Creating a Great Workout Program: Consistency and Simplicity

The best workout program is the one you will actually follow. Sounds simple enough, right?

Spending time putting the “perfect” program together, with exact sets, reps, rest times, progressions, and so on, is great in theory, but how applicable is it to real life? Miss a workout and you have to start all over again?

You should always enter the gym with the mindset to put in hard work. But you should never chase perfection, because you will just wind up frustrated. Instead, find out what works for you, and do your best to maintain both simplicity and consistency with your training (and especially your diet).

When I asked Andy O’Brien what set Sidney Crosby apart from his other athlete clients, he didn’t immediately point to Crosby’s speed, power, strength, or stamina. It was his consistency.

In 12 year of working with him, he’s never missed a workout, and he’s never given anything less than his best effort.  He has a remarkable way of bringing his “A” game on a daily basis, which requires tremendous focus, determination, and mental toughness.  He’s extremely bright and very serious about his performance.

Simplicity 

Obviously elite athletes will require some complexity in their programs. The fitter and closer to the top you get in a given athletic endeavour, the harder it becomes to achieve even incremental improvements. But the significant majority of the population doesn’t need the most complex or detailed workout program in the world. More often than not, the best results come from sticking to a set of guidelines for at least a few months (not minutes or hours or days).

If, for example, you are a busy person with an unpredictable schedule, don’t have your workouts scheduled for the same time each day. And don’t worry if you get to the gym and the exact weight or piece of equipment you needed is in use. Learn to adapt and make the best of any situation. Simplicity lends itself well to this. If you go to the gym knowing that today is a leg day with four specific exercises, you may get frustrated if you can’t get immediate access to any or all of the equipment you need. But if you have some alternative exercises planned, or better yet have more of a global focus, frustration won’t follow as easily.The squat rack is busy? Do some lunges or step-ups instead. This is called “planning.”

A great squat alternative

The Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, is a great one to follow for both fitness and nutrition. Eat well 80% of the time, and the rest takes care of itself. Dial in 80% of your workout program, and enjoy the other 20% – have a day set aside to have some fun in the gym, try new exercises, or get outside and do a workout at the park or something. Finding balance isn’t just important, it is essential to any long-term fitness success. You simply can’t train 100% all the time – overtraining (which is a swear word in the fitness industry as far as I’m concerned) leads to mental and physical burnout, injury, hormonal imbalance, and a bunch of other bad stuff.

From Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness:

Simplicity is important because it’s so easy to overcomplicate things, and suffer paralysis by analysis.  Being honest, the best workout is the workout that you actually follow consistently.  On top of that, workouts that are super simple can often be the most effective.  You can work out your entire body with three movements: squat, overhead press, and pull ups.  Not glamorous, but incredibly powerful, easy, and effective.  Keep it simple!

Consistency 

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Body composition improvements don’t come overnight. The guy who sticks to a decent program for three months will see much better results than the guy who trains inconsistently for three months while following a world-class program designed for him by the best strength coach on the planet.

Creating consistency isn’t easy. Thankfully, there is a lot of great reading material out there on it. I’d highly recommend this post from Chris Shugart (the 21 day challenge). The Power of Habit is also a really good read.

A good baseball analogy on the power of consistency:

Cal Ripken is one of only 27 players in Major League Baseball history with 3,000 hits. It’s a tremendous accomplishment that, unless your name is Pete Rose, guarantees you enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

But Ripken wasn’t one of the best pure hitters baseball has ever seen. He has the lowest career batting average (.276) of any of the 3000-hitters. He even overhauled his batting stance in the middle of his career.

One thing he did do better than anyone in history, though, was show up and bust his ass. As a result, his consecutive games played record will likely never be touched.

This means learning to train around injuries (while actively working to recover, of course). This means learning to train when you may not feel 100%. Tired, sick, whatever.

How to keep things simple

If you want to add strength and/or size? Focus on the compound lifts first – squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, pushups, and so on. Don’t worry about the accessory lifts (bicep curls, lateral raises) unless you have the time and desire to add them on.

If your goal is to get faster, work on speed and power exercises. This ties in to what I have been saying throughout this series – figure out your goal FIRST, and work back from there. Long-term goal setting is a requirement for any fitness program if you want to ensure accountability to yourself (and perhaps a coach or training partner). Goals can be general – “I want to get faster/bigger/leaner” – but typically they are more effective the more specific they are.

Some more tips for simplicity:

Have a “deload” or “recovery” week every four weeks

Progress from week 1 to week 2, andweek 2 to week 3 (more weight, less rest time, more volume – again, depending on your goal and what works best for your schedule), and then dial things back for week 4

And then start a new four week cycle after. A quick example to illustrate this point. Let’s say you squat 150 pounds for 5 reps and 3 sets for week 1. Maybe you add a fourth set for week 2, and a a fifth set for week 3. Then in week 4, you drop it back to one or two sets. And when the next cycle starts, you bump your weight up to 160 or 170 pounds.

Focus on a few lifts you want to get better at

I’d recommend pushups, squats, deadlifts, and pullups. Focus on getting better at these four lifts, and you will make gains. Pretty straight forward.

Avoid information overload 

Don’t try to combine programs. Don’t get bogged down in the details. Pick a program designed by a reputable coach, and stick to it. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 is a fantastic program for size and strength gains. And it’s really simple to follow.

“Can I still do core seven days a week while on a restrictive diet and while trying to improve my strength and power?” This is an example of a ridiculous goal. Pick one thing and follow it.

How to keep things consistent

Consistency is a skill. And, just like any skill, it needs to be practised regularly. You won’t “become consistent” in a day or two. Start small, and work your way towards a bigger goal. You aren’t going to build a killer physique by eating clean, sleeping eight hours a night, and working out really hard in the gym in just two weeks. But if you do that over 52 weeks… you will. There are no quick fixes in fitness. People don’t want to hear that (which is why the supplement industry rakes in the $$$ every year), but it is the truth.

You get out what you put in. Master the important lifts. Figure out your goals, your ideal eating strategy, and a way to minimize stress in your life. Chasing perfection is a fruitless endeavour. But chasing consistency isn’t. And that is best accomplished by adhering to the simplicity principle with your training, diet, and general approach to integrating fitness into your life.

More consistency tips

  • Schedule your gym sessions for the same time (easier to turn into a routine/habit this way)
  • Always have a Plan B – don’t get locked in to a specific exercise or routine, especially if you train at a busy gym
  • Think incremental – even if you are tired or a bit under the weather, you will benefit from training. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but give your best effort under whatever circumstances you are facing on that day
  • Get a coach or training partner – it is a lot harder to cancel on someone else than it is to cancel on yourself (increased accountability)
  • Track your progress – take pictures for body composition changes (more effective than using the scale), and keep track of your workouts
  • Have a cheat day every week or two – if you are out of shape, this isn’t necessary, but it is a nice reward or mental break from a week of good eating and training

Creating a Great Workout Program