The Ultimate Guide to Building Any Physique (or Skill Set)
Earlier in the year, I heard something that made my head explode.
The 2016 Summer Olympics had just ended. The internet was aflutter with a debate about Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet.
The debate was about how quickly Usain Bolt could run a mile.
Scientists, marathon runners, cross country coaches, Olympians, and others had one heck of a debate. People started calculating his pace from 100 meters or 400 meters and extrapolated that out over the course of a mile. Math geeks couldn’t get enough of the thought experiment.
So obviously this begs the question: “Well, how fast does he actually run a mile?”
There’s just one problem:
Usain Bolt has never run a mile.
As pointed out by the New Yorker, “Usain Bolt’s agent, Ricky Simms, won’t say whether he believes that his client could run a mile in less than five minutes. But Simms confirmed that the world’s greatest sprinter has, in fact, never tried running that far: ‘Usain has never run a mile.’”
Let that sink in for a second.
The fastest man on the planet has never run a mile. In Usain’s mind and his coach’s mind, he’s built to run short distances quickly, so why even bother running a longer distance? He has built a healthy frame designed to do exactly what he needs it to do.
I thought about this, my own training, and the training of the people whose physiques/talent I admire… and it made me come to a logical conclusion:
For most people, training in a way that you enjoy will get you 90% of the way there (with a good nutrition strategy).
However, if you want to LOOK or perform a certain way, how you train IS crucial.
And like Usain, it may not fit your typical idea of what fitness is. Instead, you’ll be deliberate with your daily choices, training and eating in a way to build the body (and physical performance) you want.
Follow these 3 missions and learn how.
Want to look like the superhero of your choice? Change your mind.
The other day I was talking to a close friend about my personal 3-year transformation thanks to gymnastic rings and advanced bodyweight exercises.
His response surprised me: “That’s just not me, though. I’m not built like you, like a gymnast, so I can’t train with rings. I don’t have the body type to do what gymnasts can do.”
I have heard things like this from other members of our community, and I bet you’ve said similar things too:
- Easy for him to run a marathon, he’s got the body of a runner.
- Of course he/she can [do that activity you admire], he/she has genetics like _______.
- I need to lose a lot of weight before I can try rock climbing/martial arts/parkour. To the treadmill, ugh.
We see somebody doing something we want to do, or looking how we want to look, and our first thought is “Well, because genetics/lifestyle/opportunity/excuse, they can do that and I can’t.”
We use this mentality to justify our current position, let ourselves off the hook for not trying, explain why we don’t look a certain way, and give ourselves an an excuse why we can’t try/do something.
Or, we might think we need to be a certain weight until we can start doing that thing that we’re intrigued by. So we do a few machines, we run on a treadmill, we do a few bicep curls. We move from diet to diet or from workout plan to workout plan.
We do “fitness,” dislike it, and then also get mad that we’re not building a body we’re proud of and that we don’t like the people on magazine covers.
THIS IS THE WRONG WAY TO THINK.
This is me smacking you on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. Stop it.
The truth of the matter is the exact opposite: our bodies are INCREDIBLE pieces of machinery – they reshape themselves and adapt to whatever is thrown at them.
Run fast, and your body builds muscle in the right places to be more efficient with sprints. Train like an MMA fighter and your body will start to resemble a guy that gets in the octagon. Run distances and your blood cells and joints and muscles start to adapt to covering long distances and tiring less easily.
So change your thinking right now. FORM (your body) follows function (the stuff you do with your time):
Gymnasts don’t train on gymnastic rings because they are built like superheroes. The opposite is true: they are built like superheroes BECAUSE they train on gymnastic rings!
Runners don’t just look like runners and thus run a lot. They look like runners BECAUSE they run a lot!
MMA fighters aren’t built like machines and thus fight and do martial arts. They look like MMA fighters BECAUSE they train in a certain way.
Usain looks like Usain because he intentionally trains to build that sprinting machine!
This means you need to identify the TYPE of person you want to look like or have skills like and follow a specific plan to train like them. Or in Nerd Fitness Terms, pick your class (explained below) and then ask “What would [my future avatar] do?”
You need to find your own path to “fitness,” and forget the rest of it.
If it’s going to be a challenge, you might as well be challenging yourself in a way that actually helps you achieve your goal physique, right?
Mission 1: Select your Class
Take the next few minutes and find somebody known for a particular skill or sport you admire, or someone who you’re interested in looking like. What activity are they good at or known for? What’s the body type you’re going for?
And then start acting like that person. Immediately.
I’m guessing you’re here (or you first came to Nerd Fitness) because you wanted to lose a few pounds (or hundreds of pounds), gain some strength/muscle, look better naked and feel better about yourself. And that’s exactly how I started training (for me, it was wanting to get bigger, stronger, and feel better about myself).
Whatever brought you here, welcome. Now let’s get you where you want to go.
Know this: the path to that success is dependent on knowing the TYPE of physique or skills you’re looking for, and then training, eating, and acting like the people who have that particular physique or can do those particular things.
(It sounds simple, but nearly everyone misses this point in how they decide to train. Most people have training ADD and don’t focus on nutrition.)
Here’s why this methodology is so important.
Your body responds to every piece of stimuli it receives and adapts accordingly. The more signals you can send it to adapt in a certain way, the more likely it will be to adapt to handle that stimuli.
This means it’s time to start hitting your body with the right stimuli immediately and frequently:
You don’t need to lose weight before you train like a gymnast. Start training like a gymnast NOW so your body starts to develop like that of a gymnast from day one.
You don’t need to lose weight before you train like a parkour traceur or a marathon runner. Start training like a traceur or go for your first long walk or 10 second jog NOW and your body will start to adapt over time to look like your heroes.
You don’t need to become more bendy before you can try Yoga. You become more bendy BY trying Yoga. The more you do, the more your body responds accordingly.
Want to get bigger and build muscle? Don’t run just because you think fitness = running (this path will never get you where you want to go!). Start hitting your body with strength training and barbells and bodyweight movements and tell it “better get used to this by getting stronger!”
Every meal, every push-up, every step walked, every mile run, every second practicing a handstand, every second doing ANYTHING is sending tiny signals to your body “change and get better at this thing.” THAT’S how you get started building a body to be proud of, and that’s how you end up building a body that looks like the body you want to have!
I love video games that operate like this, games like Morrowind or Skyrim: You don’t allocate points to improve skills – there’s no “add +1 to archery” or “add +1 to sword fighting.” You improve those skills by USING them! Shoot enough arrows, and archery gains +1, swing a sword enough times and you gain +1 sword fighting!
Conveniently, that’s how life works too.
Note: this doesn’t mean doing the workout of the most elite people you can find. Jumping into the Octagon and fighting an MMA bout tomorrow if you’ve never thrown a punch is bad news bears. Going from your couch to running the Boston Marathon next week is a recipe for disaster. Instead, start with the basics for the TYPE of person you want to be. But START TRAINING LIKE THEM IMMEDIATELY. That’s the most important part.
Here’s what this looks like in real life:
- Want to look and perform like a marathon runner? Get started with long walks and small jogs.
- Want to look and perform like Georges St. Pierre or Ronda Rousey? Find a beginner Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class and show up.
- Want to look and perform like Usain Bolt? Try your first hill sprint and see if you can find a beginner sprinters program. Also know that strength training will be crucial for you.
- Want to look and perform like NF Team Member and deadlift hero Staci? Try your first barbell deadlift or bodyweight squat. But start.
- Want to look and perform like NF Yoga instructor Kate? Do your first downward dog today. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Whenever I’m faced with a decision of what I need to do, if I should workout or skip it, if I should eat this or that, sleep in or get up, etc., I ask myself “What would future Gymnast Steve do?”
And then I do that thing.
Remember: if you just want to lose a few pounds and not hate exercise, pick something you love. If you’re looking to build a certain type of physique, make sure you are training and eating in a way that lines up with those goals and forget the rest!
Of course, this poses a challenge: It’s possible (likely in fact) that you’ll be afraid to start. Why? Because you’re probably going to be awful at whatever you are just starting!
If you’re really overweight, the thought of doing parkour might make you want to throw up. Or if you’ve never done a gymnastics move before, you might think you need to get really strong first before you even attempt any movements. Going for a run is a ‘fit person’s game’, not yours. That’s why its crucial that we learn to get terrible out of the way. It sounds terrifying, but embracing terrible, as I explain in this video, is a LOT of fun!
Once you have your training path selected, it’s time for your next mission:
Mission 2: Overcome Genetics and Age with Lifestyle
In this game of life, you are randomly assigned a character/race. You might be a waifish high-elf, or a lumbering troll/ogre. You might be predisposed to be better at strength training or running. Or predisposed to Type-2 diabetes and had parents that fed you junk food your whole life. It ain’t fair, but that’s life, bub.
Just like some players get power-leveled, BUY the best gear, or cheat in some video games, there are genetic freaks out there and people who have opportunities you don’t. The top 1% of athletes or actors or actresses in their respective field have incredible genetics, financial incentive to succeed at their physical craft, and decades of training in a very that have allowed them to sculpt their physiques to suits their life’s needs: to be the best at something.
Some people just hit the genetic lottery, and it is what it is.
Some are naturally predisposed to running fast, others are predisposed to running for distance. Some people build muscle effortlessly, while others struggle to put on any weight at all. Some people are naturally predisposed to accumulating fat.
As we explain in our Guide to Genetics: You might be predisposed to being a great runner, but WANT to be a powerlifter, or vice versa. Or, you might put on fat easier than other people and want to be a marathon runner. Welp, you can either complain about it, force yourself to do the thing you dislike just because you’re better at it, or you can just DO the thing that brings you happiness and purpose with your training.
Depending on your genetics, age, job, lifestyle, how many kids you have (playing life as a Multiplayer Game!), or how much disposable income you have, yes: all of these factors will affect your training and ability to transform.
But you WILL be able to transform.
You might have a slower journey or lower maximum skill level based on the above factors. But it’s not your starting location/race, but rather your choices once you start playing that will determine how your character transforms.
You see, we all have baggage. ALL OF US. We’re all pretty freakin’ weird people with inner and outer demons we’re battling.
And yet, we find ways to succeed despite our baggage. We have single moms doing Nerd Fitness Yoga with their sons in our community. 60-year-old women who started powerlifting at age 59 (and are now going to powerlifting competitions). Age does not matter! Guys who are built like ogres have fallen in love with marathon training. We have a community of parents, students, people struggling financially, with mental health issues, and with incredibly difficult physical health issues, all making progress each day.
REGARDLESS OF WHERE YOU ARE IN LIFE, I guarantee we have somebody in our community who has it worse, is older, has the same injury you do, has more children, less money, and has found a way to succeed in the way you want to succeed.
This realization leaves you with two choices:
- Rationalize why you don’t look like that person, why you’re a unique snowflake with unfixable problems for whatever reason, and go back to Netflix. (I get it. So many good shows!)
- Get EXCITED: if they can do it, so can you! Yes. Even you. Even in that situation. I promise. Learn from them. And then do what they do.
Once realized, this is amazing:
… that you AND YOU ALONE have the ability to do and become whatever you want.
But it starts with personal responsibility, the GREATEST skill you can learn if you want to live better. Wherever you are right now– age, money, family size, waist size — is your place in life at this moment. Some of those things are things that you chose, other things have been thrust upon you (genetics, etc.).
Find somebody your age, with your body type, who has succeeded how you want to succeed. And start emulating them. You might not have the potential to look like King Leonidas or Black Widow, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get to a place that YOU’RE proud of with your particular genetic makeup and situation.
It might not be your fault, but it’s your responsibility to accept it, and take action with it.
Mission 3: Conquering Nutrition is 90% of Physique
Now that we’ve talked about picking your character type and training like them despite whatever your life situation is, we need to talk about your nutrition.
I can see you eating that donut right now, by the way. Put it down.
Every day, your body uses a certain number of the calories you consume to perform basic bodily functions like breathing, pumping blood throughout your body, brain functions, liver functions, and so on. This is called your basal metabolic rate. Any calories you consume over this amount essentially need to go somewhere and do something.
Depending on how you train and how much you eat, your body will respond to those extra calories in one of three ways:
- Your excess calories go to building more/bigger muscles.
- Your excess calories are burned off with additional activity.
- Your excess calories get stored as fat.
Conversely if you eat LESS calories than you burn every day, your body has to make tough decisions and determine what to do with the lower quantity of calories it consumes: does it preserve the muscle you have and burn the fat you’re storing? Does it conserve those calories and burn fat and muscle equally? Does it use the calories to fuel runs instead?
So how do you tell your body WHAT it should be doing with calories and transform the way you want?
Through your own Sorting Hat, like in Harry Potter! Each calorie entering your body is sent to the Sorting Hat, which tells them which of three houses to join:
- Build muscle and strength: Pick up heavy things or do advanced bodyweight training and you’re “sorting” those extra calories into muscle building.
- Burn as energy: If you choose to run a lot, the body will sort the calories into “use as energy” house, fueling your runs with more and more efficiency.
- Store as fat: If you sit around like a bum, you’re signaling to your whole body “meh, please sort these calories to the “fat storage” house. Mmmm double stuf oreos.”
Like Harry influencing the Sorting Hat to put him in Gryffindor, you can influence how the Sorting Hat works for the calories you consume through training type, intensity, and frequency!
Take me for example: I’m built like an elf. I have thin wrists and ankles, I struggle to put on any weight, and I’m naturally predisposed to be a runner (I was built like Steve Rogers but wanted to be Captain America). But since I wanted to look like and train like a gymnast, I just started doing that! And over time my workouts and diet signaled to my body, “you better build big muscles here and here so Steve can do his strenuous rings workouts.”
And unsurprisingly, my body listened, and I’m stronger, bigger, healthier, and happier than ever.
My training and diet each day signal: “I am a gymnast, and I am strong.” It flies in the face of my genetics, but I get to direct my own Sorting Hat!
It’s all to signal to my body what I chose: “YOU ARE A GYMNAST, BETTER ADAPT AND LOOK LIKE ONE.”
Start asking your new identity the following question, and where you want your body to sort the calories you consume:
- Am I signaling to my body through my training to my body what to do with these calories?
- Am I eating how the person I want to look like would eat?
- Am I recovering how the person I want to look like would recover?
Don’t overthink it, just ask yourself with each meal: “is this what a [what you want to be] would eat?” Ask yourself this with EVERY nutrition decision you make every day. The more times you can answer yes to that question every day, the faster you will see results.
To show how important your training signaling is to your diet: Imagine two identical twins eat the exact same food for 3000 calories a day. Twin 1 lifts heavy weights every day. Twin 2 sits on his ass every day. 12 months later, one will have used those extra calories to build muscle and more closely resemble King Leonidas. The other will have used those extra calories to store more fat and resemble Jabba the Hut.
They eat EXACT same amount of food and have the same genetics, but due to different signaling through activity, their Sorting Hats will make sure they develop VERY different physiques and abilities.
Hang something on your wall that says “what would a runner/Olympic lifter/fighter do?” and then do that.
Repeat this, meal after meal, decision after decision, month after month, year after year, and you will start to become that person.
Just don’t expect to have it happen overnight!
Impatient? Use performance goals, not physique goals
I leave you with one final piece of advice: be patient, my friend.
Although your mentality can change in an instant, it can take years and years for your body to catch up. Depending on what your goals are, you might need to make DRASTIC sacrifices like Katniss Everdeen.
Your nutrition might need to be solid, your training might need to be intense, and you might need to start saying no to a lot of things you enjoy but don’t line up with your goals.
If this is really what you want, that’s okay!
Three years ago when I started my gymnastics journey, I told my friend Anthony (who is coaching me online) how I had made some progress in the past but would always slide back after a few months. I was eager, willing, and ready to get started and couldn’t wait to get results, and he told me:
“Stop thinking in terms of weeks and months. We’re going to think of your training in terms of years and base our daily expectations on that. A decade from now you’re going to be in better shape than you are right now. But it starts by expanding your timeline and setting proper expectations.”
So, how did I get out of my head and be okay with the long journey?
I stopped worrying about what I looked like, I started thinking about performance based goals instead:
- Can I do 5 muscle ups in a row? (I can now!)
- Can I hold a handstand for 60 seconds?
- Can I deadlift 405 pounds?
- Can I hold a front lever for 5 seconds?
With my goals focused on performance, I didn’t have my eye on a the final form I would take and be “done.” Instead, I just picked whatever the “next” level of difficulty is. No “Before” and “After” – just “what’s next?” And that’s how I actually, finally, transformed.
So start asking yourself THESE types of questions instead of what the scale says:
Can I run a mile in 7 minutes flat?
Can I last 3 rounds in a MMA fight?
Can I squat 1.5x my bodyweight for 5 reps?
Use performance goals to keep focused on what’s in front of you, while signaling to your body each day to transform the way you want to transform. The number on the scale doesn’t define you. Instead, focus on what you’re capable of today that you weren’t yesterday, and fuel your body to help you achieve that goal.
As they say, “Appearance is a consequence of fitness.” Work on getting better at the skill, and your body will develop as a result. Make sure your nutrition is dialed in, and things will happen.
What are you going to do today?
Which brings us to TODAY. Start by asking yourself: “Am I training like the person I want to be? Am I eating like the person I want to be? Am I making decisions like the person I want to be? Am I recovering like the person I want to be? Am I working towards goals that help me become the person I want to be?
Here are some steps to get you started:
If you’re looking for a more Comprehensive Path to follow, try one of our premium courses. It’s tough going it alone, and often times it’s easier to have a specific path and resources to keep you accountable and tell you exactly what actions to take next.
If you want to build a specific physique, we can get you there if you’re willing to work for it:
- The Nerd Fitness Academy – Join 25,000 students in our flagship course to get you started on the right foot with your first year of fitness. We walk you through your journey to help you build strength, lose weight, and get started living healthier with workout routines, boss battles, missions, meal plans, and more. We cover mindset, habit building, and more.
- Nerd Fitness Yoga – Easy-to-follow stretching routines that makes learning the basics of Yoga fun. Watch these videos on any device and get started fixing lower back pain, improving your posture, and finally touch your toes for the first time!
- Nerd Fitness Rings and Handstands – For the aspiring gymnast or those who just want to learn great party tricks while also building strength, muscle, and power. The course is closed currently but we’ll be opening doors again in 2017, so sign up to be notified!
It’s your turn. Leave a comment below and tell me who you want to look like:
- Name/Type of person you want to emulate.
- How they train: running, yoga, martial arts, powerlifting, gymnastics.
- What your OLD self would use an excuse as to why you don’t look like them.
- TWO signals you can teach your body today to start training like that person:
- One workout adjustment you can make to help your body adapt.
- One dietary adjustment to fuel your body for your activity.
- Some sort of “HELL YEAH, STEVE” from you letting me know that you’re in.
And I’ll even bribe you because I want you to START. Leave a comment below, and I’ll pick 5 winners at random to snag a signed hardcover copy of my book, Level Up Your Life!
Bolt: Hilts uk