Every New Year, “resolutioners” flock to gyms everywhere with the same goal of getting in shape. As many of us have observed, these “resolutioners” slowly drop off, and by February the gyms are mostly back to their normal capacities. Though the New Years Resolution crew presents an easy example of this happening, people stop working out every day, all year long because they aren’t seeing results from the work and time they are putting in. In this article, I want to discuss why we often aren’t getting the results we want from our exercise, and what steps we can take to actually see progress.
Workout Intensity & chasing soreness
Probably the most common misconception among those who’ve recently committed to getting in shape is that workouts must always be done with “all out” intensity in order to be effective. Accompanying this thought is the notion that excessive soreness is synonymous with a good workout. What we see is that this mentality often leads to burn out, or just ends up hindering our ability to stay consistent. Think of a time you went to the gym for the first time in a while and you were really pumped to go “beast mode” with your workout. After that day, when did you workout next? Odds are, you probably went overboard and the soreness from your “all out” workout kept you from hitting the gym again for a couple days or so. At this point you decide to head back to the gym for another workout and again decide to work yourself extra hard to “feel the burn” for the days you took off. The next few days are extremely brutal and you are so sore that you can’t sit on the toilet. It’s safe to say that after the second workout, you have now spent more time “recovering” from your workouts than you’ve spent actually working toward your goal.
Now let’s say that instead of going all out each time you hop on a machine or touch a free weight, you took it down a few notches to maybe 50-70% of maximal effort for at least the first couple of workouts after taking time off. Now I’d be willing to bet you’d feel barely sore at all the following day, and probably good enough for another workout. What I’m getting at here is that in this scenario you are able to spend more days working toward your goal by lowering the intensity. The key is to build and maintain consistency. When our muscles are sore enough to affect our movement the days following a workout, this is actually a sign that we overshot during our workout, resulting in significant damage to the muscle tissue to where we are still trying to recover days later. Ideally, soreness levels should remain low the day following a workout, yet present enough that one could tell they had worked out the day before.
is your exercise selection appropriate for your goals?
Let’s go back to our goal of getting in shape. What is it, exactly, that we are getting in shape for? If you’re planning on running an elliptical marathon (if they even exist), then by all means don’t let me get in your way. However, given that around 40% of adults in the United States are obese, we’ll assume that by “getting in shape” what we really mean is lowering body fat. So how do we go about doing shedding this excess body fat?
The biggest mistake that people make when they want to lose weight is heading straight for the ellipticals, treadmills, or bikes. Not what you expected, I know. Now I am not at all saying that doing cardio is a mistake–it has incredible outcomes that everyone could benefit from in some way. And I am also not saying that cardio won’t result in weight loss, because it absolutely can. What I am saying is that exclusively focusing on cardio is not the optimal approach to lose body fat. Unless cardiovascular exercise is sustained for roughly 30 minutes or longer at a fairly low intensity, most of those calories that the screen says you burnt are from carbohydrates in the muscles and bloodstream, not fat. But let’s say you do, in fact, lose a good amount of body fat by doing a ton cardio consistently since it’s not impossible to accomplish. That’s fantastic, but what happens if you take time off? You have developed something of a dependence on your workout to expend a given number of calories to put you in a caloric deficit, but now you are no longer burning those calories regularly. Unless you are strict in your diet, you will most likely end up with a caloric excess and store some fat since your metabolism alone can’t use all the calories you’ve consumed. So if cardio won’t get us very far in our fat loss journey, what should we be doing?
A progressive resistance training regimen that incorporates all the major muscle groups should cause an increase of muscle mass in the body. Not only does the process of increasing muscle mass burn body fat, but muscle requires a good bit of calories to be maintained. If instead of spending our time burning the most calories doing cardio, we used that time using resistance training, we would be able to elevate our daily caloric expenditure so that we are burning more calories doing our normal everyday activities. A well-programmed training routine, if done 3-5 times a week, should result in fat loss. If you want to learn more about getting started with a resistance training program, see if I can help you move toward your goals with an exercise consultation or online training program!
How are you measuring your results?
If you are already lifting weights and not beating yourself up with your workout intensity and still not seeing progress, then you may be looking for it in the wrong place. If you weigh yourself every day, or even once a week, STOP NOW. Ideally, I’d recommend you to put your scale in your closet and not look at it for 3 months. However, we’re all human and I’ll just say keep it there for one month. Even if you are doing all the right things pretty consistently for a month, you still might not see the scale move at all. In fact, we might even see some weight gain. We forget that this is not at all an accurate measurement of our progress, and get easily discouraged by this number way too frequently. This does not mean you didn’t get the results you wanted. When you read your weight on the scale, you’re reading the total weight of water, bone, fat, muscle, connective tissue (you get my point) that is within your body. In a month’s time, your body is most likely adapting to your exercise program by storing more carbohydrates and water within your muscles. You may have generated more connective tissue too. So to see the same weight on the scale a month after starting training, it should serve as a sign that you have begun to lose body fat and that you should keep up what you’re doing. Here are some much more accurate places to look for your results: weekly training volume (more on this in another post), strength, waist circumference, hip circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, appetite, energy levels, and many many more.
Hopefully this will give you an idea of what approach you should take during that next fitness pursuit! If you found this guide helpful, share it with someone else who can’t seem to get anywhere with their fitness. Also feel free to share your results and progress!