5 Questions to Ask When You're Not Making Progress
Lack of progress is a huge issue for nearly everyone in the health and fitness arena. We often forget that performance and physique changes do not happen in a linear fashion - there are peaks, valleys, steps forward, steps backward, etc. But nevertheless, it’s frustrating to feel like you’re “doing everything right” and not seeing results. I really hate to break it to you, but you may not actually be “doing everything right”. And THAT’S OKAY. It’s unrealistic to expect perfection in all areas of life at the same time - that’s just not how the world works. Super stressed out and not getting enough sleep? Maybe the answer is to try to reduce stress where you can (and that can mean GASP not working out) and focusing on good nutrition. Have medical issues or other issues that make it hard to work out or feel good? The answer could be just focusing on doing what you can, when you can and being consistent with that. Bottom line: It's not helpful to beat yourself up about not having everything be perfect. But what can be helpful is asking yourself what you can change or what you can be doing better (not perfect) to help make progress on your goals. Identifying areas that may be lacking and coming up with a solution requires two things: honesty with yourself and asking yourself some reflective questions. With that in mind, here are the questions I think are helpful in the "identification" part of this process:
1. Are you consistent? We often fall into the trap of all or nothing mentality. We are either “on” the wagon or “off” the wagon; we are either at the gym 6x a week (p.s. you probably don’t need to be there that often) and if we can’t be, then we might as well not go at all. Essentially, perfection becomes the enemy good. Rather than focusing on being perfect, be consistent. Being the person who is in the gym regularly is going to get you further than being the person who goes go the gym 6x a week for two weeks and then doesn’t come in for 3 weeks.
2. Do you stick with it? If you’re the person who switches programming or diets every 3 weeks because you’re not getting results, it’s going to be very tough to make any real progress. A week or two isn’t enough time to see any significant change, period. Stick with it and give it an honest try - if after 6 weeks (or the length of your program) it isn’t working for you, make a change. Look at your experience and learn from it. *Note: following an actual, intelligently designed program that is suitable for your goals is also a big component of making progress - if you’re not doing that...change that.*
3. Did you actually DO the program? Ask yourself if you were actually compliant - if you program says 5x5 back squats at 75% for 6 weeks and you decided to do 8x3 at 85% for 6 weeks instead, you didn’t do the program. If you are trying out a new diet protocol and you decide to change it up completely, you didn’t do the program. Maybe that means that program wasn’t for you. But if you don’t do the program, you can’t really blame the program for lack of progress. Stick with it, be honest with yourself, and then make an evaluation. Keep what works, throw out what doesn’t work.
[Here is a video of me deadlifting for the first time since my SI joint injury. Is it heavy? No. It is close to my max? No. BUT it's progress for me, right now.]
4. Consider other factors: This is kind of a nerdy analogy but stick with me. In most social sciences, we examine the relationships between x (the independent variable, or in our case, the “program”) & y (the dependent variable, or in our case, the “outcome”). Few things are as simple as saying THIS caused THAT (or x caused y). For example, I can say that an increase in ice cream consumption (x) is related to an increase in outdoor running (y). The implication could be that consuming ice cream causes more outdoor running. Not only is this a ridiculous statement, but it’s a false statement for a number of reasons. 1.: correlation is not causation - just because two things are related doesn’t mean one caused the other. 2.: I’m missing a critical component that explains the relationship since I'm not getting the whole story - that other factor is the season. Both ice cream consumption and outdoor running increase during the summer. Without summer, these things probably aren’t related. The season, summer, is then our other variable that helps explain the relationship.
Now that I’ve thoroughly nerded out, let’s apply this to a training or diet scenario. If you followed your program, did your squats, ate your veggies and protein, and still didn’t get the outcome you wanted - you might need to look at those "other" factors. Are you sleeping enough? How stressed out are you? Do you drink enough water? Do you take enough rest and recovery time? All of these factors can explain the relationship between program (x) and lack of results (y). If you’re training hard, eating well, but are a giant ball of stress, don’t take rest days, and only sleep 4 hours a night - you probably aren’t going to reach your physique or training goals until you address those factors.
5. Do you believe in yourself? Having big goals is good. Your goals should scare you a bit and seem hard - because they are. I want to squat 300#+. I want to go to Nationals. I want to do WELL at Nationals. I’m confident I can do all of those things. It is going to take a long time and an insane amount of difficult work, but I can do it because there really isn’t a reason why I CAN'T. Even if I never actually squat 300#, I’m going to get a hell of a lot further aiming for 300# than aiming for 225#. Why put a limitation on a goal? Sure, it can be scary to think of what happens if we don't reach our goals or if we "fail" but, if I reach for that 300# squat, never attain it, but squat 275#, is that a bad thing? Yes, I "failed" to reach my goal but it's more than likely that I learned a whole lot along the way and I got much further than I would had if I had let the fear of failure put limitations on what I wanted to achieve. I don’t think it’s necessary to be unrealistic about your goals but you should believe in your own ability to accomplish big things.
Again, I think one of the biggest components of identifying what is hindering progress is self-honesty. It's easy for us to say that we had a crappy deadlifting session because we didn't sleep much the night before or that our benching session was amazing because we had carbed up the night before. It's harder to extend this type of thinking to habits and behaviors that we engage in over and over again.
What do you all feel is the biggest hurdle that is holding you back from the progress you want?