Five reasons your workout isn't working
Trainers share the top mistakes keeping gym-goers from achieving their fitness goals.
Working out is hard. But when feel your body become stronger, your energy levels heighten and your pants becoming less snug, it's worth it.
The problem is, at one point or another, everyone has put in work and felt like they were reaping zero gains. Besides being incredibly frustrating, it can easily cause even "gym rats" to throw in the proverbial towel. Sound familiar?
Not anymore. Here are five prime reasons you might not be seeing the fitness gains you want, plus easy ways to get your workout working for you.
1. You're Doing the Same Ol' Thing
Whatever you do, whether that's sitting on the couch eating bonbons or running five miles a day, your body gets used to it. "Your body is an amazing adaptive machine. When you go to the gym and lift weights, your body adapts by getting stronger and adding more muscle. When you perform cardio, your body adapts by increasing your endurance and aerobic capacity," says exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning coach Mike T. Nelson, who's based in Minnesota.
It adapts to the point that your workout is no longer challenging. So while you might have felt yourself becoming stronger, faster and slimmer during the first weeks or months of your workout, if you do the same thing workout after workout, eventually your body will stop changing. Plus, since your body becomes more efficient at performing a given exercise over time, you'll actually burn fewer calories on that five-mile run than you used to.
The Fix: Tap the benefits of "progressive overload," gradually increasing the stress you place on your body during a given exercise. Basically, once you feel that your workout is becoming easier, add more weights or reps to your strength routine, run faster or longer or try more advanced progressions of your favorite yoga pose, he says. Every person is unique in how fast his or her body will adapt to exercise, but as a general rule of thumb, plan to increase your workout's difficulty every four to six weeks.
2. You Perform Whatever Workout You Feel Like That Day
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people never complete the same workout two weeks in a row. They hit up a few spin classes, move on to yoga and then get bored and try out running. Called "program hopping," switching between programs also goes against the concept of progressive overload because it doesn't allow you to stick with any one workout long enough for you to advance at it, says certified strength and conditioning coach Tony Gentilcore, co-founder of Cressey Sports Performance training centers in Massachusetts and Florida.
The Fix: Pick one discipline, whether it's swimming, strength training or kickboxing, to be your bread-and-butter workout for at least a couple of months at a time. You still can (and should) sprinkle in other workouts to keep things from becoming stale and prevent muscular imbalances. But you should always feel like you are getting better at something, he says.
3. Your Body's Stressed Out
Exercise stresses your body, hopefully just enough to lead to change but not cause injury, burnout or excess inflammation. However, things outside the gym, such as a bad breakup, work drama, financial troubles, processed foods and shoddy sleep can also trigger a stress response in your body and cause your cortisol and inflammation levels to skyrocket. Eventually, if those exercise and life stressors become too much, your body is going to start breaking down rather than getting stronger between every workout, Gentilcore says.
"A lot of time, when people come in saying they are working out hard, but not progressing, I ask them, 'How much are you sleeping? How much water are you drinking? How's work?' Oftentimes, there is nothing wrong with their program. It's the rest of their lives that need work," he says.
The Fix: For your body's sake, you have to reduce the amount of stress in your life, whether that means cutting back on your work schedule or (we hate to say it) your workouts, he says. However, if you want to get more fit, tapering your workout should only be temporary. At a certain point, you're going to have to get serious about life-stress management.
4. You Try to Crunch Your Way To a Flat Stomach
"Trying to spot-reduce fat is a myth that just won't die," Nelson says. Sure, crunches are a great way to target your rectus abdominis, the muscle famed for its six-pack look. But if you have too much fat hanging out between that muscle and the mirror, you still aren't going to see anything. By and large, core exercises don't burn a lot of calories because they work a relatively low proportion of your body's muscles.
The Fix: Dial in your nutrition strategy to aid in slow-and-steady weight loss so that you can burn fat, but not those core muscles you want to show off. Meanwhile, back in the gym, compound, total-body exercises such as squats, dead lifts and burpees burn major calories because they work various muscles, including your body's largest ones, which are in your butt and legs, at once. Use crunches and other core exercises to build muscle, not reduce your waist size.
5. You're Eating Too Much – or Too Little
The foods you eat can either fuel your workouts or completely counteract them. "Many people tend to go to extremes with their diets," Nelson says. "Either they deprive themselves of the calories and carbohydrates they need to really be able to work out hard or they inhale two birthday cakes because they hit the gym that day and made the pink dumbbells move."
While the former can make you feel sluggish, cause your muscles to break down and actually slow your metabolism, the latter can easily cause you to take in more calories than you're burning – even if you're counting calories. For instance, fitness trackers' calorie-count displays are, on average, between 10 and 15 percent off, according to a 2014 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. According to the American Council on Exercise, those calorie-count displays on treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes may be even more inaccurate.
The Fix: Treat food as something that should fuel your body both in and out of the gym, rather than something that either 1) makes you fat and should be kept to the bare minimum or 2) is your "reward" for hitting the gym, he says. That mind shift takes work, but it will help you keep your diet balanced and allow your workouts to show.
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