Dealing with Uncertainty in Training [Program Hopping]

What is the ‘perfect program’? Could any of us, educated and experienced, define perfection? What does ‘perfect’ mean in the first place?

The thinkers among us might be able to cobble together a definition based on abstract concepts, maybe a little handwaving about goals and efficiency and other assorted trinkets of philosophical pontifications. In the concrete world of the gym, where the barbell trumps the abstract, there can be no ‘perfect’.

So why do so many people spend their time looking for perfection in training?

Consider the phenomenon of program-hopping. Every last one of us either knows a person who does this — or is that person. Training ADD is the eternal quest for something better, the greener grass we can see just over there. The program-hopper continually second-guesses and always wants something more.

This is perfectionism, and it’s a kind of disordered thinking born out of insecurity.

The remedy to perfectionism is Doing, instead of Thinking.

Analysis Paralysis

A lot of us — especially those who would be attracted to my viewpoint — come from a very rationalist, science-influenced background. We like, and expect, hard answers. When we don’t find those, we shut down. Uncertainty leads to paralysis. We need quantifiable values or else we can’t function.

Spreadsheets are cause for relief. The percentages that dominate periodized workout plans are sweet comfort, saving us from the unknowns that hide in the power rack.

Each and every week, new programs come out. Every year, there are new fads: supplements, training programs, diets. And there are always hundreds, thousands, lined up to go — abandoning what they’re doing right now, which is usually last year’s bandwagon, in favor of the new hotness.

That’s not productive behavior; that’s a fashion trend. Graphic design and professional photography ensure that there’s scarcely a superficial difference between the two fields.

Not-Doing

Beginners always ask the same questions. They’re interested in the same broad set of issues: What exercises? How many for this part or that part? How do I split my workouts? How much should I eat?

Beginners never ask the important questions. Beginners never want to know how to train. Beginners never want to know how to succeed.

When the wise man points at the moon, the beginner focuses on his finger. The program, the written-down details of a training schedule, is not wisdom. What is the program pointing towards?

The beginner asks questions which have no meaningful answer. Details. Trivia. Unimportant. Unask the question.

The essence of success is mastery. Productive training is an internal mindset, not a list of exercises and reps. A program is a signpost, an outward sign of the real training process.

How do you train with, and who do you talk training with? Do you train with successful lifters, or do you sit on forums and complain about ‘overtraining’? Do you lift in a gym with a charged, vibrant atmosphere, or do you exercise in a neon-and-chrome ‘fitness center’? Do you show up for your workouts? Do you get enough sleep?

These are the things that matter. Not SuperPump XLS 5000, not exact diet macros, not a precisely-crafted program that you’ll change in two weeks.

Uncertainty

Biology, at the macro-level of weight training and adaptation, is not an easily-modeled system. You cannot introduce Variable X and expect Outcome Y with predictable regularity. The system is nonlinear. Alter X and 100 different elements change in response.

Last week, I linked to Nick Horton’s excellent article The Death of Heavy Days. Nick describes the ability to let go, to stop stressing over what happens. You can come into a workout knowing only the exercise to work on. The workout can evolve organically from that. No stress. No targets, no goals. Only the doing-without-doing.

Effortless effort.

In training there are no well-defined inputs that lead to well-defined outputs. The essence of training is uncertainty. How you deal with uncertainty dictates how far you can go.

This is not to say that there is no need for programming. Far from it. There are mostly-rights and mostly-wrongs in program design. I concede that these days, I’m far more forgiving than I once was regarding diversity in training approaches. So long as a program isn’t explicitly injurious, and as long as it motivates you to show up, then enjoy yourself.

Put another way, Do What Works.

Humans are wired to label and categorize. We look for patterns even when there are none. Programs are an illusion of meaning, based on our assumptions and biases. We assume that everything can be mechanized and systematized. We assume that we can copy the outward and mimic the inward.

Realize that, as a program-hopper, no matter what you do you will always be questioning your results. Could I be getting stronger? Could I lose this fat a little faster? The less experienced you are, the more likely your questions will be off the mark: Could I do barbell curls instead of dumbbell curls?

Don’t simply resist temptation. Relax. Unask the question. Your logical mind seeks answers and meaning where there is none.

The finger is not the wisdom. Look at the moon.

10 thoughts on “Dealing with Uncertainty in Training [Program Hopping]”

  1. Matt,
    Solid gym-wisdom, as always. Appropriately mad scientist-meets-Yoda, as we've all come to expect.

    Ceasing the aimless program-hopping was one of the smartest decisions I've made in the last year. Some of my most productive training has come from just following a smart program and not adding my own stupid into it. Admittedly, that program is 5/3/1, which suffers from the issue with percentages you fault, but the autoregulatory aspects built into 5/3/1 (hit this minimum rep count, then go from there only if it feels right in the moment) make it easier. I find the planned numbers do serve a psychological function, as well. I've gone from benching 280 for 3 reps in the "1" week (where I'm only required to hit 1 rep) to benching 265 for 3 in the next "3" week. Ordinarily, I might see that as cause for alarm, but the planned numbers let me take a deep breath and see that, so long as my "3" and "1" weeks increases by 5 lbs or so every cycle, I'm making progress.

    • The self-regulating structure of 5/3/1 takes care of my percentage-criticisms, honestly. I think in that case the design of the system helps more than it hurts.

  2. Great article. I think the best thing to do is just follow the programme to the letter, if you're a beginner, and start too light.

    I'm using stronglifts 5×5 and just following the prescribed numbers and reps. If I don't hit the numbers, I drop the weight by 10% and try again.

    I was guilty of over-analysis in the past, but thankfully I've learnt that actions and results speak louder than words. If you don't do anything, you'll never get better.

  3. Solid. You and I have reached the same place, essentially, at about the same time. Knowing the meta-principles behind the stuff allows you to pull together an almost intuitive Unified Model of Training.

  4. Great Article…truly great….however, I fear a lot of young chaps will read that and say "He's right. From now on I am sticking with dumbell curls only"…..alas I know I would have

    I think you have to go through training ADD for a number of years though, and come out the other side to understand what your really talking about

    • To be honest, I considered that in writing this. There are a few essentials which I'm taking for granted, things like squatting and otherwise having a core of solid exercises, but you're right, I can see how that might confuse. Then again, that's the exact message I'm trying to convey: stick with what you're doing until you can tell if it actually works (or doesn't). I can tell you all day, and you'll never get it until you do it.

      Being consistent with a "bad" program still trumps changing workouts every month.

      • Agreed.

        Yor writing is some of the best there is btw Matt….very few people can distill all the training wisdom of the last 100 yrs (both practical and academic), and compress it into a unified approach…I would rate your book as one of the top 5 out there

  5. I have done little more than power cleans and squats the last 6 weeks. I begin with the cleans, and if they feel slow and weak, I immediately switch to squats with whatever I can comfortably handle that day. If the cleans feel strong, I work up to a max with a few backoff sets, followed by a set or two of squats.

    I was forced into this routine because of my work schedule, and the fact that I simply do not have time these days to obsess over workout details. Well, I've added 15 kilos to my clean and almost 30 to my squat, without really thinking about it. And I can safely say that I never would have considered such an arrangement without the knowledge gained from this site. Thanks Matt – you are doing damn good shit here.

  6. The discussion is very informative. Especially the responses provided by Matt. Looking forward for your great posts! Keep it coming. Thank you.

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