A huge challenge faced by strength and conditioning coaches is the question of compliance. What will someone do, will they follow the program, and will they eat properly? Part of my job is to design programs that get results; the other part is to make sure that they actually get done.
Whether you are training for general fitness or for a specific goal, compliance is important. In this article I hope to convince you that it doesn’t take very much to improve your health and fitness. Let’s take a look.
Compliance depends on motivation. Some of my clients do everything in their regimen to the letter. Every rep, set, and exercise is performed exactly as outlined. Every bite of food they eat has precisely the proper amount of macro-nutrients, and their daily water intake is calculated down to the ounce. It works for them.
At the other end of the spectrum is the person who doesn’t care much about fitness training. Despite tons of evidence that they would live a better life, they are unlikely to entertain the idea of making healthy changes and even less likely to actually see it through. I have interviewed many of these people, and sadly, they are convinced that being fit is for someone else. It is not even conceivable to them that they could possess health, strength and vitality.
But the biggest mistake in judgment that they make is that a fitness program has to take over their life to be effective. As we will see, it doesn’t need to be this way.
Most likely, you sit comfortably between these two extremes. Perhaps you exercise and try to eat properly some of the time. You would do more in the way of training if it weren’t so, well, disruptive to your life. My goal is to help you build a training plan to maximize your results, all while keeping most of your sanity.
It’s not all or nothing
One obstacle is the “all or nothing” idea that always seems to be attached to anything fitness. People seem to be either 100% dedicated to fitness perfection, or they decide that since they can’t be perfect, they’d rather do nothing. They’re on or off. Good or “bad” on diet. As a strength coach I run into this all the time. Since they can’t be Mr. or Mrs. Fitness on the magazine cover, they do nothing. This is analogous to not saving any money for retirement because you won’t have a Warren Buffet nest egg.
Fitness training and nutrition should never be an all or nothing proposition. It’s perfectly natural and normal that your dedication to training will vacillate. In fact, it would be odd if it didn’t. There will be peaks and valleys depending on what’s going on in your life. We are human, and we humans have varying degrees of motivation during different chapters in our lives. These motivations change as time marches on.
Younger trainees tend to be primarily motivated by appearance. This makes sense of course, because statistically young people don’t suffer maladies like us old dogs do, and they are more often single and looking for a mate. For the young, health often takes a backseat to six-pack abs. As we age, we surely appreciate looking good, but the goals drift toward health and longevity. Fending off disease and staying mobile takes precedence over getting ripped to shreds.
Whatever your reason for training is, do something you can live with. Small changes can make huge differences in your fitness level. Don’t obsess about perfection. You know the saying; perfection is the enemy of the good. You don’t need perfection. You don’t need to live in the gym. You don’t need all sorts of expensive pills and supplements. You don’t need fancy equipment, apparel, or gadgets. Forget about doing tricky stuff with bands and cables. For a couple hundred bucks and 10 minutes spent looking on Craigslist, you can easily have a home gym made of dumbbells and a barbell set that will last forever. Add a chin up bar and Kettlebells.
Your program doesn’t need to be anything past basic; it only needs to be something that you can comply with. Something you’ll do. That’s the important part, choosing a program you will actually do. It’s a mistake for a beginner to tackle advanced programs that they don’t need. Get a few basics down and stick with them.
When you see somebody in great shape, you might envision a disciplined life of working out all day accompanied by a perfect diet. They must not do anything but exercise and drink protein shakes. They must never have any fun. This is rarely the case. I know many people that look fantastic and got tremendously fit by working simple, bare-bones training programs. They exercise, but not obsessively. They eat well, but don’t pass up a chance to join you for a burger. Their lifestyle isn’t extreme, so they are able to do it year after year. It works for them because they can actually comply with it. It’s not over the top and it doesn’t overwhelm them. Fitness occupies a corner of their life, but it isn’t their life. Since they don’t run too hot, they never burn out.
A little strength and conditioning goes a long way. You don’t need to be super strong to realize an increase in performance. A modest gain in strength will make a noticeable difference. A beginning lifter that doubles his basic lifts (squat, deadlift, press) over the span of a few months will have an appreciable increase in athletic performance whether the sport is football, basketball, or just the sport of life.
A few years ago I was helping out a Strongman competitor friend of mine. Now a personal trainer, he was frustrated with his client’s slack habits and lack of compliance. I reviewed his clients training and eating logs. No wonder his clients were falling off and slacking. The diets were hard and austere with no wiggle room. The workouts were too high in volume (too many sets and reps) and too frequent. I’m surprised he kept as many clients as he did, it must have been his sunny disposition.
I told him, “Jim, you’re one of the strongest men in the world. You have paid a huge price in discipline to get where you are. But your clients aren’t interested in this level of dedication. They hate egg whites. They aren’t going to lift 5 days a week, nor should they.” We quickly toned down the programs. We loosened up the diet and allowed for some forbidden fruit. I had him back off the workouts; we reduced the volume and simplified them. Immediately things got better. His clients could breathe and started to look forward to their workouts again. They made progress nutritionally because they didn’t feel so shackled by a brutal diet. Ultimately, his clients flourished.
Compliance matters. In fact, it’s damn near everything. There is no use in starting something only to find out soon after that it was too overwhelming. Start with small incremental changes. Lift light in the beginning, there’s plenty of weight to add as you go. Make tiny changes and improvements to your diet. Get it so you say to yourself, “I can really do this.”
I’d like to share with you 3 strategies that I have used to successfully increase compliance (and hence results) with many of my trainees. The common themes will be simplicity, ease of application and an emphasis on starting easy and adjusting up as needed. I hope you find them helpful.
1.) Try an abbreviated program
To increase your weight training compliance, consider an ultra-abbreviated program of just two exercises performed twice or three times per week. Pick either the squat or the dead lift and add a press to it. That’s it. You either squat or dead lift and then you add an overhead press. The press can be a bench press, overhead barbell press, or dumbbell press. If you bench press, always have a spotter. Don’t bench alone.
If you choose the deadlift, you’ll need nothing more than a barbell set, which can be had for almost nothing. On Tuesday for example, you deadlift 2 sets of 5. Then you press 2 sets of 5. That’s it. Do it again on Friday or Saturday and add a little weight to the bar. This is not a sub-optimal way to train. If you ask any top strength coach, chances are they will make these basic lifts the foundation of their programs. This minimalist program will deliver useful over-all body strength that quickly translates into better riding.
2.) Don’t train to failure
Training to failure means that while performing a set you continue until you can no longer move the bar despite your hardest effort. Bad idea. Avoid this. This type of lifting has turned more people off from weight training than almost anything else. The idea is to get all of your reps. Stop short on the set and leave a rep or two in reserve. So if you know you can’t get the fifth rep, don’t go for it, just get a clean 4th rep and call it. This is not only a much more pleasant way to lift, it is better training for your nervous system. You want to wire your nervous system to complete the reps and succeed, not to always come up short and miss reps. If you avoid training to failure you will stick with your lifting, enjoy it more, and progress faster. You won’t dread your workouts and you won’t feel like a truck has hit you. Always save a rep.
3.) Nutrition Compliance tip
Here’s a compliance method to help improve your eating. For the next week, improve the quality of just three meals for the week. That’s it. Pick three meals that could have more protein, less sugar, and more healthy fats. It can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Doesn’t matter. Just pick three meals and replace what you’re eating with better foods. For instance, maybe your typical breakfast is pancakes with syrup or cereal with toast. Replace that with 2-3 eggs, turkey bacon and a side of sliced tomatoes. For lunch or dinner replace a burger and fries with a big salad with grilled steak or chicken on it. Small changes you can live with. No extremes. I’m betting that soon you will make more and more changes at your own pace after you see how easy this is.
We should recognize that most of us are beginners in terms of fitness programming. Advanced programs geared for intermediates and advanced lifters are a bad idea for most of us. It’s too much, too hard, and way out of proportion with regard to what a novice needs. Be wary of complex fitness programs, they are not just unnecessary; they will detract from your fitness potential. Master the fundamentals, and enjoy the payoff. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any questions. firstname.lastname@example.org