If you want to change your body and life with exercise, the most important thing is to train consistently (2-3 times per week), for at least several months at a time. Integrating regular physical activity into your lifestyle and making it a habit can be the hardest part for many people. If you’re not quite there yet, check out my article on building exercise habits. Unfortunately, even when people do manage to make regular training a part of their life, many still don’t get the results they want. Those people are usually making at least one of the following mistakes, and it’s holding them back. Here are the most common training mistakes and how you can avoid them.
- Not Incorporating Progressions
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got
So, you have a new workout program. It tells you exactly which exercises to do, how to do them, how much weight to use for each exercise, for how many sets and repetitions. You go to the gym 3 times per week, every week. You perform each exercise for the same number of sets and repetitions with the same weight each time, just like your program says. Months pass, and…. nothing. No results. Why? Because you didn’t aim for progression.
Progression is the most important aspect of getting the results you want from your training. At its core, training is about stressing your body more than it’s used to so it adapts by getting stronger, faster, increasing endurance, getting more efficient at burning fat, etc. Your body doesn’t really want to adapt, you have to force it to do so by continuously exposing it to more and more stress.
When you first started your program, your body would have adapted to the new stress it was experiencing. If you kept doing the same number of sets and reps with the same weight session after session, your body would have quickly reached the point where it could handle that amount of stress, and had no reason to adapt anymore.
What Should You Do?
If you want to change your body, you have to incorporate the single most important principle of training: progressive overload. Progressive overload means gradually increasing the difficulty of some aspect of your training over time. You can do that in many ways, but I’ve outlined what I think is the simplest and most effective way in Part Two of my progressive overload article.
Basically, choose a repetition range (8-12 reps, for example) and figure out the weight for each exercise that only allows you to complete the bottom number of repetitions in that range (8, in this example). Aim to do one more repetition with that weight in at least one set in each session. When you can perform the top number of repetitions in that range (12, in this case) for all sets in 2 consecutive sessions, increase the weight and start working your way up from the bottom of the rep range again.
You can use a similar system for improving your cardio performance. Let’s use running as an example. Start by running for as long as you can and then walking until you’re ready to run again, and repeat until you’ve done a total of 20 minutes. Record how long you ran and walked for each time, and aim to increase your running time and decrease your walking time by 30 seconds in each session. Work your way up to being able to run for 20 continuous minutes. From there, you can try to improve your pace over 20 minutes in each run, or continue increasing your time in each session.
- Not Lifting Heavy Enough
As a trainer, you learn to recognize whether someone is lifting the right amount of weight for them by watching how they move during their set. I see people lifting weights that are too light for them all the time. I also see a lot of people stopping their sets too soon, before they start to challenge themselves. These are mistakes, and you won’t get results by taking your resistance training too easy.
For most people, the goal of resistance training is to increase strength or improve body composition by increasing muscle size. To do that, you need to force your muscles to adapt by reaching or exceeding a threshold of resistance. In other words, you need to lift weights (or perform bodyweight exercise variations) that are heavy or difficult enough to challenge you.
For people with less than 3-6 months of consistent resistance training experience, that resistance threshold is about 60-70% of 1 repetition maximum (the maximal amount of weight that you can lift for only 1 repetition). For people with more than 6 months to a year of resistance training experience, that threshold is about 70-80% of 1 repetition maximum. In other words, you should be choosing weights for each exercise that are at least 60-80% of your maximal capacity for that exercise. Studies have shown that most people don’t choose heavy enough weights to reach those thresholds (Focht, 2007; Glass and Stanton, 2004; Dias et al., 2016).
If you don’t consistently lift heavy enough weights, you won’t get the strength or muscle growth results you’re looking for. Learning to choose the right weights takes practice, and it requires the ability to push yourself.
What Should You Do?
Start slowly and progress gradually, but remember that if you want to increase your strength or muscle size, you’ll eventually need to lift weights that challenge you.
If you’re just getting started with resistance training, focus on getting your form right before you worry about increasing resistance. I recommend starting in the 10-15 rep range and keeping the weights on the lighter side while you perfect the movement pattern. Once your form is solid, pick a weight that you can only lift 10 times with good form (the 10th repetition should be very challenging and you shouldn’t be able to do an 11th rep), and try to do one more rep in each session until you can consistently complete 15 reps with the same weight. Then increase the weight and start working your way up from 10 reps again.
Once you’ve been training for at least 3-6 months consistently, choose your weight based on the goal you’re trying to achieve:
For increasing maximal strength, you should be performing your main compound lifts with a resistance that only allows you to complete 2-6 repetitions.
If you want to increase muscle mass, your repetition range should be 8-12.
If you want to increase muscular endurance, you should be performing 12-20 repetitions.
Start by choosing a weight that makes it a challenge to complete the number at the low end of the range, and try to add a repetition each time until you can perform the number of reps at the high end of the range.
- Changing Exercises Too Often
Many people struggle to motivate themselves to exercise, and a lot of people cite boredom as one of the major reasons for that struggle. Some people try to combat that boredom by jumping from program to program, following programs that change up the exercises all the time (for “muscle confusion”, which is total nonsense, by the way), or working with trainers who advertise that “no two workouts will ever be the same!”. If you just want to exercise for the sake of exercising, that’s fine. But if you want to change your body by exercising, you’ll be making a mistake by switching programs too often, following a program that constantly changes exercises, or hiring a trainer that completely changes your workout every time. You won’t get stronger, faster, improve your body composition, basically any of the reasons why you started training in the first place.
Your body adapts in the specific way that you force it to. In the case of resistance exercise, you have to put the target muscles under stress in every repetition, over a long period of time, so those muscles will respond by getting bigger and stronger. To do that, you first need to develop the right neuromuscular pattern for each exercise. It often takes several weeks of consistently practicing the exercise before your nervous system learns the correct pattern. In fact, when people first start resistance training, the improvements in strength that they experience in the first 6-8 weeks happen because of improvements in the nervous system’s control of the movement, not because the muscles are changing (Gabriel et al., 2006). Once your nervous system is good at controlling the movement, your muscles get the stress they need to grow.
If you change your exercises all the time, you won’t get better at any of them, which means your body won’t get the chance to improve. I can understand that some people find exercise boring and try to fix that by adding lots of exercise variety, but I think never seeing results would be much more demotivating than going through a “boring” workout.
What Should You Do?
This can be a difficult point to get across. I’m definitely not suggesting that you do the same workout in every session.
What you should do is keep your main exercises consistent and perform them at least once or twice per week. Those are your foundational movements: push (push up, bench press, dumbbell chest press, etc.), pull (pull up, horizontal row, lat pulldown, etc.), squat (bodyweight squat, barbell squat, goblet squat, etc.), hip hinge (deadlift and its variations, etc.), lunge (static lunge, walking lunge, dumbbell lunge, etc.), and core activation (hollow hold, leg raise, palloff press, etc.).
If variation is important to you, there plenty of ways to vary your training. You can change the number of sets and reps, the workout style (straight sets, supersets, circuits), rest times between exercises, and add accessory exercises which you can change often. And if you really find a certain type of exercise so boring or unpleasant that you just can’t bring yourself to perform it, there are plenty of different exercises out there. Find some that you do enjoy and can stick with consistently.
- Skipping The Basics
The fitness industry has a tendency make things unnecessarily complicated. Many people think they need complex programs, advanced exercises, or specialized equipment to get results, and they jump into training they’re not ready for instead of taking the time to learn the basics.
There are a couple of common ways that this plays out. Sometimes, people pile on resistance for an exercise before they can perform the basic movement correctly. If you can’t do a full, good quality bodyweight squat (lowering your body under control until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground), you shouldn’t be doing barbell squats. Sometimes, people do circuits or interval training with exercises they can’t perform properly. If you can’t do a full, good quality push-up (lowering your body as one solid unit until you get within 2 inches or less of the floor), you shouldn’t be performing push-ups as part of a circuit. You won’t get results that way, and you’re risking an injury by performing exercises with bad form. Just like a builder needs to lay a concrete foundation so they can build a house on it, you need to form a foundation of quality movement so you can build strength or muscle on it.
Similarly, you need to form a foundation of cardiorespiratory capacity that you can then improve with advanced methods like high intensity interval training. Interval training is a great way to get the benefits of cardio exercise in a short amount of time, but for your interval training to be effective it needs to be performed at an extremely high intensity. Most people who are just starting to work out aren’t able to push themselves hard enough to reach the intensity necessary for intervals, and working out at such a high intensity puts a lot of stress on the muscles, joints, and connective tissue. It’s recommended that before starting interval training, you should be able to run (or cycle, swim, row, etc.) continuously for at least 20-30 minutes.
What Should You Do?
Build a strong foundation by learning to perform the basic movements (push, pull, squat, hip hinge, lunge, and core activation) consistently with good form. To do that, start at an easy progression of each movement and slowly increase the difficulty until you can perform the full movement. I recommend training bodyweight movements at first and adding resistance only when you can consistently perform each full bodyweight movement with good form. For aerobic exercise, work your way up to 20-30 minutes of continuous cardio. Once you’re there, you can work on increasing your pace or start incorporating interval training.
- Not Finding Out What Works For You
Spend just a few minutes searching for exercise programs and you’ll find tons of articles claiming to have the “best” program or exercise. The truth is, there is no single “best” program or exercise. The best program is the one that works for you, that you enjoy and that you can stick to, consistently, for the long-term.
Everyone is different, and each person will respond to exercise differently. Just because your friend lost 10 pounds on a certain program doesn’t mean that you’ll get the same results. Also, each person’s response to training will change over time. What works for you when you first start training may not get you results after 6 months or a year. If you want real results from your training, you have to find out what works for you and learn to make adjustments to your program based on how you perform.
What Should You Do?
To determine your own best program, there are a few things you should think about:
Your goals: If you want to increase strength or muscle size, you should perform challenging resistance exercise. If you want to increase endurance or become a better runner, you should do cardio. If you want to lose weight or improve body composition, a mix of resistance training and cardio will do the job. Make sure your program specifically addresses your goals.
Your lifestyle: Don’t try to overhaul your lifestyle, make your program fit within it. To do that, assess your current time commitments, access to equipment, and other barriers to exercise, and find ways to make your program fit into your weekly routine. If you can only realistically train two days per week, a three-day split program probably isn’t the best option for you. A program that’s structured into two full-body training sessions per week might work better. If you don’t have access to a gym or weight equipment, a barbell program probably isn’t the best one for you. In that case, you could try bodyweight training.
Your preferences: There are a lot of ways to be active, and if you can find ways to exercise that you actually enjoy it will make your training more effective. Try different types of resistance training such as power lifting, olympic lifting, bodyweight, or circuit training. For cardio, try running, cycling, swimming, hiking, paddleboarding, or team sports. You can increase your flexibility through static or dynamic stretching, or yoga.
Your physiological response: There are established guidelines for exercise programming which have been developed through research, such as the repetition ranges for different goals that I described above. An important point to understand is that research studies deal in averages and statistics. Basically, a research study takes a relatively small number of participants, puts them through some type of intervention (like participating in a certain training program), calculates the average effect of the intervention, and uses statistical analysis to generalize the results of those few participants to the larger population. So while research can point us in directions that will probably work for most people, there will always be people who respond differently. Unfortunately, you can’t predict what’s going to work for you. Trial and error is the best way to determine your best program.
Choose a program that fits your goals, lifestyle, and preferences, and follow that program consistently for at least 3-6 months. If you quit or change your program too soon, you may not be giving it enough time to work. To determine whether your program is working, keep a record of your performance in each session. Write down each exercise, number of sets, number of reps, weight, and how hard each set felt (you can use a simple 1-10 scale for this). Some people don’t like to carry a notebook around at the gym, but I bet you have your phone with you. Log a note in your phone or use a workout tracking app. For cardio, there are plenty of apps that can track your pace and time.
If you’re training effectively, you should be able to improve over time in some way: increasing the amount of weight you can lift, the duration for which you can perform continuous cardio, your cardio pace, the exercise variation you can perform, etc.
Don’t expect linear progression, though. Chances are there will be times when you’re able to improve some aspect of your performance in each session, there will be times when you hit a wall, and sometimes you may even go backwards a little. That’s normal. As long as there’s a general trend for improvement, you’re on the right track.
Here’s a graph of my performance during my weekly 20-minute tempo run over about the last 6 months. I’ve been running for a long time and I’ve reached a point where even small improvements are a grind (which, to be honest, is frustrating), but this is my favorite type of run so it’s easy to keep at it. You can see that some weeks I was able to make improvements and some weeks I went backwards. But every week I try to push a little harder, and over time I’ve gotten better.
You should be looking for a similar pattern in your performance. If you don’t see some measure of improvement over the 3-6 months that you’ve been following your program, even though you’re doing everything in this article and getting good rest and nutrition, try changing up some aspects of your training. For resistance training, I would start by trying different repetition ranges. For cardio, try incorporating different intervals or change the distance or pace you’re training for. Try the new program for 3-6 months and see if you respond better. If not, change something else. Keep trying until you find what works for you.
Fitness is a long-term process. Figuring out what works for you can take time, but as long as you’re doing something regularly and trying to improve at it, you’ll get a lot of benefits along the way. Keep in mind that those benefits include decreased risk of chronic disease, increased energy, mood, and cognitive function, and many others, in addition to improved performance and body composition.
Incorporate these tips into your training routine and you should be on your way to success. Remember to be patient and persistent, and you’ll reach your goals!