Your Program isn't Failing you. Your execution is
Find me someone who is stagnating in the gym and I'll find you someone who thinks "they need a new program". That current one feels like a flip phone when they are staring at all the features of the new and improved programs out there. There are the intricate repetition schemes, the partial ranges of motion, and the variable density are so alluring to the eyes of someone who feels like they've extracted all the juice they can from the fruit.
To be fair, some individuals have. There are people who have followed the same protocol for months and years on end, and as such have lost any element of stimulus/response. Then there are those elite fitness persons who will follow a program like a book of commandments for it's entire length and never even contemplate deviating from the plan. Once a program has run its course they are truly ready for an advancement to their program.
This isn't for them though.
Sadly, most people are program-hoppers. Their insatiable desire for new and exciting leaves most people in the experimentation phase of every program all the time. It's as though they operate on a Tinder for exercise programs - swiping right only when they are intrigued, but returning back to the market place before they could even get to know the person...ahem...program.
And in the same way online dating has made us judge people by 5 photos and a overly-thought-out biography - people are judging programs on some scale of instant gratification.
The industry, in many ways, is to blame. I myself have put plenty of articles up with the catchy "3 things for this" and "5 ways to be more that". It creates a culture of information consumption, temporary implementation, and rapid abandonment once we've stumbled upon the next article that grabs our eyes.
Yet, for long-term sustainable progress, AKA actual results, we need to be consistent with a singular program for a period of time that is longer than our attention span. More importantly, emphasizing the quality of each workout trumps "just getting them done" every single time.
That is where the area of improvement lies for the majority of fitness enthusiasts, especially those who are focused on strength training. The program isn't the problem. The execution of said program is.
An average program design can create incredible results when someone applies additional efforts towards mastery, embracing the mundane, and truly associating with the process. In fact, excellent effort with a mediocre program will always trump an amazing program with average motivation.
So, now that we've made the point that execution of a program is a bit more important the program itself - how can we actually improve our execution?
There are four major ways (here I go with lists again) -
Far too often people will be given a program and see an exercise, how many sets they need to do, and how many repetitions per set. Sometimes there will be a percentage of max or a particular tempo that a repetition should be performed with.
Usually it's just sets and reps though.
This is where people find their first, and arguably biggest, flaw. They are doing the exercises in a program with the end in mind. They are simply completing sets without truly mastering each repetition as it's own.
Rep speed can be out of whack, form can be ugly, and rest periods could be insanely too long (or short - as is the case with cardio junkies).
Doesn't matter. They got it done. On to the next move...
This attitude is responsible for injuries, plateaus, and program jumping all the same. It's time to slow down, tighten the form, and be honest with you can and can't do. Don't go throwing around more weight than you should on your next set of rows just because you can make the bells move. Ask yourself if you are controlling the weight or if it's controlling you!
This is why I don't love counting repetitions with my clients. I know it can be incredibly frustrating to them when they ask, "how many?" and I meet them with, "I don't know, 7 to 9". I'm giving them a range to aim for and I'll specify tempo and focus with my cues, but beyond this I'll just let them work.
Mastery of your movements, each of them that are in the program, is critical to actualizing the success of the program.
Embracing the Mundane -
Not every exercise in a program is sexy or satisfying. In fact, a lot of the necessary components of a great program are a bit boring and mundane.
Band pull aparts are critical for an excellent set of shoulders and thoracic extension, but not everyone takes the time to do them.
Hip mobility and activation work will absolutely lead to better deadlifts and squats, but they'll often be the first to go when someone just "wants to lift".
Pallof presses aren't going to put you in line for the cover of a magazine, but they'll strengthen your deep core, obliques, and protect your spine.
The success of a program, a financial plan, or anything in life - hinges on embracing the little things being done well everyday. Consistency in mundane leads to lasting success. This is something that Jeff Olsen writes about in his book "Slight Edge" - an excellent read for those looking to boost their performance in any facet of life.
Sure, 6 sets of a tension row might suck, but they are in the program for a reason. Do them, master them, and watch as your consistency rewards you in time.
Association with Exercise -
The gym doesn't need to feel like a horrible place of suffering. You should have fun socializing with others, jamming to your favorite playlist, and feel free to take the occasional glance at a mounted television, or answer a text.
Yet, you need to be able to switch that on and off. You need to be able to get in a zone when it is appropriate. Strength training should be done with efforts to associate with each exercise, rep, and movement.
Runners often disassociate, or mentally evacuate, their run. This can be an effective means for handling the repetitive nature of a ten mile hike. Thinking about anything other than the run can make the miles disappear behind them.
Strength training, however, is different. The more you can connect with your body - the better you'll do. You'll feel when your out of alignment, moving too fast, or not being challenged enough. Associating with an exercise and its effects are critical to optimizing the mastery of a pattern.
Focus on how it feels when your muscles contract. Manage the tempo that you are moving the resistance. Be conscious of all the different points of contact with the floor. If your exercise involves any locomotion - pay attention to how you move through space. Feel the movement; don't just do it.
It's OK to fiddle with your phone, but when it's time to lift, then nothing else matters.
Knowing Goals/Knowing Limits -
The last point of emphasis is a simple one, but it still holds incredible weight when you are executing a program.
You have to be able to keep your goals in mind. Why are you even doing the program in the first place?
Adding in a bunch of stuff that isn't in a program at the end of a strict strength protocol can make it harder to recover and train in the following days. You can't bench three days a week (successfully) if you are smashing your chest, triceps, and shoulders with high volume burn outs after the heavy work.
The same goes for adding in 60 minutes of cardio to the end of a workout just because you can. Sure, sometimes you can add some cardiovascular training to the end of your program and it'll benefit you in a multitude of ways. However, turning your bodybuilding workout into a catabolic marathon just because you want to torture yourself isn't doing you any good.
This is when you have to keep your goals in mind. Know why you are training in the first place. In regards to your limits - trust the process.
It can be incredibly tempting to make jumps in load during a strength program, or assume you can do week 5 of a program on week 3. It is important to remember that a great program is designed a specific way for a reason - so, you have to know your limits, and trust that the process and TIME will help you in the end.
Don't be a program hopper. Emphasize your execution and enjoy your progress. Rushing your way through a program will never get you where you want to go. Taking your time, mastering your patterns, associating with your exercises, and embracing your limits and destination are critical for your success.