Remember the New Year’s resolutions you made a few months back? You had big plans to overhaul your life starting the moment the clock struck 12 on the 1st of January 2020. Today, the 1st of March 2020, marks the start of the third month of the New Year. By now, the majority of you will likely have given up on your New Year’s resolutions. Statistically, roughly 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail and that is pretty dismal, to be honest.
What can you do to increase your chance of being in that 20% who follow through and accomplish their resolutions? A cursory glance at barbell strength training might not reveal the lessons that the barbell can teach and how they can relate to achieving your New Year’s resolutions. So, let’s take a deeper look and discuss what we can learn from being under the bar.
Let’s assume that you’re in your 40s. You’ve been sedentary for most of your life, give or take a few months of sporadic exercise, and you are starting to experience the effects of being on this earth for a few decades. Your knees and back are starting to ache, you run out of breath playing with your kids or you find yourself really struggling to get your luggage off the carousel. You think to yourself, “If this is how I’m feeling at 45 years old, how will I be at 55? This ain’t good and I’m going to do something about it.”
That’s the first step, motivation—the push factor to rectify an issue that affects you to the point where you’ll do something about it. This is like the lady who has never lifted weights being motivated to start barbell training because she wants to do something about her osteoporosis. It’s important to have a really strong emotional push so that you have something to keep you going when the going gets tough. The attrition rate for someone with fleeting motivation like, “Oh, I’m feeling a bit fat today” is unsurprisingly high. For the lady doing something about osteoporosis, her motivation might not be the medical condition itself but the fear of ending up like her friends around her—losing her independence and quality of life as a result of having osteoporosis.
As an aside, the thing about motivation is that it must be intrinsic. You can expose a person to the information and hope that they will have an “a-ha” moment where they’ll come to understand the importance of barbell training in achieving their lifestyle goals. But you can’t motivate someone else to work towards a goal unless the person themselves is driven to achieve it. I’ve seen many well-meaning clients who have experienced the benefit of strength training and who are very keen to encourage their friends and family to try it too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work until their friends and family themselves have the motivation or push factor to try it. But I digress.
So your lifestyle goal is that you’d like your knees and back to stop aching, not run out of breath when playing with your kids and not struggle to get your luggage off the carousel—basically to improve your quality of life and feel young again. The issue with an abstract goal like this is that it isn’t effective. It’s like walking into a gym and saying that you want to exercise to be fitter and healthier. No doubt that it’s still motivation to get you started, but, in my experience, you’ll achieve significantly better results when you know exactly what you want and the changes you need to make to get you there. What you have in your head is the idea of what you’d like to achieve, the end goal. You’d be better off focussing your attention on what you need to change to get you there. Achieving your goal is the outcome of the accumulation of constituent behavioural changes made towards your end goal.
When you first set your mind on a goal, it’s likely that your motivation is very high so you’ll be tempted to make ambitious plans to achieve it—grand plans that sound fantastic but are not sustainable—like multiple lifestyle changes all at once. For this approach to work, you would need high levels of motivation all the time which is simply not sustainable. This is like the novice lifter who just started training and wants to train more often and do more sets or add more weight than necessary to the bar. Barbell training is very much like achieving your lifestyle goal—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Taking small consistent steps over the long term will yield better results than being overzealous at the start and rushing it. Trust the process. Fight the urge to immediately embark on multiple big changes in your life.
Focus instead on identifying what behavioural changes need to be made to achieve your end goal. For example, you’d like to drop some body fat. Let’s say you’re currently at 25% body fat and you’d like to get yourself down to 20%. Instead of obsessing over your body fat percentage itself and why it may not be moving in the direction that you’d like, focus on the actions that will take your body fat down by 5% – decreasing your caloric intake and increasing your energy output. These behavioural changes don’t all have to be massive 180-degree changes in your lifestyle. In fact, make the steps really small and easy to achieve. Make these changes so small that you can still easily do them even on days when your motivation is low. Make a list of these changes, starting with the smallest and easiest change to the hardest one, one that you are not even sure if it’s doable at this point. Once you’ve got your list, start with the smallest and easiest changes and slowly work your way through the list.
This is just like a new lifter learning how to properly perform a squat. There are inevitably going to be multiple issues with his technique that need to fixed. As barbell coaches, we have a model in our head of how a particular lift should look based on our understanding of the lift itself and the lifter’s anthropometry. When we watch someone perform the squat, we’re mentally making notes on what form deviations are occurring and arranging them in order of the most important to least important. While it is tempting to try to fix everything at once, doing so will be too much information and overwhelming for the lifter who’s trying to learn something new. Instead, we fix his form deviations one at a time, starting with the most important. This way, he can focus all his attention on the most pertinent issue and work to fix it. Once he’s able to do that, we move on to the second most important issue and so on.
When a new lifter first starts training with us, he is put on the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression program—it’s the simplest, most effective training program for a novice to get strong. Much like beginning from the smallest and easiest change, we start the new lifter on the first day of his progression with a weight that he can easily manage. The weight may be a 5kg or a 20kg barbell, depending on the lifter’s capabilities. The weight is intentionally kept low so that the lifter will have an easier time focussing on the cues given to rectify their technique instead of being overwhelmed by a heavy barbell. Once they can perform the lift proficiently at the starting weight, we gradually increase the load as the sets progress. There’ll be a threshold whereby his technique will be compromised if the load were to be increased further. We’ll maintain the weight just before this point and call it his working weight of Day 1 of his novice linear progression.
Two days later, the new lifter will return to the gym and go up a little in weight from Day 1. This might not seem like much right now but trust the process—a little bit every session adds up to a whole lot over time. It’s much like working towards your lifestyle goal—you may be able to make a few behavioural changes at a go when you first start out. However, if you attempt to move down your list of changes too quickly and try to do too many things at once, you may find yourself being overwhelmed and unable to adhere to what you set out to do. When you first start out, slowly work your way down the list and commit to what you’re able to do and gradually work your way towards the tougher changes. When you get to something you think might be too tough to perform on that day, pause. Stay on the previous changes first, do them consistently before moving on and working your way further down the list.
As you progress down your list, the changes require more effort to perform and there will be days when motivation is low and you just feel like not doing anything. For days like this, you can skip the more demanding changes but keep doing the ones higher up on your list which requires way less effort. By doing so, you’re still committing to your list and not reverting back to your old lifestyle. From there, you can either gradually work your way back or, if you’re feeling particularly motivated, jump straight back to where you left off. Very much as in training, there’ll be days where you don’t feel like going to the gym. Drag yourself to the gym nonetheless. What I’ve found is that once you get there, change into your workout gear and start warming up, you’ll feel much better and will very likely be able to train as planned. If for some reason you still feel that motivation is low, do a lighter workout—take some weight off the bar or do only the lifts that you particularly enjoy doing. At the end of it, you’ll be glad you trained.
As you progress both towards your lifestyle goal and in barbell training, there will be setbacks along the way. No matter how well you plan, how hard you work or how much effort you put in, there will be days when thing don’t go well. That is not a failure on your part. That is simply life. As Howie Day says, “Even the best fall down sometimes”. Be it getting stronger or changing an aspect of your life, start small, gradually work your way up and keep going. The road to your goal will be tough and filled with obstacles and that’s to be expected—nothing worth having comes easy. When you get there, you’ll find that there’s nothing sweeter than achieving what you set out to do.