You’ve decided to get fit and start exercising. Great! But what’s the next step?
Maybe you’ve signed up for a gym membership and have even tried a few workouts. You might have joined a running club or started pilates.
If this is you, it can be an exciting, but also intimidating time. Where do you start? Do you have to exercise every day? And how long should you exercise for? Do you need to do handstand pushups? Do you need to drink kale smoothies six times a day?
I’ve been a personal trainer for over 20 years. I’ve worked in gyms in four different countries and have seen thousands of people get started in their fitness journeys.
Here are 6 of the major fitness mistakes I’ve seen that you can hopefully avoid.
1. Taking on Too Much at Once
When you work at a gym, you get used to seeing the regulars. But when you work sporadic shifts, you only catch up with members during those times. At one gym I worked, there was a member we got used to seeing. She seemed to be at the gym for quite a while, but since I wasn’t there every day, I figured she wasn’t either.
After talking to her, we found out her workouts were 3 to 3.5 hours — every day. You try not to act horrified because you don’t want to make members feel inferior because they’re learning as they go. But we couldn’t wait to get her up to speed on why this was unnecessary, and how much better her results would get by actually cutting back on the time she spent training.
My workouts are maybe 30–40 minutes at the most, and they always have been. If you go to a gym; get in, do your thing, and get the hell out.
When you over-train, you start to spin your tires and can actually take a few steps backward.
Here are some key takeaways I hope you find helpful:
- You don’t have to go every day
- You don’t have to be in the gym for hours
- You don’t have to beat yourself down to the point of exhaustion and crawl out of the gym
- You should leave the gym feeling good and excited to go back
- You don’t have to be sore every day. If you’re sore for days on end, you may be pushing too hard. Try dialing it back a bit
- You DO have to put your equipment away…
2. Thinking You Have to Follow Other People’s Workouts
I think we’ve all fallen into this trap at one point or another. It used to be celebrity workouts that would draw people in, now, it’s anyone who’s under 25 and claims to be a fitness “influencer.”
This is a whole other topic, but at this point, I’m ignoring what anyone under 25 has to say about fitness. They’re still in their hormonal prime and haven’t begun to encounter any of the issues that come with aging. They can probably do any workout and still look good — or even no workout at all.
These “influencers” are at a stage of life where they can do pretty much anything and get away with it. When I was 20, I was 215 pounds of ripped muscle with 8% body fat. I was the fastest, strongest, and fittest I had ever been — and most of my diet was made up of hot dogs and mac n’ cheese because I was a broke-ass student.
So don’t fall for the trap of any Instagram “model” touting they know “the secret to fitness.” Their secret is youth, a great camera, posing angles, lighting, and filters. Lots and lot of filters…
If you’re 63, it makes little sense to follow the workout a 21-year-old is doing. Maybe you’ve done this and gotten results, but these people are in completely different stages of life, and what works for them won’t necessarily work for you — especially when they’re trying to sell you 6-week programs.
In most cases, they are not even qualified to give fitness advice. With no credentials or education, their only qualification is that they’re young and genetically gifted.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing people out there giving expert advice. If you’re going to follow anyone online, I’d make sure they can at least back up their claims and their info comes from genuine sources and education. It’s also great if you can see how they’ve helped average people find success.
If you’re going to follow anyone online, they should motivate and inspire you and not make you feel like shit for not looking like they do.
When it comes to celebrity workouts, these are also hard to ignore. There are some of the same issues as the influencer (who are often just trying to sell you crap), but this time, it’s the celebrity's job to get fit. Besides multiple trainers, nutritionists, and chefs, they have their entire day to devote to getting in shape for a movie role.
I’m sure you have many other responsibilities that need your attention. We’d all love to do nothing but work out and have a chef cook for us, but, unfortunately, we live in the real world and don’t have that luxury.
3. Not Getting Enough Rest
If you’re going to train really hard, and then completely neglect your sleep, you may be wasting your time.
All the training in the world doesn’t mean much without proper recovery. If this is all new to you, the gym and workouts are where we break down our muscle tissue. It repairs back — and gets larger and stronger — from recovery. This happens when we sleep.
Rest and recovery need to be a priority if you’re training and wanting to get fit. Nutrition, hydration, and stretching all are critical for recovery, but none may be as important as sleep.
Sleep has been considered the “force multiplier.” This means it enhances — positively or negatively — the state you’re in. If you are run down, stressed, and eating poorly, a lack of sleep will only make those things worse.
However, if you’re getting regular exercise, eating well, and trying to manage stress, sleep will only enhance all those things and improve your overall wellness.
You’ve probably heard about getting 7–8 hours a night, and that’s always a good goal. But don’t be afraid to get more, especially if you’re starting to feel sick and rundown.
Burning the candle at both ends results in nothing but burnout.
4. Trying to Lift too Much Weight
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. It’s hard to leave your ego at the door — especially when it comes to training and lifting weights. We always want to see how much higher, faster, and stronger we can be. We can’t help it: it’s built into our DNA.
If you’re just getting started with fitness, do the tough thing and not worry about the weight you lift. This is the time to master your form and learn proper techniques.
When you try to lift too much weight, you end up targeting everything but the muscle you intended. Your joints and tendons take the brunt of the weight, and this can easily result in injury.
There are injuries that can happen to those joints and tendons, and then safety-related issues that happen when you can’t handle the weight. If you’re in a prone position, this could cause significant injuries.
I can’t even begin to tell you the horrific injuries I’ve seen over the years when people try to lift more weight than they can handle.
The good news is when you focus on mastering technique, the amount you can lift will just naturally go up. And here’s some good news that many people don’t know: you don’t have to scream when you lift weights!
Yes, some forced exhaling may help to move the weight past the sticking point, but this is with some very serious poundage.
A few of the strongest human beings I’ve ever met didn’t make a peep when they trained. One was an Olympic discus thrower, and the other competed in strong man competitions. They lifted weight that I didn’t think was humanely possible. And you would have no idea they were in the gym doing it.
When you hear someone going over the top with the grunting, he’s more likely trying to impress the girl who would only ever leave him on read.
5. Training to Failure
There’s a time and place for things like this, but don’t worry about it when you’re just getting started. As you progress with your training, there is room for different lifting techniques and pushing the muscles so they don’t become complacent.
If you’re new to fitness, it’s more important to focus on the execution of the exercise and finishing the set in control. If you are aiming for ten reps, you want to make sure that you finish with the possibility you could do one to two more.
Your body, muscles, and central nervous system are getting used to the new stimulus you’re giving it and doesn’t need much more beyond that.
If you’re new to these exercises, training to failure may put you in a dangerous position.
It’s good to push yourself, but not at the sake of injury. Again, this is about learning how to properly execute the exercises and how your muscles are engaged during them.
Until you get to a more advanced level of training where training to failure is a skilled technique, you’re more likely to get that last rep out through momentum and force, which does very little for your results.
6. Not Paying Attention to Nutrition
I worked at a gym where I did a consultation with someone in his early 20s. He was just getting started with working out. He was already in pretty good shape, so I was excited for him, as I know he would probably respond well to training.
When I asked what his post-workout nutrition looked like; he actually said a bag or two of chips.
I expected that his nutrition wouldn’t be dialed in, but a bag of chips stopped me in my tracks. I’ve met with people who would eat fast food after a workout. Not the greatest thing, but at least there’s some protein in there.
I couldn’t wait to get this guy up to speed, as it was going to make a night and day difference with his training and results. And it did. He had some of the best and fastest results I’d ever seen in his first few months of training.
If you’re just getting started with fitness, I’m not saying you have to overhaul your whole diet, but you want to start becoming more aware of it. The easiest place to start is by eating real, whole foods. You can get more detailed with specifics down the road, but for right now, try to keep things as fresh — and less processed — as possible.
If you’re at the grocery store, this means shopping on the outer perimeter, as this is where all the fresh and whole foods are. Definitely have your treats here and there, but it may be a good idea to keep your food as real as possible.
I’ve spent two decades training people and can confidently tell you that the early days of your fitness journey don’t need to be complicated. Simple works best. From there, results are about discipline, consistency, and adherence.
Don’t feel you have to take on too much at once and try these elaborate, and over-the-top workouts you’ve seen someone famous do.
There will be plenty of time to get more specific, but for right now, the simple approach works best. You don’t have to be in the gyms for hours on end, and every single day.
You don’t even have to be in a gym.
Yes, they are convenient, but if you’re just getting started with your fitness journey, now is the time to find out what you really like.
It may be the gym or Crossfit, it may be swimming, hiking, squash, dancing, or yoga. The point is, to find the activity you like the best that you are motivated — and more likely — to do. There’s no point slogging away at workouts you don’t even like. This will not motivate or inspire you to train.
I’ve spent more than half my life in gyms all over the world, and I’ve got pretty tired of them. These days, I prefer to bike and hike as much as possible. So find the type of movement you love best and stick with it.
Fitness is whatever you make it, so find what that is, keep it simple, and keep it consistent.