What's the hardest part of any journey?
The path to achieving a great physique is no different. It is so easy to get overwhelmed. Should I do Crossfit? HIIT? How should I eat? What should I eat? How much sleep do I need? How long should I stay in the sauna? What supplements do I need? How often do I need to lift weights? Can I do cardio and still add muscle?
Just typing that caused my stress reaction to kick into overdrive. So many decisions!
Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs
As human beings, we have needs that need to be met. Not all of these needs are equal. Some are more important to our survival than others. For example, our need for food has a stronger biological drive than our need to belong. Without social belonging, we are unhappy - but without food, we die.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his “hiearchy of human needs” in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”. Maslow argued that we more base needs must be met before we can focus on higher level needs Someone who is struggling to have consistent shelter will not be able to focus on self-actualization until his need for shelter (and many other needs) are met.
Introducing: The Hierarchy of Training Needs
Our path to a better physique can be constructed in a similar manner to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
One must focus on the layers in succession; Layer 1 must be achieved before setting your sights on Layer 2.
Layer 1: Consistent Diet
If our goal is attaining a shredded, sexy body, then diet is the most important component. It is essential that, before focusing on anything else, you develop a consistent diet.
We all have that friend who never works out, but still walks around in an above-average body because they don’t overeat, they don’t binge on junk food, and they’re not making 4 AM Taco Bell runs after drinking Thursday through Saturday.
You may have heard the saying, "you can't outrun a bad diet." And it's true. You can bust ass 7 days per week, 365 days a year, but if your diet is crap, you're like a car stuck in the mud, spinning your wheels and going nowhere.
Your absolute first focus should be on attaining a consistent diet.
There are two key parts to eating healthy consistently: food selection and portion selection.
Food selection (or, “what you eat”) refers to the foods you choose to consume. This applies to the foods you buy at the grocery, as well as the food you order at restaurants.
Portion selection refers to how much you eat. Some people claim portion selection doesn’t matter if you’re only choosing healthy foods to eat. They are wrong. If I consume 4000 calories of healthy food every day, but I’m only burning 2000 calories daily, I’m going to gain weight - and it won’t be pure muscle.
How to start:
1. Improve your food selection. This is the #1 step anyone looking to get into better shape should start with.
Stick to the outer portions of the grocery. As much as possible, stick to whole foods that don’t come in a box. Fresh meat and vegetables should make up the bulk of your grocery list.
Here’s a look at what my typical grocery list might look like:
2. Become conscious about your portion selection.
Once you’ve improved your food selection, you can focus on finding the right portions for you.
Portion selection is where macronutrients start to come into play. Macronutrients refer to the amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates you choose to consume.
Macronutrient selection is determined by your genetics, your goals, and, most importantly, trial and error. Macronutrient selection is fluid, and should change as your goals change.Test out different combinations and see what works for you!
For example: a ketogenic (high fat, moderate protein, very low/no carb) diet works well for some (but not all!) people, especially those starting with a higher percentage of body fat who are primarily looking to lose fat. Others find success using a balanced macro approach, such as 40% protein, 30% fat, and 30% carbohydrates.
The only way to find out what works for YOU is to experiment! Try something for two weeks, measuring your weight and body fat or composition before and after. If it works - keep doing it! If it doesn’t - try something else, until you find what works for you.
Layer 1 is the hardest layer to build. Take the time necessary to build a solid foundation. If you rush this step (or skip it entirely), anything you accomplish will be built on shaky ground.
Once you are eating healthy consistently, you are ready to move on to...
Layer 2: Consistent Training
- 80% of Americans who join a gym in January will quit within five months (source)
- Only 50% of people with a gym membership go on a regular basis.
- Only 15% of Americans work out three times per week.
What do all these statistics mean?
Besides a consistent diet, consistent training is the most important step towards getting the healthy, sexy body you’ve always dreamed of. You can’t go to the gym twice a month, for 4 months, and expect to look like Chris Hemsworth or Gal Gadot.
Consistent training is made of three modalities: Resistance training, cardio training, and flexibility training.
“Resistance training” is “is a type of physical exercise specializing in the use of resistance to induce muscular contraction which builds the strength, anaerobic endurance, and size of skeletal muscles.”
Thanks, Wikipedia! We don’t need Wikipedia to define strength training for us - simply, it’s any type of training where you work your muscles against some sort of resistance. That resistance can be weights, it can be bands, it can even be your own body!
How to get started: strength training
I’ve listed two routines - one involving weights, one bodyweight routine - below; I want you to pick one routine and follow it exactly as it is written.
Full body - Day 1
- Squats 2×5
- Leg curls 3×12
- BB Bench Press 2×6
- DB shoulder press 2×12
- Chin-ups 2x failure
- Weighted decline sit-ups 2×15
Full body Day 2
- Deadlifts 2×4
- Leg Press 1×20
- Weighted dips 2×8
- Pull-ups 2x failure
- BB Curls 2×15
- Ab machine 3×20
Bodyweight Exercises Only
Full body - Day 1
- Squats 2×30
- Burpees 3×20
- Push-ups 3xfailure
- Skullcrushers 2×15 (click here for how-to video)
- Crunches 3×50
Full body - Day 2
- Split-leg squats 2×15
- Squat jumps 3×20
- Dips 3xfailure
- Handstand push-ups 3×15
- Plank 2xfailure
Pick ONE routine and do it EXACTLY as written. Do NOT add anything until you’ve hit every session, every week, for 12 weeks in a row.
Remember, at this point, we’re trying to build habits, not a competition-ready physique.
“Cardio training” - aka “cardio” because no one actually says “cardio training” - has so many options I can’t possibly list them all here. You can go for a run. You can go for a walk. You can go hiking. You can take up cycling, or mountain biking. There’s rowing, ellipticals, treadmills, stationary bikes, push sleds/prowlers, jump rope...the possibilities are endless.
How to get started: Cardio
This one is hard for me to write, because the type of cardio you do depends on what you’re interested in doing, where you live, - lots of factors.
Pick ONE activity you like doing - running, biking, jump rope, I don’t care as long as it makes you sweat and your heart beat faster - and do it for 10 minutes, twice per week.
After two weeks of consistently doing cardio for 10 minutes two days per week, increase to 20 minutes of cardio two days per week.
After two weeks of consistently doing cardio for 20 minutes two days per week, increase to 30 minutes of cardio two days per week.
After two weeks of consistently doing cardio for 20 minutes two days per week, increase to 30 minutes of cardio three days per week.
“Flexibility training” is a fancy way of saying “stretching”. Out of the three training modalities, this one gets neglected the most. I know because I’m guilty of it. I ALWAYS struggle to stretch on a consistent basis! From my experience, I stretch consistently when I tack it onto the END of my workouts. When I skip stretching immediately after my workout, it’s a guarantee I’m not going to do it later (even though I tell myself, “it’s fine, you can stretch later”). If you’re struggling to stretch consistently - treat it like the last “set” of a workout - your workout is NOT over until you stretch!
How to get started: flexibility
Do the following sequence after a workout 3 days per week:
- Hamstring Stretch - bend over and attempt to touch your toes. Gradually go as low as you can go, holding for 1 minute.
- Wide-Legged Forward Fold. Spread your feet into a wide stance. Raise your arms above your head, bend over to touch the ground. Hold for 1 minute.
- Low Lunge - Hold for 1 minute. Repeat on opposite side.
- Doorway Shoulder Stretch - Stand in a doorway. Stretch your arms up and put your palms against the top. Lean forward. Hold for 1 minute.
- Supine Shoulder Extension - click the link and read the description there. Hold for 1 minute.
- Standing Chest Stretch - Stand perpendicular to a nearby wall. Place your palm on said wall, with your fingers pointed towards your back. Turn your body away from the wall. You should feel the stretch in your bicep, towards your shoulder and pec. Hold for 1 minute. Repeat on opposite side
After a month of consistently doing this stretch routine 3 days per week, increase your goal to 4 days per week.
After a month of consistently doing this stretch routine 4 days per week, increase your goal to 5 days per week.
Layer 3: Lifestyle Factors
Are you eating right?
Are you working out every week? Are you including strength, cardio, and flexibility training?
Stop reading. Do not pass go until the answer to all of these questions is “Yes!”
BOOM! Love it. Time to move on to Layer 3.
Once your diet and training are on autopilot, focus on controlling lifestyle factors that impact your health.
Are you getting enough sleep?
You cannot completely eliminate stress - but do you have a plan in place for how you handle the stressors life is bound to throw at you?
Once you have your diet and workouts down, it’s easy to think you’re on the easy path to looking - and feeling - amazing.
The reality is, until you have certain lifestyle factors under control, you’re spinning your wheels.
I know because I’ve been there.
I was working out 6 days per week, busting my ass in the gym. I was counting every calorie, hitting my macros with laser-like precision, day in and day out.
And...I felt like shit. My lifts stalled. I was gaining weight, but, at best, it was 50% muscle and 50% fat.
I was in the midst of a demanding portion of pharmacy school. Leadership obligations meant I had meetings often, and an avalanche of emails every day. Bedtime was around 11 or 12, and my alarm went off around 5:30 AM every morning. I had unintentionally surrounded myself with negative people, who seemed to somehow find a way to amplify the stressors in my life.
My body couldn’t handle everything I was throwing at it. My testosterone plummeted to 567 ng/dL at age 25. I felt miserable, like I was being crushed by everything falling around me.
Why is stress so destructive?
Under stress, our body increases production of the hormone cortisol.
Cortisol looks like this:
Remember this structure - it will be important in a moment.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone (a glucocorticoid, if you wanna get fancy) that, when secreted, causes your body to ramp up glucose production, and increases metabolism of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Cortisol also inhibits your immune system, digestive system, reproductive system, and growth processes.
Back, say, 50,000 years ago, this fight-or-flight response was a key part in keeping our ancestors alive. When faced with an imminent threat - like being outnumbered by an opposing tribe, or accidentally creeping up on a lion
So, you get stressed. Your body responds by increasing cortisol production. It doesn’t matter why you are stressed - difficulties in your relationship, taking on too many new projects at work, taking sports too seriously - because your body can’t tell the difference between “actual” stressors and what we would call “first world problems”.
Cortisol has an antagonistic relationship with testosterone. Testosterone is anabolic, meaning it helps build muscle. Cortisol is catabolic - it breaks down muscle. Making matters worse, cortisol and testosterone are both built from the same precursor - remember when I said I showed the cortisol molecule for a reason?
In case you forgot, here it is again:
And here’s our friend, testosterone:
Similar, right? Are you putting the pieces together?
Both cortisol and testosterone are produced from the same precursor. If the production of one goes up, the production of the other must go down, because there will be less of the precursor molecule around.
So, if we are constantly stressed, cortisol production is constantly ramped up - leaving less precursor molecule for the body to produce testosterone.
Whether you are male or female is irrelevant - testosterone works to decrease body fat and increase muscle mass, whereas cortisol will increase body fat and decrease muscle mass.
This is why controlling stress is so critically important for building a lean, strong body.
Layer 4: Effective Supplements
Do not spend a single dollar on supplements until Layers 1 - 3 are rock solid.
Once you're ready to address Layer 4, focus your money on proven, effective supplements.
(Legal disclaimer - consult your physician before taking any nutritional supplement. This guide is intended for informational purposes only and is not medical advice.)
Before I dig in, I want to make one thing clear.
Supplements are also called supplements because they are not necessary. There are plenty of people who have gotten jacked and strong as hell with nothing more than solid nutrition and years of hard work in the gym.
There are a lot of supplements out there that have little to zero research backing their use.
That being said - there are some supplements with proven benefits, backed by research - not just anecdotal evidence from That Dude at the gym - that WILL enhance your results, assuming you have your nutrition, training, and sleep under control.
Let’s dig in a bit on the supplements worth your money.
Is there anything special about protein powder that makes it better than eating “real” food?
Are protein powders any worse than real food?
Protein powder is convenient. You can quickly throw together a shake or smoothie and get 25 - 50 g of quality protein into your body in a few minutes. As discussed in the Nutrition section, slamming down a protein shake after your workout isn’t required - but it’s a great way to ensure you get adequate nutrition after your workout. Consider it an insurance policy - if shit happens after training that delays you getting a full meal in, you’re covered.
Creatine is one of the most well-researched and effective supplements available.
Creatine is naturally produced in your body. Creatine stores high-energy phosphate groups which release energy to aid cellular function during periods of stress. The net effect - increased strength, decreased fatigue, and weight gain (via both lean mass and water retention).
If you’re engaged in strength training, you want to take creatine. Creatine is cheap. Creatine is safe. Creatine is effective.
Stick with creatine monohydrate. It’s the cheapest, and no other version has been proven to be any more effective. The only reason to consider something like micronized creatine or creatine citrate: if you experience significant stomach cramping with monohydrate. Micronized creatine and creatine citrate are more water-soluble forms of creatine, and are less likely to form insoluble precipitates in your stomach. For most people, though, this isn’t an issue. Be sure to drink at least 100 oz (3 litres) of water daily while taking creatine and you’ll be fine.
You don’t need to cycle creatine. You don’t need to “load” creatine. No, it won’t damage your kidneys or cause cancer. I think I covered all the FAQ’s there.
How to use: Take 5g of creatine per day, with protein/carbohydrates, as food will enhance creatine uptake.
“Does it matter when I take creatine?”
This is a contentious subject. I’m not going to go into the details for both sides. The important takeaway is to just take 5g per day, every day. Pre-workout, post-workout, with breakfast...whatever, just take it.
(In case you’re wondering, I take creatine post-workout, and I think the science supports this - which is one of the reasons we didn’t include it in Focal Force Pre-workout).
As the name implies, a pre-workout supplement is something you take...pre-workout.
Mistakenly, many people think the only point of a pre-workout is to hype you up or “give” you energy for your workout. Which is understandable, given how most of them are marketed.
But, depending on the ingredients, pre-workouts are effective at reducing fatigue, increasing endurance, reducing muscle soreness, increasing strength/power output, improving mental focus, and, yes, getting you hyped to lift some plates.
When selecting a pre-workout, you want to look for
- L-Citrulline, at least 6,000 mg
- Beta Alanine, at least 3,000 mg
- L-Tyrosine, NOT N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine, or NALT for short. NALT is mostly excreted in the kidneys unchanged and is never actually converted to L-Tyrosine. Don’t waste your money on supplements that claim this form is more effective because it is “more water soluble”.
- Alpha-GPC (alpha glycerophosphocholine), at 600 mg
What about creatine?
It depends. If you’re taking a high-stimulant pre-workout (featuring 200+ mg caffeine) that also features creatines, you could end up spending more time in the bathroom than in the weight room. The combo of high-dose caffeine + creatine could wreck havoc on your GI track.
That’s why I prefer keeping my creatine separate and taking it with my post-workout meal.
I also prefer a creatine-free pre-workout because I cut creatine during summer months, but still want to use a quality pre-workout. I’m someone who gains 4-5 lbs of water weight from creatine - if your body reacts differently, this may not be an issue for you. As always, YMMV and find what works for you!
How to use: Typically, it should be consumed 30 - 45 minutes prior to working out. Try not to eat too close to using your preworkout - too much food in your stomach may blunt absorption of your pre-workout and delay/blunt its effects.
Vitamin D is vital for a wide variety of functions. It improves cognition, may help boost your testosterone levels, helps with bone health and immunity, and improves your overall well-being.
Unless you live at the equator, you aren’t getting optimal levels of Vitamin D.
Notice I said optimal. That’s an important distinction. Most people are not deficient in Vitamin D - but that doesn’t mean you have optimal levels for performance and mood.
In the United States, the FDA sets what is known as a recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for certain nutrients, such as Vitamin D. The RDA for a nutrient is set a level which a person needs to ingest to prevent deficiency. It is NOT a level set for optimal performance.
The RDA for vitamin D is set at 400 - 800 IU, but we’re aiming to just prevent deficiency here. We want to walk around at our best.
How to take: 1000 - 2000 IU per day will be sufficient for most people, with a maximum of 5,000 IU daily. Be sure to take vitamin D with a meal - it is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it is best absorbed with fat.
Fish oil is a catch-all term used to describe two types of omega-3 fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are primarily found in fish - hence the term “fish oil”.
Consuming adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids is important for keeping our ratio of omega 3’s to omega-6 fatty acids in balance.
Fish oil helps combat inflammation, improves cognition, reduces stress, and improves overall well-being.
How to take: 250 mg of combined EPA and DHA is the minimum dose for general health. This can be obtained from food sources, but if you’re like me and don’t consistently eat fish, you’ll want to supplement.
To really reap the benefits of fish oil, shoot for a dosage between 2,000 mg and 4,000 mg combined EPA/DHA daily. On days you eat fish, cut back on your fish oil supplementation.
To minimize “fish oil burps” (which I’ve never had a problem with, but some people do), take your fish oil with a meal or freeze the capsules before consuming.
Caution: fish oil can reduce blood clotting. Extra caution should be used if you’re taking a blood thinner, such as aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), Xarelto, Pradaxa, Eliquis, or Coumadin. Fish oil may also increase your cholesterol levels (although VERY slightly), so keep this in mind if you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol or it runs in your family.
A Note on Caffeine
Caffeine is the most widely-used drug on the planet. It’d be a safe wager that 99% of you reading have “used” (it feels weird writing that) caffeine at some point.
As you are probably aware, caffeine is a powerful stimulant, causing alertness and wakefulness.
There are some other beneficial, and somewhat less known, effects: caffeine also helps burn fat, increases power output, and improves mood (ok, maybe you did know about that last one).
Here’s the thing about those effects that no one seems to talk about: most of caffeine’s effects are subject to tolerance and may not occur in people chronically using caffeine.
Strength benefits? Goes away with tolerance.
Fat burning? Goes away with tolerance.
Any habitual coffee drinker could tell you this. At some point, you stop feeling any “extra” benefit from caffeine - you’re consuming to stop yourself from feeling worse. What was once a “heightened” feeling is now your baseline.
Want a better performance-enhancing compound that, to this point, hasn’t shown any propensity for tolerance? Alpha-GPC at 600 mg. Thank me later.
“What supplements should I avoid?”
Underdosed pre-workout supplements
Many pre-workouts are nothing more than expensive, artificially-flavored caffeine powder with some hype marketing thrown on the bottle.
Most supplement companies cut costs by underdosing key ingredients, like L-citrulline - which is expensive and bitter in taste.
Before you purchase that pre-workout, check the label and put it back down if you notice any of the following:
- Less than 6,000 mg of L-Citrulline. Don’t fall for the trick of underdosing citrulline while adding in similar agents like arginine or ornithine. You want 6,000 mg of citrulline. It is the best agent amongst the three.
- Less than 2,000 mg Beta Alanine. You want a minimum of 2,000 mg. Proven doses for improving performance range from 2,000 mg - 5,000 mg.
- N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine (NALT) instead of plain old L-Tyrosine/Tyrosine. NALT is mostly excreted in the kidneys unchanged and is never actually converted to L-Tyrosine. Don’t waste your money on supplements that claim this form is more effective because it is “more water soluble”.
These are cheap carbohydrates that will make you bloat, make you shit, and make you fat.
Stick to real food and protein powder as your meal replacement.
“Which supplements haven’t been proven, or need more evidence to support spending my money on?”
Glutamine is often billed as a muscle-building compound, which is true - IF you’ve suffered from severe physical trauma (like a fire) or have a disease in which muscle-wasting occurs (such as AIDS).
Glutamine has not been proven to help build muscle in healthy individuals.
Unless you are a vegan or have a low protein intake, there isn’t enough evidence to recommend using glutamine at this time.
Betaine is promoted as a performance-enhancing compound, specifically, it is purported to increase power output when taken as 1.25 g twice daily. Most pre-workouts which include betaine include a single 2.5 g dose.
Current evidence is inconclusive on betaine. Some studies show a minor increase in power output and workout volume, while in other studies, betaine is no better than placebo.
My biggest issues: the studies which have found benefit with betaine supplementation were all associated with a producer of betaine.
Furthermore, the benefits to exercise, however minimal and even if they do exist, may not matter at all. The mechanism by which betaine is purported to have beneficial effects on physical performance is also a mechanism of action of creatine. The only study evaluating a combination of betaine + creatine found no additive effects compared to creatine alone.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs are likely unnecessary as long as you are ingesting 1.0 - 1.5 grams of protein per kg bodyweight.
The anti-fatigue effects shown in some BCAA studies likely only apply to untrained or lightly-trained persons, not advanced athletes.
Layer 5: Advanced Recovery Modalities
Layer 5 - Advanced Recovery Modalities
Your diet is dialed in.
You’re consistently hitting the gym every week.
Stress is under control, and you’re getting the right amount of sleep every night.
You’re using supplements proven to work. NOW WHAT?!
Think of Layer 5 as the cherry on top.
Layer 5 - “Advanced Recovery” - introduces several “luxuries” you can add on - IF you have the time and the money, and ONLY if they do NOT detract from Layers 1 - 4.
Components of Layer 5 are “extra” - they give you an advantage, but if you are squeezed for time or money, they can be removed.
So what does Layer 5 consist of?
There is emerging and exciting evidence linking hyperthermic conditioning and a variety of benefits, including increased red blood cell count, better oxygen transport efficiency, lower heart rate, increased growth hormone production, increased hypertrophy, and many more. DO NOT USE if you are pregnant or have any medical conditions; consult with your primary care provider before using heat therapy of any sort, etc etc.
Deep-tissue massages stimulate blood flow, relieve muscle tension, lower stress, and release hormones like oxytocin and serotonin which make you feel good. Massages are especially useful for athletes, as they can help with muscle soreness, injury prevention, and lactate clearance.
Contrast Water Therapy
This involves alternating between hot and cold water, typically in jacuzzi or similar structure.
Ok, so of everything mentioned in Layer 5, this one is actually inexpensive, assuming you have access to running water capable of changing temperature. Research shows it can reduce muscle soreness and improve muscle function when used after a workout (source).
For the cold water portion, shoot for a temperature around 12-15 degrees Celsius (54 - 59 degrees Fahrenheit).
For the hot water portion, shoot for a temperature around 38 - 43 degrees Celsius (100 - 109 degrees Fahrenheit).
Alternate 1 minute cold followed by 1 minute hot, for a total of 9 - 15 minutes.
Salt baths (not bath salts, very important difference) involve mixing a salt, such as Epsom or Celtic salt, into a hot bath, then submerging yourself and soaking for 20 - 30 minutes.
LOTS of other methods:
EMS, ART, FSM, MAT, PNF...none of which I’ve personally ever used.
I consider this layer a luxury because I don’t want you wasting time or money on it unless you have 100% mastered everything else on the pyramid. The techniques in Layer 5 CAN make a difference, but they will never allow you to overcome a bad diet, crappy training routine, or lack of sleep.
Putting It All Together
The goal of our Hierarchy of Training Needs is to help you find where to put your time, money, and energy into along your path to a healthy, happy body.
This path is fluid. Things change. For a period you may find yourself atop Layer 5, but circumstances beyond your control change your life situation, and you find you need to step back and re-focus on Layer 4 for awhile. This is ok and perfectly normal!
The important thing is to always focus on the base. A solid diet and training routine will get you a good, even great, body.
However, taking a bunch of supplements and getting a massage every day doesn't mean shit if your diet and training suck.
Move up the pyramid in a linear fashion, always keeping the base consistent. Don't jump to Layer 3 until Layers 1 and 2 are rock-solid.
Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.