From Sedentary to Dedicated Lifter
Back in 2005, Chris Shugart wrote about something he called “the transition.” He said there are two types of people in gym:
The person who’s struggling to train consistently and eat right. This guy doesn’t like going to the gym and hates to change his eating habits. It’s all a chore, and he often quits, restarts, and falls off the wagon. Chris wrote that this person hasn’t yet made the transition.
The person who has made lifting weights and healthy eating a lifestyle. He loves it, doesn’t need to be motivated, and hates to miss a workout. There’s no way he’d quit. This person has made the transition.
As Chris noted, most people fall into the first category. But is there more to it than that? As a psychologist, I just had to dig into the research and take a closer look at the psychology of change.
Note that this isn’t so much a “how to change” article, because there’s no one strategy that works for everyone. But there is the pattern.
The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change
Scientists came up with a model that describes the sequence of stages that behavior change usually occurs. This model includes which processes are responsible for the transition between stages.
The model originated in an analysis of several theories of psychotherapy and behavior change. The development of this model came from a study that compared smokers in professional treatments with self-changers. Researchers wanted to see if they could identify certain processes of change that predicted whether or not the smoker was successful at quitting.
This study revealed a phenomenon that wasn’t then a formal part of any therapy theories, namely that change unfolds via a series of stages.
This discovery was the actual foundation of the Transtheoretical Model. So, this model is no mumbo jumbo, but rather a framework for success. It’s been adapted to other forms of behavioral intervention programs, from substance abuse and anxiety, to eating disorders and obesity.
Going from average couch potato to beginner and finally to bodybuilding beast is closely tied to the Transtheoretical Model.
The Stages of Change
These stages represent a temporal dimension, which means they’re connected to a certain timeframe in which each of them becomes important during a change process. To make it all easy to grasp, we’ll use a hypothetical person who’s going through “the transition.” Let’s call him Mr. Example.
As you’ll see, this process isn’t just about going from average athlete to dedicated long-term lifter. It starts a lot earlier than that and there’s a lot to it, kind of a continuum. Hardly anyone is going to jump smoothly from stage to stage.
See if you can spot yourself in the stages below. Examine your own development and identify those stages in your past behavior to find potential for mental and physical growth.
Stage 1: Precontemplation
The change process starts here. This is the point in time where people don’t even consider taking action within the upcoming six months.
The reasons why can be many, such as not being informed sufficiently about the consequences of their current behavior, or being demoralized about their ability to change after trying and failing in the past. People in this stage tend to avoid reading, talking, or thinking about their behavior. Since they don’t want to change, they’re often characterized as unmotivated.
What does that mean for Mr. Example? As long as his sedentary body is sticking to a selection of sofas, office chairs, and car seats, he’ll remain in the stage of precontemplation.
Every well-meant bit of health advice is going to be ignored or countered by arguments. Moving is an alien concept to him, and he doesn’t consider changing. He doesn’t want to change, so he doesn’t.
Mr. Example is the worst nightmare of every health insurance company and all healthcare providers and coaches.
Stage 2: Contemplation
Let’s call this the “thinking about it” stage. Now the person is intending to change within the next six months or so.
People in contemplation are more aware now of the pros of changing, but they’re also well-aware of the cons. This balance between pros and cons can produce ambivalence and keep people stuck.
People in contemplation can also turn into chronic “contemplationists” and behavioral “procrastinationists.” Unfortunately, these folks are not considered ready for traditional programs that expect their participants to take action immediately.
In this stage, Mr. Example starts to think about the pros of hitting the gym. However, he knows that he’d have to force himself into a lifestyle that’s about deliberate decisions, awareness, and all that kind of stuff, which requires a lot of hard work and patience. He’s not ready to change yet and decides to stick to his selection of chairs.
Excursion: From Pros and Cons
Across twelve studies, scientists tried to figure out if there were relationships between pros and cons in relation to behavior change and progress across the stages.
They found that progress from one stage to another involves about one standard deviation of increase in the pros, whereas the same progress is linked to a reduction in about one-half of a standard deviation of the cons.
This means the pros of changing your behavior must actually increase twice as much as the cons must decrease. Hence, as soon as a person aims to change, the benefits of a new behavior have to be emphasized twice as much as the reduction of costs or barriers.
As long as Mr. Example can only list two or three pros of building a great physique, sticking to a hard exercise routine along with the right nutrition will be a big barrier to change. But if he’d come to appreciate that there can be more than forty or fifty pros for exercising, being “too busy” might become a barrier that’s almost neglectable for him.
The bottom line: If you want someone to change successfully, or if you want to keep a change process going, make sure the benefits of a new behavior far outweigh the cons. And, as additional support, that there’s also a reduction of the cons of changing.
Stage 3: Preparation
This is the stage where people really intend to take action within a month. Typically, people have already taken one significant step toward the new behavior in the past year, such as consulting a coach, getting a gym membership, working towards self-change, or searching for info right here on T Nation. These folks would make good recruits for action-oriented programs, like weight-loss clinics.
Mr. Example is sick of wearing through the seat of his pants and getting out of breath walking up the stairs. Now, inside of his brain, there’s a new and strange desire to change.
Stage 4: Action
Once in this stage, people have already made specific, overt modifications to their lifestyles in the last six months. Although action is the driving force now, it shouldn’t be mistaken for successful behavior change. Why? Because not every effort can be counted as sufficient enough to reduce risks for falling back into their former behavior.
Mr. Example manages to set up personal goals, a sound strategy to get where he wants to be, he keeps up his gym routine more often than not, and he’s on the way to sustainable change. Still, wasting time by taking selfies in the weight room and boasting about his “journey” doesn’t count as action that reduces any risk.
Stage 5: Maintenance
In maintenance mode, people have made modifications similar to the previous stage, but they’re clearly one step further along since they don’t need to deliberately apply change processes as often as during the action step. They’re also working on preventing relapses into their old behavior patterns and they’re increasingly more confident that they’ll continue on with their changes.
Compared to the other stages, it was estimated that this part of the change process lasts from approximately six months up to about five years! This may be the stage in which most long-term lifters spend most of their years under the barbell, even beyond this estimated maximum of five years.
This means Mr. Example hits the gym on a regular basis and keeps building solid habits. Lifting isn’t just a means to reach a specific goal; it increasingly becomes a lifestyle. He pushes through bad workouts and appreciates the good ones, not letting himself fall back into his old behavior. Mr. Example is proud to see his body transform and his coaches are happy due to his engagement and motivation.
Stage 6: Termination
The last stage is reached when there’s zero temptation to fall back into the old behavior, and when there’s 100% self-efficacy, which refers to the confidence in your own ability to achieve intended results.
No matter if people are depressed, groggy, bored, anxious, or stressed, there’s no chance to return to the old behavior. They behave as if their previous behavior had never been acquired at all – the new behavior patterns have become automatic.
As you can guess, this stage is pretty hard to achieve and researchers argue that only a small percentage of people ever reach zero temptations and total self-efficacy. However, being a dedicated lifter doesn’t necessarily require entering termination.
Depending on a lifter’s goals, it could be a realistic scenario to spend a lifetime in the maintenance phase, because relapse temptations are usually prevalent and strong. In other words, it’s totally fine to think about quitting and finding a less stressful hobby from time to time, especially during tough diets or contest prepping periods.
We aren’t talking about smokers who want to stop a certain behavior here, but rather about serious lifters who want to find and implement the most efficient behavior that brings them closer to their desired outcomes.
Once in this stage, Mr. Example is totally infected with the lifting virus. Given great genetics, he might really make it on stage someday if that’s his goal. There’s no temptation to skip any scheduled workout and his ultimate goal has become a philosophy, a source of motivation. Long story short: he changed. Mission complete!
Processes of Change
Although there’s no consensus about what makes people change on an individual level, we know how change proceeds. Researchers can identify certain processes people use to move from stage to stage.
Let’s summarize a few of them. I want to give you a deeper understanding of the glue that binds the stages of change together and which strategies to apply in your own development:
- Consciousness raising: This is about getting informed about the causes, consequences, and cures for a particular problem behavior as well as increased awareness for those aspects (e.g. searching the web for lifting-related info).
- Self-reevaluation: Self-reevaluation combines cognitive and affective assessments of your self image with and without an undesired behavior such as your image as an average sedentary guy or as a shredded beast.
- Self-liberation: The process of self-liberation refers to both the belief that you can change and the commitment and re-commitment to act on that belief (e.g. setting goals).
- Counter-conditioning: This is about learning new, desired behaviors, which can substitute for problem behaviors.
- Stimulus control: The process of stimulus control removes cues for problematic behaviors and adds prompts for better alternatives, which in turn reduces the risks of relapse (e.g. getting the junk food out of your house and having plenty of healthy substitutes on hand).
- Social liberation: This one requires an increase in social opportunities or alternatives, especially for people who don’t have a lot of social contacts (e.g. surrounding yourself with like-minded people).
- Contingency management: This one provides consequences for taking steps in the desired direction. Self-changers usually rely on reward much more than punishment, and reinforcements of their behavior are emphasized (e.g. joining peer groups that increase the probability that the desired responses will be repeated).
- Helping relationships: Positive relationships combine caring, trust, openness and acceptance, as well as support for the right change of behavior (e.g. hiring a coach).
Know Your Stage
Let’s get back to the idea of “the transition.” The central focus of this concept lies somewhere between action, maintenance, and the last stage of changing, whereas the model I presented considers the whole development of an athlete.
Knowing about the psychological dimensions of a lifter’s development may be as valuable to progress as learning about correct exercise form. Similar to having to put in a lot of hard work to earn a great body, building the right mindset to transition from stage to stage will also require some work.
You can use this info to evaluate yourself and your current stage of change. Likewise, a good coach would be an even better coach if he or she considered these stages when accessing clients.
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