This is the time of year when people all around the world often set out on a new fitness journey. The reasons for starting on this journey vary widely and often accompany New Year Resolutions. It is a time of renewal and fresh energy. A new outlook on taking charge of your fitness. Many will stick with their new fitness journey and make lasting changes but the unfortunate truth is that 80% will stray off the path by the end of March with promises to give it another shot next year. This post is geared towards those completely new to their fitness journey but the same tips apply to all stages of the journey. Our hope is that through these tips we can help you stay the course even when things get tough. I have been there. My own journey started a few years back and has had its own ups and downs. I am now finding that I am working on getting back on track myself after the events of the past year. These tips are a collection of the knowledge I have gained on my own journey.
When I first started my journey, and many times throughout I found that I tried to compare my results to others doing similar training. However, everyone's body is different. This may seem obvious but I've learned that it is important to realize early on for one simple reason. Everyone will react differently to their training. Some people will tone up more and lose weight when doing weight training. They tend to end up more lean than muscular after time. Some people will bulk up fast from the same training.
Similarly, you could find it tougher to develop certain areas of your body. It is not impossible, it just requires more attention. This commonly tends to happen for people in their arms or their legs. I know in my case, my legs have next to no problem toning up and gaining muscle. My arms however, take a bit more work to put on any kind of size.
The same holds true with training for weight loss or just to tone up. We all carry that excess weight differently and it will generally come off in the reverse order that it was put on. In many people the last place tends to be the stomach (I know it is for me), but it could be anywhere since we are all different. I've found that it is ok to compare your progress with others. The important thing though is not to judge your results based on someone else's. It is likely not an even comparison.
When I started out, I thought that if I did enough crunches or ab exercises I could shed fat on my stomach quicker. You know, the dream of having a 6 pack and all that. Over time I learned that this was a wasted effort. It has been proven time and again that unfortunately you can NOT spot reduce fat from a specific area. It will generally come off in the reverse order it was put on. There are no quick fixes or workarounds to get around this biological fact. However, I have found that sticking with my fitness journey over time does reduce fat all over.... even in my stubborn stomach.
In my own journey, I often prefer to err on the side of caution. I would like to think I can lift massive amounts of weight, but the reality is I can only manage a moderate amount. When starting out and trying to figure out my starting point I learned this quickly by overshooting what I could safely manage by quite a bit. The problem is that we often have inflated ideas of what we are capable of. This isn't always a bad thing as it is also what drives us to push forward. However, when we fall short of being able to deliver, the tendency is to become discouraged and possibly even quit.
Now, as I mentioned, this overestimation of our abilities does give us something to work towards on our journey. Before starting with a new exercise, I've found it is often good to stop and think a moment. It is helpful to figure out if I am being realistic or just setting myself up for failure. This kind of thinking is especially true if it has been awhile since you have undertaken any kind of fitness journey. Sure, you may have been able to bench press 250 lbs and run a mile in 4 minutes when you were in high school but what can you realistically do now?
If you jump back in way above what you are capable of you are likely to at least get discouraged. Worst case scenario, you may even injure yourself trying to jump straight to these levels.
Instead, build up from safe levels to find your actual limits. Start with a more moderate jog and see how long it takes to complete a mile. For weight training I have found that using lighter weights and progressively increasing helps to find a good start point. If I can do 6 reps comfortably, I add some more weight the next time. This has allowed me to quickly find where my limits really are and safely build up from there.
This piggybacks on the previous tip. We have an excellent blog post on setting goals that was contributed by Joanne Castillo. It dives into this tip far more than I could cover so I recommend checking it out. Goals are what keep your motivation going as you continue on your fitness journey. If you have no clear (and realistic) goals in mind, your journey turns into more of an aimless wander and it becomes harder to obtain results.
When I first started my journey my goal was to get through it as efficiently as possible. This was especially true with weight training as my sessions average from 45 minutes to an hour. In order to do this, I would often cut my rest between sets short. Since then I learned that I was depriving myself of an important part of my workouts.
I have learned that as you train, your body starts to fatigue. Lactic acid starts to build up in your muscles and your workout gets harder. This is normal and is a function of pushing your body to its limits. Those rest periods between sets allow your body to process this lactic acid. It lets your muscles recover enough to provide full functionality again. If you rush through this rest as I was, especially during intense workouts, your muscles do not get enough time to recover. When you continue, you are not able to get the full benefit of the exercises. Your muscles will tire again more quickly which can result in form suffering, not performing the full movement, or possibly both. In my journey I learned that if you are able to cut your rest between sets short and still perform as well, it may be a sign that I need to increase the weight.
The general recommendation I have found if you are lifting heavy is to rest between 2 - 3 minutes between sets. This is usually around 85 - 90% of your 1 rep maximum. For less weight, you can usually lower the rest time. For cardio and functional training, I have found that this rest time varies. In my case, I was often more concerned with getting my heart rate down slightly during that time than muscle recovery.
You can train for hours every day. You could run a marathon every week. If you are following that up by eating half a pizza and a handful of candy bars, you are not going to make progress. There is a flawed thinking that has existed for awhile that you can work off that extra piece of cake you had at dinner. It is a lot easier to accumulate those extra calories than to burn them off. Not only that, if they are the wrong kind of calories they don't provide any useful benefits to help your body change. These are empty calories that will not benefit you over time.
Over the course of my fitness journey I have learned this fact firsthand many times. When I am not eating the right things, my training suffers. How it suffers has ranged from lack of energy to increased soreness after as my body didn't recover as well. I also didn't see much real progress, unless I had more of a balance between proteins, carbs and even fats. What I've learned over time is that your body needs this in order to burn fat effectively and build muscle. Now, don't get me wrong. It IS possible to lose weight (if that is your goal) simply by eating less calories than you are burning. But, over time I have realized that the quality of those calories is just as important. Without a balance of proteins, carbs and fats I've found that progress just stalls. I may have lost weight but I didn't feel any better and actually felt worse in many cases.
When I started my journey I, like many people, relied heavily on scales to measure my progress. However, I have since learned that stepping on the scale can be misleading. Weight doesn't tell you everything. Body Mass Index (BMI) is not always a good indicator. Depending on your goals, your weight or BMI could actually stay the same or even go up. My experience is that if you have a goal to build muscle, this often occurs. This does not indicate that anything is wrong though. Muscle simply takes up less space but weighs the same as fat. If I look at the scale to determine progress and see that my weight is going up or staying the same, I've found it helpful to consider what I am really trying to do. I also consider if I have been sticking to my fitness journey or straying.
Instead of looking at the numbers on a scale, think about how you feel. Do you have more energy? Do your clothes fit better? Can you suddenly fit into clothes that you haven't been able to wear in years? In my own journey, body fat percentage has been a more accurate number. It can be hard to measure using calipers. I have found there are scales that can measure it for you. I am uncertain how accurate they are, but they give an idea of if the number is going lower or not.
When I started on my journey, I let those around me daily know what I was doing. I was not obnoxious about it or try to force anyone else to join. That was not the intention. It was simply a notice that "Hey, I'm starting down this path. Now you know so hopefully you will support me in it." When others know, I have found it can help give a sense of accountability. After all, having that 2nd or 3rd helping at dinner looks a whole lot different if everyone knows you are working on improving your fitness. Letting others around you know could inspire someone else to start their own fitness journey as well.
I've found that this applies to everything in life really. I don't like to fail. Nobody does. But, if we succeed at everything in life the first time around there would never be any room for improvement. This applies to your fitness journey as well. You WILL fail at times. I know I have. Many times. Getting back on track in a pandemic has proven to be a challenge.
The simple fact I have come to learn is failure happens to everyone. Whether it's an attempt at lifting heavier weights or running a faster pace. You strive to push beyond your norm. You may not reach your goal the first time. Or the second. Or many times after that. But, each time you build up more. Without reaching failure, how do you know what you are trying to accomplish?
Then, pushing past where you failed will inevitably lead to a new point of failure. I have experienced this many times as many of us have. Why go on this merry-go-round of failure? Without failure there is no need to improve. It is really as simple as that.
This is something that I learned while helping my son out with exercises. Sometimes there may be modifications needed in order to build up to or intensify an exercise. One common example of this would be push ups. Not everyone can do multiple (or in some cases even one) push up. My son was one that struggled with this. This is where it becomes helpful to modify the exercise as I helped him do. If your workout calls for push ups and you can't do them yet, you could modify that to push ups on your knees instead of with your legs straight. That's still too hard? The push up can be further modified (regressed) to holding a plank position. Over time you will be able to progress that plank back to push ups on your knees and then on to full push ups. I watched my son progress through these modifications. The look on his face when he was able to do a real push up was pure elation.
Keep in mind, modifications are not a sign of weakness. Regressions provide just as much benefit and progressions beyond the exercise add an extra challenge. For instance, you can add an alternating shoulder tap to the push ups to progress further and make them harder. Lack of equipment or space can also create the need to modify. Especially nowadays, as more people shift to home gyms rather than going to the gym.
If you don't have heavy enough weights available you could add more reps or time under tension to compensate. On the cardio side, you can swap running in place (high knees, regular, etc) with using a treadmill. If you know how long it normally takes you to run a set distance you can set a timer and get right to it. No equipment needed. There is nothing wrong with any of these modifications. The important thing is to keep moving.
When I started my journey, I always thought that I needed to be sore afterwards in order to have a good workout. I have since learned that there is a huge misconception that Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is an indication that your workout was successful and you are making progress. People experience DOMS in different forms and it doesn't mean much from my experience. There have been studies as to whether this indicates progress and consistently has been shown to have no impact. It is just a result of how our bodies respond to training. Some people will always get DOMS after every workout while others will go through intense workouts without feeling a thing. If you don't feel that soreness after a tough workout it is nothing to worry about. You are still making progress every time.
In my own case, I tend to get DOMS when I start doing a new sequence of exercises or hit muscle groups I haven't worked in awhile. It fades as I continue my training. I am still training with the same intensity. My body acclimates to the intensity and recovers in a shorter time.
In order to make any form of meaningful gains, you need to be consistent. If you only work out sporadically, you will not see the progress you are hoping for. To keep this consistency, I have found it helpful to set aside a certain time of the day for your workout. Starting out it does not even have to be every day, but it does need to be consistent. If you work out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday make sure you do so EVERY week and not just here and there. Any gains come in the days following your workout. When you stay consistent in that timing, you reinforce those gains every week and give yourself more to build up from.
This has been one of my greatest struggles since COVID has taken the world by storm. I was getting a work out in daily, often more than one before that. It lapsed into every other day then to only a couple times a week to weeks passing by. My new game plan is to do every other day this week and add a day in every week until I'm back to working out every day. So far, working out every morning at the same time has been going well.
This one seems cliche but it can be a great motivator. Take pictures when you start. Take pictures as you progress. Ideally you want to take pictures in the same position each time.
You see yourself in the mirror every day so it can often be harder to see changes taking place. However, by taking pictures along the way you can compare and see the changes. People may not always comment on changes. it doesn't mean they aren't happening and this tip can help you see it more clearly.
I try to at least get starting pictures myself when I start a new part of my own fitness journey. In the past I have taken weekly pictures to show progress but now primarily take pictures when I start a new routine.
Many, if not most, people are often guilty of not listening to what their body is saying. I am guilty of this myself at times. We push through when we should be resting or backing off. When you are working out, there should NEVER be pain experienced. If a movement is painful, back off and try to figure out what is causing the pain. It is not worth causing an injury to get through whatever exercise you are trying to perform. I am talking about actual pain here, not just some discomfort.
Some exercises will be uncomfortable until you are used to the movement but they should never be painful. I can think of some pilates and yoga movements that proved uncomfortable to me in the past as a good example of this. I just do not have the mobility for some of those positions, and that is ok.
When pain is experienced, I have found that often it could be related to improper form during the exercise. This can be corrected by ensuring you are doing it correctly. You can research videos and articles to practice proper form. Other times it could be an indication of an injury that will require some healing. In any case, if you feel pain during an exercise STOP IMMEDIATELY.
The same can be said for if you do injure yourself. Listen to your body and take some time to heal. Modify exercises if possible to avoid further aggravating the injury. You will only set yourself back further if you ignore what your body is telling you.
Sleep makes up about around 10% of a successful fitness journey. Your progress and gains actually occur mostly during this time. Sleeping is when our bodies are repaired. It is the time when injuries and illnesses heal and muscles are repaired and strengthened. It is also can be a time when excess calories are burned as there is a more time between dinner and breakfast than any other meal. This, of course, is affected by eating later at night but the process of healing and repairing while we sleep burns up the reserves from the day. Our world is one where we often don't get enough sleep due to a variety of circumstances. Ideally we want to get at least 6 - 7 hours a night. Any less will cut the time for repairing and rebuilding down. This could lead to slower results over time.
I am very guilty of not following this tip. I've seen plenty of research on the benefits of sleep and recovery. It is something I work on but, I have not been able to get a handle on average around 5 hours each night. This is definitely one tip that is a work in progress.
If these tips helped you out please feel free to let me know in the comments. These are just some things I've learned on my own journey through experience as well as research. I am not a personal trainer or certified medical professional. I am still vested in the success of our customers' fitness journey as much as my own.
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