Tell me if this sounds familiar.
You wake up early, drink a little coffee and throw on some music. You shuffle to the gym or your living room or wherever you workout. You open your phone to look at what’s on the menu for today, and promptly let out an exasperated sigh.
You’re not excited. At all.
In fact, you haven’t been excited for some time. Motivation and inspiration have abandoned you. You used to be so happy to train. You used to have butterflies in your stomach as you rolled up to the gym or laced up your running shoes or laid down your yoga mat.
Many folks are quick to blame quarantine, and that’s fair. It’s hard to be motivated to do anything these days, much less workout. Especially if your gym or studio is closed.
But ask yourself this: even in good times, did you sometimes feel bored or uninspired? Did you constantly switch up your workout plan? Did your fitness goals constantly fluctuate?
If so, I’m willing to bet your problem is more fundamental. I’m willing to bet it’s not where or how you’re working out, but what you’re doing that’s the issue.
Here’s how to build a workout plan you’ll actually stick with.
1. Be wary of anything you find on Google
First things first.
Take caution with any cookie-cutter (read: probably shitty) program you download from Bodybuilding.com or Reddit or wherever. It’s likely super generic, boring and about as useful as a pair of sandals in winter.
Fitness is a uniquely individual experience. We may share interests or training preferences, but ultimately how you do fitness differs from how I do it. What works for you won’t necessarily work for me, and vice versa.
It’s essential to tailor your fitness programming to your individual needs. A program you download online is the furthest thing from that. They’re built to appeal to the maximum amount of people.
Now that’s not to say you can’t use a downloadable program as a jumping off point. This can be very beneficial, especially when first starting out. And often times these programs promote tried and true training strategies, like focusing on compound exercises or engaging in progressive overload.
But that’s where their value stops. They are a framework, nothing more. Don’t be afraid to change it. Modify it. Make it your own.
Don’t just copy / paste into your routine and treat it like gospel.
2. Incorporate your 3 favorite physical activities
I’m one of those weirdos who likes to help people move.
Picking stuff up, putting it down, running around from place to place, all parts of the process appeal to me. As such, I’ve incorporated weight training into my routine. I find enjoyment in picking stuff up and putting it back down.
I’ve also been a distance runner for nearly 20 years. I’ll continue the practice until the day I die. It all began when I didn’t make the golf team my freshman year of high school and had to “settle” for the cross country team. Some moments in life are truly life-changing, even if we don’t know it at the time. Consequently, weight training and distance running make up the lion’s share of my exercise.
If you’re going to adhere to your training program in the long-term you have to stack it with activities you like.
If you’re one of those folks who sees weight training as a chore, try yoga or swimming or spinning. All those activities can build muscle, essential for continued health and wellness, especially as we age. If you see distance running as punishment, play soccer. Basketball. Go for a round of golf but walk instead of using a cart.
Just because an exercise plan doesn’t include traditional weight training and cardio doesn’t mean it isn’t a perfectly valid exercise plan.
3. Determine which days you’re available to workout
People often arbitrarily decide which days they’ll work out when creating a training schedule. Monday / Wednesday / Friday and one day on the weekend is what I see most often.
But what if you work late on Mondays? What if Wednesday mornings you’re responsible for dropping the kids at school? What if Friday afternoons are the only times your book club or bowling league can meet?
Don’t just randomly assign days to workout. Make sure you plan training sessions on days that actually align with your schedule. If you’ve got a conflict, 99% of the time the workout is what suffers.
Don’t be afraid to make modifications either. Life is fluid. Schedules change. If you need to push Wednesday’s workout to Thursday or move up Saturday’s workout to Friday, then do so. Don’t try to cram everything in on a certain day because that’s what it says in the plan.
Life hack: Put your workouts into your calendar like you would a work meeting or social event. My iPhone literally pings me with reminder to get my training in. Also do the same with sleep.
4. Favor consistency over intensity
Most people workout way too hard.
I get it. You want to train as hard as you can to perform as best as you can. Perhaps you had a boozy, pizza-filled weekend and you want to burn off as much of that as possible. Or maybe pushing yourself physically is how you deal with stress.
This is all well and good…until you burnout.
Burnout is a very common and very legitimate concern when it comes to fitness. “It’s when you continually feel run down with your physical training”, says Forbes fitness contributor Noma Nazish. “And nothing seems to make that fatigue go away. It’s when you lose interest to the point that working out slips down your list of top priorities. And you are ready to jump off the proverbial fitness cliff.”
A few years back, I was obsessed with lowering my half marathon personal best. I trained hard and fast, focusing only on intensity-driven workouts made up of tempo runs, high intensity interval training and 50+ mile weeks. I didn’t cross-train. I didn’t focus on recovery. I didn’t watch my diet or prioritize sleep. As a result, one week before the Indy Mini half marathon, my lower body exploded. Three injuries in the span of about 48 hours.
Take it from me, if your goal is to train week after week, month after month, year after year, consistency needs to be the focus, not intensity. The body is simply not made to take that kind of a beating day in and day out. Pushing hard every once in a while, or even once or twice a week (proven you’re well-trained) is ok, but treating every workout like an all-out fight to the finish is a mistake.
It’s hard to stick to your exercise plan if you’re injured 75% of the time. Not to mention way less fun.
5. Make adjustments as needed
Your program is built. You’ve done it. It’s the perfect representation of who you are and what you enjoy. You’re so excited you print it out and put it on your fridge. Ok, maybe that’s just me.
Like I said earlier, don’t treat your plan like gospel. It’s written on paper, not carved in stone. Needs change. Goals change. Desires change. Make adjustments as they become necessary.
Now there is a balance that must be struck. On the one hand, you want to be able to adapt your plan in the face of whatever life throws your way. On the other hand, you want to stick to your program long enough to see results. You’re not going to get very far if you change your workout plan every week or two.
My advice? Take things as they come. Don’t look for reasons to change anything, but don’t ignore legitimate reasons either. You’ll know them when they come up. As long as you remain mindful and consistent the rest will take care of itself.
Scott Mayer is a runner, thinker, curious observer and certified personal trainer. Visit the In Fitness And In Health website for ebooks, training plans, consulting options and additional content.
Thanks for highlighting personalization and therefore effectiveness of programs vs cookie cutter programs!