The One Thing They Didn’t Tell You About Kaizen and Fitness Training

You’ve heard it a hundred different ways before from who knows how many people. You’ve got to…

  • outperform your last performance.
  • increase your lifts by 5% each week.
  • set a new personal record every time you train (e.g., #preveryday).
  • consistently progress to more challenging tasks.
  • do more sets, reps, or exercises each workout – even if only just one more rep.
  • train harder, faster, or dare I say, better – every single day.

And when it comes to fitness training or strength and conditioning, that’s just the way that the Kaizen principle has been applied – Kaizen being a Japanese term that refers to improvement. But more specifically, Kaizen is often associated with the lifestyle practice of continuous improvement, which is a key principle of success. And if you’re at all interested in fitness or strength, then applying the Kaizen principle will be absolutely necessary – whether you’re familiar with the term or not. Because you and I can’t get around the principles of overload and progression, which requires that we consistently seek to adapt to greater demands in order to increase or maintain our fitness results.

But here’s the thing, if you really think that you’re going to add weight to the bar every single week or actually set a new personal record every time you train, and do this for the long-term, then you couldn’t be more wrong. And I wouldn’t want to disappoint you and find out later that you threw in the towel because you thought you were a failure when you didn’t measure up to your ambitious expectations.

I mean, think about it. If you added just 5 lbs to the bar every single week – in any given exercise – then in just one year, you’d be lifting 250+ pounds more in that lift. And in four years, you’d be lifting 1,000 pounds more. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been training since I was eleven years old, and my best lifts are still only three digits long. And let’s just say that I can only add several pounds at a time to my lifts for so long before my progress starts to peter out. And these days, that usually happens in a matter of weeks – not months.

And if you’re not a weightlifter, then let’s just say that you set a new PR in some bodyweight exercise such as pushups or pull-ups every time you train. And maybe you only add one repetition to your max per workout. Do you really think you’ll be doing 100+ pull-ups in one set after a year or so? I think not, but all the power to you if you’d like to try.

Now, please don’t take this the wrong way and think I’m trying to discourage you because I’m not. And I’m not saying that achieving incredible things isn’t possible, but I am saying that the road to success in fitness or athletics is rarely hunky-dory and straightforward. In fact, this meme sums up the process quite well.

success meme

And that’s usually the way things go. You’ll have ups and downs. Good workouts and not-so-good workouts. Maybe even a few “I shouldn’t have even done that” workouts. You might set a huge PR one day, and the next be dragging your feet, barely able to salvage any semblance of a workout.

But here’s the thing. That’s feedback – good feedback. And our bodies are constantly providing it to us – every moment of every day – before, during, and after each and every repetition or every exercise we perform. And that feedback is invaluable at helping us to make progress because it brings us back down to Earth and into theĀ moment. So, instead of trying to adhere to a pre-planned workout program or routine that cannot possibly take into account all of your day-to-day and moment-to-moment needs, goals, and circumstances, you identify what feels right to you and then act on it (i.e., auto-regulation). This way, you can concentrate on doing what you need to get done today – right now – instead of worrying about conforming to some set standard that isn’t anywhere near optimal for you.

So, what do you do when things start to slow down and/or you reach a plateau? Well, logic would dictate that you have three options:

a) keep doing what you have been doing
b) stop doing what you have been doing
c) do something different

Any idea what the best option is? Yep. That’s right. Whenever you hit a plateau or even just start to get diminishing returns on your training investment, it’s time to make some changes to your training routine. And the good news is that there are tons of changes you can make. Depending on your goal, you could…

  • try a modified version of your current exercises
  • select different exercises
  • increase or decrease your training volume
  • increase or decrease your intensity level
  • do more exercises
  • do less exercises
  • perform a more sophisticated version of your current exercises
  • try a different training protocol (e.g. supersets, circuits, intervals, etc.)
  • change the weight, load, or resistance
  • do more reps
  • do less reps
  • change your rest and recovery time between sets/exercises

And that’s just a small sample of ideas you could try to avoid plateauing and also to reinvigorate your training program and keep getting good results. There are many other viable options, too, and when combining ideas, you can create an endless amount of options to keep making forward progress. And that really is the point – that the key to continuous improvement when it comes to fitness is constantly changing your approach to ensure you keep making progress.

And that’s why some people describe fitness as being a blend of art and science. It requires a special touch to get it just right every time. And that special touch is carried out by making small, calculated changes via baby steps. And while it may not look like a straightforward process when all is said and done, you will have ultimately achieved your goal of making progress – even if in a roundabout sort of way. And that is the principle of Kaizen applied to fitness.

If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. – Bruce Lee

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3 Responses

  1. As the notorious “Rant” over at the Moynihan Institute once observed: The body is not a machine. It’s an organic system. Treat it like a machine, and you will break it. (The single smartest thing he ever posted.)

    That’s the problem with “Kaizan”, at least when it come to training and fitness.

    • Right. The challenge is that auto-regulation, intuitive training, or instinctive training (call it what you like) is more difficult to execute properly than it is to simply follow a pre-planned program. It’s also especially difficult to teach. But the fact of the matter is that sooner-or-later, everyone needs it.

  2. Is there any evidence that improvement will be more consistent if you don’t try to make gains so fast? In other words slow and steady?

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