Whether you’re an aspiring powerlifter/bodybuilder or just at the gym for your health and wellbeing, one of the biggest favours you can do yourself is learning to love the process of training. Besides the fact that training is (unless you’re some type of professional) a hobby, and that the health benefits of exercise are contingent upon you actually engaging in it, there’s a whole lot of reasons why your development is dependant upon your love for the process.
Here are a few for the athletically inclined:
1 – While talent sets your ceiling (and your starting point, and the rate at which you advance), most people never come close to fulfilling their potential because that takes TIME. For powerlifting and bodybuilding especially, most people peak late compared to other sports. Australia’s best powerlifter currently is a 43-year old woman and a large number of the best powerlifters in the world would be eligible to compete in the Masters division. Plenty of bodybuilders take well over a decade of competing to get close to maximising their muscular potential and refine the art of getting stage-ready. So the first reason it’s good to love training is because if you’re going to have to do a lot of it for a long time to be your best.
2 – As you advance the return on investment will get smaller and smaller. When you’re new to lifting gains come quickly (and easily, though many don’t realise just how easily until they’re way past that point) and near continuously. Putting on several kilograms of muscle in a year or adding >50kg to a lift isn’t particularly rare for beginners. For more advanced athletes, though, it can take months to improve a lift 2-5kg, or a year to put on any appreciable muscle, all whilst performing far higher training loads. Sometimes you’ll go a long time between hitting new PBs, or invest a huge amount of effort in preparation for a competition and fail to see improvement, and that can be disheartening. Without the constant feedback of easily measurable improvement, continuing to put your nose to the wheel takes an enjoyment of doing so. The same can be said of novelty – there’s a huge number of ways to package exercise programs, but by the time you’re a highly developed lifter there won’t be a HUGE lot new to amuse you.
3 – As I’ve already said, your improvements won’t be linear. I remember seeing a meme somewhere comparing “how I envisaged my training progress” (a steady upward slope) vs “reality”, which consisted of a squiggly, upward trending line with interruptions consisting of a jump over a shark-filled pool and through a ring of fire etc, and it captured things perfectly.
Not only will you not always improve steadily or predictably, or in proportion to your effort/planning, but you’ll suffer setbacks. If you train for long enough, you’re likely to have one or two injuries that slow you down or stop you for a while, or life will get in the way, or some such, and you won’t get back on the horse if you don’t like just being on it, wherever it’s going.
4 – The importance of the monotonous details will increase the longer you engage in training. When you’re new, anything works, so doing anything you like however you like to can get you places. Once you’re half-decent, though, to see meaningful improvement takes planning and diligent execution. Not only that, but technical errors that are near-inconsequential at low levels of advancement become much more important, and doing the less glamorous stuff (like prehab/rehab work, accessories, sensible nutrition practices and sleeping) starts to be close to make-or-break. Doing the stuff you need to do to get better won’t happen for long enough for it to all add up unless you like doing it.
5 – It’s easy to be motivated short-term by the belief that people will respect you or treat you better on account of your training achievements. In some respects it’s even true – I can say from personal experience that people treat you differently (and better) if you lose a lot of weight, or put on a lot of muscle. But the reality is that past a pretty low-achieving point 99% of people don’t actually give a shit about your gym achievements, most don’t want to have detailed discussions about your training/macros inflicted upon them (I appreciate the irony of me writing this on my blog, while hosting a podcast, where I discuss training and nutrition), most will respect you more for who you are than what you look like/can lift and those who don’t are a waste of your time. What’s more, while people might make a lot of noise about you during the early transformative periods, once you settle in to the long-term grind of getting better only slowly that noise will dry up a little. Something has to sustain you long-term, and it won’t be the accolades you receive from others.
Having said all of that, I DO think that you should harness the short-term power of motivators like vanity, compliments from others, fast numerical progress and enjoyment of novelty. They are all very valuable drivers of behaviour, and anything that can make the process of engaging in training fun is in my opinion worth pursuing.
All I am saying is that there needs to be something anchoring you to the process of training, and that thing is going to be intrinsic enjoyment of turning up.
How do we foster enjoyment of training?
1 – Goal setting:
This might seem almost contradictory, considering that I’ve just spent some time saying that progress can be slow. However, setting goals on intelligent timescales has multiple benefits and it is possible to blend both process and outcome goals to great effect.
Short-term goals should be largely process-oriented (eg “I’ll train 4 times this week” or “every time I squat I’ll practice (technical cue)”). In some respects outcome/performance goals set on the very short term ARE process goals, because unless you are a beginner and improving on a workout to workout basis, each workout is a stepping stone towards a larger improvement in performance. Treating each session, exercise, set and rep as its own microcosm within which you can achieve something of value will improve your output, but it also gives you a huge number of chances to tell yourself you did a good job. And if you don’t do a good job, usually you can learn something and put it to use next time that particular microcosm comes around. If the lessons you learn and the changes you put in place lead to improved performance, that’s a chance to give yourself a pat on the back.
Medium and longer term goals can then constitute both process and outcome components. Intelligent goal-setting involves the stepwise and realistic planning of small improvements to sum up to a larger improvement at the end. As you get better the longer-term goal moves further away and becomes a comparatively smaller achievement relative to where you currently stand, but that intervening time period can be filled with little, varied process goals, all of which give you a chance to achieve something while the big carrot is dangled at a distance. You’ll often hear good athletes say that a small improvement means a lot to them – it’s not just because of how hard the work was on the way, but also because making that improvement took a lot of discrete steps.
2 – Using training as a learning process:
As I said under goal-setting, successful/mindful training involves appraising yourself and strategizing to do better in subsequent reps/sets/sessions. Plenty of people see the value of training purely in the outcomes, and certainly that’s what most of us are interested in when we begin it, but nearly everybody who does it for a long time will also tell you that training teaches you other valuable things about yourself.
Training teaches resilience and problem-solving skills, it teaches you that through intelligent and concerted efforts you can achieve valuable things, and gives you confidence you might otherwise not have.
In the process of training you also have the chance to discover aspects of yourself that you might otherwise not. I sometimes say training is just a special type of embodiment, where the unique strain, tension and effort you experience gives you sensations that you would otherwise never experience. There’s something unique about the feeling of a maximum deadlift, or the feeling of running 12km (yes, I’ve done that, once) or pushing a prowler, or doing bicep curls to failure. One of the cool things about physical pursuits is that it gets you out of that tiny pocket of your capabilities that you spend most of your life in and gives you a chance to test your limits. The analogy I use is that of taking your car out of a carpark and onto a racetrack – it doesn’t matter whether you’re driving a Ferrari or a fiat, there’s something fun about just pushing the limits of what you have.
So, in using training as a process of self-discovery, and in contextualising your training challenges and experiences as being part of a greater process of trying to solve the puzzle of how to get better, you make a pursuit that could otherwise be purely physical suddenly intellectual and visceral, too.
3 – Socialising:
The gym can be an intimidating place if you’re new. If you’re “hardcore” and train in a commercial facility it can be a little uninspiring, too. Sometimes you might even just like using training time as a chance to switch off and do your own thing (I often do).
But humans are social creatures, and social support is undoubtedly one of the most important elements to making training stick.
Having a coach to report to, a training partner that you work with, making friends at the gym (saying hello works, provided you aren’t licking your lips or anything at the time, I’ve found) or, god forbid, using social media/forums to connect with like-minded people makes what CAN be an isolating experience a unifying one.
Aside from the support that you get from others, there is something very valuable in giving back. Being able to lend support to others and share your experiences is itself rewarding, and when you see your training partners achieving things not only will you be happy for them, but you’ll have a chance to live vicariously through them.
In practice, this means finding your social niche. If you’d rather not talk at the gym, it still might be worth saying hi to the receptionist on the way in or out, or hiring a coach or posting to a forum. If you do like to chat, meeting people (both those who share your interests, and who don’t but are regulars) means you’ll always be surrounded by friends, and there’s definitely something to be said for creating an environment that makes you feel welcome.
Just because I can’t think where else to put this in this article, I also think that having a sense of gym etiquette makes a huge difference here, and not just in how and when you say hi to people. The way in which you treat your environment is symbolically important – if you look after the gym equipment, put things that you use away and treat others courteously you are subconsciously in yourself instilling the belief that the gym is somewhere that you care about and that the people around you are people that you respect. That, and people appreciate it.
4 – Incorporate active rest/fun phases:
Much of this article has been about maintaining adherence to goal-oriented training long-term. Another consideration is that not ALL of your training has to be goal-oriented. A week or a month (or even a few months) over 10-15 years is not a lot of wasted time, and if it refreshes your mind and body for another hard push it can be a great investment.
Active rest phases involve doing non-overloading training at low volumes, usually in very general modalities (for instance, as a powerlifter doing 1-2 days a week of machine circuit work and otherwise going for a walk/swim) and have a place in annual plans for rest/recovery and in preparation for further hard training.
“Fun” phases differ, in my mind, in that they are actually training – they can be challenging and stressful, but the goal can be something entirely unspecific and unrelated to your main training aims. For instance, a powerlifter might spend some time doing bodybuilding work, or weightlifting training, or strongman stuff, or doing some maintenance level weight training and doing acrobatics for a while. There is still probably a degree to which “fun” phases are physically restorative, provided you don’t do anything stupid/injurious, but their main benefit is refreshing the mind and getting the unproductive impulses out of your system. As I’ve said a thousand times, you need to train for a long time to get good – giving yourself a mental break here and there can prevent you coming to the point that you resent engaging in the truly constructive training that you need to.
More subtly, there’s opportunities in a phasic plan to do things that are novel/fun and still directed. Early in hypertrophy phases for powerlifters the proportion of work dedicated to the competition lifts is low and variety is high. Given that there isn’t a premium on specificity/immediate transfer, this means that a broad range of exercise and loading selections are possible, and so there’s plenty of ways to make training “fun”/interesting. As the more immediate motivator of a powerlifting competition approaches, training must get more specific and the focus narrower, but there is also a greater short-term imperative to engage in it on that level and so that usually isn’t as much of a problem motivation-wise.
5 – Have other hobbies:
Most people train 3-10 hours/wk. That leaves 158-165 hours to be doing other things. Even considering time you spend eating, sleeping and doing preparatory work for training, there’s a lot of time to fill, and for the most part spending it dwelling on training is not that helpful. It’s true that champions are often obsessive, and there’ll be times you eat, breathe and dream training (I have), but allowing something that is such a slow, accumulative process to take precedence in your thoughts permanently is silly, frustrating and probably unhelpful. For those without concrete training plans, overemphasis on training can lead you to doing more than you need to and wasting time you could spend on something else. For those with concrete training plans, the extra stress of just worrying about what you’re meant to be doing at the gym adds up.
My best advice is to have training time, just like you have work time, which you fill with training-related things, and which you dedicate to training itself. In your off time, you should be OFF – see friends, go for a walk or listen to music or read a book or surf or play with a dog or whatever, but don’t spend all of your time on something you can realistically only engage with part of the time.
6- Be honest with yourself
This is similar to my 5th reason that it’s important to love training. There’s plenty of glamour associated with being strong, or muscular or lean or healthy, and it’s easy to be driven by what you think others will think of you. But if you really want to do something and enjoy it, you need to do be honest – if you don’t REALLY want to be the best powerlifter/bodybuilder in the world, you shouldn’t try to train like them, and nobody can blame you. Engage in training on the level that appeals to you and enjoy it for what it is. It’s just a hobby, after all, and while training with the utmost planning and seriousness is probably the best and fastest way to the top, the training that you DO is what gets you good, so you might as well structure it in a way that suits you.
Even if you ARE serious, and DO want to be great, it’s normal not to want to be great all the time. Sometimes you’ll be tired, or hurt, or a little bored and down, and being able to acknowledge that and switch to training for fun, focus on other hobbies, or see it simply as a chance to blow off some stream with some friends is really useful. By confronting the feelings of demotivation you can actually make some use of them, and often that’s a faster way to get the fire burning again than to soldier through something gruelling when you’re really not enjoying it anymore. On a physiological level, we know maintenance of muscle/strength takes less work than developing it, so if you choose to go back to pushing hard after a month or two you’re not likely to be too far behind, and if you don’t or you change tack entirely you’re still training, only this way you’re doing so in a way that you enjoy.
Loving training is important, because loving it is the thing that will keep you doing it for the long-term.
The way to learn to love training, in my opinion, is to make training more than just about the numbers that you hit and the way that you look. Embracing learning opportunities, creating small goals and opportunities for achievement, having other hobbies and riding the waves of motivation so that you never burn out are the tricks to keeping going. Training is, for nearly everybody, a hobby, so shaping your engagement with it to your desires is a much better course of action than trying to meet the perceived expectations of others.
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