What Aaron Tang learned from 22 months of working out.
“Can you teach me how to squat?” I asked my buff friend as I stood wide-eyed in the office gym.
It was December 2013. I was approaching my thirties and felt that I needed to be fitter. And so I started a journey that I’m still on today.
Aside from times when I’ve been very sick (including a bout of dengue fever in December 2014), I’ve probably missed less than ten workouts over the past 22 months. And yet, if you compare how I look today to (clothed) pictures of me two years ago — I look almost the same. I weigh almost the same too.
So this isn’t one of those ultimate transformation articles where an underweight kid became a WWE wrestler. If you want one of those stories, click here. That’s not my story. My story is one where a skinny guy started working out, saw improvements to his life, and never stopped.
I’m not sure what you can learn from me, but I’ll share my story anyway. Here’s everything major I’ve learned about fitness and life — from the past 22 months of working out.
1. Discipline is Difficult. Take Decision-Making Away To Make It Easier
What do President Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and Simon Cowell have in common? When you see them — they’re usually wearing the exact same thing. But what does this have to do with working out?
It’s decision-making. Because psychologists say the more decisions you have to make, the more tired your mind gets. The three powerful guys above don’t make fashion decisions — because they’re saving mental energy for more important decisions.
Likewise, if you want to build a good habit (like exercise), make it as easy as possible for yourself. Take away as many “should I work out today?” decisions from yourself as possible.
For example, you already have a stressful 9-5 day job. How likely are you to exercise if you need to fight through 6pm traffic to a gym 30 minutes away? That’s when the bar starts to look a lot more attractive.
Instead, maximize your chances by working out where it’s easiest for you. Like your office gym (if you’re lucky), home gym — or at the very least — somewhere convenient nearby.
2. Goals Will Break Your Heart. Systems Are The Way To Achieve Them
The day you set a goal is the day you set yourself up for heartbreak.
I’m not saying that goals are useless. They’re useful for getting started. But setting goals (especially ambitious ones) is like comparing yourself to your favorite celebrity. It’s useful for inspiration: “Wow, if he can do it, I can too!” but can become demoralizing: “I’ve worked so hard, but I’m not even 10% like him yet”.
When I first started lifting weights, I immediately set some basic goals for myself. Within three months, I had surpassed them. So I set myself some even more challenging goals. And today, 19 months later — I still haven’t achieved those goals.
If all I cared about was achieving those goals, I would feel like a big loser. And probably give up totally. Instead, I learned to build a system and trusted in it to make progress. I started with something very easy: go to the gym three times a week. Then I slowly tweaked the system as my body started to improve.
We live in a society that values achievement over progress; victory over struggle; and glory over hard work. But when we focus too much on the end result instead of the process — it makes our lives so much worse.
I still have goals that I hope to reach someday: like doing ten pull-ups in a row and squatting 1.5 times my body weight. But I know that obsessing over the goals isn’t going to get me there. It’s following the system.
3. For Longevity – Find/Do What You Love
Have you ever wondered why people keep throwing around “find your passion… do what you love” advice on the Internet? It’s because in times where you’re demotivated — and every one of us gets demotivated sometimes — passion is what keeps you going.
In the context of exercising, I’ve noticed people stop working out because they don’t really enjoy what they’re doing.
Me — I’ve loved soccer and basketball since I was a kid. If I could, I’d play those sports every day. But it’s difficult to organize team sports when everyone’s busy. So I decided to try lifting weights — and discovered it makes me very happy too.
If you’re finding it difficult to exercise consistently, maybe it’s because you haven’t discovered something you really like yet. Or you’re already bored of what you’re currently doing. Try something else. Something that works for you. It could be boxing, running, muay thai, or maybe even something you’d never expect — like yoga.
Just because you haven’t loved before doesn’t mean you can’t find love.
4. If You Want Progress, You Have To Track It
There’s a difference between exercising for fun (nothing wrong with that), and seriously trying to improve. But if you’re looking to improve, you have to track your performance.
It could be the most common way of tracking of all — the weighing scale. Or if you run — how long it takes to complete 10 miles. Or if you’re strength-training — how many pull-ups you can do in a row.
Whatever your metric is, you need to track that number to see if you’re really making progress. It takes feelings out of the equation. Which is never a good indicator of performance, because people are terribly good at lying to themselves: “Just my first workout and I feel like I’ve lost weight already!”
But the weights on a barbell don’t lie. The time your fitness app shows doesn’t lie. The display on the weighing scale doesn’t lie.
Let that data guide you — as you improve your system to get better results.
5. Working Out Is Useful. Adjusting Your Diet Is Even More Useful
When I first started in December 2013, I weighed 152 lbs.
In September 2014, I weighed 172 lbs.
Today, I’m back down to 154 lbs.
What you might find interesting is the weight changes were completely intentional. At the beginning, I wanted to become big. So I deliberately ate as much as possible. Having been skinny all my life, it felt amazing to see the weight scale go up every month.
But not only did I gain muscle, I gained a lot of fat too. And a beer belly. At my heaviest, the gym machine said I had 21% body fat. So I decided to bring the fat down to below 15% — while keeping as much muscle as possible.
But through all this, my workout routine never changed. I was still doing the same strength-training exercises and playing basketball every week. The only thing I changed in my system? My diet.
And so I learned firsthand: the most powerful way to change how you look, feel and weight isn’t working out. It’s to carefully choose what and how much you eat. Exercise just helps that.
“Most people think getting fit is a lot of cardio, some weight training, and a little dieting. It’s not. It’s lots of clean eating, some weight training and a little cardio.”
– Adapted from Physical Culturist –
6. Ignore The Noise From Casual Observers
If people know you’re working out, you’ll start hearing conflicting comments from different sources.
People who think they’re fat and want to lose weight will assume you want to lose weight too. So if you’re skinny like me you’ll hear: “But you don’t need to work out. You’re already skinny.”
Guys who want to become big will assume you want to look like The Rock too. So if you’re skinny like me you’ll hear: “Still need to work on those arms bro.”
The majority of people are probably well-meaning. They’re just thinking out loud.
But you and I know that body image is a sensitive thing. Their comments may upset you, frustrate you, and make you question whether you’re really making progress.
Don’t let them confuse you. Because they have no idea about your system. Not to mention that cursory glances can’t tell a person very much. Maybe you’re wearing a looser shirt today that makes you look thin. Maybe jeans make your ass look fat. Maybe people shouldn’t comment about other people’s bodies.
It’s one thing for your personal trainer or workout buddies to give you feedback. It’s another for the casual observer.
You have your performance records and your system. Listen to that and ignore all the other noise.
7. Routine Is The Secret Of Excellence
About nine months into working out, I started to realize my strength gains were plateauing. Which is typical. Newbies gain the most strength at the beginning — and then the gains start to normalize.
But I also realized that travel was disrupting my progress. Every time I was away for a business or personal trip (I’ve probably done eighty flights over the past 22 months), I noticed I got weaker.
Because even though I worked out while traveling, I usually couldn’t find my preferred equipment: barbells. I just used whatever equipment was available, or did bodyweight exercises. Which helped, but couldn’t 100% replace my normal workout. Every time I got back to my office gym, the amount I could lift dropped.
I only started to see improvements again if I was home for at least two weeks.
It made me realize how important routine is — when you’re trying to excel at something. I never wanted to become a professional powerlifter, so it’s OK for me to alternate between gains and losses.
But if you’re looking to become world class at something, a focused routine becomes really important. It’s what champions do.
8. Bring Friends On Your Journey – It’ll Make It Better
The best thing I learned from working out over the past two years isn’t directly related to fitness.
I was recently reminded of it when I was reminiscing about the good times in our office gym. (Which I can’t go to anymore because they revoked our corporate membership).
Because the best thing about gym for me wasn’t the weights, the classes or getting healthier. It was the friends. Friends who were there to remind me to follow the system, push me to lift more, and support me when my strength gave out.
I have no doubt that even with all the great things I learned above — without my friends — I wouldn’t still be working out today.
So if you’re planning to start a self-improvement journey yourself — I recommend that you bring some friends along. It could make the difference between success and failure. But even if you have no one, look for fellow travelers as you start your journey. Be nice to them, and I’m sure they’ll be happy to have you.
Build a community together.
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Photo: Getty Images