You'll never walk into the gym and hear someone say, "You should do something easy today."
But after 10 years of training, I think embracing slow and easy gains is one of the most important lessons I've learned.
In fact, this lesson applies to most things in life. And it comes down to the difference between progress and achievement.
Let me explain...
The Difference Between Progress and Achievement
Our society is obsessed with achievement. This is especially true in the gym.
I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else. Last week, a guy at my gym clean and jerked 325 pounds and made it look easy. My first question to him was, "What's your max?"
I didn't say, "How is your training going?" or "Have you been making progress recently?" but rather, "What is the absolute maximum weight you can do?"
My question was all about what he could achieve, not how he has progressed.
And you'll find that mentality everywhere. Nobody is going to celebrate you for going up 1 pound per week. Everybody wants you to try for 10 more pounds right now.
Here's the problem: A focus on achievement in the here and now usually comes at the expense of slower, more consistent progress. Achievement is so ingrained in our culture that we often ignore progress. (Of course, focusing on progress would ultimately lead to higher achievement, but it's easy to dismiss that fact when you want to set a new PR today.)
I'm still learning to embrace this principle myself, but I'm getting better at it. And here's what I've learned about training for slow progress rather than immediate achievement.
1. Slow Gains Add Up Really Fast
Here's the thing about taking it slow: It adds up really fast.
Here's an example...
I want you to go into the gym this week, pick your favorite lift (squats for example), and lift 1 pound more than you did last week. You are not allowed to do 2 pounds more. Only 1 pound.
Do you think you could do that? Most people would be like, "Of course. That's easy." And they're right.
But here's the funny thing: If you do that every week, then you're going to add 50 pounds to your lifts in the next year. Stick with that for two years and you're lifting 100 pounds more.
How many people do you know who are lifting 100 pounds more than they were two years ago? I don't know many. Most people are so obsessed with squeaking out an extra 10 pounds this week that they never find the patience to make slower (but greater) long-term gains.
It all comes down to the power of average speed. The next two years are going to come and go. The time will pass anyway. Might as well be climbing the whole time.
2. Slow Gains Help You Handle Intensity Later On
For some reason, we think that starting easy and going up slowly is a waste of our time. It's not.
When you start with easy weights (and I think this is especially important in the beginning), you build the capacity to do work. If you're getting back in the gym after a long layoff, then I think that at least the first month of lifting should be easy.
For some reason, society has convinced us that if your heart rate isn't above 150 beats per minute and you don't feel gassed at the end of your workout, then you haven't done yourself any good. I disagree. If you actually add a little weight each week and don't miss workouts, then it will get hard enough, fast enough. Trust me.
Build a foundation of strength with easy workouts and a lot of volume. Do 1,000 reps over the next few months and let your body learn how to move through space. Slowly go up each week. By this time next year, you'll be able to handle the heavy weights with ease.
3. Slow Gains Foster Recovery
The body has an amazing ability to adapt -- if you give it time to do so.
When you place a stimulus on the body, it will either find a way to handle it or die. In the case of weightlifting, your body will build muscle and bone tissue, and you'll gradually become stronger. Small, consistent gains give the body just enough stress to grow and just enough time to recover.
But if you try to push the body too far, too fast, then it will find a different way to adapt. Namely, inflammation, injury, and stress. You might be able to add 10 pounds per week for a few weeks, but pretty soon it will catch up to you and you'll be sitting on the couch trying to get healthy.
Hard, Hard, Hurt vs. Slow, Slow, Never Stop
If you want to get in shape, to get stronger, and to reach your full potential, then what is the most important thing of all?
Answer: not missing workouts.
There is nothing more important than building the habit of getting in the gym and not missing workouts. Stop trying to make up for the fact that you're inconsistent by going harder when you're there. Long-term progress doesn't work that way. Instead, train yourself to not miss workouts and slowly add weight.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this: Are you just trying to put up a big number right now? Or are you really in this for the long haul?
Most people train in this cycle: hard, hard, hard, hurt.
I'd rather go slow, slow, slow, never stop.
James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares strategies that make it easier to live a healthy life - both mentally and physically. For fresh ideas on how to boost your productivity, improve your health, and master your habits, join his free newsletter.