I have to admit, training ‘heavy’ three times a week is tough. Sometimes all I want to ever do is just stay at home on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday night — especially Friday nights and skip training because sigh, life.
Listen, I’m a powerlifting athlete AND a strength and nutrition coach and I STILL FEEL LIKE SKIPPING TRAINING every day.
But what needs to be done still has to be done.
Let’s face it. Showing up is the hardest part when it comes to getting our daily work out in.
Over the last couple of years too, I’ve experimented in a couple of things when it comes to getting up and training. And I’ve found something that works every single time. It’s not new. I did not invent it, but for the first time I applied it to my life. And I haven’t missed a scheduled workout over the last three months. Take a look.
The Science of Developing a Routine
See when it comes to developing a routine, you’re really developing a new habit. And like any habit building, or any other thing in life for that matter, our brain has a lot of responsibility over this.
Let’s put this into perspective, using ‘turning up for every workout’ as our main example in today’s post.
Old habit: Consistently missing at least one workout a week
New habit: Turning up to every single workout
This may be a little too Sciencey, but the main part of our brain that stores habits is called our basal ganglia, also known as the ‘old brain’ where our instincts and feelings comes from.
On the other hand, when we’re trying to build new habits, our frontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for it, which also happens to be the same part of the brain that is responsible for our willpower and self-discipline.
Like always turning up to every single workout.
Which is why, when it comes to forming new habits, we need to learn how to use the new brain to override our old brain because only then the new, healthier habits we get from the new brain will then become second nature.
Is it motivation? Is it willpower? Heck, is it even scrolling through Instagram #fitfam feed?
Honestly, no. In fact, it’s much more simpler than that. As I mentioned before, this is not new. Studies are happening everywhere looking at how we form habits. I was first introduced to habit formation by Stanford professor, BJ Fogg.
Here’s something you need to know: When it comes to forming habits, it’s actually really a cycle. A very simple cycle.
It does not take motivation. Looking and reading through weight loss transformations stories can help. But you don’t need it.
What you need is a:
- A trigger.
- A routine.
And a reward.
Before we get into each step individually, let’s see how the three step works in a typical habit. Again, I’ll use waking up in the morning to hit the gym as an example because in order for us to consistently show up to every workout, we do need to wake up.
- Your alarm rings acting like a trigger that tells you it’s time to get up and start your day
- You get up and hit the gym. Ideally, this is the routine and it’s an action that happens which follows the trigger.
- You see results. This then acts as a reward for repeating the routine you just built. You want to see what it’s like if you keep repeating the habit and by doing this you then get a reward for doing that.
If the reward is positive, you then naturally want to keep doing what you’re doing each time the trigger happens. Keep repeating it every single time and it’ll become a habit.
So how do you use this habit formation to actually show up to the gym every morning?
Step 1. Find Your Trigger.
A trigger is so critical because it sets a reminder to you.
Remember when I mentioned that motivation may not be enough? Imagine you’re lying there in the morning before gym reading through motivational stories. Chances are you’ll spend too much time doing that, that you’ll probably even lose motivation to hit the gym. Or worse, waste time.
We’re humans. There’s only so much our motivation can help us.
Having a reminder does not require us to remember what to do. It will just naturally nudge us to turn up. How? By using what is already in our basal ganglia as a reminder for our frontal cortex to work.
In simpler terms, use your already formed habits to remind you to do your new habits.
Let me give you an example on how I apply this to my life over the last few years. I do three things before I hit the gym and it’s quite consistent.
I wake up (or stop working in the case of an afternoon workout), have my pre-workout and then brush and floss my teeth.
I know it may sound crazy but I brush my teeth EVERY SINGLE TIME I have to go to training. Even if training is at night.
Brushing and flossing my teeth is a habit that is already in me. It’s not new and I do it all the time. What I simply did was to use that already formed habit as a reminder that after brushing and flossing my teeth, I will need to go to the gym. Naturally, as soon as I’m done brushing and flossing my teeth, I change into my gym clothes and out I go.
It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to eat healthier or hit the gym, your new habit won’t magically form if you don’t set a trigger. Setting this up first can help you conquer that second step of turning up to the gym every morning without worrying about how the weather is like.
How To Choose Your Reminder
Choosing your reminder can take some trial and error, but recently I read an article by one of my favourite habit blogger, James Clear who taught it pretty well.
The easiest way to choose your reminder is by listing down what you already do right now so you can actually see physically see your already formed habits. Remember, we’re simply using our old habits as a trigger to our new habits.
Pick a pen and paper and list all the things you do from the moment you wake up, to the moment you get back in bed to sleep.
Typically, it’ll look like this:
- Wake up.
- Make coffee.
- Brush your teeth.
- Wash your face.
- Have breakfast.
- Start the car.
- Drive to work.
- Lunch at 1pm.
- Drive back home.
- Prepare dinner.
- Sit on the couch and watch TV at 8pm.
- Read a book.
It might seem easy but you’ll be surprised to see what you do on the regular. We’re all creature of habits so we tend to do the same things all the time.
Once you’ve established your list, pick just one thing from that list where you can fit in gym time. I picked brushing my teeth as a cue. For you, it might be washing your face. Or if you work out better at night, ‘drive back home’ can be a trigger to drive to the gym instead. That’s a trigger for you to start exercising right after that.
In simple terms: “After washing my face, I will do a quick ten minute workout.”
By doing that, you’ll be utilizing both parts of your brain, the old and new giving it a good opportunity to find a link.
Step 2: Choose a Routine That Is Super Simple To Do
When someone comes up to me telling me it’s difficult to get up in the morning to go for that run, it’s not because they lack motivation. It’s because they have just committed to something that is way beyond their limits.
Growing up here in Singapore where every single thing is competitive, I’ve been told to push myself even if it’s hard. I’ve been told to start doing the hard ones first and then work myself up. I’ve been told to do things that I really hated in an attempt to love it.
The result? I never really liked doing what I did and no I never really did well in school.
The truth is, in order for you to gain the maximum benefits from your efforts, you have to work yourself up. When you’re starting out, performance does not matter. It does not matter how long you spend exercising. It does not matter how much you can lift. What matters is whether you show up or not.
Which is why when it comes to choosing a routine to form your new habit, choose something that is so easy you cannot say no. If you think that going to the gym is a crazy idea, drop it. Think about doing a quick 7-minute HIIT workout in the comfort of your own home instead.
If you think that is a crazy idea too, then walk up and down your hallway for just five minutes.
Yes, I’m serious.
The most important thing is to build habits at your level.
The harder your habit is, the easier it is for you to give up and you don’t want that.
Linking step one and two, “After washing my face, I will walk up and down my hallway for five minutes.”
That’s realistic and solid and I assure you it’s way easier for you to build even more complex habits in the future.
Step 3: Choose Your Reward
I’m not sure why but we always think it’s ridiculous to compliment ourselves when we’ve just done something awesome.
I used to think it’s silly to pat myself in the back for completing a ten-min run because I didn’t think it was amazing enough.
But it’s a different story for our brain. Our brain craves for compliments. It craves for assurance. And it craves for positive reinforcement.
Complimenting and rewarding yourself associates your routine with good emotions.
Yes, it may seem easy to just walk for five minutes but if you’ve never done it before, your brain needs the assurance that it’s a good thing you’re doing.
Allow yourself to give even the smallest amount of reward. Saying things like – “Good job!” or “You’re awesome!” will go a long way in telling yourself that you have just done something good. Once that is being conveyed to your frontal cortex, chances are they would want to do it over and over again.
Give yourself some credit and your body will appreciate it.
So How Do We Show Up To Every Training Session All The Time?
To summarise here’s what you can do:
- Understand that in order for you to even get up for every workout, you need to form new habits which utilise your frontal cortex.
- To do that, leverage upon what is already in your basal ganglia, a.k.a your old habits, by choosing one old habit as a reminder to form the new habits. Example: Go for a walk every single time after you wash your face.
- Pick a routine that is so easy to do, you can’t say no. Even if it means walking for 5 minutes.
- Keep repeating that routine each time your trigger goes off.
- Reward yourself every single time to strengthen your positive reinforcement.
It may take a while for you to figure out which trigger works best. It may take some trial and error. And it may take some effort but as long as you’re trying, that’s all that matters.
You know the system, put that into test.
And then it doesn’t really matter if it’s raining like crazy outside and all you want to do is sleep in or a hot morning, you will show up to every training session.
It’s a never-ending race to become the best version of ourselves. Whatever it is, I have your back. If you need help, always remember you can email me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now tell me, what do you do to make sure you show up to every training session? Leave a comment below!