Assuming that you’re on a program right now (program here meaning a cycle that has been planned out with some forethought), how long have you been on it? I understand that this question doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone; Olympic Lifters tend to follow lifting cycles that vary in length, depending on their goals, upcoming meets, and other variables. But, for the field sport athlete or fitness enthusiasts: this question is directed to you.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve talked to different people in my local gym and asked that simple question. Usually the interaction goes something like this:
Me: “Hey <insert name>, how’s it going? How’s the program?”
Them: “Hey! It’s going well. I recently started a new cycle and it’s going great!”
Me: “But you just started that other cycle?”
Them: “Ya, but I wasn’t seeing results. This new one though…it’s going to be good. It’s endorsed by <insert athlete> and will have me doing <insert exercise, frequency, reps, chantings, incantations, and animal sacrifice>”
One of the problems with the easy access to so much information today is, as my nerd friends would put it, the “paralysis of analysis”; basically, too much data and not knowing how to interpret it. A quick Google search of “lifting program” will yield hundreds (if not more) hits. Mad Cow, Starting Strength, Texas Method, Outlaw…all of them have different ideas of how to get big or die trying. But, despite their differences, they all share one common thing: they require consistency and time.
Let’s start with a basic program like Starting Strength. For those unfamiliar with it, this program is the brainchild of lifting legend Mark Rippetoe. Its foundation is a simple 3X5 rep scheme (3 sets of 5 reps), and the idea of constantly increasing stress in manageable amounts. You squat 3 days a week, press one day, deadlift one day, bench one day, power clean (if you want), and throw in some chins or pull ups and there you have the program. When I say increasing stress, I mean that, in the squat for example, you add 5lbs every time you squat. Start at 135lbs on Monday, which becomes 140lbs on Wednesday, and 145lbs on Friday. That’s 10lbs a week, which translates to 40lbs a month. The deadlift is done once a week, with 10lb jumps. The press and bench get 5lbs a week. When the 5 and 10lb jumps become too large, you can switch to 2.5 and 5lbs (respectively). This program relies on the powerful tool of linear progression; on an untrained athlete who FOLLOWS THIS PROGRAM, the results that he or she can yield will be unprecedented. According to some coaches who have implemented this program, the average untrained athlete can see steady gains for 20 weeks. 20 weeks! Who wouldn’t want to jump on that? What’s the problem then? Simple; adding 5lbs to a squat every time is HARD, and it’s not FUN. It’s mentally taxing to struggle to complete your last set of 5 on a Wednesday, knowing that you have to do it again on Friday with a heavier weight.
I can’t count how many times I’ve walked into the gym on a Friday remembering my reps on Wednesday were hard, brutal, and just plain nasty; now I’m doing that again, but with more weight. I get set up, hoping that I’ll miss a rep so I can reset and get something lighter for awhile, only to be disappointed when I grind through my sets because I know whatever misery I felt today was nothing compared to what’s coming up next week. It’s not fun, but it gets results.
I will grant that there is always joy when starting a new program; you look at who wrote it, read the reviews of others who have done it, and feel giddiness akin to when you first saw Goldeneye on the shelf and your mom grabbed it and handed it to you. But after a little bit of playing, you start to get bored. You don’t see the results you wanted (“Its been a month! Where is that 50lbs of muscle and my 8 pack I was promised?!”). You get tired of doing the same things over and over again, while your friends are busy doing some cool new workout of the day, or some crazy program invented by a former Russian Special Forces turned lion tamer who killed a blue whale with his bare hands once.
The best words of advice I can offer are to STICK WITH A PROGRAM, and (for the love of Mike) – 10 points if anyone remembers the cartoon that’s from –DO the program. The first is self-explanatory; just stay with it and stay consistent. What does the second part mean? It DOESN’T mean that, just because there wasn’t any conditioning that day, you’re going to do some of your own. It DOESN’T mean that, while it calls for pull-ups, you do chin-ups or muscle-ups instead. I understand, sometimes substitutions must be made. BUT, the person writing the program (presumably) had a specific reason why he or she chose THAT particular exercise, or omitted conditioning, or whatever else for that day. Trust them; the reason you looked to that person is that you were relying on his or her experience and expertise to help you along. You don’t go to the doctor and get a prescription, only to do your own thing. Why do that here?
There’s a fine line between being wedded to a program and not being willing to change, and jumping from one to the next (maybe you just like it as a friend?). While I’ve occasionally run across the former, the latter is much more common. For those in that category, I challenge you to just stick with something for awhile, you might be surprised at what happens.