Consistency Is the Solution to Most of Your Fitness Problems

Consistency Is the Solution to Most of Your Fitness Problems
Photo: Jacob Lund, Shutterstock

I work out every day. I don’t really get sore. I don’t worry if I have to miss a workout. I make progress over time. I have good days at the (home) gym, but I almost never have bad days. My secret, while effective, is extremely boring. It is, simply, consistency.

When you’re consistent, you don’t get sore

Let’s start with the thing everybody wants most in life: to not be sore. For as much as I train, you’d think I’d have all the secrets for managing soreness. (I do, but that’s not the point.) In truth, it’s very rare for me to feel sore.

That’s because soreness isn’t a measure of how strong you are or of how “good” your last workout was. It’s just a thing that pops up sometimes when you do a workout you’re not used to. Maybe your workout was harder than usual, but you can also get sore if it’s just different.

I’ve only felt truly sore on a few occasions in the last year. One time I did squats with very light weight in sets of 20, when a normal workout for me is more like heavy weight for sets of five. Another time, I started a program with pull-ups in it, when I hadn’t done pull-ups in forever. And then there was the day I maxed out a deadlift-like frame pick after not deadlifting in a while, and my lower back was toast for a week.

But in general? I lift heavy, and feel fine the next day. That’s a perk that consistency buys you.

Motivation is never an issue

Anytime an athlete does a Q&A on Instagram, it seems they always get at least one question about how they keep up the motivation to haul their arse to the gym every day. And nearly every athlete is confused by the question. Motivation? Why would you need that?

Think about it: do you need to be motivated to brush your teeth every morning? To go to work? “Motivation” might describe how you feel when you get started with a new hobby or a new fitness pursuit, but it’s not how most regular exercisers feel about their day-to-day. You show up and squat because squats are what’s on the program for today. I’ve written before about what this is like.

No single workout matters very much

We’ve all had good workouts, bad workouts, missed workouts. But when you’ve been working out consistently for, say, five years, none of those individual days will really matter.

I remember skipping a workout one day, a couple months in to following a serious, consistent program. Maybe I was sick, or maybe I was busy at work. It doesn’t matter. I just had a sudden realisation: it doesn’t matter that I missed one, because there are so many workouts I had already done and there were so many more in my future. My self-conception as an athlete did not depend on what happened that day; instead, it was shaped by the fact that I showed up so often and so consistently.

Consistency also means that you don’t have to challenge yourself to a super intense workout without a good reason. You might feel the need to get sweaty and exhausted to convince yourself that you’re tough. But if you work out consistently, those too-intense workouts will stick out like sore thumbs. You made yourself miserable…for what? Did this workout teach you anything? Was it necessary for the progress you’re trying to make?

There will be important days, and intense days. If you compete, your race day or meet day may be one of those. But even then, in the long run, how much does this competition mean, when you know there will be many others? Not as much.

Consistency leads to progress

Think in terms of years, not months or weeks. What will happen if you work out consistently for five years? Ten? How strong, how fast, how flexible could you be? Sometimes I despair when looking at a young athlete who seems stronger than I will ever be. Then I check out how long ago they started in their sport, and see that they’ve put in far more training hours than I ever have. Consistency adds up over time.

But progress isn’t just about time — although that’s part of it. You make progress when you train purposefully toward a goal. If all you do is random mini-workouts you find on YouTube, you’ll establish a base level of fitness, but that may not be enough to push yourself to get stronger and stronger.

When you train purposefully, you use a program that challenges you a little bit more each week and each month and each year. If you’re lifting weights, the weights get heavier. If you’re doing yoga, your body will get more flexible and you’ll gain the awareness to position yourself more precisely. If you pick up a running program — whether it’s a couch to 5k or the ramp-up to a marathon — the program will slowly add mileage and get you closer to your goal.

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When you train consistently, you get the chance to finish a full training cycle, and then another, and then another. You’ll learn how your body and mind handle different types of training, and you’ll see what it’s like to shift focus from an off-season plan to something that peaks you for competition. It’s not the same journey as periodically losing interest and then re-starting the same program over and over.

How to develop consistency

If you aren’t there yet, the first step is to realise that, whatever your actual fitness goal is, the plan to get you to that goal is to develop consistency.

So if you want to get stronger, your job is not to deadlift 45 kg more than you currently do. It’s not even to add 5 kg at your next workout. It’s to get yourself on a schedule that gets you deadlifting regularly, and fill out the rest of that schedule in a way that supports your goal. You might grab a program that gives you a sensible mix of heavy days, light days, and accessory work to make you an overall stronger person. In time, those 45 kg will come. (I’ve been using the 1x/week intermediate program from here, if you’d like a deadlift-specific suggestion.)

Or if you want to get faster, it’s not about running your next weeknight three-miler in a smidge less time than your previous one. It’s about finding a plan that will make you faster over time, which may well involve a lot of slow running. (As the saying goes, you run faster by running more; you run more by running slower.) Strength training, speedwork, and long runs may all be in the program, even if all you want to do is run the same distance faster.

Once you embrace consistency as your goal, the ramp up becomes more manageable. Instead of giving yourself a super long or intense workout to make up for the fact that you sat on your butt all last week, pick a program and see what it would take to get yourself ready for it. (For example, a marathon program might ask that you’ve been running three to five miles a few times a week for a couple months before you start.) Start from where you are, and add a little bit at a time. Instead of seeing each day as its own unique challenge, build on what you’ve done before.

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