I set out to do an exercise challenge with a totally different goal in mind. And the results surprised me.
I've been training something or another for my entire adult life. When I was young, it was martial arts. Later, I started weight lifting, then got into calisthenics, then back to the weight room... and in between, I've practiced everything from Salsa dancing to rock climbing.
What I'm saying here is: I'm no stranger to physical exercise.
And yet, what I discovered in this latest experiment was both new and different for me. And it's the most important thing I've ever discovered about exercise.
So, what was this challenge about?
Here's what I set out to do: exercise every single day, for 100 days straight.
That's it. That was the challenge.
I wanted to see if I could put in a proper exercise session every day for this long, without taking a break. If I miss a day, I have to reset the counter to 0.
Now, here's the important part: note what this challenge focuses on... and what it doesn't focus on.
The challenge was NOT:
- to gain as much strength as possible
- to build as much muscle as possible
- to create the most impressive before/after transformation in the shortest time possible
- to get six pack abs
- to lose as much weight as possible
That's what exercise challenges are usually about, right? But I didn't focus on any of that.
I focused on one thing and one thing only: consistency.
Why Consistency Matters
Over all my years of training, I've come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than consistency. Here's why.
Something that has happened to me over and over again is this cycle:
- I start a new training program with the goal of building strength or building muscle or something like that.
- I start making progress and get excited.
- I push myself harder and harder, trying to get more gains.
- I get injured and have to take a break.
- During this break, I lose the majority of my gains AND I lose my exercise habit.
In the end, the break ends up being longer than it needs to be and I'm pretty much back to square one.
I've been through many versions of this cycle. Sometimes, it's illness that interrupts my training, sometimes it's travel (keeping up an exercise routine as a digital nomad is not easy).
But whatever it is, the result is the same: I lose my gains and I lose my exercise habit and have to start from scratch.
I've been in good shape many times in my life. I've had periods when I was very strong (and a little fat, but that's generally how it goes when you focus only on strength gains). I've had times when I had a pretty good physique.
But it never lasted. It was always: injury, illness, lose the exercise habit, back to step one of the cycle.
And back to my slightly-above-average-but-not-that-impressive physique, strength and fitness level.
Here's the rub: if you want to be in really great shape for one competition or one photo shoot, then chasing numbers and doing super intense training works.
But if you want to be in great shape and stay in great shape, only consistency matters.
An average workout plan, followed consistently, beats everything else in the long run. It beats the best, most effective, most meticulously programmed workout... that you only stick to for a few months.
It beats the cycle of motivation, training, peaking and then losing motivation and losing the exercise habit over and over again.
This is why for most people, doing "the most effective" workout or fat burning exercise is actually not effective at all. It's going to be some super intense, extremely difficult thing that you hate doing and will drop the first chance you get.
Someone who consistently does some form of exercise they enjoy will outperform someone who constantly starts and stops the "perfect" training plan.
How to Make Your Exercise Habit Stick
So, if consistency is what matters more than anything else, what you need is an exercise habit that really sticks. What's the best way to go about designing your habit in such a way?
Here are the 5 rules I followed for my experiment:
1) Focus on Consistency
I gave my reasons for why consistency matters above all else. To put this idea into practice, it's important that consistency is what you actually focus on.
That means: the goal is to show up every day.
It's not to make the fastest possible gains. It's not to lose weight or build muscle or gain strength.
Those things are all side effects of showing up every day.
This focus on consistency is not trivial. I noticed how it changed my approach to training. It changed how much I paid attention to my energy levels and how I adjusted my training.
Where I usually would have kept on pushing and probably sustained another injury, I was now much more willing to slow down and to deload. More on that in our discussion on the podcast.
2) Anchor Your Habit
Every habit consists of 3 parts: a trigger, an action and a reward.
Without a consistent and clear trigger, you can't make a habit stick. And without consistent repetition, it won't stick either.
This is why I: A) exercise every day and B) exercise at the same time every day, early in the morning.
Exercising every day is easier than exercising, say, 3 times a week.
When you exercise 3 times a week, it's hard to form a habit because you're practicing going to the gym 3 times a week but you're practicing NOT going to the gym 4 times a week.
In my case, I go to the gym 6 days a week and I have a recovery day once a week where I do yoga and other forms of light exercise. That means I get to repeat/practice my gym habit 6 out of 7 days. And my exercise habit 7 out of 7 days.
I exercise in the morning, at the same time every day because the morning offers the clearest, most consistent trigger of all. Every day, you wake up and you do the same things (bathroom, brush teeth, get dressed...). It's the easiest point in the day to attach another habit and keep with it consistently.
3) Don't Go it Alone
I don't go to the gym by myself. Not most days, anyway. During my 100 day experiment, Dean and Jonas joined me most days.
This seems simple, but I think it's highly underrated. It's way easier to go to the gym consistently when you know your friends are waiting there for you. And it's way easier to stick with your exercise program when you're doing it together with other people.
I think this is a big part of the reason Crossfit has been so successful. It's fitness with a clear schedule and that group/community effect built in.
4) Keep Track
To make gains, you need progressive overload. As you exercise, your body adapts to the new level of intensity. Your muscles grow, your bone density increases, your cardiovascular system improves and your central nervous system gets better at moving the loads you're putting it under.
As a result, you will plateau if you keep doing the same exercises, at the same level of intensity. To keep growing, you need to keep ramping up your exercise. In the gym, that generally takes the form of adding more weight over time.
There are 3 important reasons why you should keep track of your training by writing down all your exercises, weights and reps for each session:
- It's easier to exercise consistently when you know exactly what to do. Having a program to follow makes all the difference, especially for gym newbies.
- Keeping track helps you add the aforementioned progressive overload factor systematically.
- Seeing the progress you make is highly motivating. It feels great to see your reps increase and to set new weight records. And that makes the habit stickier.
Remember the habit loop from earlier? Seeing your progress is one of the "reward" factors that strengthen a habit over itme.
About tracking apps: maybe you're wondering what app I use to create and track my workout plan. The answer is: none. I note down my exercises on paper and copy them over into a spreadsheet when I get back home. I don't have my phone with me when I'm working out and I recommend you do the same.
5) Keep it Simple (and Fun)
What's the best exercise program?
Personally, I don't care. I'm not interested in the absolute optimium training program, because I'm not a professional athlete.
I see people overcomplicate their approach to training all the time. Follow a simple program and don't sweat the details. Especially when you're starting out.
I'm currently following a Push, Pull, Legs workout split, because that makes it easy to lift 6 days a week. For the most part, I do simple compound exercises such as bench press, deadlift and pull ups.
I program my training to hit every muscle group, but I also pay attention to how satisfying a workout feels.
Do I absolutely need to do curls as part of my training? No, but it feels good to get a bit of an arm pump at the end of the pull day.
Is bench press the best possible chest exercise? Not by a long shot, but it's more convenient and more fun to do than something like a horizontal bench cable fly.
I design my workout to be challenging, but also to be something I want to keep doing (except maybe for leg day - I don't think it's physically possible to have an effective leg day that doesn't suck).
More on why fun and satisfaction are crucial components for habit building: how to break bad habits - a better approach.
Design a Solution (for the Right Problem)
As usual, I like to approach habit formation with design thinking. The same applies here, but we have to make sure that we're designing a solution with the right problem in mind.
If you design your workout program with typical goals in mind (e.g. get ready for beach/bikini season asap), you're actually shooting yourself in the foot.
You're setting yourself up for failure in one way or another:
- You get quick results with your crash diet and extreme workout program, then stop doing it (because it's not sustainable) and go back to the weight and physique you had before.
- You make quick progress and get injured because you're pushing too hard.
- You never stick with the program long enough to get results because it's a program that only works theoretically. It's a program that would work if you had the iron discipline to follow it, but it's never integrated into your life as a sustainable habit.
This brings me back to consistency. The problem in each of these cases is that you get no long term results because you don't exercise consistently.
That is the problem to design a solution for. And my approach to it is what I laid out here.
But What About Results, Though?
Just because we're putting results on the back seat and prioritizing consistent training doesn't mean that results aren't important. And it certainly doesn't mean that you won't get results.
In a roundabout way, consistency actually leads to better results in the long term, for all but the most dedicated athletes.
To illustrate, here's a before-and-after of my 100 days of working out:
Note that I'm not flexing or posing differently or using lighting or angles or anything else to make this look like a bigger difference than it is. There's a lot that can be done to make a before and after look super impressive (even if it's shot on the same day).
Granted, the lighting isn't exactly the same in the two shots, but that's because I was in a different location when I started the challenge than when I ended it. In both cases, I chose a neutral pose in the most neutral lighting I could find.
Because like I said earlier: the goal was never about an impressive before-and-after to show off.
The goal is to keep showing up every day and let the results speak for themselves, as time goes on.
And that's what I've been doing. As I'm writing this, I'm on day 134 and I still haven't missed a day.