Everyone will make mistakes when attempting to better themselves. The plethora of information on the internet doesn’t make it any easier, because of the wide range of opinions that exist on getting stronger, building muscle, increasing endurance, and decreasing body fat. What the hell should you do?
A lot of things work. There are a number of ways to get from point A to point B. Going back to the basics will take most trainees a long way toward reaching their potential. Hard work, dedication to consistency, and strict attention to nutrition and recovery are the keys.
Sounds simple, right? However, many trainees ignore those time-proven steps and fail to reach their goals due to one or a combination of these:
- Overreaching and having unrealistic expectations. It’s okay to aim high, but be realistic. Not everyone will win Olympic gold, let alone their local lifting competition or endurance event.
- Ignoring genetic limitations. Face it, you have limits to how much you can alter your physical attributes. Your speed, strength, quickness, and endurance can be improved, but you’re limited by your genetic make-up such as skeletal structure (short or tall), muscle mass (thick or thin), and muscle fiber endowment (fast or slow twitch).
- Making simple training missteps. Many training gaffes are correctable. Shore them up, and you will improve the chance of maximizing your potential, including that goal of becoming leaner.
What are these common and correctable training mistakes? Here they are, in no particular order.
Lack of Specificity
If you want to get better at something, then do it. Want to run faster? Then practice running faster. Want to improve your ability in a barbell squat? Then squat with a barbell. Want to improve your cardiovascular endurance? Then perform activities that stress what I call the “musculo-cardio” system. High muscular demand creates a high stress on the heart and lungs, so emphasize the large muscles of your body when exercising.
If you are trying to maximize fat loss, exercise itself does not make a huge dent into burning fat. It’s the post-workout demand that is important. Dig a deep hole during your workout to create a situation where your body needs to tap into your fat reserves to get out of that hole, post-workout.
Lack of Intensity
It’s exercise, folks. Proper exercise should be physically demanding. To make alterations in your body—whether in strength, endurance, or muscle mass—you need to push yourself beyond your current status. You must create a stress (overload) on your current physical capacity to move to the next level.
Demanding exercise is not fun, but that is what you need to make changes. So run harder, push through those demanding resistance training repetitions, squeeze out one or two more repetitions during a timed circuit exercise, or decrease your recovery time between sets.
If your target is cardiovascular endurance, interval training has been proven to be an efficient means of augmenting it. Focus on these variables:
- Progressively increase the number of bouts.
- Decrease the recovery time.
- Increase the intensity of effort. This can come from increasing your speed or increasing the distance or duration of your intervals.
And for the love of Arthur Saxon, if you’re resistance training, push your sets to the maximum, safely. If you’re capable of 15 repetitions but stop at 11 because “you’re too tired,” you sold yourself short. Yes, it may hurt a bit more, but it’s temporary. Don’t be soft. Get a competent training partner, push yourself safely with the goal of as many proper repetitions possible, and enjoy your gains.
Skipping the Weights When You’re Trying to Lose Fat
People hate to hear it, but it is the truth: fat loss is 80% diet and 20% appropriate exercise. Exercising hard and creating a calorie deficit is the general formula for weight loss. That approach will work when it comes time to stepping on the weight scale. But is scale weight the only desirable outcome? No, it’s not.
To optimally shed body fat, choose resistance (strength) training above all others. It stimulates the growth and maintenance of muscle tissue, and leave you in better shape in the wake of a calorie deficit. Always remember, resistance training builds or at least maintains your body’s shape, but ignoring it and over-doing traditional “cardio” will go the opposite direction: less scale weight, but an emaciated body.
Too Much Mindless Cardio
I loathe the term “cardio.” As I write this, I’m doing “cardio,” as I have been throughout the day. I have been inhaling oxygen, my heart has been beating, and sending oxygen to my muscles and organs via my circulatory system to keep me functioning. Boom. I’ve been nailing that cardio thing all day long.
All jokes aside, here’s the typical scenario:
Trainee: “Sure I’ll do some resistance training, but I need to get my steady-state three-mile run in first.”
Although doing something is better than nothing, postponing resistance training to hang your hat on that low-intensity three-mile effort is not the optimal choice. Go ahead and feel good about doing those three miles. But if you don’t properly resistance train, you’ll lose scale weight but look soft. The evidence is quite clear: low-level running or walking burns minimal energy. The total calorie burn will be less when compared to other shorter-term but high-intensity options, such as circuit resistance training.
The bottom line: if you want to look better and bring back your clothing line from 10 years ago, your exercise choice should be less low-effort “cardio,” and more high-effort resistance or circuit training.
Risky Exercises and Improper Technique
Would you rather be healthy and able to train consistently for years, or nagged by injuries and unable to do much of anything? Training on a regular basis is satisfying. Training sporadically due to down time from injury is unsatisfying.
I know all activities have some element of risk to them, but some more than others. If you are the average Jane or Joe Schmoe desiring to “get in shape,” improve your stamina, and lose a few inches in your belly, there is no need to engage in potentially harmful activities, such as:
- Olympic weightlifting
- CrossFit-type training
- Obstacle Course/Tough Mudder-type training
- Excessive long-distance running
- Any other extreme, joint-compromising training
Believe it or not, you can train hard to get in better shape without lifting ultra-heavy weights, engaging in explosive, joint-compromising exercises, jumping across a ditch, or running 50 miles per week. Proper exercise selection should allow for optimal stimulation with minimal undue stress on your body’s structural integrity.
At the gym, here is rule number one: if in doubt, slow it down. Yanking and jerking weights can easily compromise joint integrity. Google weight training injuries, and you’ll see what I mean. Perform exercises under control. That is, slow the movement speed to a level that does not create havoc on your muscles and joints. In fact, slowing it down will more efficiently recruit muscle fibers.
Running—a seemingly innocuous activity—can be harmful over time. Running is a single-support event. Your bodyweight is absorbed by one leg on each ground contact. Tally the number of single-leg ground contacts in a running session, and multiply that by the number of sessions in a week, a year, and number of years. It takes a toll in the long-term. Shin splints, stress fractures, and ankle, knee, and hip joint issues eventually result.
If you’re just trying to lose a few pounds and improve your conditioning level, there is absolutely no need to start a running program. Shore up your diet and hit the weights. If you’re hung up on “I gotta do my cardio,” use a device that is low-impact, like an elliptical or climbing device, but don’t spend an inordinate amount of time using them.
If you are required to run, sprint, or perform high-stress agility drills (athletes), use a progressive program that allows your body to adapt to those stresses. Be smart, use impeccable technique, and assure proper recovery time between training sessions. Make every attempt to use progressive training to minimize the potential for joint trauma.
Exercise Won’t Trump a Lousy Diet
Cheap calories are everywhere: hardware stores, gas stations with their attached convenience stores, your local grocery stores, even department stores. Standing in the check-out line? Candy bars and soda stare you down. They win, and you lose. You succumb to the temptation and make that purchase. Add those calories to your other daily intake.
The calories burned by exercise are minimal relative to the calories from bad food consumption. How about an example:
Take an active, 30-year old female, 5’ 5”, and 150 pounds. To maintain her current bodyweight, she requires approximately 2,180 calories per day. To reach that, she could eat three regular meals of 527 calories each, and a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack of 300 calories each.
Her workout consists of 30 minutes on the treadmill at 4.5 miles per hour, then she “hits the weights.” The 30 minutes on the treadmill burns approximately 260 calories. Add to that a half-assed resistance training routine (a lot of abs and a Planet Fitness-type of effort on some upper body exercises), and maybe another 150 calories are used. The total approximate calories used in the hour would be 410.
That hour of work is completely nullified by the consumption of any of these:
- Ten minutes with a bag of chips (160) and a 20oz soda (233): 393 calories. Oops.
- Five minutes with a double cheeseburger: 430 calories. Yikes.
- Seven minutes with a peanut butter crunch protein bar (260) and a 16 oz. sports drink (107): 367 calories. Ugh.
- Even ten minutes of “good” eating—a medium pineapple mango smoothie (250) and 1/4 cup of unsalted peanuts (214): 464 calories
It all counts, at the end of the day. The take-home message? Ten minutes of any calorie consumption can wipe out an hour’s worth of exercise.
Training too often and not allowing for proper adaptation is not over-training, but under-recovering. Proper exercise should be demanding, and put your body in a hole that it needs to rise out of to accrue a positive adaptation. So many people hit the gym or running venue too often, and don’t allow for their previous session’s demand to kick in and elevate them to a higher level.
If you experience a laceration to a body part, you need to clean the wound, cover it, and let biology run its course in order for the healing process to take place. That takes a few days, at least. Similarly, when you perform a kick-ass training session (which leaves your body “down in the hole”), you need to allow adequate time to reap the rewards of that training.
The average person may sit at a desk for hours each day, head home and plop their butt on a sofa and watch television. Yet, they need adequate nutrition and sleep just to recover from being alive. Now look at your day. You might have a profession where you’re physically active. Then pile on the stresses from your workouts. How is your body going to deal with all of that if you’re training too frequently? Work hard, but rest hard. If in doubt, take an extra day between sessions, or plan on periodic training breaks to let your body heal, recover, and adapt.
Too Much Core Training
Two major categories of error exist, here:
- The belief that performing a menu of midsection exercises facilitates fat loss. It is 2017, people. It was proven years ago you cannot spot-reduce fat, yet it’s still attempted. I think it’s a mental hang-up for some.
- The belief that an excessive amount of midsection exercises will improve athletic ability. Make no mistake, a strong core will improve athletic performance. But don’t waste time performing countless exercises and repetitions. Keep it simple: address trunk flexion, extension, and safe rotational exercises using minimal exercises and reasonable set and rep prescriptions. For example, you can do one set of 15 reps each of weighted crunches, back extensions, and Russian twists. Boom! Done.
Besides, what exactly defines the core? Is it solely the abdominals, obliques, and lumbar spine? Some consider the lats and gluteals part of the core as well. In that case, if you’re performing multi-joint leg and upper body pulls, you’re already working your core. Squats, deadlifts, and standing presses engage your midsection musculature and lend themselves to improving core stability.
Poor Recovery Strategies
An exercise session should create a significant demand on your body. Now it’s time to enable adaptation to that demand. Adequate rest time and nutrient intake are paramount.
Immediately after your workout, you should supply your body with appropriate nutrients to facilitate the recovery process. The longer you deprive your body of nutrients, the longer it will take to recover. It doesn’t need to be complicated. A combination of a protein and fast-absorbing carbohydrate is ideal within 30 minutes after your session. One inexpensive, simple, but effective option is chocolate milk. Other simple options:
- A protein shake and an apple
- A banana and a hard-boiled egg
- Milk and cereal
- Cottage cheese and whole wheat crackers
- String cheese and carrot sticks
Many don’t understand the importance of sleep. You overload your cardiovascular system with a quality interval training session, or pound your muscles in an intense lifting session. Either way, you’ve now dug a deep hole. It’s now time to rise out of that hole. A nap here or there will help, but it is far more important to get quality nights of sleep on a consistent basis. Your body regenerates and grows during those valuable hours of deep sleep. Failing to do so will result in less than optimal gains, training regression, and even illness.
Remember, the average, inactive, non-training person requires adequate sleep just to recover from being alive. Your consistent, demanding training, on top of your other daily activities, requires special attention to quality sleep time to gain benefits from your training endeavors.
Lack of Planning and Accountability
I have always been a big believer in establishing a set training plan or template that gives you guidance over a period of weeks. Doing so will keep you focused on your goals and eliminate wavering and guesswork. You might not be able to follow it exactly as prescribed, and adjustments may need to be made along the way. But it at least offers structure and purpose.
Many people train randomly and without structure. They go with their gut, and blindly “do stuff.” Doing something is better than doing nothing, but if you’re going to do something, do it logically. For example, design an eight-week plan. Include progressive strength training twice per week, and interval conditioning or skill training three times per week. This format will give you structure to work with, and lead to more objective gains as opposed to just randomly “doing stuff.”
In addition, documenting the results of each planned training session is critical if you want to realize results. Record the details of your training sessions: the amount of resistance used, your running time, the number of repetitions achieved, the recovery time between exercise bouts, the number of bouts performed, etc. Be specific, as it will help you progress from one training session to another.
Training Is Hard Enough Without Mistakes
Even in this day of modern technology and an abundance of sensible training advice, many well-intended people are in need of sensible advice and guidelines to achieve their goals. Don’t fall prey to the aforementioned training gaffes.
Don’t over-complicate your training. Keep it simple and avoid setbacks due to poor planning. Evaluate your current training program to see if you are making any of these errors. If you’re guilty of any one of them, it may be time to change your routine.