The fitness industry as a whole focuses on brutal, grueling workouts, fleeting “inspiration,” and (somehow) quick and “easy” results.
That’s not the way I think. And I’m not the only one.
Today I want to bring you a conversation I had with fitness blogger John Fawkes.
John Fawkes helps busy people lose fat, get strong, and build better habits. He writes about weightlifting, sleep, and goal-setting at JohnFawkes.com, when he’s not busy playing video games or enjoying a cheat day. Download his habit change cheat sheet and learn five ways to change any habit.
We sat down to chat about habit building and the biggest mistakes people make when they try to get fit.
And stay tuned! You’ll be hearing more from John soon.
Benyamin: Just to start off, tell me a little about your background.
John: I didn’t start out in fitness. I majored in Criminal Justice in college and then I wanted to be in the FBI, but changed my mind and went to business school. After that I spent a few years doing sales jobs and marketing consulting.
But also over the course of those years I got more and more into fitness, and a couple years ago I decided that was what I wanted to do, so I started a fitness blog two years ago and now I’m on it full time.
Benyamin: What’s your personal fitness story?
John: I was never in good shape as a kid. I was extremely skinny, underweight, never had a lot of stamina. Terribly out of shape. When I went to college I still wasn’t in very good shape, but I tried to join a martial arts group in school.
They had tryouts, and I spent a few weeks training for them, and in the tryout I got so winded and out of breath that I had to sit down. They were worried about me, they thought I was gonna die. They turned me down and basically said “man we like you but we’re worried you’re gonna get killed.”
That was my wakeup call. I thought “This is unacceptable. This is not who I am, this is not how I see myself.” I was a kind of skinny nerd, but I saw myself as a jacked up heroic nerd. That was the point where I decided to cut back on the amount of beer and crap I was eating and start hitting the gym.
I went back the next year and got into that martial arts group. They said I was the only person who ever came back after being rejected.
After that, it’s been a gradual thing over the years. I’ll make slow progress for a year or two, and then go through a burst of rapid progress where I’d gain 5 lbs of muscle in two months or lose 20lbs of fat in 3 months.
A couple of years ago when I started the fitness blog, my mentality switched to where there’s always a focus. I’m always working on something, whether it’s fat loss, muscle gain, strength, or mental performance.
But most of my life I’ve just gradually increased my interest in fitness. It’s not really until recently that I’ve done anything truly hardcore. I just gradually improved how well I ate and how much I work out.
Benyamin: That’s kind of informed the approach you take on your website too, right?
John: Yeah, so there are two ways that you can engage in self-improvement. The gradual escalation method and the de-escalation method.
What I recommend for 90% of people is the gradual escalation method, where you very slowly increase what you’re doing. Maybe you start just walking a little bit more or doing some bodyweight stuff at home, and then gradually add more workout volume until you’re in the gym four days a week. You gradually cut the worst stuff out of your diet and start adding in vegetables.
That’s how it feels. It’s always mildly challenging, nothing is ever grueling, and you just wake up one day and become really fit and it was never hard. So that’s what I recommend for most people.
The other method I’ve started experimenting with is the opposite approach, where you go to an extreme for a while and then gradually cut back down to sustainable levels. Whether that’s cutting out all carbs for a month and gradually adding them back in, or working out 7 days for a month and then cutting that back down to 6 and then 5. You can do that too, but it requires the willpower and commitment to get over the initial hump before you dial it back down.
And that’s a lot harder, and you have to be really committed. Like in my case I have a very flexible schedule, and most people don’t have the time to do what I do. So for most people I find the gradual escalation is the best approach for self-improvement.
Benyamin: What have most people tried doing before they come to you for help?
John: Most people think of self-improvement as a temporary thing. They think “I’ll reach my goal and then I’m done.” They don’t think about how to maintain it.
First off they’ll commit to doing more than they can sustain, or to something they should be able to sustain but can’t because they don’t have the systems to make sure they find the time and motivation. So a lot of time people will overcommit.
They’ll also expect to make rapid results, get discouraged too easily, and not expect that they’ll have to do more work to maintain wherever they’re at when you’re done. Like once you get to your goal weight you can’t go back to your old habits. You have to maybe regress halfway, so that you’re not making progress but you are maintaining.
The approach that I would start with is gradually escalating the strictness of your diet and the frequency and intensity of your workouts. And when you reach your goal, gradually de-escalate until your weight and body composition become stable.
Benyamin: Once they’ve de-escalated, how much work do people need to keep doing to maintain their results?
John: That varies from person to person. They have to do whatever makes their weight stable, so there’s no one answer I can give you for everyone like “if you do exactly this your weight will stay exactly stable and it works for everyone.”
I have this fat loss course that’s 13 modules long, and in each module they add a little bit more stuff. In a few the diet gets stricter, in a few the workouts get stricter. They go from working out three times a week to five times a week and the diet goes from a few simple rules plus low carb breakfast plus advanced carb cycling and intermittent fasting.
What I have them do at the end is work backwards through the course. Stop doing the stuff from module 12 and go back to module 11 for a while, and keep doing that until you get to the point where you’re stable.
Generally at some point they stop doing that altogether and switch to a different program because they have different goals. Once you’ve lost fat and learned how to maintain it, it’s time to look beyond how to maintain and think “what’s the next thing, what do I want to do?”
That’s one of the great things about getting into shape. Once you’re more or less at the weight and body type you like, then it’s not necessarily about body type at all. It can become about performance and just the joy and challenge of exploring your own limits.
A lot of people wait until they have the body type they like to do that. I actually think it’s an even better thing to start there, to allow yourself to have fun right from the start because that’s going to make it a lot more motivating and it’s not going to feel like such a sacrifice.
Biggest Fitness Mistakes
Benyamin: Absolutely. I tell people often “It’s got to be something that you do, not something you force yourself to do.”
John: Yeah. And a lot of people have this idea that something can be fun or good for you, but can’t possibly be both.
There are a few times where I’ve mentioned playing sports, and people are like “oh so the dodgeball is really just for fun right.” And yeah it is. But then they also think “ok so that doesn’t really contribute to you being in shape.” Yeah of course it does! It can’t possibly be good for me because I enjoy it? Of course it does, but that’s not the main reason I’m doing it.
A lot of people just internalize this idea that fitness sucks and anything that doesn’t suck isn’t fitness.
Benyamin: That’s something I work with people on a lot also. If you’re trying to force yourself to do things you hate all the time, are you really going to be able to do them long term? That’s one of the biggest mistakes I think I’ve encountered.
We’ve touched on this gradual increase and a bit about common mistakes, but what are some other mistakes that you see?
John: The biggest psychological mistake I see people making is expecting their progress to be completely steady. Like “I’m gonna lose exactly one pound a week.” And what happens is they lose 4 pounds in the first week, 3.5 of that is water weight, and in the second week they gain back half a pound, and that’s also water weight.
So one thing I tell people is “don’t even weigh yourself every day.” In fact you may not even weigh yourself once a week. Weigh yourself once a month. The water weight fluctuations make it hard to measure weight on any kind of small time scale.
You really need to pick a goal, then pick a program that you know is going to let you reach that goal, and from then on put the goal out of your mind and focus on the program.
You need to be happy if you ate well and worked out. And you need to criticize yourself if you start skipping workouts and cheating on your diet—I don’t mean hate yourself, I just mean say “this isn’t good enough, you need to do better.”
But the focus really needs to be on the process. If you get too hung up on expecting short-term results and weighing yourself everyday, that just sends you on an emotional rollercoaster and giving you no useful information.
Benyamin: That actually ties in really well with what you were saying earlier, where people say “once I reach my goal, I’m done.” When you’ve tied your exercise so closely to your daily weight measuring, you think that because the weight measuring is done, so is the exercise.
John: Yup. It’s really a form of gamification. Having that measurement of your performance gives you a sense of progress, and that becomes your motivation.
The other big psychological problem I see people have is all or nothing thinking. Which is where people think that if they can’t do this perfectly it’s not worth doing at all.
I remember seeing a story about Tom Brady, where he’s on this extremely strict diet where he never eats junk food ever, never has anything bad, and has a private chef to make the food for him.
And of course people say “oh well I could lose weight if I had a private chef.” Which is just looking for an excuse. No one says “ok, I can cook the food myself because I’m not rich, and I can do about 80 or 50 percent of what he does and get most of his results.”
Nobody’s perfect, but the people who succeed are the ones who do what they can, and when they can’t do what they want to do they ask “what’s the next best thing?”
Benyamin: Definitely. And the other side of that all-or-nothing thinking is…what happens when you miss that day? What happens when you go get some ice cream or something? Oh well it’s clearly not worth following this program anymore, so I’m done. It’s so much easier to throw in the towel completely.
Whereas if you can just say “oh I missed this workout, I’ll get back to it tomorrow.” And then you actually do it. You’re much more likely to stay consistent over the long term.
John: And there’s also this tendency to think that once you do one thing wrong you might as well keep it up for the rest of the weekend and get a redo on Monday.
Well on Monday you’ll have the extra weight you gained over the weekend. There are no redos, life just goes on. Everything counts. You’re not screwed for life, but you also don’t get a reset in the sense that what you did in the past has no effect on your current condition.
Benyamin: That start again on Monday idea is also really common. If you’re always waiting to start next week, or next month, you’re never really going to accomplish anything. You can start now.
John: Yeah. You can never use the future as an excuse to put things off. You do have to have priorities, and you can’t always do everything at once. But be clear on what your top two priorities are for the next two months.
And it doesn’t always need to be fitness! If it is fitness, commit to it. But if you have a legitimate reason to focus on something else, don’t half-ass it. Figure out what it is you have to focus on now and how long it will take to take care of it, and put it in your calendar “on this day I’m going to change focus.”
Don’t feel obligated to spread yourself thin either.
Benyamin: That’s all for now! But you’ll be hearing more from John in the future.
In the meantime, make sure you check out John’s site: https://johnfawkes.com/
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