In his 2002 book, How Wars Are Won: The 13 Rules of War from Ancient Greece to the War on Terror, Bevin Alexander makes a big deal of rule #5: feign retreat. It’s a damn good rule. Every great commander since Gilgamesh has followed it and boneheads as recently as Tommy Franks have fallen for it. Whole military cultures are dedicated to this one strategy: attack hard, run away but to better position, attack hard again, run away again, repeat until the enemy goes away. It is such a well deployed strategy in Asia that according to the late, great military strategist Vizzini, the most famous of all the classic blunders is getting involved in a land war in Asia. Eddie Izzard even observed that “Hitler never played ‘Risk’ as a kid.”

But what does this have to do you being fat? Well if as Dan John observes, “Fat loss is an all out war,” then you should be employing the tactics that will win that war. Like Stonewall Jackson, your fallback plan should be an attack plan.

“He was never more to be feared than when he was retreating, and where others thought only of strong defensive positions he looked persistently for the opportunity to attack.”

The Fallback Position

The reason fat loss is a war is because it is simple (eat less; move more) but really damn hard. We are wired to store fat and evolved to conserve energy. The result of a billion years of scarcity is that until prodded by fear, our default is often to just do nothing. So people evolved to have two modes: balls out or stationary. In fitness, the fallback is position is the couch. That’s like hearing the first cannon blast and hightailing it home to Momma: no way to win a war.

Josh Hillis talks about Easy Fat Loss. Dan and Pavel talk about Easy Strength. What these programs are is a fallback position that isn’t the couch. The best fat loss or strength program is the one you do. The easier it is, the more likely you are to do it; the more likely it will become habit. These programs begin with a solid self-assessment of your personal weaknesses, prescribe an intervention based on Pareto’s law, then implement the lowest possible dose of that intervention that will still show results in the long run. Which do you think is more effective: 12 hard workouts or 200 easy ones?

Your Retreat Plan

Stonewall Jackson never told his troops to “run away.” Before he ever went into battle, he picked a spot on the map to retreat to that was also a great attack position. In your fat loss war, you need a retreat plan. But instead of a spot on the map, this plan will be a workout. An easy, 15-20 minute workout that moves you toward your goal but requires as much thought as brushing your teeth. It needs to be simple AND easy, but it has to be bang for your buck. Start by writing down your favorite way to train. Do you like barbell complexes? Swings and goblet squats? O lifts? Jogging? Tae Bo? Anything is fine. Let me repeat that: Any exercise you love is fine. Now write down the bare minimum that you can do of that exercise and still be ready to do it again the next day. For most things this is 15-20 minutes with your heart rate up. For lifting, I suggest Dan’s Rules of 10 for full body movements, 25 for half-body movements, and 70-250 for ballistics. But underestimate here. And I mean really low-ball it. You always wanna leave feeling better than when you started and leave some in the tank for tomorrow. Don’t think, “I’ve done 1200 swings in a workout before” and then think you can do 1000 every day. Ask yourself, “When the sun comes up on Saturday morning and I’ve got a slight hangover from too much red wine the night before, what’s the workout that’s going to make me feel better?” That’s your retreat plan. 

Some examples:

  • 100 swings.
  • 10 double kettlebells cleans, 10 long presses at 70%-80% of your max
  • 10 RDLs, 10 Front Squats, 10 Clean & Jerks at 70%-80% of your max
  • A 20 minute jog or bike ride.
  • 3-5 light sprints.
  • 3 barbell complexes
  • 3-5 Turkish Get Ups per side.
  • 3-5 Sun Salutations
  • Or even just the warm up from your regular workout.

The key to this retreat plan is that you aren’t retreating. You are still in enemy territory, regrouping for your next attack. If you feel like you can do more, do a little more. If you feel like you can do a lot more, do a lot more! But after going hard for a few workouts and don’t feel like you can do anything, do something. Feign your retreat.

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