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by Boko Suzuki
© 2016

So you’ve decided that it’s time to get into shape. Maybe you’ve bought yourself a gym membership and made a commitment to yourself that you’re going to go three times a week. You’re trying not to listen to the little voice in your head that tells you that you’ve been down this road before and it didn’t end well. How do you make this time different?

Chances are, you’re making one or more of the common fitness mistakes on this list, mistakes that tend to lead to frustration and discouragement. Even if you’re an experienced gym member, you’re probably making some of these mistakes. Think about working smarter, not just harder.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  – Abraham Lincoln


1. You’re working out without first setting a clearly defined goal.

Imagine that you’re taking a road trip to Portland, Oregon. You have the car packed and gassed up, you have a great playlist of songs to listen to, and the GPS all ready to go. Unfortunately, you’ve mistakenly entered Portland, Maine into the GPS. It’s going to be a trip that ends in frustration and possibly tears.

A ridiculous example, I know, but no more ridiculous than how most people work out. Here’s an example that I’ve seen too many times to count: In consulting with a new client and asking them questions about what they really want to achieve in their fitness program, I find that their most important goal is to be lean and toned. But their exercise program has been a bodybuilding routine, isolating muscle groups on machines in a moderate weight/high rep protocol. A casual glance at the machines in any gym will tell you that very few people following this exercise program become lean and toned.

Try this instead: Write down a list of your fitness goals. Don’t edit and don’t leave out a goal because you think it’s unattainable; just write down everything that comes to mind. Now look at the list and ask yourself which is the most important to you deep down: the goal your heart desires, not the one that you think you SHOULD want. Now take that goal to a fitness professional and map out how you get to that goal. Don’t be intimidated by the expense of consulting with a personal trainer; most gyms will offer you a consultation free of charge. Your fitness journey will be much more productive now that you have a road map.

2. You think that the more time you spend at the gym or the more sore and sweaty you are, the better.

Sam, one of my favorite trainers, likes to say, “Just because something is hard doesn’t make it beneficial.” Here’s an example: If you spend two hours in a sauna holding two dumbbells over your head (do NOT try this, by the way – this will probably land you in the hospital!), you will have spent a lot of time at the gym, you will be very sweaty, and your muscles will be sore but you will have reaped zero benefit. Equating an effective workout with time spent, muscle soreness, or perspiration is mistaking correlation with causation.

You might watch a strongman competition and notice that many of the competitors have big, impressive beards but I certainly hope you don’t think that growing a beard will qualify you to start pulling tractor trailers! The beard is a correlation, not a causation, just like a good workout can leave you sweaty but the sweat is not what made the workout good. What makes a workout good is how effectively the exercises you do get you to the goal you want to achieve.

3. You hate doing long, steady cardio workouts but you do it because you think you should.

Most people assume fitness professionals love to work out – and for the most part that’s true, but almost every fitness professional I know HATES traditional cardio. And we hate it for the same reasons you do: It’s tedious and boring and rarely gets results. Remember the old adage that you need to do at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week to be fit? All our modern exercise research tells us that not only is that usually ineffective, it can actually be counterproductive.

So why did the research in the 1960s and ’70s tell us to do hour-long cardio sessions? Simply because it was easier to study; they were studying hour long moderate intensity aerobic classes and saw some benefits. Fortunately, we now have modern researchers like Martin Gibala who use much more scientifically controlled studies that tell us that we get more benefit from MUCH shorter bouts of exercise. In fact, Gibala has done studies that find that as little as three sessions a week of ONE MINUTE of intense cycling produced a 12% improvement in cardio fitness in six weeks!

Okay, that sounds too good to be true, so let me explain how the Gibala protocol works: You get on a stationary bike at your gym and you do a one-minute warm-up at a nice, easy resistance and pace. At the one-minute mark you crank up the resistance to a level that feels challenging to you and cycle AS HARD AS YOU CAN for ten seconds. Then you lower the resistance and cycle at a very easy pace as you recover for two full minutes. Then do another intense ten seconds and recover for another two minutes. Repeat until you’ve done six 10-second intervals or one total minute of intense exercise.

I’ve been following this protocol and believe me, it’s challenging! But it’s perfectly safe IF a) you’ve been cleared by your doctor to do cardiovascular exercise, b) you never let your heart rate go above 170 bpm or any rate that makes you feel light headed or dizzy, and c) if you listen to your body and only go as long and as intensely as you feel able to. Ideally you do it under the supervision of a fitness professional. You can work up to 20 second/3 minute or 30 second/4 minute intervals and you will find that both your aerobic and anaerobic capacity will increase. If you want to read more, here’s a good interview with Dr. Gibala:

4. You stick to working out on machines.

Just like with the outdated cardio recommendations, the old idea that working out on resistance machines will get you in shape has become so ubiquitous that we’ve come to accept it as fact. Well, here’s the truth: Unless you’re rehabbing from an injury or are very old or deconditioned, MOST MACHINES WILL DO YOU MORE HARM THAN GOOD. Here’s why: When we perform a movement over and over, we are creating a neurological pattern, an engram for how our brain tells our body how to perform a movement. If that pattern is dysfunctional, it will lead to inefficient movement and often injury. And here’s the kicker: It takes much longer to unlearn a poor movement pattern than to learn it correctly. Most machines are designed not to teach you a functional movement pattern but in fact the opposite: to artificially isolate a muscle group in a way that you never would or could in the real world.

If you train an overhead press sitting in a machine that isolates your deltoid muscles, you might create impressive-looking shoulder,s but you’ve taught your body that the deltoids are the only muscles to use when pressing a heavy object overhead. So when you have to perform that movement in the real world (when, for example, you have to lift a child up to the top of a slide) you have zero ability to recruit your legs, butt, and core to create the movement optimally. The result is often a shoulder, neck, or back injury when lifting overhead.

There are some machines that can be useful (for example, a cable crossover machine for doing woodchop movements). But a good principle is that if you perform a movement from a standing or kneeling position instead of from a seated position in a machine, you will get much more benefit from the movement.

5. You either do the same workout over and over again or you dramatically change your workout every time.

Albert Einstein actually denied saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” but the quote still holds a lot of truth. Working in a large, commercial gym, I’ve watched many people come faithfully day after day doing the exact same routine with no change in their fitness. Now there may be some benefit in simply maintaining one’s level of fitness (or as my friend Tim once said, “At this age I have to work out just to stay fat!”) but I would suggest that making progress, however slowly or incrementally, is much more beneficial and satisfying.

eAt the other end of the spectrum are the people that subscribe to the theory of “muscle confusion” or the infamous WOD (workout of the day). I have a healthy respect for the work of Tony Horton and for some of the benefits of CrossFit but the vast majority of educated fitness professionals will tell you that simply changing your workout randomly might keep things interesting but will probably also keep you from progressing in your fitness or getting really good at anything. Yes, there are competitive CrossFitters that have achieved an incredible level of fitness and athletic skill but I guarantee you that they did not get there by simply doing whatever WOD was posted at their local CrossFit box. They got there the same way that you should: by following an appropriately challenging, scientifically based, and progressive exercise program.

So now that you know what NOT to do, where do you go from here? I strongly suggest you consult with a fitness professional (shop around at your local gym by watching trainers and asking questions) and check this website for more articles and advice. E-mail me with your questions and feedback and I’ll do my best to help you on your fitness journey!