You love to read lists of exercises with lots of numbers in front of them.
Maybe you even like to write them down in your notebook, put them in your calendar or bookmark them in your browser. But with all the best intentions, you’re probably still doing it wrong.
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Albeit there are a lot of shitty routines out there, you don’t have to look too far to find some quality, principle based ones.
Let’s assume you’ve found that new hot program on the internet that is accompanied by an app, a book and a Youtube channel with exercise instructions. What do you do next?
You mess it up.
A lot of people tell me they’re doing program X, or planning to do so, but here’s the problem: They’re not doing X, they’re doing X plus Y times Z.
The conversation usually goes like this:
“Yeah I’m going to do StrongLifts but I think I’ll do some crunches in between, then burpees before and after and maybe some …”
I’m sorry that I have to go all fanatic here, but this kind of attitude is 90% of the reason why this particular program doesn’t work for you. You’re not doing it.
Your ADHD is killing your gains.
This is like ordering dinner at a fine restaurant, being served the meal and vigorously seasoning it with salt and pepper without ever having tasted it before!
Sooo, after this little rage, let’s look at this from a sober standpoint by using these 4 steps for success.
1. Pick a Routine
This is actually the easy stuff. Have a few options and then choose one with some reasoning behind it. Here are some routines that I would label as decent.
- Paul Wade’s Convict Conditioning
- Paul Wade’s C-Mass
- Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym
- Shameless self-promotion: Zero2Hero and Strength Essentials
And I bet there are many more good ones out there.
A few criteria to spot a decent routine:
- It uses progressive overload (i.e. more weight/more difficult movements over time)
- Strength is the primary objective (which is usually acompanied by some muscle gains and it won’t hurt your fat-loss goals either if you eat accordingly)
- Exercise choice is based on movement categories, not body-parts. If you read words like “Chest day” or “biceps pump”, this is a routine for wannabe bodybuilders. I hope that’s not you.
In order to choose the right one for you, you need to be able to differentiate whether a routine provides a long-term system or if it serves a short-term goal. This system/goal duality is what Dan John describes as bus bench and park bench workouts.
If you sit on a bus bench, you’re obviously waiting for the bus. You want that bus to arrive on time, because you want to get to some place else at a particular point in time.
On a park bench however, you’re just enjoying the view, the sounds of nature and the fresh air. You have no time critical objective other than feeling good about where you are right now.
So a bus bench workout is the one you’ll find in fitness magazines (“Bigger Biceps in 6 Weeks”, “Guaranteed Six-Pack in 3 Seconds”). If you’re a seasoned trainee and training is already a part of your life, than such a bus bench challenge can be valuable. Pick a challenge maybe 1 or 2 times a year. Dan John’s 10’000 Kettlebell Swing Workout is what I would call a quality bus bench workout (focus is still on movements, strength and progressive overload).
However, for the majority of your training time, you want the park bench. You want a system that provides you with long-term, sustainable benefits. Beating yourself up every workout, hunting PRs and training to failure every single set is not sustainable. Sooner or later, your body will flip you the finger and then the falling-off-the-band-wagon syndrom kicks in.
In contrast, picking a few fundamental movements and trying to get better at them, little by little, is totally doable.
You will still experience DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), you’ll sweat and get all the other stuff that one expects from a good workout. The main difference is that you won’t feel like you’ve been hit by a bus (see what I did there? 😉 ) every morning.
With the one exception, all programs I’ve listed above consist mainly of park bench workouts.
Yeah and I hear you yelling at the screen:
“Stop ranting and tell me which program is the best!”
The truth is, they all work. If you follow the next step.
2. Stick to It
There it is. The secret solution to all your problems.
I talked about this before: If you want boiling water, you leave the kettle the eff alone.
This is the number one reason why people don’t get results these days. It’s not because the programs don’t work. It’s you who’s not working the program.
When you pick a program, do exactly what the program calls for. Nothing else. Don’t add anything. Don’t leave things out. Don’t swap out exercises for the ones you like better.
Creators of quality programs spent a lot of time thinking about it, describing it, pairing it up with DVDs, books, an app or even just nice pictures. When a program looks simple, it’s not because of lazy design, but because its creator thought long and hard about what is essential and what needs to go.
And then the individual wanting to use the routine enters the equation. Apart from the obvious falling-off-the-band-wagon syndrom, two common misconceptions might impede your progress.
1. You think you know better than the creator of the routine.
Most of the programs I listed above were designed by respected strength coaches, people who tested their methods with thousands of trainees. What are your credentials?
2. You think you need some adjustments to meet your individual needs.
While it’s true that we’re all unique snow flakes, it’s also true that all snow flakes are created based on the same principles of physics. A good training routine is also principle based. These principles most probably also apply to you.
The problem with changing it up as you desire is that after some time, you have a completely different routine. Or worse, you’re like a cat that plays with the mouse it caught: You poke and tinker with the program until it’s dead and you abandon the entire thing and try something new (called program hopping).
I understand that it is much harder to not change anything and just follow suit. But that’s exactly the reason why the perceived feeling of accomplishment is so much greater once you’ve followed a particular program to a T.
It feels freaking awesome to finish a program. It’s about more than just the physical benefits. It’s about self-integrity. You promised yourself you would follow this program. You did what you said you would do. Trusting one’s own word is priceless.
Having said that, sometimes little tweaks are indeed a viable option.
3. Adjust WHEN and IF Necessary
So I hope I made myself abundantly clear that altering a routine without having followed it for a significant amount of time (how about 3 months) is a bad idea.
But there might come a time when you really do feel that a certain parameter needs to be tweaked. When that time comes, I challenge you to approach your little experiment with some scientific methods.
- Don’t do it just because you’re feeling fancy. Have a clear agenda on why this change is necessary.
- Only change one thing at a time. How else would you know what worked and what didn’t?
- Track it (a neat workout log comes in handy here 😉 ).
Obvious reasons for altering a routine include injuries, movement inabilities, lacking motor control or mobility issues. A wrong reason is when you just plain suck at an exercise. This is probably the exercise which you should prioritize, because it uncovers your weakest links in the chain.
Most people start thinking about changing stuff up when they stop making progress. They get stuck. But I have a better solution for these rough times.
4. Don’t Get Stuck
I know, duh.
But plateaus happen. Actually, they only happen if you followed points 1-3. Plateaus, stagnant periods, lack of progress, however you call it, implies that there was a period of constant improvement before “getting stuck”.
So, hitting a plateau is really a sign that you’re doing things right. You’ve traveled so far that you’ve finally hit a wall. Congratulations, you’re not a newbie anymore.
There are two simple options to solve this dilemma:
- Keep showing up regardless of the plateau. Sometimes, you just need to accept that plateaus suck, but that they are only temporary and part of the process.
- Go back a few steps. Whether it’s a bodyweight progression or weight training, scale down the level of difficulty to about 80%. Then slowly build it up again. The next time you’re at that particular sticking point again, you might just pass it as if there never was a plateau at all.
Both of these methods are so underused because of one reason: Ego. Dealing with the frustration of putting in the work and not seeing the results to show for it is tough. So is going back in the progression. It almost feels like a defeat.
But it’s not. Look at it as a tactical retreat. You have to recover the troops (your nervous system) before you go to war again. This is what the pros do (then it’s called “off-season” or “deload”), so why shouldn’t you do it?
Sticking to only one basic strength program is simple, but it’s far from easy. If you struggle with this (and you probably will), don’t rely on your willpower. Most people’s willpower sucks.
Instead, find a workout buddy with similar goals and train together. Sign a workout buddy aggreement and get to work.
And I’m not telling you to do one workout program your whole life. Training should be enjoyable and fun and I’m the first one to admit that I love me some variety.
The important thing for me is to have a system in place (one that emphasizes strength, fundamental movements and progressive overload). Once in a while, I’ll do a 4 week challenge or some prep-work for a certification.
What I want to get across here is that you should turn off the monkey mind when planning your training. Stick to the basics, get better with every workout and let your system evolve.
What’s your favorite workout routine? What aspects of it do you struggle with the most? Leave me a comment below.