Part 3: Why Your Workouts Aren't "Working Out"
After years of scouring through fitness and nutrition research, I have discovered quite the assortment of tips and tricks to ‘maximize results’ in the gym. By this, I mean I have put in considerable time and effort towards understanding all the ways to help my clients most efficiently and effectively reach their fitness goals. Throughout this research, I have come to find that much of the ‘big picture’ or ‘fundamental’ truths for fitness seem to be glossed over, neglected for the sake of defining and understanding the minutiae. In other words, we often seem to “miss the forest for the trees” when seeking or giving advice to make progress in the gym. Many of the popular articles in the news and on the internet are announcing the next ‘breakthrough technique’ or product that will ‘take your fitness to the next level’. While we are obsessed with finding the cutting-edge difference-makers, we forget that fundamentals are… well… just that: fundamental. The “tried and true” basics of how to be successful in the gym aren’t shiny, sexy, new, or exciting. So, while we frantically search for the next secret to make that 1% difference, we forget to attend to the other 99%. Among the chatter of all the ‘new research’, we seem to no longer hear about what has worked for so many people over so many years prior.
In this three-part blog, I would like to introduce the major errors I see fitness enthusiasts make that prevent them from reaching their goals or their fullest potential. The intention with this article is that you use it as a sort of “checklist”. As you read through each bullet, consider whether any of these fundamental missteps sound familiar. If this is the case, addressing this factor could be the missing link in truly accelerating your health and fitness goals. With that, I also recommend treating this list in sequential order, working from top to bottom. If you find that there are multiple points you need to work on, start with the upper-most point (closest to #1) and work your way down. The higher on this list the point is, the more foundational it is. If you don’t resolve any issues in the earlier points, any changes in the later points will not have as significant of a result, if any. Whether you are starting a new fitness journey or have been working out consistently for years, this list is essential to ensuring you find a fitness plan that works for you.
With that, read on for the top foundational fitness mistakes and how to fix them:
These next two points (#5 and #6) are often the first things people contemplate and seek advice on when they want to advance their progress in the gym. Note that these points are lower on the list because changes in these will yield little results unless points #1 through #4 are addressed first. It is only after you have established a fitting and sustainable approach to fitness that you can address these following points. Ensure your approach to fitness considers activities you enjoy, goals that make sense, recovery that sustains you, and focus during your fitness routines before being concerned with the following points.
Error #5: You make it to the gym, but possibly too much or not enough.
Frequency of your workouts is a major consideration in many fitness circles. When discussing it, the image of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is always comes to mind. You don’t want it to be too much or too little – but “just right”.
I can’t emphasize this point enough. Sometimes, it seems the messaging from health and fitness influencers says “more is better”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With any form of physical activity, there is a point at which increasing your frequency or total volume will not result in any further benefit. In fact, surpassing this limit of maximal benefits can result in regression (not to mention increased risk for injury, illness, and many other issues. Especially if intense activity is overdone). If you recall point #3, recovery is just as important, if not more so, than the effort and activity itself. The point at which no added benefit is gained from increasing exercise frequency/volume is known as “the point of diminishing returns”. In a practical interpretation, this could mean that weightlifting 3-4 times per week is your “sweet spot” for increasing strength, for example. For this individual, lifting weights any more during the week would only interfere with their recovery and likely lead to loss in strength and possibly even injury. While the example I provided is for lifting weights, this principle applies to all forms of fitness.
In other words, there is truly “too much of a good thing”. It’s true. Doing “all the right things” too often can actually hinder your ultimate progress. Spending too much time and effort on “perfecting” a singular piece of your fitness won’t necessarily be the fastest path to results. Sometimes the “scenic route” will yield the best outcomes. For example, a runner may think that the best, and only, way to improve their running pace may be to simply run. It has been shown, though, that performing various weightlifting and agility drills can help enhance speed and power while decreasing risk of injury in runners. From this perspective, including variety in your training won’t just make you a more well-rounded athlete, but a better athlete at your activity of choice.
With that being said, all forms of activity need a minimum frequency and volume of training to result in noticeable progress. While I wish I could give the “magic number” of times you should generally work out each week to maximize progress, any number I would give would be a gross oversimplification. Every person has a different threshold for volume of activity and making progress. This threshold is based on the activity they do, their ability to recover, their genetic potential for said activity, their diet, and much more. To help guide you, I would like to provide you with a rule of thumb: If you currently do an activity or exercise consistently, have not made any noticeable progress within the last couple weeks or month, but also find that you are consistently feeling fully rested and recovered, you are probably ready to explore increasing your frequency. Note: this ONLY applies of you aren’t making progress AND are consistently recovering.
While I know that this is a very broad approach to finding your ideal frequency to train, this is going to be your best method to discovering your individual needs and limitations. Struggling to find that training “sweet spot”? Consider talking to a Western personal trainer about how your current routine could be tweaked to accelerate your progress.
Error #6: Your nutrition could be better… and not in the way you think.
“I’d hit my gym goals if I could just stop eating carbs/sugar/junk.”
“It would be so much better if I had more self-control with food.”
“I just need to eat less calories. It’s all just calories in, calories out.”
“I think keto/intermittent fasting/[insert popular diet here] will be the key I’ve been looking for.”
In the fitness community, nutrition seems to be the center of conversation quite often. Just as I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, it seems that we also seem to “miss the forest for the trees” when it comes to nutrition. Take it from a dietitian: nutrition does not need to be complicated. In fact, the belief that you just need to cut out a particular food or follow a certain diet to be fit or healthy only serves to overcomplicate nutrition.
It seems that every year is accompanied by the next new “diet hack” that is guaranteed to make you thinner, leaner, stronger, faster, etc. Despite each “diet breakthrough” spreading like wildfire, it seems that it never sticks long before the next is announced. Case in point; For much of the 1980s and 1990s, eating low-fat was the key to ideal health and fitness. Across grocery stores, low-fat versions of everyone’s favorite foods could be found. Now entering the 2010s and 2020s, a diet that is low-carb (Hello, Keto!) is the key to ideal health. Those very same low-fat foods that filled the shelves have now been replaced by high-fat and low-carb alternatives. Anyone else suspicious about the flip in script?
Hidden underneath the shouts of these “revolutionary diets”, you may have heard the quiet but unchanging mantra of many nutrition professionals, “eat a balanced diet, including a variety of fruits and vegetables.” Is this advice revolutionary, breakthrough, or grabbing any headlines? No. But it never changes, and that is for good reason. This advice, though not exciting, is consistently true. I hate to break it to you, but there is no magic pill, no revolutionary diet, or perfect food. Our human biology has developed over many, many years. As a result, it is unlikely that we will simply discover a way to “hack” our incredibly smart, complicated body. For some, this news may be disappointing. You may not even want to believe it and continue to hold on to hope that the next new diet will be your secret key. Perhaps for some, though, this may be a relief. It may be reassurance that you can stop your searching and rest easy knowing that eating doesn’t have to be complicated.
Despite this, I can still assure you that there are tips and tricks to change your diet for improved fitness and even just general health. Thankfully, these points are short and simple enough to fit on the following bullet points:
- Eat enough carbohydrates from fruit, vegetables, and whole grains to sustain your energy through workouts and throughout the day.
- If you feel your energy levels are inconsistent during the day, or if you feel a crash during your workouts or at the end of the day, you may want to see where you can incorporate these into your daily intake.
- Include healthy fat sources at each meal to support hormone production as well as help with feeling full. Find healthy fats from sources such as plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, and fish.
- Having steady protein intake throughout each day can help aid recovery from workouts while also aiding with feeling full and satisfied after eating. Choose beans, nuts, seeds, meat, and dairy as excellent protein sources.
- If you’re finding that your recovery from workouts is lacking or that you’re usually hungry after meals, consider increasing your protein intake.
- Having a protein and carbohydrate snack after workouts can help sustain energy levels and accelerate the recovery process
- Hydration is an often underestimated and overlooked component of fitness nutrition. Being adequately hydrated helps your muscles and nerves work optimally while helping your body maintain the correct internal temperature. As dehydration sets in, your body will have a harder time keeping your body temperature from rising and will result in more rapid fatigue during your workouts. The common recommendation is 8 glasses of water, 8oz each, per day. This is a good starting point, but it may need to be higher depending on your body size as well as how much you sweat during your workouts.
- Rest assured that drinks other than water can count towards your total water/fluid goals. Water should be your staple for hydration, but juice, sports drinks, and yes, even coffee can all count towards your daily fluids.
Nutrition can be as complicated or as simple as you want to make it. Know that there’s no such thing as a “bad” or “wrong” diet. There are certainly different ways to eat that may or may not support whatever outcome or goal you desire, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with any particular food choices. When in doubt, the smallest and most sustainable changes to your current nutrition habits will have the longest-reaching and most significant impacts.