Change Your Body By Changing Your Thinking
by Charles Staley T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• Your underlying beliefs about training directly determine your current habits and practices.
• You'll never successfully install a new habit if it conflicts with your beliefs.
• It's a valuable practice to regularly review (and possibly revise) your beliefs to make sure they're as accurate and productive as possible.
Before I begin, let me aggressively assert that this is a practical subject. I know, when anyone throws around words like "values" and "beliefs," your eyes glaze over – you just want something that you can put to use right away, right? Yet I can't think of a subject that can have a more immediate and profound effect on your training as the one I'm going to share now.
If you're a fan of personal productivity books, you've no doubt heard that values play an important foundational role for successful habits. Here's a simple continuum that clearly describes human behavior, both in and out of the gym:
Beliefs → Actions → Outcomes
In other words, your results in life are predicated by the activities you habitually perform, and those activities in turn are driven by your beliefs.
Something that many people miss, however, is that attempting to improve your outcome isn't as simple as changing your behavior, because if your behavior isn't in sync with your beliefs, it won't be sustainable. If the goal is really permanent change, then what we really must do is to change our underlying beliefs.
Looking at it in a different way, your beliefs are like the software program that runs, usually unseen, beneath the surface of your behaviors. This is why it's commonly said that you can determine a person's values by his actions – if your behaviors aren't congruent with your values, they won't last for very long.
With all this in mind, it's a valuable exercise to identify and evaluate our beliefs about training and nutrition to make sure we're running the best possible software.
Are your beliefs productive? Are they rational? Do they spur you to positive outcomes? Further, do you hold the same beliefs today as you did say, 10 years ago? If not, you either had it all mastered then, or (and this is far more likely), you haven't grown much over that time.
Incidentally, your personal growth occurs in direct proportion to your willingness to expose yourself to, and be open to, ideas that conflict with the ones you presently hold. Of course, it's much more comfortable to surround yourself with people that agree with your view of life, but there's also no faster way to put the brakes on your personal growth.
Here's a list of beliefs that I used to hold, contrasted with my current views on the same subjects. Looking at this list, clearly I've grown over the years, and I'm grateful for that.
My Former Belief:
Machines Are "Bad."
This characterizes my view on machine training for most of my career. My belief was that machines were simply the lazy man's way of trying to get results without bothering to learn any real skills. I also argued that machines had little transfer to real-life, "functional" activities.
My Current Belief:
Machines Have Certain Advantages That Free Weights Do Not.
I must credit Bret Contreras for helping me to see the light on this one. Specifically, Bret argued persistently that my lack of quad strength and development was holding back my squat progress, and that I should include leg extensions in my regular training.
Now to give you a bit of background, my quads suck mostly due to long levers and several knee surgeries, both of which contribute to my difficulty in doing any type of squat that hits my quads to a significant degree. Even doing front squats only results in hamstring and adductor soreness for me.
I hadn't done leg extensions in many years and I was still dubious when I strapped in for the first set back in July. As soon as I took my first rep, I could feel a very pronounced burn in my quads. It was so significant that it felt like it was the first time my quads had ever contracted.
Sitting here today, I still don't have quads that would turn anyone's head on the street, but they're bigger and stronger than they've ever been at any previous time in my life, and I'm 54.
As far as transfer goes, I've been wrong about it all these years. Think about this: when you first did a bench press, how much could you lift? It doesn't matter what your answer is, you could bench press some amount of weight, right? So where did that strength come from? Certainly not from bench presses, since up to that point you'd never done them before.
This example illustrates the concept of positive transfer. Sure, strength transfers better from one "like" activity to another, but these movements don't need to be as similar as we might assume. Your knees extend during a leg extension, and they also extend during a squat – that's similar enough to create a degree of positive transfer.
Things Are Either "Good" Or "Bad."
The human mind is incredibly predisposed toward bifurcate thinking. Life just seems a lot easier if you quickly categorize everything as good or bad, smart or stupid, healthy or poisonous, effective or ineffective. The only problem is, almost nothing in life really works this way. If you run this software, your behavior will not be as effective as it could be.
It's Not An Either/Or Proposition.
I initially arrived at this change of belief when I observed hardcore "natural" food advocates debate their dirty-eating Facebook friends online. I noticed that to many people, foods are either absolutely good or absolutely bad, with no middle ground whatsoever.
As someone who enjoys many "non-approved" foods on a daily basis (while maintaining a very high standard of health and fitness), I posited a question: Would it harm one's health in any way if he or she ate one serving of the worst food imaginable once a month, while eating the healthiest foods imaginable the rest of the time?"
When I posed this question to my most hardcore, raw vegan, Monsanto-hating Facebook friends, all I heard was crickets – because, of course your health wouldn't be harmed!
The truth is, nothing is inherently good or bad. Every exercise you perform and every programming philosophy should be viewed as tools that have varying degrees of utility depending on the larger context of how they're applied.
My Former Belief:
Strike While The Iron Is Hot.
For much of my career I held the belief that you never know when you might hit a big lift in the gym, and that when such moments seem imminent, you should seize the opportunity while you have it. Part of my reasoning was that the confidence-boost from hitting a great (albeit unplanned) lift was worth taking advantage of.
My Current Belief:
Training Is a Process, Not An Experience.
While I still believe that it's a great confidence and energy boost to hit a new PR, my thinking over the years has gradually changed. From my experiences with and observations of the world's most successful athletes and coaches, I've come to believe that training should be viewed as a process. The fact is, the more an athlete views his training this way, the more mature his approach to training is.
One of the most valuable features of using a program like Jim Wendler's awesome Beyond 5/3/1 is that it imposes a level of maturity on you that you wouldn't otherwise achieve on your own.
All well-designed programs institute a gradual, progressive increase in loading, which allows a base to be developed before your fitness levels reach a peak. In other words, they force you to be patient and mature. Let's face it, the constant desire we all have to hit a new PR (or to take a bigger attempt than what reason would suggest) is frankly a sign of insecurity.
A better approach is to adopt a more sober, mature, workmanlike approach to your training. When the PR's come, enjoy them, but it doesn't change the fact that you'll be back in the gym tomorrow, grinding away as always.
Similarly, a bad workout isn't the end of the world, either. Good and bad workouts will come and go, but the best athletes are focused on the process, not individual experiences.
Self Evaluation Leads To Better Practices
If you've ever tried to adopt a new habit or practice only to find that you couldn't make it stick, it's probably because that new habit didn't line up with your belief system. In such cases, it's useful to consider whether the underlying belief is in need of revision.
I regularly review and revisit my own beliefs because I know they ultimately determine how I conduct my training and nutritional habits. I also regularly "reverse engineer" my behaviors, which includes not only the things I do, but also the things I don't do.
If you've had significant changes in your own beliefs that have lead to newer, better practices, I'd love to hear from you in comments below!