Watch enough Instagram stories from even the fittest people out there and discover a dirty little secret. Everyone, even the people behind these inspirational IG accounts, has days they don’t want to go to the gym. But they know the biggest difference in losing weight and keeping it off, or getting shredded for a show, is consistency. It’s all about getting yourself through the doors. So how do you make it happen when you’d rather be anywhere else? Here are the tricks I use to keep showing up even when my motivation has hit rock bottom.
How I make myself go to the gym, even when I don’t want to
If reminding yourself of the long-term benefits of your workouts actually helped you get to the gym, most of us would always be there. Sadly, we’re all human, and that means we’re hardwired to overestimate the importance of things that apply right now.
That means a nap appears better than that sweat session, even if you really do want thinner legs more than some extra sleep. That’s also why having one of those donuts a coworker brought in seems really important right now, even if you weren’t craving a donut at all.
I hit almost all of my workouts unless I’m travelling without access to necessary equipment. I’m not special or superhuman. I don’t run through the doors excited to work most of those days since I have to train after work. I’m also terrible at looking at the big picture and patiently waiting for my hard work to pay off. But that means I had to get crafty with myself.
I was forced to figure out what worked and what didn’t when it came to getting the workout done. I’ve broken down what I learned into two sections: routines that can set you up for success and in-the-moment tips for getting through the door when you’d rather be doing anything else.
Go to the gym: Setting yourself up for success
As un-sexy as it sounds, routines do a world of good for showing up and staying consistent. Once healthy habits are part of your routine, it’s easier to stick to them instead of break them. That’s because you’re taking the thinking out of it. The less you have to think about all the healthy habits in your day, the more likely you are to do them again and again. You’re creating consistency but taking out willpower, which we all know runs out sooner than you’d hope.
Plan for the tough times
If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail. That means having a plan in place for when the going gets tough. If you think that a workout regimen means always being excited about hitting the weights, low motivation will hit you even harder. Just knowing that some days will be tough, but that they’ll pass, will make dealing with them a little easier. You won’t take your lack of enthusiasm as a sign that you should skip or that your workout program isn’t right for you.
Take account of what a bad day is probably going to look like for you. For me, that’s a long, stressful day at work. I’ll probably be sick of interacting with other humans. I’ll feel emotionally exhausted and that will make me think I don’t have the physical energy to hit the weights. But if I think about that ahead of time, when I’m not tired, I know that’s a lie. Emotional exhaustion doesn’t affect my muscles. But I can craft a plan to help me minimize human interaction. I can break out the big headphones, crank the music, and even hit the gym after peak hours so I’m not bumping into more people than I need to.
What does your typical rough day look like? Take stock of what will probably go wrong, how you’ll feel, and the stories you’ll tell yourself to justify skipping. Then pick action points that are planned to specifically counteract these pain points.
Have a workout program
I don’t care if that’s Kayla Itsines or a bodybuilding program from John Meadows. Just make sure you have a plan before you walk through the doors. This will cut down on not only the time you spend trying to decide what exercise to do next but also your temptation to skip.
A program won’t magically make you motivated. It will, however, structure that routine that’s so important for consistency. Training back then becomes just another part of your Monday, like catching up on emails you missed over the weekend. Knowing what’s coming each day also helps you plan for pain points. Which days are going to be hardest? How can you mentally prepare for them?
Even better, programs schedule in rest days. That means when your motivation is at is lowest, you know exactly when you’re getting a break. Sometimes just looking at how close you are to your next rest day is enough motivation you need to push through that workout.
Find someone you’re accountable to
Technically, we’re all accountable to ourselves. If we don’t hit our goals because we ate too much and skipped the gym, that’s on us. But most of us find it easier to show up for someone else than ourselves. While we need to work on that, more to come on that later, we can use that to create consistency around working out.
If you have the financial means to do so, get a coach or a personal trainer. Not the nice one that chitchats the entire time. The one that’s going to push you to hit your goals and call you out on your BS. Are you going to want to bail on your stern coach and disappoint him or her? Not on your life. I have a virtual coach and even that keeps me hitting the gym consistently. The last thing I want to do is tell him I logged fewer workouts than I was supposed to. I want to be a client he can brag about and be proud of, and that gets me through the doors some days.
Obviously not everyone can afford a coach. But that’s where workout buddies come in. Find a friend who’s also on a fitness journey. Ask them to go to the gym with you. You’re not going to hit snooze when you know your friend is waiting for you at the gym in the morning. If they go to a different gym, that’s fine to. Agree to check in with each other and hold each other accountable. Sometimes it takes a friend to lovingly push you toward your goals.
Go to the gym: Tricks for in-the-moment weakness
Planning ahead and establishing a routine sets you up for success, but it doesn’t fix 100% of the times you don’t want to go to the gym. So what do you do in the moment to get yourself there? Here’s what works for me.
Remove the drama
My head tends to get dramatic when I don’t feel good. A stomach ache becomes a perfectly good reason to not go to the gym, even when I’m training arms. But, as I’m sure you just noticed, my training wouldn’t be affected one bit by a stomach ache on arm day. So, how do you remove the drama in order to logic your way into your workout? It’s actually pretty simple.
Yes, body parts hurt sometimes. Yes, we all want sympathy when we don’t feel good. But you also have goals, and if you really think about it, you don’t want every head or stomach ache to get in the way of achieving them. To avoid telling myself a story about how the pain clearly means I should go home and rest, I run through a script with myself:
[ ] body part hurts.
I [ can / can’t ] walk easily.
I [can / can’t ] bend over without pain.
On a scale of 1 to 10, my pain is a [ ]
My workout today is [ ]
That [ does / doesn’t ] use the body part that hurts.
Can I do most of my workout? [ Y / N ]
Can I modify my workout to avoid pain? [ Y / N ]
Will medicine before my workout fix this? [ Y / N ]
It might sound silly, but short, to-the-point sentences and decisive yes-no answers help me remove the drama. I always know, deep down, if I’m exaggerating and it’s a matter of motivation, not pain, keeping me from the gym. I simply don’t allow that to seep into my answers. (Check back through the day to double check whether you’ve had enough water for your body. You might also be dehydrated.)
If it is actually pain, I know I can go home without feeling guilty. If my stomach hurts so badly that it’s painful to walk and I’m supposed to train squats, there’s no way. But if I have a slight headache, and I have medicine in my bag and I’m training arms, I’ll go ahead and go to the gym as planned.
Use the 10 minute rule
You packed your gym stuff. Maybe you even hauled it around all day if you live in NYC. It would be a shame to not put it to use, but you’re tired and unmotivated. That’s where the 10 minute rules comes in. Show up, warm up, and then log the first 10 minutes of your workout. If you truly feel horrible after 10 minutes, you can go home and rest without the guilt.
I’ve never had to go home after 10 minutes. Usually the endorphins kick in and I’m feeling much better after the first 10 minutes of working out then I did when I got there. Some days I didn’t feel great, but I felt good enough to continue. So I did the exact same thing again. I told myself I could do another 10 minutes and reassess. If, after those second 10 minutes, I felt horrible, it was time to pack up and go home. I made it through the entire workout, and you will too.
Respect your limits
Finding the motivation to go to the gym isn’t all about kicking your own butt, though. Some days you’re just going to be tired. Your energy and strength will be down, even if you feel up for hitting the gym. Respect your limits on these days. If you push yourself too hard, you won’t want to come back to the gym. It will feel like a chore.
You don’t have to give 100% every time you walk through the gym doors. Sometimes understanding that is enough to get you to go to the gym. There are many factors that affect energy and strength. Women’s hormones, for example, can do a number on the amount of weight you can lift. During your period, or on days you feel weak, train using RPE instead of weight numbers. RPE, or rate of perceived exertion, is a way of training that recognizes that some days your maximum effort (RPE 10) will be a 150 pound squat and some days it will be 95 pounds.
If your weights drop, though, it might actually be a good thing, called the mind-muscle connection. So don’t automatically write it off as a bad thing.
It’s easy to be consistent when you build trust in yourself. Pummeling yourself into the floor when you feel horrible is breaking that trust. Respect your body, move how you can, and you’ll be more consistent. Your body will trust you to respect it, no matter how you’re feeling that day. You’re not lazy for backing off on the intensity, you’re human. You’re respecting your body.