Making Progress!

I have been a fitness instructor for 15 years now and have supervised literally thousands of people in their workout. Most of them stepped into the program with high, although a little bit fuzzy, ambitions. Unfortunately, I saw some of them leave in more or less the same shape in which they came in 6 or 12 month before. This means, their membership expired at that point, most of them probably abandoned their regular workout much earlier. Here are some advices I would like to give to every new fitness enthusiast to avoid failure:

1. Have a Realistic Goal

If you ever worked in a thriving company, no matter on which step of the latter, you might have experienced that others are measuring your work via specific targets. There is simply no other way to evaluate whether your work is effective, be it in produced units, quality or sales. In a smart company, these targets will be used to motivate you, reward you, but also to search for reasons why a specific target was not met. In this sense, there is basically no difference between the office and the gym, only that in the latter case you should have a high intrinsic motivation to make your personal goal, whatever it is, come true.

The worst answer I got, and I got it a thousand times, when I ask a new customer about his or her reasons for joining the gym is: “I want to feel better.” or “I really want to lose weight.” While both objectives are perfectly reasonable for a fitness novice they lack the primary quality of being an objective. You can not measure “feeling better” and, let's face it: people who are in top shape have days were they feel miserable.

Your goal should be something you can measure in inches, pounds, beats per minute, hours, kilometers or any other unit that is countable and provides you with data to evaluate your progress and makes adjustments possible. But please, consult your instructor first – s/he should know whether your goal is realistic and help you with adjustments.

2. Have Your Reason

I know, everybody has a reason to join the gym or take on a sports program, but this is not what I wrote. Have your reason means you should sit down for a moment and contemplate about why you are starting this program. The fact is, if you are consistent, you are going to spent a lot of time with your new hobby and you should better make sure that the reason for doing so can carry you through the phases when everything seems to be too much and you find so many things to do that keep you from going to the gym. Believe me, those times will come.

So let it be something more than just the pressure the advertising industry puts on you, or just a diffuse feeling of obligation. If there is any obligation, it is towards yourself and the people you care for. You have a partner who is quite fit and you want to show him/her that you can be like that? - Fine, good reason. But don't do it to live up to his or her expectations. You feel that your child is a little bit overweight because of your own eating habits and you plan to be a better role model in the future? - Great. Start right away!

A few years ago, I had a customer who weighed over 260 pounds, being 5,8” tall and approaching her 60th birthday. The doctor told her if she would not start a fitness program she would not see that day, because of a heart failure. She had a reason. She did not fit in all of the machines, but she just smiled and did the others and I was proud of her every single day she showed up at the gym.

Another customer was rather underweight and was planning to gain 20 pounds in the next 6 month, which was a very ambitious goal. But, so he told me, in the country from which he came, you are considered a poor man when you are skinny and the way he were, he could not approach the parents of the girl he loved to ask for her hand. Now, that is what I call a reason.

Whatever your reason is: make sure that it came from the inside.

3. Stay in contact with your instructor

When you are a fitness instructor, you know that there are basically two kinds of people in the gym: the one group is asking about any question that comes to their minds and does not hesitate to ask a second or a third time when something is complicated (this is how it is supposed to be) and the others say only “hello” and “goodbye” without ever asking anything at all. Sure, my job is to actively approach people of this second group, but the truth is that I sometimes feel like an unwelcome interference, even when it is obvious that the person is making no progress.

I often wonder why this is so. When you join a gym, the major part of your money is not paid for using the machines, but for employing experts to help you. What on earth should keep you from using a service you already paid for? Honestly, I know that some members canceled their contract without me even noticing it, because leaving before the contract expires is a sign that you seldom had contact to the staff. As stated above, your instructor should be your most important ally in reaching your goals.

4. Don't expand your workout excessively

O.k., this one is really important and it is one of the cardinal sins committed in fitness workouts – not only by beginners! Your daily workout should not extend 45 minutes if you are doing muscular training and it does not have to be longer than 70 minutes if you are doing muscular and cardiologic workout combined. This workout should be performed at a maximum of three days a week, often two days are better. I hear you ask: “Danny, how can I lose twenty pounds of body weight by working out two and a half hours per week?” Good question and a simple answer: You won't. No, really, trying to lose weight by spending energy at the gym is probably the most ineffective way to approach the problem and if you do not believe me you might as well join a Zumba class – good luck!

It is a proven fact that only three mechanisms will help you to reach your goal:

  1. The afterburner effect created after a high intensity workout such as HIIT.
  2. The heightened demand for energy created by adding muscle tissue to the body.
  3. A good diet.

Without these, you might lose a few pounds, but honestly, and all you class instructors might hate me for writing this, I cannot remember having seen a single person that lost significant weight by doing classes at the gym. If you rely on cardio workout solely, you'd better prepare to make your workout a part-time job.

The good news is, I know from personal experience that the effect of the first two of the three points mentioned above can be reached within the suggested time limit.

5. Don't sit and read

This is the other side of the medal, but hopefully you agree that it makes sense: When you spend your time at the gym doing other things than working out, you will be as effective as a cyberloafing worker or a spouse who watches TV all night. Neither your work, nor your relationship, nor your workout will function in the way you want it to if you do things half-heartedly. Make sure that the time spend is serving your goal, because this will enable you to rest with a good conscience afterwards. Instead, trying to transfer your leisure time into the gym will never be a fulfilling experience, because it is neither relaxing nor rewarding.

I know, there is a certain time of inactivity required in between sets, but you do not need to spend this time reading or talking. Moreover, you should make sure that the time span is not getting longer and longer with each set. My advice is: Bring a stopwatch to the gym and make sure that the pause between sets is between two and three minutes.

Do not wait for occupied machines but take the freedom to change the sequence of your schedule whenever necessary. And, especially when you know a lot of people at the gym, wear headphones. Don't get me wrong, I do not want you to be unsociable. But for some people it is hard to differentiate between you being focused and being bored and waiting for a conversation. You can have your chat after the workout is done, sit down at the bar and drink your protein while doing so, but workout time is to be kept pure of any distractions.

6. Keep your muscle under tension

I know there is a lot of discussion going on (basically it has been going on for decades) about how long a set of muscular training should be. I am not going into that here, because it would take a few more pages to explain my approach, but my general opinion can be read in my article about Mike Mentzer. At this point, I only want to make clear that, in the same way in which you should keep your pauses between sets to the minimum with maximum effect, you should keep an eye on the t.u.t. (time under tension) during your sets.

There is a certain sense in an explosive contraction phase for specialized athletes, but with most beginners such an attempt results in jerking the weight upwards and letting it fall in the extension phase. While these repetitions might look good on your workout schedule, they simply get you nowhere. If you follow the HIT program, you probably use a 4/2/4 system, but for beginners, the contraction should take 2 seconds and the extension 3 seconds. Count and write down only full repetitions exercised in this manner. The benefit from doing it this way consists not only in a longer tension and more effect on the muscle, but also in a realistic choice of weights which does not hurt your tendons and ligaments.

7. Persist!

I started with an allegory from the business world and here is another one: Literary every successful entrepreneur has his or her personal story about failure. I recently listened to podcasts produced by highly successful people like Tim Ferriss and James Altucher. They all tell more or less the same story in a different way, the story of how they have been at a low point and almost were willing to give up, but then somehow found the energy to persist long enough to make it to the top. For me, being German, those stories of success are always quite “American,” but they are also highly motivating.

For your workout, you should prepare yourself for a battle that is longer than just a few weeks – commencing a fitness workout is definitely a life changer. To reap the full effect of your training, you have to hang on in times where you seem to make no progress at all and problems from all sides are trying to tear your workout plan apart. In my opinion, motivation can only be found in a visualization of goals as if they were already reality. Believe in that person you want to be and stay away from “friends” who are trying to reduce you to your former self. Choose motivating music as well as people who support your goals. Make clear that retreat is not an option for you and your friends, family, and colleagues will understand that something has changed.

Stay strong!



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