I have no motivation to work out; basically every day except the day immediately following a successful workout, I enter a battle with myself where I try to talk myself into it. Some days I manage to convince myself to do it, but many more days—most days—I don't. If I set a goal for myself to work out twice a week, I'll typically put off the second workout until the very last day of the week, even though absolutely nothing is stopping me from doing it sooner.
I can't totally blame the pandemic, as this lack of motivation was the case for me before this year, and, actually, not having to commute/having less to do on weekends gives me more time to work out. I can't say it's because working out at home sucks, because I actually really like working out at home, and a couple years ago, when I was working out regularly, I was doing a fairly vigorous 45-minute yoga podcast 3–4 times a week. (Now I'm simply aiming for a 30 minute total body strength workout 2–3 times a week, at least to start—an incredibly modest goal, IMO.) I recently bought myself some fun new home workout equipment, thinking that would help, but still, I struggle to get going. I don't even hate it while I'm doing it. I just... don't typically feel like getting started, and would prefer to be doing basically anything else, and often, that's enough to keep me from getting started.
I worked out regularly for most of my adult life, and genuinely enjoyed it. I was mostly doing cardio, which I like a lot better/find a lot easier than strength training, but I also recognize that if I'm only going to do one thing at this point, strength training makes the most sense for me.
If I can be honest—my workout motivation for much of my life was weight loss/weight maintenance. I'm not proud of the fact that hating my body drove my workout routine for so long, or the fact that important things like "mobility in old age" and "a healthy spine" aren't doing it for me. (Even reminding myself that strength training would probably serve my appearance, especially now that I'm in my mid-30s, isn't totally working, so I think vanity has just stopped working for me overall!)
Every time I finish working out, I feel proud of myself and genuinely great for winning the mental battle... and so, so annoyed that I have to get up and do the whole stupid song and dance again in a few days. Do you have any tips for motivating oneself to get off one's ass and just do the damn thing when one has literally no excuse?
I Can't Believe I Have to Work Out Multiple Times a Week, Every Week, Until I Die
Keeping going with any healthy habit is, at a foundational level, annoying and hard. You have the days when you finish your workouts and feel connected with your body and one with the universe, only to forget those good feelings too quickly. Or, you have a workout that goes terribly, and it makes you want to give up forever. I get this question so often that it’s a cornerstone of the Swole Woman Starter Pack of articles.
Motivation is probably the number one topic I end up talking about around here, and I’ve taken a few runs at various different solutions over the years. Sometimes the answers are even seemingly contradictory, depending on what mood I am in, but really, there hasn’t ever been one single answer that seems to work for everyone (at least, not so far as I’ve found in all my research and experience).
But now I’m going to try and reconcile it all in one place. This is the mother of all workout motivation articles.
There are a few tricks, and then there are two basic strategies that are basically polar opposites and so it may feel confusing that either one, or sometimes both, or sometimes a different one depending on the day, could be the answer. This may seem like a lot of time and thought to invest in what seems like a relatively simple issue when you SHOULD be able to say to yourself “just do it [Nike swoosh],” but, well, we’ll get into that in a minute.
Make a goal. OK, I know, but hear me out
I think the thing to keep in mind with making goals is that “just make a goal” is not wildly easier than “just choose a place to live” or “just choose a new job.” If figuring out “what you want” and then “how to get it” were so easy, we would never feel like lost, pathetic underachievers, but I think most of us do at least some of the time. Having a direction to move in is what keeps us attached to most things we are doing, and working out is no different. I think you personally need a goal. This may seem counterintuitive when you’re already uninterested in working out and find it boring or tedious, but hear me out first.
Here is the thing: As a perfectionist and a procrastinator who has really done my level best to grow up over the last few years, I’ve had a much easier time actually getting things done by overestimating tasks. “Oh, that thing I need to do will be easy and take 20 minutes” is a death trap for me ever getting started on that thing: If I can’t do the thing easily in 20 minutes, I must be stupid and incompetent, according to my own standards, and then I really don’t want to find out for certain that I’m stupid and incompetent by actually trying to do the thing and finding out it is hard and takes longer than 20 minutes.
The answer to procrastination is to humble myself before my dumb little tasks and say, “That thing I need to do will have a lot of steps and components and I better move at least a few of them forward in ways that I can right now.” So far, this approach has not steered me wrong really ever.
This may rub some people the wrong way, but I think the problem some have with working out may be that they don’t take it seriously enough, in this sense. We see physical activity as like, caveman stuff, and lump it in with other superficial bullshit, like tanning or “weight loss.”
I know it’s fundamentally embarrassing to take something seriously you feel not good at at all. This is particularly true if you have the refrain of some childhood enemy (even one of your own family members!) ringing in your head from that time you tried to do something a little ambitious once: “Who do you think YOU are, [insert notable athlete]?”
But physical movement and even basic achievements can be pretty hard! And by taking it seriously, I don’t mean trying to do the hardest thing you can think of and investing hours and hours in it. I mean humbling yourself before a dumb little workout goal, thinking about it as something worth sustained effort and patience and giving yourself the consideration that it will take time and deliberate practice to achieve it.
My worst workouts, external emotions aside, are when I’m trying to figure out any new situation and how to reconnect it to my overall goals, like when gyms shut down in March and suddenly my only options for weights were what I could find around my house. I couldn’t get stronger in the traditional sense because nothing really works for that like plates and barbells. I can nearly touch both walls of my apartment standing in most places, it’s so small. So I focused on doing what I could, hammering my weak spots and movement patterns, trying to do things I knew I was bad at and never make time to work on.
Figuring out how to make weights out of books and backpacks and suitcases, and where I could even find space to work out in a small apartment, was annoying, but any time I found myself so annoyed or overwhelmed at the idea of both having to figure out logistically how to do a workout, what I was trying to achieve with it, and then have to actually do it, I tried to deliberately be patient and only try to do one of these things at a time. Sometimes not feeling like working out is actually feeling overwhelmed by our expectations, or the overall uncertainty of what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. We are humans; we love an overarching sense of purpose. When we don’t have it, we’ll reflexively reject the whole enterprise.
All my dumb little home workout tasks did end up paying off in a surprising way, in the best way I ever hoped they would: I got stronger and broke through a longtime ceiling on my deadlift to lift more weight than I ever had before. Doing all those little things ended up making a big difference. We need a bigger shape to activities like this, or they will always be boring and tedious.
But how do you pick a goal and figure out how to get there? Your goal used to be “being hot” (vague but effective for so many of us), and that’s not doing it for you any more. I think you need to focus on what your body can do instead. One nice thing about heavy lifting is that the goals are straightforward, and you’re just going for “bigger numbers than before” (you could replicate this with more reps or sets of your movements, or trying harder versions of those movements). Tons of women who I’ve seen get into heavy lifting report that the feeling of the positive feedback loop attached to what their body can do, not what it looks like, is what keeps them coming back.
Do you have your own motivation tricks your want to share? Questions about working out, eating, health, or why you shouldn't be afraid of lifting heavy weights? Send them to email@example.com or DM @swolewoman on Instagram.
Get invested in some small, manageable task that your strength training would support, do a little research on how you could accomplish it, and let that give your exercise sessions an overall shape. You’ve heard of “run a 5K”; now get ready for “a workout goal can be almost anything you want.” (f someone were to ask for it, I would certainly hurt myself trying to make the world’s longest and biggest list of workout goals that are not “run a 5K.”)
Maybe instead of thinking of it as a Workout Goal, think of it as a Neat Little Skill you are cultivating. I suggested a bunch of Neat Little Skill-type goals in the past, like being able to do a pistol squat or a pull-up. But if those seem unfun to you, maybe think along the lines of skills that would belong to athletes you admire: dancers, yogis, Crossfitters, gymnasts, basketball players. And then, this is not much of a trick, but Google it; there are meticulous YouTube guides to literally everything under the sun.
I admit figuring out what to do and how to do it is the hardest part, and this is where I leave you. And once you accomplish a goal, you will find yourself between goals and having to choose a new goal. Have patience with that. But don’t be afraid to be imaginative and a little ambitious, and then be generous with yourself and humble towards the process. And this is very important: Keep track of what you’re doing in a notebook or spreadsheet that you don’t have to show to anyone else, so you have proof of how far you’ve come.
Automate it, use tricks, and don’t expect to feel motivated all the time
And then, there really will be days that you couldn’t give a shit about your carefully constructed goals because other things going on are more important and worse than you could have dreamed. There will be days when you feel stupid about your goals and can’t possibly be making any progress toward them at all, and who DO you think you are, thinking you could do these things? Olympic gymnast Simone Biles? Basketball player LeBron James? World class, not-at-all-a-joke boxer Jake Paul?
Hopefully you have a little flexibility in your schedule that sometimes you can let a bad day be a bad day. But if this doesn’t mean you just need to change your goals (and it might!), some days you need to push through. Even most days, you might need to push through.
It is a mistake to think that people who are dedicated to working out are just phoning in one banner day after another. I would say, optimistically, one in ten workout days, I feel like I could kill God. Maybe three or four of those ten I feel good and generally interested in working out. The other five days, I don’t feel like it, and one or two of those five, I REALLY don’t feel like it. Sometimes I will have a good period that lasts weeks. Sometimes I will have a bad period that lasts months.
I have said before that working out is like going to your job or eating your vegetables (and just like these things, some days they can be wonderful; other days they are checking a box). We get fixated on “motivation” for working out because we think of working out as optional, unlike the other cornerstones of adulthood like jobs and vegetables. We spend a lot of time trying to align our jobs with our “passions” in life, and a lot of time trying to make vegetables taste good; this is because we take them seriously as required enterprises of living life.
If you truly feel working out is optional, then you’re never going to win this fight, I’m sorry to say. If you want to stay in this, you have to reprogram around that “optional” feeling. Even if generally “required,” working out will stay optional day-to-day, just like jobs or vegetables, but if you want to be working out as part of your overall lifestyle, you can’t be giving yourself this pass constantly. You have to take it away from yourself. I’m saying a lot of words here, so of course the entire task is more complicated than this, but it really might begin at some point with marching yourself into it.
To that end, here are some dumb tricks that will at least allow you to check the box, which is all that the stakes need to be sometimes:
- Tell yourself you will do one movement, and if after that you still REALLY don’t feel like doing anything else, you can stop. This nearly always works on me, and sometimes leads to an overall shorter workout, but at least I did it.
- Cut all the amounts of things you’re doing and do less than you’re “supposed” to. Cut a movement from the program, cut a set, cut the reps down, cut the weight by half. You might do this only to be like “huh that was not as hard as I was worried it would be and I can manage a little more” and end up doing what you originally set out to do anyway. But this is a useful trick. Don’t do it constantly because programs are designed the way they are for a reason, but if you’re just trying to get through the day, 50 or 80 percent is better than zero.
- Tell yourself you are not working out while watching a TV show/listening to a podcast/listening to a new album, you are listening to a new album/listening to a podcast/watching a TV show and just happen to be doing a little exercise at the same time. This is among my dumber ones but it works on me more often than you might think. Give yourself some media to enjoy and just do some workout stuff while you are enjoying it.
- Focus on just today. A huge source of workout procrastination and anxiety for me is that sometimes I don’t feel like I’m making progress or know how it all fits in. In that case, I need to just get today over with and do what I feel like without worrying about whether it’s moving anything forward.
- Do something completely different. A believer in goals like myself would say this is not a good idea all the time, and constant variety won’t allow you to see yourself get better at one sustained pursuit. But sometimes we just need a break. If you run, attempt strength training; if you do yoga, attempt running. The key here is setting the expectations at “attempt,” not achieving any kind of greatness.
- Think of a “prize” for yourself. Okay, don’t get into any toxic reward cycles with food or anything. But garbage sloth time is so much more enjoyable when it follows even a modest accomplishment. Tell yourself you get as many hours of playing a video game as you want if you work out; that you will crack open a new book you are excited about even though you haven’t finished your current one; that you can put off the work or chore you were going to do tonight until tomorrow. You may say to yourself “but I can have all these things without working out, because I am an adult,” and that’s true. But once you introduce the task-reward thought pattern here, you can’t erase it, and just going ahead and playing the video game will feel worse now than if you’d never thought it. Just check the box and you can enjoy your little prize with abandon.
Getting working out done is a complicated thing for people who didn’t grow up living and breathing it (and sometimes for people who did, too). But the biggest mistake anyone can make with regard to “motivation” is expecting it to be a matter of “just do it,” or fixable with any one solution. It’s not a coincidence that a bunch of these things above involve the extremely difficult chore of getting to know yourself, asking what it is that you want, and giving yourself permission to take yourself seriously, whether it’s about making a little goal or interrogating why you don’t want to work out today and figuring out how you can help yourself. Maybe the best thing learning to structure exercise can do for us is actually not making us hot (!), or even healthy, but listening to and being patient and generous with ourselves, even when we are doing our dumb little tasks.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.