Less Brains, More Heart

The answer to progress-sapping struggles is what old sports coaches used to call “heart.”

As humans, we are terrible at reasoning. We feel first and rationalize later. We selectively pick the evidence we want to hear and stick to it protectively. We are excellent at thoroughly dissecting other people and systems of thought, but we often fail to see the rules which govern our own systems and behaviors. For these reasons and many others, we are also terrible at converting desire into action, but I’d like to focus on one of the biggest goal-killers facing trainees today: information overload.

Type “fitness” into Google and in .57 seconds, you will get over a billion results. Were you to click every link and scan it for just five seconds, it would take you 217 years to get through it all. The amount of available information is staggering, and this information overload can lead us to endless frustration by leading us to these three critical mistakes: analysis paralysis, program hopping, and its malicious little cousin, the “goal carousel.”

We need the courage to start on a brave new journey and the persistence to see it through. [Photo courtesy: Pixabay]

Critical Issue 1: Analysis Paralysis

In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Dr. Daniel Kahneman laid out a fascinating dilemma. Give a customer a choice between sampling three or four flavors of a product, and they may buy one. Make them pick between thirty different flavors, all at the same price, and they won’t even try. More choices and more information should lead to better decisions, not indecision.

This same thing can happen in training. Eager and motivated to get strong, we look up every possible program in support of our goal: Starting Strength, Westside, Juggernaut, RTS, 5-3-1, Sheiko, everything they can find. Each program will have its own variations and will make its case for why it’s the best approach. The beginner who commits to one will spend weeks of time and energy on that specific program and not the others, a choice that may mean years of wasted effort if one of the other programs proved to be ‘better.’ Rather than make the choice, they fade back into the comfort of the routine and are never heard from again. That’s a shame, because there is an alternative.

For the motivated wanderer: If you’re just looking to get better and don’t particularly care about your rate of progress, I recommend one of two options: find a coach you trust not to injure you, or set a deadline to start (less than a week) and commit to some program, any program, for six months.

As long as you follow these three guidelines, it’s hard to go terribly wrong:

  1. Avoid any promises of instant, easy results. “Just six minutes a day for 6-pack abs!” has always been a lie.
  2. Keep it simple.
  3. Keep it specific to the goal. Don’t start a couch-to-5K program if you’re looking to get stronger.

You might not select the program I would prescribe as your coach. It might not be the best one for your goals. Still, the novice effect (rapid gains achieved whenever a new trainee does virtually anything) guarantees that whether you’re ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ you’ll move in the right direction, and if you pay attention and learn while on your journey, you’ll be better positioned to make better choices as you grow.

For coaches and informed friends: As we learn more, we often succumb to the habit of data-dumping our knowledge onto anyone who will listen. Imagine you’re a waiter at a fancy restaurant and someone asks your opinion about what wine to drink. Would you whip out the fourteen-page-8-point-font wine menu and start listing them off one by one? Of course not. You’ll look for context, ask questions, and then give them a solid recommendation (and, usually, a second also-good option). If they had the time, knowledge, and experience to wade through the sea of options and pick the right answer outright, they wouldn’t be asking for advice.

Critical Issue 2: Program Hopping

I’ve touched a little bit on this in a previous article, but few other faults are as often responsible for repeated frustration and failure as this one. It can affect the beginner, but it’s particularly common among intermediate-level athletes in any sport.

After a year or two of training, physiological changes slow down a great deal. For strength athletes, improvements may take a week or more to manifest. For team sport and skill athletes, it can be incredibly difficult (amidst the noise of fatigue, team, and cross-skill interactions) to know whether one is actually improving or not.

This is a natural growth curve, but to someone used to seeing improvement virtually every session, it can feel like being stuck. In general, we are not comfortable with that feeling and seek to get past it as quickly as possible, so we take the path of least resistance rather than dig deep, identify our weaknesses, and wade through the muck to squeeze out what gains we can.

This can take multiple forms, the most obvious being switching programs outright. As a general rule of thumb, any time you switch a program, it will set you back one to two weeks while you learn the new exercises and adapt to the new set-rep scheme. An impatient lifter, desperately trying to break out of their plateau, may change programs every 4-6 weeks, never giving their body time to adapt to the stimulus. Deeply frustrated, they either burn out, find a different sport, or (through sheer stubbornness), keep plowing through and eventually find themselves on the other side of the tunnel.

For some, escaping program-hopping can be as simple as a change in mindset, but there are a few helpful rules of thumb. Any time you commit to a new program, stick to its major tenets for at least four months. Unless there is a painfully obvious conflict in the program, make no more than one change every two weeks. Dig into the history behind the program and the alternatives it offers for different situations. Have a backup plan: what do I do if I get sick? Injured? Travel? Any time you aren’t able to accomplish the plan, don’t try to make up for lost time by doubling-up workouts. Lost time is gone, but rushing progress is a great way to lose even more, crash, and potentially injure yourself.

The goal carousel is a more insidious form of hopping, especially for those of us in team sports or general-fitness programs like CrossFit or kettlebell lifting with numerous exercises to choose from. Stuck at a 5:00 Fran time or a 32kg kettlebell press, unable to get more results by simply adding volume or intensity (or worse, starting to see creeping injuries), a quiet whisper tempts us: “Let’s be honest, the Turkish get up is more functional anyway.”

The real answer is probably not easy: it may take more precision in diet and recovery, periodization, or improving body composition. Instead of accepting the challenge and slogging through the hard work of change, they hop on the carousel and ride it round and round. They make a few easy changes, like biasing their practice time towards their new pet exercise, and they see improvement. At least for a while. Eventually, the project will stall out as well because the real issues haven’t been addressed, and the voice will whisper again: “It must be that your core is weak. I bet a solid bent press will fix that…” Or even worse, “Sure, you’re stuck at the same weight you were three months ago… but you’re really owning that weight now.”

Round and round she goes. This is a tough one to address because it’s character we need, not information. Information is, in fact, the problem. We know the techniques for dozens of lifts and potential (mostly nonexistent or irrelevant) weaknesses, imbalances, and restrictions in need of correction, and all those options make the carousel possible. It’s fun, cheap, and easy and becomes never-ending cycle of PRs and novelty. It takes grit, purpose, determination, and humility to acknowledge our failings and refuse to give up until we’ve improved at that thing we’re stuck at.

In the end, I can suggest a few rules of thumb that have worked for me, my trainees, and other successful coaches, but the answer to all of these progress-sapping struggles isn’t greater information, but what old sports coaches used to call “heart.” We need the courage to start on a brave new journey and the persistence to see it through.

More on learning what works for you:

Embrace Individuality: Find Your Best Lifting Technique

Coaches, guide your athletes:

The Lost Art of Handwritten Programming

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