If you’ve read the articles on Lift Like a Girl for a while, you know I’m an advocate of training for performance. After all, it’s one of the cornerstone principles of the Lift Like a Girl Manifesto.
It’s been my suggestion for years that women (and men) should focus solely on what their body can do and that the goal of any workout program should be to get stronger, and do just a little better than last time.
Striving for slow, gradual progress with your workout performance is what it’s all about, and the results people have achieved by doing so have spoken for themselves.
Not only does this approach allow you to achieve the better-looking-body results you desire (less fat, sexy muscle in the right places) but it also allows you to reap additional, perhaps even better, benefits as well.
It’s my experience that maintaining a focus on workout performance is a terrific way to keep workout motivation elevated long-term, thus allowing you to keep making progress year after year, and it’s why I still encourage you to focus on what your body can do instead of being obsessed with how it looks.
However, there’s a potential darkside to training for performance, and it’s something I should have addressed a long time ago.
Better late than never, I suppose.
First, a little background information.
When it comes to tracking progress, especially in regards to fat loss, many people can benefit from staying off the bathroom scale completely. The reason is simple: many people, when they weigh on a near-daily basis, become obsessed with that number. Same thing applies to body fat percentage too. If the number doesn’t decrease fast enough, people get upset and feel like they failed.
They revolve their perception of success on that number.
And that’s why I encourage most people to avoid the scale, and even body fat percentage trackers, completely and focus on performance instead.
But I’ve noticed that more and more people are applying this same near-obsession to their workout performance too. And it’s something I’ve experienced as well. Looking back at my strength training journey over the past 10 years, I’ve allowed myself at times to get too caught up in my workout performance. I began to expect myself to get stronger or do a little better every single workout. If I had a bad workout or didn’t improve as much as I wanted, I got upset with myself.
It’s in that reflection that I realized some potential down-falls to training for performance that I want to discuss here in addition to how we can combat this issue.
The Darkside to Training for Performance
Just how we can become obsessed with our weight, clothing size, and other “success” markers, there can be some negatives to focusing exclusively on performance such as:
1. Getting obsessed with reaching a certain goal, and if you don’t reach it quick enough, or worse yet, not at all, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Let’s say you want to perform a chin-up for the first time, or perhaps you want to squat one and a half times your bodyweight. These are great performance-based goals, but you shouldn’t become obsessed with achieving them.
Personally, I’ve been very disappointed with myself if I failed to reach a strength goal, or didn’t achieve it quick enough.
2. Get caught up in comparing our performance to others. Just like many of us feel pressured to look a certain way, it’s easy to start comparing ourselves to our friends or others at the gym. We see how much weight our friends lift, and we think we should lift that much too. We can end up defining ourselves by the number on the barbell.
Training solely for strength or performance doesn’t automatically prevent us from the habit of comparing ourselves to others, but doing so only causes more harm than good. While there’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition, and in fact, training with people stronger than you can be a terrific motivator, the problems arise when we compare ourselves to them and feel bad if we “come up short”.
3. Can get overzealous in an attempt to reach a goal and get injured in the process. This one I know, again, from personal experience. When we go on a fat loss journey we want to lose it immediately and see results, fast. The same thing can happen when we try to get stronger – we want it to happen as quickly as possible. Sometimes we even push our bodies too hard, too fast, and can risk getting hurt.
4. Can get obsessed with improving our performance week after week. While this is possible as a beginner, once you reach intermediate to advanced training levels, those improvements come in much smaller, and less frequent, increments. We get to a point where we expect, and demand, that we do better every single workout and when that doesn’t happen, we’re disappointed.
And . . .
5. If we don’t improve each and every workout, we feel like we’re doing something wrong or that we’ve failed, or that the workout was a complete waste of time since we didn’t improve our performance. If you’ve been focusing on strength and improved performance with your workouts, I’ll bet you nodded your head in agreement with this one.
Just like with any other goals we set, striving to improve our performance every workout is no exception. If we don’t accomplish what we set out to do, we may feel like we failed or wasted our time.
But here’s the great news. Now that we know the potential negatives to training for performance, we can come up with a solution to reign victorious and defeat the darkside.
How to Defeat the Darkside
First, you must realize that your success and self-worth are not related to your workout performance. Never let a bad workout make you feel like you failed and don’t get obsessed with improving your workout performance every single time. Sure, it’s a great goal to strive to get stronger and do a little better every time, but you can’t do better every single time indefinitely.
While a beginner strength trainee is likely to improve his/her performance every workout for several months straight, things slow down once you reach intermediate training status. That’s why, once you reach an intermediate, and especially advanced, strength training status, it may be time for you to start experimenting with intuitive strength training. At its core intuitive strength training is about learning how to listen to your body so you can reap the most from your workouts; you’ll learn to take advantage of the awesome days, but you’ll also learn to back off when your body is saying, “I just don’t have it today”.
Being able to adopt this approach is very beneficial because it allows you to realize that you’re not going to improve your performance every workout while encouraging you to take advantage of the days you feel great. As a result, you won’t be focused on your performance with every single workout but will be able to see a larger picture – the importance of gradual, consistent improvement, of course, but over weeks and months and not necessarily every single day.
Sometimes you’ll have so-so workouts, and you’ll also have horrible workouts where you feel weak as a kitten. But when you look at the big picture, you can accept the fact that not-so-awesome-workouts are part of the process and nothing to get discouraged from. In fact, these workouts can provide valuable lessons such as being able to respect your body when it needs a break, patience (because you can’t always do things when you want, and getting stronger is no exception), and knowing you’ll come back stronger on another day.
Don’t get too caught up in trying to be perfect and achieving your specific goals. The best thing you can do is take a deep breath and learn to enjoy the journey. Whether you want to deadlift a massive amount of weight or you’re working toward performing your first chin-up, learn to enjoy the process and everything that comes with it, including the workouts when you don’t improve your performance.
Bottom line – keep your workouts centered around improving your performance, getting stronger, and being proud of what your body can do. Realize that you’ll have good days, great days, not so good days, and downright terrible days. But resist the temptation to allow your performance, progress, or a single workout to affect your mood and determine your success and self-worth.
And don’t forget what this journey is all about: becoming the most awesome version of yourself in a way that fits your preferences and lifestyle, and working at your own pace.