Why to Focus on the Basics and Ignore The Rest

By John Roark, ManRevived.com

“Stick to the basics.”

It’s a phrase you hear time and time again, no matter what the topic of conversation is. Work, productivity, sports, dieting. It can apply to anything.

But for some reason, we seem to ignore it and brush it off the quickest as it relates to all things fitness.

As soon as the latest flashy fitness blog or magazine comes out, promising us abs in 30 days or less, we tend to completely forget the basics, and chase the shiny object.

It happened to me when I was first getting started, and I see it happening to tons of people every month, all in the pursuit of perfection and self-confidence.

And I think that’s why ditching the basics is so appealing when it comes to fitness. The goal we’re striving for isn’t a little more productivity at work, or baking a tasty batch of muffins.

Sticking to the basics is easy when that’s the goal. I mean, there’s not a lot of reasons to make those goals any more exciting. They’re small, deliver a small benefit, but they’re not life changing.

Fitness, on the other hand, runs deep.

It’s the way we look, the way we feel, the image we convey to everyone we meet in the form of our physical body.

And all of that is tied up deeply in the ego and our self-worth.

If you’ve ever had a time in your life where you felt unattractive, unfit, or unhealthy, you know that you would do almost anything to change your situation right-freaking-now.

It can feel absolutely impossible to just keep on the straight and narrow, put in the time and the effort, and hope to see results in 6 months or a year.

That’s not sexy. That’s not a “life hack”.

And since fitness is so intertwined with our perception of ourselves, we look for the thing that will change our life the fastest. I mean, it’s not comfortable feeling like crap. We want to feel better ASAP.

We look for the 30 day abs without dieting. We look for the 10 minute routine to get us ripped without stepping foot in a gym. We buy the latest fat-burner pill.

You probably also know how those things usually end. In time-wasting. In failure. In disappointment.

By the time you’ve gone through the shiny new fad program, failed, and realized it didn’t work, you could have made significant progress just by following a super simple program that focuses on the basics.

What Are The Basics, Then?

I have intentionally designed my fitness regime around “the basics”, because they work, they’re easier to plan, and I don’t have to think as much about what I’m going to be doing. I just stick to a simple outline.

I like to think of it as the 80/20 rule (otherwise known as the Pareto Principle): 20% of the things I do will contribute to 80% of the results.

In other words, a few, basic things, will give you the vast majority of your progress.

Sure, I may only ever get to 80%, but it’s only going to take me 20% of the time, and I’m much more likely to stick to it and maintain that 80% achievement, than the person who’s aiming for 100% perfection, and trying to follow every little trick and fad-diet.

To me, the basics are:

  1. Heavy, compound lifts

  2. Eating mostly unprocessed, natural foods

  3. Getting enough calories to hit my goals (bulk, cut, or maintain)

  4. Getting enough protein to build muscle

  5. Doing some form of sport at least once/week

  6. Doing yoga at least once/week

Those may seem a bit vague, but they’re easy for me to follow, they don’t test my willpower (never rely on willpower alone!), and since I track my progress, I know they produce results.

This doesn’t have to be what your basics look like, although since they are purposely quite foundational, they may look similar.

I’ll walk through each of these and show you why I think sticking to the basics works for each one.

Heavy, Compound Lifts

Photo by  Victor Freitas  on  Unsplash

I spent more than 2 years in the gym making absolutely ZERO progress. It was really demotivating.

I wouldn’t have a plan going in, I didn’t know how to do most exercises, and I had no idea that you could follow a plan or system to reach specific goals.

It really was a waste of time and money, but at least it allowed me to see what NOT to do.

Then one day, I found out about a 12 week program on Bodybuilding.com. They provided a workout plan, a meal plan, and videos for every single day. It seemed perfect, since I wouldn’t have to decide what I was going to do at the gym or what I was going to eat. Someone had already done that for me, and I would just do what they said.

It was great! I finally made some progress, my lifts increased, and I lost body fat. I felt pretty cool at the end of those 12 weeks.

Since I hadn’t had a cheat-meal the entire time, and I was religiously following this program, I thought it would be a great reward to go have a beer and a burger with some friends.

Now, it tasted like the best burger on earth at the time, but that little reward turned into the start of a long, slow slide back to where I was before I started the 12 week journey.

You see, since it was only a 12 week program, and didn’t have any follow up, I once again had no idea what to do. I had no foundational knowledge myself, and without someone leading me every step of the way, I was lost.

It was a horrible feeling to step on the scale after a few months and realize all the pain and suffering I had put myself through had been undone because I wasn’t eating as well or going to the gym as much.

More years went by and I slowly started to get more serious about my health. I finally started to understand the power of basic, compound lifts, and have been sticking to these basic routines for the last couple of years.

I started out with StrongLifts 5x5, and moved onto a regime called PHUL. I found a program I liked, put all the workouts into my phone on the Strong app, and just kept at it, adding a tiny bit of weight every week to continue making progress.

I feel better, I look better, and all of my lifts have significantly increased thanks to the focus on squats, deadlifts, bench press, and a few complimentary movements besides those basics.

I don’t have to think about what I’m doing at the gym, because I pre-programmed my app. I don’t have to remember how much I lifted the last week, since it’s in my app.

Basically, I’ve removed all the sticking points where, if I were to try to think about it, I might eventually be able to convince myself that I didn’t have to go to the gym at all (isn’t it easier just to stay in bed?).

This way I wake up, get dressed, and go to the gym. I don’t give myself a chance to think. I just go and do, and I always feel better knowing I’ve worked out.

Eating Mostly Unprocessed, Natural Foods

Just like I had to fail to learn about proper weightlifting programs, I had to fail to learn about proper eating.

That strict, no cheat meal, same thing every day meal plan with the 12 week program absolutely sucked.

I don’t just want to look good and lift weights, I want to enjoy my life, too! And for me, food is something that should be enjoyed.

I cut out all sugary drinks a few years ago, don’t eat pre-made, frozen meals, don’t hit the fast food places more than a couple times per month, and basically just choose real, whole ingredients to cook with.

Oh, and just like working out, planning comes in handy here, too.

I’ve started doing a meal plan for the entire month. It helps me know what I need to buy at the grocery store, and it means that I don’t have to think. Every time you make yourself think and make a decision, the potential exists for you to choose the wrong option (fast food, Coke, etc.).

By taking care of that at the beginning of the month, I just check the calendar, see what I need to make for the day, and go from there.

Getting Enough Calories And Protein To Hit My Goals

I do love meal planning and I personally do like to track the food I eat (I use MyFitnessPal), but I don’t obsess over either of those things.

After a couple months, you generally know what to eat and how much to eat, so you can still be pretty accurate without needing to measure every little thing.

But, it’s important to get that baseline.

Learn about your TDEE. Learn about how much protein you should be eating. Make a couple of ballpark figures, and try to hit them every day or week.

And as long as you’re measuring progress (your weight, your measurements, your lifts, etc.), you can adjust up or down to better suit your needs.

I pick a daily calorie goal and a daily protein goal. I know based on how I eat, I’ll probably hit a certain number of carbs and a certain amount of fat, but I don’t care too much because the way I do it has proven to be “good enough”.

Remember the 80/20 principle. I could be super anal and track down to a granular level, but for what? I might get an additional 2% gains. Not worth it!

Stick to the basics and you’ll have a much easier time maintaining your fitness long-term.

Doing Some Form Of Sport And Yoga At Least Once/Week Each

Photo by  Markus Spiske  on  Unsplash

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This might be the easiest one to see just how simple things can be.

Do a sport. Do yoga.

As long as you do the activity, you can check this off your list! No tracking required!

These are both healthy things to do, and I know they make me feel better, because when I don’t do them, I notice a negative shift in my body, flexibility, and even my mindset.

You don’t have to play sports if you don’t like them, but it’s just an example of choosing something basic and foundational to keep your body moving regularly.

Coming Back To The Basics

I hope that by illustrating the few basic fitness principles I have that I’ve been able to show you how and why you should focus on the basics.

Every time I’ve tried to go for a trick or a hack, it’s backfired.

But having spent the last 2 years being fairly consistent with my basic eating and my basic exercise routines, I’ve never felt better, and I (almost) never find myself trying to justify not doing the things I know need to be done.

Plus, if you’re embracing the basics, it’s less damaging to your entire routine when you do have to miss a gym day, or if you do go out for pizza or burgers.

On a strict routine, everything’s so stressful, and if you missed a day or ate something wrong, you’d feel horrible and would have a high risk of falling off the wagon.

With the basics, you know that you’re in this for the long haul. You know that one bad meal or one missed day won’t derail your whole life. You have the systems in place to make sure you get back on the horse, and you just carry on doing what works.

It’s freeing, it’s relaxing, and it’s so much easier to maintain.

And when you maintain your fitness routine, that’s when real change and progress happens.



John Roark is a dad and a husband, who is passionate about helping men get the most out of their lives by getting back to the basics, and doing the least to get the most results. He writes about fitness at ManRevived.com.