Maximizing The Effectiveness of Training Alone by Nathan Hansen

Training can involve a mix of emotions, from the initial excitement of working out itself, to the reluctance of actually doing it (especially at the end of a long day). We often feel accomplished and happier when it’s all said and done. This is due in part to the endorphins – those feel-good chemicals that spike during physical activity – and the support of training partners and their expectations.

When training in groups, we typically work harder because we don’t want to be the weakest link. We don’t want to let the team or our training partner down. Despite telling ourselves, “I’m tired,” “I hate that movement,” or “I don’t want to do this right now,” we push through because we have that external motivation driving us forward. So even on days when we’re exhausted or reluctant to pick up a barbell, we often fight for those reps, heavier weights, or stellar times because we know someone is counting on us.

Training in a social environment also offers us an outlet for our minds. We can unload emotional baggage (e.g., work, family, personal affairs), express ourselves, and share our state of mind. In doing so, we have the weight of those negative thoughts and emotions lifted from us, and we tend to be more enthusiastic, optimistic, and focused going into the workout.

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What About When We Train Alone?

For many of us, working out is a solitary experience conducted in our garages or personal corner at the gym. We’re fighting a constant battle between pushing ourselves and finding the motivation to simply pick up a dumbbell. With limited support and a lack of external accountability, training alone can invite a series of issues if not handled correctly. But training alone may be the only option we have in our time-strapped and chaotic lives.

So how do we work through it? How do we make ourselves train when there is no one to push us forward?

Develop A Habit

One approach is developing a consistent and effective habit. The beauty of this approach is its simplicity. Habits typically take at least 28 consecutive days to cultivate (and sometimes longer). Consecutive doesn’t mean working out Monday through Friday and taking Saturday and Sunday off. It means you have something planned every day for at least 28 days to continue that habit. It means your rest days include some form of activity that may not be as taxing as a workout but still meets that objective. For instance, you could stretch, do yoga, go hiking, or bowling (be creative!). The intent is you’re doing something that stimulates and engrains that daily fitness routine.

A word of caution: It’s easier to say that you’re going to do something and another thing to actually do it, so you need to have a plan to optimize your success.

Develop A Schedule

Think about your sleeping habits. Is there a certain time you find yourself tired every night? What time do you find yourself waking up? How long have you been on this schedule? If it’s been longer than a month, you probably find that your body naturally tires or wakes up at specific times. A workout schedule functions similarly. The more you train at a certain time, the more your body and mind will remind you to get going. So you need to schedule when you’re going to work out ahead of time to plan for it effectively.

I recommend developing your workout schedule at the beginning of each week (and if you meal prep, do it around the same time to keep those like-minded goals together). Also, when you set those workout times, treat them like critical business meetings; block them out on your schedule. Guard those time slots. By placing emphasis and importance on these training periods, you are more likely to (1) take time to do them and (2) have a desire to complete them.

Create A Process

Once you’ve scheduled your workouts, you need to establish a process that will ensure you make it to the gym. For instance, this process may include the following:

  1. Pack workout clothes in car (to ensure you have the gear you need)
  2. Bring snacks/post-workout shake (to reduce hunger-related excuses)
  3. Change at work (to indicate how you plan to transition between work and the gym)
  4. Leave work no later than 5pm (or another specific time, to give yourself a deadline for action)

While it seems simplistic, determining the process leading up to the workout itself will make it easier to get to your destination. Once you arrive at the gym, all that’s left is taking the first step to begin your session.

Log Your Workouts

Once you’ve made it to the gym, log your workout to hold yourself accountable. Document what you accomplish during the session, to what intensity or degree, for how long, and at what level of quality – which includes marking lack of motivation and energy. If you miss a workout, is there a punishment? If you complete a workout, is there a reward? (My reward is a nice hot shower or ice bath!) By logging your workouts and the elements that comprise those workouts (e.g., quality, time, intensity, weight lifted), you create a tangible history that holds yourself accountable to your goals and allows you to review your progress.

Set Realistic Goals

Logging your workouts helps you generate a frame of reference for your workouts, but you need to have a strong and clear goal leading toward a positive and consistent pattern for a desired outcome. Specifically, this goal should be a fire starter. It should be something that is easily obtainable and simple; there should be no reason not to do it. For instance, my daily goal is to change into my workout clothes, which I pack in my car each night before work. This goal is simple, attainable, and near impossible to ignore, and it helps me get to the gym on days when my motivation is lowest. For instance:
“Self, you’ve had a mentally brutal day. Just go home and rest.”
“Self, that’s lame. You’re already changed, and all you need to do is step foot into that building.”
“Fine. But it’s going to be awful, and it’s going to suck.”
If I at least get myself to the gym, I can get into my flow process – my routine – and bring my focus back to the present and to my current training.

We tend to measure success by how well we do during a workout, but success is more about holding yourself accountable and understanding that some days will not be as excellent as others. And success starts with having that simple, daily goal. Whatever your daily goal is, it needs to be something that you can definitely achieve.

Make Time For Training With Others

Humans are social animals, and it can be relaxing to have human interaction when it comes to fitness. But working out with others also allows us to review our lifts and intensity in a group dynamic. This isn’t to say we should seek opportunities to compare our strengths to others (since comparison can be the thief of joy), but we should consider how we work out with others compared to how we work out alone. The social fitness environment allows you to gauge whether you are pushing as hard as you can at a sustainable level. Not only will this give you feedback on your fitness practices, but it may also reignite your motivation and desire to continue with your practice.

And when there’s no way to work out with others, consider sharing your workout plans and/or accomplishments to hold yourself accountable. Knowing that another person is aware of your workout plans and goals may encourage you to keep moving forward.

Scheduling, planning, logging, goal setting, and accountability will help you stay consistent and establish a workout habit, but consistency is not always sufficient. In the end, you need to have a motivating factor for creating that habit. Have a reason why you want to train each day. Without that high-order objective, training loses purpose and priority – both of which are essential to ensuring the event becomes a part of your routine and lifestyle. When we become busy, we look for ways to optimize our time, and those items that lack a place in our lives are usually the first to go. But if we make training a part of who we are, our workout gains power and purpose in our lives – reducing our excuses and encouraging us to focus on results.

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