Your Program Doesn't Matter*
This is dedicated to the determined, but indecisive; a special group to which I have belonged for many years.
I often get the question:
"Hey Chris, what do you think of "XYZ program"? I've been thinking about trying it out."
I used to have answers at the ready for specific topics like strength training, olympic lifting, Crossfit, steady-state cardio, P90x, Insanity, interval training, competitive mall-walking, etc. But as I get older, more experienced and (hopefully) a bit more realistic, my answer has seemed to evolve to:
"It doesn't matter."*
Whatever program you choose, simply does not matter.*
Your sets/reps/rest scheme doesn't matter.*
Your equipment, protein intake, strength-to-cardio ratio, genetics, bowleggedness, arch support, guru-guidance [insert increasingly frivolous variable here] doesn’t matter.*
Nothing matters *UNLESS* you:
1. Start something. As in, don’t let the start stop you. Then:
2. Hit the minimum threshold of frequency (be consistent)
(OK, all the asterisks are done now).
Nothing matters unless you follow your program consistently. Consistency is to fitness as glue is to your preschool arts and crafts project you saved all these years: ain't nothin' gonna stick without it (cool cotton ball snowman, dude!). It is the initial requirement and underlying constant for a program to be fairly judged for its usefulness and efficiency, for you, me, and everyone else on earth.
Without consistency, you are just dabbling. Now let me be perfectly clear: if you are interested, but not yet serious about fitness, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with dabbling. In fact, dabbling in different types and methods of fitness (from group to solo training; bodyweight to barbells; Dance Cardio to HIIT, etc) is highly useful if you’ve never intentionally exercised before. Dabbling can be the absolute best way to determine your interests. It can be an eye-opener and discoverer of new great joys. However, there is a point at which dabbling becomes, at best, an honest confusion for incorporating variety. At worst, it becomes an intentional escape from commitment. It becomes leisure, indecision, apathy, comfort, and then worst of all, habit.
To see anything worthwhile happen to your body, you cannot operate under the framework of leisure, indecision or apathy. You need to apply the crucial element of consistency. Without it, the best program in the world might as well be the worst.
So what's the difference between good variety and long-term dabbling to which I allude? Simply, good variety helps complement your overall goal in a number of ways; providing balance and new challenges, breaking up monotony, rounding out your fitness aims, keeping the dreaded overtraining at bay. It is not nearly as change-oriented as one might think, as it does need to keep one's overarching goal in mind. Dabbling, on the other hand, employs variety for its own sake- an end in itself. What tends to be missing here is there is the overarching goal, like strength development, weight loss, rippling abs, etc.^ (See the end of the article for an example comparing two programs for variety vs. dabbling).
Why should following through on your fitness be different than anything else in life? When you go to the doctor and are given an antibiotic, do you take the dose for half of the timeframe? No, you take it the full number of days because you know and accept that it takes that amount of time for the drug to work. It’s also why we bathe and brush our teeth every day (or why we’re supposed to at least). What happens when you stop? Well, eventually your teeth will fall out and your BO will be enough to knock out an elephant. That’s because, long ago, we figured out the minimum threshold for good oral and corporal hygiene to be daily (or twice-daily) maintenance… Until the day you die.
So why should fitness be that much different? When we find a program online or in a magazine that takes, say, 12 weeks, why do we so often give in to the temptation to quit after just two or three of those weeks? “If it was going to work,” we tell ourselves, “I would have started noticing some improvement by now.” Maybe. But maybe not. How will you really know what works unless you stick with the full time frame? It’s recommended for that amount of time for a reason, right?
Could this be that deep down we think we know better than the experts? (I'm sorry, you're in IT, right? Seems like a good background for judging exercise programs).
Could it be that we’re too impatient?
If you feel like you haven't been able to stick with any given program, it might be that the program isn't right for you... And, admittedly, not every program is beneficial or enjoyable for every person, and that's alright. I cannot stress enough how incredibly important it is for you to know your own goals and interests. If you’re mainly looking for a fun, stress-relieving way to stay active, then you might love something like Zumba. But if your main aim is to improve your maximum strength, Zumba isn’t going to be a great fit for you. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all. NOTHING is for 100% of people 100% of the time. Conversely, though, it might be that you have been going through the motions and haven't committed yourself strongly enough to your actions. Could that be the case? That’s a question only you can answer for yourself. Sometimes, we need to know how to push ourselves a bit harder.
In a similar vein, we must not simply commit our time, but our efforts. This is where things get a bit trickier. Sure, we can commit to the full 12 weeks from the program above, but what if we only really put in 70% of our true effort? We’re not doing that program, or our valuable time, justice. Why do anything halfway? Of the major themes I've witnessed and have thus transformed into ground rules for my clients, consistency is the first and most important. Consistency is commitment, discipline, and accountability in action. Commitment, discipline, and accountability all arise from a sense of driven purpose.
So, if you're having trouble sticking with a program, gym membership, training routine, or trainer, ask yourself:
What is my purpose for all of this?
Sometimes, if dabbling, we find ourselves in a situation where we get shaken back to reality and have to ask ourselves: “What the heck am I doing this for?”
If you can't answer within 5 seconds, you have your reason for your dabbling: you have either lost, forgotten, or have never known, your underlying driven purpose. You know, that thing that you may not consciously think about all the time but that makes you move forward every day, and makes you want to be an upgraded version of yourself.
Find what is driving you, and you have your purpose. Believe in your purpose with all you have and you will find your commitment (this will likely require you to convince yourself to be courageous and ignore your fears; but if your purpose is strong enough, it will be enough to take the plunge). Make yourself commit to your purpose and you will arrive at the doorstep of consistency. Then, knock that damn door down.
Follow through, and stick with your plan until it is no longer a decision, but a habit.
And follow through with gusto. You owe it to yourself to put your best foot forward with each and every step you take. Only then will you be able to change what you want to change, and unlock what you want to unlock. And, what's more, only then will you be able to truly determine if a program is right for you, because only then will you have given it a true chance.
With love and a kick in the butt,