(This article originally appeared in the October 9, 2012 issue of The StrongFast Planet newsletter.)
Lots of people go to the gym. Lots of people have exercise equipment at home. Lots of people buy fitness videos, books, clothes, and junk. Lots of people don't get any fitter.
Why do some people have success with a fitness or nutrition program while others don't? While there are several possible factors, there is one "secret" that every success story shares:
The best training program in the world won't deliver results if you're only applying it a couple times a month. Your body needs time and good reason to make the kinds of changes that lead to fitness, like increased muscle, improved energy systems, and fat reduction. When the body is physically stressed, it will attempt to compensate to reduce future stress. For example, lifting heavy weights leads to increased size of muscle fibre providing increased strength so that lifting those same heavy weights won't be so stressful in the future.
Similarly, running at a challenging pace leads to increased mitochondria development so running that same pace won't be so stressful in the future. But if you only lift the heavy weight or run the fast pace once in a while, the body doesn't put many resources into adapting. Why bother? It's kind of like having a shoelace break once in a while. It's not that big a deal; just replace it and move on. But if your shoelace started breaking three times a week, there would be much more urgency to find a longer-term solution. (Loafers?)
But "consistency" here also means long-term. If you train "consistently" for a week or two and then stop, any changes your body made will eventually be lost as the body adapts to reduced stress. Sad, but true, as anyone who is not currently in the best shape of their lives knows. And yet this is a typical gym-goer's pattern: go regularly for a few weeks, then taper off and stop. All you gym rats know this since every January, like clockwork (or calendar-work), the place gets packed but by the end of the month it's pretty much back to normal. Of course, the gyms count on this. If all their members actually showed up consistently, they'd need more space!
One other aspect of consistent training that is often overlooked is the need to increase the demand placed on the body. As noted, the body adapts to the stress it is given, but only to that amount of stress. Strength coach Mark Rippetoe uses the example of tanning. If you tan for 30 minutes a day, every day, what color will your skin be at the end of the month?
"If you ask a hundred people this question, ninety-five will tell you that it will be really, really dark, but fact is it will be exactly the same color it was at the end of the first week. Why would it be any darker? Your skin adapts to the stress of the sun exposure by becoming dark enough to prevent itself from burning again. That's the only reason it gets dark, and it adapts exactly and specifically to the stress that burned it."
So if you bench press 100 pounds for 10 reps three times a week, every week, you will get really good at bench pressing 100 pounds for 10 reps. But you will not keep getting stronger; your body will only get as strong as it needs to be to handle this stress. To keep improving, you need to make it more stressful by adding weight, adding reps, changing the tempo, or making some other change that requires your body to adapt. The same is true for running (or walking) which you can make harder by going faster or farther or by carrying a sack of cats. This is known as "progressive overload" and is important enough to get its own article in a future edition. But the point is still that consistent training is required to produce results.
So what is the fitness-conscious reader to do? Well, if you're the self-motivated type, you can join a gym or get equipment at home and train consistently on your own. Lots of people do this (although usually not well: see the bench-pressing example above at any gym on any Monday). If you're like most people, though, it will take more. First, you should commit to a minimum of three months with whatever program you choose. If it's not worth doing for three months, it's probably not worth doing at all. Second, make sure your program is taking you on a path you can continue long-term, as in the rest of your life. That doesn't mean you have to keep training harder--or even as hard--forever. (That's not even physically possible.) While progressive overload is needed to progress, maintenance is much easier. It still requires consistency, but with less intensity and frequency.
This is why StrongFast Fitness uses scheduled training for its members, including both sessions with a trainer (like me!) and independent activity (at a gym or at home) rather than a drop-in model where people show up whenever they want. For most people, that's not a model that leads to consistency.
Oh, and it goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that consistency is equally applicable to diet. But of course you knew that.
So there you have it: The Big Secret of fitness success. Ssshhhh! Don't tell anyone! Or better yet, tell everyone you heard it here.
Be seeing you.