If I had to boil down my philosophy in any aspect of life, I’d say I’m all about being “balanced.”
I love building a muscular physique, but don’t want to outgrow normal clothes.
I like being lean, but I’m not willing to give up every last one of my favorite foods to lose the last 2% body fat.
I enjoy modern clothing, but temper the trends with classic menswear pieces.
For the most part, I’m pleased with where I am in every area of my life and this balanced approach works exceptionally well for maintenance.
But to develop these skills and accomplish my goals, the only course of initial action was to be EXTREME.
Sometimes, you really need to go too far to end up where you want to be.
When you force yourself to become comfortable at the far end of the spectrum, maintenance in every aspect of life becomes practically effortless.
Ready to get extreme? Here are my five favorite challenges (all if which I’ve tackled myself) to make this your best year ever!
Lifting 90 days in a row
Largely due to my formal education in exercise physiology, I’d always been hesitant to lift more than 4 or 5 days per week.
When I was in college, the clinical guideline was that athletes shouldn’t partake in any strength training within 48 hours of the previous lifting session, regardless of muscles being worked.
As a result, I’d always hovered around 4 lifting sessions per week, had gone up to 5 at specific times, but never even considered 6.
And 7? Madness!
But last winter, I went all out.
I was on my first year of TRT and extremely motivated.
I was working from home and didn’t mind getting out of the house and away from my colicky (i.e., non-stop screaming) newborn for an hour or so.
I didn’t have an end goal in mind, I just thought, “fuck it, I’m going to lift everyday and see what happens.”
And so I went to the gym everyday for 3 months and lifted weights all but a handful of occasions when I did cardio and stretching.
I ended up getting bigger and stronger and felt amazing in general.
Hammering muscle groups multiple times per week all but eliminated soreness, my gym buddies were complimenting me, and I felt indestructible!
But after that 6-week mark, I did start to get worn down.
My joints were achy, I felt tired, and I actually started to lose strength near the end, even though my body weight continued to creep up.
But I found out just how much I had to overdo it to reach the elusive overtrained state so many lifters fear but never approach.
Now I’m not even remotely hesitant to lift 5 or 6 days per week, as long as I control volume and intensity.
Who should do this?
Try this if:
- You have at least a year of training under your belt and are curious to see just how far you can push yourself.
- You’re convinced that your muscles will evaporate if they aren’t allowed 48 hours to recover between workouts.
- You seem to have a hard time making it into the gym more than once or twice per week.
You’ll never know how much is enough until you find out how much is too much.
How to implement
I wouldn’t advise you to double your current routine overnight or you’ll likely crash and burn in the first week.
Start by adding one lifting session per week, every week, until you’re pumping iron every day, 7 days a week.
Also, you’ll never be able to do full body workouts or hit everything with the same volume and intensity as if you were on a 3-day per week program.
Instead, split up your weekly volume across more days, training one or two muscle groups per day, and space things out as best you can.
An example program would be:
- Monday and Thursday – Push
- Tuesday and Friday – Legs
- Wednesday and Saturday – Pull
- Sunday – Dealer’s choice, active recovery, or cardio and stretching
This will help you to realize where your limits are – and near your limit is where you’ll really start to make progress.
If you previously had a hard time getting your ass in the gym, I assure you, you will never have that problem again after 90 straight days of lifting.
3 or 4 days in the gym per week will be nothing.
Going vegan – 2 weeks
Not missing meat with this fiesta quinoa salad, corn chips with flax, and guacamole.
When I was at my wits end in terms of building muscle, I thought “what if I’m eating too much meat and not enough veggies? Maybe my body is too acidic?”
At that point, I’d been on a very low carb diet for a long time and I was absolutely sick of eating insane amounts of animal products.
I felt acidic and desperately needed a change of pace.
As an experiment, I went vegetarian, actually almost completely vegan, for nearly two months.
Other than eggs, which I sometimes had in the morning, and very sparing and occasional uses of cheese, and I was eating almost nothing but whole, plant-based foods (and not that fake meat crap).
Needless to say, I was a plant-eating machine.
I ended up losing a few pounds, though (due to the low caloric intake) I can only assume that it was a combination of muscle and fat.
That “acidic” sensation faded. I felt healthy, “clean,” and even started to develop a little superiority complex.
But I just didn’t feel as strong as I was when eating meat and I didn’t feel like the diet could support long term heavy training.
The real benefit of veganism for me was being forced to eat an insane amount of plant foods.
Now I can pound back 5 to 7 servings of veggies per day without even thinking about it.
I’ve learned to be more creative with my cooking and have a new appreciation for a variety of foods.
As I’ve detailed recently, I eat plenty of animal products now, but that beneficial habit is still there and takes absolutely no willpower to maintain.
Who should do this?
I would recommend a vegan challenge to anyone who relies too heavily on processed foods or anyone whose idea of a vegetable is french fries and ketchup.
Do you have a hard time eating your veggies? Have no clue how to get sources of protein and fat that aren’t animal-based into your diet?
This is a good option for you.
How to implement
The purpose of this challenge is to:
- Get you comfortable eating whole foods
- Expand your palate
- Teach you how to prepare plant-based foods
And it will require serious discipline.
It’s not about learning to live without animal products so much as it is about learning to appreciate and find space for beneficial foods that you’re not consuming.
To get started, give yourself a week to plan and prep prior to beginning your two weeks of veganism. You’ll likely need to eat your way through the contents of your refrigerator to clear it out before starting.
Take a few hours to search online for foods and recipes that sound good to you and bookmark those pages.
Plan your dinners one week at a time, use the recipes you bookmarked to draft grocery lists, and stock up on everything you’ll be eating for that week.
Fruit, nuts, oils, and avocado will likely be the most calorie-dense fare.
You’ll also need to rely pretty heavily on grain to avoid losing too much weight, but a little rice or quinoa never hurt anyone.
And while you shouldn’t include the imitation meat and cheese products or loads of vegan convenience foods (defeats the whole purpose), still grab just a few items like black bean burgers and a pre-made meal or two to keep you on track in a moment of weakness or a serious time pinch.
To end your fortnight of veganism, add in some lean (preferably organic) meats and whey protein. But don’t fully abandon the eating habits you acquired during the last two weeks.
Waking up at 5 am – 1 month
I don’t know about you, but 12 years of school set the stage for me in the scheduling department and, to this day, my most productive time is between 6 am and 3 pm.
I’ve always preferred early morning workouts and never once stayed up late studying or writing a paper in college.
And the reason is simply because it takes me four hours to do one hour worth of real, creative work in the evening.
I now reserve the later hours for things like social media, researching new topics, and family time.
But after quitting my job and starting Iron & Tweed, I found myself for the first time sleeping later and later to “recover from tough workouts” (as I told myself).
Which would’ve been just fine if my natural quit-time was pushed back proportionally.
But, alas, my brain was still winding down in the early afternoon.
I saw my awesome window of productivity getting smaller and smaller and I couldn’t let that happen.
Needing to get my ass in gear, I decided that I would wake up at 5 am, no matter how late I was up the night before or how sore I was.
This is one example where the extreme habit actually fits better than the moderate one.
After a month of waking up at 5 am, I found that my entire day just went so much better.
I felt like I had really accomplished things by noon everyday and was always ready to go to bed at a reasonable hour.
For the foreseeable future, this is a habit I’ll keep.
Who should do this?
It isn’t mandatory to wake up early to be successful, but the vast majority of extraordinary men have been early risers.
If you want to increase productivity, make your morning routine more enjoyable, and get more out of your day, this challenge is for you.
How to implement
Do you want time to hit the gym, have a nice meal, and decompress before you start your day?
Challenge yourself to wake up at 5 am for one month.
To make it easier on yourself:
- Use blackout curtains to darken your room for more restful night sleep
- Turn off all screens and read for one hour before bed
- Limit or (preferably) eliminate caffeine by the early afternoon
- Upgrade your morning coffee and create a morning routine that makes you eager to get out of bed
The first couple days will be tough, but the later you stay up, the more tired you’ll be the next night, and the more refreshed you’ll wake up the next morning.
See where this is going?
And after 30 days of waking up before the sun, 7 am will feel like sleeping in and you’ll be lying there half-awake waiting for your alarm to go off.
No spend – 1 month
When you don’t spend your money on useless crap, it starts to pile up.
You aren’t going to get rich by skipping your daily coffee.
But you’ll also never get ahead in life and business if you have more dollars flying away than you have coming in.
For my 10th birthday, my parents threw a big party. I ended up with $180 in cash from all the cards. (Thanks, family!)
The next day, I opened a savings account and haven’t had less than that in there ever since.
But even as a money-conscious guy, I sometimes need to check my mindless spending.
I live in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Chicago and it’s super easy to spend tons on food, booze, and entertainment.
So periodically, I like to do a “no spend” month whenever I feel the urge to reign myself in.
Whenever I notice my non-essential spending getting out of control, I crack down on myself by limiting those expenses to $100 for the next month.
When the month is over and I realize how easy it was to live without the needless spending, staying within a reasonable budget becomes simple in the months that follow.
And it’s satisfying to watch how quickly my bank account swells with just a little restraint.
Who should do this?
If you make a decent buck but never seem to have enough and can’t really tell where all your cash is going, a No Spend November (or March or August or whatever) can be of great benefit.
How to implement
Obviously you have to pay your bills. Rent, utilities, groceries, insurance, and the like don’t count in this scenario.
Figure out your monthly costs for essentials like toiletries (like soap, not cologne and $20 shampoo), fuel, and food.
Stock up on what you know you’ll require (such as deodorant and toothpaste), put aside money for bills, and set a strict budget.
I like $100 for the entire month. That allows me $25 per week for emergency coffees and bus rides during blizzards.
For the entire month, you won’t:
- Go out for drinks
- Buy video games or phone accessories
- Purchase apps or subscription services
- Try that new pre-workout
- Take your lunch to work
- Drink the office coffee
- Cook dinners at home
- Opt for free entertainment (hiking a trail, free outdoor music, board games with friends)
- Use only basic supplements, if any
You’ll be astonished at just how much money you have at the end of the month and how motivated you’ll feel to remain conscious and in control of your financial situation.
Barefoot running – as long as needed
I can still remember the pale blue plastic and the God-awful taste.
My doctor diagnosed me with asthma as a child, though thinking back, I’m pretty sure I was just a candy-ass.
My entire life, I never ran without being required to during gym class or the school track and field day (3 laps, max!). And as you can guess, I wasn’t particularly skilled at it.
So the first time I ever attempted to run a mile wasn’t until I was in my early 20s and 200 lbs of chewed bubble gum.
But with my mind fixated on losing weight and getting in shape, I figured running was the best way (ah, I’ve learned so much since then).
It took almost 14 minutes to run a mile and I literally felt like I was going to die the entire way.
Then things got really bad.
My stride was so poor and my body so terribly under-conditioned that every bone, tendon, and ligament in my feet, ankles, knees, and hips ached for over two weeks following my gingerly jog.
My quads felt like they were torn and my hip flexors and tibialis anteriors (shins) felt like they were detached from the bone.
This was the most agonizing case of shin splints ever.
I had to use my arms to lift my legs to get out of my truck. The pain was intense!
Barefoot running caught my attention as it was becoming popular at that time, and while I didn’t think it was a cure-all, it tickled something in the logical part of my brain.
With my excessively padded running shoes, I hadn’t been able to get the immediate feedback I needed to correct my forceful heel strike.
So I decided that if I couldn’t at least jog pain-free while barefoot (impact-wise), I was doing it wrong and my shoes were enabling me to run that way.
As my wounds were healing, I studied the proper biomechanics and devised a plan to get me up to running three 10-minute miles completely pain-free.
What a difference!
I learned so much about proper running technique that I never would’ve learned if I just kept chugging along in sensory-dampening shoes.
I was able to reach my goal of running a decently paced 3 miles without any muscle or skeletal discomfort.
Though I was completely winded after every single run, at least my joints didn’t feel like they were coming apart.
These days, I much prefer to walk on an incline, hike trails, or cycle outdoors for my cardio, but the correct running technique has stayed with me.
Who should do this?
If you think that you can’t include jogging as part of your exercise program due to any of the above pain-related issues, I strongly encourage you to give barefoot running a try.
Just until you perfect your stride, that is.
You can also check the sides and bottoms of your shoes for wear patterns that can be indicative of issues with your gait.
How to implement
Given that my first attempt at running left me incapacitated for several weeks, I knew a gradual approach was key if I ever hoped to build up from one session to another.
So I started with one lap of my gym’s track (1/10th mile) in my socks following my weightlifting workout.
The next day, I did two laps. So far so good.
I continued in this fashion, building very slowly and always paying attention to my stride, until I was cruising pain-free.
To try this for yourself:
- Get used to walking around barefoot and notice how much shock is transferred through your body if you land hard on your heels.
- Practice supporting your weight on the balls of your feet by bouncing in place without letting your heels touch the ground.
- When you’re ready to run, keep your strides short, your body leaning slightly forward, and your weight on the balls of your feet.
- Keep the distance much shorter than you think you can handle (you can’t build on your performance if you get hurt)
- Build up your mileage slowly.
Once you’ve established sound body mechanics, it’s okay to reintroduce shoes as a way to increase your distance.
Just be sure not to let your form slip when the immediate feedback is no longer there.
Get to it
So there it is, an unbalanced approach to becoming balanced.
Do any of these challenges sound like they’re up your alley?
What do you want to tackle first?
All the best,