Getting in shape: The Basics

by Tom Nuzum, PT, MS, OCS, CSCS

Every day, thousands of people make resolutions. For many people those resolutions will include getting in shape.  What does getting in shape mean?  Running a 5K race without stopping to walk.  Running a half marathon.  Deadlifting their bodyweight.  Deadlifting twice their bodyweight.   Bench pressing their bodyweight.  After more than twenty years as a personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach, and seventeen years as a physical therapist, I wanted to offer my advice for getting in shape.

1. First, understand the idea of being in shape.

Athleticism and fitness include components of strength, speed, endurance, flexibility, balance, coordination, and mixtures of these qualities.   You can emphasize a few of these components but you won’t be able to master them all simultaneously.   Running a marathon or doing an Ironman triathlon will conflict with bench pressing 400 pounds.   People squatting 800 pounds aren’t swimming three miles a day.

2. Now, define your goals.

What does it mean to you?  Paint the picture in as much detail as possible and write it down.  Write it down so you can refer to it later.  Avoiding goal creep and historical drift (I’ll explain these issues in a little bit) will help in your journey towards fitness.

Here are some suggestions that are reasonably achievable simultaneously.

I want to walk or run a mile without stopping.
I want to be able to sprint half a lap (200 meters) in under 45 seconds and not be on my back to recover.
I want to be able to stand on one leg with my eyes closed for greater than 20 seconds without losing my balance.
I want to be able to do a somersault and not be dizzy.
I want to press half my bodyweight overhead.
I want to deadlift my bodyweight.
I want to squat my bodyweight.
I want to swim 500 yards without stopping.
I want to touch my toes.
I want to move in two belt loops.

Take these goals and modify them to your situation.

3. Write down what condition you are in now.

How long can you balance on a leg, or swim without stopping, or run without stopping?  How much can you press, deadlift, or squat.  It doesn’t have to be exact.  It can be an informed estimate.  Yes, write it down.   Yes, get out some paper and write down.  You aren’t going to remember.  Your memory will bend.  It is what I call historical drift.  For some people it is “the older I get, the better I was.”  You will not remember that you lost your balance standing on one leg with your eyes closed after 5 seconds.  You will blot out that you could not swim two lengths of the pool without gasping for air.  Put that piece of paper in your nightstand or sock drawer to revisit later.  As you make progress in your exercise journey, you are going to be distracted.   You will read articles and meet people and be encouraged, and frustrated, and confused.  Remind yourself where you started and what your goals were.  Don’t flip to a half marathon training schedule before you have achieved that mile run or 5K race.  Goal creep is when your goals migrate.   The goal of moving in two belt loops becomes losing 30 pounds.  Achieve one goal and then set the next goal.    Use small goals to achieve big goals.  The GPS takes you street by street and turn by turn to your destination.  The goals you set should do the same.

4. Plan out how you will get this done.

I don’t mean sets and reps and your entire training program.   I mean time.  Where will the time come from in your schedule?  Research has shown if you can block out the time and make yourself and these goals a priority, they will get done.   An hour each day for three days a week is a great start.  An hour a day every day is fantastic.  Thirty minutes is better than nothing.  How much and when?  Block it out and then lay out a training plan for that time.  We will get to a basic plan next week.

5. Find some help.

Set yourself up for success.  If you haven’t seen your doctor in a while, call them.  Make an appointment.  Get a physical.  Tell them you want to start a program and ask if they see any issues that should be a concern.  Ask about blood work.  Get it done.  Lab values, blood pressure, body weight, and body measurements can all be goals or sub-goals.

If you don’t have any recommendations from friends for a physical therapist or personal trainer ask your doctor for one.  Get more help.   When you schedule your appointment with the therapist or trainer, explain your needs.  I can describe my personal training service as providing guidance, structure, accountability, and instruction.    I see fitness clients ranging in frequency from multiple times a week to monthly or less.   The less frequent clients are seen for screening, evaluation, measurement and program tweaking.  How flexible are they?  How is their strength?  How is their technique with corrective or strengthening exercises?  Yes, some therapist and trainers will do one time appointments.   Those appointments are most successful when clear expectations have been laid out by both sides.  Expecting a joint by joint examination of mobility, muscle by muscle examination of strength, endurance testing, movement pattern screening, and program development and instruction to a significant degree of mastery in a one hour appointment might be unreasonable.

Finally, don’t get trapped in the holy wars.  Arguments about training theory, biomechanics, kinesiology, knee position can get ugly quickly.   Don’t fight in the crusades.  Stay home and get your work done.   I doubt anybody is going to write a goal of strengthen the serratus posterior.  Don’t let somebody get you wrapped up in these details and battles.  Get in shape instead of in fights.  Workout instead of keyboard jockeying.

Good luck in setting and achieving your resolutions and in your fitness journey.


Thomas R. Nuzum, PT, MS, OCS, CSCS
Physical Therapist
TheraPlus Physical Therapy

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