When you look around at why so many people are out of shape and unhealthy these days, it’s not because they don’t know the importance of physical fitness. Of course they do, and of course they know that working out would fix many of their issues. The problem is they have no motivation to work out.
The most important part of working out isn’t the specific program you follow (or don’t). It’s not what leg exercises you do. It’s not whether you train with free weights, machines, or bodyweight. It’s not deciding between cardio, weight lifting, cycling, or running. It’s actually getting into the gym and doing the workout. The most important part of the workout question is being motivated to actually work out.
Because the best workout is the one you’ll do consistently. You can have all the knowledge in the world, access to all the best equipment, take all the supplements and protein powder, but if you can’t actually motivate yourself to work out, it will all be for nothing. If you have trouble getting yourself motivated to work out, keep reading for some tips and tricks for getting the motivation you need.
Make your workouts more playful and interesting.
The greatest type of motivation is intrinsic motivation: the kind that emerges from within. Dogs are intrinsically motivated to eat food because food tastes good and their desire for it is deep-seated. Children are motivated to explore the world around them because the world is new and endlessly interesting. The desire comes from within.
If extrinsic motivations like “lift this much weight” or “lose this many pounds” aren’t helping you find the motivation to actually workout, doing something fun and/or engaging as a workout will. Maybe you want to pick up a sport. Or surfing. Or martial arts. Or mountain biking. For me, my favorite “workout” is paddle boarding, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and riding my fat bike along the beach. All fun, all excellent ways to exercise. And the cool thing about this is that you quickly realize doing more formal workouts in the gym will help you get better at the fun workouts, too. These days I train in the gym to enhance my playing.
Get a workout buddy.
Humans are social animals. We aren’t meant to go through life alone. We aren’t meant to perform difficult physical tasks alone. Hunters work together. Physical laborers labor together. Soldiers go to war with their comrades. Everything physical in life, with few exceptions, works better and is more enjoyable with other people involved.
One of the biggest reasons CrossFit is so successful is that it gives you a community to train with. You show up to the workout of the day and you know there will be some friends suffering right along with you. This dilutes the suffering and enhances the positive effects, keeps you going when the going gets tough.
Pay for a trainer.
Putting money down on a trainer for a few months of sessions is a way to trick yourself into working out when you don’t want to. In fact, that’s probably at least 50% of why fitness trainers are so useful: The “sunk cost” of having paid for a trainer upfront will compel you to make good on your investment and actually go work out. People hate losing money. You’ve paid for it—you’ll use it.
Join a gym.
The gym isn’t just about the equipment, although that helps. It’s also a place expressly designed around working out. It’s full of people who are there to train. The collective energy is all directed toward the pursuit of physical excellence. Not everyone enjoys the gym, but those who need it, need it. I’m a big “nature guy,” preferring to spend as much time outdoors at the beach, in the forest, and in the mountains as I can. But I still go to the gym a couple times a week because the atmosphere is so conducive to working out.
Drink coffee 30 minutes before you want to workout.
Caffeine is potent stimulant of dopamine, the primary motivational neurotransmitter. When the body wants you to do something, it uses dopamine to motivate you. Caffeine can enhance that motivation.
Caffeine doesn’t just make you want to work out before you work out. It also makes the workout more enjoyable by reducing fatigue and perceived difficulty. Training becomes more rewarding, thus making you more likely to be motivated to do it the next time. As long as you aren’t training late at night, 50-100 mg of caffeine will help you get to the gym and have an effective training session once you’re there.
Supplement with L-tyrosine.
When your body produces dopamine, it does so with the amino acid tyrosine. Tyrosine converts to L-DOPA which converts to dopamine. Simply taking L-tyrosine won’t necessarily boost your general motivation, but tyrosine deficiency definitely lowers dopamine levels. If you have a tyrosine deficiency, taking supplemental tyrosine should improve your motivation.
Find your place.
Some people drop thousands on a home gym only to realize they can’t really train at home. Some people join a gym only to realize they prefer the solitude of working out at home. Some people realize they don’t like working out indoors at all but prefer the park, the hiking trail, the beach.
You need to find your perfect spot, that physical space that triggers something inside you and makes you want to move, lift, run, and train. If you haven’t found it yet, start looking.
Just get in the door.
The hardest part of motivating yourself to work out is getting into the gym, handling the logistics of gym clothes, driving, timing, all that. But once your’e there, you’re in. You’re not going to drive to the gym, walk into the weight room, and then turn around and go back home. That’s not how it works. Get in the door and the rest will take care of itself.
Don’t think about all the lifting you’ll have to do, all the warming up. Don’t think about the weights or the cardio. Just think about getting to the gym. That’s it. That’s your job. And then it all takes care of itself from there.
A big issue with most people trying to find the motivation to work out is that they need motivation in the first place. They’re constantly thinking about the workout. They’re stressing over it. They’re looking for excuses, they’re searching for a reason not to do it. Nine times out of ten you won’t do the thing you’re thinking about all the time—you’ll just stay paralyzed.
Competition—friendly or otherwise—removes second-guessing. If you turn your training into a competition with a friend, if you’re competing to see who can get the most steps or run the most miles or do the most reps, it’s no longer about the workout and the effort it requires. It’s about beating the other person. If you’re wired like I am, competition is a great way to motivate you to get into the gym.
Consider the neurotransmitter theory of training styles.
A fitness coach I know personalizes his training programs to the client’s dominant neurotransmitters. He administers a simple test that purports to reveal the client’s dominant neurotransmitter and then puts together a training program that complements their inclinations. The test is called The Braverman Test.
- Dopamine: strength training, high intensity movements, Olympic lifting, all-out training, dynamic movements, lots of variety, higher volume/frequency of training
- Acetylcholine: steady incremental progress, a routine that doesn’t change much, plenty of rest
- Serotonin/GABA: play, sports, hiking, irregular weight lifting (rocks, instead of weights; logs instead of machines), anything that keeps it interesting
If you take the test and hew your workouts to your dominant neurotransmitter, you’ll likely be more motivated to do them.
Look in the mirror.
Most people who really want to workout but have trouble with motivation need to work out. Just being honest: it usually shows in their fitness levels and their body composition. So here’s what you should try doing:
Look at yourself naked in the mirror. Do this every morning and night. Don’t suck anything in, don’t flex, don’t try to look your best. In fact, look your worst. Let your gut hang out and just look at yourself. Take it all in until you feel like you really want to get into the gym and start working on yourself. Sometimes you just need to feel the pain and shame of having let yourself go before you do something about it.
How do you motivate yourself to work out? What tips and tricks would you add?