The Real Reason You're Not Making Gains

by Charles Staley

The Harsh Truth About Discipline and Work Ethic

This is either going to make you feel better or feel worse about your training progress. Either way, you'll learn something valuable.

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. Once you’re past the newbie stage, gains come slower. The natural assumption is that you’re doing something wrong.
  2. Stop lying to yourself. No magic program is going to solve your work ethic problem.
  3. Even if you find the “perfect” program, it won’t work unless you do. Even not-so-good training programs work if you hit them hard.
  4. There’s a difference between motivation and discipline. Motivation is the desire to do a task, while discipline is the ability to get yourself to do a task when you don’t feel like doing it.
  5. Build your discipline muscle. Go to the gym even if you don’t feel like it. A “bad” workout is better than a skipped workout, and nutting up will feel good.

A Predictable Pattern

When you first started training, the gains came easy. Life was great, and you became hooked. Every workout, you hit a new PR on almost every lift. Then, little by little –almost indiscernibly at first – your progress began to slow. With each passing month, you have less and less to show for your efforts.

Naturally, you begin to take stock of your situation. You pour through your training journal looking for clues. You start reading articles, watching videos, and talking to your training buddies. Because, obviously, you’re doing something wrong.

Or are you? And if so, what? It’s a lot more comforting to assume that you’re doing the wrong thing than it is to conclude that the “thing” you’re doing is just fine, but that you’re just not working that thing hard enough.

Magic Programs, Magic Exercises

This search for external solutions typically takes the form of magic programs and magic exercises. Whenever you become aware of a “new” program or exercise, it’s very compelling to think that you’ve finally found the answer to your dwindling gains.

Maybe squatting every day is the solution. Or perhaps Escalating Density Training is the answer. Or CrossFit. Or occlusion training. Or hip thrusts. Or 5/3/1. Or Olympic lifts.

Look, all of these are fine (heck, I actually created one of them), but they’re not likely to be the bottleneck, not by a long shot. If you’ve ever fallen prey to thinking that your lack of progress is due to external factors, don’t feel bad, we all have. Looking for external solutions is just human nature, but it’s a lie.

Two Truths About Training

I don’t care what training method you use, what exercises you do, what diet you’re on, or what supplements you take – if you’re not consistently working very hard on a long-term basis, it’s not going to pay off.

The common denominator isn’t the method, it’s you. That might seem like a bitter pill to swallow, but there’s a bright side: You have full control over your consistency and work ethic. It doesn’t cost anything, and no one can take it away from you.

Truth 1

As you become more experienced, you’ll need to do more and more work for less and less gain. A beginner can put 10 pounds on his squat every week, but eight years down the road, he’ll be thrilled with 10 pounds a year.

All forms of biological adaptation follow this pattern. The closer you get to your genetic ceiling, the slower the adaptations come. I bring up this point to make you aware of the (admittedly depressing) fact that plateaus are inevitable at some point. It doesn’t mean you’re using the wrong methods, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.

Truth 2

Even the best methods require consistent hard work. Even if you manage to find that “perfect” program, diet, or exercise, it won’t do a thing for you without hard, consistent work. And oddly enough, even “iffy” programs deliver in spades when you go after them hard enough.

Bottom Line

Worry less about the program and more about your personal work ethic.

So What Should You Do If You’re Stuck?

Powerlifter Greg Nuckols has a simple flow chart to use when you’re not making progress:

Most people who aren’t making progress will probably land on “work harder.”

The Real Solution: Discipline

A lot of people confuse the terms “motivation” and “discipline.” Here’s the difference:

  • Motivation: The desire to do a task.
  • Discipline: The ability to get yourself to do a task when you don’t feel like doing it.

This discipline thing is the magic solution to your bottleneck. Discipline is simple to understand, but difficult to do. There’s no way to circumvent it. It can’t be learned from a book. It can’t be bought. We all struggle with it and no one gets a free pass. It can, however, be developed.

Train your discipline like you would a muscle. Start with small challenges at first. Maybe you’re exhausted today and would normally skip your workout. Force yourself to go anyway, even if you just half-ass your workout. Just go and do what you can. A handful of positive things will happen when you challenge yourself in this way:

  1. It probably won’t be as bad as you imagined.
  2. You’ll probably get a better workout than you envisioned. A “bad” workout is much more valuable than a skipped workout.
  3. You’ll feel surprisingly good about yourself for nutting-up and getting shit done despite not feeling like it.
  4. These experiences will make it far more likely that you’ll exert discipline the next day, and in other areas of your life.

As a parting thought, retired Navy SEAL and co-author of the bestselling “Extreme Ownership” was recently asked what he does when he just doesn’t feel like doing something. His reply: “I do it anyway.”

That’s how simple – and powerful – discipline is. It’s almost, dare I say, magic.