Making progress when you aren’t making progress

Sometimes it feels like you are not making any progress. At least it does for me. Perhaps I should frame this in the first person. Sometimes I feel like I am not making any progress. Sometimes it feels like I am just going through the motions. That I am grinding my way through my workouts t o no real end. That I lift the weights but don’t actually improve. That I stick to my eating plan but don’t get any leaner. that I keep practising movements but don’t get any better at executing them. It is pretty demoralising.
I guess the same thing happens to everybody, and from what I have seen on forums and Facebook groups etc, this is usually the thing that makes people give up. There is no motivation to get up at the crack of dawn or drag yourself down the gym after work if it is not getting you anywhere, and without motivation what is there?
The answer, of course, is discipline. It is not motivation that gets you out of bed at 5 AM in February to get outside and run in the pissing rain or push that barbell when your arms still ache from the last session and you feel you are only getting weaker by the day, it is discipline that keeps you going regardless of good times or bad.
And that’s all very well and good. Discipline is a virtue worth cultivating n all aspects of your life and discipline in workouts and exercise can carry over to work, personal life, inner self and all that fine stuff, but there is still the thing that sometimes it feels like you are just going nowhere however disciplined and consistent you are and however hard you keep trying, and that is hard.It is almost always temporary. Progress is seldom linear.  It comes in fits and starts or, like love, comes in spurts, to quote Richard Hell. Most of the time you plod along for what seems like ages without seeing any visible gain and then all of a sudden Whoosh, you make a dramatic breakthrough. Or you suddenly realise you are much further along that you were and you just hadn’t noticed it.
Often it can be influenced by factors that have nothing to do with the work at hand: if you are having a shit time at work and life is miserable then that is going to spill over into your perception of how your deadlift is progressing, and at the other end of the spectrum if you have just found new love and everything in the world is unicorns and rainbows then you will feel like you are flying through your muscle ups.

None of this is exactly revelatory stuff, you might be saying. Any fule kno this.
Well yes, but it is still difficult to remind yourself of it when it comes to actually feeling it. I say this because, obviously, I have been feeling like I am not making any progress at the moment. My motivation has flagged. My workouts feel like I am just doing them by numbers, and it is only discipline that keeps me going.
There are a number of reasons for this: I am pretty tired. There is a lot of stressful stuff going on all at once with my job, my divorce, the children and money, and it has all been quite high stakes for several weeks and whilst it isn’t going terribly badly, it still could and its a constant high wire act. I’m not looking for sympathy here, It’s all kinda in hand, just draining, and while getting under the barbell is a welcome antidote to it all, it isn’t doing anything for my performance.
It is also a bit of a vicious circle. After New Year once I recommitted myself (and my family) to a more rigidly keto diet, I initially lost 4 or 5 kg quite quickly, but for the last few weeks my weightloss has pretty much stalled. It’s not a problem as weight loss is not my primary goal but it is another factor. When you cease to make progress in one area, doubt starts creeping in.

This is where the value of keeping a log book comes in. I record every damn weight I lift every damn day. It seems a bit twattish sometimes but I persevere. What can be measured can be improved. I can look back and see that I have put 20kg on my deadlift, 25 on my bench, and 15 on my squat since Christmas and am lifting sets of 12 at the weights that used to be my one rep max.

Top to bottom: Dana Linn Bailey’s Olympia prep logbook. My logbook from 2 years ago. My current logbook.
2 years ago my 1RM squat was 110kg. Today I did descending sets from 20reps at 120kg. Strict Press now sets of 10 at 60

 In fact, rather than not making progress, my strength gains are way above what I expected. Which probably also goes a long way to explaining why I feel tired and have so much DOMS. This isn’t meant to be a humble brag way of showing off my gainz – believe me I am quite happy to trumpet them to the skies quite brazenly. My point is that sometimes you may be measuring your progress by one metric and feeling you are getting nowhere, when in fact progress is happening somewhere else. This is particularly true if You are going by scale weight alone. I happened to find, (here comes the brazen bragging) not in my log book, but in another notebook, my measurements and weight from exactly this time last year. 10th March 2018. My weight was almost the same. I am half a kg lighter this year. But my measurements have changed quite dramatically: I have put an inch and a half on my arms, two inches on my chest and lost an inch on my waist.

an inch a half on my arms and two inches on my chest… WTF??!!?? I had to check and recheck both the measurements to make sure that was correct and not wishful thinking. That is some actual proper gainz!

And then a weird thing happened. Once I realised that, I looked again at my pictures from last year and last week and I could suddenly see the difference whereas before I could not. I could actually see visible progress for the first time and it was really exciting, and yes… really damn motivating.

Then I figured out that the general rule of thumb is that to put an inch on your arms you need to put on about 10lbs of lean muscle overall. I don’t know how exactly accurate that is but as a rough gauge that means I have acquired a decent amount more muscle mass. Which means that even though my weight hasn’t altered that much on tv scale, my body composition is different. My body fat ratio is lower. And yes, if I think about it, my trousers fit me better than they did last year and I am beginning to see the top pairs of abs peeping through, and I have had to replace a lot of my shirts and jackets because they are too small across the shoulders and tight on the arms. That is actual progress but because I wasn’t seeing the scale move I couldn’t see it.

The thing now,of course, is not to become complacent with this victory. Whilst the scale is not the only measure of success, it is worth bearing in mind that my goal was and is to lean out a bit – I do want to see the rest of those abs this summer – and whilst my body fat may be lower, there is still more than enough of it. The work I have been doing has been successful in bulking me a bit, but there is much to be done to shed the rest of the fat. Now though, I have a bit of motivation to go with the discipline.