Whether we like it or not, the nature of work is changing.
Once upon a time, “work” entailed the production of a physical product. We used our hands and physical strength to mould raw into refined, our work day ended when we had made something that we could hold, touch and ultimately, sell.
Modern inventions have allowed work to take on an intangible form, the products we produce are commonly in the form of spreadsheets, Word documents and PowerPoints and 9-5 existence has morphed into 80 hour workweeks. The default stance of the modern day worker when asked “how’s it going?” is “I’m sooo busy”, as though busyness brings bragging rights.
This shift presents obvious advantages, we’re no longer bound to a single location to generate income. Remote working is a common practice for many knowledge based workers and the likes of Tim Ferriss boast their controversial methods, “sticking it to the man” with geo-arbitrage and automation.
However, despite these potential gains, we still must contend with the boundary between “work” and “free time” becoming somewhat amorphous.
“I don’t have time”
There are a few obvious reasons why someone may either choose to avoid exercising regularly or give up on a plan they recently started, the most common of which centre around motivation and time availability.
When your free time is compressed, its opportunity cost increases. Why would you choose to sweat and strain in a room full of other sweaty, tired people when the next series of Orange is the New Black is on this evening?!
A fusion of thoughts focussed in the short term tend to guide our decisions when we’re tired, hungry and would just rather go home at the end of a 15 hour day, usually we’re back on the sofa before we’ve had time to consider that we PROMISED ourselves we’d get those 4 gym sessions in this week.
If you’re like me, you may find it surprising that there is so much focus on “output” in the modern world that basic health requirements such as sleep, exercise and nutrition are laid by the wayside. We push, push and keep on pushing until 20 years later, we collide with an unpleasant reminder that you let your basic human needs give way to producing undefinable output, for a reason you’d struggle to explain, for people you’ll likely never meet.
In the words of Zach De la Rocha,
we gotta take the power back.
As always, we have a common problem that needs solving and we need the simplest, most effective solution that will withstand stress testing.
Thems me specialties…
Lets look at the variables
What we need:
The minimum effective dose such that we still meet out goals.
What are the constraints:
Time, effort and motivation drain and availability, lack of planning and approach, unclear parameters on what needs to be done and what is superfluous.
Mornings are sacred
I’ve discussed this before in my tactics for early morning training post. Put simply, not many commitments ask for your mornings. The working world tends to be left to its own devices until 9am and this leaves a tranquil period of freedom that we can use to gain some leverage.
So, simple suggestion here, move your daily training practice to the AM, before the rest of the world has a chance to email you and steal your attention. Try to wake up at the same time each day and on days you don’t train, replace the time with other productive activities, or just read, sip coffee and enjoy the quiet.
The obvious problem here is that to wake early, you must sleep earlier and this means an earlier bed time, altered evening routine and, in turn, a host of habit changes. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that becoming an early riser is easy if you just have that one “hack” that you’re just yet to find. However, unfortunately, waking up early is just bloody difficult to do consistently if it doesn’t come naturally.
Most people kick back against this suggestion, they argue that they need to work late or that their social life depends on the evening. My retort would be that, for the most part, swapping 10:30pm-12:00am of time spent awake versus 6:00-7:30am time spent awake will yield a significant increase in your output from that time.
“Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”
You have 24 hours in a day and it ultimately comes down to how you apportion this time, sure you have activities that require blocks of time (sleep, 7 hours) and certain time sensitive commitments (work, arrangements), but past this, your evenings and your mornings are just a question of how you choose to spend them. My argument here is that you’ll leverage more output, either in the gym or with other tasks early in the morning versus late at night.
Condense your training
You’ll likely only have an hour or so to get your training in. We need to get in, get done and get out again but that doesn’t mean we sacrifice quality.
Super-sets or giant sets are the obvious go-to option. For those who are unaware of this idea, you would select 2 exercises (for a superset) or 3-4 exercises (for a giant set) and move in a alternating fashion between them, taking minimal rest between each exercise and a longer rest after a super/giant set is completed. Research (1) suggests that these are best applied on upper body exercises only and I would never advise super-setting heavy, compound lower body movements. In addition, super-setting antagonistic muscle groups seems to add some potential benefits to strength and overall hypertrophy. (2).
Using a stopwatch would be another way to approach this. I’m always hesitant to prescribe timing rest periods as it can lead to a negative impact on performance, however, if the choice is either not completing the training session or taking a small hit in performance over the short term, I’d favour the latter. So, try limiting rest periods to no more than 90 seconds to encourage a smooth pace throughout your training, try timing your warm up too, anything that has the potential to merge from 5 minutes into 25.
Effort and motivation (exponential vs hyperbolic)
We place a lot of reliance on our motivation to complete a given activity. Usually, when we decide to do something, our motivation is high and we have low perceived effort barriers and will often have strong adherence for the initial few weeks.
Initially, our preferences are more exponential…….sorry what?
If you assume that the orange curve is your long term goal and the blue curve is a night out with friends, they occur on different time horizons and have similar levels of value at the start. As time progresses, we see progress and our value associated with our physique/training goal increases proportionately, it’s higher than the value we perceive from the big blow out (not that you can’t have alcohol etc as part of your plan) and so you stay the course. This is the ideal scenario, we have plenty of time to pursue our goals and have no issues with slowing motivation.
In reality, as our free time becomes more scarce the opportunity cost of it increases. We notice that motivation wanes and our preferences become more hyperbolic, or short term.
We lose motivation and focus more on short term gain, rather than long term progress. We perceive the value of the deviation to exceed our long term goal at that point in time and so we deviate from the plan.
Obviously, this can be anything: a cream cake when you’ve hit your macros for the day, a big blow out or, in this case, a skipped training session.
Cool story bro, how does this help with training when you’re short on time?
Well, as mentioned, less free time means a higher opportunity cost of that time (the sofa is more appealing) and we need to be aware that when we map out our 6 training sessions per week that when it comes to it, we’ll favour the short term gain, not the long term picture. No benefit comes from training at that point in time, it takes a long time to consolidate the results so if you rely on motivation alone, be aware of the fact that even the most motivated people will prefer short term gain.
How to get over this:
1) Modify the reward
Thanks to Charles Duhigg, we have a greater understanding of how habits work:
Here we have 2 loops
1) Cue: it’s 7pm, time to leave work, head to the gym and train
2) Routine: train
3) Reward: feeling of accomplishment, delayed reward in the future
1) Cue: it’s 7pm, time to leave work, I’m too tired to train
2) Routine: Skip the gym
3) Reward: relax on the sofa
We need to enhance the reward of training to reduce the relative reward for skipping the gym. This is maybe the best application for a schedule like carb backloading. In the typical iteration, you’d skip carbs on days you don’t train and on days you do, only eat carbs after a training session. I.e. train and you get a carb feeding as a reward.
For various reasons, we don’t recommend carb backloading any more for adherence reasons in the main BUT, if diet adherence isn’t too much of an issue, this can be a fabulous technique to use.
You can use normal macros and fit them into this template, drop the carbs to 50g on rest days and replace them with fat, on training days, abstain from carbs until after you train. Straight away, at 7pm, when its time to leave, you have a higher reward associated with training than with going home. Problem, fixed.
Alternatively, just consider saving up a large portion of your calories for the end of the day and using this as a post workout meal. This is one of the approaches we prescribe to clients for exactly the reasons discussed.
2) Introduce pain of failure
In a similar vein, you can create pain of failure by removing a benefit (your post workout meal) if you skip a session. You could arrange to train with friends and introduce an element of social discomfort if you skip or you could set yourself short term deadlines to reach (photo-shoot or mock meet) to reduce the time horizon between today and the eventual goal your pursuing.
3) Introduce accountability
Simple, make sure someone is checking in on you. This could be as simple as asking a loved one or friend to keep track or hiring a coach that you report to weekly. We both pay for coaching with 3DMJ, at this point if you skip sessions, you’re actually wasting money too!
Use the simplest set up possible (Occams razor)
We bloody love good old William of Ockham. He developed the initial iteration of occurs razor, the idea that oftentimes, the simplest solution prevails.
In this scenario, the simplest solution is simply the plan that requires the least time. Chances are you could be training a lot less than you currently are and achieve the same, or maybe better results.
Meet Tony Cliffe:
Tony is a member of the GB powerlifting team and recently placed 3rd at the IPF World Championships with a 230kg and gold medal in the bench press.
In a recent interview he described his training:
“I train only two days a week, Monday and Thursday, and go swimming or running with my wife on a Tuesday evening. I train in our garage which I converted to a gym about mid-way through last year.”
You read right, 2 days a week.
This is occurs razor at its best, 2 sessions per week is likely less than almost everyone reading this article. With that, Tony has one of the biggest powerlifting totals in the world.
The lesson here is that if its possible to yield such strong results from 2 sessions per week, do we really need more? Especially if we’re short on time?
I would argue that 2 sessions per week, planned intelligently and approached with total intensity and concentration will yield greater results than 4-5 rushed sessions per week.
I don’t know the specifics of Tony’s training but here is how I would approach a 2 day set up. This can be used for any training goal.
Back/Front squat: work up to a 1 heavy set, perform 4 back off sets with 85% of work weight
Bench press/Incline press: same + set of 10 face pulls super-set
Chin up: 8 sets of 5, use band assists if needed, add weight when you can complete all sets
abs: 2 sets of ab-rollout to total failure
Deadlift/Hip dominant lower body: work up to a 1 heavy set, perform 4 back off sets with 85% of work weight
Shoulder press/close grip bench: same + set of lat pulldowns super-set
Barbell row from pins/floor: 5 sets of 10, add weight when all reps are smooth
abs: 2 sets of reverse crunch to failure
By 1 heavy set, I mean to an RPE of 9. In other words, not total failure but stop at the point where you feel you’d still be able to complete one more rep. I’d then use an 8 week block or similar:
8 week block
Week 1: Sets of 8 on main movements (roughly 70% for top set)
Week 2: Sets of 6 (roughly 74%)
Week 3: Sets of 4 (roughly 80%)
Week 4: Sets of 2 (roughly 90%)
Week 5: 3 sets of 5 with week 1’s weight, deload
Week 6: Sets of 5 (roughly 77%)
Week 7: Sets of 3 (roughly 85%)
Week 8: Sets of 1, set a PB if its there, or use 95% of previous 1RM
Lets say you could do 140kg squat for 1 rep
Week 1: 105kg x 8, 82.5 x 4 x 8
These sessions should take 60-90 minutes, a total of 2-3 hours a week. If you don’t progress in 8 weeks, change one variable (add 1 lower body assistance exercise) and repeat. The key is to find the program you can stick to, ensure that it creates progress and then, only when needed, add in extra elements. Plurality should not be posited without necessity.
Short on time and struggling to fit in a consistent training schedule:
1) Train in the morning
2) Use super-sets, giant sets and time your training
3) Add an extra reward for getting in your training
4) Create some kind of pain for missing a session
5) Use social accountability
6) Trim the fat from your current set-up or try the one above