Few things can be more frustrating than putting in hours upon hours, week after week, of hard work and not seeing it payoff. You’ve made the commitment to improve your health, you’ve set measurable goals that you want to achieve, you’ve invested the time and money. So why aren’t you where you want to be? Well, before we go any further we need to understand and set proper expectations – which we will do here today – and potential roadblocks – which we will do in Part 2 of this discussion.
Let’s talk about expectations. Be honest with yourself, are yours unrealistic? Most anything is possible to achieve if given the appropriate amount of time and focus to do so. Where most people set unrealistic expectations is not in the destination, but rather the time expected to reach the goal. In other words, yes, absolutely set your bar as high as you want! However, if you’ve been inactive for the past 15 years, don’t expect to look like a fitness model in only a few months. Fitness models and athletes have dedicated their lives to physical performance; it didn’t happen overnight.
Over-promise & under-deliver
On behalf of the entire fitness industry, I’ll shoulder a big part of the blame for setting false expectations. Look at any Muscle & Fiction magazine at the grocery store and you’ll commonly see the cover page pasted with headlines which proclaim “Get a 6-pack FAST!” or “The FAST way to toned arms and butt!” Turn to the internet and it gets worse: “One weird trick to get a flat stomach FAST!” Why does everything have to happen so fast? The answer is because we’re a nation obsessed with instant gratification, but that’s a diatribe for another blog.
Walk into most big-box gyms, talk to an under-qualified trainer, paid on sales commision, who is all too quick to promise you anything under the sun if you’ll sign up for his services. “Oh you want to lose 35 pounds and drop 15% body fat by your vacation in 2 months? No problem!” Those types of expectations are almost entirely unrealistic, and even if it is possible, it’s certainly not healthy nor sustainable. Where has our integrity gone? If I was a financial advisor, and I said you could reach the upper echelons of wealth in only a few months time, you would see through my facade instantly. Then why are we so quick to buy into the bullshit being peddled to us that promise the upper echelons of health on the same time scale?
The answer: Partly because it’s confusing and partly because we don’t want to do the work. Let’s address the latter part of that statement first, and then I promise to help you with the former.
We don’t want to do the work
Physical results, i.e. changes to your body, are bred through intensity and habit. You have to work hard and you have to work consistently. You are the only one who can make your body do work; it’s not a task that can be outsourced. Intensity means you have to work at a level that is outside your comfort zone… it is uncomfortable (not painful), at a level of stimulus high enough to invoke change. And the change has to be habitual. You can’t do one workout and be fit, neither can you skip one workout and be unfit. You are a compounded effect from the daily decisions you most often make. This should be comforting in knowing you do not have to be perfect to see results, nor do you need to feel guilty for occasionally taking it easy in a work out or eating whatever you please. But if you frequently don’t push yourself in training and eat crap, then yeah, those times that you do work hard and eat well, probably won’t matter.
This is all very confusing
You’re right, multiple sources of misinformation have made this entire process seem overly-complicated. Please allow me to do my best to properly set your expectations through simplification and clarification. For this model, we will assume you are a beginner, either totally new to exercise or haven’t had a consistent routine in over 5 years. We will also assume you are training with enough intensity and consistency to see results.
Weeks 1 – 3: Increased strength & coordination.
I can get almost anyone significantly stronger in just 3 weeks time. These “newbie gains” are largely due to improved intramuscular efficiencies and motor unit recruitment. Almost no actual muscle is gained and virtually no tangible amount of fat is lost. This phase is your body waking up and learning/remembering how to perform work. Don’t expect to lose any weight, if anything, you may gain a few pounds as your hydration improves due to your muscle cells drawing in and storing more water in order to improve function. Your mood will probably elevate as your release exercise-induced endorphins. You may even experience elevated energy throughout the day, but this is largely a perceived effect, as not enough time has truly passed to alter your metabolism.
Weeks 3 – 9: Improved endurance and work capacity.
You will be able to do more and do things for longer before you fatigue. This improved performance is largely due to a better utilization of oxygen, allowing you to use stored energy more efficiently. Provided you have some consistency and structure in your training, you should continue to see strength gains as well.
Weeks 9 – 12: Changes in outward expression.
Provided your training, nutrition, and hormones are in alignment, you should start to see noticeable changes to the appearance of the shape of your body at this point. Some of these metrics are quantifiable: Body fat percentage or circumference inches gained/lost. Others are more subjective like how your clothes fit and feel, and most subjective… how you think you look. To make these subjective assessments more tangible, I recommend keeping a fitness journal and taking progress pictures. I’ll suggest specific strategies for both of these in just a bit.
Choosing & tracking the right metrics from the start
Weeks 12+: Quantifiable metrics than can be consistently tracked.
Any number of metrics can be tracked by you and your trainer/coach, with the one most commonly tracked, usually being the least relevant: Weight. Your body weight is only relevant in how it relates to other metrics, your specific goals, and potential insights gained. For example, if your goal is appearance and health-based – “Look good in a swimsuit and have more energy” being a common goal pairing – and if by this time you look and feel better, then what the hell does it matter what your weight is? Your body weight is simply the effect of Earth’s gravitational force on your body’s specific mass. 99 times out of 100 if someone says “I want to lose weight” what they really mean is “I want to lose fat.” The only time weight should truly matter is if your are competing in a sport with weight classes.
Therefore, the metrics that are tracked should be in direct alignment with the goals chosen. If you want to get stronger, track how much weight you can lift. If you want to lose fat, track how your body fat % is changing. If you want to reduce pain and increase energy, keep a fitness journal. Once you have chosen what metrics to track, be consistent and reliable with your tracking. I suggest once per month, as greater frequency will only reveal smaller increments and more volatility. Try to measure at the same time of day each time, under the same conditions, to reduce potential variables as much as possible.
No matter your goal, I recommend most everyone keep a fitness journal. A journal is a great way to not only track metrics, but to record your training routines, food logs, and intangible items. This can be as simple as recording energy levels or pains on a scale of 1 – 10. In my journal I record the movement I performed (the exercise), how much weight I lifted (the performance), and any additional comments which may have affected the performance (the commentary) such as “dehydrated and only slept 5 hours” or “felt really locked in and focused!”
A note on progress pictures
Most all of us want to look like the best versions of ourselves. Our health is important, but we’d be lying if we said the majority of the fitness industry isn’t driven by goals which seek to improve one’s appearance. And that’s okay. The way you feel about your own outward appearance is closely tied to your self-confidence and happiness. I want you to be happy, I don’t want you to needlessly frustrate yourself.
The body changes gradually. Gradually and with great variation. As with tracking other metrics, we need to find a solution that allows us enough time to really see and understand results and reduces anomalies. Take pictures in a swimsuit with as much consistency as possible…. same camera, same distance from the camera, same lighting, same person taking the picture. Take them one month apart to allow enough time to notice changes. Putting progress pictures side-by-side produces what I call the “distant relative effect.” This is what happens when you’ve been training for while, and go home for Thanksgiving and see an Aunt or cousin you haven’t seen for a while who proclaims how amazing you look and wants to know what your ‘secret’ is! Since you see yourself in the mirror everyday, it is not your best gauge for change. Side-by-side pictures taken a month apart allows you to notice the changes others are noticing in you.
We’ll continue this discussion in Part 2, when we talk about roadblocks that could be standing between you and your goals. Until then, be honest with yourself, track the things that matter for your goals, and seek to understand and enjoy the process!
About the Author: Lance is Austin Simply Fit’s Chief Growth Officer . Having himself been previously weak, fat, and injured, he is motivated to help you reach your optimal health. Lance currently trains as a competitive powerlifter. Click here to read more about Lance