You'll almost never walk into the gym and hear someone say, "You should do something easy today."
But after 10 years of training, embracing slow, easy gains has been one of the most important lessons I've learned.
In fact, this lesson applies to most things in life. And it comes down to the difference between progress and achievement. If you're interested in doing quality work years from now, not just days from now, hear me out.
The Difference Between Progress And Achievement
Our society is obsessed with achievement. This is especially true in the gym.
I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else. Last week, a guy at my gym clean and jerked 325 pounds and made it look easy. My first question to him was, "What's your max?"
I didn't say, "How is your training going?" or "Have you been making progress recently?" but rather, "What is the absolute maximum weight you can do?"
My question was all about what he could achieve, not how he has progressed.
And you'll find this mentality everywhere. Nobody is going to celebrate you for going up 1 pound per week. Everybody wants you to try for 10 more pounds right now.
Here's the problem: A focus on achievement in the here and now usually comes at the expense of slower, more consistent progress. Achievement is so ingrained in our culture that we often ignore progress. Of course, focusing on progress would ultimately lead to higher achievement, but it's easy to dismiss that fact when you want to set a new PR today.
I'm still learning to embrace this principle myself, but I'm getting better at it. Here's what I've learned about training for slow progress rather than immediate achievement.
1. Slow Gains Add Up
Taking it slow adds up faster than you think.
I want you to go into the gym this week, pick your favorite lift, and lift 1 pound more than you did last week. You are not allowed to do 2 pounds more. Only 1 pound.
Do you think you could do that? Most people would be like, "Of course. That's easy." And they're right.
If you do that every week, you'll add 50 pounds to your lifts in the next year. Stick with that for two years, and you're lifting 100 pounds more.
How many people do you know who are lifting 100 pounds more than they were two years ago? I don't know many. Most people are so obsessed with squeaking out an extra 10 pounds this week that they never find the patience to make slower—but greater—long-term gains.
It all comes down to the power of average speed. The next two years are going to come and go. The time will pass anyway. Might as well be climbing the whole time.
2. Slow Gains Help You Handle Intensity Later On
For some reason, we think that starting easy and improving slowly is a waste of our time. It's not.
When you start with easy weights—and I think this is especially important in the beginning—you build the capacity to do work. If you're getting back in the gym after a long break, I think that at least the first month of lifting should be easy.
For some reason, society has convinced us that if your heart rate isn't above 150 beats per minute and you don't feel gassed at the end of your workout, you haven't done yourself any good. I disagree. If you actually add a little weight each week and don't miss workouts, it will get hard enough, fast enough. Trust me.
Build a foundation of strength with easy workouts and a lot of volume. Do 1,000 reps over the next few months, and let your body learn how to move through space. Slowly go up each week. By this time next year, you'll be able to handle the heavy weights with ease.
3. Slow Gains Foster Recovery
The human body has an amazing ability to adapt—if you give it space to do so.
When you place a stimulus on your body, it will either find a way to handle it, or die. In the case of weightlifting, your body will build muscle and bone tissue, and you'll gradually become stronger. Small, consistent gains give your body just enough stress to grow and just enough time to recover.
But if you try to push your body Too far, too fast, it will find a different way to adapt. Namely, inflammation, injury, and stress. You might be able to add 10 pounds per week for a few weeks, but this pace will catch up to you pretty soon, and you'll find yourself sitting on the couch trying to get healthy.
Hard, Hard, Hurt Vs. Slow, Slow, Never Stop
If you want to get in shape, get stronger, and reach your full potential, there is nothing more important than building the habit of getting in the gym and not missing workouts. Stop trying to make up for the fact that you're inconsistent by going harder when you're there. Long-term progress doesn't work that way. Instead, train yourself to work out regularly and to slowly add weight.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this: Are you just trying to put up a big number right now? Or are you really in this for the long haul?
Most people train in this cycle: hard, hard, hard, hurt.
I'd rather go slow, slow, slow, never stop.