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Navigated well, your twenties can be a very fruitful period of your life to establish founding principles of exercise and healthy living that will serve you for the rest of your life. The major opportunity is that your body is primed for action and will deliver results even under less than optimal conditions, the major downside is that these are formative years with a lot of social pressure and distractions. Let’s explore how to get the most out of this decade.
What to expect from your body:
In your twenties, your body is going to be strong, resilient, full of energy and able to respond to exercise very well. This is because your body is hormonally primed to be able to react to stimuli, particularly when it comes to gaining muscle. This doesn’t mean however that you are impervious to set backs, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
What to expect from life:
At 37 at the time of writing this article, I can speak retrospectively and empathetically as to what you are likely to experience through your twenties. It’s probably worth noting that you’ll likely be so different and value such different things throughout this decade that this I could be writing to three different versions of you, i.e. you’ll be a totally different person at 20 and at 29, I certainly was, but that doesn’t mean that certain themes run through the whole period.
Whilst your body is incredibly resilient in your 20’s, it's also the time in your adult life where you will be most vulnerable emotionally and psychologically to short term gratification, comparison and seeking the good opinion of other people. This is going to bring with it immense pressure to ‘fit-in’, look a certain way or take risks to speed up your results.
For me personally, to be honest, gaining my initial muscle mass in from my late teens to early twenties was as much out of desire as it was strategy. I was growing up in a fairly ‘eventful’ part of North West London, so the more muscular I got, the less risk I saw in my day to day activities. Rightly or wrongly, whilst I also loved to train, I can’t deny that the results also served a purpose. I say that to say that throughout our twenties we have to balance our healthy intrinsic desires to maximise our potential and become who we are seeking to be and to weather external sources of pressure.
Advantages to starting early
Let’s take a look at some of the major reasons that taking your health and fitness regime seriously in your twenties:
Take advantage of logistics: In your twenties you are most likely to have more free time, less stress, greater access to good sleep and a generally more active lifestyle than you may have in later life. Use this somewhat responsibility-free time to lean into your training and make a lot of ground that will benefit you in later life.
Maximise your Genetic potential: During your twenties your hormones are primed for anabolic progress, so my advice would be to seek to gain the level of muscle that you want in your twenties. It makes sense to do this when the odds are stacked in your favour; it’ll still be possible later, but it’ll be harder. For many people, closing the gap on their natural muscular potential over the course of their twenties is both a worthwhile pursuit and a fantastic way to build self-confidence.
Avoids common life pitfalls: We all hear stories of young athletes that kept away from the temptations of their local environment by engaging in their sport; while their friends were out joining gangs and getting into trouble, they were at practice, and it kept them out of trouble. Whilst incorporating fitness into our lifestyle is unlikely to be that romantic but keeping a diligent workout practice inherently demands a good deal of rest and recovery or you just won’t see the same results, keeping yourself less inclined to indulge in some of the more extreme partying you might otherwise have been drawn to.
Transferable life skills: Exercise isn’t all about aesthetics and physical performance. A concerted and consistent exercise practice throughout your 20’s is going to give you legitimately transferable life skills that will serve you in other areas of your life. For example, delayed gratification, goal setting, perseverance, troubleshooting, dedication, focus and planning.
Engrains habits: Because we might do well to consider our twenties a formative period, the sooner you can establish consistent exercise and lifestyle habits that keep you at a good level of body fat and in decent all around physical fitness, the more they will just become a part of who you are. Establish these early and that baseline will serve as an early warning system for potential health setbacks for the rest of your life; the higher you can make your standards in your twenties, the more accountable you’ll be to those standards through the decades.
May help avoid injuries in the future: On a more practical level, studies have suggested that being exposed to structured resistance training early on will lower the risk of injury later, likely because of gaining early strength and because of the cultivation of all round bodily control and coordination.
What to avoid in your 20’s
Learn the basics (and don’t rush): Just because your body is primed for fast growth in your twenties, it doesn’t mean that you get to skip important aspects of the foundations of health & fitness training. Make sure that you take time to learn proper exercise form, and muscle recruitment, as this will massively help you avoid injury which could lead to longer term setbacks.
Ensure that you learn to balance work and rest both inside and outside of your exercise efforts. Again, you are in your twenties, and you have a huge energy supply right now, but it’s still possible to burn out, so seek advice about workout programming to ensure that you don’t burn the candle too bright.
Avoid comparison: This is a huge one - if you're in your twenties now, you are experiencing your twenties in the social media age. I wasn’t really exposed to such comparison, at least not in my early twenties, so always keep in the back of your mind that you may be comparing your everyday worst to someone else’s highly curated best, and that’s a game you cannot win.
Social media can be a great source of inspiration, but also consider that some of the people you are comparing yourself to may be manipulating their public image, getting in shape for a period of time and dripping content throughout the year giving the impression of amazing year-round conditioning or more plainly be taking risks with their health that you aren’t privy to or would be willing to do yourself.
Ultimately, the only comparison that is healthy to make is who you are today to where you started, any other comparison is not going to be particularly good for your self-esteem.
Don’t get restrictive: Try to keep your approach to nutrition relatively instinctive in your twenties, listen to your body, don’t get too caught up in diets, calorie counting and fads. Whilst it can be very good to know exactly what numbers will get you to your goal, don’t let that supersede what your body is telling you, and certainly don’t go through long periods of restriction.
Don’t take irreversible risks: You are likely to be slightly more prone to risk taking in your twenties than later in life, so it’s prudent as a general life rule not to ‘bet the house’ on any one decision; that mental model will serve you well over time. What I’m getting at here, is an extension on the above point - if you are a bit sleep deprived, hungover and still train when you probably shouldn’t, will you get away with it? Almost certainly, but don’t extend that same casualty when it comes to supplementation and other temptations to take extreme steps toward your goals, because not all health risks are reversible.
I hope this article has served as a CliffsNotes guide to health & fitness in your 20’s. So how do these principles play out into an actual routine? Well, there won’t be any one routine that works for too long without producing diminishing returns, it certainly won’t last a decade.
So it’s best to work with first principles. Assuming you have learnt proper technique, cultivated a healthy relationship with food and understand the balance of work and rest here is what I recommend:
- Lean into frequent resistance training.
Rotate protocols each 6-8 weeks or when you start to see a drop in performance.
Don’t be afraid to use volume and intensive workouts, your body can recovery from them easily at this age.
Lean into short bursts of HIIT work or hybrid /functional training. This combination should allow you to stay pretty lean whilst pursuing the level of muscle mass you seek.
Mobility will be less of a priority at this age for most, but make it a routine to use dynamic movement to warm up for workouts and stretch out afterwards, don’t wait for this necessity to be forced upon you in your thirties.
One of the big life lessons I’ve observed is that a lot of ground can be covered by not making easily mistakes that someone more experienced could have helped you avoid. This is what's known as an information advantage, so don’t hesitate to seek expert guidance to make sure you make the most of this period where your body is basically poised for great results.