Have you ever started a fire while on a camping trip? Do you go find the biggest logs, throw them in a pile, and toss in a match? You could try that, but you’re going to have a cold, dark night.
When a camping pro starts a campfire, they take their time, and they take it in steps.
With that small flame you move to step 2, the kindling.
When you’re looking to become fitter and healthier, you need to have the same philosophy as the campfire starter. A lot of people launch their fitness journey tossing giant logs in a pile and throwing in a match. They want to do big, bold things to reclaim their wellness. They enthusiastically dive into exercise which is too intense, cardio which is too grueling, or diet plans which are too restrictive. It feels good to toss those logs in the pile. Bigger logs give you bigger fires, right?
This gung-ho approach may make you feel tough, but it quickly smothers the spark of motivation that first inspired the change. The intense workouts leave you sore and miserable for days. The hard cardio makes you dread your next session, and you start to find excuses for taking another rest day. The strict, rigid diet quickly burns you out and you’re reaching for your old comfort foods as strong cravings descend. In a few weeks it all falls apart.
Your heart was in the right place, but you piled on too much too quickly, and your fitness fire was extinguished before it could really get going. In the worst cases, a big, bold start results in outright injury, which is extremely demoralizing and will set you back further than if you had never started.
The smart move is to start small and nurture your spark through all the steps, from tinder to kindling to blazing fire. For fitness, this is what those steps will look like:
The Tinder Stage (2-3 weeks)
For the first 2 to 3 weeks you need to take it easy. Your goal in this initial period should be to never feel wrecked by your exercise choices.
If you do a workout, you want to be thinking “This isn’t that hard. I’m barely getting much of a burn.” You’ll quickly see that you’ll still be plenty sore even with light exercise. Beyond soreness, there’s a lot more to your body than red muscle tissue. You need to give your tendons, ligaments, and joints time to catch up to your new activity level. That less pliable tissue is where potential injuries lurk.
Starting cardio also needs to be mellow. You don’t need to be going so hard that you’re gasping for breath. The talk test is a good metric here. If during your exercise you can get out a short, complete sentence like, “This isn’t so hard”, you’re working in a good zone for your current fitness level.
The talk test is great because it scales. When you’re out of shape, just walking up a hill can put you in the right zone (and that’s ok!). As you shape up, you’ll be able to get out a short sentence even during more intense exercise like speed rope or sprinting.
When your cardio level is dialed in correctly at low-but-mildly-effortful, you reduce the chance of injury, and most importantly can come back and do the cardio again the next day. A hard cardio session that takes multiple days to recover from is always counterproductive when you’re starting out. Take it easy, you’re growing a spark into a flame here!
If you’re not sure where to start with cardio, just go for a brisk walk. Walking is always a safe choice that works with the natural mechanics of the body. You can safely ramp it up by increasing your pace and stride, swinging your arms strongly, or by taking routes that provide you some hills to go up and down. It’s that easy.
Do NOT begin a fitness effort with a hard, strict diet. Just as with exercise, start slow and easy. Your first step is to get rid of the worst of the worst foods in your life. These will be heavily processed foods, sweets, and caloric drinks (juices, sodas, alcohols, and cafe drinks) being the main offenders. You will get such a huge benefit simply from laying off these, it almost seems unfair. A junk-free diet is the tinder of fitness, not a restrictive regimen that makes each day of eating a grind.
The Kindling Stage (2-3 weeks)
If you’ve started with the small, easy steps above, after 2 to 3 weeks you should have a small but stable fitness fire going. Now it’s time to move on to the medium sized sticks, stacked smartly to help the fire grow organically.
Now that your body has shaken off the cobwebs, you can start thinking about adding more challenging exercises to your routine. You’ll know it’s time to step it up when the exercises you were doing previously no longer bring on much of a burn at the 10-12 rep mark.
Keep checking the talk-test to gradually increase the intensity of your cardio. If you’ve been walking, you begin to jog slowly for half the time, with absolutely no shame about switching back to walking when you’re feeling your effort level is getting too high. When it’s time to jog, you’ll feel it in your bones, you won’t be forcing yourself to run, your legs will want to do it! If you’re doing other activities like skipping rope, cycling, rowing or swimming, you’ll be able to naturally increase the difficulty gradient by going faster or using more resistance. Keep strategically adding that kindling!
The kindling stage of nutrition is to move on from thinking about not just what to avoid but which foods to start actively consuming. The name of the game here is getting your plate ratios right. When you look at your meal, you want to see a plate that’s roughly 25% carbs, 25% protein, and 50% vegetables. It’s as simple as that in the kindling stage. This ratio means that you’re not blowing up your caloric load, because you’re filling up with water and fiber from plants rather than sugar and fats from excess carbs and protein. Use fruit for snacking and the nutritional spectrum is complete, without needing to change anything else about your diet.
The Log Stage (6-12 weeks)
If you’ve followed the steps, you’ve been eating fairly well and exercising consistently for 4-6 weeks. You can now start adding the exciting, bold initiatives that were so appealing back in the first week when you wanted to go big.
You’ll know you’re ready to turn up the heat when you’ve passed these checkpoints:
- Exercise doesn’t make you sore anymore (or only a little sore in small areas)
- You can do brisk cardio for 30 minutes without issue.
- Your default food choices are fairly healthy, and you don’t have strong cravings for junk food.
- You naturally feel some pep in your step and feel the urge to move more.
- You see differences in the mirror. Less body fat, more muscle, better posture, and healthier skin.
When you see and feel these changes, you know that your fitness fire is now stable and ready for some bigger logs.
Now and only now is when you should think about getting into specialized more intense workouts. This might mean doing high intensity circuits, weight lifting, kettlebell training, endurance training, kickboxing, or whatever else strikes your interest. These hard workouts are the big logs of muscle mass, they only burn well when you’ve put in the work to get your fundamentals strong. Go out, be safe, and have fun.
At this stage you should have a regular cardio habit that you rarely miss. Getting out and doing some exercise should be as routine as brushing your teeth. Best of all, this cardio doesn’t need to be grueling. Your natural conditioning will have risen to the level that what feels like a casual outing to you is a respectable amount of intensity and caloric burn. You’ll really notice this when you invite someone else to join you and they find it taxing, even as you’re chatting away (passing the talk-test with flying colors).
With cardio, you don’t need to be adding bigger and bigger logs. A steady stream of activity 3-5 times a week will get the job done while keeping fatigue, burnout, and injury at bay. Cardio is good. Too much cardio strips your gears and is counterproductive.
The fuel stage of fitness is the time to start exploring more involved forms of nutrition. You can keep tightening up your already-clean diet, reducing portions and narrowing in on fine details like eating whole grains and lean proteins.
When people try to skip straight ahead to stricter diet plans without a solid foundation, they end up fighting a multi-front war. Simultaneously they’re having to get used to a different way of eating, fighting back cravings, and dealing with the time management issues that come from more involved food prep. It’s a lot to deal with in an already busy life!
After 12-18 weeks, you should think about dialing back and taking some rest and consolidation weeks. Just as you don’t need a fire to burn at full blast all the time, your body will do better in the long term by having time to rest and consolidate all your progress.
Building a good fire takes some forethought. You have to gather the tinder, kindling, and logs, find a clear spot out of the wind before you can even start. But the daylight’s fading and at a certain point you need to get this thing going! In the same way, don’t spend too much time trying to figure out every last detail of your fitness plan, just keep the philosophy of starting small, working in steps, and thinking in weeks, not days.
Everyone who wants to be fitter is holding a small spark inside them. With care, encouragement, and patience you can nurture that spark through the stages to become a mighty fire. Burn bright!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder