I want to preface this by saying that there is no “right way” to workout. The most important part of being fit is doing something – which is of course, better than doing nothing.
We are in the middle of February now, which means that the ‘Resolutioners’ have mostly returned to their normal lives (congratulations to those who have stuck with it, by the way). By April, they’ll all be gone. We can undoubtedly attribute this to a loss of motivation. Why does this happen? Why do people – who join a gym with good intentions, by the way – find their motivation and energy for the gym burn out and go away completely? I have a theory, and it is not groundbreaking by any means: Listless, aimless trips to the gym are not fun, for anyone. Thankfully, there is a better way. I am writing today to make the case that a truly sustainable training program needs the following elements: A way to measure your progress, and should involve some sort of resistance training.
What motivates us to be fit?
I have tried it. I am sure you have too. With no plan or guidance, it is exceedingly difficult to find any sort of consistency. Even with a plan, it takes a very disciplined, self-motivated individual to show up every day. You cobble together a couple exercises you see on Instagram or in Men’s Health and you think, honestly, that this will help you get fit. Our goals are typically something subjective, along the lines of:
‘I wish I looked better.’
‘I want to be a Games athlete.’
‘I want to be as strong as ______’
These are end results. They are not enough to keep you going to the gym four or five days per week for long enough to see progress.
Think about this in a different way: Do you want to look better, or do you want the experience of training to get there? In the first, you are motivated entirely by an outcome. In the second, you are curious about what you might learn about yourself in the journey to accomplish that goal. If your goal is a specific outcome, you are setting yourself up to be let down if that outcome is not achieved. One is a goal-oriented mindset, the other is a growth-oriented mindset. A goal-oriented mindset is not sustainable. You either accomplish your goal (and you’re subsequently left asking ‘what comes next?’) or you do not, which will leave you frustrated and may make you want to give up.
What are you doing at the gym today, and why?
Bootcamp. HIIT. Spin class. Heart-rate based training. These are perfectly fine methods of exercise. You get in, you get sweaty, burn calories, and leave. I will not bash them or speak ill of them in any way. If your goal is to sweat, it accomplishes that goal. Additionally, my point isn’t limited to other fitness methods. I have been in and seen many CrossFit gyms whose programming seems to be lacking any continuity or intention. For years CrossFit has developed a reputation for mindless intensity, with the goal of simply leaving you in a sweaty heap on the floor, every day. An effective workout for that day, no doubt. Where I feel this lack of progression falls short is that there is answer to ‘why?’ Why are we working out today? What is it helping us move toward? As a result, you’ll typically see member attrition or turnover as people get bored, beat up, or move on. They haven’t accomplished anything tangible. How could you measure accomplishment? You burnt more calories than your friend? You maintained a higher heart rate, for longer? You laid on the ground for longer than everyone else?
There are certainly other benefits – the group fitness model gets you in the same room with people who are going through it with you. Working out in a group can help you feel supported, and create friendly competition for the day’s class, too. This feeling is typically the first reason people who stick with CrossFit end up loving it. It is easier to ‘embrace the suck’ when you know others are going through it too. You bond and make friends and that is enough to keep some people around. Many of us need more.
How do I know that I’m getting better?
A good training program should provide ways to measure progress. When I put together a cycle for our gym, I start with the following questions:
- What movements would we like to see our members get stronger in?
- What skills can we teach to make them better, more well-rounded athletes?
- How will we allow demonstration of progress over the course of the cycle?
These three questions are the base for any programming that we do. From here, we can include any specific weightlifting exercise, or gymnastics movement we would like. Earlier, I asked whether you were motivated by result, or the journey. Framing the training program this way allows for a more cohesive experience for our athletes as they work through the program. They understand why we’re doing the exercises in the day’s workout, because they’re moving through the progression and building on the previous week’s work. As an example, we are finishing a cycle in which we spent significant time building Posterior chain strength (hamstrings, back and glutes) and developing proficiency with the Handstand Push-Up – a somewhat intimidating movement and a difficult skill to master. We started the cycle in November with a commonly known Benchmark workout, first introduced in the daily programming on crossfit.com
(for a description of how the workout is performed: “Diane” Workout, CrossFit WOD | WODwell)
Once we set our times, we spent the weeks following with this couplet, once per week:
In other words, we had a deliberate, focused training plan in place to allow our athletes to show measurable improvement and proficiency in these two movements. This past Friday, we retested “Diane” and the results were incredible. The improvement was dramatic. Many of our members moved at least 1:00 faster on a workout that should take around 8-10 minutes for the average athlete. Others were able to complete the workout ‘as prescribed’ for the first time! As an athlete, demonstrating progress like this is motivating. It is what keeps you coming back to the gym. As a coach, it is fulfilling and validates the time and effort that is put in to coaching and program design.
“I don’t want to lift weights, I’ll get bulky. I want to burn calories and get toned.”
Muscles don’t ‘tone.’ They either grow, or they shrink. Building strength is foundational to any good training program. Squats, Deadlifts, and Presses. From there, you can add in variation based on your specific needs (Olympic Lifting, Bodybuilding, sport specific training, etc). Do not be afraid of lifting weights. The fear of looking like a bodybuilder because you squatted today makes as much sense as being scouted by the Yankees because you played catch this weekend. It is an absurd fantasy. It takes years of dedicated nutrition and training to look the way they do.
There is no more effective way to burn calories than resistance training. Its benefit is twofold – Not only will you burn calories while you work out, you’re also building muscle mass. More muscle mass means you will burn more calories at baseline. At CrossFit Webster, you’ll find that the daily workout is some combination of resistance and cardiovascular training. The formula is simple and has been tested over time at many gyms – there is no need to reinvent the wheel. It’s also much more fun and engaging than using the elliptical in a crowded gym! Lastly, I have yet to meet anyone who lifts weights and isn’t satisfied with the aesthetic result of doing so. As the Men’s Wearhouse guy says, “you’re gonna like the way you look, I guarantee it.”
There is a difference between working out and following a training program. A training program should have the goal of making you stronger, faster, leaner, or some combination of the three. A good training program will also improve movement quality and mobility. It should provide you with outlets to test and demonstrate your progress, to yourself. When you find the right training program you’ll stay motivated, disciplined, and your progress will continue exponentially!