Health and fitness is one of those problematic areas that’s cursed by persistent myths, misunderstandings and misinformation. Whether you’re just a beginner to working out or have been at it for a while, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re affected by at least some of them right now, as we speak.
Below are 26 important things you should know about working out that may be holding you back or sabotaging your results in some way. By correcting them you’ll find yourself progressing far more smoothly and rapidly towards your physical fitness goals.
1. Expecting too much of yourself will only lead to disappointment
Starting a new workout program is always very exciting. And in your excitement it’s easy to get carried away and fall into the trap of believing that you’re an overnight super-disciplined workout machine. Be realistic. Don’t set yourself a program that would be at home in the military. You’ll only disappoint and demotivate yourself when you can’t keep up. It’s better to start conservatively and then work your way up if you feel you need to.
2. It’s not all or nothing
No one’s perfect, and there will be times when you stumble. You might have a bad workout, or maybe even miss a workout or two. It’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you should give it up for the week and “start again” next Monday. Allow yourself the occasional slip-up and accept that it’s OK. It doesn’t mean everything is ruined. After all, fitness is a long-term process and even getting it 90% right will still get you to your goals eventually.
3. Looking for shortcuts can hold you back
Don’t fall into the trap of wasting your time and money looking for the latest, greatest, most raved about workout program you can find. If you feel like trying interesting new programs, by all means, knock yourself out. But don’t interrupt or hold off your workouts just waiting for something that’s supposedly better. Remember, 90% of your results will come from the simple basics.
4. Many people in the gym set a poor example
Just because you see someone regularly in the gym and they’ve been working out for years, don’t automatically assume that they’re doing it right. The gym is littered with living examples of what not to do. Probably the most common mistake is using too much weight, necessitating the use of “cheats” to cope with it. So don’t feel bad when you see other gym-goers lifting far more than you. By breaking from proper exercise form and cheating it’s possible for them to use twice the amount of weight in some cases and even more. They might think it looks impressive, but it’s less effective and only demonstrates their lack of understanding.
5. You can work out without equipment
You don’t necessarily need to have access to modern gym facilities or even home exercise equipment to get a good workout. There’s plenty you can do without it. For resistance training, there are lots of bodyweight exercises you can do, and if you have a park nearby with some bars there are even more options. The same goes for cardio. Head for the outdoors and you have the option of sprints, hill sprints, calisthenics, plyometric training and stair climbs, to name a few.
6. You need to embrace the lifestyle
Working out isn’t something you should look at as an interruption to your day. It should be something you embrace as part of your healthy lifestyle. Until you make working out a part of who you are and your lifestyle, it will pretty much always be low on your list of daily priorities. When that happens, you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll gradually find less and less time to devote to it.
7. There’s always something you can do
There are a multitude of excuses for skipping a workout – not having much time, bad weather, an injury, a social engagement, muscle soreness, and so on. You should get into the habit of focusing on work-arounds to these obstacles, rather than looking for excuses why you can’t work out. If you’re unwell, then you may indeed need to take time off. Anything else you can usually work around. Even an injury. If there’s something you aren’t able to do, focus on what you can do.
8. You have the same rights in the gym as everyone else
Even if they don’t necessarily come out and say it, some gym-goers seem to have an attitude of entitlement, like their workout is more important than yours, just because they’re in good physical shape or have been working out longer. It isn’t. You have the same rights as everyone else in the gym. And you certainly shouldn’t vacate any equipment you’re using for someone until you’re done, especially if they’re rude about it.
9. Most exercisers overdo cardio
Most people who plunge into exercising for the first time with little understanding of fitness tend to gravitate towards low intensity cardio, with the intention of “burning off the fat”. The favored equipment among this crowd therefore is the stationary cycle, the treadmill, and the elliptical trainer. The problem with overdoing this form of cardio however, aside from the fact that it can be mind-numbingly boring, is that your body eventually adapts to it, so that the exercise loses its effectiveness. You then find yourself doing hours of cardio each week, with next to nothing to show for it.
10. Compound movements rule
With regards to resistance training, compound exercises are those that involve more than one joint, for example the squat (hips, knees, ankles) and the bench press (shoulders, elbows). Isolation exercises, on the other hand, only involve one joint, for example the bicep curl (elbows) and the leg extension (knees). While both types have their place, in an exercise program where time is limited or in an all-body workout that’s limited to just one or two exercises per muscle group, focusing on compound movements gives you the most bang for your buck as they recruit more muscle groups and have higher energy demands.
11. Weights don’t make you bulky
This is a myth that’s really only believed by people with little or no knowledge of fitness, yet it’s still quite pervasive. Weight training leads to muscle growth, which usually gives a woman a very firm, shapely and attractive physique. I say “usually” because body fat also has a big influence on the appearance of your physique. With muscle and a low amount of body fat, you will appear slender and firm. As your body fat level increases you take on a stronger appearance. And when it becomes excessive, at that point you will indeed start to look bulky, yet even so, most likely better than you would look without any muscle.
12. Hard work trumps everything
A lot of people spend way too much time and effort searching for the best possible workout program. They’re therefore easy led by persuasive advertising and programs promoted by successful fitness celebrities. While some programs are certainly more effective than others, it’s important to bear in mind that it’s hard work that gives you the bulk of your results. Without hard work and consistency, no program will get you results. With hard work and consistency, even a very basic and mediocre program will get you good results.
13. Training to failure should be programmed
Some people are of the opinion that if you don’t train to failure on every set, you’re not working hard enough. Others believe that training to failure is never a good idea as it will make you too muscular and also risks injury. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Training to failure promotes progression in your training by pushing you past previous limits, which is the whole idea behind exercising. Doing it all the time, however, is not necessarily advisable as it limits the amount of volume that you can cope with in a workout, which is a huge determinant of muscle growth. An appropriate amount of failure should therefore be programmed into your routine, depending on your goals and your level.
14. Muscle soreness is no indicator of workout quality
Muscle soreness is not a good indicator of how well you have worked out. Just because you can’t walk the day following a workout, it doesn’t mean your workout was great. And conversely, just because you feel no soreness at all the next day, it doesn’t mean your workout was wasted. There are many factors that go into the occurrence of muscle soreness, including your level of experience, diet, flexibility, how well you warmed up and/or cooled down, the temperature, and so on. Don’t read too much into it.
15. Weight training is beneficial for fat loss
Some people are of the belief that weight training is purely for building strength and/or muscle size. This is not true. Increasing muscle mass through weight training is actually hugely beneficial for fat loss, and should therefore always be a part of any fat loss program. Unlike body fat, muscle tissue is metabolically very active, meaning it burns up calories simply by existing, even without being used. Even while you sleep, in fact. Weight training therefore helps to increase your body’s resting metabolic rate and transform your body into a fat-burning machine.
16. Intensity is your friend
With regards to both fitness and fat-loss, the general rule for cardio training is, the more intense, the better. Studies have shown that High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is far superior to low-intensity long-duration cardio for burning calories, due to the after-effect it produces whereby your body continues to burn additional calories for up to 36 hours after the workout. This is known as EPOC, or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. It has also been shown to improve your body’s ability to burn fat, and, unlike low-intensity cardio, not to be easily adapted to by your body. Studies have also shown that anaerobic (high intensity) training improves both your anaerobic and aerobic fitness levels, whereas low-intensity cardio only improves aerobic fitness.
17. Form is the most important priority
I already spoke earlier about people using “cheats” in the gym to compensate for training with too much weight. In my opinion, the use of small, safe cheats are acceptable for the last rep or two of a set, to allow you to complete it. Other than that, however, maintaining good form when working out is paramount for an effective workout as it ensures that you focus your training specifically on the targeted muscle group, throughout its entire range of motion. That means you progress faster. Good form also greatly reduces the risk of injury, which is even more important.
18. The mind-muscle connection is very valuable
The mind-muscle connection refers to maintaining your mental focus on the muscle group being trained while performing an exercise. Some people like to take this further and actually visualize the muscle group getting bigger and stronger as well. Whichever way you like to do it, connecting your mind with the trained muscle group helps to isolate and focus on it better, therefore improving the quality of your workouts. Studies have shown that mental focus actually increases the activation and isolation of a muscle during exercise.
19. Glutes are complicated
Your glutes (the muscles in your butt) are the largest muscles in your body, and they’re kinda weird. That’s because for most untrained people, their body tends to “switch them off”, in a sense. It learns to avoid using them as much as possible, instead choosing to rely on surrounding muscles such as the quadriceps and hamstrings in their place. Some people theorize that this happens as an energy-saving measure, because they’re very large. In any case, what it means is that most people have difficulty activating their glutes to fire properly, and therefore end up with weak, underdeveloped glutes. Anyone who’s serious about their physical development (especially women who like to have a good-looking butt), therefore, should incorporate not just glute-building exercises in their workouts, but also glute-training exercises as well, aimed at “teaching” their body to fire the glutes effectively.
20. You need to motivate yourself daily
While most people trying to lose weight and get into shape focus primarily on what workouts to do and what foods to eat, they lose sight of the most important thing. And that is, motivation. Why is motivation so important? Because it determines whether you continue working out long-term or whether you quit. And quitting is the primary reason for people failing to achieve their fitness or weight loss goals. Regular self-motivation is therefore vital to your success. Zig Ziglar summed it up perfectly when he said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”
21. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet
There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard this saying before, and it’s one of those rare sayings in fitness that’s actually true. Many people underestimate the influence of diet on their body condition, and they overestimate the effect of exercise for making improvements. Simply put, forward progress through exercise is far slower than negative progress through poor diet. A medium serving of McDonald’s fries, for example, contains about 370 calories. A 125lb person would need to jog consistently for about 55 minutes to burn that off. A large serving would take about 75 minutes.
22. Growth only occurs through progression
The whole point of exercise is to subject your body to some form of physical activity that it isn’t accustomed to and therefore finds challenging. If you always take your body to the same point intensity-wise each time you work out, then your development basically plateaus at that point and goes no further. Each time you push your body past previous limits, it grows in some way, be it in strength, endurance, muscle size, or whatever. Doing this regularly is referred to as constant progression. And it’s what your body needs to keep developing further and further.
23. Variety is important
Just as regular progression in your workouts is important, so too is regularly varying them in terms of the types of exercises used, grips or stances, number of reps, number of sets, and so on. Variety not only makes your workouts more interesting, it makes them more challenging for your body and helps prevent it from adapting, or getting used to, any movement. It also helps to ensure that all your muscle groups are thoroughly trained and therefore properly developed.
24. A workout partner can be a blessing or a curse
A workout partner that can support, motivate and encourage you and keep you accountable is a great asset. They can make an enormous difference to your level of consistency, and therefore your results. But it works both ways. If you’re unlucky enough to have a partner who’s lazy and unmotivated, then not only will they not always be there for you, but they can very easily also take you down with them. By being exposed to enough of their constant stream of excuses and temptations, their poor attitude will quickly rub off onto you. You don’t need that, so choose carefully!
25. It pays to know your muscle groups
To be able to work out your entire body thoroughly and completely, you need to ensure that you train all your muscle groups. But of course, you can’t do that unless you know what and where they all are. For example, did you know that your deltoids (shoulder muscles) are made up of three separate heads, each of which is targeted through different exercises? Of course, if you have a trainer or are following a good workout program then all this should be taken care of for you. These aren’t always 100% reliable though, so it pays to know about the muscle groups yourself. It will improve your form, your mind-muscle connection, and make you a better exerciser in the long-run.
26. There’s no such thing as toning
I had to add this point here because it drives me crazy. Have you ever noticed how the word “toning” is only ever used in relation to a woman’s workout or physique, but never a man’s? That’s because it’s purely a “feel-good” marketing term. It’s meant to portray a sleek, slender physique, in contrast to a muscular, “manly-looking” physique. The truth is, there’s no such thing as toning. There’s no way to specifically grow long, lean muscles, as opposed to “bulky” muscles. You either grow a little bit of muscle, or you grow more. Or more still. It’s up to you. So, there’s only muscle growth and muscle loss, and fat gain and fat loss. That’s it. Those four factors in combination are what determine what your body ultimately looks like.