Here's what you need to know...
• Consistency is the most critical parameter to training success.
• You can dramatically improve your training consistency by imposing accountability, better internal decision-making, and flexible programming strategies.
• More often than not, it's not about discipline, it's about creating an optimal environment for success.
Consistency is the "true north" indicator of any successful athletes. All forms of learning and personal development depend on regular repetition, and resistance training is no exception. Even the world's most perfect program – if there were such a thing – would utterly fail without sufficient consistency. Likewise, consistent application to a sub-par program will deliver the results in spades.
This makes great training consistency a secret weapon that helps you level the playing field between you and your more gifted peers. In fact, it's the best kind of secret there is – it's so obvious that no one pays attention to it.
One reason consistency can take such a beating is that when shit happens, workouts are typically one of the first activities to be sacrificed. The big lie you'll tell yourself is, "Well, my training won't suffer if I just miss this one workout." And as lies go, this is a great one, because it's completely true. The problem, of course, is it probably won't only happen once, and after a while, the lie becomes a crutch.
Fortunately it doesn't ever need to come to that. Here are nine very powerful strategies that will make you as consistent as clockwork. All these "hacks" are just ways of managing both your external and internal climate so that instead of feeling like you're always having to push yourself, you'll find yourself "pulled" toward making the best decisions on a regular basis.
I've placed these nine strategies into three different categories, based upon their mechanism of action. The first category features three hacks that are all fueled by accountability. The three tips in the second category involve upgrading your internal climate. Finally, the third category highlights three ways that you can tweak your programming for maximum adherence.
1: Be Accountable to an External Influence
Be Accountable to a Program
There's no shortage of solid programs at T Nation. Before worrying about which program is best, just start doing one. Chances are, no matter which one you pick, doing it consistently will work dramatically better than doing what you're doing now with no consistency.
The beauty in doing a training program (as opposed to training "instinctively") is that you're accountable to its pre-formatted schedule. If the program calls for you to squat on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, then on Thursday night you know what you'll be doing tomorrow.
Programs – even the worst ones – make demands on you. "Instinctive training" doesn't.
Be Accountable to a Training Partner or Coach
If you're already accountable to a training program, adding this next component will improve your consistency even more.
One of the main reasons people hire coaches is to keep them accountable. And one of the main reasons people don't hire coaches is that they think they don't need one. Which is the better group to be associated with? Looking back at my training journal, I see that I've completed 186 workouts so far this year, and I'm 54 years old. How about you?
Incidentally, coaches and training partners can be on site or remote. Sure, face-to-face interaction is ideal, but if we're mostly focused on accountability, remote support works just fine.
Be Accountable to a Competition Date
I've written about the value of competing many times and will no doubt write about it many more times. Chances are, most of the lifters you admire are competitive athletes; otherwise you'd never know who they were in the first place. So why not you?
Perhaps you don't think you're good enough? You may be right of course, and assuming that's true, I have a secret for you – competing is how you get good enough.
Personally, with many competitions under my belt, I'm still not quite good enough, but I'm still getting better, which is really all I ever wanted anyway.
2: Optimize Your Internal Software
Act As If
Even if you're accountable to a program, a coach, or both, you might still find yourself struggling to get your ass to the gym on occasion. Here's how to fix that.
You'll get up out of bed and make breakfast. Then you'll take a shower and put your gym clothes on. Next, you'll walk out to the car, start it up, and head toward the gym. You still may have no intention of training, and that's fine. You'll park the car, walk into the gym, and....
Chances are, at this point, you'll probably do something resembling a workout, right? If not, my guess is that you skipped the workout for a good reason, not a shitty one.
Cut Yourself Some Slack
Look, even half-ass workouts are far better than skipping them altogether, so don't be so absolutist in your thinking. It's inevitable that about a third of your workouts will pretty much suck. Another third will be okay, and the remaining third will be Facebook worthy.
Again, our goal is consistency, not necessarily gym heroism. Your goal is to show up and do what you can. That way, you give success a fighting chance.
Base Goals Around Behaviors, Not Outcomes
This is simple but game changing. It's based on control. More specifically, control what you can, and don't sweat the rest. Outcomes are multi-factorial, and therefore, often beyond your attempts to control them.
Behaviors, on the other hand, are largely within your control. So what you must do is identify behaviors that will likely lead to desired outcomes, and then frame your goals around these behaviors.
Some examples might be to complete at least 16 workouts next month, while eating at least 200 grams of protein every day. Anyone can do both of those things, and if you do, chances are you'll be closer to your goals in 30 days.
Other examples might be hiring a coach, drinking enough fluids, improving your sleep, and signing up for a competition. The key is to find your poorest habit patterns and then replace them with more productive ones.
3: Encourage Consistency
Use Complementary Training
Are you busting your ass trying to be good at something, when the truth is, you might be far more capable in a different but related discipline?
The iron world is full of bodybuilders who would be much better powerlifters and strongmen who would be much better Olympic lifters. And there are lots of people who are just "recreational lifters" who could be great at one of the competitive lifting sports.
There are lots of lesser-known strength and power sports that you may not be aware of – kettlebell sport and Highland games competitions are just two examples. I'm going to do something called the Tactical Strength Challenge in April. There are also odd lift competitions, breaking competitions in the martial arts, and arm wrestling events.
The point is, if you're struggling at something that's not panning out for you despite your best efforts, it might be that your ladder is up against the wrong wall. Keep your options open and keep exploring until you discover your greatness.
Employ a Semi-Flexible Training Schedule
It's important to have a schedule but it should ideally be a flexible one. My scheduled training sessions are Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Mondays and Fridays are upper body sessions while Wednesdays and Sundays are lower body sessions.
Using this type of arrangement, I have some options. Monday's session can be done on Tuesday without negatively affecting the program whatsoever. The same goes for the Wednesday session, which can be done on Thursday without any negative repercussions.
Also, if you find yourself in a crunch where you know you'll miss a workout, find a creative solution. Perhaps you can tack the most important exercise of the session you'll miss to a neighboring workout instead of skipping the session altogether?
Use Compulsory/Optional Exercise Categories
This final strategy is something I've used successfully for years. If you have a long exercise menu for a given workout, you'll dread the prospect of doing it, which will make you more prone to skip it altogether. What we really need is a challenging but friendly workout.
The way to do this is to have both compulsory and optional exercises in each workout. An upper body session might look like this:
Bench Press 5 x 2
Pull-up 3 x 8
Barbell Shrug 4 x 6
EZ Bar Curl 3 x 10
Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extension 3 x 10
Here, all you've got on your mind is completing the compulsory exercises. Once you've finished with those, you can make a decision about the optional drills. In my experience, more often than not, you'll do those too. It's just a simple little mind trick, but little things add up fast in this game.
It's Not About Discipline!
The nine strategies really aren't about discipline – they're ways to stay on track when discipline inevitably wanes. Most importantly, they're all methods of optimizing our environment and our habits so that we have the best chance of success.
If you've got a few tricks I haven't thought of, please share them.