If you had to get someone in the best shape possible in 40-days, what would you do?
A friend recently put this to me and it got me thinking, and my thoughts have turned into the following article. It is a long read, but it covers all your bases, so take mini-stretching breaks as needed and plough on.
Why 40 days? Not a great length of time to achieve much in life really, but it’s short enough to be a do-able and realistic goal, and long enough to see changes and motivate the transformer to go for another 40 days. One thing we know is there are no magic pills, and long-lasting results come from keeping the head down and making training and movement part of your way of life. People do, however, respond well to shorter time-frames, helping them to stay focused.
Three essentials for success with a training program: -a good plan
-optimal recovery and regeneration (food, sleep, stress-management)
So for the purpose of this experiment, we have 40 days to get into the best possible physical condition. First thing in this case is we don’t have any time for the biggest problem anybody faces in a successful transformation: Poor compliance. The process of creating and changing habits is probably the most difficult part of the puzzle, and one which deserves the greatest investment of your efforts to begin with. Start small and gradually build healthful habits into your life. But for now, we will assume that the superpower of our friend here is the ability to instantly engrain good habits, because for this to work we can ill afford missed sessions, poor food choices, or all-nighter Narcos binges.
The plan needs to be all encompassing if we are going to maximize our results in 40 days, so the holistic program will include:
1) Strength training
3) Mobility + Mindfulness
The best training program for someone will obviously depend on the person, that we know. If someone is super-motivated and has a lot of time on their hands, we could put together a 5-day per week training split, with each session lasting two hours in the gym, and they would make great gains. But most people don’t have all day to spend in the gym. My friend here is busy, and he isn’t motivated to stay all day in the gym, so we need to make sure the gym program is pitched at the right time-commitment investment. We need to get him in and out of there in 75 to 80 minutes. That’s not a long time in the gym, but my experience is that shorter sessions helps encourage greater frequency of training. Knowing you have to take on a grueling, two hour, never-ending program to tick your workout box for the day, is a quick way to derail the very best of intentions.
Our case study, does, however, have a background in professional sport and has good movement competency so we won’t lose a lot of time going through the motions. If someone doesn’t have much experience in the gym, the priority would be to focus on nothing more than moving well first. In this case we can jump into it.
There are a lot of great training programs and approaches out there already, that have been very successful for a lot of people: Jim Wendler’s 531, De Franco’s Westside for Skinny Bastards, Bill Star’s 5×5, Alwyn Cosgrove’s New Rules of Lifting programs, Eric Cressey’s programs, or any of the en vogue gymnastic strength training programs. We could take any of them and apply essential rule no.2 as mentioned above and will have success. As Dan John says, everything works for a few weeks. Dan also says keep it simple, less is more, which I think is sage advice. Thus, for this program we will follow his and Pavel’s Easy Strength template, which is genius in it’s simplicity. He calls it the 40-day program; you take 5 movements and you train them every workout for 40 sessions. The intensity of each gym session is sub-maximal (not maxing out in terms of the load lifted) allowing you to train the movements with greater frequency. The rep ranges vary every session, but for the heavy lifts they never exceed ten reps in total for each session.
Following the Easy Strength philosophy, here is the 40-day strength training program that we will implement. The template is inherently very simple, and you can fit in the movements that work for you. I would recommend reading this article by the man himself explaining the program.
In this case we have gone with a heavy lower body lift, a heavy upper body pull, a lunge, patterning hinge movement and a trunk strengthening movement. The rep range will dictate the load. So if the reps per set decrease as you go from session 1 to 6, then the load should increase. If the reps increase from session to session, you can still increase the load if appropriate. Always prescribe load carefully and never go to technical failure. Technical failure means you can still complete the rep, but with poor technique. Don’t go there, it’s not worth it.
You work your way through Session 1 to Session 6, and then repeat it 3 more times to get your 24 sessions in total.
Now, before everyone starts to run around the room freaking out at what the above program is missing, sit back down, take a deep breath, and repeat after me: it’s going to be okay.
Remember, this is for 6-weeks, not the rest of your life. The bench press isn’t going anywhere so no need to weep, that can go in the next 40-day program, your pecs won’t disappear in that time. You don’t need to be doing everything, all the time.
One thing that is important to point out here. My friend is no longer in professional sports, his main goal is to look and feel better. If we were dealing with an athlete, we would have to look at our movement patterns closely and make sure we are ticking certain boxes. For example, for field sport athletes, we would definitely have a frontal plane movement in there such as a lateral lunge, and an explosive movement such as a clean or a box jump. And we also wouldn’t be repeating the same total body workout multiple times per week.
Our target is to have 24 sessions completed in the 40 days weeks, which is 4 sessions per week. We did say we can’t afford missed sessions, but life does sometimes get in the way, so if a session is missed, you can add another one the following week. As long as we have 24 done by the end.
x 1 sprint session per week
x 1 bike interval session per week*
*Even better would be to get on a real bike and cycle, but for the purpose of this challenge we’ll settle for a Watt-bike or spin bike.
Thus, we will have 6 sprint sessions and 6 bike interval sessions in total. These won’t take more than 30 minutes to complete after warming-up due to the high intensity nature of the session. If we have a busy schedule, we can tag these sessions on to the end of our strength work to save time, in which case your neuromuscular system will be already primed.
Depending on your body composition or conditioning goals you might want to adapt this. For example, if you’re a hurling player in the pre-season, you might want to increase the volume of conditioning training. For our guy, who at the minute is doing zero conditioning, x2 weekly sessions is ideal.
Mobility and Mindfulness
We will start off every morning with our daily routine, before we check our emails or do anything else we will do this. I find that once the day begins in earnest the hamster wheel begins to spin and it can be difficult to stop and get these things done. Tim Ferris reckons that the one thing the most successful people in the world have in common are a daily routine and a mindfulness/ meditative practice. Our 40-day daily routine is as follows, with each action acting as the cue to do the next action.
1) Wake up
2) Fill up a big glass of water and drink it down
3) Stretch, move and mobility for 15 minutes*
4) Sit down and meditate for 10 minutes**
*Avoid excessive loading of the lumbar spine first thing in the morning, as there is increased risk of disk herniation in the morning, according to Dr. Stuart Magill. This is due disk nucleus’ being fully hydrated after rising from the bed, and have much higher stresses during flexion. Focus on the areas that needs most attention, probably your hips and thoracic spine extension.
**Headspace is a very popular mindfulness app that can help engrain this daily habit. The first 10 days are free before you need to subscribe, but if you get through those first 10 days in a row, you’re already further along the road of mindfulness than most people ever get.
Other than increased productivity, focus, and potential spiritual enlightenment, how does a mindfulness practice help you get in peak physical condition? It is a stress management strategy.
We train in the gym, inducing an acute bout of physical stress and tissue catabolism. After the gym session, we want to reduce stress and promote anabolism. Living in the constant state of chronic stress that most of us do, be it emotional, environmental, or otherwise, will hinder our recovery.Get your morning routine done and you are well on your way to having a more productive, focused, and muscle-building day.
Individualizing and optimizing a nutrition plan depends on a lot of things, including what your current habits are, e.g. do you eat good quality foods but not enough? or do you take in appropriate quantities of food but not good quality foods? Or most common of all are failing on both ends of the coin; inappropriate food quantity and poor food quality.
Your current body composition will also determine whether you prioritize reducing body fat or increasing lean tissue mass.
Like the strength training program, there are a hundred ways to approach this and we could write ten pages on the topic of optimizing nutrition. For this 40-Day plan we will keep the keep it simple approach and follow the three rules below:
1) Paleo approach; real foods only, and no grains, Legúmes or dairy.
Someone might have no problem digesting and processing these food-types, and might even benefit from their inclusion, but I think it’s a good challenge for the average person to take on for 30-days, or in this case 6 weeks. For me, the Paleo diet is a simple way to ensure we are getting in good quality foods. It doesn’t, on the other hand, mean that we only eat low-carb, and it doesn’t mean that you can eat an unlimited amount of cashew nuts or bacon. It means you eat real foods, and you eat them in quantities that promote your goal.
2) 1.8g per kg bodyweight of protein per day.
In this particular case, we have an active male at 86kg body mass who is already lean and would like to increase lean tissue mass, so he will aim to consume around 150 grams of protein a day. Anyone who has tried this will attest that it is easier said than done. For smaller people or females your target intake of protein per kg bodyweight may be less than 1.8g.
Just as we started the day off with a morning routine, we want to finish it with an evening routine.
Again, like most things, this one is simple to explain, but probably harder to execute depending on your current habits (This habit is my lifestyle optimization Everest).
1) One hour before bed-time put away all electronic equipment and cut artificial light.
2) In bed by 11.00pm and 8 to 9 hours sleep.
If you really can’t cut out artificial lights an hour before bed then you can help me start a worldwide trend by getting yourself a pair of glasses that stop the blue light from going into your eyes and disrupting your circadian rhythm who is trying to get to grips with it being light when it’s supposed to be dark. Alternatively you can get a special light bulb that doesn’t emit red light. If the concept of artificial light being bad for you after dark is new to you, have a read here.
Also, if you really really can’t get off your computer an hour before bed time, which admittedly I often don’t, then download F.lux which helps protect your eye sockets from the dreaded blue-light.
Below is a sample weekly training schedule, including all the different training sessions and routines. It’s good to have a schedule, but also the flexibility to change it around if needs be, as long as you finish the week with all your sessions ticked off. The final thing you need to do before we start is to create a calendar with 6 weeks of empty spaces, put it on the wall. Every time you complete a session, put a big tick in the box and watch the momentum-building chain build. As Jerry Seinfeld said: Don’t break the chain.
For us real life people who need time and effort to build habits, attempting to take on all parts of the 40-day No Messing Challenge at the same time is futile and 99% to 99.5% likely to fail, according to research. Most of us, myself included, are more likely to succeed by breaking it up into 5 different 40-day challenges. Take on the 40-Day Challenges one at a time, forgetting about the rest, and turn it into a whopper 200-Day Challenge. Taking this approach, I would actually put Movement and Mindfulness first.
But back to the original question.
If I had 40 days to get a busy someone in the best shape possible in that amount of time, what would I do?
Now you know.
Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.