A Simple 3-Step Plan to Get Stronger
Recently, I wrote a quick article about why focusing on a single item is a stronger strategy than trying to achieve multiple things at once. What follows here is a simple framework for approaching that in a strength training context.
Step 1: Have A Goal
You need to have both an idea of where you are and what you’re trying to achieve.
"Sometimes I'll start a sentence, and I don't even know where it's going. I just hope I find it along the way." -- Michael Scott
This is the obvious starting point. You need to have both an idea of where you are and what you’re trying to achieve. It needs to be defined. I’m actually ok with people’s goals not being SMART to start off with (specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, time framed). For me, provided someone can say that they want their press to be stronger, or they want their back to feel stronger, or they want to be a little leaner, it’s ok. To paraphrase an overused quotation, you can choose whatever you want, but you can’t choose everything you want…
Sometimes at this stage, having both a long term outcome as well as a smaller more defined short term outcome are useful. Often if a client has a nebulous long term goal, I’ll work with them to figure out what progress towards that looks like in a month. The important thing at this stage is that you know what the main thing is.
‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’ - Stephen Covey
Step 2: Have A Plan
Once we know where we are going, it’s time to break it down into realistic chunks. This starts with a time frame that is short enough that we can reasonably commit to a new behaviour or two. For most of my clients this is two to four weeks.
Once we know our timeframe, we can make a guesstimate of where we can hope to be with regards to our goal, and what the person will look like as they progress towards it. What are the key habits? What would a program look like? What does a day and a week look like? What do we care about measuring?
We are going to focus on a single task or focus that is taking us towards the single goal
From there, I might write a strength program that fits their schedule, their temperament, and their current experience. Or maybe we’ll pick a single habit that seems important, and tag it to another habit that they regularly do, or we might decide on a person to copy mentally (kind of like the WWJD phenomena for Christians in the 90’s). Basically though, we are going to focus on a single task or focus that is taking us towards the single goal that we identified in step 1.
Step 3: Have a Process
In much the same way as you want to narrow your focus when you pick your goal and when you make your plan, you want to have a focused process. Whether it is with your lift or with your habit, you want it to be as simple and replicable as possible.
For instance, when I perform the kettlebell snatch, I’ll take a little time to set up, put myself in my stance, put my hand in the same spot I usually do for this, focus upon my breathing, draw the bell back, drive my hips, keep the bell close, and then punch before I direct my elbow towards the ground keeping the bell in a tight arc to my body, before, waiting until the last moment, I hinge back while I sharply inhale and ‘catch’ the weight with my hips.
However, in my mind, it’s just Sniff, punch, punch. I have a simple mantra that rolls through my head every snatch. Rather than focus on everything, I try to clear away as much as I can and get the main things locked down. I have very few cues, and the cues I have are simple, sequential, and severely limited.
1. Sniff as I pull the bell back.
2. Punch my hips hard.
3. Punch my hand vertically.
4. Sniff as the bell returns back into my hinge.
5. Punch my hips hard.
6. Punch my hand vertically.
Notice how I’ve pared everything back to three words. I want to focus on something because I want my brain engaged, but I don’t want to focus on too much because that, as I talked about in the previous article, is counterproductive.
"Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies." - Mother Teresa (obviously talking about physical strength… right?)
When it comes to habits, I mentioned two different approaches in the previous step. One is to link habits, and the second is to mentally map your behaviour from someone who exemplifies the habit.
Linking habits, which Charles Duhigg talks about, is where you take something that you already do, and then add to it. For example, when I brush my teeth, I will drink a glass of water. Another way of framing this are ‘if/when then statements’. If I feel hungry then I will drink a glass of water and wait ten minutes before eating. When I walk through my front door in the afternoon then I will do three minutes of cross crawls. These types of processes are valuable because they let you piggy back off a thought process, or behaviour that is already ingrained, greatly diminishing the difficulty of application. With these though, the simpler the better. A little bit often goes a long way.
Mapping your self image to a person or an archetype that exemplifies your desired behaviour is powerful because when you view yourself as a runner versus someone who is going to run a marathon, it automatically lets you know what the logical course of behaviour to follow probably is. A runner will run regularly because it’s part of who they are, someone who’s planning to run a marathon will probably run enough to achieve their goal, but it will likely not be a long term habit because once they’ve run a marathon their job is done. James Clear does a fantastic job of explaining this idea in his great book, Atomic Habits. This is less of a specific process and more of a practice of ‘renewing your mind’. If you wake up and think of yourself as a runner, it gives you a fertile ground to make shifts from, and then we can easily build if/when then habits on top of this later on.
Ultimately, all the prior paragraphs in step three can be summarised with the simple rule of thumb that was mentioned above. Good cues should be simple, sequential and severely limited. When you’re training, no more than a couple of short, simple words. When you’re working on habits, a single if/when then statement that is easily applied. If you do this, you’re keeping your eye on the ball and setting yourself up for success.
With all of these things, enough is enough. The more dedicatedly you can focus on a single target, the more easily you can prune away things that will stop you from hitting it. Set your goal, develop your plan, and then master the basics that underly your plan, and you’ll be shocked at what you are capable of.
If we did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves. - Thomas Edison