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Doing Everything and Ending Up with Nothing

Sep 26, 2019

Doing Everything and Ending Up with Nothing


The fitness world is a funny place. You tend to get extremes of human behaviour existing within the same fluorescent-lit warehouse at the same time despite seeming opposite to each other. Scanning a gym floor will show you people fighting every fibre of their being to stay put and get through their allotted 40 minutes on a treadmill while addicts of the ‘healthy’ variety tick off as many machines and rep schemes as they can before having to trudge off to the office where their actual work for the day begins.

Naturally, there’s a continuum of behaviour in the gym but I’ve found most fitness enthusiasts err towards the just-one-more camp. The mental inventory of body parts to train, movement patterns to master and sweat to wring can seem ever-expanding. Many of us have experienced the sudden dread of realization after forgetting to train our abs at the end of a session or missing out on our final set of biceps curls because someone took our favoured machine.

As a coach, I’ve always used categories to ensure I’m covering everything needed in a program (patterns like hip hinge, squat, horizontal push/pull, vertical push/pull) but the temptation to add more to a program is profound. There are a lot of great exercises, movement patterns, set/rep schemes, tempos, rest periods and more that can be utilised to great effect in programming.

What about the physique-oriented trainee? The typical response when asked what areas they’d like to improve most ends up as a laundry list of anatomy that’s longer than it is short. It’s hardly a specialization phase when you place emphasis on two-thirds of your body.

The trick is understanding that there is no perfect program. Your body is a complex biological system that comprises several thousand fluctuating variables. The idea that you can adapt and progress at a similar rate across a variety of muscle groups, movement patterns, skills and physical attributes at once is ridiculous – so why do we try and give them equal weight?

There is a limit to the rate at which we can improve. The tenets of strength and conditioning include the principles of specificity and adaptation.


Specificity stipulates that to get significant improvement in a physical attribute, we must focus a reasonable portion of our training capacity on it. You won’t get better at running by going for a jog once a month. Instead, it’s wise to try and run at least a couple of times a week.

However, adaptation is dependent on recovery. Since we have a finite rate at which our biology can synthesize proteins, repair tissues and clear waste products we have a limit on how much stimulus we can provide before exceeding our recovery capacity. We can’t expect to run several times a day and continue to get better at it – you’d get too fatigued, too sore. You’d be unable to provide enough stimulus to signal the body to improve.

Continually training in this state actually makes you worse (the red line in the graph above).

Now how about building some muscle at the same time (quads, glutes, delts, arms and chest all need work) – oh and getting stronger on deadlifts and bench press.

Let me be more direct and get to the point: stop trying do everything at once.

I’ve had this conversation with almost every person who I’ve worked with (including myself, ironically).

You don’t need to panic if you’re not training everything super hard right now.

It’s incredible how easy it can be to maintain gains you’ve made considering the amount of work it can take to make them in the first place. A few hard sets a week on a body part is enough to maintain muscle mass. You don’t have to sweat the same blood it took to build your guns to keep them sticking around.

Divide your recovery budget judiciously. Pick a couple of things you need to improve in the next month or two and spend the lion’s share of energy, time and focus on those. Keep enough in the tank to maintain your hard-fought gains in other areas.

You will come to realise at some point that the idea of progress in any area of life doesn’t have a finale, least of all in a dynamic biological system. You may shore up one area of your health only to have another section start to crumble. It’s a game of spinning plates – but that’s ok. The way you win is by triaging.

Assess, prioritise and execute: this is what leads to a compounding interest effect that gets you much further over time than trying to use four arms you don’t have to keep the plates spinning.

It’s a difficult thing to do mentally but trust me when I say every client success story I’ve been a part of has started with this conversation. It’s funny because I get asked often on social media to share my training, and the honest reality is that there’s nothing special to it. It’s very direct to the point of being boring – until you see how each phase fits into the bigger picture. A year of training is worth far more than a month-long phase.

Don’t do everything and end up treading water.

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