Stop Falling for “One Weird Trick” - 7 Good Habits to Build Instead
We all want to discover the “secret” to quick gains. That’s why we buy DVDs, go to seminars, and get private lessons. That’s how fitness companies sell us workout gizmos and dietary supplements. And if we’re being honest, that’s probably why you are reading this article.
Let me share a story about a guy I used to train with. He was always telling me how he “finally figured it out”, whether that was a new workout, a new diet, a new BJJ routine. This month it was a special blend of pre-workout powder. Next month it was a variation on the 5/3/1 lifting program. The month after that, those would be out the window but he’d tell me “this time I really got it figured out!”
His desire to improve was admirable, but his execution was poor. This search for a magic bullet distracted him from his basic problems: He did not make it to class consistently, often skipping class for weeks at a time. He was overweight and ate poorly, despite whatever diet he claimed to be on. And he was unfocused during class, usually more interested in showing moves he found on YouTube than practicing the lesson being taught.
Strength and health coach Dan John wrote a book called Intervention that confused me the first time I read it. I was expecting workout programming and rep schemes, but it starts with 10 pieces of advice like “drink water”, “wear a seatbelt”, and “floss your teeth”. I was confused--what does any of that have to do with strength and conditioning?
But when Dan John explained himself, I got it. His point was: if you won’t even do these simple things we all know are good for you, why do you think you will stick to some difficult workout and diet? Dan gets people coming to him for help, saying “I’ll do anything, anything!, to lose weight--anything but eat right and exercise!”
Once you get to any significant level of experience, it’s normal to feel like you are stuck in a rut or on a plateau. We get bored with our routine and want to try something new. We decide we need to change it up, to revolutionize our training, even if nothing is wrong with the old way.
Very much in the vein of Dan John’s advice, here are the 7 habits I recommend everyone develop, because we already know they work:
- Have a goal in mind for every class.
- Get in 10 extra reps every class.
- Drink more water.
- Eat more veggies.
- Stick to a healthy sleep schedule.
- Do a daily joint mobility routine.
- Keep a training journal.
Giving simple advice like this sometimes feels condescending (who doesn’t know to get good sleep, drink water, and eat veggies?), but whenever I share this with a group, I get a few nodding heads and comments like “Oh yeah, I’ve been bad about that…”
Be honest with yourself. Could you be better at one of those seven? If so, here is more advice on each:
Have a goal in mind for every class.
Start with your mindset, since that’s free to change. Develop a growth mindset, where you believe in your ability to learn and improve, but also understand it takes hard work and practice.
Educate yourself on the difference between outcome goals and process goals. Having a goal will move your forward, even a broad one like “Do my best this class and look at the technique with new eyes, even if it’s one I know”.
Get in 10 extra reps every class.
An old piece of wisdom I have heard from coaches in every sport is that you can spot who will become the best athletes by who puts in an extra 5 minutes of practice at the end of every training session.
Having something in mind to practice or ask your instructor about every class is a good way to put that growth mindset into action. You can simply bust out 10 reps before you get off the mats, or you can get creative with random practice drills based on the science of motor learning.
Drink more water.
Water is good for you. Soda is bad for you. Energy drinks are even worse. Get a big refillable water bottle and drink from it a lot. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
Eat more veggies.
We all know vegetables are good for us, so let’s spare ourselves a needless explanation. The key is, of course, actually eating them.
You can go all the way with my guide to vegan nutrition, or you can just grab frozen veggies next time you grocery shop to have them handy to microwave alongside your regular meals, as Dan John recommends.
Stick to a healthy sleep schedule.
Your body needs sleep to rest and recover after physical stress. But there’s also a mental aspect to sleep. While scientists have still not answered the fundamental question of why we need to sleep, we do know sleep is when the brain processes our experiences and incorporates them into long term memory.
Radiolab did a show on sleep that explains this. Scientific American has quick episodes of 60 Second Mind about sleep, too:
- Multiple Studies Confirm Importance of Good Sleep
- Rest Assured: The Brain Practices the Day’s Lessons as We Sleep
- Ability to Learn Is Affected by the Timing of Sleep
Do a daily joint mobility routine.
As I write this, snow is falling outside my window as another winter storm descends on Pennsylvania. This reminds me of my first real winter up north. Being from Florida, I did not know what all the old people on my block knew. I would hear them out shoveling every hour or two while it was snowing, while I waited for it to be over.
It turns out they were right: it’s easier to go out several times and shovel the light snow, or even just sweep it away with a broom, rather than waiting for it to pile up so deep that you have to spend hours of hard labor excavating yourself.
You can apply the same logic to joint mobility: do a little bit everyday, perhaps a few times per day. Save yourself from getting so messed up that you need to resort to drastic measures to fix them.
Keep a training journal.
If you have a hard time remembering all the techniques you’re learning, writing a training journal can help with that. You can also process your sparring sessions and get out any frustrations. Ayanthi wrote 6 good tips on keeping notes.
In BJJ, we are always stressing the importance of the basics and chastising students for turning to gimmicks instead of refining their fundamentals. The same can be said of how we approach our lifestyles, health, and fitness. Keep that in mind the next time you feel like buying into a hot new trend.