By Ross Enamait – Published in 2008
As a trainer, I often emphasize the importance of intelligent program design. Variables such as exercise selection, intensity, frequency, and volume must be monitored. However, recognizing the need to oversee these variables is not enough. We as trainers are always looking to find better ways. It isn’t uncommon to spend several hours each week reading new research and rereading old research. The thirst for knowledge should be commended, as knowledge is a powerful weapon. I’ll never criticize anyone who is eager to learn and improve. Yet, as we search for new and improved methods for our athletes, we often forget to share seemingly obvious advice with them.
In the words of former Nobel Prize winner Andre Gide:
“The most important things to say are those which often I did not think necessary for me to say – because they were too obvious.”
Abiding by these words, it is imperative to communicate the importance of patience. We’ve all heard that patience is a virtue, but few live by these words. Coaches and mentors regularly preach the importance of hard work, but few share such passion when stressing the importance of patience. Perhaps patience is an assumed prerequisite, but we all know the fault in assumption.
Patience is a Virtue
Merriam Webster defines patient as steadfast despite opposition, difficulty, or adversity. An athlete who is patient will see a challenge through from start to finish, despite the struggles encountered on his journey. Patience is more than a virtue, it is a powerful weapon.
Famous novelist Leo Tolstoy (perhaps best known for War and Peace) summarized the importance of patience with the following:
“The strongest of all warriors are these two – Time and Patience.”
And while his words were not directed towards exercise, you’ll have a hard time finding better advice. Without patience and time, don’t expect to accomplish anything. Even a hard working athlete who is impatient will struggle with long term goals. Hard work during each session isn’t enough if the sessions do not accumulate into something significant. I’ve seen plenty of hard working athletes who are hindered by impatience. They work hard each day, but are never patient enough to see out a long term goal. Their lack of patience negates both hard work and intelligent program design. Even the most sophisticated program will do little if the athlete isn’t patient enough to progress through one step at a time.
Planting a Seed
Have you ever gone apple picking? Think of yourself picking fresh fruit from a large tree. You see the fruit, you pick it, and you eat it. You never see the seed that started the tree. You only see the result.
If you plant an apple seed today, don’t expect to eat fresh apples tomorrow. You must be patient if you wish to produce worthwhile results. This simple concept also applies to the world of fitness and sport. Don’t expect to accomplish anything significant in a few days or weeks. Be prepared for a long road filled with potholes, detours, and dead ends.
Many great athletes are falsely assumed to be naturally gifted. You see the result and cannot fathom how the athlete progressed to such an amazing level. What many fail to realize however is that the athlete may be nothing more than patient and diligent.
Unfortunately, patience doesn’t sell, so it’s rare that you’ll hear it mentioned. Much of the fitness industry focuses solely on revenue. If the truth doesn’t sell, the truth isn’t mentioned. People want quick fixes in today’s world of instant gratification. Quick sells well. Slow and steady does not. The fitness industry knows what the consumer wants (fast results), and is more than willing to satisfy this request. If something takes time to accomplish, you can bet that it won’t be pimped out on a late-night infomercial. People want results yesterday, not tomorrow.
I can understand the obsession with instant gratification. If we can do something faster, why not do it? In theory, the idea has merit, but in reality, it simply isn’t true. Technology can be automated, but the human body cannot. Positive change requires time.
Impatience Leads to Failure
Impatience is perhaps the number one reason why athletes fall short of their potential. The athlete sets a goal, works on it for a few weeks, doesn’t see the progress that he was hoping for, so drops the idea and moves on to another. The cycle continues repeatedly. After several months of bouncing around, the athlete is no better off than when he started. He’s done nothing but jump from challenge to challenge without results.
Another common scenario comes from the athlete who tackles several new goals at once. He too may be diligent, but he isn’t patient enough to apply a slow and steady strategy. He wants everything now and isn’t interesting in waiting. If you’ve spent any time on a fitness message board, I’m sure you’ve seen a newbie come along with a list of goals such as:
“I want to do a one-arm chin-up, dunk a basketball, deadlift three times my bodyweight, run a mile in 5 minutes, walk on my hands, and do 100 consecutive pushups.”
The athlete then sets out to create a single training plan that will allow him to accomplish each of these goals. After several months, the results are always the same. Nothing. He will have gotten nowhere fast, with little if any progress on any of the defined goals.
Perhaps the best advice for someone who has walked in these shoes comes from Samuel Smiles:
“The shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at a time.”
One Thing at a Time
I cannot overemphasize the importance of this simple statement. If you wish to tackle several challenging goals, start working on one at a time. If you set out to do everything at once, you’ll accomplish nothing. Instead, start working on one primary goal. It can serve as a supplement to your primary training plan.
For example, suppose you set out to perform a standing rollout with an abdominal wheel. Begin working with the required progressions as an addition to your regular core (or strength) routine. Working towards this goal is a simple addition. There is no need to change your entire plan to accommodate a single goal. With a consistent effort, you will eventually conquer the exercise. Mark the goal from your list and prepare for a new challenge. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can accomplish with this slow and steady approach to training.
Injury and Delayed Results
Injury and delayed results are two close relatives to impatience. An impatient athlete looks for shortcuts that do not exist. He’ll often bite off more than he can chew. Performance of a one-arm chin-up is a perfect example. If you rush into this exercise, you can almost guarantee elbow pain. Adaptation takes time, particularly when dealing with tendons and ligaments. This exercise isn’t one that you’ll master in a week or two. Expect several months at minimum, and don’t be surprised if it takes more than a year. Without patience, you’ll never accomplish the feat. You’ll either become distracted due to the slow rate of improvement, or you’ll rush the process and be forced to opt out because of pain. The only way to accomplish the feat (any challenging feat) is with an equal dose of hard work and patience.
Delayed results are also related to impatience. This problem often impedes highly motivated athletes. They are overambitious and don’t believe in quality over quantity. More work is their solution to any problem or challenge. Unfortunately, impatience overrules ambition. Strength athletes often suffer from this problem. Rest days and restoration are considered wasted time. In the mind of the impatient, why waste time with rest or restoration when we could lift instead? The impatient has no time for recovery and restoration. It doesn’t feel hard, so it can’t be doing anything, right?
If you lift weights today, don’t expect any major strength gains tomorrow. Patience and time are both critical to tissue repair and growth. Active means of restoration and recovery must not be overlooked. No one is denying the importance of hard work, but hard work alone is not enough. Think of yourself lifting a maximal load. If you attempt subsequent sets without rest, you will not lift anywhere near your true max. Adequate rest is needed between sets when working with near maximal loads. If you are impatient and rush, your strength workout will suffer. The importance of rest also applies to the training plan as a whole. If adequate rest is not provided between maximal strength workouts, you can guarantee the eventual onset of delayed results.
It should come as no surprise that restoration is an integral part of the popular conjugate sequence system. Restoration allows the body to supercompensate from past work. Exploitation of a delayed training effect is the basis of the system. If time is never invested in restorative work, supercompensation will never occur. Unfortunately, impatient athletes often underestimate the importance of restoration and proper cycling of loading (increased and decreased). These athletes often make gains early on, but then plateau, and are unable to work their way out of the rut. Their problem isn’t related to work ethic.
Impatience undermines their intensity.
My Own Story
Personally, I spend much less time training for pure strength than many, yet am far stronger than many of those who spend far more time training strength. It’s a simple case of quality over quantity, but it wasn’t always this way. I can tell you about patience and impatience, as I’ve lived at both ends of the spectrum. For much of my life, I was everything but patient. As a youngster, I was ignorant. My work was sporadic and random. Now that I’ve grown older and wiser, I consider patience to be my greatest attribute. Unfortunately for me, it took a long time to recognize the importance of patience. I am now in my 30’s and far more capable than I ever was in my teens and early 20’s. My genetics didn’t change, but everything else did. In recent years, I’ve accomplished exercise goals that were at one time considered impossible by me.
My greatest change was learning to be patient when tackling a new challenge. At this stage in my life, if I set out to do something, I will get it done. It’s only a matter of time. I always knew that patience was important, but knowing is only half the battle. Without action, knowledge is useless. Just think of the countless training books that are sold today. The information is there for the public to read. It isn’t classified. Anyone can read and learn. Unfortunately, knowing and doing are not the same. Many athletes simply do not have the patience to put their knowledge into practice. I made this mistake for many years. I didn’t have time for patience, and struggled for years because of it.
As a young fighter, I broke my hand inside the ring. I was impatient and never gave myself time to heal. I returned to action too soon. I broke the hand again, again, and again. It was an ongoing problem that could have been entirely avoided with patience. My impatience not only delayed my athletic development, but also led to repeated injury. Now that I’m older, I can’t think of any training related injuries that I’ve endured in the last 10 years. I am far more capable physically, and live without pain or injury.
If there is one thing that you can take from this article, I hope that you can learn from my mistakes. Continue training with intensity, but recognize the importance of patience. There will be times when it seems like progress is moving at a snail’s pace, but giving up on the goal entirely is not the solution. After all, who said that life was supposed to be easy? If you want something, be prepared to pay the price, which means preparing for a long and difficult journey. And when in doubt, remember that those who remain steadfast and diligent often exceed even their highest expectations.