Get More Out of Your Training
Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Fitness
The Most Common Mistakes (Nearly) Everyone Makes
Many of us make the same mistakes when it comes to fitness:
Believing in and cycling through fad diets. All diets work if you pick one and stick with it.
Changing programs too often. Most people never finish a program
Drinking alcohol. Alcohol is a fat burning suppressant.
Chronic cardio. Cardio does not the right energy system to change your physique.
Not lifting heavy enough. Many don’t select weights heavy enough to cause an adaptation.
Too much intensity. No pain no gain only goes so far, you need more tools in your bag.
Glamour muscles…only training the muscles you can see in the mirror leaves a lot of gains on the table.
My wife recently picked up The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which for some reason immediately got me thinking about its inverse. What are the seven habits of highly ineffective people? Just as there are least common denominators in success stories, there are also commonalities among those who do not achieve their goals. This is especially true in fitness. Here are the seven most common behaviors holding people back in the gym every day. Without further ado, I present to you, the seven habits of highly ineffective fitness.
One of the easiest ways to get little to no results from your diet is to constantly switch diets. The fad dieter is particularly prone to this habit. Often times it starts with good intentions, the road to hell is paved with them. Gluten-free, keto, paleo, and various plant-based diets are some of the most popular right now. While I have seen people be successful with every one of these approaches and more, what many will do after hours of perusing the internet and their social media feeds is a create a hybrid diet of sorts. Two days vegan, two days kill-what you eat, two days foraging, a cheat day and carb cycling throughout. Sounds crazy? It’s not as bad as some of the diets I have seen people come up with for themselves, to be honest.
Every diet works, if you actually do it. The problem with diets like this is that at the end of the day, it amounts to a whole lot of nothing. A lot of times, people are really just picking and choosing a fad to rationalize the eating choices they are already making or want to make. Whenever a day gets away from them, it’s a cheat day. Then they might “make up” for a “bad” day by fasting. Choose to go plant-based until the next cheat day, which arrived unexpectedly early because of a work function. There is no end in sight when you allow yourself to switch in and out of popular. Ostensibly what one is doing is taking one step forward, two steps back, three steps left, one diagonal to the right, and so on. Pick one, anyone, and stick with it.
Proper nutrition has been made far more difficult than it really is. Every diet you can think of is trying to control the following three variables: quantity, quality, and ratios. Quantity is how much food, quality is how well sourced and nutrient dense the foods are, and ratios are the relative breakdown of calories from carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Quickly let’s think about this in action. Calories in v calories out based approaches like weight watchers is clearly controlling for quantity. Paleo, Whole 30 and plant-based diets are working on quality. Ketogenic and Atkins style diets are working on ratios. The truth about all of them, they all work. When I get a new client I do not force them into any particular path. I find out what their current diet looks like, what their allergies and preferences are, and then we come up with a plan well suited to their goals and lifestyle.
Let’s say the goal is to lose weight. Great. Eat less, control for quantity. I don’t care what diet you follow. Eat less if you want to see the number on the scale go down. There is nothing else to it. Every successful weight loss diet is getting you into a caloric deficit somehow, period. Now say you are happy with your weight, you want to look better. Awesome. Eat less junk, control for quality. Junk foods are processed foods that are not significantly dense in any nutrients. High-quality foods, on the other hand, tend to be unprocessed or very close to their natural state and very nutrient dense. If one eats more nutrient dense foods skin, hair, nails, sleep quality and a host of other factors will improve in addition to body composition. Lastly we need to cover ratios, fortunately, that’s the easiest of the whole lot. Use whichever work best for you.
You heard right, there are no magic ratios. Many people get convinced that their zone, keto or Atkins macros are the main reason behind their success. Wrong. If you lost weight it’s because you ate fewer calories. If you improved body composition it was because you started eating less crap. If you found it managed your hunger and cravings better than good, that’s the primary reason to select a set of ratios. Different people will react differently to different macro ratios. In the Paleo and Keto paradigms, people often talk about fat adaption, the process by which one can utilize fat for energy. This is real but they tend to leave out carbohydrate adaptation and a whole host of others. The truth is, the human being is highly adaptable. It has adapted to many different settings and thus has an ability to fuel itself from a host of sources. If we couldn’t, you probably wouldn’t be here because your ancestors did not have such stable and abundant access to food and never had to worry about whether they were eating an optimal ratio of macronutrients.
Depending on who you are, and what your goals are, you will have to employ different ratios. Take the popular Keto diet, it is an effective way for sedentary people to lose weight, but it is not a good diet for active people to gain muscle. Muscle synthesis takes 4 times the carbohydrates as it does protein. It’s no wonder in our largely carbo-phobic paradigm why so few people retain impressive amounts of muscle. Your ratios should be determined by your individual goals and needs, not the latest fads and fashions. The same goes for the rest of your diet.
This is the training counterpart to fad dieting. Instead of doing a tried and true strength or HIIT program, many will create their own hybrid splits. Instead of chasing after one goal they will chase after 2 or 3 or 4. “I want to get stronger and lose weight, and gain muscle, and reveal my six pack.” Chasing after more than one goal, in reality, is a great way to accomplish none of your goals. The training process in a nutshell: train, recover, get better. When you are constantly changing the stimulus, the body does not have time to adequately adapt to the stimulus. The last part of the equation, get better, can never happen if you keep switching the stimulus the body needs to adapt to.
While I’ve seen each of these programs do wonders for some, I blame P90x and Crossfit for the random workout phenomena. If we are being brutally honest, most who I know what had success with these were actually former athletes who had already trained for years. They had already built up a decent base and experienced some weight loss. If they had good strength when they began, it slowly but surely decreased. To try to get results like those the experienced when they began they push the intensity and “muscle confusion” even harder. The only problem, muscles don’t get confused, they adapt. These “programs” don’t allow for that in any meaningful way, and it’s their followers who get confused at their lack of results from increasingly difficult workouts.
This will sound familiar if you took the last section to heart. Pick one goal and stick with it. I can not count how many programs really work. There is a nearly endless amount of free readily available training protocols that will work if you do. The secret to each is that you actually have to commit to it and do it. It took me years into my training career before I realized how many experienced lifters had not actually done a strength program. Doing a week of 5x5, then a week of hypertrophy, then a couple of days of HIIT, and a few yoga classes here and there is not a program. Nor is any other permutation of randomly mixing modalities and disciplines. Four to six weeks of dedication and execution would constitute doing a program. Most lifters get bored and latch on to a shiny new object or three in that time and have the results to show for it.
Pick one goal and stick with it. The crazy thing about training this way, often times you do accomplish more than your goal. Let’s say my goal is to get stronger. There is a great chance that when I dedicate my diet and training toward getting stronger that I also wind up gaining muscle or getting faster. Fringe benefits if you will. If instead, I set the goal of getting stronger, getting faster, and building muscle all at once and pieced together a program to address each goal, I would stagnate and get confused why all my good intentions and hard work weren’t working.
As a minimum, stick with a training program for four to six weeks. In that time, if you see any cool new movements or programs you want to try, file them away for the next cycle. You’re going to need a next step anyway. Instead of throwing a bunch of random things together in hopes that something will stick, consciously limit yourself and get the most out of your current movements or rep schemes before switching. When you have started to plateau or fatigue is a good time to switch it up. Get a new goal and switch directions.
Sorry to be a buzzkill, drinking is out if you are serious about your physique. People get very emotional and defensive about this one so to be clear, I don’t actually care if you drink or not, but if you have fitness goals, you must temper your expectations if you decide to keep drinking. Lots of people do. Just don’t expect any results if you’re one of them. As a trainer, this one is a litmus test for me. If a client is not willing to make this shift, I personally do not regard them as serious about their fitness. We can maybe maintain their current shape or improve strength or other aspects of fitness, but any physique goals are off the table until we decide to get serious.
Alcohol is the most socially accepted vice and as such it is a hard pill for many to swallow. If your social or professional life is currently relying on it as a crutch, it can seem impossible. The easiest way to work around social engagements where others will be drinking is to not drink, and don’t talk about it. As long as you do not mention that you are not drinking, most people will not notice, especially if they are drinking. Ordering soda water and lime will look come in the same glass as a cocktail and if you order one with the bartender at the beginning of the night, a simple nod or wave of the hand will get you another round without ever having to mention to your peers that you are not partaking. Telling them this will open you up to the conversation, and in my experience, the conversation will either rub them the wrong way or lead to you drinking. Not drinking is like fight club, just don’t talk about it and no one will notice or care.
Things are improving a little bit but for many, the ubiquitous exercise when they want to get in shape is to go jogging. Not smart. First off, if your goal is to lose fat, that’s not what jogging burns. The body has three energy systems available to fuel exercise: the oxidative pathway, glycolysis, and the creatine phosphate pathway. When jogging one is in glycolysis. In this state, one is burning the carbohydrates that were eaten and stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. If you run far enough to burn out glycogen, well then your body will start to break down muscle tissue for energy. The entire process will not rely on burning body fat, which is usually the target for anyone trying to get fit.
Breaking down muscle mass for energy has a negative impact on metabolism. Muscle is metabolically expensive, meaning it takes a lot of energy to maintain. Losing muscle mass means that one’s metabolic rate will also decrease, making it harder to get and stay lean in the long run. As the metabolic rate slows, the exact same amount of calories will now cause an increase in weight. One will have to keep cutting calories in order to lose any weight, but the weight loss will be mostly muscle and the body will even take on the quintessential runner’s skinny fat physique.
Chronic cardio also wreaks havoc on the joints. With each stride, impact moves from the ground up through the entire kinetic chain. Multiply that action by tens of thousands of repetitions as you will on any distance run and you have a perfect recipe for joint injury.
By not burning significant amounts of fat, decreasing muscle mass, slowing metabolic rate, and predisposing the body to injury chronic cardio does far more damage than good. Running should be considered a sport, not a fitness activity. What’s the difference? Sports are not healthy. There is nothing healthy about them, to be honest, the point is to compete either with oneself or others. Fitness always takes a backseat in sport. Don’t go join a basketball league to get in shape. True you may shed a few pounds, but you will also probably get injured frequently. Sport is for its own sake. If you love to compete I’m not saying to never do it, just don’t call it your workout. You will need workouts outside the context of your sport to have any hope of competing at any level.
Not Going Heavy Enough
Most people simply do not lift heavy enough weights to force the body to adapt. Even experienced lifters often fall into this trap. Particularly nowadays, when so many have been introduced to strength training with random programming at boot-camps and boxes or muscle confusion in their intense at home workouts, it is rare you meet someone who has actually done a real strength training program. Wendler’s 5/3/1, Stronglifts 5x5, Easy strength, Westside barbell, I could go on and on. Every one of these protocols works. Even better if you’ve never done one. The athlete who has not dedicated time to finish a legitimate strength training protocol has not fully developed his athletic potential. If you were stronger, you’d be better at everything.
I started to notice this a few years ago. Even many experienced lifters have not actually completed a strength cycle. Newbie gains are easy. You can pretty much do anything if you’ve never lifted at all. Many people get introduced to lifting weights by magazines or social media and never progress past the workouts they used to get their newbie gains. These workouts may be very difficult, but getting tired is not the same as getting better as countless people should be learning as they get fewer and fewer results from pushing themselves harder and harder in the gym. Slow down. You don’t need ten thousand different movements performed in a fatigued state. How about getting really good at a few movements?
The hardest part about getting people to lift heavy is one has to flex different muscles both literally and figuratively. For those coming out of high paced workouts, they have never rested enough between sets to do legitimate strength training. One needs about 3–5 minutes between sets to really go hard. What if you’re ready to go before that? Then you lifting too light. Most people can’t stand the rest period because they simply didn’t work hard enough. If you’re ready to hit another lift in 10 seconds, the weight on the bar is way too light to cause your body to adapt. Another way is to simply work non-competing lifts as supersets. Pairing lifts from different movement patterns is a great way to be more efficient with your time. A hip hinge with a press, a knee dominant pattern with a pull, use your imagination just don’t pick two movements from the same pattern. If you’ve got more time to burn after your second set there’s always mobility and core work. You do not have to just stand around waiting for your next set.
Too Much Intensity
If too little isn’t enough then more is better, right? Wrong. More is not better, more is just more. The quintessential person I am thinking about here tends to be a highly motivated type a personality. They do not like to waste time and they want a workout that actually works, so they need to “feel” it every time. If they don’t have to pick themselves up off the floor after a workout or aren’t in some form of pain the next day, they believe they didn’t train hard enough. Ever heard this one before, “Man that was a great workout. I can hardly walk.” Maybe you’ve said it yourself? I know I have. Admittedly this is one that is far easier to tell other people that to apply to myself. Been there done that. When you are looking at someone else’s work/life/training balance, is easy to see when they are overextended, but for some reason, many of us can convince ourselves that we are different. That it somehow applies to everyone else but ourselves. I trained myself this way for years. Early morning conditioning followed by a full day of work followed by strength training, many of us learn how to work hard and never learn how to work smart. There’s a brief period in the teens and twenties where learning to work hard is essential, but once you get north of 25, you have to learn to start training smart too.
Exercise is stress. We are breaking down muscle tissue in order for it to adapt and come back even stronger. The problem with going all out all the time is that there is never sufficient time to recover and adapt. One must consider all the other stressors in life when deciding how hard to push in the gym. If you’ve been up all night with a crying baby, rallied and got through a long day at work, it is a terrible time to go all out in the gym. No pain no gain mentality certainly has its place in training, but for many who learn it, they never learn any other gear. On days where there is ample work or life stress, it is far more beneficial to do some restorative mobility work or some submaximal strength practice. In fact, that word “practice” is a far better goal for 80% of your workouts than “beat down” or any other pseudo masochistic epithet the fitness industry has brainwashed us into thinking we need every time we step in the gym. When you practice strength, you stop racing against the clock and everyone else in the gym, you slow down and focus on mastery of the movement pattern. Many of the bad habits and dangerous positions people get themselves into while working out are a result of partaking in some form of a pissing contest. Squats aren’t bad for your back, but those partial “squats” with too much weight on the bar are wrecking your body. Challenge yourself to work with perfect form in a full range of motion. To do so, you will first have to remove your ego from the bar.
There is a time to push but getting strong is like building up a savings account. You need to make more deposits than withdrawals. When you practice, you make a deposit. When you compete or lift with your ego, you are taking money out. While it’s certainly no majority, usually we are having to convince people to work a bit harder, there is a significant population who is continually pushing themselves to the point of going broke because they never put any capital back in.
Do you know what trainers call every Monday at the gym? International chest day. All around the world you will see gym-goers, especially the guys, lining up on the benches. Many people will simply come to the gym day after day and train the muscles they can see in the mirror. The only problem, all the biggest muscles don’t show up in the mirror. No disrespect meant to your biceps and pectorals, but they just aren’t that big. They are also relatively easy to train. I get it why so many people avoid training their posterior chain, it’s way harder and way less gratifying in the moment than pumping the mirror muscles.
This may sound crazy, but you will make more progress on your mirror muscles if you take the time to train the less visible posterior chain. The more muscle mass one engages in a workout, the more calories he will burn and anabolic hormones he will produce. Using big compound movements is far more effective than small isolation movements for this reason. All the bodybuilders you see isolating their muscles have a few advantages over you. First, they spent years training their bodies and I promise you they didn’t get there with only bench and curls. Before Arnold was Arnold, he trained his golden six. They were barbell squat, wide grip bench, chin-up, behind the neck press, barbell curl, and sit-ups. During the early years where he built up his physique, he trained total body. The second advantage bodybuilders have over you is anabolic steroids. Sorry to burst bubbles here, but top physique athletes also have pharmaceutical enhancement. Their elevated levels of anabolic hormones make their part splits more effective for them than someone who is not enhanced. If you copy one of their routines from a magazine or social media, it is not going to work as well for you.
For the vast majority of people, especially those not on anabolic steroids, working total body, push/pull, or upper lower is a far better split than isolating each muscle group. Breaking it down even further, most people should stick with total body workouts until they get some pretty impressive levels of strength. As a rule of thumb, if you are not squatting or deadlifting twice your bodyweight, your muscles are probably recovering faster than you think. Beyond that, you may need to split training somewhat, but until then, most people get the best result from simply training their entire body 3 or four times per week.
These are the most common habits I see getting in the way of people’s fitness goals. Truth be told, I have made each and every one of these mistakes at some point in my fitness journey. It is far easier to see these habits in others that it is in ourselves. Our own rationalizations will often convince us that all these somehow don’t apply. I don’t care who you are, or how long you have been at it, these seven habits will undermine anyone’s best efforts.