I’m Feeling Discouraged About My Slow Progress in the Gym. What Should I Do?

I’m feeling discouraged about my slow progress in the gym. What should I do?

You’ve been putting in the time, working tirelessly to ditch fat and sculpt your muscles. But things are moving at a glacial pace. You’re losing motivation, doubting your efforts, and struggling to stay positive.

And we get it: Transformations take hurculean effort and an endlesss amount of patience—but so does anything worth doing.

To help guys get through their ruts, we’ve enlisted the help of Stephen Graef, Ph.D., sports psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and Mike Krajewski, C.S.C.S., owner of MK Fitness in Nashville, TN. Together, they’ve shared their top tips for anyone looking for that extra ounce of ambition and advice. Here’s how to train smarter and combat slow progress in the gym, mentally and physically. 

1. Drop-kick negative thoughts

This is basic psychology: When negativity starts polluting your motivation, challenge these thoughts with positive ones. It’s easy to doubt every endeavor before an obstacle even presents itself, and feel like a failure if the progress just isn’t there yet. “For instance, you think you’ll never get fit or there’s no way you’ll ever be able to run a marathon,” Graef says. “Stop yourself and think about what you’ve been able to accomplish in your lifetime—you’ve set and achieved goals before, and you’ll do it again,” he adds.

Reaffirming you can, in fact, run a marathon can completely change your motivation. “You might not necessarily believe it off the bat, but the more you practice self-affirmation, the more fluent you’ll become in speaking that positive language,” Graef says. 

2. Don’t let doubts become realities

That crappy, insidious part of your brain that likes to bare its claws and leech poisonous self-doubt into your psyche? Acknowledge its presence, then overcome it. Not every pessimistic thought has to come to fruition.

Think about it: “If every single one of your thoughts came true, you’d probably be dead or in jail,” Graef says. Negative impulses—like: I’m going to be a failure or There’s no way this weight loss going to happen—don’t have to defeat you if you can bat them down. 

3. Summon some courage

“Forcing confidence is what people do when they’re doubtful of their abilities—they think they have to be 100% certain they’re going to achieve something,” Graef says. While this seems like a logical mind trick, the fake-it-’till-you-make-it-approach isn’t always the healthiest method. “You don’t have to think you’ll smash it, just have the courage to try,” Graef recommends instead. “Courage is something you can leverage when you’re not feeling confident.” So while you might think your scheduled six-mile run or benchmark WOD will be your undoing, having the nerve and grit to give your all, despite the outcome, can keep you hungry for progress and less likely to feel deflated. 

4. Create checkpoints

Celebrate small achievements. Connecting with your process is vital, because it makes the journey toward your ultimate destination much more manageable. If you’re trying to grow stronger, credit yourself every time you make the bar or free weights heavier, and every time you hit a new personal best. Stay locked in the moment while looking ahead. Every time you vanquish those mini-goals, you’ll be rewarded with a confidence boost. It adds a steady amount of fuel to your motivation. Just be deliberate, realistic, and specific about what these targets are and what they look like. 

5. Stop comparing 

Human nature, whether it’s out of evolutionary necessity or not, nudges us to size ourselves up against one another. If you’re feeling discouraged about how long it’s taking to see muscle definition in your arms, for your endurance to build itself up, or for your mile time to speed up, “remind yourself you’re running your own race, both figuratively and literally,” Graef says. “There’s always going to be someone faster and fitter, but the sooner you realize that and come to peace with it, the better,” he adds. You won’t necessarily grow the same or progress as fast as the next guy. You’re working with your body’s own unique shape, strengths, and idiosyncrasies.

Realize this: You don’t have to be the best, but you can be your best. Just max out any untapped potential.

6. Make a plan

Don’t make it too easy to fail from the get-go. If you want to start running or training for a race and you start off attempting a 10-mile run, you’re screwing yourself over. Same goes for adding muscle and dropping fat. You can’t expect an amazing transformation outside of a month. This all comes down to being clear about what you want to accomplish. Ask yourself what your goals are and recognize what ‘progress’ really means, Krajewski says. “If your goals are for strength, then progress is simply getting stronger than when you started,” he says. “And if your goals are for improved body composition, then progress would be when you’ve lost a percentage of body fat and increased lean muscle mass.” Don’t discount small steps forward as not being lofty enough. That said, if you aren’t getting any stronger and feel lost in the gym, then you need to consult with a professional that can guide you to get the gains you’re striving for, he adds. 

“Way too many weekend warriors simply walk in without any real direction,” Krajewski says. Mindlessly hitting up a few routines with no real method behind your reps, sets, and rest is a waste of time. Be realistic with a program you can see yourself actually finishing. (These 10 programs can completely transform your physique and they take all the guesswork out of the equation).

One way to hold yourself accountable? Tell people about your endeavor. “Make an honest post on Facebook or Instagram about your goals,” he recommends. “You’ll be surprised how much harder you push yourself when you’ve announced to a few hundred friends you’re trying to lose 20lbs before summer,” he adds. 

7. Create your own personal mantra 

“When I’m experiencing pain or fatigue, I say ‘Navy SEAL,’” Graef says. “In my mind, a Navy SEAL is a total badass, someone who can deal with pain, and can push past physical fatigue, and these associations keep me going.” Find your own power word or phrase.

It doesn’t have to be something that’ll make sense to anyone else, either. The more personal your mantra is, the better.

8. Visually track your progress

There are apps to help you monitor every calorie you burn and eat, but to keep your mind in the game, marking up an old-fashioned calendar is an amazing way to stay encouraged. If your goal is to move every single day, cross each day off when you do so. Checking something you’ve done off a list is inherently satisfying. Plus, when you’ve got a three-day streak going in your week, that visual cue can psychologically enhance your motivation because you won’t want to break it. Visually mapped out, your goals become a conquest.

Put that calendar in a place when you can see it, too. If you have to look at that calendar every day, it’ll remind you of that desire.

9. Just take one step

It would be awesome if you were motivated and positive every day, but it’s not realistic. Any challenge is exactly that—a challenge—and some days you’ll feel sore, beat-up, or downright unmotivated to do much. But you don’t have to feel good to do good. If you’re not in the mood to heave some heavy metal or pound the pavement, taking one step in the right direction will have a much stronger impact on sticking with your goals than not taking a step at all. (Just be mindful of overtraining.)

10. Go easy on yourself

“This might be a little ’70s-namaste-smoke-peyote kind of stuff, but nevertheless be gentle and stop being so damn hard on yourself,” Graef says. “You’re looking at other people’s success and thinking you’re falling short.” But a huge part of this process is recognizing you’re good enough and fully capable of change. You’ve got your entire life to continue to grow.  

In short: Never compare your practice sessions to someone else’s highlight reel.

11. Embrace variety

If you’re experiencing subdued progress, 99% of the time it’s due to a plateau. To break through a slump in the gym, you need a shake up. “Our muscles have an amazing ability to adapt super quickly to a stressor, so if you’re performing the same workout (stressor) every week for more than 4-6 weeks, you’ll need to induce a new adaptation,” he explains. Talk to a trainer, and mix your gym routine up with our workouts and workout programs.

12. Partner up

“Adding some extrinsic motivation in the form of a workout partner will cure a gym slump up in no time,” Krajewski says. Having someone to keep you accountable, excited to sweat with, and able to push you (and keep the bar from falling on your chest) is always a good idea.

No partner in sight? New to the neighborhood? Hiring a trainer can be a bona-fide way to stay on track and find your footing with confidence.

13. Take progress pics

“Ditch the scale, because sometimes your physique makes awesome changes and the number on the scale doesn’t,” Krajewski says. “Muscle weighs more than fat, so focus on what you can physically see.” Take progress snapshots of yourself from the front, side, and back. Plow through your program for four weeks, then take more pictures. “Once people start seeing positive physiological changes occur before their eyes, something special starts happening to their motivation,” he adds. 

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