When the “Perfect” Plan Isn’t

The perfect program is the one you'll do well, consistently.

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Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. – Theodore Roosevelt

So You Think You’re Ready to Go All-In

I see it all the time.

Guys come to me wanting the “perfect” plan. You know the one: Some kind of superhero transformation plan to take them from pudgy to perfect in no time flat. Because this time, they’re really gonna stick with it.

Right.

Before I agree to write anyone a program, I ask them one question:

“Why aren’t you already where you want to be?”

It’s a simple enough question. But most often, guys’ answers are excuses, not reasons. Maybe these sound familiar:

“I’ve just been so busy. I don’t have time”

Then why do you think you have time now for a program that will necessarily be long and strenuous?

“I’ve tried everything.”

Not likely. But assuming you have, what makes you think this will work?

“I just need the right program. I don’t know what to do.”

There are plenty of programs out there that will work. What’s stopped you from doing them to the best of your ability so far?

“I’m waiting until the right time.”

Great. Any idea when that will come along?

Let me be clear:

I am not de-legitimizing the obstacles of busyness, lack of knowledge, or the discouragement from previous failure. Nor do I turn anybody away on the basis of these problems. They’re actually why I have a job.

What I am saying is that, no program, no matter how time-efficient, no matter how well-designed, no matter how perfect, will get you the results you want if you’re relying on the program to get you there.

Ironically, the demands of a perfect program often hinder results rather than helping them. Here’s why, and what you can do to avoid the psychological mess that wrecks results.

The Problems with Program Perfectionism

One: Program Perfectionism Breeds Program-Hopping

It’s an unfortunate side-effect of wanting to be perfect: Every new thing looks just a little bit better. For guys who want every little tweak to maximize their training results, new programs can be very appealing.

If you’ve ever found yourself hopping from program to program, you’re either a program perfectionist, or you haven’t decided what you want from training. Either way, you’ll still get the best results by just picking something and sticking to it until it’s finished. Learn to be consistent before being “perfect”.

And speaking of being consistent…

Two: Program Perfectionism Kills Consistency

I will always, always repeat this: Consistency, not perfection, is the key to amazing results.

I don’t care if you can’t get your whole workout in. If you’re the type of person to skip an entire workout because you’ll “have more time to do it properly tomorrow”, you’re probably also the type who never gets around to it in the end.

Which is better, though? Doing a partial workout in the time that you have, or doing no workout at all because you don’t have time for the whole thing?

If you really care about getting those results in the end, you have to keep showing up and putting in at least the minimum amount of work.

Three: Program Perfectionism is Outcome Obsession in Disguise

I seem to have this conversation almost weekly with newer clients (and some of the lifers, too).

We remain outcome-based, but process-focused. That is, we measure and keep track of relevant metrics to determine whether what we’re doing is working. Fine. Great. But we don’t obsess over those numbers. That’s a no-no.

The sooner you get this into your head, the better:

You can’t control outcomes.

You can only control the behaviours that lead to the outcomes you want. An obsession with the number on the scale, or the weight on the bar, becomes counter-productive very quickly. Instead, you need to focus on performing the behaviours that produce success, day in and day out.

Admittedly, the program itself is really more part of the process than the outcome. However, people who persistently pore over the minutiae of a program are often looking for a better way when they’d be better off spending their time putting in the work they aren’t already doing.

So how does one avoid these perfectionist idiosyncrasies, anyway?

The Solutions to Program Perfectionism

One: Maintain a Baseline of Physical Activity and Scale Up Whenever Possible

If you want to succeed, start by re-framing your timeline.

Mainstream fitness marketing trades in unrealistic transformations. Most before-and-after photos are taken on the same day with the assistance of lighting and Photoshop.

Lasting transformations take years of hard work, failures, and cyclical periods of consistency and inconsistency.

You probably don’t live in a neat little fitness bubble where you’ve got time to turn in a perfect effort on your workouts, nutrition, and recovery every day. And if you do, you won’t for long. Life just doesn’t work that way.

So what do you do?

You need to practice making a healthy, high-performance lifestyle your go-to way of living. Try and fail with different adherence strategies over and over again until something sticks.

Throughout the process, learn to avoid the all-or-nothing mindset that wrecks so many fitness journeys. Here’s how.

Be “good enough” most of the time, and “high-performance” whenever possible. That means two things:

  1. Your efforts are never really turned “off” – you’re always doing something related to your goals, even if absolutely minimal; and
  2. You’re ready and willing to ramp up at a moment’s notice, whenever an opportunity arises.

Dr. John Berardi, of Precision Nutrition, calls this turning back the dial. It means your daily efforts may be far from perfect. But if showing up consistently lets you learn to be 1% better every day, that adds up to a lot more progress than being perfect for 2 months and then falling off the wagon.

Two: Diversify Your Training and Use What’s Available or Interesting

Just as it’s easy to shift blame for your own failure onto “problems” with your program, it’s also easy to blame a missed workout on available equipment, space, or time.

It’s true that highly specific results require specialized programs and equipment. But it’s equally true that people who suffer from a lack of consistency are usually nowhere near that level. They would benefit from opening their eyes to the world of training possibilities around them.

There are thousands of ways to stay active and to turn almost anything into makeshift gym equipment:

  • Want a bigger, stronger chest? You don’t need a bench and weights. Master a perfect push-up and do lots of those.
  • Want a stronger, wider back? Get one of those adjustable pull-up bars that go in a doorway. Short on cash? Head to a park, or grab a tree branch and start pulling!
  • Prefer strongman-style training? A favourite strongman exercise is the farmer’s walk. From the name, you know you don’t need a gym. Fill a wheelbarrow with something heavy, or fill a couple of pails with water, and get truckin’.
  • Want to build leg strength while improving hip mobility, stability, and coordination? Put one leg up on a chair and do some Bulgarian split squats.
  • Wish you were just stronger overall, and could pick up a heavy object if necessary? The barbell deadlift is simply a movement analog for the real-life act of picking stuff up the right way. Find a rock, or a kid, or a bag of sand or salt, and master lifting it (or him/her) properly, that is, with a correct hip hinge pattern.

It’s not that hard to find a way to train all six primary movement patterns. Do each with some resistance, and you can at least maintain your fitness.

Three: Hire Someone Else to Keep an Eye on the Big Picture

When you’re truly stuck, it may be time to consider hiring a coach.

Let me give you a bit of advice someone gave me. It changed my life a number of years ago:

If you can’t discipline yourself, bring yourself under the discipline of somebody else until you can.

The Invaluable Role of a Coach

Coaching is about so much more than getting a program, or having someone to motivate you. Those things are part of it, sure. But a program’s just a program – it’s you that matter most.

Coaching isn’t (mostly) about crafting an ideal program, or (mostly) about keeping you engaged. It’s about bringing you under the discipline of the person who always has the big picture in mind.

A great coach doesn’t focus on what a person doesn’t have, or hasn’t yet achieved. Rather, they use what their client already has at their disposal, and celebrates what their client has already achieved. Their response to excuses is to assist the client in determining for themselves what the solution should be.

The job of a coach is to empower a client to discover for themselves that all their perceived obstacles are actually opportunities to become more skilled at the processes that produce success.

A Coach is a Big Picture Person

So how does a coach help a client turn obstacles into opportunities? By keeping an eye on the big picture.

While coaches understand the minutiae of programming, technique, and recovery strategies, they also understand the ups-and-downs of behaviour change.

Your coach gets it when you don’t have the best week and end up de-stressing on the weekend with a binge. They also get it when you’re dealing with family issues or home repairs or car trouble that makes healthy living just that much harder. And they get it when something just aches, or your old injury flares up.

But your coach also remembers where you came from. You may not see your progress, but that’s because you’re too focused on where you want to be. Your coach is there to remind you that, while you may not be there yet, you’re also not where you used to be. And that is the kind of progress that leads to success.

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