Every personal trainer knows unequivocally that being consistent with diet and exercise produces desirable results. As obvious as this may be to us, don’t mistakenly assume your clients have a deep understanding of what being consistent really means. Research on exercise frequency and consistency abounds; sharing with your fitness clients the importance of being consistent and what consistency really means may relieve some of the pressure they place on themselves and be more likely to attain their goals.
What Does Being Consistent Mean?
The being “consistent” according to Merriam-Webster is to be “marked by harmony, regularity, or steady continuity: free from variation or contradiction”. I like the first half of that. Finding harmony–a rhythm–in one’s routine is where the magic happens.
We’ve all had a client who blazes into their introductory session with the best of intentions, oozing with enthusiasm and ready to commit to a lifestyle change they believe to be achievable. They proclaimed they will exercise five days a week and you had no reason to doubt that. But, three months later, you’ve figured out that they are showing up to their bi-weekly sessions but not doing the additional work on their own.
That’s okay. Let them know that it’s okay.
We might feel compelled to explain how lifting four to five days a week will optimally produce the hypertrophic growth associated with increased strength and fat loss. However, if your client can only realistically adhere to two to three days a week, then your role is to support them in the commitment to those days and alleviate any guilt associated with the mistaken notion that more days is what is necessary to achieve their goals.
Your Role as Coach
Your job as a coach is to cultivate an understanding of who they are as a person, nail down their unique needs, and help them to capitalize on their strengths.
Results will be realized more slowly, yes. But, what’s more likely to inhibit progress is a self-imposed guilt trip fueled by their trainer’s judge-y line of questioning….”Did you get to the gym this week, Mary??”
Before you lose Mary as a client altogether, lower your own expectations for your client and allow them to lower theirs if initial goals are not being met. You might be surprised to learn that letting them off the hook for the days they aren’t seeing through allows them to be more present for the days that they are. In that, they are still being consistent those two days a week.
The Consistency Trap
More important than frequency, then, is finding that rhythm and maintaining it most of the time. This means that life occassionally happens. Women have babies, professionals lose jobs, divorces upend families. Having a rhythm disrupted does not mean the song has to end. But some folks with an all-or-nothing mentality believe that once they have fallen off the horse, all is lost. Getting back on might feel like the most daunting task because they feel as though all the work they’ve put in has gone poof!
This is where you can teach them about muscle memory. Muscle memory is not just a phrase, it is a studied phenomenon. Researchers have determined that a muscle that was previous hypertrophied, and yet subsequently atrophies, will regain its size far more quickly than muscle fibers never challenged. 1
This is an important concept for your clients to understand. While there is a definite mental hurdle to returning to exercise after a hiatus, the physical challenge will never feel quite as painful as the first time around.
Aside from major life disruptions stalling an exercise program, we can also have an off week time and again. Remind your clients that they deserve some grace, and that missing a workout here and there will not be the destruction of their fitness progress.
Still, current guidelines recommend a minimum amount of physical activity a week (150 cumulative minutes of moderate exercise) in order to attain certain health benefits. We all would do well to explain these guidelines and that truly our minimum goal should be to achieve that much. Your role as a coach is to support and encourage, however—never guilt or shame.
The take-home here is to know the person in front of you, set realistic expectations for them, and if goals are easily met, you can always raise the bar.
How to Encourage Consistency
Motivation, mindset, and consistency are all closely linked. Folks who are intrinsically motivated are also more likely to be more consistent. It’s nice that they have you, but they don’t need you to show up. Good news—some research indicates you may be able to increase your client’s intrinsic motivation.
When we talk about goals at the beginning of the business relationship, they tend to be fairly long-term goals not to be realized until, well, consistency has had a chance to pay off. But the key is to set more proximal goals and to do so within each exercise session. One study found that increasing intrinsic motivation with proximal goals led to increased exercise frequency.2
At the start of each session with your clients, lay out what it is you plan to do with them and what it is you specifically expect them to do.
You might say, “Last week you sprinted on the treadmill for the first time at an 8.0 mph pace for 30 seconds. That was awesome! Today, you’re going to sustain it for 45 seconds and do it twice!”
“I was so impressed last week that you nailed that deadlift technique with a barbell. That was a feat to be proud of! Today, we’re going to load that bar with weight and you’ll do three sets of six reps. I know you can do this and you will feel so powerful!” Naturally, you should have a clear understanding of your client’s abilities and never load them with weight you are uncertain they can handle! The point here is to set a goal within the session that results in a novel and measurable outcome you know they can achieve.
More practically, sticking with the same time of day to work out may also help improve consistency outcomes. One study determined that exercises that reported physical activity at the same time of day every time (and it didn’t matter if it was morning, afternoon, or evening) were more likely to be consistent than folks who were all over the map with workout times.3
Help your clients develop a routine by assigning consistent workout times that work for them and have them schedule it in their calendar.
More Reasons to be Consistent
Outside of exercise outcomes, it turns out exercising consistently has a positive impact on social measures and cognition. A study of 364 exercisers found that those that perceived themselves to be consistent exercisers reported higher self-regulatory efficacy and those that felt they were inconsistent reported more exercise-related cognitive errors. 4
Ultimately, it’s important to impress upon your clients that results are obtained from being consistent, but their version of consistency may look different than someone else’s. Support and encourage them regardless; being results-oriented will help illustrate how being consistent will pay off.