Someone asked me a question while I was dropping in at another gym back home in Virginia recently that got me thinking: “How much time do you spend in the gym to look like that?”
It’s not a bad question, and there’s no simple answer because it’s not one set of circumstances—it’s a lifetime of circumstances.
I’m tempted to answer that question with, “as little as possible” because that’s my truth now but that hasn’t always been the case. I used to be addicted to training. And it really isn’t true to say, “used to be addicted” because, as I’m sure you know, you never really beat an addiction. At best you learn ways to cope without resorting back to the addicted behavior.
The truth is that right now I’m bigger and stronger (and on my way to being leaner than I’ve ever been) all while spending the least amount of time I ever have training towards those goals. But the answer to the question isn’t really “as little as possible” precisely because I’ve spent thousands of hours training. That’s the truth and, as usual, it’s much more complicated than it seems.
Mastery Is Your Pursuit
Mastery, in any pursuit, involves seeking as much information and experience as possible. Only then will you finally have some real insight into the thing you were actually chasing all along. That’s what you see out there with so many fitness professionals and former professional athletes and their “less is more” message.
The thing they’re mostly not telling you is that they once did much more than was strictly necessary. Most of us at this level have been through a phase like this. If some is good, then more has to be better.
Unfortunately, this isn’t true.
It can be very tempting to take the advice of the jacked ex-CrossFit Games athlete advising you to do a little light lifting and a metcon and you’ll end up looking just like him. But that isn’t realistic. The truth is that that same guy deadlifts 575lbs, back squats 425lbs, front squats 400lbs, clean and jerks 375lbs and runs a 5:30 mile. Do you know what someone capable of all of lifting and squatting looks like? A jacked, insanely fit dude. The very same body many of us are chasing.
But here’s the thing, do you know what it takes to actually maintain a physique like that? Not that much. Surprisingly little actually. Great nutrition, a little conditioning, and a little weightlifting. If you haven’t caught on, that’s the same “less is more” approach that everyone is talking about.
The problem for most of us is actually getting to that body in the first place. You have to build all the underlying musculature before you can even start thinking about training at the minimum to maintain it. Unfortunately, in order to look the part, you actually have to be able to do this stuff.
The real problem with the “less is more” training approach is that it’s only sufficient for basically two types of people: highly developed athletes who just want to maintain size and fitness and people who are absolutely brand new to training.
For those of you looking for the appearance of those athletes (and may or may not be interested in the actual performance of those athletes), there is no getting around this simple fact: they spent years getting very strong, very powerful, and very fit. Therefore, if you want to look just like them, you have to train the way that they did and you have to eat to support it. There’s no shortcut to it.
There’s a caveat here: it’s often difficult to really understand how big (or not big) someone is in a picture or a video. It’s strange what a wide angle lens can do to a human being. It can make someone lean look absolutely gigantic. The body type I’m talking about in this article is the average CrossFit Games athlete, so someone in the 5’7″-6′ range weighing 175-200lbs.
Personally, it’s absolutely crazy how much 15lbs of muscle has changed the way I look in pictures. There’s absolutely nothing unusual about a 5’9″ guy weighing 185lbs. However, a lean, muscular 185lbs on a frame that size on film or in a video? Prepare to look gigantic.
It Depends on Your Factors
So, as usual, the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the article is, “It depends.” What are your aesthetic goals and what are you really willing to do to support those goals? If you just want to be lean then you will need to eat well, train only as much as you have to, and get some sleep.
If you don’t have much muscle on your small frame you will have to train a little more or a little harder and eat a little more. If you need to lose weight then you must focus on your nutrition, stop driving everywhere, get a bike or walk more, learn how to lift weights and be prepared to spend a lot of time on your goals.
But if you want to look like a jacked, powerful, and fit person, prepare to put the years in. You don’t get to skip the hard part and do the minimum. You have to build it first.