How I Succeeded With A Gradual Fitness Plan

Instead of thinking about your physical fitness as an all-or-nothing ordeal, what if you thought about it in levels? I’m talking about a gradual fitness plan.

The reason I’m in great shape right now is because I’ve taken my time to get to this point. I kept my requirements in sync with my physical ability and discipline level. 

If you’re out of shape and you commit to a 1-3 month killer workout regimen, you’ll burn out and end up hating exercise. Why? You’re not ready for it. Your body isn’t ready for it. Your mind is even less ready for it.

Also, what happens if you succeed? What happens if you complete the 90 days of exercise torture? Are you going to work out just as hard the following week? Not likely. You’ll fall right back into your old routines, and your body will fall right back to where it was. Only habits can sustain results from here until death.

The goal isn’t to “buy time” before you’re out of shape again, it’s to create a habit of consistent exercise. The key takeaway is to give yourself a year, start out slow and steady, and by the time you get to month nine, you’ll be well on your way to being a different person. Permanently.

If you’re in a rush to to change into a better you, don’t be. 

The underlying point isn’t that I’m in good shape now, it’s that my brain is now friends the concept of exercise. When that happens, you’ve conquered the mountain. Even as I type this, my brain is releasing endorphins because I just played basketball. That’s a benefit that takes time for the brain to understand.

Here’s how I did it. I highly recommend it! 

Gradual Fitness Plan: Level 1

A little more than a year ago, I started doing one push-up per day. At the time I started, I was relatively out-of-shape, weak, and discouraged. I was riding on the coattails of high metabolism. But through the power of Mini Habits, my one push-up (or more) per day methodically ate away at my resistance to exercising.

After a few months, I moved ahead.

Level 2

Sure, I can run forever, but I’m on a new mission. I call it mission “Skinny No Mo” and it is in progress. The beard is just a bonus.

Using my push-up mini habit as a springboard, I starting going to the gym, this time confident I could maintain consistency (finally! After a decade!). I began going at least 3x a week. That was 249 days ago and I’m still doing it.

While I noticed increases in muscle size and tone from my level 2 efforts, I also felt like I had plateaued. My routine at the gym was stale, and worse, I had been exercising all wrong!

How I Was Exercising All Wrong (And Why That’s Actually Ok)

I wasn’t tracking my exercises; not anything besides showing up. While at the gym, I usually work out fairly hard, but I hadn’t been progressing to heavier weights. My reps and sets were random.

The reason this was ok for that time is because it was part of my progression. I started with one push-up a day, keep in mind, so messing around at the gym was still a step up. I didn’t force myself to do Arnold Schwarzenegger’s workout right away; just going to the gym was enough

My philosophy is: Don’t swing for a 50% chance home run when you know for sure you can hit four singles. 

The most important factor for lasting results is consistency, and that has been shown so true over the last year of my life. I’m constantly making progress, and just recently entered the next level of fitness.

Level 3

Level 3 for me is tracking specific exercises, weights, reps, and sets. Much of my gradual fitness plan comes from a book I read called Bigger, Leaner, Stronger. This book was written by a guy who is in flawless physical condition; he knows what he’s talking about. I would recommend it for the fitness and supplement advice (but not the standard fare motivational advice—to get yourself to the gym, use the mini habits strategy).

Part of what has made mini habits so successful for me is that I track them every day. It takes a few seconds to make a check mark or write down a few numbers, but it makes a world of difference psychologically. In the case of exercise, I now believe it’s the difference between plateauing and making real progress.

When you know exactly what weight you lifted last session and how many times, you know exactly how much progress you’re making. It makes exercise measurable. For strength, the difference in weight and reps is obvious, and for aerobics, you can track your distance and time for endurance and speed.

Tracking your exercise has great benefits:

  • Tangible progress: signs of progress are critical for morale in the early stages when you’re putting in the work and waiting for your body to change. Improvement in physical measures proves that you are making progress, even if it doesn’t show yet.
  • Accountability: tracking keeps you accountable and consistent because it strengthens two key expectations.
    • Increase the expectation to “see if you can beat your previous mark”
    • Increase the expectation to continue to track it (this matters because you have to do it to track it!)
  • Fun: What’s more fun: to “lift weights” or to increase your strength by 55%? Tracking exercise frames it in the most accurate and fun way—you’re literally upgrading your body! 

Can you do an extra rep this time? Or two? Can you add 5 pounds and do the same number of reps? Seeing this tangible progress is not only important for moving your targets forward, but it encourages you to keep it up.

I wasn’t adding any muscle weight on the old “do a few of the machines, some curls, and pull-ups” plan. Two weeks into “level 3,” the scale tells me I’ve already added 4 pounds (of muscle). So far, so good. 

Don’t be in a rush to do extreme workouts. You’re better off building up to that level gradually, so the change will stick. What level are you at right now? 

And consider the impact of tracking your exercises. If you can handle the extra work (i.e. willpower cost) that tracking requires, it’s a worthwhile way to take your fitness to the next level. Good luck with your gradual fitness plan!

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