When you want to build a house, you need a strong foundation. Otherwise, over time, a poor foundation will cause uneven settling of the house. Cracks will appear in the walls. Doors and windows will become crooked. The flooring may start to slope unevenly. In the end, without a proper strong foundation, you will end up putting yourself at risk and paying a lot to repair what should have been properly set in the beginning.
Similarly, a strong foundation is needed when you start to do any sort of exercise regimen. If you go into a gym and start to swing weights around, copying what you see in magazines or what you see the latest and greatest fitness Instagram star doing, then you risk the health of your joints and you may delay any sort of real gains from training because, among other reasons, (1) you use too little weight to stimulate change, (2) you use too much weight with bad form, (3) you don’t progress systematically, or (4) you favor vanity exercises over functional exercises. You may end up creating more problems than solving them.
That’s why it is vital to start any exercise program with a strong foundation in what I call the four pillars: Alignment, Breathing, Concentration, Discipline.
Alignment: how you perform an exercise is just as important as which exercise you do. Performing an exercise with poor alignment can lead to improper strain on the muscles, joints, and connective tissue in the long run. Improper strain will eventually lead to overuse injury. Injury will keep you out of the game. That is why it is important that you learn how to perform each exercise with high-quality alignment. Start with light weights and focus on good technique from start to finish. Put in quality work rather than quantity work. Training to failure with bad form will only train you to fail with bad form.
A corollary of the principle of good alignment is to build up your routine slowly and methodically. Focus on compound movements before you add isolation exercises. Learn how to squat and to do a push-up. Don’t settle for the ease of working out on a machine. Not only will you engage more muscle with compound movements (and hence burn more calories) but you will also build more muscle in the long run. Some foundational compound movements are:
- Overhead press
- Pull-ups or body rows
Breathing: I am a long-time yoga practitioner, so breathing has always been an important part of my exercise regimen. There are a few different ways to breathe when you are exercising, and how you breathe will depend on which exercise you are doing, how much weight you are lifting, and the way in which you have organized the exercises. One way to breathe is to inhale on the way down and to exhale on the way up. For example, if you are doing a push-up, you would inhale as you lower to the ground, then exhale as you exerted yourself back to the top position. Another way to breathe is to inhale as you expand the body and to exhale as you contract the body. For example, my favorite total-body exercise to do right now is the squat-curl-press. You start with your feet in a wide (Sumo) stance, with the dumbbells between your legs. You exhale as you lower into the squat, hips lower than knees, then inhale, stand up, curl the weight to the shoulders and press overhead. Reverse the movement, and repeat. This is a great total-body exercise, especially if you are pressed for time.
In general, you want to brace your abdomen when you are exercising to protect your lower back and to create a solid trunk on which your arms and legs can move efficiently.
Concentration: It is not news to say that we live in a distracted world. Cell phones, text messages, social media, email, etc. Gyms and studios are pumping loud music at all times. People want to be efficient when they exercise, but they often spend their rest times checking emails or sending text messages to friends, or talking to other gym members. What could be a 30-minute intense workout turns into an hour-long social affair, with some distracted lifting between texts. When you go to the gym or when you work out with a trainer, stay focused on the exercise. Stay focused on the routine. Not only will you complete the routine in less time, you will also be able to lift more weight and feel like you accomplished more than if you were constantly checking your phone between sets.
Discipline: As Jocko Willink, retired Navy SEAL, author, and podcaster, says, “Discipline equals freedom.” If you want to improve your general fitness, to lose weight, to get stronger or faster, then you need to have a systematic, progressive plan to get to the goal. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to get derailed by daily distractions and disruptions. It’s all too easy to get derailed by other people’s plans and needs. So start small and stay consistent. If you want to exercise more frequently, then set up a schedule: 30 minutes every Monday, Wednesday, Friday. No ifs, ands or buts. Put it in your calendar. Your health is just as much a priority as your job.
Make clear, measurable goals – not just “I want to lose weight,” but “I want to lose 15 pounds in 4 months.” Not just “I want to get stronger” but “I want to squat my body-weight within one year” or “I want to do 1 set of 10 pull-ups in three months” or “I want to hike Machu Picchu in six months without feeling winded.” If you are clear and precise on what you want to achieve, then you can break the big goal down into smaller goals, make a plan for each smaller goal, and measure your progress. As the old adage goes, “Failure to plan is planning to fail.”
The interesting thing is that all of the above techniques also apply to any other area of your life: personal relationships, professional success, business, family, and school life.
So there you go. Alignment, breathing, concentration, and discipline. If you can install these four pillars of fitness into your exercise regimen at the beginning, then you will have a strong foundation on which to build stabilization, strength and power, in all areas of your life.