Every January 1st, the idea of the new year being a “clean slate” motivates many of us to start trying to lead healthier lives. This often entails making a firm commitment to working out. But more often than not, the same thing happens this year as it did the year before:
You join a gym, stick with it for a month or so, and by the end of February, you’ve fallen back into the same old habits.
11 months later, it’s another new year, and the vicious cycle repeats itself once more.
But it’s not because you’re “lazy”. Oftentimes, the reason people get off track is simply because they tend to rely far too much on motivation alone to keep them going — and as we know, some days the motivation’s just not there.
That’s why you need a plan.
The good news: You don’t need to wait until January to put this plan to action. You could start today. You simply need to understand what you’re trying to accomplish in the first place, how you’re going to get there, and how you can objectively measure your progress along the way.
Step 1: Clearly Define Your Goals
Ask the majority of newcomers to the gym what their goals are, and you’ll likely get one of two answers: “I want to lose weight” or “I want to build muscle”. Sometimes, it’s a combination of both.
Those are fine goals to have, but they’re too vague. You need specifics. You need to understand where you’re starting from, where you want to go, and how much time you plan to give yourself to get there.
Instead of saying “I’d like to lose fat and build muscle”, start thinking about your goals like this:
“Today is March 1st and I’ve got X amount of body fat. July 31st is my birthday and I’d really like to be in great shape by then. That’s about 4 months away, so if I can lose an average of Y amount each week for 16 weeks, that should put me right on track to achieve my goal!”
Of course, just because you’ve crafted a seemingly perfect plan doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect. Life happens; there will always be some unaccounted for variable that creates the occasional speed bump. And that’s fine. You may reach the end of those 16 weeks and have done a little better or a little worse than you planned for, but just the fact that you had a plan in the first place got you much farther than you would’ve gone otherwise.
Step 2: Understand the Law of “Progressive Overload”
Doing the same exact same thing, with the same exact weight, for the same exact amount of times — for months on end — is an easy way to get fed up by either a lack of results, a lack of interest, or both. But it’s what a lot of people do, because nobody has properly explained to them how to progress these exercises.
Progressive overload simply means that, over time, you’ll be making any given exercise more challenging as you become stronger and better conditioned.
This can be done by…
- Using heavier weights
- Resting less between sets
- Doing more reps
- Doing more sets
- Using better technique (i.e. if you perform a squat with better technique than before, you’re more effectively training your legs, which will lead to better results)
Most beginners should be able to progressively overload an exercise for years before they plateau, which is why it’s absolutely critical that you don’t become complacent with what you’re doing in the gym. Challenge yourself; that’s how you’re going to see progress.
Step 3: Measure Your Progress Objectively
If you’ve been performing resistance training on a regular basis for the very first time, you’re almost certainly going to gain some muscle — and that’s where things can get confusing when you step on the scale to check your progress.
You may have gained 5 pounds of lean muscle and lost 5 pounds of fat during your first couple of months, but if you’re solely judging by what the scale says, you’d be led to believe that you haven’t made any progress at all.
That’s why you should use something more objective, like a tape measure.
When you’re first getting started with a workout routine, get some initial measurements of areas such as your waist, your arms, and any other areas you’d like to focus on. This way, you can eventually come back and compare your “after” measurements to the “before” — and whether the scale says you’ve “lost weight” or not, if those measurements are only continuing to improve, you know that you’re on the right track.
“Muscle is much more dense than body fat. Therefore, a pound of muscle will take up much less room in your body than a pound of fat. Another benefit of muscle, it is significantly more vascular [better blood supply] than body fat and will cause you to burn more calories at rest than body fat.” — Jeanie Lerche Davis
So There’s Your Plan:
Have a clear, defined understanding of where you’re starting and where you want to go. Understand that you must continue to progress in the gym to progress towards your goals. And when it comes to measuring that progress, the numbers on the scale can most definitely lie, so don’t let them deter you.
That’s how you build healthy habits.
Zack Harris is the author of “Strength for Beginners: Build Your Fitness Foundation”.