Self motivation and discipline are two prerequisites to succeed in any sort of training plan. I don’t care what you’re working towards; a handstand, a 5k, a heavy squat, a marathon, a dance recital, an exam, a lab project, grad school, a family, whatever it is, you need to have discipline and motivation. You can count on things like ‘group’ effect to help encourage you, but this is not the same thing as self motivating or self discipline. This post isn’t going to dive into the mental strategies of developing these skills because they are self taught characteristics that people take on when they feel like it’s time to get their ass into gear.
However, if you’ve already tackled my two prerequisites, than I want to help you get to the next level sooner, faster, and without injury. For this reason I’ve listed 10 of the biggest areas you need to pay attention to in order to continue pursuing excellence in health and fitness. Remember- a strong body is a strong mind, and a strong mind leads to a better life. My hope is to make you more rugged one step at a time!
Step 1- Assess yourself.
Want to get better? Great, it starts with forgetting what you know and figuring out where you are. I mean really doing a full front to back, side to side, inside out and outside in assessment of where you’re at day to day. Posture matters, especially if you’re going to start training. If you’re coming to work with me I’m going to run you through the gauntlet of movement assessment screens to figure out how every joint works and how your muscles understand how to function. I’ll watch your breath, look at your feet and ankles, not to mention every other joint in your body. As a manual therapist and a personal trainer I’m leaving zero stones unturned when getting you on track for improved health, fitness, and life. We do this first because my primary objective is to improve your performance without injury and causing inflammatory responses in your body. Once we have a base, we can figure out where and how to get to the next place. Once you have a sense of where you’re at then we can move onto the fun stuff in step 2.
Step 2- Learn to move efficiently with your body.
This is the second area to hone in on because it is by far one of the most important. It sets you up for a successful, healthy, and injury free journey in your life of physical training. Did you know most injuries happen outside of contact sports while you’re out doing your day to day routine? When learning to move correctly I find one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is finding a coach to help you move better. Not all trainers are equal in their expertise, nor do fitness classes truly address your unique anatomy, so what are you to do? You’ll want to find a trainer with experience and who can explain the details of your body to you. Since we all bring different postures, compensations, and over worked / underworked muscles to the picture, no two athletes can be trained identically. Mary is going to be cued much differently to feel her glutes than Sally, and it could be because of pelvic positioning, or ankle positioning. Because of this, efficient movement will mean something different for every person in the gym. You have got to work with educated trainers who understand deep anatomy and how to get your body working most optimally. Once you begin to feel what it means to move efficiently versus inefficiently you can progress onto step 3.
Step 3- Understanding self-care and the type of tissue work you need.
Most people lack elasticity in their tissue, therefor have a tough time understanding how to develop pliability in their connective tissues (muscles, ligaments, tendons). The other side of the coin is other people are extremely lax in their tissue, as in unstable. Hyperflexibility is the cause of instability within the frame of the body. There could be a hundred reasons for either of these examples, but for now we’ll worry about muscles being locked long or short, thus inhibiting joint control and true strength potential. I get my locked short athletes (think inflexible) and get them foam rolling, lacrosse balling, and doing anything else to soften their tissues. Typically people struggle with very basic stretches because of so much held tension in the body. Whereas my super bendy athletes (think overly flexible, collapsing into joints) need to harness a better sense of core control and muscular engagement. They typically lack the ability to draw muscle fibers in, and are really good at splaying into their joints. However, both groups of people need different approaches towards fine tuning their tissue mechanics. Neither will be able to produce force to their full potential, nor perform more advanced gymnastic or isometric skills until these are addressed. I call this ‘understanding self-care’ because the change happens outside of the gym walls. The person training needs to work on this daily if true change is intended to happen. Work with your trainer, but again get a sense of their credentials before adopting a daily body maintenance routine.
Step 4- Condition your breathing.
Learn to keep your parasympathetic nervous system active more often than not. What’s that? It’s deep breathing that help keeps organ functioning and bodily circulation enact. You have a sympathetic nervous system, which is also called ‘fight or flight’ mode, when chest breathing takes over and all of a sudden efficiency rate plummets 50%. In today’s world we live in the fight or flight mode, constantly sizing people up, worrying about nothing, and overthinking everything. It builds anxiety and tension in the mind and the body. This leads to ineffective breathing patterns that trickle into your training regimen. When I say condition your breathing, I mean keep things calm, cool, and collected. I don’t mean just ‘go as hard as you can all the time to condition your lungs’. I actually mean condition your diaphragm to function while keeping the chest and neck muscles from over working. Practicing this will make your endurance and stamina much higher when performing basic aerobic work (as well as anaerobic exercise)! Obviously sometimes you push harder and breath heavier, but if we can make the parasympathetic nervous system active about 70% of the time and sympathetic have its’ part the other 30% we will see an increased speed in recovery, improved rate of movement efficiency, and a decreased likelihood of injury when working out. Conditioning your breath will take you to the next level.
Step 5- Build and maintain muscle mass AND joint mobility.
If you’re getting stronger and losing range of motion in joints I’ve got news for you, you’re getting weaker. Some muscle heads are going to write me off reading this, but speaking from the point of view of full body conditioning and building, it’s the truth. Now if you’re a specialist athlete and don’t give a damn about full range of motion in your joints and only a bout a singular focus, by all means disregard this step. But if you’re trying to get fitter, stronger, and improve movement quality, there is no way that you can do this without keeping full joint range while also maintaining muscle mass. You have got to build your body as a whole system, not as separate parts. You’ve got 600+ muscles in your body, the more of them you can build, the more control you can demonstrate within a joint, the better off you’re going to be in the long term. As somebody who has overcome several injuries and continues to see the defaults in the body day in and day out, take my advice; build and maintain muscle mass while keeping your range of motion in the joints. Long term you’ll become more supple, flexible, and conditioned because of it.
Step 6- Train locomotion and primal patterns.
Crawl, walk, run, skip, do things that train your brain not just your muscles. This is called neuromuscular pathway training, and it teaches you to connect the dots in your body. Agility and coordination work is one of the best things you can do to improve central nervous system responses to dynamic movements relating to barbells, sports, and any gymnastics. Locomotion is great for warming up, cooling down, and workouts. As we get older we lose the ability to perform some of the most basic exercises, form rolling, to skipping, to crawling. These are evolutionary skills we have got to keep well into old age if we plan on constantly evolving as a human being. Lots of gym-goers stick to weights and gymnastics, but forget these very elementary patterns that force us to think differently, coordinate our body and breath, and essentially develop a more stable and functional core. If you can do these, then step 7 will be more fun!
Step 7- Explosive and plyometric work the right way.
Explosive work is fun. Plyometrics are fun. Also known as “jump training”, plyos are exercises in which muscles exert maximum force in short intervals of time, with the goal of increasing power (speed-strength). However, if done without understanding of the previous 6 steps, you could be inflaming the crap out of your joints. Explosive speed work needs to be done in a way that causes as little inflammatory response to the joints as possible. All too often we jump right to these, because after all, the fitness industry loves how sexy they look and know that they challenge people. However, with the mantra of sustainability being our guiding principle behind training, plyometrics and explosive barbell or kettle bell lifts have to be taught when athletes demonstrate good control elsewhere in the gym. The first shock absorber in your body is your core. Second is glutes, hamstrings, and calves, ending with the feet. But the core has GOT to be developed. Otherwise athletes will be swooping, swaying, and slouching their way through plyometrics and barbell lifts. Do this the right way and you’re going to have a lot of fun developing that spring in your step. Then we get to mix in step 8..
Step 8- When you lift weights do it with good form.
Use weights that are acceptable to use. My coaches would never let me lift anything if I looked like I was yanking it or my form was breaking down. Granted in competition you might train for the wheels to come off, your regular day to day training should have a focus of lifting weights with as much muscular engagement as possible. Build your body as a whole, not just as a part. Lifting with good form helps carry over to better force output, and much safer, more efficient lifting. Bad lifters do a lot of yanking, jaw gripping, and well…sloppiness. You’re in this for the long game, so treat your body in a way that will allow you to deadlift, squat, lunge, press, and whatever else well into your 60s.
Step 9- Single leg work- do it.
I’ve been told I have a sick obsession with lunges, and I do. Anything single legged I love. Most of us have trouble standing on two feet, let alone one foot! This is why you’ve got to train your legs independently of each other. If you do this regularly you’re going to improve proprioceptive awareness, balance, and cognition of leg, glute, and hip control. Again, when doing this, work with a knowledgeable trainer who understands compensatory patterns and can understand your anatomy. A lot of times we assume if we can figure out single leg work we have it down, but please go back to step 1 and assess your single leg movements. Build your legs, your butt, your hips, your core, built it all!
Step 10- Smile and breathe, enjoy the process.
It’s supposed to be fun. Training is supposed to be a reconnection with yourself, an opportunity to better yourself and grow. Please, smile, breathe, sigh, huff and puff, laugh, and keep a positive head. It is way too easy to get discouraged and rent space out to all the negative emotions you have in your head about why you’re not good enough or why you’re not where you want to be. Leave those in the car, don’t bring that spiritually deadening voice elsewhere, and let your gym time be your you time. Train, grow, overcome, surprise yourself, and enjoy the process! If you can keep on keeping on you’re going to move mountains and achieve great things. Do the harder thing, laugh when you fail, cry when you’re upset, take a walk when things aren’t going your way, but for your own sake don’t give up. It is only training, it is meant to be fun.
I didn’t go into energy system training, nutrition, and frequency of exercise today, but those are important pieces to the puzzle of fitness that you’ll want to learn about with your coach. This was a long post, and I thank you for reading. I hope it was helpful, and I hope it inspires you to look at your training plan and how you can improve it. Ask yourself, are you getting exactly what you want from your training and time in the gym? As someone who has been in the gym training myself and others for over ten years I feel like these tips can help you see, reach, and get further in your own body performance goals.
If you ever want to talk about how you can improve your fitness and health please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I wish I had tips like this back in 2001 when I was starting out, though now you have these tips and can conquer yourself much faster than it took me. To quote the great Ernest Hemmingway, “there is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.” Go overcome yourself.