Four psychological methods for diet and fitness program customization

Most fitness plans are one-size-fits-all.  Sadly, this is even true for most fitness coaching that people pay hundreds of dollars a month for.

Cookie cutter plans are hit or miss.  A good program will be customized, both to your body and your psychology.  Also important: a good coach will tailor their coaching style to your psychology.

Today I’m going to share four different forms of psychological customization with you.

First, the ideal way to build new habits and hold yourself accountable varies tremendously from person to person.  The best framework I’ve seen for figuring out your “accountability style” is Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies.

Before you read further, click here and take her Four Tendencies quiz to find out which type you are.

Once you know which of the four types you fall into, here’s how to use that.

If you’re an obliger, this is very straightforward: get a coach.  Obligers tend to do the worst on their own, and have the strongest response to coaching.  They also benefit from frequent contact with a coach, so you’ll do best on a program where you’re exchanging messages with your coach at least several days a week.  Over the long run you might be able to wean yourself off the need for a coach by learning to hold yourself accountable to your future self, but for now, you need another person helping you.

If you’re a questioner, you need to be told exactly why you should follow each instruction.  You’re likely to gravitate towards more science-based fitness writing for just that reason.  Coaching can work for you, but the coach needs to be willing to take the time to explain the rationale behind every instruction; you won’t take anything on faith.  If you go it alone, you’ll need to take the time to do a lot of research to prove to yourself that your chosen course of action is a good one, but be careful not to go too far down this path and overload yourself with unnecessary information.

If you’re an upholder, try going it alone first- there’s a good chance that will work for you.  If it doesn’t, you can try working with a coach, but unlike obligers, you won’t need frequent contact- the coach is there to give advice, but you don’t need that much in the way of accountability.  However if you failed to stick to your goals on your own, you may have a motivation problem- a good coach will help you work through those.

If you’re a rebel, you’re in a tough spot.  You don’t easily stick to goals on your own, but coaching also tends to backfire, since you tend to not do what anyone tells you to.  There are a few approaches here.  First, make it about identify change- that is, focus on who you want to be, not what you have to do.  If you do work with a coach, they need to avoid being too pushy- ideally, they’ll discuss things with you and act as more of a sounding board for ideas, giving you information but not trying to dictate exactly what you do with it.

Now here’s item number two: the three dieting styles.

First off, there’s counting.  This is where you meticulously track how much you eat each day, including calories and macros.  It’s typical of the IIFYM crowd.  With this approach, you have strict rules about how much to eat, but no kind of food is off limits.

Second, there’s the guidelines approach.  This is sort of the opposite of counting, in that it focuses on restricting what you eat, but now how much.  For instance, you might not be allowed to have liquid calories, or carbs in the morning.

Third, there’s the mindfulness approach.  With this approach, you don’t have strict diet rules, but you do have habit you have to follow in order to raise your awareness of what you’re eating. You might have to eat slowly, take photos of every meal, glance at the calorie count before eating something, or keep a food journal, for instance.

Someday I hope to make a quiz that will let people quickly figure out their diet style.  Right now though, I don’t have a good way to tell which of the three will work best for someone, other than a) their own personal experience, or b) talking with them about their diet history.

Now on to exercise.  There are two big psychological differentiators I’ve seen with people regarding their workout psychology.

Item number three: whether you do better working out at a gym or at home.  Working out at home is theoretically better from a time management standpoint.  However, many people actually enjoy working out more, and do it more consistently, if they go to the gym- even if that adds a half hour of travel time per workout.

The difference has to do with how each environment makes you feel.  Some people find the gym distracting or intimidating; others find it makes them feel “in the zone.”  Your home environment may make a difference too, particularly if it’s cluttered vs having the room to work out.  Some people even enjoy the trip to and from the gym, particularly if they walk.

In this case, most people know which group they fall into.

Finally, there’s your response to training frequency.

Some people train better if they train as rarely as possible.  If they only go to the gym 2-3 times a week, they look forward to their gym sessions and crush it every time, but if they train more often, it starts to wear on them.

On the other hand, some people find that training as often as possible makes it easier for them to build their training habit.  They actually find it easier to train every day than to train less frequently.

Why the difference?  Maybe the first group needs time to warm up.  Maybe they crave variety, and get bored of anything they do every day.  Maybe the second group grows to like environments they spend a lot of time in.  Beats me.

In any case, the way to find out which one you are tends to be personal experience.  You can usually tell based on habits you’ve built in the past too.  Do your existing habits tend to be things you do every day, or do they tend to be things you do less often, but still with great regularity?

As a final note on this, if one person trains every day and another person trains twice a week, but they’re both in similar physical condition, the second person’s workouts should be about three times as long as the first person’s.  Your psychological response to training is one thing, but total training volume needs to be based on your body’s ability to recover.

Most trainers don’t get into this level of personalization- they just publish one size fits all programs, copypasta the same few routines to every personal training client with a few tweaks to make them “personalized,” and hope for the best.  They accept a success rate of 10-20% as normal!

If there’s one thing the fitness industry needs to get better about, it’s individualizing people’s program design.  With the knowledge you’ve gained from this article, you can start designing programs that work with your psychology rather than against it- or help your trainer to coach you in a way that you respond to.


P.S.  For those wondering about me: questioner, guidelines dieter, total gym bro, and high-frequency training.