Many years ago, around this time of the year between Christmas and New Year's Day, I was regularly attending a yoga class at my gym. Several of the members of the class were complaining about how crowded the gym was going to be in the coming weeks as new members would be signing on for their new year's resolutions.
My teacher piped in, "The gym is going to be filled with obnoxious fat people." This teacher usually came across as your typical new-agey spiritual yoga guru who encouraged a non-judgmental attitude in class. She continued with even more ire. "I just want to tell them, 'Just give up. Give up. It's not going to work.'" This yoga teacher would talk the talk, but she couldn't walk the walk. How different was she from the rest of us? How many of us long-time gym rats complain about how crowded the gym becomes in January due to the number of people making exercise resolutions they probably won't keep?
I admit the annoyance sometimes, but I also wish I could help. I want everyone to be fit and healthy. I want the world the know the benefits of a good exercise program. I know what it's like to not be happy with my weight. I would love for people to know that they don't have to be unhappy. If you don't want to judge other people, the rule is "Eyes on your own workout." Yet when I see someone struggling in the gym, I want to reach out to him or her. I want to give encouragement. I want to improve those routines. I want that person to succeed.
It is possible to get in shape. It's just that too many people go into an exercise program too uniformed. They make two very big mistakes.
1. The wrong workout
2. The wrong expectations
I saw the perfect example of this in the gym this morning. Some folks are already getting a jump on their resolutions as I am seeing some very overweight new members showing up at the gym. I ignored the "eyes on your own workout" rule and observed them a bit. A pair of heavy men were in the weight room doing endless abdominal exercises. They were doing endless ball crunches and whatever silly ab machines they could sit on. Later on I saw them on the ellipticals, slowly sleepwalking through a cardio workout.
I imagine what will likely happen to these guys over the coming weeks if they don't improve their routines. They will see some results initially because they were likely inactive in the past. The body responds pretty well to training so they will lose a few pounds. Then as time goes by and their bodies adapt to the exercises, the results will be even less. Since the exercises they are doing are not very functional, they won't really see much improvement in their day-to-day chores.
In a month or two these guys will give up. They had hoped going to the
gym would transform their bodies. They no longer see anything
happening. Exercise doesn't work. What's the point?
These two guys weren't the only ones I saw working out ineffectively. I saw men on the weight machines pumping out a hundred reps on the lowest settings. I saw women with free weights who used hundreds of small movements with tiny dumbbells. I wondered how long they had been working at this type of workout.
What would I tell them if they came to me for advice? What would I tell you if you came to me for advice?
First I would tell them to ignore the machines. Imagine yellow police tape wrapped around them. This goes double for the leg press, the pec deck, and most especially the Smith machine. Machines encourage unnatural movement along one plane. They have no real-world function. Besides most machines have you sitting or even lying down. How much real world activity do you do sitting or lying down? You need to work out in three-dimensional space. Machines are fine for rehab if you need to work around an injured muscle, but that type of machine use is best done under the supervision of a physical therapist.
Once the exercisers are off the machines and standing up, I'd tell them to stop doing small movements. Endless rounds of biceps curls are not necessary. Triceps kickbacks are a joke. You don't need to do endless leg lefts. The key exercises to do are large compound movements. Start with squats, lunges, deadlifts, pushups, pullups, and dips (if your shoulders can handle them). Learn the principles of push-pull. There are all kinds of variations on these exercises, so you shouldn't ever be bored. If you can't do pushups, start small with wall puhsups, bench pushups, and knee pushups and work your way up to doing just one from your toes. (Once you do one pushup from your toes, you will find the sky is the limit for how many you will eventually add.) It's the same thing for pullups. Do reverse rows. Use a jump assist. Use a pullup assist band. I still can't do a pullup unassisted, but I work often with reverse rows and assistance bands. Presses, pull-downs, and rows can work your total arm much better than concentrating on just one muscle group. By concentrating on doing just a few quality movements, you are out of the gym faster. You can get a good weight workout in just 30 minutes (not including warm-up and cool down).
I would teach new exercises to stop working out like a girl. Do you know what I'm talking about? There is a old wives' tale that never dies that women need to work at high reps with very low weights so they will "tone" instead of "bulk up". Even though is sometimes seem like this myth is finally dying, some trendy new exercise program will pop up and try to convince audiences that high rep work is the wave of the future. Working endless reps at high speeds will never be as effective at building the kind of muscle needed to burn fat as lifting heavy. It's also puts you at higher risk for injury. The speed puts you at risk for a pull or tear. The repetition puts you at risk for repetitive stress injury. The endless small movements could also cause you to die of boredom. If you're a beginner it's good to work lighter weight at higher reps until you feel comfortable, but when I say higher reps, I mean 15 and not 30. You need to choose a weight that challenges you. It's up to you to decide what is a challenge. Five pounds might be a challenge. Fifty pounds might be a challenge. The key is that your last three reps should be difficult. If you're sailing through your reps, your weight is too light.
Next I would have them stop making cardio the be-all and end-all of working out. Gym newbies like to concentrate on cardio under the misguided belief that it burns the most calories. Weight loss and fitness are about so much more than calorie burn. Cardio is filled with diminishing returns. The more you do, the more you will need to do to keep with the results, particularly if you are not doing some quality muscle building work. I would have loved to tell those guys who were phoning in all of that time on the elliptical (a very non-functional piece of cardio equipment) to get off the elliptical and get on the treadmill, rowing machine or bike. The workout wouldn't be long, slow, and boring. I would have them go a minute or two at a comfortable pace or resistance level, and then crank up the pace or resistance level for as much as they can handle and as long as they can handle it. Once they were at their limit, I'd have them recover at a comfortable pace and then go back to going hard once they have recovered. I pass no judgments as to how hard or how long the intervals should be. That would be up to the exercisers. I would also not make these people do this for long periods of time. I would start them with just 10 or 15 minutes. I would have them concentrate more on the weight room.
Most importantly, I would encourage these exercise newbies to find something outside of the gym to do. They should hike in the woods sometime instead of a walk on the treadmill. They should sign up for a class in something active that interests them. Instead of Zumba or the gym's "cardio kick" class (which tend to be repetitive and based on a set pattern of movements with no real skill building), the should head to a dojo, a boxing gym, or a dance studio to learn boxing, dance, or martial arts (I had a great time studying capoeria for a couple of years and still love tap and jazz dancing). They could go to the local rink or frozen pond and skate. They can hit the beach and ride a boogie board or surfboard, or learn to paddle board or paddle a kayak. I encourage everyone to take some yoga classes so you can tune into
your body and move it in ways you don't often make it go.
We all need to do something that truly takes us out of our comfort zone of movement. We should do our best to build a skill set. Work your mind as well as your body. Understand what real world movement truly is. Are you embarrassed to try something new because you're not athletic? Welcome to the human race. Most of us don't have many natural, innate abilities. You have to work at at them. The work is part of the journey and also what makes this type of activity so good for you.
The second part of losing weight is patience. You can't rush results. If you're not losing 10 pounds in two weeks, that doesn't mean it's because you're doing something wrong. Your body will change in its own time and at its own pace. Sure you can help it along, but often the harder you push yourself, the more likely you are to burn out. Strike a balance. Wait for your results. They will come.
You also need to pay attention to your diet. Exercise can only take you so far. I will happily address diet in another post if anyone is interested.
I can't guarantee to any of these exercise newbies that my tips will work. But if your "plan" is to hit the gym, do some ab work, take a few pilates classes, and spend a lot of time on cardio machines, I don't think you will be all that happy with your results. I can only tell you that by lifting intelligently, doing smarter cardio, and having some fun non-gym activities in my life, I have lost 18 pounds, 16 inches, and 9% bodyfat this year.
If you're on the journey, I hope to pay forward what I learned and help you have the kind of success I did on the journey.