Struggling to Keep an Exercise Routine? Reprogram your Brain

Reprogram your brain – woman and man

The Psychology of it

You know the feeling?  You start the morning with some convincing internal dialog promising you will hit the gym after work or sometime later in the day.  Fast forward, now it’s late in the afternoon and that thought of exercising has clawed its way back to your mind’s front door like some Amway salesman you’re trying to desperately avoid.  

Salesman At Door Of A House Wife

He’s there to cash in on that promise you made earlier in the day and your response is, “I don’t have time”, “the weather is too crappy”, or “the weather is too nice”, or “I have no energy”, or maybe you go as far to feign moral superiority with a lame excuse like, “I should really use this time to spend with the kids”.  Bottom line, no workout in the cards for you, and even though you may feel some scintilla of relief, on a deeper level you feel sad and miserable, maybe even depressed. In all honesty, I DO NOT like working out or going to spend countless hours in the gym.  Exercise has always been a part of my life, mostly due to my job choices, but I don’t have a passion for the gym.  When it’s included in something I enjoy, like playing sports or outdoor adventures, then I’m more than happy to reap the benefits.  But, just going to the gym to exercise, I hate it more than Robb Stark hates the Red Wedding.

The red wedding
The look on my face when I enter the gym

Sometimes exercising can seem like a choice of either doing nothing or having to commit to the gym several days a week.  Even then, how many times have we made it to the gym, but really do little to nothing while we’re there.  Again, you are present, but fighting tooth and nail to avoid that Amway salesman.  What many of us don’t realize is there is a battle raging between two parts of our brain, the conscious part and the subconscious part. The conscious part, aka “The Thinking Brain”, is the frontal lobe, which does all the analyzing, philaso-phizing, creating ideas and general conscious stuff.  Then there’s the subconscious brain, aka “the Midbrain”, a primitive being that just plays programs that have been created over time, always running in the background.  In that first 7 years of life, the subconscious is in charge just recording experiences and cementing those in as the future playbook.  This results in the formation of good and bad habits, behaviors, patterns of life, etc.  After 7, the thinking brain nudges the midbrain out of the way and appoints itself as head honcho.  In actuality, it is just layering conscious thought over the subconscious program.  In basic terms, your thinking brain can come up with all kinds of great ideas, like working out every day, but if it’s not part of the subconscious program, it’s unlikely to happen.  Don’t be fooled though, the thinking brain is not always the good-idea fairy it pretends to be. Sometimes it will walk you headfirst into trouble while the midbrain is shouting “Stranger Danger” from your subconscious. The primitive midbrain is the expert on danger and it has a special program for that, fight or flight…or posture. Just like an App, it sends alerts too; in the form of gut instincts and spidey-senses. However, if the midbrain and thinking brain are out of sync on danger protocols, bad things man…bad things. More on this topic in my previous post. So, the question becomes, how do I get my desires programmed?  Simple answer; gradually through repetition and consistency.  

The Conscious vs. The Subconscious
The Conscious vs. The Subconscious

How the Marines do it

The Marines don’t exactly subscribe to the “gradual” part when it comes to reprogramming the midbrain.  However, everything they do is steeped in consistency and repetition…lots of repetition!  They basically execute a full-on frontal assault + lots of repetition.  In Boot Camp, there is nothing subtle; it’s full-throttle on everything.  All the time, the subconscious is being assaulted, stripped of bad habits and reprogrammed with a strict diet of discipline, attention to orders, attention to detail, esprit de corps and a general aggressive disposition toward conquering adversity.  Even after boot camp, exercise is conducted daily as a team and the first dose takes place as soon as you wake up.  

The wonderful byproduct of morning exercise is the positive outlook it gives you for the rest of the day.  It’s not even 7am and you have already accomplished something, that’s a great headspace to be in as you move through the day’s challenges.  You generally feel refreshed, your mind is sparking and you are ready to tackle adversity with zest and confidence.

The Anatomy of an Easy-Peasy Daily Routinzy

So, how can we mimic some of what the Marines do, without exercising with your 40 closest friends, or a drill instructor giving you the knife hand every 5 minutes (my son is very familiar with this parenting technique)?  How do we overwrite the midbrain’s programming?  It’s actually easier than you may think when you follow the proper steps.  The following exercise routine is what I do every morning, Monday – Friday.  I have done it so many times, it’s programmed, locked in, second nature.    

The dreaded knife hand - CK Redlinger
What is your malfunction Private?

I use this exercise routine as a daily baseline that I can add to later in the day, if you even decide to open the door for the proverbial Amway guy.  If I get to the gym in addition to this baseline, it is just a value add at that point.  However, if I don’t make it to the gym, it’s not the end of the world, because I have already exercised so no guilty feelings to deal with.  Additionally, because the routine is designed for the first several minutes of the day, I feel refreshed and it sets my mood for the day to come.  It’s super simple and quick.  Chances are, your new routine will breed the self-discipline required to launch you toward a follow-on cardio or gym session later in the day.  

Hacking the Brain: How the Magic Happens

The key here will be doing as many repetitions as you think you can, then pushing beyond that point.  This is very important and is a method of hacking your subconscious, and ultimately getting some nice results.  For example, you will do as many push-ups as you can in a row.  Your thinking brain will quickly step in, wearing a traffic vest and waving safety wands, and warn you, “hey-hey, that’s enough, you’re getting tired”.  In truth, your body is capable of so much more, the thinking brain is just throwing out unnecessary traffic cones.  However, you want to drive over those orange cones like a 15-year-old with a learner’s license and belt out as many as you can do…until you collapse to the floor in TOTAL fatigue, aka muscle failure…I mean REAL muscle failure.  Unknowingly, you just made a correction in what your brain thinks it can do, you just moved the mental bar.  Your brain just went from thinking it’s a 5 push-up guy to a 7 push-up stud.  Now, you just need to do this consistently, every morning, so it becomes second nature, your new normal.  Next thing you know, you will be belting out 50 push-ups like you’ve been upgraded from an outdated T-800 model to a shiny shape-shifting T-1000 assassin.  

Terminator T-800 vs T-1000

The overarching benefit here is that you are actually rewiring yourself, gradually, to have a completely different approach to dealing with adversity.  You won’t be able to grow creepy metal hooks on command like Robert Patrick’s T-1000 character, but on a deeper level, your brain knows it can push through that first imaginary piece of caution tape your thinking brain strings up at the first sign of adversity.  

Logistics: Minimal Equipment Needs

Ethos door
  • Pull-up bar – All other exercises require bodyweight only.  I personally do not like the kind of pull-up bar that you wedge between the doorframe.  It does not allow my legs to hang straight and there is something about having my full body weight on a device not permanently anchored, see practically every fail video on the Internet.   I shopped around for a while in search of a pull-up bar that I could put in my garage near my Century Muay Thai heavy bag.  I really only had two choices, one that bolts onto the ceiling or one that bolts onto the wall above a doorway.  You can’t just bolt it to any wall as your feet and legs will hit the wall, that’s why above an open doorway works best.  Ultimately, I decided on the Ethos Pull-Up Bar and bolted it into the wall studs above the door between the garage into the house.  There is an additional motivator here.  Every time I pass through that threshold throughout the day, I’m motivated to stop and knock out some pull-ups, resulting in additional upper body strength as well as more mental strength by continuing to push beyond that thinking brain barrier.  Even when I travel to the garage fridge to retrieve some delicious Rishta (my wife shares all her healthy Mediterranean recipes here, The Good Taste Lama), I will stop to get another set of pull-ups in the books.
  • Yoga/Pilates mat (if no carpet in the house) – I like to do most of these exercises in my walk-in closet.  It is carpeted there, quiet and gives me a confined space with no distractions (I actually can practice a couple of minutes of mindfulness while there).  I don’t use a mat for the closet, but do have one for yoga and pilates classes (I never thought I would hear myself say that).  If you need a mat, here is the one I went with, ProSource Yoga & Pilates Mat.

Now that we are all geared up, lets get to that quick and easy morning workout morning:

The Daily Seven

Time needed:  15 mins

Sets: Only one set per exercise

Repetitions: Till muscle failure

Basic steps:

  1. Wake up (that’s an important one, you’re gonna want to remember this)

Get those feet on the floor immediately and stand up.  Make this part of the routine, you can relax and lounge around on the weekends.  Don’t procrastinate here, you are setting the pace.  Let beast-mode commence.

  1. Stretching

This will be some basic straightforward stretching to loosen up the back, neck, legs, etc.  You do not need to spend a lot of time over doing it.  Daily stretching will solve a lot of your ongoing muscle aches and tightness.  Here is a video with some good stretches DO IT RIGHT

  1. Pull-ups

Learn and practice good form.  I prefer overhand pull-ups, shoulder-width apart.  Remember to tighten your core on every pull-up and try to keep your legs straight and tight.  You may start out not achieving even one pull-up, or maybe you can pump out 20.  Either way, no kipping and push yourself beyond the point where you want to stop.  Don’t let that thinking brain trick you!  Here is a quick video tutorial on proper form. DO IT RIGHT  

  1. Push-ups

A push-up is a common calisthenics exercise and a staple of your daily routine.  It’s easy to do them incorrectly, i.e. head down or butt too high.  Check out the video for proper form.  Remember; do as many as you can every morning.  When you can’t do anymore, do more!  Don’t get wrapped around the numbers, just go till muscle failure.  Here’s how to get the perfect push-up: DO IT RIGHT 

  1. Standard crunches

Now it’s time to pursue that tight belly.  The same philosophy applies; go till you can’t get anymore.  Check the video for proper form, don’t yank on the back of your neck! Here is how to perform it: DO IT RIGHT

  1. Alternating elbow-to-knees crunches

As Christopher Walken says in the classic SNL skit, “Fellas, I gotta tell ya, your gonna want that cowbell”, or in this case, your gonna want those abs.  So, here’s another exercise.  The elbow-to-knee crunch is a core strengthening exercise that targets the lower abdominals and more specifically, the obliques.  Here is how to perform it: DO IT RIGHT

  1. Sphinx push-up

I have come to really like this one.  It places a greater emphasis on the triceps as opposed to the chest. However, it will still target the muscles of the chest, core, and shoulders.  Here’s how to make it happen: DO IT RIGHT

Final Thoughts

Do I have to stick with just these exercises?  No, however, this is a good start.  You can change or add some things after a few weeks, but I like to always keep pull-ups, push-ups and one or two abs exercises as part of the morning routine.  Remember, this is designed to be a quick deal, not multiple sets that drag your morning out.  This is the rocket fuel to launch you into the day feeling accomplished and better positioning you for a later-in-the-day workout.  But, if you end up avoiding the Amway guy later on, you can also avoid the guilt with your new T-1000 armored mindset.



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