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Enjoyment vs. optimization

Nothing wrong with a little barbell hedonism

Sometime last year a colleague of mine asked me whether I was still doing any heavy squats, because he hadn’t seen me do them for a while. ‘That is correct’, I replied. ‘Why not?’, he asked. And I told him that I just didn’t feel like doing them. That answer completely baffled him, because how can a guy who claims to be all about programming turn his back on the holy mothership of all leg exercises? Is he even serious? Well, I am. And I always have been very serious about my training. However, if there is one lesson that I have learned throughout the years, then it is that optimization only lasts if enjoyment is part of the plan.

photo by @wearebru

The first few years in the iron game are relatively easy when it comes to enjoying the process. The act of just habitually lifting weights and shoving some protein down your throat is bound to overload you with rewards: muscles growing fast, body fat levels dropping, and gym performances on the rise. Initially your body is like a slot machine that always pays out. But this doesn't last.

Over the years those returns on gym investment will slowly diminish and require increasing sacrifices in order to keep the process going. So you clean up your nutrition a little more, or fit in an extra weekly training session. All tiny gestures that are sure to put some firewood on the dying embers again. But eventually this path leads to the inevitable endgame of training becoming a #1 life priority that requires tremendous energy and manic control of nutrition and exercise.

"Initially your body is like a slot machine that always pays out. But this phase doesn't last."

The problem with this unconditionally striving for 'optimal results' is that beside those few tiny moments of triumph, it is a process bound to become less rewarding over time. Victories will be scarce. And while I surely see the romance in that grind (been there, done that) I know that it takes years of committed training to reach great performance, and a lifetime of committed training to be at great health. And in order for you to be able to do this you will need to want to keep coming back.

In my close to two decades in the industry I am yet to meet the first person that is still counting calories and blasting through eight weekly hours of strength training ten years down the road. Most of them improve rapidly at the beginning, but burn out long before they ever get close to their aspired excellence. And then out goes the performance plan. Sometimes even the whole health plan goes out with it. I think it's logical, but a shame. So how do you do keep things interesting when there are only few rewards left to be found?

If I look at some of my peers who have been performing at high physical levels over long timespans, they all have one thing in common: they optimize training (and nutrition) only to a level that allows it to go hand in hand with pleasure. They'll be at it pretty hard much of the time, and accept some level of grinding, but there is a place for skipping the occasional session or for doing an 'inferior' exercise just because it is fun to do. Funny thing is, I first thought of writing something about 80-90% being enough here, but then I realized that all of these peers are actually among the highest performers of their respective gyms and communities. Maybe consistency does beat optimality, after all.

"In order for you to be able to keep coming back for years on end you will first need to want to keep coming back."

The very fact that I'm writing all these articles displays my support of optimization in training. I am all for picking the right exercises, volumes, frequencies, making the right food choices and respecting recovery. But only if sustainability gets a seat at the table. And I believe that there can be no such thing without a proper dose of pleasure. So if you're not paying your rent with your athleticism, please don't be afraid to now and then cut yourself some slack. Because the only way to succeed at this game is if you can keep doing it for years on end. So don't apologize if you're not doing squats for a while. I'll look the other way. I'm quite sure that you'll be just fine.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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