5 Steps to Challenge Your Fitness

How can you change or improve your fitness if you don't challenge yourself beyond what's comfortable? Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, provides five steps to help you challenge your fitness.

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
4-minute read
Episode #550
The Quick And Dirty

Use these five steps, borrowed from change psychology, to help you challenge your fitness.

  1. Acknowledge and accept
  2. Find compelling reasons
  3. Take baby steps
  4. Shift your state and take action
  5. Accept setbacks and celebrate wins

Hanging prominently on the wall in front of the squat rack inside my home gym is a giant black poster with bold white letters that says “If It Doesn't Challenge You, It Doesn't Change You.” These words serve as a constant reminder of a fundamental principle in strength training: progressive overload. 

Progressive overload is a principle stating that you must gradually challenge your body to go beyond what is familiar or comfortable for improvements to take place. For example, you stimulate muscle growth and strength gains by gradually increasing the weight, repetitions, or frequency of your training routine. 

Although the idea of progressive overload was developed for strength training, it can be applied to any type of exercise, including cardiovascular exercises like running and even flexibility exercises like stretching. Seems simple enough right? Gradually increase the challenge of your workouts over time and you’ll continue to improve. 

We like what’s familiar or comfortable and we generally try to avoid change as much as possible.

The Challenge of Change 

But what makes progressive overload elusive for most people, including myself at times, is the fact that change is difficult. We like what’s familiar or comfortable and we generally try to avoid change as much as possible. This is true in life and is especially true in fitness because, let’s face it, exercise is hard work that doesn’t feel so good most of the time.

I could get better results on my cardio days if I just upped my pace on the rowing machine. I know I’m physically capable of doing it, but about half the time, I don’t do it. The truth is, I have a healthy disdain for cardio and I’d rather not deal with the additional discomfort that comes with pushing myself harder. 

I know I’m not alone on this because I work with clients every week of all ages and fitness levels who have the same issue. In fact, changing our baseline physical activity level is so challenging that there are entire lines of research dedicated to investigating this in overweight, older, and healthy adults.

Even for people who are more active, it’s easy to get stuck in a familiar or comfortable fitness routine that yields little to no results. How do we get ourselves to challenge our bodies to go beyond what is familiar or comfortable so we can improve our fitness?

Even for people who are more active, it’s easy to get stuck in a familiar or comfortable fitness routine that yields little to no results.

Overcoming Change in Five Steps

Health researchers have developed several theories of behavioral change over the last few decades. Having worked with these theories for some time, I’ve put together the following five steps that I’ve found to be effective for helping overcome the challenge of change.

Step 1: Acknowledge and Accept

It helps to acknowledge when it’s difficult to get the body moving with exercise. It’s ok, you’re not alone. We all feel this way from time to time. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor and seven-time Mr. Olympia of bodybuilding, has mentioned how difficult it can be for him to get motivated to work out. There’s no need to suppress or bypass these feelings. It’s better to acknowledge these feelings so they can be processed and let go.

At the same time, we should accept the fact that what doesn’t challenge our fitness won’t change our fitness. If we want to improve our fitness in any significant way, we must gradually challenge our bodies to go beyond what is familiar or comfortable. 

Step 2: Find Compelling Reasons

This is when it helps to have compelling reasons for challenging your fitness. For me, it’s the calm, yet alert state of being after exercise that makes me feel more effective as a person in all domains of life. I’m also inspired by my clients in their 90s who are functionally like they’re in their 50s because they kept pushing themselves with exercise. 

Step 3: Take Baby Steps

Take baby steps in making exercise more challenging. This makes it more likely that change will happen. Adding the tiniest increment of weight to strength exercises, decreasing rest breaks by 10 seconds between sets, or running at the same pace for an additional 30 seconds on your next workout are examples of baby steps. At this stage, the point is just to list all the ways you can make exercise slightly more challenging so you know what your options are when it comes time to take action. 

Step 4: Shift Your State and Take Action

With your list of baby steps handy, pick one that seems most doable for you at the moment and take action on it. What seems most doable at the moment may change by the day or even by the hour, and that’s ok. Find a way to shift your state to help you succeed. For example, you can watch a motivational video immediately before exercise or listen to a song that gets you pumped up during exercise. 

Step 5: Accept Setbacks and Celebrate Wins

Accept that you’re not always going to be successful in pushing yourself harder during every workout. I’ve mentioned earlier that I only succeed in upping my pace on the rowing machine about half the time. I’m ok with the times that I’m unsuccessful because life can be difficult enough already and I’m not going to make it more difficult by beating myself up. But when I am successful, I celebrate it. It’s important to celebrate your wins, no matter how small, because doing so will help build confidence that will lead to more wins. 

5-Day Change Challenge

Are you ready to put this knowledge to use with a 5-day change challenge? Your challenge over the next five days is to break out of your fitness comfort zone by applying the five steps from this episode to make your workouts slightly more difficult. You can use the steps with walking, running, biking, swimming, strength training, stretching, or any exercise you can think of. Give it a try and let me know how you feel. Email me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.