Train hard. Eat right. But what else? It's those little things that can add up to major progress. Here's what our experts are doing.
What daily habit have you adopted that's helped you to get healthier, build muscle or get leaner?
Dr. Chad Waterbury – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Taking cold showers.
The benefits of cold water immersion have been known for eons. But it wasn't until the recent popularity of "The Iceman" Wim Hof that chilling out in freezing cold water has become en vogue.
I gave his cold shower therapy a try. At the end of your usual hot shower, finish with 30 seconds of the coldest water you can handle.
The trick here is to maintain a normal breathing pattern despite the rapid drop in water temperature. I made a point to slow my exhale phase so it was twice as long as the inhale. This offsets the sympathetic nervous system response. I maintained a two-second inhale followed by a four-second exhale sequence during the 30 seconds of cold water. This isn't easy at first!
My progression consisted of increasing the cold water time by 10 seconds every third or fourth day until I reached one minute. Feel free to go beyond that, if it suits you.
I've always been intolerant to cold temperatures, and my feet were usually cooler than they should've been. Since I started ending my showers with cold water therapy, I've experienced three benefits:
- Better tolerance to cold temperatures
- Improved circulation (indicated by warmer feet throughout the day)
- Deeper sleep and faster recovery from workouts
Give cold water therapy a try. It'll probably increase your health and recovery, and it's much cheaper than those expensive cryo chambers. – Dr. Chad Waterbury
Dan John – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Preparing the night before.
We plant the seeds for a successful day the previous night. So I try to make a good "to do" list late in the afternoon. Often, if it's something simple, a quick call or email, I just take care of it. If it's an appointment of some kind, I make sure I leave a good-sized note on my computer to remind me not to wormhole and miss my time.
After dinner, obviously we clean up, but we also set the coffee for a few minutes before we wake up. Often, the sound and smell of coffee wakes me up before the alarm. This small thing seems to give me a start everyday on taking care of business. But there are a lot of other little things I do too.
- I wear blue-blocking glasses if I watch TV or use the computer at night. I found how well they worked while watching a Game of Thrones episode with them on and found myself not getting emotional about anything. Then, I pulled them off and realized how modern shows use color to arouse the audience.
- Before bed, I take my magnesium supplement, vitamin D, and fish oil. We generally hit the hot tub with a beverage, then take a cold shower with our deck shower. By then, I'm fully wound down and ready to sleep.
- Good sleep sets up a great day. I drink my coffee, answer emails, do my college work and write. At 9:00 I get ready for my workout because people will be arriving soon to train with me.
Success, for me, is all about doing small things that seem to snowball into bigger and better things. Woody Allen said that showing up is 90 percent of success. I would simply add: Being early and showing up is 99 percent of success. – Dan John
Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
Doing hot yoga.
I believe it has significantly contributed to my health, mobility, recovery, insulin sensitivity and body composition. It's not a daily practice for me, but I do participate in at least three sessions per week of hot Hatha. I honed in on hot Hatha for a number of reasons:
- The room is hot. It's 100 degrees if I place my mat underneath the infrared overhead space heaters. I own a dry sauna at home which runs at about 140 degrees, but 60 minutes in a hot Hatha class provides the same benefits including detoxification through excessive sweating, recovery via increased blood flow, and activation of heat shock protein to protect against insulin resistance.
- It focuses more on balance and stretching. This is a good thing because it doesn't cut into my training capacity or ability to go balls-out in the gym, provided I stay well hydrated. I have a serving of Mag-10® throughout the hour-long session to ensure I don't cannibalize muscle.
- The body comp factor. Hot yoga actually allowed me to forgo all traditional cardio in my most recent contest prep. I've never been a big cardio fan for achieving favorable body composition, so the ability to eliminate it completely was very attractive to me. – Mark Dugdale
Dani Shugart – T Nation Editor
Becoming a neat freak.
In previous years, I was an inconsiderate asshole who left dirty dishes behind, left makeup strewn out everywhere, and didn't think a thing about the ever-evolving piles of clothing on the floor. But two years ago something in my mind flipped after reading a book. And I realized that everything is easier when your house is clean... including your physique goals.
Research has shown that a cluttered environment will cause you to make worse dietary choices. Seeing your house in disarray simply makes you feel a loss of control, and that emotion can translate into how you eat, not to mention your life satisfaction in general.
So I've developed strategies that make house keeping easy and enjoyable. Sometimes I treat certain tasks like a WOD and try to get as much done in a specific amount of time as possible. Other cleaning habits get tacked onto what I already do during the day.
When coffee is brewing, I put away what's in the dishwasher. When the shower is heating up, I make the bed. When there's food in the oven, I clean up the prep work before dinner is ready. There are all sorts of little hacks and habits that make it easy to have a tidy house.
And the actual time spent cleaning can be valuable too. I used to go to the gym to walk on a treadmill, then I realized that I could spend that same amount of time vacuuming staircases, scrubbing shower tiles, Swiffering the hardwoods, washing the dog, de-fur-ing the sofas, folding laundry, pulling weeds, or getting rid of stuff that's never used. A deep cleaning can take up to three hours on the weekend. Don't tell me the treadmill is a better workout.
Of course, I still go to the gym and lift, but my NEPA (non-exercise physical activity) is really easy to do right at home. And it's pretty damn functional. You're not just spending that time in constant motion, but you have instantaneous results to show for it. And you can listen to podcasts while you work, so it's mentally stimulating too.
House keeping gives you a sense of control and it makes your environment more serene, so that you can actually focus on achieving the things you want. This is vital to your success in ANY endeavor. And a crazy thing happens when cleanliness becomes the norm: you stop being able to tolerate anything less. – Dani Shugart
Kurt Weber – Strength & Conditioning Coach
Frontloading training and backloading calories.
Frontload training – In college I used to work out at night, around 9 PM. And, as you can imagine, a lot of things can happen in a day that will push your workout lower and lower down on the priorities list. Stress, studying, parties, girls... all played a part in me missing plenty of planned workouts.
I quickly realized that people who train at night are simply more likely to miss workouts. In fact, take a look around the gym in the morning and I guarantee you'll see a generally "fitter," more consistent crowd. You'll see the same people every single morning. You know why? Because they're prioritizing it, and they're getting it done before anything can come up in the day to distract them.
My sophomore year I started training first thing in the morning, and I probably trained 360 out of 365 days that year, and have done it ever since. so, workout in the morning and never miss a workout.
Backloading your calories is your insurance policy to that missed workout. This is especially effective for the people who must train in the evening.
Maybe you intended work out that day, but it never happened for one reason or another. But you were eating throughout the day AS IF you were going to train later. Not only did you miss a workout, you also just over-ate by 700 calories.
By backloading your calories, if you miss a workout, it's not as big of a deal because you didn't blow your wad already on ten pancakes for breakfast. Placing the majority of your calories later in the day (ideally post-workout) allows you to better precisely control calories based on your daily activity. Eat light throughout the day and enjoy a big well-deserved dinner after training. – Kurt Weber
Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
A handful of things.
For those who didn't know, I had some pretty severe health issues four years back: kidney damage. So I decided to put health at the forefront of my life instead of simply trying to be the strongest and most muscular.
It seems to be working because my kidney health markers are back in normal range and were the best they've ever been since 2012. This also coincided with me being able to get in great shape again – being capable of adding muscle and get super lean. It's my belief that when you're young, your body isn't as "used up" and you can get away with doing things that are bad for your health. But the older you get, the more health and hypertrophy become interrelated.
Here are some things I changed in my lifestyle:
I walk 45-60 minutes on an empty stomach at least three times a week and up to five. I know that I wrote about not doing fasted cardio in the past, and maybe it could be detrimental to muscle mass. But a recent study reviewed in an article by TC Luoma has made me change my mind. Morning fasted cardio might not burn more fat directly BUT it increases the enzymes responsible for using fat for fuel.
So over time you might actually be programming your body to rely more on fat, which will help you get leaner. Since I train at 6:30 or 7:00 AM. I wake up at 4:30 and go walk 45-60 minutes. Then I either have a light, easy to digest breakfast or Plazma™ and go train. Note that I'm walking, not doing moderate intensity cardio; it doesn't have the cortisol spike that would hurt muscle growth.
I now eat a ton of veggies. I used to be really bad with nutrition. I stayed fairly lean because I didn't consume a lot of daily calories, but the way I was eating (no veggies, no fruits, a lot of cold meats, frankenfoods, etc.) wasn't optimal for my health. When I started to eat more veggies it had a noticeable impact on how I felt and also on how my body looked. I started to retain less water and I lost fat more easily.
I reduced volume and training time. I used to train for an hour or more. And while I could power through the workouts, it made me feel lethargic and almost depressed throughout the day. I'm a stimulus addict and I'm sure that doing too much for too long had a negative impact on my gains and health. Now I limit my sessions to under an hour and train at a faster pace.
I increased my rep ranges. I used to do most of my big lifts in the 1-3 range, now I do them for 6-8 reps. Still heavy, but not so much that it increases the risk of injuries or nervous system fatigue. I also do more mind-muscle connection work (slower tempos, isometric holds, constant tension reps, etc.) – Christian Thibaudeau
Tony Gentilcore – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Admittedly, this answer won't win me any "Meathead of the Year" awards or come off as remotely profound, but it's something I urge all my clients and athletes to do several times a week, if not daily, in order to complement what they do in the gym. You should do it as well.
It helps with adding muscle if that's your thing. Or, if you're trying to lean out, it helps with that too. It's been shown to improve recovery and aid in mental acuity, in addition to improving your overall sense of well-being. About the only thing it doesn't fix is a bad hair day.
Walking is something I used to do more often back in my bachelorhood days, when I was carefree and living life dangerously. Fun Tony Fact: there was a summer back in 2002 when my then girlfriend broke up with me. I was miserable. To help pass the time I decided to attack the Modern Library's list of top 100 novels of the 20th century.
I started with Catcher in the Rye and checked off something like 15-20 novels over the next few months. I'd read a few chapters on the steps in front of my house and then walk around town, meandering here and there, marinating myself in the prose of Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Nabokov, and Heller. I'd end up walking something like 2-3 miles per day.
More recently, I've been ramping up my daily walks again. I have a 5-month old at home and it's become routine to take him out for his "go-the-fuck-to-sleep" walks around 9 PM every day. And, wouldn't you know it: I've noticed my workouts have been pretty good of late. I hit my heaviest pull in two years last week – 560x1. Six hundred is going down soon.
And despite sleep deprivation, the walks have helped me stay sharp, witty, and able to maintain my writing responsibilities. I feel good.
It's telling how we're always quick to gravitate towards the elaborate and more "advanced" things in an effort to get bigger, faster, and stronger. But it's the simple things we dismiss. If I were to have everyone come up with 2-3 process goals (daily, bite-sized goals that complement or enhance your bigger gym-based goals) going for a walk would almost always be applicable.
And, just to toss it out there: a walk is a walk. There's no need to make it more hardcore by adding a sled or walking on glass for AMRAP. Chill out and just enjoy it. – Tony Gentilcore
Eric Cressey – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Your Fitbit probably isn't nearly as accurate as you might think (particularly with respect to how much you wake up in the middle of the night), but it's affordable and somewhat consistent in terms of monitoring the times you go to sleep and wake up. I use a program called Fatigue Science, although there are a lot of different monitors on the market.
I learned firsthand just how challenging sleep deprivation is when we had our twin daughters in 2014, which was the same month we opened our Cressey Sports Performance facility in Jupiter, Florida. This was right as the professional baseball off-season got to full swing. I survived on 3-4 hours of sleep per night for about six months.
Not surprisingly, my gym performance was terrible and I dropped about ten pounds during that time. My training schedule didn't change, and my nutrition didn't change (aside from having a lot more caffeine), but the sleep factor was bigger than I could have ever appreciated.
This experience motivated me to look a lot closer at sleep quality in our athletes, and I was surprised to find that a lot of high school, college, and pro athletes were barely sleeping more than I was – a father of newborn twins. And it wasn't even that they had rigid schedules that were forcing them to bed late or out of bed early. They were usually just messing around on social media and watching TV into the wee hours of the morning.
Sleep deprivation impacts a myriad of physiological functions mediated by hormones like insulin, testosterone, growth hormone, and cortisol. And these are the big players that determine whether you get fatter or leaner, and stronger or weaker.
We have five Fatigue Science "readibands" in our office now, and I rotate them among our athletes so that they can take 2-3 weeks to look at their sleep quality and quantity. It's been impactful on a number of fronts, from encouraging guys to get to bed earlier, to establishing better sleep environments, to improving meal timing and frequency. I have a few pro athletes I can track from afar as they travel throughout the country during the season as well.
Whether you want to go the wearable technology route or just start documenting sleep and wake times and rating your sleep quality, it's a good move to look closer at the sleep side of the equation before you start overhauling the training and nutrition components. – Eric Cressey
Charles Staley – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
If I look back over all the simple habits that have had the most profound impact on my physical development, it's been tracking macros, which I've been doing since about 2013. This habit is much simpler than it sounds. It only takes a few minutes a day and really helps you to get dialed in on what you're consuming.
Now if you're doing just fine without tracking, great! Don't change a thing. But if you're NOT happy with your progress, allow me to share an analogy:
Imagine you've started a new business, but you've decided not to track your income or expenses. Now of course, it's possible that this new venture will succeed, but it's not likely. Tracking your nutrition works in such the same way, especially if being lean is the goal.
The more things matter to us, the more likely we are to track. So if being lean matters to you, give macro tracking an honest go. – Charles Staley
Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach
I was opposed to it for a long time. But that was when my main goals were getting bigger and stronger. Now that I'm 42, I have no desire to get any bigger and my days of competitive powerlifting are behind me. I spent almost 30 years building the foundation of muscle that I have now, and maintaining it isn't very hard. So my focus shifted to doing things to improve the quality of my life both in and out of the gym.
The thing that got me interested in IF was all of the research that showed the impact it had on reducing inflammation, autophagy, improved insulin sensitivity, reduced oxidative stress, and increasing mitochondrial biogenesis. So I eat between 2 PM and 10 PM now, and feel great. For guys over 40, or anyone who's looking to improve their health, I recommend doing some IF at least 2-3 times a week just to take advantage of some of these benefits. – Paul Carter