Kaizen for Fitness

Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today.
This is never-ending.
— Hagakure

There is a tendency in other cultures for most people to stop training, to stop trying to improve, after they reach a certain level of skill — and this is one of the reasons why the Japanese have had an advantage in virtually everything they do. They have been culturally conditioned to never stop training. — Samurai Strategies

Make at least one definitive move daily toward your goal. Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable; however, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable. — Bruce Lee

Kaizen is a Japanese word that literally translates to “improvement” or “change for the better”. But Kaizen is more than just a word. It is a lifestyle philosophy incorporating a focused effort to strive for constant and continual improvement in all areas of life. In modern Japanese culture, it is most often applied in the business setting — the never-ending pursuit of improving the productivity and efficiency of your business.

Of course, this principle can be effectively applied to the health and fitness setting as well. I’d even go so far as to say that kaizen — whether it is consciously applied or subconsciously practiced — is what separates the elite from the average. How are you better today than you were yesterday? No matter where you currently fall under the spectrum, if you constantly strive to improve, you will see results.

Beginners — how can you improve on your consistency? If you are skipping workouts and really only getting to the gym two days a week, can you make a concerted effort to improve and bump that up to three? Can you find ways to increase non-exercise specific activity (i.e. walking to do some errands instead of driving)?

Advanced athletes — have you reached some kind of a plateau? How can you bust through it? The answer lies in the details. Can you be more regimented with your diet, or up the intensity in the gym?

Strength coach Charles Poliquin frequently talks about this concept in its relation to progressive overload. He discusses how the idea of constant and continual improvement can effectively be applied to protocols designed specifically for increasing strength.

The application is simple. With each successive training session, the lifter should attempt to add one more rep to the set or a little more weight to the bar. This ensures constant improvement. Charles specifically talks about adding the smallest plates in the gym (2.5lbs) to the bar each time you train. This sounds like nothing, but small increases made consistently over time add up to big improvements. In a twelve week training cycle, a weekly increase of 5lbs total on the bar nets a 60lbs increase in your lifting total. Not bad, especially for an advanced lifter.

This mentality should not stop with just progressive overload. I believe the Kaizen principle can extend out to all aspects of the fitness game, and can bring you closer to reaching your goals. Here are some practical examples:

• Lifting Technique: Better technique can reduce rebound, momentum, cheating, or using other, unintended muscle groups to complete a lift. This maximizes tension on the target muscle, which of course leads to optimal overload and development. Better technique can also leave you less susceptible to traumatic injury, reduced wear and tear on the joints, and chronic pain. Can you look for ways to perfect your technique? Can you slightly improve your exercise form in some way?

• Nutrition: If you eat 5 meals a day, that totals 35 meals in a week. How many of those meals are bringing you closer to your physique goals? How many of those meals are taking you further away from your goals? Can you improve on that ratio? If you are eating good 85% of the time, focus on increasing that to 90%.

• Alignment/Muscle Balance: Do you sit at a computer all day? Do you have terrible posture as a result? Are tight muscles inhibiting your range of motion or causing chronic pain? Are lengthened, weakened muscles making your posture or performance suffer? Can you look for ways to improve muscle imbalances or lifting discrepancies? Can you add some daily stretches to improve your computer posture?

• Recovery: Are you living more like an athlete or more like a rock star? If you are going out partying every night, drinking, doing recreational drugs, etc., you are not providing the best environment for your body to improve its appearance. Can you find ways to reduce the “sexy time” and focus more on your fitness goals?

• Sleep: This is one of the most overlooked components of development. Proper sleep can help reduce cortisol levels, increase growth hormone levels, recharge the nervous system, increase cellular repair, etc., all leading to better development. Can you skip watching American Idol to get an extra hour of sleep?

• Hydration: Virtually every cellular process in our body requires water. Can you improve your hydration levels? Can you drink 2 liters of water instead of 1? Here’s a fun game — can you make your pee-pee look more like water or lemonade than iced tea (yeah, I know I’m a little off my rocker)?

• Meathead Status: Can you dudes somehow improve on your current meathead status? What about grunting or screaming more during your warm-up sets, wearing sunglasses in the gym, wearing tighter spandex, coming up with cheesier pick-up lines to use on the gym bunnies, acting macho(er) staring at yourself in the mirror more, etc.?

• Diva Status: Can you girls somehow improve on your diva status? What about avoiding strength training and spending three instead of two hours on the cardio machines, taking more pointless, phooh-phooh “exercise” classes, wearing more make-up in the gym, wearing tighter spandex, acting stupid(er), staring at yourself in the mirror more, etc.

I think you can see that the list could go on and on forever. There are always ways in which we can improve — as athletes, as coaches, and as people.

The summary of the kaizen, then, is to never be satisfied with your current level of skill or development. Always try to improve, in every aspect of your life. There is always someone out there who is stronger, fitter, or more skilled than you are. If you are starting at the bottom of the mountain, that’s the only way to climb to the top. And even if you happen to be at the top of the mountain now, remember kings and queens fall, and heroes rise to take their place.