(This is a more technical variation of the article that first appeared bodybuilding.com)
In the last decade, as a fitness coach and the co-founder of Fitocracy, I’ve been exposed to the stories and data of millions of people and countless successful transformations, including my own.
You see, the one thing that I hear the most is “If I just had the motivation…”
People think that the secret to making a successful fitness transformation is about finding motivation.
They think motivation is like some sort of fitness Tinker Bell that you can pull out of your pocket at any time. She’ll sprinkle magic pixie dust that makes you instantly hate the taste of pizza and love the treadmill.
You know who has motivation? Your average Joe who joins a gym in January. He’s motivated as hell. Sadly, he doesn’t stick around come March. He stops going to the gym, feels guilty, then blames his lack of willpower.
Little does he know fitness success is not about motivation. Motivation is fleeting and unreliable. Most importantly, it’s not a skill that you can improve.
The truth is that despite the fact, everyone is capable of achieving his or her ideal physique. What’s the secret? It’s realizing the following…
Fitness is as much of a skill as riding a bicycle.
If you find your own transformation difficult to achieve, then you’re about to find out why and learn how to improve your fitness “skill.”
The Growth vs. Fixed mindset
But first, let’s talk about an important concept – mindset.
In psychology, people can be bucketed into two different mindsets – a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
Those with fixed mindsets believe that success is based on innate talent. You’re born with these characteristics, and you either have them or you don’t. Failures – such as the failure to follow a diet – are the result of a flaw in character, such as self-control, discipline, or intelligence.
Those with a growth mindset believe that success is reliant upon improving their different skill sets. That is, through hard work, learning, and experience, these people can improve their success in different facets of life.
Some subjects, like riding a bicycle, are universally seen through a “growth” lens.
If you fell and scraped your knee the first time you attempted riding a bike, you wouldn’t say “Something is horribly wrong with me. I don’t have the willpower and discipline required to ride my bike.” would you?
That would be silly. Instead, you’d realize that you just haven’t fully developed that skill yet. You’d think about why you fell. Perhaps you didn’t know how to navigate your bike through new terrain, such as a bumpy road or a patch of grass.
Unlike riding a bicycle, however, fitness is almost always seen through the lens of a “fixed mindset.” When people slip up on their diets, they automatically beat themselves up for being undisciplined and lazy, rather than think about why they slipped up and how to prevent this same mistake in the future.
Unfortunately, those with a fixed mindset try to “brute force” their success with willpower, which is a recipe for failure. That’s because willpower is a finite resource; relying on it will not lead to success.
The 5 Skills of Fitness
If fitness is a skill, then by definition, it can be improved by improving its component skills. Let’s take a look at what they are and how to improve them.
Knowledge is simply the evidence-based understanding behind training and nutrition. It allows us to create a plan and execute on it.
Knowledge can be either basic – understanding the tenets of calories and how they impact your weight – or it can be relatively advanced – correctly incorporating a carbohydrate refeed in order to raise leptin during your diet.
You can improve your knowledge by reading sites like this one. Find a credible fitness pro like Alan Aragon and Layne Norton to trust, and absorb their encyclopedic knowledge.
Beware, however. Knowledge is the most important of all skills, but paradoxically, it’s also the most overrated.
There is more information about fitness now than ever, thanks to increasingly-easy access to scientific research because of resources like PubMed. Because of this, knowledge is often glorified and romanticized. Many, in fact, actually think that it’s theonly fitness skill, a fatal mistake when it comes to improvement.
Knowledge can easily be overdone. After all, what good is understanding the optimal meal timing to optimize muscle protein synthesis if you cannot, say, stop binge eating.
That’s where mindfulness comes into play.
Mindfulness / Self-Awareness –
Mindfulness is the examination of your feelings, surroundings, and being self-aware.
Below is a common conversation with a client.
Client: “I fell off the wagon yesterday and messed up my diet. It was bad. I binge ate and just ate all the things.”
Me: “Can you elaborate? What happened and what triggered it?”
Client: “I ate all the things… like I failed epically and had no self-control.”
Me: “Hahah, no you goober. I mean what were you feeling before the point of binging? What triggered this feeling?”
Client: “Huh? I mean I just messed up.”
In the conversation above, the client sees a binge as a failure without any underlying context. They’re actually confused by the fact that you can expound on a binge.
An interesting thing that I’ve noticed about failing in fitness more so than any other subject matter is that people do not learn from their mistakes. In other subjects, such as business or relationships, people look for patterns so that they don’t make the same mistakes again.
Me: “Think back. What were you feeling at the time? What caused that pattern?”
Client: “Well, let’s see… on training days you have my calories at about maintenance. I actually ate 50 calories above maintenance and I figured I screwed up anyway. That led me to feel anxious. Eating everything in sight was a way to cope with that anxiety.”
By practicing mindfulness, the client eventually broke down their binge into discrete events and related them back to the decisions that were made. We objectively agreed that going 50 calories over maintenance is hardly a slip up.
The next time this client sees this same pattern, he can use previous experiences to disrupt his usual course of action.
Think of mindfulness as fitness wisdom. It’s the ability to learn about yourself and your feelings. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to learn from your mistakes. You can improve mindfulness by following the “totem exercise” that I write about here.
What are the typical feelings of someone who messes up on their diet? Hate. Guilt. Self-loathing.
For many people who have never been able to lose weight, their failures have created a lifetime of these feelings. Yet they keep trying over and over again, often relying on willpower to overcome their deficiencies.
Each time, they face the same disastrous outcome.
The solution for these folks is to think of fitness as a skill, and research has shown that developing self-compassion allows people to do just that. Those who show self-compassion forgive themselves for their mistakes so that they can try again.
While this is slightly “meta,” think of self-compassion as “the skill that allows you to think of fitness as a skill” and therefore something that can be improved.
The next time you mess up, cut yourself some slack, then exhibit mindfulness to figure out what went wrong.
The first time I heard Martin Berkhan of Intermittent Fasting fame mention that “Breakfast is not that important,” I was outraged.
Seriously, Martin? Everyone knows that breakfast is obviously the most important meal of the day.
Think of a time that someone credible presented fitness information contradictory to what you knew to be true. You were probably angry, no? What you felt is what I affectionately call PubMed rage. (It’s usually displayed by an “Internet warrior” in a fitness forum of some sorts)
It turns out that this reaction is normal. Research has shown that when people’s deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory, credible information, they actually cling on to their existing beliefs even harder.
I later found out that Martin was correct. I started skipping breakfast and was rewarded for doing so; as an entrepreneur who works 80+ hours/week, skipping breakfast has added countless hours to my productivity. (There are considerations to suboptimal muscle protein synthesis, but I’m willing to make that tradeoff.)
The only way that I was able to realize that was showing humility – suppressing my ego and being open to the possibility that I was wrong. The more you learn about fitness (or any other skill for that matter) the more you realize the amount that you don’t know.
Humility is the skill that gives you the motivation to improve all other skills. Without it, we would stagnate. Whenever you feel the need to be an Internet warrior because someone contradicted your beliefs, make sure to examine your beliefs and be open-minded first.
Discipline (Habit Building) –
Decisions are taxing from a cognitive point of view. If you’ve ever felt mentally exhausted after a day full of meetings, then you know what I mean.
This poses a problem when it comes to fitness. Subjecting yourself to this cognitive overload depletes the same pool of resources that you need to exhibit the willpower and self-control to do things like go to the gym.
Hell, thinking really hard depletes self-control so much that it impacts maximum voluntary strength.
Put another way, making hard decisions at work, deciding whether or not to go to the gym, and saying no to that piece of cake all compete for the same pool of mental resources.
How do we solve for this pesky little problem? Luckily, Mother Nature provided us a nifty solution.
When something is repeated often enough, the decision to execute that task moves to a part of your brain called the basal ganglia. Once there, the decision is processed in the background and no longer requires a costly conscious decision. This is what’s known as a “habit.”
Discipline is the skill that allows us to create habit. You do this by repeating a task over and over again – going to the gym at the same time every day, preparing tomorrow’s meals at the end of every day, etc.
Habits require willpower at the start, but it is the correct use of willpower.
Discipline allows us to utilize willpower as the “battery” that starts the car, as opposed to the energy source that keeps it going.
So what’s next?
Like any other skill, you’ll need to improve by doing.
First, find a diet and training plan to follow for at least 8 weeks. This takes research and adding to your “knowledge” skill set. You’ll have to invest some time to find a plan that fits your goals and lifestyle.
Now, here’s the important part. Stick to the program as best as you can, but expect to slip up along the way.
When this happens, go through the skills in order that they’re listed here (I was sneaky and listed them in order of priority) to find out what needs to be improved.
Did you find yourself straying off your diet frequently? Exhibit mindfulness to find out why.
Perhaps you feel guilty after skipping multiple training sessions and can’t get back on the horse? Time for a dose of self-compassion.
Perhaps you realized that the morning is the only time you can train. Utilize some discipline and create habit around waking up early every day, no matter what.
Run through each skill and determine what you need to improve. Sometimes, improving a skill – like mindfulness – is as easy as being aware of it.
Do you see the difference in understanding that fitness is a skill? Small failures can be examined and improved upon. If you do not think about fitness in this way, failures are all the same, big or small, and they are all tied to your sense of worth.
Want to know what’s the best thing about embarking on your own fitness transformation? It’s that it makes you an even more amazing person.
You will become disciplined enough to do the mundane, tough enough to relentlessly forgive yourself when you fail, and brave enough to be willing to being wrong.
That’s because a successful transformation on the outside first requires a transformation within.