Friendly disclaimer: this photo was taken on April 13, 2018 at 8:13AM EST. I’m referring back to it because of all the photos I take of my body progress (more on that later), this time — right after my 31st birthday — was the peak at when I looked and felt my very best. I probably don’t look very much different now, but I don’t feel as “in shape” as I did then (and I was eating ice cream while semi-binge-watching Game of Thrones). So I took a moment to reflect back at what I was doing to share them here. I’m not a gym rat by any means; in fact, I don’t really enjoy gymming it, but I do it because I have to do it in order to lead a healthy lifestyle and thereby make it part of routine. I’ll credit my therapist for this analogy: you don’t brush your teeth every day because you love doing so; you do it because you have to in order to have clean, healthy teeth. You don’t think twice about doing it — you just do it. Same goes for fitness: make it part of your lifestyle that you don’t think twice about. Just do it.

Looking back on what I did in April (and what I’m currently not doing as I write this post), here’s exactly what I did and how I approach my philosophy behind fitness.

1. Define what it means for you to be “in shape.”

This is incredibly important because your fitness journey should end up on a path that you can actually stay on that you consider being “in shape.” That path should be wide enough sway left or right — simply because we’re human and shit happens — but always moving forward feeling great about yourself. I don’t recommend defining this by some ridiculous target body fat percentage or goal number of abs simply because there’s life after these goals. Very low body fat percentages are rarely sustainable and 6-packs are hard enough as they are to maintain. On top of that, there’s a vicious cycle that we can get trapped in: we can quickly lose it all because these goals were never realistic to maintain in the first place only to later realize — after our downfall — we need to strive for those same goals again to get back “in shape.” Repeat. If numbers are involved, rather isolate a healthy, attainable range relative to your body. I call being “in shape” being healthy; feeling strong, lean and flexible; and, yes, looking in the mirror and saying to myself, “I look fit,” as confirmation of the lifestyle I want to have defined by a proportionate physique. If I’m anywhere between 175 and 180 pounds, I’m happy.

2. Get used to the weekly 80/20 rule and stick to it.

80% of the week should be devoted to eating according to what a healthy human being of your best self should be eating. I say it like that because again, fitness is a lifestyle (“meal plan” or “diet” sounds like something you can’t wait for to be over) and in order to feel in shape, you have to eat well consistently, forever and always. I’ve found success trying to stick to paleo lifestyles simply because it makes logical sense. Eating according to what’s naturally available to you? That’s easy to understand and stick to, for me at least. The rest of the week should be the meals we look forward to trying and indulging in, that new restaurant we want to try or that dinner party with friends we’ve had on the map for weeks — all of which you should be doing. Enjoy your life in this modern, metropolitan world. That said…

3. Know that alcohol will severely limit your results across the board.

I took this photo one month after having a completely dry month and did nothing else differently the month prior. If you want to get a head start on your fitness journey, kill the alcohol and limit your intake once you’ve attain your new lifestyle. You’ll quickly feel better and see results much faster.

4. Know your goal caloric and protein intake per day.

This is the only tricky part to keep track of (the latter more so if you’re looking to gain muscle mass). The reasoning is simple — you gain weight by consuming more energy (i.e. calories) than you expend, or vice versa if you’re looking to lose; and you should be roughly consuming as many grams of protein per day as the daily weight (in pounds) you’re looking to ultimately maintain — but knowing whether or not you ate enough each day can easily go over your head if you have a busy lifestyle. This is where your 80 from thing-I’ve-learned-3 can get a little boring because meals ultimately become another job you don’t have time for, but have to do via basic planning ahead of time. In other words, do meal prep. Put 3-4 hours in your calendar at the start/end of every week for groceries and cooking. Doing so will also help you avoid any temptations during your 80 and it’ll save you lots of time during your week as well.

5. Have your workouts pre-planned.

If you’re not into being creative at the gym once you’re there, then you’re going to end up doing the same exercises over and over. I’m no trainer, but I do know that maximizing the various ranges of motion you can work your body out is crucial for success. Thankfully, you don’t even have to do the pre-planning yourself thanks to several apps. I’ve been using Fitbod for a year now and I can hands down attribute most of my success to this one app. It lays out your workouts for every gym session based on prior muscle recovery; and it keeps things interesting with different workouts, and superset and cardio recommendations. If you have the discipline, it’s way cheaper than a trainer; but on that note…

6. Consider a trainer if you’re a novice and/or don’t have the discipline.

Thankfully, I have the discipline to make it most days to the gym according to the schedule I’ve laid out for myself; but if you don’t — that’s fine… and human! — make yourself accountable by investing in a trainer. Regardless of budget, a trainer is possible somehow with a little sacrifice and creativity. You don’t have to have a trainer every single time you work out (ask him/her/them to get yourself on a plan for the week ahead) and/or you can sacrifice a more expensive gym for a cheaper one in order to afford a trainer. Plus, you don’t have to have a trainer indefinitely; wean off after a month and then get back with a trainer when you feel like you can take things up a notch. Make it work for you: it’s a worthwhile investment; probably more worthwhile than a lot of your monthly splurges anyway.

7. Have your workout clothes readily available.

This is mainly psychological and here’s why. I like to gym it in the early mornings — 6AM is an ideal start time for me; but that’s not easy. Adding in the extra layer of finding your workout clothes and figuring out what color shorts to wear seems like a few minutes now when you’re energetic and awake, but small tasks like these right when you open your eyes can take quadruple the time. Guilty as charged: I’ve missed gym sessions because of this (as ridiculous as that sounds). Even if you gym it at night, having your workout clothes pre-packed the night before will set the tone for making the gym part of your next day’s schedule. Bonus points for organizing your workout clothes in plain sight in your closet.

8. Recover ASAP.

Fitbod last logged my workout and calculated that I lifted a grand total of 23,980 pounds in the 1.5 hours I trained. If you’re not recovering after that by feeding your body some form of energy, then you’re doing your body a disservice. I take BCAA’s during my workout in a separate canister from my water jug and I quickly follow up my workouts with a double pea protein shake.

9. Track your progress.

I attribute the existence of this post to this key step. Snap a photo of yourself weekly and make an album in your phone dedicated exclusively for it. It doesn’t have to be for anyone else’s eyes but your own, but because we are human, we do slip or lose track; so when you look back on the photos of yourself with a timestamp, you can recall what you did to look (and feel) a certain way. If you did it before, you can do it again. If you don’t slip, you’ll be that much more proud to realize the journey you’ve been on with visual breadcrumbs.

10. Learn the difference between when your body is trying to recover and when you just don’t feel like going to the gym.

If you listen to your body carefully, this is easy. I’ve woken up early on days when I planned to go to the gym and my body might as well had a megaphone saying not today! so it can recover (it usually feels achy and worn out, but in a good way — that’s the best I can describe it). These are days when you can get a free pass to skip (but by all means, go if you can). That can be easily confused with not *feeling like* today! if you’re not aware. Learn when your body is trying to take a break versus when your self is simply trying to avoid the gym. Mind over matter.

11. Schedule your nightly 7-9 hours of sleep.

No matter what, you can’t fight sleep. We all need it and it’s at this critical time when your body recovers and heals itself (especially after rigorous strength training). Results aren’t fathomable if you aren’t well-rested. Whoever said “you can sleep when you’re dead” probably looks like death and is quickly approaching it sooner than anticipated. I try to get to bed by 10:30PM each night so I can wake up before 6AM for my gym session. But before you hit the pillow…

12. Look in the mirror naked every night and say “I’m beautiful.”

I know, it’s a little strange, but it’s important to love yourself. More than just saying it to yourself, you have to tell it to your literal, bare self. It’s incredibly easy to compare yourself to other people in a class or at the gym, let alone the #fitfam Instagram community. Understand that your body is uniquely beautiful and your own, and how you get it to its fit level — however you define that — is on your terms in line with how your body was made and functions.

Let’s get to it.