First, let me say that I love 30 day challenges. If you can stick to a new habit for 30 days and see good results, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to maintain it into the future.
So why this article?
Not all 30 day challenges are created equal. Some–even those created by highly respected fitness gurus–are bad ideas for most people and can even be downright harmful. Especially when you use them as an onboarding ramp to a new fitness program with an exercise you are not used to doing.
Here are a couple really bad ones I’ve seen lately:
- 30/30 Squat Challenge – Spend 30 minutes a day in a rock bottom squat for 30 days
- The 300 Swings a Day, 30-Day Kettlebell Challenge
We’ll take a look at how 30 day challenges go wrong and what to do about it.
When 30 day challenges go wrong
“The best way to start a new fitness program in an exercise you are not used to is to jump in headfirst and go full tilt every day for 30 days with no rest days…” said no respected fitness expert ever.
There are two major problems with this approach:
- Starting a fitness program with no prep-work and a fast and furious training schedule is the quickest road to burnout and injury.
- Rest is necessary for adaptation. Muscles grow during rest, not during workouts.
Strength coaches universally recommend trainees start off light. If it doesn’t feel too easy for the first couple weeks, you’re doing it wrong. Distance running coaches start their trainees off with lots of easy, slow paced running. Highly demanding intervals don’t show up until a couple months into the training schedule. Yoga instructors start you off with downward dog and not a handstand press with your legs folded into a pretzel.
You get the point. Any 30 day challenge that ignores the basic rule of starting off easy and building up gradually is setting you up for failure and should be avoided.
Likewise, avoid 30 day fitness challenges that do not include rest days.
Pushing yourself beyond safe limits and not resting properly quickly leads to burnout and/or injury. I’ve heard from so many people who bombed out of the 30/30 Squat Challenge mere days into the program with a knee injury or pulled muscle.
But the damage isn’t just physical, it’s also psychological. You get demotivated and discouraged. You feel like you just don’t have what it takes and you are inferior to everyone else who is presumably still doing just fine on the challenge (in reality they aren’t and are quitting in droves just like you).
When the credibility of these types of programs is questioned, the “coaches” have a secret weapon against the newb: “It won’t hurt you, just man up and don’t be a wuss.” Thus many unsuspecting victims are falsely lulled into believing that these programs are safe for them.
Don’t buy it. If you’ve fall for this before, don’t beat yourself up. Now you know better.
How to do 30 day challenges the right way
The fundamental question you should ask yourself about any 30 day challenge is, “If this goes well, could I see myself continuing the same program for the rest of my life?”
Let’s apply this to our two challenges above:
Could I see myself doing 30 mins of squatting every day for the rest of my life?
Could I see myself doing 300 KB swings every day for the rest of my life?
Even if you manage to survive the initial 30 days, no one has any illusions that they’d be able to keep it up forever.
So how could you modify these programs to be more sensible?
Instead of 30 minutes of squatting every day, try 10 minutes of squatting 5 days a week.
Instead of 300 KB swings every day, try 100 KB swings 5 days a week.
If you’re brand new to a fitness paradigm, you might not have a sense of how much you can handle and still overestimate your abilities. That’s fine. If 2-3 days into the program you are already seriously questioning your body’s ability to continue, cut time/weight/reps in half and continue.
Your goal for the first 30 days is just to complete a program that has you working out on a regular, set schedule. During that time your objectives should be to gain familiarity and confidence with the movement. You should not be attempting to set a big PR, break any records, or prove any manhood.
When to attempt the foolish
I would argue that 30 day fitness challenges that require you workout every day with no rest days are not appropriate for anyone ever, no matter what your fitness level.
However, if you still insist on doing one anyway you should only attempt a balls-to-the-wall 30 day fitness challenge if you have already been working out that exercise for some time and have a good degree of fitness.
Do you already have good squat mobility? Do you already regularly spend time sitting in a rock bottom squat? Alright, try a 30/30 Squat Challenge if you want to.
Have you been doing 300 KB swings a day 3/days a week for a year? Is it no longer much of a challenge? Okay, then you might consider a 300 KB swings/day 30 day challenge.
But the bigger question is “why?” These types of programs aren’t healthy and certainly aren’t ideal training schedules. Probably about all they are good for is making you feel really tired.
Only you can answer if completing such a challenge will make you feel personally accomplished in some way. If it will, own it, and do what makes you happy. Personally I will pass on the boom-bust fitness cycle and stick to a more measured, but progressive workout schedule.