The 4 Pillars of Progress: How to Hack Fitness, Optimize Health, and Simplify Your Life

I met “Jack” after he had already lost a ton of fat and transformed his body.

For the past year, Jack had been killing it in the gym and overhauled his poor nutrition, but his progress had stalled. The frustration was getting to him.

During our initial consultation, I got a feel for where he was coming from. He grew up heavier, he wasn’t very active, he didn’t play any sports, and he was always the ‘fat guy’ in school.

He had been like this all his life. He was sick of it. He wanted change.

So he did what any sane person would do – he started hitting the gym with the single goal of changing his life.

For the most part, he did. He lost about 75lbs in just under a year and now he was on the home stretch. Or so he thought.

Progress had started to stall the last couple months, and even after he increased his training to 8 or more times per week and further reducing caloric intake he was fighting to shave off even the slightest bit of weight. Some weeks he actually gained weight, which for someone on a weight loss mission is absolutely crushing.

Jack was frustrated, and this is where he came to me for help.

Jack and I started working together 3x/week for just over 12 weeks, and during that time we reduced training from a time crunching 8 sessions to a maximum of 4 sessions per week, and added more calories. The result was over 20lbs of fat loss and an ecstatic client with a rediscovered outlook on health and fitness.

What was Jack doing wrong that I was able to cut his training in half and have him eat more with the result being breaking through a plateau and dropping a ton of fat?

I took a step back and evaluated the way the rest of his life affected his goal and his progress.

Fitness isn’t an isolated part of your life you can attack for an hour, 3 times (or 8+ times in Jack’s case), a week and then put on cruise control until the next session.

Recognizing the integration of your fitness goals with the rest of your life is a huge step forward in making sure the plan you have chosen is right for you, and gives you the appropriate tools to troubleshoot when things go awry.

This is exactly what I did with Jack, and this is how you can do it too.


 The 4 Pillars of Progress

Think of your fitness like a structure supported by 4 pillars.

Right now your structure might be a rickety old shack with squeaky hinges and broken windows, but the goal is to build it into an formidable castle that would impress even the greatest of Kings.

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Each supporting pillar needs to be adequately strong to continue to construct your castle, and the pillars need to become proportionately stronger as you get closer to your goal. Wooden pillars won’t support a fortress, but they will be fine in the interim if you’re just starting out. Eventually they will be robust and strong with ornate décor, suited to the castle they need to support.

The goal is to have all the pillars strong enough for the current state of progress, and to strengthen them all slowly and relatively evenly. The structure is only as strong as it’s weakest link.

If at any point a pillar starts to crumble, construction slows or halts until you repair it. If any pillar collapses completely, you will have to backtrack and rebuild.

Lastly, in the same way supporting columns in a building are connected by crossbeams, these pillars are dependent on one another. Strong pillars can help support a weaker one, and conversely, a single pillar could bring down the others and in turn the entire structure if it is neglected and becomes too weak.

The four supporting pillars are training, nutrition, sleep and stress, and each one has certain components that you can think about when evaluating your progress.

Training:

This is the pillar everyone focuses on the most, and it is usually the strongest, but there are still some things you can evaluate to ensure it never crumbles.

–       Is your program the right one for your goal?

–       Is it appropriate for you? (i.e. can you make all the workouts or does it have exercises you can’t perform?)

–       Are you training hard (be honest!)?

–       Are you training with purpose?

–       Is it working for you?

Nutrition:

This pillar is usually perceived as a strong one, when in reality it is quite weak. Everyone THINKS they eat great, but it still needs to be evaluated. This pillar has a bit more individual variance, but these are some general questions to ask yourself:

–       Are you getting the appropriate amount of calories in a day to support your goals?

–       Are you getting the appropriate amount of protein?

–       Do you eat vegetables with every meal?

–       Do you get the appropriate amount of fats and carbohydrates?

–       Do you eat predominantly (minimum 80%) whole, unprocessed foods?

–       Do you frequently miss meals?

–       Do you drink enough water?

–       Is the way you are currently eating sustainable in the long run?

Sleep:

An often forgotten pillar that almost always gets neglected as people become increasingly busier. Lack of sleep can lead to muscle loss when dieting and is associated with obesity, which opposes pretty much any reason you are training. Here is what to ask yourself to evaluate sleep:

–       Are you getting a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night?

–       Do you wake up frequently in the night?

–       Do you feel rested when you wake?

–       Do you feel low on energy and/or rely on caffeine throughout the day?

For more information on sleep and how to improve it check out these two articles from our friends at Precision NutritionAll About Sleep Hacking Sleep

Stress:

Stress is the other forgotten pillar that is rarely even considered, let alone evaluated. Stress can be good or bad, but chronic stress can lead to muscle loss, impair fat loss and a host of other problems. Consider the following:

–       Do you have a stressful occupation?

–       Do you find you have poor sleep quality?

–       Do you feel in control of your life?

–       Do you handle stress well?

To learn more about stress and managing it check out Good Stress, Bad Stress  and Strategies for Getting Control of Stress

It’s not hard to see how each of these pillars is connected to the others. Low energy from lack of sleep can impede the quality of a training session. High stress can lead to cravings and poor nutritional choices. A good training session can help reduce stress. The list is endless.

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With the pillars established, the next step is to troubleshoot your structure so you can continue to make progress. Here are the steps you need to take:

Step 1: Evaluate

Evaluate each of the pillars with the questions above, adding any others that are specific to you, to identify which one needs your attention the most.

Keep in mind that sometimes what seems like a problem with one is really stemming from another. For example, poor nutrition caused by emotional eating can stem from stress, so make sure you follow the breadcrumbs and really find the root of the problem. If there are no weaknesses, move on to step 3.

For Jack, I established quantity of sleep as the most pressing issue as he only slept 6 hours per night and had an inconsistent schedule.

Note: If ALL the pillars are too weak to support your goal, you should consider temporarily changing it. You might be better off with a goal that is manageable instead of a loftier one that you don’t progress towards because of constant troubleshooting. Sometimes the goal just isn’t sustainable with your life and that’s okay. Eventually you will find that the successes with smaller goals will strengthen your pillars and allow for a bigger castle down the road.

Step 2: Repair

Put the other 3 pillars on maintenance while you devote your energy to repairing the weakest pillar.

It is important to make sure you don’t neglect the strong pillars while you work on the weak one, but you also can’t let them get in the way of the work you need to do. For some this could be as simple as making sure you still get to bed on time and get your workouts in, but in other cases it could be lengthy and more complicated.

In Jack’s case he still was training 3x/week with me plus a session on his own, we kept up with nutrition and stress wasn’t an issue, so we spent time establishing a routine for bedtime to get some consistency

Step 3: Progress

Once all the pillars are back up to par, you can continue to build your castle. Get in the gym and train, continue to eat quality meals, sleep well and take time to manage your stress. Now you are back to making consistant progress!

This step is the longest, and is the one you want to be at the most. After Jack’s sleep started to improve he started to see fat loss again and he even felt better during his training sessions. We could train hard, which he loved, and he continued to see results.

Step 4: Re-Evaluate

Constantly re-evaluate the strength of each pillar.

As you get closer to your goal of that outstanding castle, your pillars will need to become increasingly strong to support the added load. There will be day-to-day variance that can be handled as it happens, but as you progress you will need to strengthen each of the pillars accordingly to support this. For instance if you change your training frequency from full body 3x to 4x per week in an upper/lower body split, you might need to increase your calories, improve your quality of sleep, or take some personal time to de-stress at the end of the day.

In Jack’s case, sleep continued to be the weakest link for a while, so we were working on improving sleep with a new habit every 2 weeks. As it improved we started to look at other factors, such as tweaking nutrition or changing training stimuli to optimize his results.

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This isn’t a complicated process, but with it Jack was able to go from frustration and stalled progress to awesome results and happiness in only 12 weeks.

You have to build a castle from the ground up, and it all starts with 4 strong pillars for continued progress.

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Photo Sources: pillarsshack, scaffold, castle


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