heading over to the bench press—because it was the only exercise I vaguely knew about. I nearly dropped the bar on my face because it turned out I didn’t really know how to do that either.
The thought of standing in a room full of equipment you don’t know how to use is enough to keep lots of people out of the gym. It’s that focus on the details, on each individual exercise and each individual piece of equipment, that starkly highlights what you don’t know and what you haven’t achieved.
Instead, focus on what you do know. You know to focus on consistently progressing compound exercises, because I just told you. Good. Forget about everything else and focus on that.
Will you need to know more eventually? Of course. But if you’re constantly worrying about how much you don’t know while also trying to establish a habit, you’re going to learn nothing and fail at the same time.
But what exercises should you do? Isn’t it important to have a balanced routine?
Sure. Here, this is an outline for a routine that hits all the main movements and body parts. I’ve given you a few options for each category, but just pick one from each, do three sets of eight reps (or 3×5, or 4×6, or 1×8, I don’t care) then move on to the next one:
- Squat – Lunges, Back Squat, Goblet Squat
- Hinge – Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift, Glute Bridge
- Push – Bench Press, Push-up
- Pull – Pull-up, Seated Row, Dumbbell Row
- Core – Plank, Side Plank, Ab Rollouts
That’s a place to start. If you want a little more detail, my article on the first day at the gym has more info.
The details only matter because you think you have to know everything before you start. But you don’t. You only need to know enough to get started.
The 11 Favorite Exercises I Won’t Tell You
Of course I have favorite exercises. Everyone does.
I could tell you what they are, I guess, but I won’t because it doesn’t matter. The list is going to be boring anyway, and include things like pull-ups and deadlifts, because those are the fundamental movements that work.
Even the weirder exercises like farmer’s walks are probably not 100% new to you.
If you’re new to something, whether it’s fitness or anything else, there are a few fundamentals that matter more than anything else.
Sometimes those fundamentals will be seem like cliché advice (it seems like every fitness blogger has written about Milo and the Bull). That doesn’t make them less true. As YouTube entrepreneur Shay Carl says, “the secrets to life are hidden behind the word cliche.”
The fundamentals will always be most important. Forget the details and focus on them.