In his New York Times best seller, Essentialism, author Greg McKeown introduces his thesis of Essentialism, described as, “The disciplined pursuit of doing less.” Although the book doesn’t discuss exercise but instead, focuses on nearly every aspect of our profes-sional and family lives, McKeown’s mantra of, “Less but better, in every area of our lives” can serve as a framework to think about our exercise. In fact, “Less but better” would be a powerful step in the right direction for exercisers who have been bombarded with the message to exercise more (more often and for longer durations).
An essentialist’s approach to exercise centers around smart strength training. Let’s address the “why” and “how” and in doing so, let’s escape the misconceptions and cliches that engulf the modern fitness landscape.
In his late 1980’s classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey introduces his Seventh Habit, “Sharpen the Saw.” Covey implores us to take a step away from our work, not to rest, but to go to work on improving our own capacity. And the best place to start? Exercise. Interestingly, I rarely meet an exerciser that understands the actual saw sharpening benefits of exercise. Make no mistake, I meet a lot of people who are committed to exercise; but I meet very few people who know what the actual benefits of exercise are. More important than shedding five pounds, focused strength training mitigates cognitive decline, improves our decision making in the work place, increases our resting metabolic rate (the number of calories we burn at rest), reduces resting blood pressure, reverses mitochondrial aging, decreases our injury risk, and of course, increases our strength and muscle mass. Importantly, our muscle strength is inversely correlated with death from all causes. If someone asks you why you strength train, an evidence-based response could be, “As an attorney, I’m paid to put together complex ideas and make sense of them; strength training improves my cognitive function and allows me to stay sharp.”
The surprising (and palatable) prescription? We really don’t need to strength train very often to receive these saw-sharpening benefits. An essentialist would follow these evidence-based guidelines:
- Strength train 1-2 times per week with 2-3 days of rest in between each workout.
- Perform 8-12 exercises that cover all of the major muscle groups. These exercises can be performed with machines, free-weights, body weight, or bands. It’s not the tool, but how you use it.
- Focus on lifting and lowering the weight slowly so that momentum is minimized, thus making the exercise safer and far more productive.
- Perform one set of each exercise (more than one set is superfluous).
- Aim for about 8-12 reps per set but instead of obsessing over the specific number of reps, focus on performing each set to the point of momentary muscle failure; the point in which you can’t perform another rep with perfect form.
Sharpen the saw with an essentialist’s approach to exercise: Strength train hard. Strength train slowly. Strength train infrequently.