Training for strength and muscle is a long journey. If we want to produce significant results, we will need a great deal of time, patience and consistency.
Unfortunately, this basic rule is often overlooked. In our fast-paced society, people want fast results. They want to look great and they want it now. If they don’t see results immediately, they lose motivation and fall off the wagon.
At the other extreme, there are overzealous athlets. These people make the opposite mistake of getting lost in the minutiae of what makes a routine optimal. Unfortunately, they forget that it doesn’t matter how good our program is if we cannot adhere to it.
Both mindsets can lead to consistency issues, but how can we improve consistency?
Is it only a matter of discipline, or is there a smarter way to design programs?
The Conditions for Consistency
It doesn’t matter if we want to lose weight, build muscle, or do both at the same time. Regardless of our goals, if we don’t adhere to our program, we won’t see the slightest result.
Many people are convinced they can handle anything life throws at them. No matter how hard or strenuous the task, all they need is their motivation and iron will.
I have the utmost respect for hard-driving, hard-working people. However, when it comes to training, I see nothing impressive about setting up an extreme, unsustainable program.
First of all, a harder program is not a guarantee for success. Additionally, there are situations in life where motivation alone is not enough. In those instances, a flexible, sustainable program can make all the difference between giving up and staying on track.
Secondly, progress takes time.
It is possible to achieve amazing results in terms of performance and body composition, but they are not going to happen overnight. If we want to reach our full potential as athletes, we have to commit to the long haul.
So we’d better get into the right frame of mind. It will be some time before we achieve our fitness goals. The bigger the goals, the longer it will take. At that point, we might as well opt for a less extreme, more sustainable, long-term plan.
But what makes a program sustainable?
As suggested by Eric Helms, there are three essential requirements programs need to meet. They must be realistic, flexible and enjoyable.
The Program Must Be Realistic
When designing a program, the absolute first thing to do is to make sure the program is realistic.
Unrealistic goals and expectations are the number one reason people fail in the gym. A quick reality check can spare ourselves unnecessary effort and frustration.
More specifically, there are three aspects to address. Training advancement, time frame, and schedule.
Training advancement represents our level of athletic achievement. Based on training advancement, it’s common to divide athletes into different categories. Beginner, intermediate and advanced.
Athletes in different categories have different needs. For that reason, using a program designed for a higher category is usually a recipe for disaster. The program would be unnecessarily complex, and the amount of work would simply be unsustainable.
There is no point in training as advanced if we are beginners. One thing is a hard program, another thing is an unrealistic program.
Moving on, we need a realistic plan based on the time frame we have available.
Most people train to compete and competitions take place on predetermined days of the year. Once we know the competition date, we have to design our program within that time frame.
This is as true for professional athletes as it is for recreational lifters. Our goal might simply be to look good at the beach. However, if we are 20 kg overweight and we start our program on June we are not being realistic. We need to match our goals and strategies with our real-life time frame.
Lastly, our program must fit our schedule.
If we want to prepare for a bodybuilding competition by training twice a day, but we work as salesmen and spend most of our time traveling, then our program is not realistic.
Before deciding what we should or shouldn’t do, we have to acknowledge what we actually can do.
It doesn’t matter how “optimal” a program might look in theory. If we can’t adhere to it, that optimal program is going to produce less results than a sub-optimal program we can follow consistently.
The Program Must Be Flexible
In my article on the General Adaptation Syndrome, I explained that anything can represent a stress for the body. The only necessary and sufficient condition is that its dosage is large enough to disrupt the homeostasis.
From hard training to a severe caloric restriction. From changes in sleep patterns to worries in the workplace. All stressors add up and challenge the body collectively.
But not all stressors are equal. Some of them we can control, some others we can’t.
Stressors we can control are the ones depending on our actions such as training, sleep and nutrition. We all would like to believe they are the only stressors affecting our progress. Unfortunately, the truth is that even stressors that we can’t control will have an impact on it.
Maybe we have a lot of pressure at work or maybe we accidentally injured ourselves. Maybe we are about to break up with our partner or maybe a family member recently passed away.
Basically, life happens and there will be times when we struggle to adhere to our plans.
But the point is, do we have the ability to accommodate the unexpected? Or, if you prefer, is our program flexible enough?
There are many ways to implement flexibility, but the bottom line is to have a backup plan. This can be as simple as having an easier workout for the day. This way, we can follow our normal schedule and, if something goes wrong, opt for the easier workout instead.
Everyday life stress can affect our progress in the gym. A flexible approach to training will often prove to be superior to a rigid one.
The Program Must Be Enjoyable
Once we ensured that our program is realistic and flexible, there is a series of important questions we need to ask to ourselves.
Do we enjoy this program? Is training a pleasant experience? Do we look forward to going to the gym?
Some people tend to neglet personal enjoyment. However, I guarantee you that you are going to get much better results on a sub-optimal plan that you enjoy, than on an optimal plan you have to force yourselves to do every single time you enter the gym.
Motivation has a huge impact on the results we can achieve.
Some people, typically professional and competitive athletes, are going to love whatever makes them progress faster. No matter if the program makes their life miserable. They just want results. Every time they progress, their motivation increases.
But we are not all machines. Other people give equal weight to progress as well as personal enjoyment. This is not something to sniff at. Personal enjoyment can help us create a positive cycle driving harder training and producing more results. In turn, this drives even more enjoyment.
Focusing only on achieving goals can be stressful and counterproductive. This can undermine our efforts and set us up for failure.
Even a program that is thoroughly enjoyable, but so time and energy demanding to put a strain on our professional and private life, is slowly going to take away from our enjoyment. Eventually, we might come to a point where it’s not worth it anymore and give up on the program.
On the other hand, learning to enjoy the process turns every session into a pleasant experience we will look forward to repeat.
Training is a long journey that requires a lot of time, patience and consistency.
If we want to reach our full potential as athletes, we have to commit to the long haul. It will be some time before we achieve our fitness goals. At that point, we might as well opt for a less extreme, more sustainable, long-term program.
To that end, it must be realistic, flexible and enjoyable.
It doesn’t matter if our program is not perfect or optimal. What may theoretically seem optimal on paper is not going to produce the slightest result as long as we don’t do it. An optimal program we regularly fail to stick to is going to produce less results than a sub-optimal program we can adhere to.
Optimal does not mean sustainable. In the end, it’s not theoretical perfection but pragmatical consistency what makes us progress towards our goals.