Intention: what your routine is missing

Intention (in·ten·tion) noun

  1. A thing intended; an aim or plan.
  2. The single most important thing you’re missing in your fitness routine.

What it is you really want out of your fitness plan? If you’re working out simply to have fun, great. Get after it and do what you like. But here’s what I’ve noticed: Most of the people who consult with me overlook a concept that’s essential to an effective fitness routine or program. A single thing that—when remembered and used daily—can be the difference between success and stagnation. I’m talking about intention.

Intention is an incredibly powerful tool. I believe that every aspect of training matters, and your intention should be central to everything you do to attain your fitness goals. Simple? Yes. Easy? No. Change is what everyone wants. But change is hard. Change is profoundly uncomfortable. Too often we flinch away from hard. And then we wonder why nothing changed. We need to seek out hard, embrace it, and pound away at it until it’s easy. Then it’s time to find the new hard, and beat the fuck out of that, too.

Think about enduring growing pains as a child, or moving to a new city, or learning to handle the demands of a promotion at work. Each is uncomfortable…and the initial discomfort is a small price to pay for the new experiences. If you can’t handle uncomfortable, find a nice sofa, sit down, and wait for death. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. That’s what happens if we don’t change.

The exercises you choose, the meals you eat, how and when you sleep, and the decisions you make should be balanced against realizing your goal. So if you want to manage your diabetes better, run your fastest 5K, or just look really sexy naked—in other words, if you want to create change in your life—you don’t just need a goal. You need a plan. You need intention.

Make sure everything you do answers to that goal. If your goal is to become stronger and you choose between squatting and a two-hour bike ride, what’s your intention in making that decision? Both activities will have an impact on your body. Both are great movements, and important for your overall fitness.

But only one of those two options will actually help make you stronger. If you picked squats, you chose correctly (note: squats are almost always the correct choice).

However, how you do your squats matters, too. Are you doing squats with the intention of getting stronger, or are you just grinding through them to survive? How you approach squats—or any other activity—can have a dramatic effect on the results you reap. Being uncomfortable doesn’t mean torturing yourself. There’s a difference between discomfort and masochism (although masochism in carefully prescribed amounts has its place).

If you hate squatting (or you suck at it—usually the two are related), try adding a few body-weight squats to your daily warm-up. You don’t need to kill it on day one. Just practice the move before you try applying a load to it. As you get more familiar with the movement, ask yourself why you suck at squats. Maybe you need to squat differently. Maybe this move isn’t for you. Have a dose of uncomfortable, get used to it, and then go back for a second bite when you’re ready. Even when you’re foam rolling your legs after all those squats, think about why you’re doing that. Are you going to be the number one alpha foam roller in your gym? Or are you releasing muscle tension so you can reduce fatigue, improve recovery, and squat heavier?

When I’m writing a program for myself, I don’t just look at exercise selection. I’m mindful of what I think of during each rep. I intend to be better each time. That means I don’t just count reps—I try to only count good reps. If I need to do 5 reps, and one sucked and I know it, I have to acknowledge that that rep didn’t help me get any closer to my goal. So I might as well not have done it. Instead of counting the rep and hurrying to move on to the next exercise, I take a moment to think about why it sucked. Then I can move forward intending to never do that incorrect thing again. You can’t guarantee you’ll never make a mistake in training, but you can do your damnedest not to make the same mistake twice.

This attitude transforms every shitty rep from a useless failure to a data point that I can use to improve my performance in the future. The next time I go to do 5 reps, all five will be better quality, helping me reach my goal more quickly or at least more reliably. Take the kettle bell press, for example. If I can get a weight overhead but know it was ugly, I know that rep won’t help me get anything heavier up there. So I think, “Yeah, I was out of my groove. I turned my hand out too much.” Then—bam—next rep, I don’t turn my hand out so much, and it’s a better rep. Not only is that individual rep better, it’s one that will help me go heavier. When I’m attempting a new weight, near perfection is needed to achieve success and finish the press. Everything leading up to that rep is practice. If I practice for shit, shit is what I’ll get. Don’t think you can half-ass your way through a set and make real progress.

So go for it. Answer that intention. Achieve that goal. Set yourself up for success. If you want to see progress, don’t simply seek to have fun. Actually changing your life by conquering that goal will be much more fun in the long run. Progress is exciting.

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