Roman describes the order of progress in any fitness program.
One of the challenges of starting a workout program is cultivating patience. Yes, patience. Results—whether fat loss, muscle gain, or whatever—take time. It’s not enough to get a great workout program and follow it. And almost invariably, it’ll take more time than you’d like it to.
Through the years training clients, I realized the concerns regarding how long it will take will crop up for everybody. So, If you’re on a good program, or just starting one, awesome; this will apply to you. If you haven’t started one, keep this in mind, because you’re going to run into some of this stuff soon.
You don’t need to run to your nearest monk-like cliff to meditate to improve your resolve to wait for results, you may just need a reframe. Fitness results often don’t initially occur in the way clients expect or desire it. It’s a part of our nature to expect results to come quicker than they do in reality. This is a phenomenon known in psychology as the planning fallacy. It explains why construction statistically always takes longer than planned, and why achieving your dream body will take longer than planned as well.
Consequently, throughout my years as a fitness coach, I got a lot of emails after the first few weeks of someone’s program, with questions asking why the results “aren’t” coming. What they were referring to, of course, were their fat loss and muscle gain goals, which, as their principle desire, were subjected to the sinister planning fallacy.
But, these complaints hid results of different metrics within.
“Well, my squat and deadlift went up 20-30 pounds, and I FEEL better, but I still weigh the same.”
“The workouts are much easier than they were before, and I can get through them faster and don’t need as many breaks. Tons of energy, but I just want to see my abs.”
“Well, everything is going great, but my shirts are still baggy in the arms.”
“Everyone is telling me how good I look, but I don’t see it in the mirror.”
Look, friends. Fitness results do happen quickly, sometimes very quickly–but getting the complete package doesn’t happen overnight. The complete package, in addition to taking a long time, is subjected to your planning fallacies. Paradoxically, the results you don’t aim for will appear out of nowhere, out of your mind’s eye until they’re right in front of you. The increase in strength or metabolic conditioning appears without nary a thought given to it.
And then once you get the six-pack abs and tight sleeves, you might not see it, despite searching it. This brings us to the last point, about the mirror. You need to acknowledge and accept that in addition to being your own worst critic, you aren’t going to “see” things clearly. Because you see your body every day, the gradual chances are going to get noticed by other people first. Especially by people who you don’t see regularly.
I remember when was in high school, I had a t-shirt from one of my favorite bands, Less Than Jake. I still remember the unique font the band had—all caps scribble—and its dark heather grey color emblematic of the early 2000’s pop-punk/emo scene. Then, I left for college, and my Less Than Jake t-shirt stayed behind.
When I returned home over Thanksgiving, I slipped on my Less Than Jake tee while in front of the mirror. As I looked in the mirror, I noticed the shirt didn’t fit the way it always had. It was snug, and not in a “Roman got jacked” kinda way. For the first time, I realized I’d gotten pudgy. Because I hadn’t worn that t-shirt for several months, it acted as an anchor—I had a certain image of how I looked (sexy af) in that shirt, and so when I saw myself in it several months later, I didn’t like what I saw. This moment would be a defining moment for my first fitness transformation in college.
For me, the anchor served to show I had gotten out of shape, for you, the opposite will be true. I’m not saying you need that anchor, that old tee you haven’t worn in a while, but keep in mind you won’t notice the changes like those who only see you every few months.
I had one client years ago, Debbie; cool chick, a lawyer at a firm in Chicago. She told me that because she only saw her immediate supervisor at their bi-monthly meetings, he told her that he saw huge changes EVERY time they saw each other.
To you, they’re tiny and infinitesimal and happen click by click. But, for someone who hasn’t seen you in two weeks, 3-5 pounds of weight loss, more muscle density, better posture, improved skin, and more energy is EXTREMELY noticeable.
Make sense? Good.
Now, I’ll acknowledge that the vast majority of people who sign up as clients or hop on a Roman program are looking for fat loss (about 70%). So, my programs are slanted that way. And they’re awesome. But, I can’t alter human physiology and allow for fat loss to happen first thing. You see, in terms of the way progress happens, for MOST people who are intermediate and advanced trainees, it goes like this:
Or, if you like abbreviations, it’s SPFM. That is the process of progress — it’s in that order. Every. Time. Even if some of these things happen concurrently, SPFM will be the order in which they happen preferentially. Advanced trainees or pure mesomorphs will be a bit different. But, for most of us, it’s S.P.F.M., yo. It’s really that simple. And easy to remember. However, to make it easier, I made this picture on an app I’ve been playing with.
Isn’t that pretty!? OMG i luv APPz!
Enough kiddingz. I do, though. And, that happens to be very accurate.
Here’s why all of this happens.
Strength is the first thing to increase for a few reasons, most of these having nothing to do with increasing actual strength, but rather your ability to access your strength. It’s often said that strength is a skill; this means that when you’re training with weights, you’re not just increasing strength, you’re also increasing your skill at lifting them. The more practice you get, the faster you’ll increase your skill.
This is known as motor learning: you’re training your motor units to perform the task. Furthermore, you’re increasing neurological efficiency, or the ability of your nervous system to activate those motor units and allow them to perform the task.
For beginners, this happens particularly quickly; as with anything else, the less skill you have, the easier it is to observe improvements. Of course, you will be getting stronger, but the rapid advancement increase in the weight you can lift has a lot to do with overall efficiency. (I guess it would be more accurate to say “weights increase” instead of “strength increases”, but I’m not editing that picture, so let’s just try and accept it.)
After strength, we have performance. By this, I’m referring to qualities like your strength endurance, aerobic and anaerobic capacities, and some intangibles like coordination. This is easier to understand: the more exposure you have to stress, the more adapted your body becomes to that stress. Training with weights, or at a high level of intensity with any other medium, forces you to adapt to fatigue. Simply stated, you’ll get better at training.
This leads to increased fat loss. While you are probably going to lose a bit of fat pretty early on in the program, people tend to start making real strides about 2-3 weeks into a program. Once you’re adapted to it, you’re going to be able to perform it more intensely. Coupled with the heavier weights you’ll be lifting, the caloric expenditure is going to be much greater on day 25 than it was on day 1.
Finally, we have muscle gain. Hypertrophy is a much slower process than fat loss. It takes both specified training, higher local volume, and a dedicated nutritional program. I could write for ages on this, and I have (and will do more s0), but because it’s a more exacting process, it comes later down the road.
Oh! Something else to consider: even if you’re training for a different goal, you’re still going to see things happen in this sequence. No matter what. Of course, there will be some changes…for example, if you’re eating for muscle gain, you might not experience much fat loss, but you’ll hit strength and performance before the muscle starts to come.
The lesson here is to be a bit patient, and while patience can be hard, I find that understanding the process helps with that. All of which is to say:
And most of all, DON’T be upset that everyone else is telling you how awesome you look and you don’t see it. All of these things will happen. They’ll happen pretty soon, and you’ll get the exact, specific goal you want. BUT–they’ll happen in order. SPFM. Because abbreviations are awesome (or, BAAA).
So, congrats on any and all progress you’ve made so far; congrats on the progress you’ll be making in the weeks to come, and congrats on looking so damn awesome today–that shirt really brings your eyes, by the way.