You want to be fast. You want to be strong. But day after day, you go to the gym and feel weak and slow and it seems like nothing changes. (Did I say you? I also mean me.) Here are some strategies to stick to your plan and be sure that it’s working even when you aren’t seeing immediate shifts in your performance or appearance.
Remember there’s always a lag
It would be great if we could start working out on a Monday and see results by Wednesday, but these things take time. Most of the metrics we care about—like strength, endurance, muscle size, and fat loss—take weeks, at least.
Think of the first few weeks of a program as being like the time between when you order something online and when it shows up at your door. You’ve placed your order, the gains are coming, you just need to be patient until you can collect. In the meantime, you have to keep working, because you don’t want just one small delivery. In that sense, results are more like a subscription service.
That waiting period can be tough. If you’re new to strength training, you might see strength gains in a matter of days. If you’re trying to lose weight or gain visible muscle, it could take months before people notice and start complimenting you. It’s tempting to second-guess your whole plan. What if I’m not doing enough? Did I pick the wrong trainer?
Here’s the catch, though: you have to trust your plan (or your coach). Doing something is always better than doing nothing, so it’s worth sticking to even a mediocre plan for a few weeks to see what kind of results you get.
Connect small goals to your big goals
It helps to stay motivated if you have a big goal on the horizon: a race, a lifting meet, or even something like “I want to look good on the beach in July.”
But that goal can only motivate you for the day’s workout if there’s a direct connection. A marathon training plan is a perfect example: if you do the prescribed workouts, you will make it to the starting line of the marathon. (Remember how it’s important to trust your plan?)
When I was training for a marathon, the weekly long runs got scary long. I could run five miles, but then I had to run seven, and then there was a jump to 10. The only thing that got me out of bed on the 10-miler day was knowing that soon I would have to run 12. On that day, I would much rather say “Okay, I’ve already done 10 and this is just a little bit more” than to stand at that day’s starting line with only a seven-miler under my belt.
In the same way, every workout and every exercise leads up to your big goals. If I’m training my deadlift, I need to deadlift every week (or whatever my program says) to make progress.
So you can set small goals. In the name of being consistent, you can simply check off each workout and count that as a task fulfilled. Cheese it up and make yourself a little coloring page: a thermometer that leads up to race day. Or set goals in terms of repetitions of an exercise, total number of minutes you’ve worked out, or any other variable that you have total control over. You can’t control how fast you’re getting stronger, but you can control how many times you go to the gym.
Document and measure
Another truth about progress is that it’s easy to overlook. Today you might leave a cycling class feeling a little bit tired, but do you remember that a month ago you left the same class feeling absolutely exhausted?
I like to take stock at least once a month of any metric that matters to me. How much I squat, bench, and deadlift; how fast I can run a mile. How many pull-ups I can do. If you’re working on a body composition goal, note your weight and body measurements.
I recommend measuring a few more things that you think you need to. If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t just track your weight; also write down your body measurements, including some like your biceps that reflect muscle more than fat, and maybe even your clothing size. The idea is that you have enough things to measure that even if one isn’t budging, you might be able to see and appreciate your progress in another area.
Your training journal is invaluable here: jot down a few things from each workout about what you did and how you felt. Next time you’re feeling discouraged, flip back a month or two and see how far you’ve come.