Confessions of a Trainer: Your Workout Is Not Your Problem

How many motivational clichés does it take to get in shape? Whatever it takes.

This is the type of (sarcastic) feedback that makes exercise so frustrating. Lots of talk that sounds good, but nothing that definitively shows you how to get from where you are to where you want to be. 

Most fitness information is a road that leads back to where you began. We say the same things, try to hit the restart button, only to end up back in the same place 3 to 6 months later.

Fitness is like climbing the corporate ladder; you don’t go from intern to executive after 4 weeks of hard work.

Case in point: You know that in order to see results you have to work hard. Or more specifically, that you have to work hard, over time, consistently, oftentimes for many years for you to look the way you want.

In your heart, you understand that this is a reality. But when you’re in the gym, reading magazines, or seeing your friend who eats like crap and still looks 10 times “better” than you, it’s not an easy reality to swallow and it’s one we easily forget.

Fitness is like climbing the corporate ladder; you don’t go from intern to executive after 4 weeks of hard work.

But when those four weeks feel like 4 years, it’s easier said than done. And it’s the reason why so many people start a plan and fizzle out before ever achieving the good stuff.

You believe you don’t have the right workout, the right trainer, or the right body. The reality, you keep on falling for the same training trap over…and over…and over again.

We want to believe in the instant fix. And while many fitness professional will tell you that 4-week solutions are not the answer (myself included), they won’t offer a different route to not only seeing results, but knowing how to recognize when you’ve taken a wrong turn.

Let’s change that. This guest post by Jon Goodman, author of Ignite the Fire, looks at training from the eyes of a trainer, to help you anticipate and navigate your fitness goals more effectively. The result is a new level of understanding that identifies the landmines before you step on them and blow up your progress. -AB

Avoid The Training Traps

Armed with the right information and the requisite dedication, any fitness goal is attainable. Sure some take longer than others taking into consideration both your starting point and loftiness of your goal. But it will happen as long as you don’t fall into a training trap.

For years I worked in a small training studio. Almost every member worked out with a trainer in some capacity. A few years ago I joined a large commercial gym closer to my condo. It was the first time in many years I’d been in a facility where the majority of members don’t work directly with a trainer.

For two years I went to that gym and saw the same men and women. Aside from a few exceptions, nobody seemed to be progressing. These were people who consistently went to the gym and seemed to be working hard but didn’t have any noticeable changes.

I understand why it happens; there’s a lot of mis-information, conflicting information, and abundance of information out there.

What you must know is that the importance of the quality of the best program in the World pales in comparison to your willingness to do a program. Any program.

My best recommendation is for you to find a program that seems good, and stick to it even if you think that you found something better. I’m not saying that you didn’t necessarily find something better; I’m just saying that what you have is good as long as you don’t change it.

Training Mistake #1: Muscle Confusion (the other one)

I knew a trainer, Paul, who was working with a client (Jeff) who wanted to lose fat and put on muscle. They agreed that Jeff would add muscle mass first, and then focus on burning fat, and Paul created a program with those goals in mind.

A month into training, Jeff was looking and feeling good, but then Paul decided to have Jeff do Tabata-style training (a high-intensity interval workout) instead.

At the 3-month assessment, Jeff hadn’t come near to his original agreed-upon goals. Paul had fallen into the trap of program hopping and Jeff ’s results suffered.

If Paul had stuck with hypertrophy training for the full 3 months, Jeff would have met his goals. (In addition, Jeff would have gained a lot more from the Tabata training during the next phase of his training with the added muscle mass.)

It might seem like a new program is just what you’re looking for but I urge you to stay the course. There are no secrets when it comes to fitness despite the fantastical promises that many savvy marketers might have you believe.

What it comes down to is this: A different program might be better than the one you’re one. It also might be worse.

The only absolute is that hopping from one program to another before seeing it through will stall your progress.

While P90X made it popular to talk about muscle confusion, the concept of changing up your workouts causes confusion in a different way; your muscles aren’t given a program that allows them to progressively become stronger, more powerful, or more efficient.

If you come across a new workout that sounds great, file it away and start it up after you’ve finished your current plan.

I know that sometimes this can be difficult. If you aren’t noticing the types of gains that you think you should be getting from your current program it can be frustrating.

The first thing to do is to learn to identify progress markers.

Look for improvement on primary movements (squat, deadlift, upper body push, upper body pull patterns) as indicators. If your squat is getting stronger than you don’t need to worry as much if your leg extension strength seems to be plateauing.

Some programs are built to include a period of overreaching followed by supercompensation. In simple terms, this means that you’ll beat yourself to a pulp for a short while (usually 2-3 weeks) and your strength throughout that period will decrease.

The supercompensation phase occurs during a period of planned rest and recovery. Results, if done right, can be quite remarkable. The struggle that many trainees encounter with this type of training is that they become disenchanted.

The overreaching phase is hard work, and the motivation to continue as you see your strength diminishing can be hard to overcome.

The final reason why you may think that your current program isn’t working has nothing to do with what you’re doing in the gym.

The list below highlights four of the most common home habits that can hamper results. If any of them exist, then you increase the likelihood of stalled progress.

  • Lack of adequate rest.
  • High stress levels.
  • Poor diet.
  • Alcohol consumption.

Here are a few quick tips to improve upon each of the 4 home-time habits:

Lack of rest

Aside from advising you to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, sleep quality must be a priority as well.

Everyone knows that shutting off electronics at least an hour before bedtime is a good idea. The reality, it’s not practical for most.

If you’re going to be using electronics, figure out ways to reduce the light being emitted from your electronics. F.lux is an app that automatically adjusts the light based on the time of day.

In your bedroom eliminate as much light as possible. If you have a router or TV, cover the blinking blue or red light before going to sleep. Finally, committing to 5 to10 minutes of light meditation before going to sleep works wonders to quiet your mind so you can rest easy.

High stress levels

There’s no “easy” advice because most stressors are hard to remove. That said, how you perceive stressors can always be managed.

Five to ten minutes of meditation in the morning and night works can help clear your mind and calm your heart. If meditation is difficult, try starting with a ritual of gratitude. It’s as simple as writing down 3 things that you’re thankful for in the morning and 3 things that made the day awesome before bed.

Poor diet

When you break it down diet is pretty simple: Lots of lean protein, lots of veggies, lots of healthy fats, healthy carbs especially surrounding workouts, and a fair amount of fiber (especially if you’re over 35 years of age). Obviously this is a very basic overview but if acts as a good baseline.

Alcohol consumption

Don’t drink. If you have, which you don’t, don’t drink on days that you train. (Editor’s note: I drink, as it’s part of my social life. So if it’s the same for you, I recommend limiting carb intake during the day. Just consider your booze your carbs.)

Training Mistake #2: Progressing Too Quickly

This mistake surprises a lot of people because the goal of fitness is to become better each workout. But sometimes the focus on becoming stronger or resting less can actually work against you.

In the words of trainer Tim Arndt, “fitness is simple, it’s just not easy.”

Linear progression works great for anyone with less than a year of serious strength training. This working out thing isn’t complicated unless you’re at a very high training level. What matters is that you work your butt off trying to get a bit better every day.

Doing a squat on a bosu ball isn’t necessarily a bad exercise, (although you’d have to work pretty hard to convince me that it’s the best choice for whatever it is that you want to accomplish) but if you can’t perform a good squat without a bosu ball, you should be working on that first.

Here’s the funny part: I felt compelled to join in and justify exciting exercises. It seemed great workouts needed something that made them different in order to be seen as good. Everything else was boring and outdated.

As much as I try not to listen to others speak, those on the gym floor were talking about their programs and why they worked.

“If you do a curl to press to squat then you use more big muscles and burn more fat.”

“I do all of my exercises on a ball because it forces me core to engage. I don’t even need to train my abs directly anymore.”

Even though I had 12 years of training experience and knew this wasn’t true, I couldn’t help but get sucked in.

I tell you this embarrassing story because I hope that it makes you recognize that you’re not alone. With 12 years experience in the weight room (seven as a trainer) and a degree in Kinesiology, I also fell into the trap of thinking that there was something new that I might be missing out on.

Progress: Don’t Skip This Step

There’s a myth that you need to “trick” or “confuse” the body in order to adapt. I don’t know what those words mean, but I’m pretty sure that the body isn’t something that you can fool.

The body attempts to stay in homeostasis (a state of balance). Whatever your training goal, the body wants to stay where it is and you want it to adapt.

It takes a sufficient amount of continual effort to move the body to a new homeostatic point. This is why it takes a lot of consistent effort to force your body to adapt, but once it does, maintaining becomes a less involved task.

Attempting to progress too quickly by making the weight too heavy or changing to a fancy variation of an exercise is like trying to skip a step. There are no tricks – just focus and hard work every day.

So how do you know if you’re progressing too fast?

One way is to understand the difference between soreness and pain. Oftentimes, lifting too heavy leads to poor form and injury.

Even if you don’t have a major injury, you could be doing damage to yourself leading to nagging pain. But delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is not bad, so what’s the difference?

Generally DOMS is tender to touch and subsides within a maximum of 72 hours. Pain, on the other hand, is more pinpointed and often occurs in the joints. It can also last more than 72 hours.

A good way to figure out if the weight right for you is to focus on your ability to “feel” each rep.

Aside from low rep powerlifting, lifting weights should be controlled throughout the entire motion. Know what muscles you’re trying to target and focus on feeling them work through the movement. It sounds simple, but the mind/muscle connection is powerful and can make a big difference.

Success in the gym doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a reason why so few people achieve their fitness goals. It’s hard and requires pig-headed discipline and the ability to delay gratification.

But you know what? Nothing worth having comes easy. There are no tricks. Avoid the traps, work hard, sleep well, eat right, and get better every day.

Jonathan Goodman is the author of Ignite the Fire, a book that teaches how to become a personal trainer and build a successful career. To learn more about his personal training books and free collaborative resource for trainers, go to the Personal Trainer Development Center.

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