Self-Motivation at the Gym: Tracking Your Progress, Setting Goals and Finding Role Models

One of the hardest parts of going to the gym and building muscle is finding the motivation every day to actually get up and go. When you’ve had a long day at work/school and you’ve maybe travelled on the bus to get home, all you want to do sometimes is sit down and watch your favourite sitcom with some peanut butter toast and a cup of tea (well that’s me anyway). The last thing you’ll want to do is to get up, get changed into your gym kit, make another journey through heavy traffic, and then start lifting weights in a sweaty room with a bunch of other guys for an hour.

Fortunately, there are some ways you can help motivate yourself to make sure you do get up, and to help ensure that once you actually are at the gym you find the energy and drive you need to have a great and muscle building workout.

Track Your Progress

One method of motivating yourself to go to the gym each day is to closely monitor your progress. Depending on your goals you can do this either by taking intermittent photographs of your progress (one every month for example), by measuring the size of your biceps/chest/legs and keeping a log of your progress, by measuring the actual size of the weights you’re lifting and keeping a log of that too (you can even plot these last two onto a chart to see a trend of improvement hopefully) or by weighing yourself to see how much weight you’re managing to lose.

Using one of these methods will enable you to see yourself slowly improving which can be a great boost. There’s something highly addictive about making small incremental improvements and as you see yourself getting closer and closer to your goal you should find that you gain an extra amount of determination and focus for your workouts. This also means you’ll get a solid sense of achievement at regular intervals and what will feel like a reward for all your hard work. Not only is this great for you from a psychological standpoint, but the actual noting down of your progress will also help you in other ways – to monitor what’s working and what’s not and help you further tailor your workouts. So really whether you’re experiencing a lack of motivation or not you should be using some form of measurement for your progress.

Setting Goals

Once you are measuring your progress you should also be setting goals for yourself. These should be both long-term and short-term and be achievable while not limiting yourself. For example, you might say that in one month you want to add half an inch to your biceps but that by the end of the year you want them to be an extra four inches in total. Here, the more goals you set the better – for example if you just set the goal of the extra four inches then it will be a year before you get the feeling that you’ve achieved anything and on off days when training isn’t going well it might seem like you’re never going to accomplish that lofty aim.

If then by the end of the year you actually haven’t managed to achieve it then that will be a crushing blow that may well destroy all your motivation. However if you have several short-term goals, perhaps at the end of each month, then the pressure is always on and a deadline is always just around the corner. At the end of every month you should hopefully get that feeling of accomplishment as you tick off your personal challenges and move towards that ultimate goal. If you then fail to achieve one then you won’t be completely demotivated as another chance will be just four weeks away. If you do achieve it though, you are actually able to watch your ambitions become manifest as you tick off the obstacles on your way to greatness.

You need to keep these short-term goals highly achievable however. So many people I know have promised me they’re starting these crazy training routines out of the blue. They’ve said that they’re taking on these immense Olympian challenges and going to add an extra 3 stone of muscle by the end of the year. Unsurprisingly they quickly become bogged down by their training and lose their motivation as they seem unable to achieve their aims. If only they’d started out with something more believable and doable they’d probably have stuck it out for a bit longer – it’s hard to give up something you’re doing well at.

At the same time however if you have an ultimate goal then feel free to make it as lofty as you like; you can achieve almost anything and if you set yourself the goal that you really want then you’ll be working towards something that really speaks to you. Furthermore, if your goal is easy and you achieve it… what then?

Find a Mentor/Role Model

Another similar method is to find a role model or idol who has something close to your ideal physique. For me it’s Sylvester Stallone in Rocky 4, but you can select anyone you want. This is a great way to keep yourself motivated as it’s something you can actually see.

If you want to really go Rocky style you could blu-tack a photo of them to your mirror or wall next to a picture of yourself as you improve. Search ‘bodybuilders’ or something similar in Google and browse through the images to find someone who appeals to you, or if you want something less dramatic perhaps try ‘topless footballers’ or ‘male models’ – just make sure you delete your browsing history or it might look a little bit strange that you’ve been searching for that… (and don’t make the mistake I made of saving loads of topless pictures of yourself and other men on your desktop or in your pictures folder – especially if your screensaver browses through those pictures).

Make sure when you pick your bodily role model that they’re someone who is a similar height and stature to yourself. Try as hard as you like in the gym but I’m afraid you’re never going to make yourself taller and if you role model is 6’5″ and you’re 4’9″ you’re going to have very different capabilities, body shapes and training routines.

An added bonus of using this kind of motivation is that you can then try and see what worked for that bodybuilder/movie star and try and mimic their routines. There’ll almost certainly be information on the internet if it’s a body that impresses a lot of people and that should help give you some guidelines for how to train. Also look into their diet and general lifestyle and if you’ve picked someone who’s a similar height then you should be able to make the most of adopting these.

Remember the Reasons

Importantly, try to remember why you go to the gym in the first place – what it is that started you on this journey. Was it for general health? Was it for larger arms? Why was it that you wanted to be stronger? To attract the opposite sex? To do better in sports? Try and remember the reasons you’re doing this and the cost of not being motivated anymore – are you really willing to throw all that away?

You might think that it won’t hurt to have one day off, to put your legs up just for an hour after a hard day’s work – but the truth of the matter is that it’s the start of a slippery slope. It’s this mind-set that will eventually lead to your downfall as time and again you ‘let yourself off’. If you truly want to be successful then you need to go every day you intended to when you wrote your programme. Unless you are sick, on holiday, or there’s some kind of family emergency, you mustn’t let yourself fall into the trap of taking days off. Apart from anything else it will mess up your routine and put it out of sync and particularly to begin with it’s crucial that you get your body into a steady and predictable pattern.

Now ask yourself, did you not set out with a set of clear goals and a well outlined plan of what you were going to do? Are you really going to let all that slide just because you’ve have a rough day? Are you a man or a mouse? Try to see your tiredness as just part of the challenge and as something you have to overcome. A bit of work related stress shouldn’t be enough to take you out of the game and you know that. If you quit now you’ll be letting yourself down. Do you think Batman stops training when he’s had a hard day at Wayne Enterprises? Bruce Lee? If you want to get the body of one of your heroes then you need to start acting like one!

So self-talk and the prospect of failure are one method you can use, but if your lazy inner voice has always been your loudest one, then perhaps it would help to also tell your goals to friends and family. Tell them precisely what you’re going to do and then you’ll have the added peer pressure of knowing that they’ll all see you as a failure if you give in.

If your friends think you’re being overly ambitious and won’t make it then that’s even better – you can make a bet with them that you will and then you have money at steak too and the prospect of a reward and the chance to gloat if you succeed. On the other hand you might find that close family are supportive of your self-improvement plan and try and help you get to the gym day in and out. If you live with a partner or your parents you can ask them to help you even – maybe hiding the television box until you’ve done your workout. You may hate them at the time but in the long run they’ll be doing you a favour. You have to be cruel to be kind!

Find a Fitness Buddy

The more obvious way to get motivation from an outside party is to start going to the gym with a training buddy. This can be helpful in a myriad of ways. The first and most obvious is that now if you don’t go to the gym you won’t just be affecting yourself – you’ll be letting down your friend and stifling his progress too. If you drop out of a training session now you know you’re going to have to make that sheepish and embarrassing phone call where you explain your reasons and you know you’re going to get a lot of abuse from their end. It might seem easier just to go to the damn gym!

Another way that a training buddy is great for motivation is in that they can provide competition – one of the best ways to motivate yourself that I know. Just think, every time you don’t go to the gym and they do they’re getting slightly bigger while you sit and whither. They’re showing themselves to be made of sterner stuff and be more determined and they’ll be perfectly within their rights to rub this in every time you go to the pub. Could you live with yourself? Once you’re in the gym too you’ll be motivated by having someone around who’s constantly lifting more than you – it might be just the incentive you need to go up one more weight on the pec dec.

Furthermore, by having a gym partner around you can more safely go up a weight on things like the bench press knowing that you’re not going to drop it on your face and decapitate yourself. If they’re a good gym buddy you should find that they motivate you too. Get them to enthuse in your ear and refuse to take the weights until you’ve done your full set – even if they’re doing most of the heavy lifting by the end. You’ll be surprised what the egging on of a friend can accomplish when you think you’re spent.

Fitting Bodybuilding Into Your Life

While I’ve stressed again and again the importance of sticking religiously to your regime, it’s also important that you make sure you allow yourself some flexibility to help fit your training programme in your lifestyle. The way I achieve this is to have ‘floating’ off days. This means that rather than having my resting days on say Wednesday and Sunday; I place my resting day one whichever day I feel most tired or am doing the most on. This way I never have to miss a session as such. If I get invited out that night I simply make that one of my two or three resting days and make a mental note that I have to get to the gym the next day.

One of the rules is that you never take two days off in a row however, so if you’ve just had an off day then you should feel extra obliged to do your workout the following day. If you get it into your mind-set enough then you should find yourself feeling guilty over the fact that you’re missing a potential workout and start planning ahead already for the next day (though don’t let it run your life either, that ain’t cool).

If you’ve already had your quota of off days and you really can’t get to the gym for whatever reason, then remember it’s perfectly fine to train at home. Even if you have zero equipment you can make an entirely serviceable workout for you pecs/shoulders/triceps just from press up variations and dips (check out the wealth of ideas for bodyweight training). If you have a set of dumbbells (around £20 or $40) or a pull up bar (around £5 or $10) then you can get a full workout for your biceps and back too. And legs and abs are pretty easy too. This will save you a lot of time and energy spent by getting changed and travelling to the gym, also staying in your own environment will be more comforting and less of an upheaval. Just make sure you approach these home workouts with the same vigour as you would a gym workout.

This latter point fits with a philosophy that’s greatly helped me stick to my workout – that something is always better than nothing. So if you cannot accomplish your full goal of getting to the gym and training your pecs on five different machines and having a ten minute run – then just three sets of fifty press ups will be better than nothing. Obviously don’t do this every time, but if you can’t make a full workout then there’s never any excuse not to just do a few and you can even do it in a hotel room.

The other added bonus with this rule is that if you’re not training because you lack motivation, then just doing a couple of movements will probably wake you up and invigorate you enough that you want to do the whole lot. If you just done 100 good press ups, chances are you’ll find yourself wanting to capitalise one these by doing a good complete workout – and training is one of the best ways to re-energise yourself. If you’re not training because you’re in a hotel room then even just tensing and releasing your muscles for a while can be a workout of sorts, as can pulling against your own arm as a form of resistance for the bicep curls. Just let your muscles know that you’re still there.

Make Training More Engaging

To keep yourself going to the gym you also need to make sure your workouts are interesting and fresh. If you’re just heading to the gym every day and doing exactly the same things then you’re likely to get bored very quickly and it’s no wonder you’re not managing to stick at your plan. Head to the gym with something new and unique on your list however and you should find yourself excited or at least curious to find out how well it works and whether or not you can do it. Furthermore, keeping your workouts exactly the same will lead to plateaux as your muscles stop responding to the same tired routines – you have to keep your muscles guessing!

Workouts need to be kept challenging while not so difficult that they’re unpleasant or soul destroying. If they’re too easy then you’ll feel you’re not achieving anything, but if they’re too difficult then you’ll dread going every day. The secret is to train until you can feel ‘the burn’ which refers to that tight hot feeling you get in your muscles when they’ve been pushed past their usual threshold. Once you’ve achieved this you should do a couple more, then end that set so you’re not aching too much the next day (which can be off putting in itself). If you think of your workouts like a challenge and you’re anything like me you shouldn’t want to give up – never back down from a challenge.

So these methods should keep you heading to the gym day in and day out. But once you’re actually in the gym though, there are a few more methods you can use to keep yourself motivated and energised to get the most of your routine.

Music: One method that many gym-goers use is to take an iPod with motivational music along with you. Or at least music that has a steady and repetitive beat to keep you pumping out sets. Something with inspirational lyrics always works well such as ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor or ‘Harder’ by Kanye West. With these tracks pumping you’ll have a direct challenge issued to you via the music as well as a driving tempo and roaring guitar to help get you in the mood.

In terms of tempo, the rhythm should roughly reflect your heart rate. Studies have also shown that the best playlists of training are not those that remain constantly up-tempo, but those that gradually increase in speed only to slow down by the end of the workout; this way your body gets worked up more and more and then eventually cools down as you finish. If you’re working out at home however, then a film can have much the same effect, particularly if the lead actor is particularly strong or if the film has a lot of action in it.

Countdown: You can also motivate yourself on particular sets by the way you count. For example, a friend of mine likes to count down instead of up so that by the end he’s thinking ‘just two more’. I personally like to break my counting down into more manageable blocks so say I have twelve reps I’ll count to six twice. Twelve is quite a big number, six is nothing. For larger sets I generally like to split my counting into tens. Another good one is to pump out a last couple of sets ‘for someone’. For example at the end of your workout your last rep might be ‘for Arnie’ or ‘for Uncle Tim’. You won’t want to let these guys down and as they’re ‘bonus’ reps they don’t seem to tax you in quite the same way as the rest of the set. On the treadmill similarly don’t look at the time, but instead try and focus on the television that’s no doubt in front of you or on your music if you’ve brought some. Time flies when you’re concentrating on something else.

Supplements: Alternatively, for added energy and motivation you can always use supplementation. One that works well for this purpose is Nitric Oxide (NO2) which works by allowing more blood to rush to your muscles. This gives them more energy via the oxygen in your blood and at the same time flushes them with essential nutrients. Importantly for you motivation though it makes them look swelled and gives you a stronger feeling of ‘pump’. Even your veins will look bigger and when you’re looking and feeling that good it’s hard not to feel motivated.

Another good one for energy is creatine – which provides your muscles with the ability to recycle their main fuel source ATP so preventing fatigue and keeping you feeling fresh. Finally, if you just plain lack mental energy, try taking a couple of caffeine tablets, Guarana or just eating a complex carb such as a banana or some pasta to supply you with a steady source of energy.

So those are some techniques you can use in order to inspire your training, and many of them can be applied to any area of your life that you need motivation in. Hopefully by keeping a clear set of goals, getting inspiration from friends, being driven by images and music and remembering why you started training in the first place you won’t stop hitting the gym.

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