The Transition

How to move from reluctant lifter to fitness fiend

BT or AT?

When you look out over the fitness and bodybuilding community, you see two basic categories of people. Each category is defined by whether or not the person in it has made "the transition."

Category 1 – The Before Transition Person

This type of person is attempting to train and eat right, but is largely inconsistent. The "BT" person gets into exercise, nutrition, and supplementation for a while, but can be distracted and fall off the wagon easily.

The BT makes himself train but he really doesn't enjoy it or feel rewarded for his efforts. He often just "goes through the motions" in the gym. He forces himself to make better food choices, but doesn't like the healthier foods and often loses it and pigs out on garbage.

Basically, fitness or bodybuilding isn't a lifestyle or habit for him yet. It's a chore.

Category 2 – The After Transition Person

Exercise and good nutrition have become a lifestyle for the "AT" person. He doesn't really need to be motivated; he just enjoys doing it.

He has conquered his cravings for crappy foods and actually prefers healthy ones. Training isn't a chore for the AT. In fact, the AT feels anxious if he misses a workout, not relieved. He loves it, and he'd never even think of quitting.

Obviously, category #1 contains the majority of people who get interested in losing fat and building muscle, while category #2 remains very small. Not many people make the transition.

The Elusive Transition

So how does this transition take place? What makes a person go from someone who doesn't like training and eating right to someone who can't live any other way? How does it become a lifestyle youprefer rather than a punishment you feel you have toendure? And why don't more people ever find their way into the "AT" category?

In the field of developmental psychology, you learn that certain issues in life are perfectly natural and occur at about the same time for most people. This is comforting because you realize that certain struggles in life are normal stages of development. The same is also true with transition.

Many BT or "before transition" persons feel like losers. They've tried and failed, tried and failed again. They beat themselves up because of their perceived weaknesses. It becomes a vicious circle. Taking a page from developmental psychology, the first thing to remember is that this is normal for most people, especially the concept of the "false start."

False Starts, Info Overload, and Kaizen

If you've tried and failed many times in an effort to get into shape, get strong, or improve performance, then congratulations, you're perfectly normal!

No one gets it all right the first time (or the second or third time either). They try to train regularly and then they miss workouts, sometimes for weeks or months. They try to make better food choices and they end up devouring a chicken fried steak and a bucket of mashed potatoes. It happens. It can happen foryears.

While there may be a few folks out there who were athletic in high school and basically never stopped training, most people don't fall into that category. Career, school, family, and life in general have eroded their fitness efforts. They've either lost the habit or they never had it to begin with. For them, false starts are common and should even be expected.

No one gets everything "right" from the beginning. Most men start by training, but they neglect diet until it gets to the point where that have to pay attention to nutrition to make further progress.

Most women do the opposite: they diet (often to excess) but avoid effective training methods. Again, this is part of a typical pattern in the transition process, not a sign of failure. The only failure is not learning from your mistakes when you try again. The false start is part of the learning process.

couch potato

Information overload can be a problem too. T-Nation readers have so much info available that it sometimes overwhelms them. A sedentary couch potato who eats junk food all day can be scared off by the complex diets and "extreme" training programs many experienced T-Nation readers consider normal.

In reality, this is a step-by-step process. The experiencedTestosterone reader didn't start out with that level of detail and dedication. He may have simply started by breaking the sugared cola habit. That's it. One step.

And this step lead to five pounds of fat loss, which in turn made the guy more excited about exercise, so he started doing curls in the garage. When he noticed his arms looking better, this encouraged him to do more exercises, and perhaps start paying attention to protein intake. Then he joined a gym and began to research supplementation.

In other words, the path to Category #2, where all this becomes a lifestyle you enjoy, can take months and even years. This is normal and shouldn't be discouraging. Sometimes the attempt to do it all at once leads the person to failure.

Think small steps. Thinkkaizen: constant and never-ending improvement achieved through smaller steps.

Reinforcement: The Key to Transition

The classic psychological definition of reinforcement goes something like this:

Reinforcement occurs when an event following a response strengthens the tendency of that response.

We're often more likely to repeat behaviors that give us some kind of payoff or reward. This is both the key to the door and the monkey wrench thrown into the works when it comes to physique transformations and permanent lifestyle changes.

The Key

Reinforcement is key for a simple reason: if we don't get a reward for what we're doing, then we'll stop doing it. If we do get a "payoff," then we'll repeat that behavior (in this case, working out, eating right, and being consistent with supplementation).

It's difficult to get a fat guy motivated about ab training. Why? Because he can't see his abs, and that's more important to most trainees than having a strong and stable core (whether they admit it or not.)

But what happens when this guy notices that he's getting a two-pack for the first time in his tubby life? Suddenly, he'svery interested in ab training and proper carbohydrate intake! Suddenly, his trainer can't get him tostop training abs! He's gotten some payoff, and now motivation is no problem.

The Monkey Wrench

But the basic need for reinforcement can also be the monkey wrench that wrecks the machinery. When it comes to losing fat and building muscle, there's not much instant gratification. In spite of those amazing "before and after" transformation photos that inundate the fitness and bodybuilding market, most people just can't achieve those results that quickly. Fast transformationsarepossible, but most individuals in the pre-transition phase don't have the knowledge or discipline to do it yet.

So the BT person must accept that there will be a period of hard work that won't provide an instant payoff. In fact, instead of a reward he may feel like he's being punished (soreness, humiliation in the gym, spending dough on supplements, etc.).

In our immediate gratification society, this is the stumbling block that keeps BTs firmly stuck in their yo-yo dieting, half-assed training category: they quit before they're able to see results. Using our example from above, not many fat guys will hang around long enough to see that six-pack taking shape. If it's not there in two weeks, they quit.

Awareness is crucial. Knowing that there will be a period of "cold turkey" - eating right and training hard where the results won't be visible yet - is helpful. How many newbies have quit when they didn't make dramatic transformations like in the bodybuilding mags in only four weeks?

Knowledge, in this case, really is power. Just knowing about this largely unrewarding period will help the new lifter get through it. Trainers and coaches must also keep this in mind or they'll lose clients. Keep 'em around long enough to see some payoff and you're gold (and employed).

No Progress? A Quick Aside

If the key to making permanent lifestyle changes is payoff (positive reinforcement), then those people not seeing quick results aren't very likely to make the sought-after transition. So, why aren't they making progress? Why aren'tyou making the kind of progress you want to make? Here are the usual suspects:

1 – Crappy Training

Maybe your efforts are half-hearted; you're just going through the motions. Perhaps your workouts are missing an important element or are poorly designed.

Solution: Adopt any T-Nation training program!

2 – Crappy Diet

Maybe you're trying to out-train a poor diet, which is near impossible. Perhaps your diet keeps you overly fat or too skinny because it's not designed to be supportive of your individual physique goal.

Most people with this problem haven't chosen a poor nutrition plan, rather, they haven't thought about it at all!

Solution: Pay attention to the stuff you cram in your mouth! Don't be a diet wussy: a guy who hits the iron hard but pusses out at the dinner table like a 12 year old fat girl with emotional issues.

3 – Unrealistic Expectations

You just expect it to happen too fast or with only a minimal effort. This is the "infomercial effect," the false idea that you can get what you want in an easy workout that takes four minutes a day on a device that stores neatly under your bed.

Solution: Stop watching infomercials, and stop reading sleazy supplement ads. Embrace reality. You aren't going to build the body of your dreams overnight if your lifestyle has been a nightmare for 15 years. This isn't as easy as you've been lead to believe by advertisers.

That's not meant to dissuade you, but rather to help you set realistic goals. You're not a failure if you don't make a "Body For Life" transformation in only eight weeks. In fact, it makes you normal. That should be comforting and motivating!

6 Ways to Speed the Transition

Okay, so what do we know so far? We know that some people struggle with adopting the "T" lifestyle: hard work in the gym combined with quality nutrition and supplementation outside of it.

Others, however, no longer struggle: training is something they look forward to and choosing the right foods is easy for them. It's become second nature. Moving from one type of person to the other is called "the transition."

We also know that the secret here seems to lie in the realm of reinforcement - the almighty transition pivots on the person seeing results, which could take longer than he thinks it will depending on his expectations.

So, how can we increase the odds of this transition occurring, or maybe speed it up? Here are some ideas:

1 – Use Meticulous Measurements

Seek positive reinforcement through meticulous and multiple measuring techniques. In other words, watch the scale, take body composition measurements, and use a tape measure.

When fat loss is the main goal, the scale can be deceiving. Newbies can gain muscle while losing fat pretty easily. This can make the fat loss seem slower if the scale is the sole tool being used to evaluate progress.

Use a tape measure around the fattest part of your belly and several other areas of your body. The more areas the better. Measure once per week. "Inches" will fall away faster than pounds, thus allowing you to see a payoff in one or two weeks instead of three or four. This works especially well for women.

What we're doing here is making absolutely sure you can see your results. This will feed your positive reinforcement and keep you on the path to full transition. Taking photos of yourself to evaluate progress is helpful too.

2 – Use Supplements

Supplements have two positive effects. First, if you choose quality products that match your goals, the supplements can speed up the process, make it a little easier, or simply make things more convenient. You'll see that powerful payoff come faster and you'll be more likely to keep going until you transition. That's the physiological side.

Second, people using supplements tend to work harder and be more consistent because they don't want to "waste" the products. This is the psychological side. This isn't placebo effect, but rather an encouragement to stick to your program. Example: If you paid $49 for a bottle of Hot-Rox® Extreme then you'll be less likely to take your buddy up on that offer for pizza and beer after work.

3 – Change Your Thinking

This is a big one, and therefore it's not going to happen overnight. Most people who've made the transition from reluctant exerciser to hardcore lifestyler have very different ideas about food and training.

Food: Food is fuel.

That's it. It's not a reward, it's not a comfort, and it's not a pleasurable distraction from your stressful life. It's fuel. Period. That's the attitude of those who've made the transition. This doesn't mean they don't enjoy food; it's just that they see it for what it is: petroleum to keep your machine running optimally.

"Before transition" people have an almost sexual relationship with food. For many, it's their only pleasure in life. They see it as an escape, and they eat based on their moods instead of their energy and nutrient needs. Basically, food controls them instead of the other way around.

How can this be fixed? That's beyond the scope of this article. But the first step is awareness. People who can't seem to make the transition usually have issues with food, while "after transition" people have conquered those problems. Know it, believe it, fix it.

Training: BTs hate exercise. ATs love it.

As discussed, the BT probably just isn't seeing results and getting that necessary reward yet, but there's a cognitive element here too. The AT views regular training as a necessity, like brushing his teeth and taking a shower. It's part of his routine. The BT has yet to develop that attitude.

Again, this "exercises as necessity" habit takes a while to develop and most people have several false starts. The key is to grind it out until you see results. Then the intrinsic motivation will kick in.

4 – Don't Be a Loner

Research has shown that one factor stands out among the rest when it comes to making all this stuff a way of life: the people you surround yourself with.

A good training partner, preferably one who's a bit further along than you or one that's achieved the same goals you're striving for, can go a long way. For those without a training partner, online forums can become a support group of sorts, guiding you into making the transition. Seeing others do what you once thought you couldn't do is a very powerful thing. For one thing, it helps you wipe out your rationalizations and excuses.

Those who've made the transition may not need these kinds of "swim buddies," but for the newer lifter or the person struggling to change his lifestyle, they're invaluable.

5 – Use the 90% Rule

Many "before transitioners" suffer from an all-or-nothing attitude. They think they have to be perfect to make progress, and the moment they're not 100% perfect they quit. Truthfully, even the "after transitioners" aren't perfect all the time.

Think about it: what's better, being 100% perfect for two weeks and then quitting, or being 90% on target for the rest of your life? The key is to do the right thingmost of the time. As you make the transition you'll notice how this becomes easier and easier. As the transition takes place, you'll find your percentage climbing: 92%, 95%, 98%.

6 – Use the 21 Day Trick

Most mental health experts agree that it takes about 21 days to get rid of a bad habit and replace it with a better one. If you're not willing to provide an all-out effort for 21 days, then the behavioral changes you're trying to make just aren't going to happen.

This three week period is the "cold turkey" phase. Trying to lose your cravings for fried foods? Then don't eat that stuff for at least 21 days. Trying to get into the habit of squatting twice per week? Then you have to grit your teeth and just do it for three weeks. After that, it'll get easier.

Set a goal, get out the calendar, and mark off the 21 day point. Choose only one big goal or a couple of smaller ones. Don't try to change everything at once.

A goal might be to dump the sugared colas and transition to diet drinks or water. Or, if you've been inconsistent with training, your goal might be to train four days a week for three weeks, never missing a scheduled day. This 21 day "grin and bear it" period will help you get into the transition mode.


  1. Be aware that the transition takes time. You're normal if you have a few false starts. However, even if it takes years to fully make the transition, your health and physique will still be improving the whole time.
  2. Reinforcement, or being able to see the payoff for your hard work and discipline, is key. Just know that, depending on your goals, it might take a while before you see those motivating results.
  3. Measure your progress in a variety of ways so that you can easily spot the payoff.
  4. Use supplements to help you see the reward faster and to mentally help you stay on target.
  5. Attitude counts. Remind yourself that food is just fuel and that training is as necessary as brushing your teeth.
  6. Build a support group. This can be a group of training partners or a bunch of people online with similar goals.
  7. Remember, you don't have to be 100% perfect. Just do the right thing most of the time and you'll make excellent progress.
  8. Use the 21 day trick to hack away at the behaviors that keep you from reaching your physique goals.

The road to full transition is a long one, but these tips can help get you on the freeway and speed things along. Remember, it feels great to be in the "after transition" category. Join us!

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram