“I had to spend countless hours, above and beyond the basic time, to try and perfect the fundamentals.” ~Julius Erving (Dr. J), basketball legend
Have you started a new fitness program or joined a gym with the exuberant expectation of a young child, joyously gushing to friends and family that this time you will finally get in shape, only to be sidelined by a nagging injury that dashes your enthusiastic optimism and leaves you feeling worse than when you started?
Or perhaps you researched several different gyms in your area and decided, after reading many online reviews and taking input from Facebook friends, that you would join Gym XYZ because of the many different available classes or hours of operation that fit both your schedule and your budget? However, after only a few weeks, you find yourself feeling lethargic and sore with aching joints and knees and little desire to continue your membership that has you locked in for the next twelve months?
Or maybe you’ve been a gym goer for a long time but continue to feel underwhelmed by your results and frustrated with your lack of energy?
Before you assume that feeling worse from your exercise routine is normal and something to be tolerated, let me share some common reasons why you might be feeling worse instead of better, and offer some alternatives that may revolutionize your experience while keeping your excitement and dedication toward better fitness.
Reason #1: Your form is bad. There, I’ve said it. Yes – it might not be your gym or your class that is the problem; the problem might be that you haven’t spent enough time nailing down the fundamentals. Fitness is a lifelong practice and those exercises that look so simple are actually quite complex. If you are fairly new to exercise or even if you are someone who has worked out for years, being proficient with the basics is the minimum requirement for a successful exercise program. You cannot cut corners on learning the basics. Injuries will eventually ensue if you do not spend the necessary time and effort required to solidify your form.
What to Do Instead: Learn the basics! Take some private lessons from a certified trainer who will actually spend time teaching you the basics and not simply put you through a “workout.” If you have a trainer who doesn’t take the time to modify the movements in such a way that you can successfully do them, get another trainer! Also, if you’re attending a cardio class of some sort, ask the instructor to give you a few private lessons. You’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel after learning proper form.
If you are thinking that you can’t afford private lessons or you know enough to get by without lessons, ask yourself how much it will cost to either get injured or fail in your attempt to become better physically conditioned? Imagine where you might be in ten, twenty or thirty years if you continue to disregard your own health. Fitness isn’t a fad; it’s a choice and a lifestyle that will ultimately give you a better quality of life, especially as you age. If you really want to be successful, proper instruction is the first step.
Reason #2: You’re doing too much too soon.
Think of fitness as a pyramid. Basics lie on the bottom or base (basics) of the pyramid and take up the widest/largest portion. In the middle is strength and at the top is power. Included in the basics portion of your fitness routine is learning proper form, increasing your cardiovascular endurance, gaining better coordination and increasing range of motion for all your joints.
Only after you address Reason #1 will you be able to do more (strength or power) and move on up the fitness pyramid. Many group fitness classes ignore both Reason #1 and #2, doing far too many repetitions in an hour-long class. While ten repetitions might be good, that does not imply that twenty will be better. Doing too many reps will eventually lead to poor form (Reason #1), even if your form is good. Your muscles have a limited output and far too often fitness classes push beyond the limit in order to “feel the burn.”
As well, studies have shown that ligament and tendon strength lag behind muscle strength, so as your muscles get stronger, you can potentially injure your connective tissue by repeatedly asking for more output. (https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2010/02000/Time_Course_of_Changes_in_Muscle_and_Tendon.5.aspx)
What to Do Instead: Lighten or get rid of the weight and cut back on the number of sets and/or reps. If you’re already working with a trainer, communicate and let him/her know that it’s too much. Don’t push yourself beyond a healthy limit because of pressure or pride. Remember, you’re paying them to help you and they should listen to and respect your limits.
If you’re attending a gym or classes, take breaks. There are no rules that say you have to keep up with the instructor or any of the other participants. The teacher won’t kick you out for respecting your body and yourself enough to know your limits. You might even find that you help other struggling participants to take much needed rests as well.
Reason #3: You’re going too fast. Fitness classes and trainers tend to repeat the same mistake of pushing participants to go faster. If you increase your pace before you have built your foundation of good form (Reason #1), you’re setting yourself up for injury. Not only are your muscles, ligaments and tendons getting stronger and trying to adapt to your new routine, your central nervous system (CNS) is learning as well.
Did you ever try to juggle as a child? Perhaps you were able to throw one ball up and catch it and then throw another ball up. After several practices you might be able to throw one ball up and throw another ball up before catching the first one. Remember how overwhelming it was to catch and throw three balls simultaneously? (If you never tried or can’t remember – grab a couple of tennis balls now and see for yourself.)
Just like learning to juggle, your CNS is overwhelmed with all of the new movements you’re learning and if you’re actually working on better form, you’re also asking your CNS to overwrite movement patterns that you’ve had for a long time. To say the least, your CNS is very busy just learning and if you ask it to go faster, your form will fall apart just like dropping all of the balls while trying to juggle. It’s truly a recipe for injury!
What to Do Instead: S-L-O-W down. Simple, right? Except it’s pretty hard to slow down when you’re being pushed or challenged. At this point in your fitness journey, you have to make a decision to either respect your limits and your body or let others determine your limits for you. Playing the edge of your ability and your speed is a privilege you earn from consistent, focused practice. Your body, if you’re listening to it, will let you know when you’re ready to put in some extra hard effort or speed. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can go faster and/or harder every workout. You and your body are a team. Put your expectations on the back burner for a bit and let your body be your guide; you’ll enjoy greater, injury-free gains than if you indiscriminately push for more speed.
While no fitness program is perfect, you can limit your injury risks by learning better form, doing less weight and/or repetitions, and keeping a steady, maintainable speed. You may just find your lost motivation and excitement for fitness again.
Above all, appreciate and respect your amazing body; it’s the greatest teammate you’ll ever have!