Exercise Habits Interview with Dick Talens

Successful Exercise Habits Interview with Dick Talens of Fitocracy

We recently had the chance to interview Dick Talens, one of the founders of Fitocracy.com, a fitness trainer and generally a buff dude. Here Dick shares his methods for creating the exercise habit.

1. How long have you had a consistent exercise habit? What’s your current workout schedule?

Dick: I’ve had a consistent exercise habit for 8 years now. Prior to that, I hated exercise like cats hate water.

These days, I look forward to the gym to the point where I sometimes cannot sleep the night before. I’m currently on a “Bulgarian-style” routine, which means that I train every day, but I’m really just testing different programs to see what I like right now. I’m really not that “hardcore” when it comes to fitness, and I tend to focus on efficient routines that will allow you to focus on something other than fitness.

An example of a mainstay routine of mine is Martin Berkhan’s RPT, which is a routine that required only 45 minutes/day, 3x/week and focused on core barbell exercises of barbell squat, barbell bench press, and barbell deadlift.

2. How did you create the exercise habit? What worked, what obstacles were tough to overcome?

Dick: As someone who hated exercise, the only way for me to create habit was to see results. Many people say “you should become process oriented, not results oriented,” which has some truth to it in the long run. But as someone who had exercise hardwired as a very painful experience since childhood, seeing results was the only way that I could keep going.

Knowing this, I had to turn my exercise into a results machine, where I know that if I put in x amount of work, I will get y results.

The type of exercise that really spoke to me for this is strength training. It always felt more natural for me than running, which brought back memories of my obese days and also seemed to increase my appetite. (This is not to knock running. Many people enjoy running, and I’m a big believer in doing what you like, which you’ll see below.) Being a numerically oriented person, I knew that certain programs, such as “Starting Strength” or “StrongLifts 5×5” would yield predictable results, and I looked forward to those results each workout.

Ironically, falling in love with the process of lifting only came after seeing results, and I think that this is true for most people who hate exercise. Of course, if you’re athletic, you’re going to like process because lifting, running, playing a sport, those are all easy things. But it took me nearly a decade of seeing results to truly love the sport, the craft, and the process of fitness.

To get to this point, you need to find a program that you enjoy… a program that’s smart and will get you predictable results. Only after you start seeing those results, can you start to fall in love with the process.

3. What motivates you to exercise? What makes it something you look forward to doing?

Dick: The prospect of improvement in some way is the only thing that will motivate me to exercise. I’m not the type of person that will exercise in order to “not get fat,” as opposed to someone who exercises to improve my strength. (speed, marathon time, what have you.) These are two very different mindsets, and I think that the growth mindset is something that everyone needs to adapt.

4. What have you done to help clients form the exercise habit? Are there obstacles you have been good at helping them overcome?

Dick: Most of my clients, which tend to focus on fat loss as their main goal, are normal people with busy jobs — some, incredibly busy jobs. (e.g. Miss America, startup CEOs, etc.) If they start to get stressed, busy, or overworked, then exercise and diet are the first thing to fall by the wayside. Because of this, you need to get them to the point where they think of fitness in the same way as they think about eating, sleeping, and sex. All of those activities take up plenty of time, but people always make time for those activities.

The only way to do that is to create a positive feedback loop around fitness.

If the reward is worth more than the pain of fitness, you will want to keep going on your regimen. You’ll be intrinsically motivated.

If the reward is worth less than the pain, then in order to keep going, you need to dip into willpower, a finite resource. Continuing a fitness program through sheer willpower with no end in sight is a recipe for disaster.

The feedback loop can roughly be summarized as follows:

Strength of Fitness Feedback Loop = Fitness Reward ­- Fitness Pain

This means we can strengthen the feedback loop — your intrinsic desire to keep exercising — in two ways.

  1. Reduce the “pain” of your fitness/nutritional program.

Every little thing that you do in fitness yields a certain return. Things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator probably yields a pretty crummy return if you’re a 250 lb man — it doesn’t burn that many calories and really won’t make too much of a dent in your final outcome. You should ditch those activities to start out. Sure, they might be healthy, but you’ll never build a positive feedback loop if you have a ton of pains.

For my clients who are focusing on fat loss, I give them no cardio to start out and just focus 100% of their effort on diet, since that will give them the most bang for their buck. I’ve found that the simplest programs to stick to are the Paleo diet and Martin Berkhan’s Leangains, and I will use a variation of those two.

  1. Increase the “reward” part of the equation.

There are lots of ways to increase the reward — my clients strength train I tend to put them on RPT, Doggcrapp, 5×5, and Starting Strength, because these are very numerical programs that give you a week-over-week dopamine hit. Many clients will originally say that they can’t motivate themselves to exercise. Well, when their bench press and squats are going up by leaps and bounds, suddenly they want to get back into the gym.

Pick a program that will allow you to progress numerically, frequently. I listed the top ones for strength training. If you’re a runner, something like Couch to 5k will give you the same effect.

Most people think that coaches should help clients by yelling at them, always saying something motivational, etc. I think that both of those things are useful tactics, and I’ve done the plenty, but I don’t think that any coach who relies on yelling or motivation as their bread and butter isn’t doing their job. Instead, I help clients be introspective and aware. I let them know that what they’re going through is normal or, based on my knowledge of training and nutrition, help them find a style of training and dieting that they like.

Coaching is a combination of knowing fitness — science and real world application — as well as being able to understand people and their interests.

5. Tell us a bit about Fitocracy, and how that’s helped people form the exercise habit?

Dick: Fitocracy helps by giving you an environment that supports the positive feedback loop around fitness. When you think about it, anything that Fitocracy does can be described in some way using this feedback loop.

The community gives you knowledgeable people who have undergone almost every transformation known to fitness. Skinny to jacked, fat to lean, battling debilitating disease or amputation — someone has likely done it before.

The gamification aspect of quests and points help reduce the intial “pain” by making fitness fun. They’re there to help you in the short term until you start seeing results or start loving the process.

The Knowledge Center is there to help you find a program that you enjoy and will give you good results. I said that your routine has to be something you enjoy, but it also has to be smart and based on science. We tend to know our stuff, so you’ll be able to find a program there. There’s even a Starting Strength guide that you can follow.

All of these things are there to help you form habit.

6. Any other advice for people who want to make exercise a regular part of their lives?

Dick: If there’s one piece of general advice that I could give mankind about fitness, it’s this: Do not reduce fitness to “eat less, move more” as a strategy. I write about this extensively in this blog post, but in summary, fitness is very different than the traditional media makes it out to be. Fitness is often made out to be about willpower — something that you need to be hardcore about in order to succeed.

Do you know why overweight people have a difficult time building exercise habit? It’s not because they’re lazy or weak-willed; it’s because for a fat person, exercise is really bleeping painful — torturous even. Because these people are usually on crummy programs or not measuring progress (i.e. no “reward” in the feedback loop), this torture might have no end in sight.

That’s why people quit. The pain is worth more less than the reward. No feedback loop was built.

Being successful at fitness is about being intellectually curious, compassionate towards yourself, and being introspective. These are not very sexy things to advertise in a commercial, but they are absolutely the reasons I’ve been able to take your average “I can’t get myself to exercise” Joe and turn them into fitness machines with pretty high accuracy.