How to NOT Suck: Avoid These 4 Common Fitness Mistakes

I guess you can say I'm feeling nostalgic. And perhaps a bit click-baity.

This is my fifth year in the strength and conditioning industry and it feels like it's flown. But I can't stop thinking back to my naive, younger self, who worked in marketing, and thought he knew everything when it came to exercise.  He made a lot of mistakes and hated reality - because it always slapped him square in the face.

So consider everything below as part memoir and part road map for success.  Enjoy!

1. Drastically decreasing your calories while increasing your physical activity.

I'm not a big fan of counting calories and I've vented about them in the past.  It can work for the right person and the right circumstances - but only when that person has a solid understanding of nutrition (e.g. Why a banana is always a better choice than a 100 calorie pack).

But many times this approach fails.  Why?  Because people reduce their calories too much, have too much stress elsewhere in their life, and end up rebounding.

Don't be this guy.

Don't be this guy.

When we drastically cut calories (500+/day), our body experiences a big change in the amount of energy we're putting into it.  That alone is a stressor and our body will decrease our metabolism as a result.  We usually have other stressors in life as well - mentally taxing jobs, tough workouts, too little sleep - and the stress begins to add up.  This leads to a cascade of issues that correlate with sympathetic "fight or flight" dominance (cortisol resistance, leptin resistance, insulin resistance).  That's why people it's so hard for those people to see sustained success (6 months to 1 year), and their weight can rebound pretty hard.

Then when you add in the wrong types of exercise - that promote even more sympathetic "fight or flight" dominance - you are shoveling against the tide.  The most popular article I've written focuses on this subject.  When people feel burned out or overtrained after several weeks on a low calorie/high exercise diet, it's because they are.

Change one variable at a time (food or exercise) and keep in mind that our body is always adjusting.  You shouldn't need a calculator to make breakfast.  And remember that it's consistency - not intensity - that's the key to reaching your goals.

2. Not prioritizing recovery.

Many people ask me for training plans or general training advice, but very few have ever asked me about better ways to recover. The irony, of course, is that we don't get faster, stronger, or leaner during a workout. That's just the stimulus for change. The actual adaptations to our body occur when we're recovering and sleeping.

And to continue the thread I mentioned above, one of the most common reasons people give up on exercise programs is because they feel burned out or overtrained. The better we can recover and relax, we'll be better prepared for our next workout and won't experience the same mental fatigue.

On that note, my favorite (and cheapest) ways to assist recovery are:

  • Active recovery workouts (keeping your heart rate ~120 bpm for 20-30 minutes)
  • Breathing resets
  • Prioritizing sleep instead of social media or Netflix
  • Relaxation/meditation
  • Soft tissue therapy (foam rolling, massages, acupuncture, etc.)

Recovery is so important that I'm always urging my clients to perform their breathing resets immediately after our session.  These drills help downregulate their sympathetic system, help them relax, and jump-start the recovery process.

3. Looking for a "workout," rather than a "training program."

Back in 2008, I found the "300 workout."  In short, it was a Crossfit-style workout for the actors of the movie "300."  The fact that it was their graduation workout also meant that it was not to be repeated numerous times.  And please don't Google it to confirm my stupidity.

But it was a time in my life where I didn't have a road map on nutrition and exercise (even though I thought I did). I used exercise as a way to burn calories, entertain myself, and try (but fail) to put on some gainz.  So I did the 300 workout many, many times.  I'd even lift later in the day because I had nothing better to do.

And I can tell you in hindsight that I saw absolutely zero results.  The workouts always felt hard and I was definitely pushing myself, but I had no metrics for actually improving (other than doing the workout faster).  After 3 months of doing this workout multiple times a week, I realized that I hadn't increased muscle mass or lost weight.

It wasn't until I switched my mindset on exercise that the tide finally turned.  Instead of seeing exercise as a series of individual workouts (most of which was just to see how "hardcore" I could be), I started thinking of workouts as part of a grander plan.  I set goals and made a plan of how to achieve them - overhead press 200 pounds and deadlift 400.  (The latter is how you know this occurred a while ago..)

The bigger point is that when I finally thought of my workouts as training for something larger, I took more pride in them and I was was much more motivated.  Not everyone has the same interest in exercise as I, and some people don't know of any goals to set. But if you start looking at your exercise routine as a way of training for something, it makes all the difference.

4. Not seeking the advice of a qualified personal trainer.

I know. This last one is a bit self-serving. But hear me out.

A very good personal trainer can literally change your life and the way you think about exercise and conditioning. Even 10 sessions can do wonders for your health as you learn how to move properly, safely pick up something heavy, and understand the basics of a good exercise and conditioning program.

One of the reasons StrongFirst is a gold standard..

One of the reasons StrongFirst is a gold standard..

Why am I so certain?  Because I've seen it firsthand.

But the process shouldn't just be physical, it should be educational. If you bring a notebook and ask a ton of questions, you will not be disappointed by the value of those sessions.  You'll also be able to set concrete goals which are important for long-term motivation.

Now what makes for a "very good" personal trainer?  I'm partial to someone being certified through StrongFirst or the National Strength and Conditioning Association.  They should also practice what they preach and it's evident they do.  Very good trainers are also very busy, so if they have limited availability that's probably a good thing.

And in case you're curious as to why I've struggled to churn out consistent blog posts, I'll point to this reason - even at the risk of calling myself "very good." :)