As a trainer, not a day goes by where I don't speak to people frustrated with their exercise routines. They'll invariably tell me they've been training for years without seeing noticeable improvement in their body. Or they'll say they did okay at the beginning but suddenly hit a training plateau.
Sounds familiar, Homer? So what derails a person's ability to get into shape?
After nearly two decades as a trainer, I've isolated five workout mistakes as the primary culprits.
If you're not happy with your results and perhaps are thinking of throwing in the towel, take a pause and see if any of the following mistakes apply to your situation. Remember, you can do a lot of things right, but it takes doing only one thing wrong to impair your progress.
Mistake #1: Performing cardio over weight training!
People tend to gravitate toward cardiovascular exercises like aerobics. They often avoid weight training because they think they shouldn't add muscle until getting down to their ideal body weight or, in the case of many women, believe it will make them too bulky.
Reality check: Aerobics do almost nothing to improve muscle tone. Only by lifting weights will you actually firm up your muscles and get that hard body you desire.
What's more, strength training is actually the best activity not only for losing weight, but also for maintaining your ideal body weight over time. Sure, cardio will burn more calories during the activity itself, but lifting weights does something cardio can't: it improves your body's ability to burn fat round the clock.
Understand that muscle is the most metabolically active tissue in the body. Add 5 pounds of lean muscle - which any person can do within several months - and you'll burn as much as an extra 1,500 calories a week... even while channel-surfing for your favorite TV show!
Mistake #2: Using weights that are too light!
This mistake is largely addressed at women. While men tend to lift for ego and go ultra-heavy, all-too-often women go in the opposite direction. Walk into any gym and you'll see a woman lifting a 2-pound weight while reading a magazine or talking on her cell phone. Sadly, she doesn't realize this is just exercising in futility.
Fact is, in order to tone up you need to challenge your muscles beyond their present capacity. This is exercise 101, the general adaptation syndrome.
Take home message: Make sure the last few reps are difficult to complete. If you're not struggling at the end of your set, the weight is too light! And trust me ladies, you won't end up looking like a she-male by pushing your body a little. It's simply not going to happen.
Mistake #3: Not having a game plan!
Training is all about strategy. Too many times, I see people walk into a gym not knowing what they want to do that day, so they end up doing a little of this and a little of that, but really not getting a whole lot out of their efforts.
It's like trying to writing a novel without having a plot in mind - you end up with an aimless journey that ultimately goes nowhere.
The important thing is to decide what you want to do before you start your workout, and then follow through on that game plan each time you train. Map out the muscles you want to work and the exercises that you intend to perform.
Better yet, write down your routine in an exercise log and take it with you to the gym. Guaranteed it will keep you more focused throughout your session.
Mistake #4: Training too frequently!
Here's something a lot of people don't realize - when you lift weights, you're not developing your muscles, you're breaking them down. That's right, each time you workout, tiny microtears form in your muscles as a result of the training process.
Once you finish lifting, your body needs rest to recuperate. This is when development takes place. Your body anticipates you're going to shock it at some point by lifting those obscene weights and reacts by getting stronger and harder.
It should therefore be apparent that training places a major stress on the body. Not only does it tax the muscles themselves but it also taxes your entire neuromuscular system while you're training. If you train too much, you'll short-circuit the recuperation process and can actually become overtrained where results come to a complete halt.
To avoid this malady, allow 48 hours rest in between weight-training sessions. This is the approximate time course of protein synthesis - the mechanism by which your muscles are repaired. Also limit intense cardiovascular activity (such as running or interval training) to no more than five days a week with two full days off.
Mistake #5: Expecting to see immediate results!
Unfortunately, exercise isn't an instant gratification process. Results happen over time. If you expect to see change in a few days or a week or two, you're setting yourself up for frustration and destined to end up demotivated.
What can you reasonably expect? If you exercise properly, you'll begin to see changes in the body in about four weeks. After about 8 to 12 weeks you'll see fairly significant changes. Keep it up for four to six months and you'll really start turning heads.
The key is to maintain perspective and follow through over time. You will see results if you have the right routine and remain dedicated.
Brad Schoenfeld, CSCS is one of America's leading fitness experts and the author of six books, including Sculpting Her Body Perfect, 28-Day Body Shapeover and the bestseller Look Great Naked. Schoenfeld is certified as a strength and conditioning specialist by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and as a personal trainer by both the American Council on Exercise and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. Check out his website at http://www.lookgreatnaked.com