(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Diet and Fitness

By Jay Richards Published on September 12, 2017

My wife and I have (mostly) homeschooled our daughters. Years ago, parents who tried this had to work from scratch and suffer the scorn of their neighbors and their school district. These days, friendlier laws, good curricula, co-ops and technology make it much easier. The main problem is too much choice rather than too little.

In our case, some of the work is done at home, some online, and some with a great Catholic homeschool co-op. Our co-op has also joined forces with a local evangelical school to form sports teams.

The Body Stuff

That last bit is often a problem with homeschooling. Physical fitness may fall between the cracks, since it’s hard to do on your own. But human beings are not just souls in bodies. We’re embodied creatures. So, a good education should train mind, soul, and body.

I’ve been a fitness buff since college. I took classes in exercise physiology, worked in the college weight room, and even helped put out-of-shape students on work-out plans. I believe resistance training is good for men and women. I still read several books a year on diet and exercise. Over the years, I’ve stored up a lot of knowledge and opinions on the subjects.

So — no surprise here — I didn’t want fitness to get short shrift at the Richards Academy. A few years ago, this meant that we did Tony Horton’s grueling P90X video workouts — together. This will not rank as the high point in my girls’ childhood memories. Still, it seemed to take. After that year of torture, our older daughter Gillian started working out on her own.

Because I picked up diet and fitness facts slowly as a hobby, I didn’t realize just how complex and confusing they are to most folks. It’s hard to keep straight, let alone use facts about muscle groups, metabolism, and macronutrients. It’s tempting to fall for fads and myths, which are a lot easier to remember.

That’s why, a few months ago, my girls asked me to distill the basic principles in one short document that they could commit to memory. It wasn’t easy. But I finally managed to boil it down, in under a thousand words. Here it is, adapted for a wider audience.

The Gist

Try to work out 5 to 6 days a week. Focus on resistance training (RT) and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

If you have a busy week when you can only work out once or twice, then you can do full body workouts that combine all muscle groups. Just make sure your body has plenty of time to recover between these workouts (2-3 days).

Muscle Groups to Work Out Together in Resistance Training (RT)
  • Chest (pectorals), triceps, and shoulders (deltoids). You can also work out shoulders on a separate day. Note that these are mostly pushing muscles.
  • Back (latissimus dorsi and trapezius) and biceps. Note that these are mostly pulling muscles.
  • Legs, that is, butt (glutes), thighs (quadriceps), hamstrings, calves (soleus and gastrocnemius), and lower back. You can work out calves more often, and during other workouts. Do lower back work at the end of the workout, since you need these muscles for strength and stability during other leg exercises.
  • Abs and obliques: You can add these to any work out above, but never do them before you work out legs. It’s okay to do high rep sets on abs. (Abdominal and core muscles are different from other muscles in your body.) Don’t spend too much total time on abs. You should get through an ab routine in 15 minutes or less. They need far less rest between sets than other parts of your body.
Reps (repetitions) and Sets

In one workout, you want to do 3 to 5 different exercises per muscle or muscle group, for a total of 9 to 12 sets. Within sets, shoot for 6-12 reps. One set is a series of reps with no rest in-between. Don’t spend more than an hour on an intense RT workout.

Time-Under-Tension (TUT)

During a set, work to keep the muscle or muscle group under tension throughout the entire set. Your goal is not to move the weight. It’s to exhaust a muscle or muscle group over most of its range of motion. Normally during a set, you don’t want to lock out your joint, or allow a weight to hang or rest. Move slowly enough so you can focus on the key muscle or muscle group. Don’t let it “rest” in the middle of a set. A set should last 20-60 seconds.

Now, here are the six key points to keep in mind.

(1) Always warm up.

It’s easy to injure muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments in resistance training. Always take time to warm up muscles and joints beforehand, and stretch the muscles after the workout.

(2) Lift hard and then give your muscles time to recuperate.

Work out muscles and muscle groups hard enough to be exhausted, and then give them time to recover and rebuild. Don’t do resistance training on the same muscles two days in a row. Don’t do RT on the same muscles more than 3 times per week. 1-2 times a week is plenty. And get lots of sleep.

(3) Push the envelope.

It’s a bad use of time to do RT with weight so light that you can easily do 15 or more reps before failing. Shoot for roughly 6-12 reps on every set. The weight should be heavy enough that you can’t do even one more rep. Normally, rest for 30-60 seconds between sets.

If you can do more than twelve reps in a set, increase the weight. If you reach a plateau where you simply can’t go heavier at 6 reps, then it’s time to change your routine.

Don’t believe the myth that lifting heavy weight will cause you to “bulk up.” It won’t. Women rarely have that problem unless they’re taking steroids and growth hormone. Don’t do that.

(4) Mix it up.

Don’t do the same workout over and over. Your body will adapt to the same routine in about three weeks. If your muscles are not sore the day after a workout, that means the muscles have adapted. It’s time to change. You can vary the weight and number of reps, the types of exercise, the order of exercises.

You can alternate sets of different exercises, rather than doing all 2 or 3 sets of the same exercise in a row. You can move between muscle group exercises (such as squats) and isolation exercises (like leg extensions on a machine.)

You can rotate between different exercises and machines. You can do several sets in row, with little rest in-between, dropping the weight on each successive set. You can do supersets, where you move straight from a set of one exercise to a set of another exercise on the same muscle group with no rest in-between. You change the speed and time-under-tension of reps and sets, and you change the amount of rest time between sets.

(5) Do both anaerobic and aerobic Exercise.

Resistance training builds lean muscle mass, strengthens your muscles and bones, and increases your metabolism. But it’s anaerobic exercise. It doesn’t require you to keep your pulse rate high for a sustained period. For that, you need aerobic exercise. The best form of aerobic exercise for most people is HIIT: high intensity interval training. Check out the many (free) HIIT workouts at FitnessBlender.com.

Long slow aerobic exercise is easier than HIIT, but it takes up more time and is not as useful. Unless you’re training for a marathon.

(6) Eat protein, fat, and not a lot of carbs.

For muscles to recover from RT, you need plenty of digestible protein in your diet: about 3/4 of a gram per pound of body weight per day. Don’t follow fad diets based on stories about how cave men ate.

Here’s a simple policy: Keep carbs below 100 grams per day, and go for the low-glycemic ones. Avoid sugars and high glycemic carbs — except right after working out — and you won’t have to count calories.

Ignore warnings about natural dietary fat and salt. Your body likes them.


Jay Richards is the Executive Editor of The Stream and an Assistant Research Professor in the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter.

* Note: I have no medical training. Don’t take this as medical advice. It’s a short summary of my opinions on diet and exercise. It’s for healthy people who don’t have problems digesting protein or lifting weights.

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  • Paul

    Great article Jay. More physical fitness content at Stream would be great.

    You mentioned that it’s a bad use of time to do RT with weight so light that you can easily do 15 or more reps before failing. I often do that purposefully to help warm up a muscle group and for me it helps with overall joint function. In other words it depends on the objective.

    Also you mentioned fad caveman diets, not quite sure what you’re referring to there but a Paleo foods framework has been fantastic for us and shares your emphasis on lower carbs, added protein and beneficial fats, and natural organic foods the way God provided for how He made us.

    • Jay W. Richards

      Yes light weights makes sense for warming up, just not for building muscle. I have no problem with paleo-diets taken in moderation. But many of the claims for their benefits (and for their basis in knowledge of paleolithic diets) goes past the evidence in my opinion. I think that natural dietary fat is good and that lots of processed carbs are not good. That’s the part of the paleo diets that I’ve studied that are best grounded in the empirical evidence (rather than speculative theories about ancient diets). My own dietary choices follow fairly closely the primal diet, but that’s more by coincidence than doctrinal agreement.

      • Paul

        Agreed on all counts Jay, there’s the common sense aspect of paleo and then there’s the zealots. I stick with the first and avoid the latter.

  • Robert J. Cihak, MD

    Thanks, Jay. Very helpful. I had been thinking of asking you about your experience in this area but there were always more pressing and seemingly important things to work on.

  • Excellent. Thank you. One thing I try to do with my routine is split the excercise time 50/50 between resistance and cardio. Depending on one’s objectives you can adjust that 60/40 or 75/25. But one should be conscious of the difference and try to get some of each in every workout. I think you addressed this in your number five point.

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