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Doing a workout is great for you — you’ll get your heart rate up, your blood pumping, and your muscles prepped to grow bigger and get stronger. But stringing a series of workouts together into a program can be even better. A workout is a good thing to do, while a program is a habit.

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Forming healthy habits is essential for strength athletes to do everything from building high-quality muscle mass to developing absolute strength. You can’t crush a deadlift PR (personal record) from deadlifting once — you’ve got to form a habit of training toward that goal. Here’s how to build healthy habits as a strength athlete.

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

What Are Healthy Habits?

What’s healthy for Athlete A isn’t necessarily the healthiest path for Athlete B. In terms of training, this means striking a sustainable balance between training, nutrition, and recovery. What you do in the gym, what you eat in the kitchen, and how seriously you take your recovery.

If you love going heavy at the gym day in and day out, it might not be too hard for you to grab a barbell whenever your program calls for it. But it may be more difficult for you to avoid going hard when a lighter approach will be more effective. Think of healthy habit formation as a negotiation between what you love and what you need.

You want to get stronger and you love lifting heavy. Hefting big weight is certainly a large part of increasing your strength — but so is a strong commitment to recovery and scaling it back to give your muscles the opportunity to grow and adapt. A healthy set of habits will help you toe that line so you can do what you love while also getting what you need.

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On the nutrition side, you’ll need to find a balance between staying committed to your goals and giving yourself the leniency you need to make your habits sustainable. Studies have shown that black-and-white thinking about food — calling some foods “bad” and completely off-limits — actually decrease your chances of achieving and maintaining healthy eating habits. (1)(2)

With recovery, studies suggest that plenty of popular forms of recovery — including cold plunges and cool-down stretches — aid in recovery only when athletes believe that they do. (3)(4)(5) So if those habits work for you, have at it. Opt for modes of recovery that feel good to you, and they’re more likely to stay habits.

Building Healthy Training Habits

When people are just starting out in strength training, it’s common to hear folks making goals of working out a certain number of times per week. And while that commitment is important, it’s also not the whole story. To form sustainable and healthy training habits, you need to balance a lot more factors.

Learn to Auto-Regulate

Auto-regulation is a skill you’ll refine throughout the course of your training career. Essentially, it’s the ability to adjust your training volume and intensity based on how you’re feeling at the moment. 

So if your program is calling for six sets of four at a particular weight but you didn’t get any sleep the night before and feel awful before your sixth set begins, auto-regulation gives you options. 

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Depending on your assessment of what you can handle, you might choose to do your sixth set but only with two or three reps; to do your sixth set for four reps but at a lighter weight; or to forego your sixth set altogether.

On the other hand, you might be feeling absolutely spectacular by the end of your fifth set — better than you would normally feel around this part of your workout. In that case, you might add an extra five pounds to your final set, or keep the weight the same but push out an extra rep.

How to Make Learning to Auto-Regulate a Habit

The more training experience you have, the better you’re likely to get at regulating yourself mid-training session. Here are some ways to make this start to become a habit.

  • At the end of each set, ask yourself how the previous set felt. This will help you get to know yourself better on the platform.
  • Consider keeping a training journal that records more than your sets, reps, and weights. Include notes about how well you slept the night before, what time of day you’re training, and jot down any sets that feel especially good or bad.
  • If your program calls for a specific amount of rest between sets, consider taking a little bit more when you feel like you need to. And when you’re feeling really good, consider starting your set 10 seconds earlier than you might normally.

Remember that auto-regulation is not about throwing your program out the window because you’re having a particularly good or bad day. Instead, focus on small changes that will help you make the most out of this day while sticking to your program.

Stick to Your Program

Auto-regulation works best when you trust your program. Find a program that suits your needs, goals, and experience levels that you genuinely enjoy doing. If you hate kettlebells and your program is entirely kettlebell training, it might be pretty tough to form a habit with it. Once you’ve found an effective program that you enjoy, make the choice to trust it.

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This doesn’t mean that you can never switch programs — there can, indeed, be some value to program hopping. But there’s a reason that training is made up of structured programs rather than just individual workouts. Each session is meant to build off of the last ones and develop your muscles, strength, and skills over time. You need to give it time to see results.

How to Make Sticking Your Program a Habit

When you don’t stick to your program — when you don’t give it enough time to do what it’s supposed to — it’s easy to skive off and kick the program to the curb. Some smaller practices can help you develop and stay committed to your training program.

  • By being less rigid, you might actually find that you stick closer to your program. Consider labeling your program with Day One, Day Two, and Day Three instead of Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. By doing that, you’ll have more freedom to shift around the days of the week according to the unpredictability of family, emotional, and work life.
  • Find an accountability buddy to talk to about your training. Even if you can’t coordinate schedules with someone or don’t like training with a partner, it can help you stick to your program if you find a friend you can geek out with about your training sessions. They don’t have to be a gym rat themself — they just have to support your gym rattiness.
  • Associate finishing each microcycle with a reward. Maybe you’ll get yourself those cool new weightlifting shoes after you complete this segment of your program successfully. You deserve a little celebration for lifting all those barbells.

Perhaps the most important thing here is to practice understanding with yourself. If you miss a day, a few days, or even a week, it’s okay to pick up where you left off instead of tossing the whole thing out the window. Life happens, but when you stick to a good program, so will your training habits.

Take Days Off

At first blush, taking days off might seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to stick to a training program. But adding off days into your program can actually help you stick to your training habit much more effectively.

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By allowing yourself days off from your program — including unplanned days off — you’re giving yourself permission to continue your program imperfectly. If you try to stick to it perfectly and build a fitness habit based on perfection, you’re likely to get thrown off course and give up when there’s a slight hiccup.

By planning for taking days off — indeed, making a habit of it — you’ll be making your training program more resilient. Your body will likely thank you for the opportunity to rest, too.

How to Make Taking Days Off a Habit

Taking days off from training is sometimes deliberate and can take the form of complete rest days or active recovery days. You’ll also eventually expand days off into deload weeks. But when you’re first starting out, it helps to keep a few categories of off days up your proverbial sleeve.

  • Plan to take at least one active recovery day each week. This can take the form of low-intensity cardio or it might be the day you go with your roommate to that yoga class.
  • Structure at least one total day off during each training week. Feel free to be physically active, but avoid strenuous activities or workouts on those days. Programming these days into your training plan can help alleviate the anxiety many lifters feel about spending a day away from the gym.
  • Try to be flexible about exactly when your off days occur in your program. If your home or work schedule makes one or two or even three days per week impossible to get to the gym, that’s okay — your program can absorb those changes. You can pick up right where you left off.

It can be hard to take days off from training when it’s something that you love. But even when you love something, it can be hard to maintain a habit when it’s so tough on your body and mental space. So, try to think of off days as an integral part of getting stronger.

Building Healthy Nutrition Habits

You’ve probably heard that abs are made in the kitchen, but so are muscles and strength. Pretty much any gym goal you have is going to be supported by what you eat. Those muscles you’re looking to build need fuel — food — to grow. By keeping on top of your nutrition habits, you’ll be able to make more progress in the gym.

Listen to Your Hunger Cues

Hunger cues are both very simple and very complex. In essence, your body lets you know when you’re hungry and when you’re full. Especially if you have a history of stress eating, dieting, or restricting your food intake, it can be difficult to accurately assess when you’re hungry and when you’re not. But with practice, it’s a skill you’ll likely be able to refine.

Sometimes, bodybuilders and strongman athletes have to ignore their hunger cues — whether you’re cutting weight or trying to maintain a certain body mass, you might wind up eating when you’re not hungry or not eating when you are hungry. But it can help your long-term nutrition habits to still keep in touch with your needs. (6)

By keeping track of when you’re hungry and when you’re not, you’ll likely find it easier to return to more normalized eating patterns during the offseason. And if you’re not into extreme eating habits either way, listening to your hunger cues is still an incredibly valuable tool for staying consistent with your nutrition.

How to Make Listening to Your Hunger Cues a Habit

Much like eating mindfully (another nutrition habit discussed below), listening to your hunger cues involves you asking yourself some questions. You don’t have to do these all day, every day. It’s okay to start small.

  • Create a couple of simple nutritional goals for yourself to start with. Adding foods is often much easier and emotionally sustainable than taking away foods. For example: “eat one more piece of fruit each day” or “add an extra serving of veggies to my dinner plate.”
  • When you’re inching toward the snack cabinet or fridge, ask yourself whether you’re hungry, bored, tired, or stressed. Of course, it’s okay to eat when you’re stressed, bored, or tired — but it can help stick to your nutrition goals when you know why you’re eating the way that you are.
  • Once you’ve completed a new nutrition habit each day (or most days) for two or three weeks, add another couple of nutrition goals to your plate. Build gradually, just like you would on the platform.

Since eating can be such an emotionally difficult subject for many people, strength athletes included, it might be helpful to begin this journey with the help of a registered dietician and/or a mental health professional.

Practice Portioning

You might have gotten the advice to track your macros or count your calories — but that’s just not going to work for many people. Strength athletes with a history of body image struggles and disordered eating habits may want to stay far away from counting calories. And tracking your macronutrients can get overwhelming very quickly.

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To make the process of keeping your nutrition balanced more sustainable and more accessible, try estimating your portions instead. This is a quick and easy method that you’ll get better at with time. You’ll likely find it easier to notice when you aren’t getting enough fruits or veggies in your diet when you’re portioning out your food.

How to Make Portioning a Habit

By making it a habit to estimate your portions, you won’t necessarily have to rely so heavily on numbers or food scales. This can be particularly helpful for visual learners and also for athletes who might have a history of disordered eating habits.

  • Learn a quick method for estimating your macros: use your fist to estimate out one cup of rice or other carbs, your palm to measure out three to four ounces of meat or other proteins, and your thumb to estimate a tablespoon of olive oil or other fats.
  • For at least one meal each day, consider putting your veggies on your plate before anything else. See if you can fill half your plate with vegetables and plan the rest of your plate accordingly.
  • If you’re not accustomed to meal prepping, start slow — aim to prep one or two of your meals ahead of time each week to build the habit.

Try to avoid being overly rigid while forming this particular habit. If your portions aren’t precise or if you wind up eating a bigger amount of a certain food simply because you enjoy it, that’s okay. Habits are about your general practices, which means they have to be sustainable for you as an individual.

Eat Mindfully

When you’re focused on eating mindfully, you want to be asking yourself why you’re making the food choices you are. A key part of eating mindfully is slowing down to focus on the food itself rather than rushing down a meal while also working at your desk.

But eating mindfully isn’t just about eating slowly and enjoying each bite. It’s also about paying attention to which foods you enjoy eating. If your nutritional plan revolves around making yourself eat foods you don’t like while restricting what you love, studies suggest you’re less likely to accomplish your nutritional goals. (1)(7)(2)

How to Make Eating Mindfully a Habit

Being flexible with your food choices is a more sustainable approach to healthy eating habits. Sustainability doesn’t always mean easy, though. These are some steps you can take to make it a bit simpler to make this approach to nutrition a habit.

  • Try to pay attention to each meal you make yourself. Consider why you’re choosing the meal or snack you’re choosing — are you hungry, bored, or stressed? Are you excited to eat what’s in front of you because it’s delicious? To begin your habit, try doing this for one meal per day.
  • Consider chewing one meal each day slowly so that you can focus on the texture and flavor of the food. This may also help you digest your food more effectively. (8) Gradually do this for more meals until it becomes a regular eating habit.
  • If and when you can, take a break from your work and other forms of multitasking while you eat. This way, you can pay attention to your food and may derive more satisfaction from each meal.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t or even should stop watching your favorite TV show while you eat dinner. But it does call for more attention to what you’re eating when you can give it.

Building Healthy Recovery Habits

You don’t always have to train harder to get stronger. Well, at a certain point, you do. But if it’s all go-go-go all the time, you’re not going to give your body enough time and space to recover and come back better. Strengthening your recovery habits is a necessary part of strengthening your muscles.

Focus on Sleep

All things being equal, the less sleep you get, the less strong you’re likely going to get. (9) The more you focus on getting high-quality sleep — and plenty of it — the more progress you’re going to make in the gym. Exercising without enough sleep can significantly decrease your reaction time, endurance, and strength while potentially increasing your injury risk. (10)(11)

When you get more sleep, your strength levels, reaction times, and muscular endurance all tend to increase. (9) Your mood and enjoyment of activity also tend to improve when you’ve slept more. (9)(10)

The mood piece is extra important when you’re trying to stick to a workout routine because you’re more likely to stick to a habit when you’re able to enjoy what you’re doing. (12)

How to Make Sleep a Habit

Sleeping well is a must-have for every program that’s going to take you closer to your goals. If you’re serious about getting stronger, you’ve got to get serious about your sleep habits.

  • Try going to sleep 10 minutes earlier each night until you’re going to bed a full hour earlier than you were before. If that’s not possible for your schedule, try to integrate a short nap or two into each day. 
  • You can also focus on quality over quantity by keeping electronics out of your bedroom and avoiding scrolling yourself to sleep.
  • Consider keeping your bedroom cool at night, which might be able to help you sleep harder and better.

Figuring out how to get better sleep isn’t the only thing you need to make gains — but you’re not going to make the gains you want without it. So get snoozing.

Plan Deload Weeks

Deload weeks are an integral part of every sustainable program. You’ll work hard for anywhere between four to eight weeks — depending on your experience level — and then take a week to focus on mobility, active recovery, or lighter loads and volume. These weeks also can serve as a nice mental break from the rigors of tough training.

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By incorporating deload weeks, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to stay psychologically engaged in your training in the long run. And the more engaged you are with your programming, the more sustainable it’s going to be. Sustainability is the key to building and maintaining healthy habits.

How to Make Deload Weeks a Habit

Deload weeks are easy to plan but also easy to forget. Try integrating them in one of the following ways.

  • Psychologically prepare yourself for full deload weeks by incorporating active recovery days into your weekly routine. One day per week, perform exercises like low-intensity cardio, kettlebell swings, or sled pushes.
  • When you plan out your program, make sure you’re scheduling in a deload week at regular intervals. If you travel frequently, you can also plan your deload weeks around your travel time.
  • Every four to eight weeks, commit to deliberately slowing your program down by significantly reducing your volume, load, or both.

It’s tempting to neglect deload weeks, too, because they’re often less appealing than lifting heavy weights. Try to remember that stripping weight off the barbell every now and again will ultimately help you put more weight on.

Incorporate Mobility Training

A lot of strength plateaus are less about strength and more about mobilities. When you can’t seem to squat any more weight, for example, your actual strength might not be to blame.

Factors like hip, ankle, and even shoulder mobility can become major limiting factors if you don’t make mobility training a habit.

How to Make Mobility Training a Habit

Incorporate mobility work into your training little by little until it becomes a natural part of your recovery routine. Even if you hate mobility training, it’s still something you can make a habit of.

  • Structure two to four mobility-focused exercises into each warm-up. That way, mobility training will become a part of your regular training routine.
  • Instead of (or in addition to) tying mobility training to your workouts, try connecting it to other aspects of your daily routine. Integrate a couple of exercises — maybe a few breaths of cat-cow or some reps of the world’s greatest stretch — into your morning or evening routine.
  • Don’t pressure yourself to spend a very long time on your mobility work. You can instead opt for shorter, five-minute mobility routines until it becomes a habit.

If you miss a session or two of mobility training, try not to let it throw you off your game. Just get back into it at the next opportunity and keep going from there.

Healthy Building Blocks

Laying down the foundation of healthy habits both in and out of the gym can help tremendously as you progress toward your goals. No matter what specific thing you’re training for, you need nutrition and recovery habits that are going to support you along the way. Treat each aspect of your training life as connected, and you’ll likely bust through strength plateaus soon enough.

References

  1. Ogden, J. (2010). The psychology of eating: From healthy to disordered behavior, 2nd ed. In The psychology of eating: From healthy to disordered behavior, 2nd ed. (pp. xii, 378–xii, 378). Wiley-Blackwell.
  2. Lowe MR. Dieting: proxy or cause of future weight gain? Obes Rev. 2015 Feb;16 Suppl 1:19-24.
  3. Higgins TR, Greene DA, Baker MK. Effects of Cold Water Immersion and Contrast Water Therapy for Recovery From Team Sport: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 May;31(5):1443-1460.
  4. Cook CJ, Beaven CM. Individual perception of recovery is related to subsequent sprint performance. Br J Sports Med. 2013 Jul;47(11):705-9.
  5. Raeder, Christian, et al. “Effects of active recovery on muscle function following high-intensity training sessions in elite Olympic weightlifters.” Adv Skelet Muscle Funct Assess 1.1 (2017): 3-12.
  6. Plateau CR, Petrie TA, Papathomas A. Learning to eat again: Intuitive eating practices among retired female collegiate athletes. Eat Disord. 2017 Jan-Feb;25(1):92-98.
  7. Palascha A, van Kleef E, van Trijp HC. How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain? J Health Psychol. 2015 May;20(5):638-48.
  8. Cherpak CE. Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2019 Aug;18(4):48-53.
  9. Mah CD, Mah KE, Kezirian EJ, Dement WC. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep. 2011 Jul 1;34(7):943-50.
  10.  Vitale KC, Owens R, Hopkins SR, Malhotra A. Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. Int J Sports Med. 2019 Aug;40(8):535-543.
  11.  Charest J, Grandner MA. Sleep and Athletic Performance: Impacts on Physical Performance, Mental Performance, Injury Risk and Recovery, and Mental Health: An Update. Sleep Med Clin. 2022 Jun;17(2):263-282.
  12.  Judah G, Gardner B, Kenward MG, DeStavola B, Aunger R. Exploratory study of the impact of perceived reward on habit formation. BMC Psychol. 2018 Dec 20;6(1):62.

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