Pandemic Programming Part 2: Programming Behavior ChangeA habit is simply a series of daily practices. These practices can be eased into and built upon in a behavioral linear progression. We first want a starting point that is reasonable and attainable for the individual. The focus should be on completing small, actionable tasks, which makes procrastination less likely.
Pandemic Programming Part 2: Programming Behavior Change
By: Monica Rosenberg, RN, PBC, and BLOC Staff Coach
Hardship of any kind is rarely a quick affair. There isn’t one moment where you give it your all, emerge victoriously, and go on your merry way. Overcoming constant change can be exhausting, but resilience isn’t defined by springboarding from one challenge to the next unfazed. It is taking a moment to acknowledge the situation, deciding what can be accomplished, collecting yourself, and even resting if needed before moving forward. This is how we adapt to and overcome our changing environments.
I have been training with my friend, Andre Gonzalez, for about a year now. We went to the same university, studying exercise science, and both loved to lift weights, but we never really said more than “hello” at our school’s gym. When the pandemic hit, we reconnected on social media and shared lifting memes. We reminisced about gainz, shared our equipment-hunting stories, and finally had the bright idea to join forces. An epic bromance was born.
He built a wooden rack in his backyard, and we gathered all the other essentials: a tent for rainy days, a homemade bench, a couple of bars, weights, and a speaker. We timed our sessions so it wasn’t too hot, too cold, or too dark. We both selected our designated winter training beanies, knowing that bitter cold was coming. It was quite the physical ordeal, hauling equipment and racking up the mileage to and from his house. He lives about 30-55 minutes away from me, but I wouldn’t trade our setup for the world—it’s a powerlifter’s pandemic paradise.
I was extremely thankful for it in 2020. It gave me something concrete to hold on to when everything else felt uncertain. Despite the inconveniences, we showed up for each other and smashed PRs on the regular as a team. Before Thanksgiving, we never missed a planned session together—aside from when lightning storms demanded us to reschedule.
Leading up to Thanksgiving, his mother tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, around the time she tested positive, I hadn’t seen him in a couple of weeks due to my latest tattoo healing up. We stopped training together for a while, but I checked in with him often. His Mom is the sweetest lady who makes the best empanadas and grows great tomatoes. She’s always smiling and gives as much love, care, and attention to her tomato plant as she does to the people around her. I often picked some off the vine in the summer for intra-workout carbs. Training with Andre and seeing his Mom became my new weekly routine. But as we know, the only constant is change.
We both fell off with our training consistency. Our great attempt at normalcy was suddenly squashed. Interestingly, Andre and I both have barbells and weights of our own. He has a rack to use at his whim, but I could still deadlift or clean and press my weights (despite how physically draining the latter seems). My commute is now nonexistent, and yet it was so much harder to train than if I had to sit in rush hour traffic on the way to Andre’s house. What gives? Why was this so hard?
It was more than just a rack that was built; it was a community. We had been each other’s lifelines in this crazy time. Our sessions were our semblance of structure, carved and curated from chaos. Community, compassion, and support were all a part of our training foundation, and losing it created a void that was hard to surmount.
Eventually, I got around to training in my backyard. My friend Bob Schreiber constructed squat stands for me out of two wooden posts, pipes for j hooks, and 90 lb. of concrete in each bucket to weigh them down. He cut PVC pipe to put over the j-hooks, so they would act as rollers when I wiggle my way into my squat setup. As an added bonus, the PVC pipe prevents the metal from scratching my barbell. How nifty is that? I named this noble creation Racky Balboa after Rocky. Fortunately, I didn’t need a meat freezer for a training montage given that it was the middle of winter.
I soon discovered that without a training partner, the cold is much harsher, the rain bites my bones, and when the sunlight wanes, my will to lift outdoors goes with it. It has been quite a production to train outside alone. Having someone to lean on (“I’ll do another set if you do”) ensured we each completed what we were supposed to. After his mother recovered, we started lifting together again sometime in late December/early January. We have clocked in some brisk sessions, commenced by cracking ice off of his bumper plates and chipping away ice from under the rack. We’re not as consistent as we used to be, but perhaps the promise of warmer weather will thaw us out.
At this point, we have two choices: habituate or hibernate. This is where resilience comes in and how programming goes beyond adding weight to the bar. We can steadily carve regular sessions back into our schedule or stay dormant. That’s not to say it will be easy—given the weather is not as comfortable as when we started—but what’s the alternative? When it comes down to it, sustainable habits require a strong foundation.
I know I feel my best physically and mentally when I’m faring well in my lifting routine. Similar to a deadlift, a task is harder when you start from a dead stop—rather than riding the momentum on subsequent reps. Missing sessions makes it hard to get restarted. Beginning again can feel like climbing a mountain. It can be a vicious cycle where the rut becomes the habit, where it’s more familiar to do less or nothing at all week after week. This means missed sessions in the training arena but could potentially mean not taking care of ourselves nutritionally, emotionally, or on the financial/occupational front. Let’s be clear: stagnation is decay. Planned or (short-term) unplanned time off for recovery, vacation, or mental health is beneficial to one’s well-being, as life exists outside of training. However, being rooted in idleness is a habit that ultimately feeds our decomposition. I’d like to break that down before it breaks us down.
A habit is simply a series of daily practices. These practices can be eased into and built upon in a behavioral linear progression. We first want a starting point that is reasonable and attainable for the individual. The focus should be on completing small, actionable tasks, which makes procrastination less likely. Regardless of physical ability, a person returning from a layoff or struggling with inconsistent training can feel mentally overwhelmed by the prospect of jumping right back into three or more challenging sessions a week. When faced with this full commitment, it’s easy to put it off or “start tomorrow.” Holding yourself to these expectations isn’t helpful or constructive.
Take numbers out of the equation. Pick a day—any day—where you don’t have too much going on and select your favorite lift. Don’t have a number etched in your log. Don’t have “heavy” burned into your brain right now. Warm up and find what feels good to you without being overwhelming. That’s your starting point. Next time, add a little weight or add another lift you like, even an accessory.
The same concept can be used for conditioning and many other tasks. I recently started doing conditioning again because I love food (but food doesn’t love me back). I knew the first day was going to suck, that I was going to be winded, and I wasn’t going to enjoy it. I built up all of this dread and was ready to talk myself out of it. Instead, I started with 10 minutes at a moderate pace on my bike because that wasn’t daunting to me. Every session, I added two minutes to build my way up to 20 minutes. The rewarding feeling after completing a task has an astonishingly compounding effect. The third session felt so much easier than the first. To make it as convenient as possible to build on previous successes, I set out my workout clothes in the morning for when I come home from work. When you make the most of your momentum—I call this mostmentum—you utilize the accumulation of completed tasks to LP your way to a solid habit.
The heart of resilience is not invincibility but having the determination to make the climb back up from the depths and refusing to succumb to stagnation. It is not instantaneous, and often it is not aesthetically pleasing. When we are worn down, it can make us wonder how we’ll ever build back up again. Take a moment, collect yourself, and focus on completing the first step forward.