As a fitness professional, it is implied that I like working out. It’s true, I like seeing what my body is capable of; I am also a human being with a lot of self discipline, a type A personality, and a tendency to fall into an unvaried routine. For years, I spent time working on motor control exercises that were challenging for me and strength and mobility exercises I could do fairly well. While I constantly learned and challenged myself to explore small movements and improve my body awareness, I wasn’t exactly excelling at developing a long term plan that enabled me to gain strength and mobility. I stayed strong and fit, but only as strong and fit as I was last month, with maybe a bit more body awareness. I wasn’t really moving forward.
We all have habits in movement, in food, and in emotional responses. My habits revolve around fixating on minutiae and figuring out ways to change a person’s experience. It works really well for what I do—I have a knack at seeing patterns in people’s movements that are creating a lack of freedom or not allowing the person to move in a way that feels strong. I’m able to hone in on ways to create better strength, mobility, and coordination. I get upset with myself if I miss something in a person’s movement patterns that could change their experience, reduce pain, or increase their strength; the solution, then, is to not miss anything.
My Stagnant Self-Programming
These tendencies don’t translate into strengths when it comes to self-programming. My strong dislike of failure is largely why I used to create workouts for myself that were controlled and the risk of failure was low. If I began working towards a goal that was going to take many months, I would abandon it for something a little bit easier. I enjoyed success; not succeeding, not so much.
Eventually, I realized I was stagnant and a little bit unenthused with the programming I had created for myself. While I felt strong and fairly mobile, I felt like I wasn’t tapping into higher levels of fitness. After working through several online programs and going through an apprenticeship that involved online coaching and feedback, I realized that in order to get out of my box, I needed to put my programming in someone else’s hands. I liked what I liked, and I was pretty sure the likelihood I would continue to work on what I liked (and variations there of), without dealing with the things I didn’t like was very high.
Moving Forward with a Coach
The only way to get stronger and more flexible is to work in ways that are uncomfortable, consistently and with variation. Programming is actually fairly simple; it’s following the program that’s laid out that is hard. When I was writing my own programs, it was easy to tinker and go completely off course in favor of an exploratory tangent, or ditch what I planned all together in order to do handstands, a little bit of mobility work, and lots of my favorite groundwork.
As soon as I began paying someone to write my workouts, my brain relaxed. Because I wasn’t constantly analyzing and thinking about what I should do while reverting back to what I could do, I found myself enjoying my workouts more, along with the increased strength that accompanies progressive overload. It turns out, picking up heavy things consistently and in different ways is much more effective for getting stronger than picking up heavy things the same way, over and over. Just because I know how things work doesn’t always mean I am good at implementing the principles on myself.
I just finished a two week cycle that involved pistol squats, crawling variations, arm balances, push ups, heavy(ish) deadlifts, and a really awful kettlebell swing ladder that I never would have written for myself because it’s anaerobically uncomfortable. There were jump variations (not a strength of mine), and hanging and pulling variations that, while challenging, forced me to work outside of my comfort zone. There was also one day of handstand training instead of the five days of handstand training I was doing and, wouldn’t you know, the wrist that was feeling a little tired four months ago feels amazing.
Movement fascinates me. I love going to workshops and learning different ways to explore strength and mobility. I also love playing with the concepts I learn and figuring out how to apply them to help my clients move in a freer way. I understand the importance of the basics and make sure my clients engage in progressive, consistent strength based work, but I lack the patience to apply these same concepts to myself.
The Role of Online Programming
We live in an amazing era where you can get world class programming online. There are so many incredible programs that, if you pay for and follow them, will improve whatever it is that you are looking to improve. You want to improve you deadlift strength? Great! Follow this six week program. You want to improve your hip flexibility? There is an eight week program for that, too, as well as for handstand training, back squats, front splits—you get the idea.
For online programming to be successful it requires doing the work and not second-guessing the program. It also requires having decent body awareness. Taking it a step further and paying for individualized coaching in a system that resonates with you is far more affordable than in-person training and enables you to address specific needs. However, there is no one there cheering you on, and the only person that can truly push you is yourself. Before I hired my coach, I went through a four month bodyweight programming that was reminiscent of training for a ½ marathon—I trained, alone, with no one but myself to measure my progress. Fortunately, the program was extremely well laid out and worked. I saw enough improvement to reward my dopamine centers and keep me moving forward but, by the end of it, I felt depleted. Unlike a race, where the end result is the race itself, which takes places with other people and allows you to celebrate your achievement, the end result was simply completing the program.
The Trainer’s Private Struggle
Maybe this is why many fitness professionals struggle with maintaining varied, progressive programs: our struggle is ours alone. Unless we are working out with others or create a tribe of some sort to cheer each other on, most of us squeeze it in before or between clients, motivating ourselves, by ourselves. We don’t often give the same thought to our own workouts as we do to our clients, or we get stuck in ruts because it’s easier than thinking about our programs in a more objective way. When your role is to provide others with the guidance and enthusiasm to move forward, it’s hard to muster that same energy when it comes to yourself.
I wonder if more trainers and strength coaches were willing to pay for the same service they provide if there would be less burnout, issues of chronic pain, and overall apathy towards their own fitness? I will probably never know, but I do know this: hiring a coach was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time.