Bilal Ascha 9 min read

The Ultimate Guide to Fitness: Men’s Edition

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The Ultimate Guide to Fitness: Men’s Edition

If you’ve read Tim Ferris’s “The 4-Hour Body,” then you’re familiar with the term “Harajuku moment.” He defines it as the single, definitive moment when we decide to make a dramatic shift with our lives to improve our mental and physical health. Mine took place a few months ago. Long story short: I was loaded with stimulants and thought I was having a heart attack. In reality it was a mere panic attack, but in my mind I was dying. During those few dense moments I saw my life’s substance – the meaning I’d given it through the choices I had made. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t the thought of imminent death that bothered me; it was the realization I hadn’t lived up to my potential that made me sick to my stomach. I thought my time had come and was in no way ready for it. Never had I experienced something so transcendental, and it wasn’t until after the fact that I understood how badly it needed to happen. Before then, I was voluntarily sabotaging my mental and physical health little by little, each and every day. Things needed to change, and they needed to change right away. Armed with self-discipline, the right knowledge, and a humble attitude, I was able to transform my lifestyle; and my body followed.

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If you’re looking to do the same, here is my advice to you:

Set Yourself Up For Success

Create a Starting Point

When I took my “after” picture, I thought I was going to look a lot like I did in my “before” shot. No joke. I had actually forgotten what I looked like when I started. Your day-to-day gains will be slight, and chances are the people you see every day won’t spot your overall progress either. If you don’t notice changes after months of training, you’ll lose motivation. Anyone would. That’s why it’s important to note your starting point. Make an account on BodySpace ( It’ll show you how to take your initial measurements, chart your progress, allow you to upload photos, and ask for status updates. It’s pretty much the Facebook of fitness. I’ve just recently discovered this gem, so once you’re set up, add me as a friend.

Learn The Basics

Wikipedia’s page on weightlifting is very comprehensive and easy to read. Keep in mind that you’re not studying for a test though; you’re learning an art form. Therefore, instead of memorizing, try to understand your body and how it undergoes change conceptually. Fit all the different elements into one big picture. It’ll help you make sense of any advice or information that you come across in the future.

Define Your Goals

I’m telling you right now, if your goal is to “get in shape,” you won’t achieve it. Not because you don’t have it in you, but because “in shape” is a loose term. Be practical and specific. Having a short-term goal is much less frustrating than trying to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger and repeatedly realizing it’ll take you years. Everyone starts at the bottom somewhere.

Utilize Your Full Potential

Potential is defined as existing qualities or abilities that, if manifested, will lead to future success. Everyone has it, but to turn your potential into success, you’ll need to take a hard look at your life and make the right decisions. If you have any habits that will lessen your rate of progress, get rid of them (e.g. smoking or fast food). Remember, everything you put into or do to your body matters, so stay conscious.

Excuses Equal Failure

There’s a psychological term for why people make excuses. It’s called cognitive dissonance, or a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. If you’ve ever procrastinated, this has happened to you. Here’s another example: You’ve been to the gym three days this week. Even though you should be going today, you really don’t feel like it. If you say to yourself, “I worked out three days in a row so I deserve a day off,” you encountered cognitive dissonance and got owned. Always choose the route that will get you closer to your goals, not the one that provides immediate relief. You’ll thank yourself later.

Your “No Comfort” Zone

Want to look like you can comfortably lift 200 pounds? Then say goodbye to your current comfort zone. Remember, no pain, no gain. If you expect your workouts to be a walk in the park, you might as well stay home.


It’s not about going to the gym on the days you feel like going, or not smoking when no one else is. It’s about going to the gym when you feel like sitting at home and watching TV; or not smoking when everyone else is and you’ve been offered a cigarette. You’ll never stop encountering these moments. Which action will get you closer to your goal?

Work Out Like a Champion

Now that you’re dedicated, it’s time to start hitting the gym. Having a regular program requires less planning, but because progress will begin to slow down as your body gets used to your routine, change it as often as you can. A typical week for me would go something like this:

Monday – Chest

Tuesday – Back

Wednesday – Rest

Thursday – Shoulders/Traps

Friday – Legs

Saturday – Arms

Sunday – Rest

(Abs every other morning)

In terms of what exercises you should do, just purchase a copy of the Men’s Health Big Book of Exercises and learn a bunch. Pick 5-6 exercises and switch up your routine every time. You won’t know how far you need to push yourself in terms of reps/weight in order to do better in relation to your last workout, but consistently give it your all and you’ll make progress. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the feel. Randomizing your workouts will ensure that you fully challenge yourself each time you set foot in the gym. Here are some other pointers:

Stay in Your Zone

You aren’t going to the gym to make friends, impress the ladies, or worry about what anyone else is doing. Bring headphones and an MP3 player with whatever music gets you pumped, and stay in your head. You’re there for you.

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It’s Not About the Weight

If the guy next to you is benching twice your body weight, so what? He earned it. Everyone starts at the bottom. No one should be proud of themselves for inadequately curling forty pounds and looking like a fool. It’s those who barely curl ten pounds eight times with good form that know what they’re doing.

Feel The Burn

Your muscles won’t grow after you’ve lifted weights. What happens is actually the opposite. The exercises break them down by creating microscopic tears, and growth occurs during repair. When you feel the burn during those last few reps you’re experiencing those tears, so that’s the feeling you should crave if you want progress. Avoid performing the exercise too quickly, using improper form, or not executing the full range of motion. Otherwise, you won’t feel an optimal burn.

Select the Right Weight

Keep in mind, every set should end in failure. Choose the highest weight you think you can perform three sets of 8-10 reps with. If you fail at 7 reps, drop the weight by one increment and get that last rep in. Then keep it at that weight for the next set and you’ll fail somewhere between 8 to 10 reps. On the other hand, if you can do more than 10 reps using the weight you’ve chosen, do 10, increase the weight for your next set, and don’t make the same mistake next time. You might be way off in the beginning, but don’t worry; you’ll eventually get a feel for it.

Go the Extra Mile

Once you’ve done three sets of an exercise, don’t stop. Finish off with either a drop-set or a negative rep. To do a drop-set, upon finishing your last set, immediately drop the weight to half of what you were using and bust out as many reps as you can. A negative rep is done by contracting as you normally would for your last rep, then expanding as slowly as possible.

Symmetry is Beauty

It’s been scientifically proven. So how do you ensure that your right side doesn’t become bigger than your left, or vice-versa? First of all, if you start losing your form, stop. Second, if you’re using dumbbells or a machine that isolates both sides, do only as many reps on your strong side as you can do on your weak side, and that’ll give it time to catch up. Finally, if you’re doing an exercise that requires you to use both sides simultaneously, keep from lifting one side quicker than the other. Muscle imbalances are harder to fix if you ignore them and they worsen over time.

Safe is Smart

If you suffer an injury that puts you out of the gym for months, you’ll lose quite a bit of progress. Minimize your risk by…

  • Having a spotter
  • Warming up with 3-5 minutes of cardio
  • Stretching
  • Starting your first weighted exercise with a warm-up set (half the weight)
  • Using proper form
  • Working out your at-risk muscles every week (wrists, rotator cuffs, etc.)
  • Keeping your core strong
  • Cooling down with 3-5 minutes of cardio

Recover Like a Champion

A lot of people don’t realize that lifting weights isn’t what makes you bigger. Muscle gain is a two-step process. After you’ve broken down your muscle tissue at the gym, you have to provide your body with the nutrition and rest it needs to complete the process. Here’s how you do it:

Determine Your Caloric Needs

Use this calculator to estimate the number of calories your body requires for regular maintenance.

Eat More

If you’re trying to gain muscle, you’ll need to add 500 to the number that shows up in that calculator. Those final 500 calories are what will produce your gains, so keep in mind that skipping a single meal will make all the difference.

Eat More Often

I have to consume a little over 3000 calories daily. That’s either three 1000-calorie meals or six 500-calorie meals. Eating five or six as opposed to three will be in your best interest. Not only will you start to get hungry every three hours after doing so for a few days, but smaller meals are easier to manage.

Eat Right

What constitutes your daily intake is just as important as eating enough calories. The following is a list of the three macronutrients and their main healthy sources:

  • Protein – Eggs, lean meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, beans, and protein powder.
  • Carbohydrates – Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.
  • Fats – Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, corn oil, avocados, peanut butter, nuts, fatty fish, soymilk, and tofu.

Workout Nutrition

I stumbled upon an incredibly well-done infographic that summarizes the basic principles of workout nutrition. No need to reinvent the wheel.


The ones I take are Kre-Alkalyn (pH-correct creatine) which helps with muscle contraction, Whey protein powder, a multivitamin, and a pre-workout mix to get me going. The fewer supplements you take the better. Not only will you save money, you’ll be able to attribute your gains to hard work.


Eight hours is what works for the majority of people. Most of your recovery takes place during that time, so make sure you get enough. If that means no more partying until four in the morning, then give it up with a smile on your face.

Sickness and Injury

If you’re sick, your body will be preoccupied with making you feel better. You don’t want to overtask it by giving it muscle tissue to repair too. It won’t end up doing either job very well. Stay out of the gym until you feel better. Also, if you’re unfortunate enough to suffer an injury (sprained wrist, torn ligament, etc.), proceeding to work out as if it didn’t happen would be futile. Taking a few months off to recover and engaging in another physical activity in the meantime would be a wise choice. You’ll lose progress, but at least you’ll avoid injuring yourself permanently. Think of it as a long-term investment.

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Each of the subsections above could be expanded into an article, but what’s written here is certainly enough to get you started. You’ll learn more as you go. Don’t wait for a near-death experience before choosing to become health-conscious. Ask yourself if you want more out of life, and if the answer is yes, get started. I know how tough it can be, but the taste of victory is well worth it. Once you’ve had it, you’ll never want to turn back. And please, if you have any questions, feel free to ask. We’re all in this together.

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