Beginner’s Burnout: Why More is not More

I love the motivation I’m seeing in people this month!  I have observed, in more than one gym, a relatively large number of newcomers still on the fitness wagon.  Awesome!  But, I’ve also noticed a trend that is going to lead to injury, unwanted time off, frustration over goals not met, or maybe even all three at once.  Somewhere in the fitness motivation memes, photos, and rhetoric, a message of “more is more” has made its way to gym newcomers—and it’s hard to watch!


This is “the guy” we are referring to when we say, “don’t be that guy.”

Newly motivated people often say things like, “Man!  I came in this morning, and I’m here again, and then I’m gonna train AGAIN TONIGHT!  High five!”  Hmmm.  I’m not going to give a nod of approval to this—I’m going to ask you what the hell your plan is, and why you think this is a good idea!  At this rate, it won’t take long to burn out, have to take a week or two off, and have trouble getting started again.  Doing a lot in one week is good, but to still be doing it in two months is way better—so pace yourself!  Set a goal, have a plan that is conducive to reaching that goal, and don’t do more or less than what’s on the plan.

My workouts would look very odd to a newcomer.  If I’m in bodybuilding mode, my training is usually done in 45 minutes.  If I am in power lifting mode, I could look even sillier—at 5 minutes between sets (at LEAST—my training partners are pushing me to rest longer!), and often only 1-3 reps in a set, I probably look like I’m just sitting around all the time!   Depending on my goal, sometimes I train twice a day, with my second workout being an intense conditioning session that I can complete within 30 minutes!  But all of my workouts have something in common: when I’m done, I’m done.  With some intuitive exceptions, if my set calls for three reps, I do three reps even if I could have done five.  If my workout calls for five exercises, I do those five.  If my plan is to do 20 minutes of HIIT, then after 20 minutes I stop.  The type of training I’m doing depends on my goal, and the structure of my training follows accordingly.  If I stray from the plan today, I risk screwing over tomorrow’s plan.

Fitness beginners often believe that all training is for the same purpose, and that “go hard or go home” means 2 hours at the gym is better than a 1-hour quality workout.  This is evident in the way that most people describe their goals.  People usually list all or several of the following: lose weight, gain some muscle, tone up, get shredded, have abs, get bigger biceps.  Back up: do you want to lose weight, or get bigger biceps? Do you want to have abs, or put on more muscle? Appearing to have bigger muscles and actually having bigger muscles are not the same thing.  And, one month of “working out” isn’t going to be a cure-all approach to reaching every goal under the sun.

When I meet a new client, I have a responsibility to not just put them on a cookie-cutter workout plan.  I spend a lot of time up front on trying to define realistic goals, get us on the same page with terminology, and discuss exactly how we want to approach and prioritize the goals.  I map out a long-term plan, and break it up into short-term plans of execution and really make sure the client understands why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how each part will contribute to the goal.

But what if you don’t have a personal trainer?  Not everyone needs one, but you still deserve better than a cookie cutter plan.  You deserve more than to keep performing aimless workouts and wondering why you aren’t getting anywhere.  You should understand what the machines do—and don’t do.  You should understand that biceps curls aren’t going to directly contribute to fat loss, and that crunches won’t really change the appearance of your midsection.  And you should know that more work is not necessarily going to equal more progress.  Too many people go to the gym, perform every exercise they found in some magazine (7 variations of the biceps curl…good job…), go home totally spent, and then wake up and do the exact same thing the next day.  You can only do that so many times before you get bored, get hurt, over-train, or give up.  And everyone does, eventually.  I’ve done it myself.  I call it Beginner’s Burnout.

So what can you do to avoid Beginner’s Burnout?

  • Work smarter, not harder.  THINK, plan, execute.  Know what step 2 will be before you start step 1.  Don’t kill yourself on Monday and then remember than you have basketball practice on Tuesday.  Build your plan to accommodate both.
  • REST!  Unless you are a competitive athlete (and maybe even then…),  back-to-back workouts, or training 12 times in one week, , will not help you.  Especially if you’re not doing the next step…
  • Eat for recovery!!  You break your body down in the gym, you build it back up with nutrition.  It’s that simple.  If you have two workouts back-to-back, both workouts are going to suffer if you don’t fuel your body to recover and perform again.  If you break your body down repeatedly, but never recover and repair, then you just end up with a broken down body.   (Example: skinny arms and legs, belly fat, generally “untoned” all over…).
  • Utilize your resources!  Find a good online resource and do some research!  Or, solicit the help of a trainer.  A personal trainer doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment.  Most of us are happy to consult with you for one or two sessions.  Those of us who do this job because we want to help people will be happy to see you succeed with or without us!  Identify a trainer who specializes in what it is you want to do—and if you don’t know, we will point you in the right direction.

Good luck reaching your goals!  It’s already February, so if you’re one of the New Year’s crowd and you’ve made it this far, you’re in the clear!  If you stop seeing progress, don’t give up–get your eyes on the prize and start focusing your workouts!




…And the Only Prescription is More Barbell

In a previous post, I suggested that barbell training is absolutely foundational to a good lifting program.  Many people have told me that they are trying to “work up to” barbell training, or that they want to “start out with” other exercises.  Now, don’t get me wrong—there are important uses for dumbbell training, cable exercises, and even stability ball exercises.  But knowing how to use them correctly is absolutely critical to avoid injury and achieve results—and barbell training is the absolute best way to learn the proper form that is necessary in order to correctly perform all other exercises.  Additionally, many beginners who start with barbells and cables are not training  effectively for any significant muscle gain–so basically they are doing cardio.  This post will explain why weight training–specifically compound exercises with barbells–is an effective way to reach fitness goals.

As I pointed out in my last post, many resistance exercises require a basic posture: shoulders back, chest out, hips slightly back (<—otherwise known as a nice arch in the lower back), and feet shoulder width apart.  You also need to know how to properly recruit your lats and delts, how to recognize and avoid overcompensating with your traps, and have at least enough core strength to stabilize yourself against resistance.  Barbell training accomplishes all of these things more efficiently than any other kind of training.

A solid lifting program should include some variation of the following compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and standing barbell rows.   Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups and more than one joint, allowing for more muscle breakdown and subsequent repair (translation: growth!).  While using dumbbells for these exercises has benefits and there is a place in every program for them, I strongly recommend that beginners first learn these exercises with barbells.  For starters, they streamline coordination—they require that your feet remain flat on the floor, and your hands are both doing the same thing at the same time! They also simplify the exercises by keeping everything symmetrical and eliminating extra movements: you move it one way, and then you bring it back.

In my best Arnold voice: “I lift things up, and I put them down.” 

Barbell training is also a means to just about every end—no matter your goal, barbell training can get you there.  For instance, if your goal is to get “toned,” lose weight, and feel more confident, then let me translate that for you: you want to get stronger, lose bodyfat, and tighten up all over by building a little more muscle.  You want to walk in a gym and feel like you belong, and you don’t want to feel weak and awkward.  Maybe you want to change a specific area of your body.

I recently posted the following quote as my Facebook status:
“Squatting—the difference between having a butt and owning an ass!”

One of the very first comments I received was something like, “ok, now tell me how to tighten my tummy and thighs!”  Great news: in a roundabout way, squatting can make those things happen too.  Remember: you can’t spot-treat a specific area of your body, so to “tone the belly” and see changes in the thighs, it is necessary to lose body fat and train the muscles.  So let’s talk about how barbell training is an effective way to achieve just about any fitness goal.

Let’s start with fat loss.  This is not the post where I talk about the importance of diet, nor the post where I weigh the benefits and drawbacks of HIIT vs fasted cardio.  This is more basic than that: to lose fat, you have to burn more calories than you store.  While diet is a key player, guess what your diet will be based on?  Your basal metabolic rate. That is, how many calories your body burns while you sit at your computer and write a blog post.  And your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is influenced by the amount of lean mass you have.  My BMR was much lower five years ago than it is right now, because I have spent these years increasing my lean mass (muscle).

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “muscle burns fat”?  Well, it’s not quite as simple as that but it gets the point across.  Your body requires more energy (read: kcals) to maintain lean mass (muscles) than fat.  So a body that weight 150lbs at 18% bodyfat will naturally burn more calories while doing absolutely nothing than a body at 150lbs and 30% bodyfat.  A lot more.

When I create a nutrition plan, I first estimate to the best of my ability the BMR so that I can then create a deficit—that is, how many fewer calories need to be consumed than burned.  If your BMR is 2000, then to lose one pound each week on diet alone, your diet would consist of 1500 calories a day.  1500 calories is not a lot of calories, especially for someone who wants to lead a normal life that doesn’t focus on fat loss 24 hours a day.  My calories don’t drop that low until I’m half way through my contest prep diet (and at that point my life IS focused on fat loss 24 hours a day).  So when I work with someone whose BMR is in the 2000 calorie range, I don’t like to suggest creating the deficit from food alone.  You can decrease your calories, increase your activity, and…wait for it…increase your BMR by increasing your lean mass!

Have I convinced you to grow your muscles yet?  Now you’re in my world, speaking my language, and you didn’t even know it!  You might have thought you just wanted to lose a little belly fat and now here we are talking about how we’re going to put muscle on you.  Ha.  Now, let’s go down that road.  Curls and front raises with ten pound dumbbells are not going to get you there.  How often do you see someone with HUGE arms, but no back muscles and tiny legs?  If you have, you were looking at a bad combination of chemical enhancement and crappy training—and those guys get laughed at DAILY.  The truth is, the people with the most muscle have that much muscle because they know how to get it: they are squatting, pressing, rowing, and deadlifting. These four exercises work just about everything.

Wait wait wait!  Don’t get scared and run away—I’m not suggesting that you need THAT much muscle, nor am I suggesting that it’s possible to get that big by training alone.  I’m just pointing out that the people with big muscles are clearly on to something and we can learn from them.  Long story short:  You need more barbell in your life if you want to gain muscle.  You need more muscle in your life if you want any significant change in your body composition.  So now what’s holding you back?

12 Life Lessons I Learned in the Gym

Everywhere I look, I see people in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.  People of all ages, from every walk of life, are searching for something that I’m not even sure they can name or define.  After all if, when I ask them, as I often do, to define health or describe the healthier lifestyle they’re looking for, they often can’t.  Perhaps they assume they’ll know it when they see it.  So what is it they are really looking for?  Some will say they want to lose weight.  Others point to a body part they want to improve in some way.  But more often than not, they just want improvement.  Any improvement.

Sometimes, people conceptualize this improvement as a better, different version of themselves.  They think of the improved Self as though it were disconnected from the current Self—as though the goal were to become an entirely new person.  And I wonder if this isn’t why, when someone wants to improve, the first place he or she looks is to bodily improvement.

I have studied body theory extensively—Foucault, Butler, and Bordo are a few of the theorists who have shaped my own understanding of how we think about our bodies.  A big part of my interest is in understanding the relationship between the body and the mind. Why do we equate improvement of the body with improvement of the inner Self?   This question had me stumped for quite some time, and had a lot to do with my choice to stop competing and training clients.  I tend to think of my internal Self as totally separate from my physical Self—so I generally do not associate the changes I make to my body with improvements to my inner Self.  I stopped training people for this reason.  They would come to me for help, asking for “discipline,” “transformation,” “happiness,” and “health,” treating it as though changing their bodies would change their lives.   They came to me because they wanted to become someone different.  This drove me absolutely crazy!

However, after having been asked the same questions over and over, I have begun to learn from them.  For instance, people ask me how I wake up and go do cardio at 5 a.m., or how I follow a strict diet plan, or how I push myself through training when I’m tired.  I have begun to realize that the qualities they find admirable are less about my ability to build my biceps and more about inner qualities that can be applied outside of the gym.

Perhaps my physical Self, my body, is indeed reflective of—or at least tied to—my inner Self.  My “Real Self,” as I call it.    What a concept!  I have spent all of this time arguing against the idea, striving to be recognized as a person with a deeply spiritual side and a strong intellectual side, desperate to separate myself from my body.  I wanted so badly to believe that the gym is just what I do and not who I am.  But is it so bad to accept that there is a connection?

So, while I apologize for the extended break between posts, I have to admit that it has taken me two weeks to identify the following list.  I can apply this list to school, career, relationships, parenting, or anything else life throws at me.

12 Lessons that Training Has Taught Me About Life.

  1. If I can push myself through the first two weeks, I can reach a long term goal.  Discipline is temporary—after that, it gives way to habit and then it becomes easy.
  2. The ten seconds it takes to push out those two reps I don’t want to finish will feel like failure if I give up.  Ten seconds of work, or the lasting feeling of failure…hmmm, tough call.
  3. There is a rhythm to my moods and my motivation.  It’s ok if I don’t “feel like it” every minute of the day.  This doesn’t mean I’m a failure, it means I’m human.  Go through the motions until the motivation comes back.   And I NEVER make any decisions while I’m in a bad mood.
  4. I’m not immune to the Voice of Failure (a good friend of mine refers to this voice as the “bitch fairy”).  Instead of fighting it, I have gotten used to it.  The trick is to KEEP MOVING.  I can think of a million reasons not to go to the gym at 5 a.m., and sometimes I make the list as I’m getting dressed and driving over!  It keeps me occupied when I’m tired.  And I can laugh about it later.
  5. I don’t judge myself in terms of success or failure.  If I miss a personal record, oh well.  I let it go.  Holding on to that as a failure only takes away from the next one.  But I let go of my successes just as quickly—focusing on today’s win takes away from tomorrow’s goal.  I can’t operate on forward momentum or every bad day will hold me back.
  6. I take myself seriously enough to put forth a serious effort, but not so seriously that I go into tunnel-vision mode.  A cookie is still just a cookie.  Which brings me to the next point:
  7. There is a time for everything.  It’s ok to have a bad day, to eat an entire sleeve of oreos, to not train, to get pissed off, to cry, to feel negative.  But the key is to remember that it’s a part of a cycle, and it will get better tomorrow.
  8. I don’t see myself as being on a journey to become a new person.  When this journey is over, I want to be this person, with improvements.
  9. I don’t see myself as being at the bottom striving for the top.  It’s ok to move laterally, to make small improvements and to be content with how things are.  In terms of fitness, this could mean getting used to my off-season weight and feeling good in that package.  If we are constantly fighting an uphill battle, when will we ever rest?
  10. As I tell clients in contest prep, “trust the system.”  I understand that there is a process, and I trust that process.  I will get what I put in.  12 weeks out of a show, I want to see the finished product NOW.  But as many people in the fitness industry say, “the legs and glutes always come in last.”  Well, certainly this translates to other aspects of life, right?  I can’t have everything right now.  If I had skipped the work, I would have a degree and no knowledge.
  11. I do not compare myself to others, and I do not motivate myself with negativity.  I do not look in the mirror and tell myself that I need to get my fat ass in the gym.  How is that constructive?  But I also don’t look to images of other fit women as motivation either, because that is a dangerous road that often doesn’t end well.  My best package is unlike anyone else’s.
  12. I can’t have my “best package” all the time.  I have to accept that my best takes on different forms.  Competition has taught me that it takes hard work to reach that particular best—work that is so hard, it can’t be sustained all year long.  So there have to be other goals throughout the year.  There is a time to strive for single digit bodyfat, and there is a time to simply feel good and let my body recover.  I have to embrace both times equally.