Heading Out on Your Own — Day 25: Establish an Exercise Routine

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 25, 2012 · 31 comments

in Heading Out On Your Own

When I was in high school, I didn’t have to worry about creating and sticking to a fitness routine. I had football coaches who took care of that for me. I just had to show up at the weight room at the designated time with the rest of my teammates and do the scheduled workout. Because of that consistency, along with a lot of hard work, I was in really good shape when I graduated and headed off to college.

With my football days behind me, I pretty much stopped working out once I arrived on campus. I’d play the occasional pick-up basketball game, but I didn’t have a set fitness routine to maintain the strength and conditioning I achieved while in high school. Boy, did things deteriorate quickly for me. I started to get soft and pudgy and my strength was nowhere near the levels I was used to. I remember one night during my freshman year in college I decided to go to the gym in an attempt to get back on track. I slapped 225 lbs on the bench barbell to start off. It was a weight I had easily lifted in high school. I lifted the barbell off the rack and began to slowly lower it to my chest…where it stayed until my cries of help were heard. Thankfully, only my ego was bruised. But that moment really spurred me to get back on the fitness bandwagon.

I’ve noticed that a lot of young men heading out on their own fall into the same trap I did. Sometimes they were physically active in high school because of sports, but as soon as they head off to college they stop exercising completely and quickly become the stereotypical fat ex-jock. Don’t let this happen to you! It’s harder to get back into shape once you’ve gotten flabby than it is to maintain the shape you’re already in. That’s why it’s so important you keep a regular exercise routine when you head out on your own.

If you didn’t exercise regularly in high school, without working out (and a healthy diet) you won’t become a fat ex-jock, you’ll just become fat. Plenty of guys who maintained an average weight in college find themselves growing a belly as they move into their mid and late 20s — a diet of fast food and plenty of beer takes its toll.

When I went with Kate to her ten year high school reunion, I was struck by the fact that while most of the women seemed to have maintained their figures (despite some of them having children), the dudes looked pretty out of shape and overweight.

The first few years living out on your own will a build a foundation for the rest of your life, so unless you want to become the middle-aged guy who gets all wheezy when playing with his kids, now is the time to establish a fitness routine for yourself.

Why You Need a Fitness Routine

Increases testosterone. Testosterone is what makes men, men. Unfortunately, most young men have lower testosterone than their grandfathers did because of changes in diet, activity levels, and chemicals in our environment, water, and food supply. The benefits of optimal testosterone levels are numerous. Besides increasing your libido, testosterone does the following:

  • increases mental and physical energy
  • boosts happiness (men with low-T often suffer depression)
  • increases competitive drive
  • helps prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • increases muscle size and strength

Compound weight lifting exercises like squats, bench press, cleans, and deadlifts are great testosterone boosters. High intensity exercises, like sprinting, have been shown to boost testosterone levels as well.

Good for your brain. If you want to be a stellar college student, you need to hit the treadmill in addition to hitting the books. Studies show that regular exercise speeds learning, improves memory, and promotes clearer thinking. 

Increases your willpower. We’ve talked about the importance of willpower in our success as men. One way to strengthen it is to make regular exercise a habit. Working out will increase your discipline in all areas of your life.

Reduced health costs. Health costs are ballooning here in the U.S. because of the rise of obesity and obesity-related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. While proper diet plays the biggest role in preventing obesity, regular exercise can help stave off weight gain and improve how your body uses insulin so you don’t get diabetes. A regular fitness routine has also been shown to reduce blood pressure and improve heart health. If you don’t want to spend a small fortune treating these ailments in the future, get in the gym today. Not only will you reduce your own health care costs by being physically fit, you can take some manly pride knowing you’re not increasing costs for your neighbors and fellow citizens.

Relieves stress and depression. We’re going to go into more detail about managing stress next week, but one thing you can start doing today that will go a long way to keeping you chill like The Dude is to exercise. It releases endorphins in your brain, improves sleep, and can relieve feelings of anxiety and depression. Exercising regularly is truly one of the most important things you can do to stay sane during college.

Makes you physically attractive. Your physical attractiveness can play a big role in your personal and professional success. Women are more attracted to men who are fit and in shape. Men who are physically attractive often report higher incomes and more job promotions than men who are less attractive. Exercise can help mold a physique that will make you attractive to others, and even more importantly, boost your confidence in yourself.

Establishing an Exercise Routine

A lot of men know it’s important to exercise, but end up feeling lost as to what to do for their workout. There are so many opinions out there as to what the “best” workout is that you can end up feeling overwhelmed and not doing anything at all. When I’d go to the gym at OU, I’d often see guys just kind of wandering around aimlessly, half-hardheartedly doing a few bicep curls and tricep extensions.

In truth, at least in my opinion, unless your fitness goal is to get super shredded or have a bodybuilder’s physique, you shouldn’t stress about finding the “perfect” workout. Instead, focus on improving your overall strength and fitness with a routine that’s as simple as possible – one you will enjoy and do consistently. The most important thing is to do something, anything, to move your body every day!

Below I suggest two exercise routines that are perfect for a young man who is busy, but is looking to maximize results. One requires access to a gym and free-weights, while the other consists solely of bodyweight exercises.

StrongLifts 5×5 Workout

My favorite workout routine is the StrongLifts 5×5 routine promoted by a guy named Mehdi in Belgium. It’s fast (workouts take about 40 minutes), you don’t need much equipment, it produces great results, and it’s very doable for a beginner who’s new to lifting. I also like it because it’s similar to the strength training program I did as a high school football player. I’m stronger and leaner than I’ve ever been since starting Mehdi’s StrongLifts program.

The program is simple. There are two workouts (A & B), each consisting of five exercises:

Workout A

  • Squat (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Bench Press (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Inverted Rows (3 sets of as many reps as you can perform in each set until muscle failure)
  • Push-ups (3 sets until failure)
  • Reverse Crunch (3 sets of 12 reps)

Workout B

  • Squat (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Overhead Press (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Deadlift (1 set of 5 reps)
  • Pull-ups/Chin-ups (3 sets until failure)
  • Prone Bridges (3 sets each set lasting 30 seconds)

You do 5 sets of 5 (1 set of 5 on the deadlift) using the same weight throughout the exercise, e.g., if your first set on the bench press is 135 lbs, your last set should be 135 lbs, too. I rest two minutes between each set.

Every other day, you alternate workout A & B. Once a week, give yourself a break from lifting for 48 hours.

So for example, my schedule using StrongLifts 5×5 looks like this:

  • Monday: Workout A
  • Tuesday:  Sprints
  • Wednesday: Workout B
  • Thursday: Long distance run
  • Friday: Workout A
  • Saturday: Rest (I usually take a nice walk)
  • Sunday: Rest

The following week, I start off with workout B:

  • Monday: Workout B
  • Tuesday: Plyometrics
  • Wednesday:  Workout A
  • Thursday: Long distance run
  • Friday: Workout B
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

Every workout, add 5 lbs to the weight you lifted in the previous session. If you ever reach a plateau, reduce your weight by 10% and start slowly adding 5 lbs again until you break through it.

That’s the basics of the program. I highly recommend that you download Mehdi’s free ebook to get a more comprehensive and detailed look at the workout. The ebook includes links to instructions on how to do the exercises, some nice spreadsheets you can use to track your progress, and other helpful info on how to get started with StrongLifts 5×5. Also, take some time to peruse his website for even more information. (I have zero affiliation with Medhi, by the way; this is honestly the program I use myself and have gotten good results from.)

On the days I’m not doing the 5×5 program (Tuesdays and Thursdays), I do my cardio workouts:

  • Tuesdays: Sprints or plyometrics. For my sprint workouts I go to the middle school football field near my house and mark off 40 yards with some cones. I’ll warm up with a jog around the football field with some dynamic warm-ups mixed in. I’ll then do 40 sets of full-out 40 yard sprints, resting about a minute between each sprint. I’m starting to add one sprint to every workout. This is High Intensity Training (HIT), which is super effective at boosting your aerobic capacity, lowering blood sugar levels, and burning fat. For my plyometrics workout I follow the program I wrote about a few years ago.
  • Thursdays: Long distance run (well, long distance for me). I usually do a 5k, and I use the NikeRun app to track my progress. I make sure my course has some challenging hills.

Bodyweight Workout

This bodyweight program is one I do sometimes when I can’t or don’t want to go to the gym. It works your entire body and can be done anywhere. The only equipment this routine requires is an Iron Gym Pull-Up Bar that you can place in any doorframe and which doesn’t require you to drill any holes. Even if you plan on going to the gym regularly, buying an Iron Gym Pull-Up Bar is a great investment for any young man. Make it a policy to crank out a few pull-ups each time you pass through the doorframe from which it hangs.

Even if you can’t swing an Iron Gym bar, I’m sure you could find a tree branch or another bar that could be used for pull-ups. Or you can sub in a bodyweight row. Let Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness show you how (he’s got great beginner and advanced bodyweight workouts on his site for more ideas too):

This is a circuit program, meaning you do each of the exercises back-to-back without any rest. When you’ve completed all the exercises, you’ve completed one circuit. The exercises link to how-to videos for those who haven’t done them before.

Do a ten minute warm-up first (jumping jacks, jump rope, jogging), and then complete each exercise back-to-back without resting. That’s a circuit. Rest for two minutes after completing a circuit and then start another one.

Start with one circuit, and then add a circuit once you’re able to perform all the reps for all the exercises. Keep adding circuits until you can complete all the reps for all the exercises for five circuits. After that, start adding 1 rep to each exercise at each workout.

Perform this workout every other day, three times a week. Here’s a suggested schedule:

  • Monday: Bodyweight workout
  • Tuesday: Sprints or plyometrics
  • Wednesday: Bodyweight workout
  • Thursday: 5K run
  • Friday: Bodyweight workout
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

Whatever workout program you choose, the key is to be consistent with it. Treat your workouts like an important doctor’s appointment. When you plan your week, block off a time each day for exercise.

You should also look for ways to incorporate exercise into your everyday life – walk and bike to campus when you can, join an intramural team, play some pick-up games of ultimate Frisbee with your buds, and take a date on a bike ride. Establishing a habit of regular exercise – both at the gym and throughout your day — will reap enormous benefits for the rest of your life.


{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kevin August 25, 2012 at 11:46 pm

Excellent post. I’m 40 now, and I attribute my current level of health to 20+ years of consistent training. You don’t have to spend your life in the gym–just train 3x a week consistently and use some common sense and moderation in your diet.

2 Noel August 25, 2012 at 11:59 pm

Some friends from college and I have initiated a local kind of gym group, where we must do 30 push ups every time a class ends (every hour).

It is a hard exercise, and after one week anyone will notice the changes. I strongly advice everyone to try it, it is easy and really good as an extra above all of the activity you perform throughout the week. At the end of the week you will have done over 1,000 pushups!

3 Arturo August 26, 2012 at 12:14 am

You hit the nail with StrongLifts. I cant think of any another system for increase your strenght and build a proporcionated physique. You will fall in love with this. I cant imagine my life without squats now. Great article, as the another heading on your own. Long life to art of manliness.
Sorry about my english, im from Argentina.

4 Kevin August 26, 2012 at 12:49 am

I think 5×5 is great for beginners to intermediate, but it requires more tweaking as you get more advanced. I usually work up to my heaviest set of 5-6 reps, then the next set will be 90% of the previous (heaviest set). More intermediate/advanced lifters ultimately have to use some form of periodization for best results.

5 Michael H August 26, 2012 at 1:44 am

I personally dislike going to the gym (it’s just not my sort of environment), but there are plenty of other great ways to stay in shape otherwise. Running is an obvious first choice.

My time combining running and surfing (both of which I LOVE) has given me fitness and confidence levels equal to my days as a high school athlete.

6 Alex August 26, 2012 at 1:49 am

StrongLifts is a good program, but Starting Strength is the best for beginners. There are a lot of success stories also.

Take a look:

7 Tomas Herman August 26, 2012 at 4:58 am

I have to say, i started working out 5-6 times a week a year ago and it was best thing that ever happened to me. I am doing Beachbody workouts (p90x, insanity and currently p90x2) and they have been working amazingly for me, especially p90x2 (i’m not a coach nor i get any money or whatever from promotion, only extremely happy customer/user – just a disclaimer) and i would recommend them. But if you don’t want to invest in those, just start doing something – you will feel amazing.

8 Jeff August 26, 2012 at 6:50 am

Another excellent article. The best thing about lifting weights is that its the best stress reducer. In addition to that, its also the best way to curb depression amongst men. If a man can get up and go to the gym when he doesn’t necessarily want to and still put in a good work out, not only does it boost your testosterone levels, but it also strengthens your discipline and self-control.

9 Miguel August 26, 2012 at 7:27 am

This is so much fun, since yesterday I found the StrongLifts program myself ahah
I was browsing about GOMAD and eventually ended up on his website and I found it very enlightening and helpful.
Also, as always, this was a great post and I look forward to see more of them. I can’t worry enough of how much men these days get fat and disregard exercise.
Obesity is a problem that can be fought, people are just too lazy these days. I’ve once read on a picture: “Obesity doesn’t run in your family, the problem is, no one runs in your family”

10 Srinivas Kari August 26, 2012 at 7:31 am

I would suggest people to follow the primal blueprint fitness program. It advocates 3-5 hours of slow cardio a week, weight lifting twice a week and sprinting once a week. Its a really simple program and it has worked amazingly for a lot of people. The science behind it is also sound.

11 John Phung August 26, 2012 at 8:19 am

Keeping a training log (easy with fitocracy.com), setting quantifiable goals (ie. squat 400lbs) and hitting them will go a long way to sticking with an exercise routine.

12 Jordan August 26, 2012 at 8:34 am

I found this website online the other day and it’s awesome and FREE TO USE (no jokes, I am not a pre-paid advertisement or virus). http://www.maxcapacitytraining.com. It utilizes bodyweight moves but in a tabata format (50 seconds of max effort, 10 seconds of rest). You do 4 exercises, 4 times through so it only takes 16 minutes, but you are dying at the end of it. Check it out. 12 week program. That coupled with running/swimming on rest days or playing sports or whatever and you’re good. Trust me, I have been working out 6 days a week since 2006 and have tried everything. This is simple and effective for the everyman.

13 Garrett August 26, 2012 at 9:55 am

I’ve always thought the best routine involves no set routine. If you switch it up all the time your body is always in shock and you don’t get plateus. For example kettlebells, free weights, bodyweight exercises, cycling, running, sports, etc. can be used to achieve “working fitness”. A good book to check out is “Corps Strength”.

14 guybrush August 26, 2012 at 10:01 am

Difficult to work out when you leave at 8 am and return home at 8 pm…

15 Kevin August 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm

I just started my first year of medical school. Something they told us is that exercise, sleep, and eating right are important parts of doing well. Something I’ve been doing every day, right after I get up, is a program called 5BX. It was created by a guy for the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was designed to be quick, simple to follow, comprehensive, and completed without equipment (essential for airmen on some remote base). It consists of dynamic stretching, crunch, push-up, back extension, and running in place. It only takes 11 minutes to complete. I do this, plus walk 15 minutes to class each way, and take stairs. No, I’m not looking like King Leonidas from ’300,’ but it gets the job done, especially for someone who’s busy/doesn’t have time or desire to go to the gym ( @guybrush ). http://gregsadetsky.com/_files/5bx-plan.pdf

16 Doc August 26, 2012 at 7:21 pm

The past two presidents have found time to workout, are you busier than them or do you have more stress in your life than them. Also, would recommend not working to failure more than a couple of times a year just to see what you can max out. You should quit your workout feeling energized, not depleted.

17 Doug August 26, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Some trainers claim that routines only lead to plateaus and that you need to change things up every day to “keep your body guessing.” In my experience, however, settling on a routine like the ones described above has helped me finally make regular exercise a habit.

18 mattoomba August 26, 2012 at 9:15 pm

40 sets of 40-yard sprints? Ouch! I don’t think I could physically do that, nor mentally keep track of how many sets I had completed. (“Was that #25 or is this going to be #25?”)

19 Brett McKay August 26, 2012 at 9:23 pm


In law school I was at school from 8 am to 8 pm every day. I did my workouts at 5:30 am. You can do it if you make a commitment.

Definitely agree.

I find it helps to count backwards from 40. But yeah, it’s a tough workout.

20 Nolen August 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm

I’ll second the 5×5 and the bodyweight workouts from nerdfitness.com. I started out doing the bodyweight exercises for a month or so (every other day) mixing in their “300″ workout, then started 5×5.

I, like the folks at AoM, am not affiliated with either site, just a fellow enthusiast. 5×5 is by far the simplest program I’ve found that works, even for folks that have never lifted weights before.

I will add the caveat to read Starting Strength if you’re getting into weightlifting. It’s the best book I’ve found on proper form and how to avoid injury (by doing the exercises correctly).

Great article!

21 Doc August 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm

I bought a $10 counter at the sporting goods store. It has a ring that fits over a finger and then you just press the counter each time you need to. It is small and unobtrusive as long as you don’t need to use that hand for anything.

22 Nick August 28, 2012 at 4:27 am

I agree that dispite a crazy work schedule, working-out will benefit you. In my previous university degree I let my exercise routine slip because I thought I couldn’t justify the time away from the books. The thing I noticed on reflection though was that the increased stress and weight I put on was more detrimental to my studies than the loss of that bit of time. This degree, a medical degree, was by far busier with my day often running from 8am to 8-9pm or some nights well into midnight. But I still got up every morning for my workout. The affect that had on clearing my mind, not to mention the effect on allowing my body to function better, was a big part of my success.

23 Bryce August 29, 2012 at 8:57 am

I have been doing the “Couch to 5K” http://trainer.active.com/plans/coolrunning-couch-to-5k-sup-reg-sup-running-plan
plan, and I enjoy it and recommend it.

24 Cody August 30, 2012 at 10:43 pm

As I’m not a fan of gyms (too much working out/showing off glamor muscles instead of getting work done) I’ve taken to ways to work out at home, local parks, the back yard, or almost anywhere outside. I like to take influence from a variety of sources and kind of mix and match with what is enjoyable for me and working. But on that note I highly advocate the kettlebell, Mark Sisson’s blueprint primal, and Al Kavadlo.

25 Jason Keough September 4, 2012 at 5:08 pm

I do a circuit 3 days a week with all compound movements. I string together powercleans, squats, over head presses, incline press,and pull ups. No rest until I complete the circuit and I’ll do it 4 times. I switch up the excercises to I don’t go stale; deads for cleans, front squats for regular, back of neck for military presses. This routine hits cardio and gets you strong all over while burning far more calories than any running I’ve done.

26 Gregory Bolton September 10, 2013 at 10:56 am

I do what I can, but the missing pieces of the puzzle for me is rest, diet, and consistency.
I am currently working on those items.

27 Horace September 15, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Awesome post.

28 Joe October 4, 2013 at 10:49 am

I’m thinking this is a great workout. I tried it a few times but am struggling with consistency and “fitting in” a workout time with my schedule and the schedules of my kids. Any suggestions from anyone? I guess I really need that push to get started and work into a routine.

29 zach December 2, 2013 at 1:25 pm

checking out the 5×5 site. curious as to what happens after the 12 weeks; will i get an email saying i owe someone $?

30 Ryan January 15, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Great article, ready to start exercising hard for the first time in my life at 20 years old. Does anyone have a general meal plan that could go along with this workout?

31 ang37 February 10, 2014 at 11:33 pm

I started working out at 17 and I am 49 now. I started with free weights and now do body weight mostly, I throw in Kettle bells and free weights now and then and some yoga, I have always played sports, I run, ride a bicycle and try my hand at some new physical activity. But in my opinion push ups, pull ups, dips, bridges, walking, running are very effective, can be done anywhere. I don’t subscribe to any labels or fads, its all there, just get up and do it, listen to your body, you don’t have to count sets and reps and time yourself all the time. Sometimes even if I am not feeling 100% I will start with 1 rep of a pull up and keep doing 1 rep sets, with a little rest in between i guess 10-30 seconds, I will keep doing until I get fatigued, like 20 times ot 25 times. I will do dips on a bar, start with 10 reps, then 9, then 8 and all the way to 1. Similarly you can do push ups. For cardio I will run or slowly job a mile or 2 miles and once I feel fully warmed up, I will sprint 100 meters and work my way down to shorter distances. Sometimes on weekends I will go for log walks on hills or a park. Diet is crucial, best advice, find a woman who can cook, my girl can cook like a gourmet chef, i am very lucky in that department. People say I look jacked and no one believes that I am 49. I am not a health freak or anything, I have smoked cigs, drank plenty beer, eat my share of junk food, but I am constantly looking to improve myself in every manner, i.e mind, body and spiritually, I have raised 3 sons, gone to grad school and I work as app developer and at times put unreasonable hours. bottom line is keep doing something whatever works for you, but my experience tells me that unless you are preparing for a competition or you have to drop some serious weight (in that case tracking and documenting, calories, exercise is essential), there’s no need to get anal about writing things down and tracking every set etc etc. Most important thing is to keep evolving, learning and improving, and you can do that by slowly and consistently moving ahead and mastering every movement. Learning correct form is very important, do a proper push up, proper pull up, proper dip. Mark Sisson, Victor Costa, Mike Mahler, Hannibal, Al Kavadlo, Coach Mike, Pavel Tsatsoloune are all good. For body weight I recommend Al Kavadlo for weight training I recommend Victor Costa, both are very good with instructions. Others are equally good. My sincere suggestion is make exercise and proper diet a daily part of your life and also work on becoming a better person, a problem solver, humility and kindness are good traits to develop. There’s a lot of rambling here, I rarely post comments, but I think this is a good website. Peace and happiness to all.

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