Or, Tips for Slackers on Keeping Up a Life-long Strength Training Program.
In the exercise world, let's say there are tortoises and there are hares.
The hares get insanely excited when they take up exercise, and they attack their challenging workouts with vigor and ambition. They enter races and break personal records and lift heavy weights and aspire to great things!
Hares have high expectations and they work their (harey) butts off to achieve their goals... for a while. But sadly, many burn out or injure themselves within a few years. And after that? Well, exercise becomes something they "used to do."
The tortoises, on the other hand, are pleased with themselves for getting out the door and accomplishing anything at all. Even if it's a walk in the park or a few bent knee push-ups.
Yet these unambitious tortoises often keep exercising for year after year--ensuring themselves lifelong fitness, even if they may never break any records.
(Of course this is a dumb analogy, because there are couch spuds who never attempt anything at all, and there are tons of folks (the horsies?) who can sprint like the wind but also keep at it year after year. Many horsey-type overachievers actually read this blog, though God knows why. Anyway, it's easier to pretend there are just two kinds of people. Fables and blog posts work much better that way.)
It's my belief that over the long haul, it's better to be a tortoise than a hare. Those of you who came out as a Dan Dogged in Merry's exercise quiz may well agree with me.
I am particularly plodding and unambitious when it comes to strength training. I don't like it. I never have. I never will. But I know it's good for me, and I love the way I look and feel when I do it.
After a couple of false starts in my twenties, strength training finally stuck. It's been somewhere between 15 and 20 years now that I've been doing it, whining and bitching the entire time.
How could a Crabby Tortoise like me manage to keep it up for almost two decades?
(Thanks, TK for the image!)
Here are the things that have worked for me. Your mileage may vary, especially if you are not by nature a Tortoise:
1. Set laughably attainable goals.
After an initial year or so of respectable strength gains and even a bit of buffedness, I shifted my goal to this: attempt to maintain that level of strength every year until I croak. Now my fantasies (at least the ones I can print) may involve continued strength gains and looking like a female action hero from a Hollywood movie, but my goal is to just hang on to what I accomplished that first year.
Some things I actually do better now than I did then, but this is a bonus, not an expectation.
2. Aim for strength training three times a week--but admit that never happens and settle for two.
Or sometimes one. Or sometimes zero.
I don't freak out if vacations or injuries or a hectic schedule prevent me from staying on track for a few weeks. I just make myself drag my ass back to those weights. However, I do ratchet all the weights back a notch or two and work my way back slowly. Impatience, I've learned, just means hurting myself all over again.
Twice a week really does seem to be enough to hang on to the strength I have. For every layoff, there's usually an equal period of renewed dedication and thrice weekly sessions. Eventually, I always get back to baseline.
3. Avoid exercises I hate.
Sometimes, due to injury or lousy gym equipment options, I will have to incorporate an especially loathed exercise into my routine for a few months. Even if it's just one thing ("wall sits" are an example) I will start dreading my entire workout and start skipping out.
I've discovered that for me, it's better to quit doing one exercise than all of them. Eventually, I'll find a substitute. There is almost no yucky exercise that does not have a less yucky alternative, it just sometimes takes a while to find it.
4. Stick to One Set
I read some research a long time ago (which may be the study cited here) that said 3 sets doesn't help you much more than one does. Instead of adding more sets, just keep lifting heavier weights for better results.
Is it still true or has other research contradicted it? Guess what? I don't f*cking care! Three sets would make me three times as miserable working out. I have achieved the optimum level of miserableness already, thank you. Any more and I'd stop working out entirely.
There is one exception to the One Set rule however...
5. Have One "Fun" Goal
Since I mainly work on a maintenance program, I can get discouraged when I notice that I'm not ever actually getting better at anything. So sometimes I pick one or two things and put in some extra effort and make some progress! It's quite motivating. This may mean additional sets, though I usually then do a different variation of the exercise rather than the same damn thing over and over again.
Note: if I ever achieve an unassisted pull-up, I will certainly let you know.
6. Try new things... or not.
Variety is good, and I like to experiment with things I read about in magazines or on people's blogs. Particularly if they sound easy, or replace something I don't much like, or claim to prevent some injury I'm prone too.
On the other hand, I have certain exercises I almost like. Should I be trying different versions of them? Probably mixing it up would get me better results. But if I keep wanting to come back to my favorite way of doing it, then screw variety. I'd rather keep doing my favorite and hate my workout less.
What about you? Are you a tortoise or a hare or a spud or a horsie? What keeps you going year after year?