You Probably Don't Need Better Methods
Tennis great Martina Navratilova once said something profound:
"Most people already know what to do... the real problem is that they're not doing it."
Now, methods certainly matter. It's just that for most of us, sub-optimal methodology isn't the bottleneck for continued progress. What stops most people from realizing their true potential is their lack of commitment to whatever methods they're using.
When you examine the methods used by successful people in the fitness realm, you can't help but notice that there's very little congruence in terms of the training and nutrition programs they use.
Some jacked lifters use whole-body splits, while others prefer an upper-lower split, "bro split," or even a push-pull-legs schedule. Some never train to failure, while others always do. Some use low reps, others high reps.
Nutritionally, lots of successful guys swear by intermittent fasting, while other equally impressive dudes eat 6-8 meals a day. Carnivore diet pioneer Shawn Baker is uber-jacked and can pull 405x20 at age 52. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are many guys who look and perform better than you do while being raw vegans!
Superficially, the training and nutritional strategies used by top performers seem to have nothing whatsoever in common, but if you dig a little deeper you'll find the common thread. More on that shortly.
By the way, science seems to confirm all this anecdotal evidence. Recent research has indicated that, in terms of muscle growth, it doesn't really matter how many reps per set you perform. Other investigations suggest that the type of training split you use also isn't terribly important, as long as optimal weekly volume landmarks are reached.
Nutritionally, the current scientific consensus on fat loss is that any diet that allows you to achieve a caloric deficit will work just fine. For some folks, that means IIFYM, for others, a bodybuilding-inspired "clean eating" approach works best. Hell, Iowa science teacher John Cisna lost 37 pounds in 90 days eating nothing but McDonalds of all things, and his cholesterol dropped to boot.
A final thought about our obsession with finding optimal methods. The reason we endlessly search for the "perfect" diet or training program is that it places the blame for our lack of progress on something external. In other words, it's not our fault that we're not making progress; it's the program's fault.
Here's an uncomfortable reality: Your program isn't the problem – your inconsistent and lackluster commitment to the program is the problem. Put another way, if you expect to make dramatic changes over the next year, you'll need to modify your behavior.
Sometimes in life, sucking it up and making the tough decisions pays off right away, such as sacking up and going to the emergency room at 3AM after waking up in severe pain and vomiting blood. When it comes to training and nutrition, however, you'll need to delay immediate gratification in favor of greater rewards further down the road.
The ability to delay immediate gratification may be the textbook definition of lifelong success. In what has become known as "the marshmallow test," researchers in the 1960's set out to measure self-control among children. Preschoolers were told they could either eat one marshmallow immediately, or wait an unspecified amount of time and be rewarded with an additional marshmallow.
Thirty years later, these same subjects completed a survey regarding their current bodyweight, and sure enough, the subjects who were most able to delay gratification as a preschooler had the greatest likelihood of maintaining a healthy bodyweight as adults.
While it seems likely that the ability to delay gratification may be somewhat genetic (and also perhaps shaped by early-childhood experiences), there are specific things we can all do to improve this vital skill.
In terms of exposing yourself to difficulty, you must be in the "flow" zone as described by psychologist and best-selling author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In terms of the effort-spectrum, if you don't work hard enough, there will be no change because the stimulus for change is insufficient.
On the other hard, if you attempt to work too hard, you won't be able to sustain your efforts long enough for meaningful change to take place. Between these two extremes lays the "flow zone" – the sweet spot where your efforts are both meaningful and sustainable.
In an old Seinfeld episode, while pouring a bowl of cereal Jerry remarked, "Why do we keep the bowls in the cupboard and the spoons in the drawer? I mean, we always use both of them together!"
What Jerry was lamenting was a type of "friction." It's any thing, person, mindset, or environment that makes it more difficult than necessary to behave in a way that optimally supports your objectives. Common examples include:
- Failing to have optimal foods close at hand at all times.
- Frequently having suboptimal foods close at hand.
- Your gym is too expensive, too far away, poorly-equipped, and/or too crowded.
- Your sleep quality is needlessly poor due to any number of reasons, including too much light or noise, a cluttered bedroom, a crappy bed, conflict with the person you're sleeping next to, stress from unkept commitments with yourself or others, and/or excessive stimulant use.
- Unsupportive people in your everyday life.
- Generalized life stress and fatigue – you hate your job, your marriage is failing, you're in too much debt, you've got health issues... stuff like that.
Think about a recent time when you failed to train or eat according to your stated objectives. What specific, unnecessary source of friction deterred you? How might you prevent a similar derailment in the future? And in general, how can you design your life so that it's more supportive of your goals?
Just like success, failure also leaves clues. Look for and learn from them.
Social support is an essential feature of successful behavior programs such as Weight Watchers. If the people closest to you are unsupportive, or even worse, antagonistic to your goals, you'll be far less likely to reach them.
The spectrum of social support in your life can range from no significant people in your life whatsoever, to most or all of the people in your life being outright hostile to your fitness objectives. Both are less than optimal.
If you're living in a social vacuum (which strongly suggests the presence of deeper issues, but this is T Nation, not Psychology Today), for God's sake make some friends and re-establish contact with your long-lost family. If there are people in your life, great... but take whatever steps might be required to at least get them on board with your training goals.
If nothing else, hire a coach (local or online), or get yourself a training partner. If none of these are possible, at the very least join and participate in online training communities, which can be quite meaningful in the absence of real-life relationships.
Even though we tend to think of lifting as a solo pursuit, the presence of supportive people in your life can spell the difference between success and failure. It's worth taking the time to assess your social capital with an eye toward potential improvements.
There are moments when training delivers immediate rewards – you get a pump, an endorphin rush, or a new PR. But for the most part (and the more experienced you are, the more this holds true), when it comes to your training efforts, meaningful results take time.
And looking at nutrition, eating well offers absolutely no immediate rewards. Every time I hear someone say, "Wow, I just had a kale smoothie and I feel amazing!" I know they're totally full of shit because kale tastes like ass.
You know what makes you feel amazing (for the short-term, mind you)? Pizza. Ice cream. Burgers. Pancakes. I mean, please. The goal of course, is to forgo these immediate pleasures for greater and more meaningful rewards later on.