People overestimated what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in a decade.
This statement comes from acclaimed self-help presenter Tony Robbins and while it likely rings true for most aspects of life it is so spot on when it comes to the world of fitness that I’m angry I didn’t come up with it myself. But that’s probably why Mr. Robbins regularly sells out 5,000 seat ballrooms in luxury hotels and I work in a basement all day.
The truth is between episodes of the Biggest Loser, Hydroxycut commercials, Facebook before-and-after photos and 12 week challenge workouts featured in the fitness mags, most people believe and expect that fitness should happen in an instant. That you can go from fat to Froning before you have to turn the page on a calendar. Sorry to burst your vanilla whey flavored bubble but fitness improvements, whether they be performance or body composition, just don’t work that way.
So what are reasonable expectations when you consistently engage in a smart, progressive training and nutrition program? Let’s take a look.
The Double-Edged Sword Of Newbie Gains
Here’s the good news – your first three months of training will almost always yield the greatest results in your entire training career. These are aptly called “newbie gains”. It’s not unusual to double or triple the amount of weight that you can move in the major lifts in just a few short weeks. And if you combine this with some real improvements in your diet, you can truly begin to improve your body composition in this time frame as well. The bad news is that while you think this must mean that you are putting on slabs of muscle and on your way to shattering world records the truth is that you are mainly making neurological adaptations during this time frame. Put another way, your brain and muscles are working together and improving coordination and efficiency in these movements. So you are getting better at doing them so you can express more strength. You will also be remarkably sore during this period.
And while the newbie gains will cease after these first magical months, the improvements certainly will not. In fact most people who are consistent with training tend to be on a steady rise for the first two years. Based on my own observations, most adults – even those who are in it for the long haul – will achieve 85% of their ultimate performance and body composition results within those two years of first starting a legitimate training program.
After that you’ll be fighting for every kilo you can add to your lifts and every half percent of body fat that you can take off your waistline. You may go a year or more without hitting a PR in a lift. You’re almost guaranteed to hit some sort of physical set back. You’ll wake up in a cold sweat wondering why it couldn’t be like it was in the beginning when the weight just fell off and the kilos just kept racking up.
If you can find a way to except that this is part of the process, that is when you will know you are in it for the long haul. When you resist the urge to jump to something different – whether that’s a new coach or class or trendy strength program or, God forbid, give up training all together – but do seek out meaningful ways to bust through plateaus. This is when you level up and achieve the expert Ninja status that is reserved for the few true believers.
You’ll no longer get the constant accolades from your family because your dedication will now seem commonplace. You will no longer catch your reflection in the mirror and get that instant positive feedback of looking significantly leaner than you did just a few short weeks ago. Hopefully this is a small price to pay for being one of the strongest in and out of the gym. For being in the best condition when you take your cover-up off at the beach. For standing on the podium with a medal around your neck.
As we like to say around here, it isn’t for everyone.
Consistency is King
I hadn’t seen Sean in a while when he reached out to me saying that his military physical testing was coming up in 6 months and he needed to make sure his nutrition was dialed in. Sean was in the service, took a civilian job and wanted to get back in for a specific special services deployment, the details of which I will not reveal here for the sake of privacy. The problem was that Sean had fallen out of shape since rejoining the real word. When we started working together two years ago he had ballooned up to 285 pounds. And at 5 foot 7, this was not a good look. I’d met with Sean a bunch of times, coordinated his nutrition with his training (which was being handled by a colleague of mine) and kept tracking his weight and body fat. He was making steady and meaningful but not miraculous progress when I’d last saw him nearly 10 months ago. In the meantime, I’d been busy opening up this facility and figured he became lax about his goal.
If we hadn’t made an appointment so I knew to expect him I don’t think I would have recognized him when he walked in the door weighing a lithe 169 pounds. Quite honestly it wasn’t until he spoke and I heard his voice that I was 100% sure it was even him.
Once I picked my jaw up off the floor Sean and I got to talking about what the road ahead looked like for him as far as training demands were concerned. Given that he needs to be a strong, capable workhorse to qualify for service his upcoming workout calendar is aptly filled with brutality. The conversation then shifted to nutrition (which is why he came to see me in the first place) and he was curious as to what changes would be needed to survive this increased workload without going above the required 11% body fat.
“Well, what have you been doing since I last saw you,” I asked.
Sean gave me a bit of a perplexed look.
“What do you mean? I’ve been doing exactly what you told me to do.”
Then, without hesitation, Sean went through the exact nutritional plan that I had laid out for him, citing the times of days he ate, exact weights of all his macronutrients and the list of approved foods he was consuming. In other words, Sean was consistently doing what I had told him, without reminder text messages, without the need for change due to boredom, without any complaints. Every day. For 2 years.
He lost 110 pounds and was down to 12.6% body fat.
Sean tried to deflect the credit to me, which is ridiculous. Did I give him a good nutrition plan that would yield the results he was looking for? Obviously. But that part was incredibly simple. Doing it day in and day out even when it was hard and even when I’m sure he was dying for a change – that was the hard part.
“Listen, Dan, it’s just math. You eat this much of this thing and….,” Sean was explaining as I cut him off.
“But, dude, you are missing the point. So few people can do that.”
And that is the truth. Everyone has expectations of results but are usually not willing to do what it takes to achieve them. No one wants to keep going when it’s hard. When you are bored. When you have a week were no weight comes off. Where you can’t add kilos to the bar. Where everything in your brain and body is telling you to quit. When the expectations are not meeting the reality.
But the true champions, the one’s that reach the finish line, they keep going anyway. Not blindly if the system isn’t working, but confidently knowing that set backs and stalls are part of the process. They take the long view and just keep going. Just keep doing. They know what Tony Robbins knows. That it’s actually easy to see what’s right in front of you. But it takes belief and understanding to know what lies past the bend in the road.