There are a ton of misplaced training concepts that I wish some people would just let go of. It's not that these ideas are necessarily wrong or bad, they're just not the most useful things to focus on, especially when getting started.
And this list isn't exclusively for people newer to the training game. I also lose sight of some of these concepts from time to time, and have to refocus my thoughts to the things that really matter.
Here are a few of the most common missteps I see people making when getting started on a new path of fitness and health.
Focusing too much on programming details
Starting something new can be exciting, and you definitely don't want to screw it up! Which is why I can understand why people get a little too carried away with dissecting the details of their program.
But don't get caught up in the minutia too early in the game. It's great that you want to learn. But you need to realize where you are in the journey. As someone who's still trying to make exercise stick as a habit, you don't need to be concerned with such tiny details.
I don't want to stomp out curiosity, and I'm happy to discuss these types of issues. But when I get these types of questions, I can tell that the person asking them is looking for concrete, definitive answers. And those are rare things with training. For example:
"How many times per week should I work out?" The least amount you can stick with.
"If I lifted weights today, can I lift tomorrow?" Sure.
"How long should I be resting between sets?" Until you feel ready.
"Should I be doing higher reps or lower reps?" Try both.
Do you really think doing three sets instead of four is going to make that much of a difference over the course of a year?
Again, it's great that you want to learn, but the correct answer to these questions all depend on specific training goals. In my experience, very, very few non-athletes actually have specific fitness or performance goals they want to hit.
Once you tell me you want to deadlift 400 pounds or complete a half-marathon in a certain time and you're out of the woods in terms of being a total beginner, then we can get a little more focused on the nuances of program design.
In the beginning, the focus should be on achieving consistency through simplicity, rather than pursuing the perfect program.
Difficulty and misery are requirements
This I understand. Any new activity or pursuit can be intimidating. For someone who's out of shape or is new to working out, it can be downright scary walking into a gym with clanking weights and loud music.
But the correct dose of exercise and the difficulty of that exercise should be that which forces you just slightly out of your comfort zone.
The idea that training has to be a painful, exhausting, miserable existence is just wrong, and it holds many people back from ever getting started.
A little discomfort is needed at times, but it shouldn't define the experience.
The illusion of finishing
This is a big one. I've noticed that a lot of people have this idea that training will either one day be done (once they've hit their goals), or it will one day just be easy. As if they'll reach some point where the confetti comes down and someone will be there to inform you that you've done it, you're here, welcome.
While it does become less of a struggle over time, I think the real epiphany comes when you realize that the struggle will always there in some form.
We don't live in a society that requires much movement, so choosing to exercise will always take a bit of effort and struggle. I happen to think that's a good thing, but it can take a while to see that.
A la carte thinking
"I think I'd like to lose about 15 pounds, really shave some flab off of my arms, and do a chin-up."
Great, that'll be $149.95. And when did you want that by?
I love that people have goals or have put some thought into what they want. But rarely have I seen this type of thinking lead to success. Again, goals are great. But people need to be a little more flexible in terms of how and when their body is going to respond to training. We don't get to select what we want like we're ordering from a menu.
Where this attitude really lets people down is when they don't see their goals being met exactly how they envisioned them. Maybe it's taking a lot longer than they thought, or perhaps it's not as simple as they had hoped. Or maybe they've shifted their goals to something different (this happens a lot), which lands them in this Never-never Land of continuous goal setting, but no goal reaching.
Have a goal. But then focus your attention on the behaviors that will allow you to accomplish it.
Exercise can replace nutrition
The idea that there's this bank of calories in our body that we're either filling up with food, or using up when we exercise is just false. Metabolism is a little more complicated than that.
Thinking that you can burn off that late night pizza binge with a few extra laps not only just doesn't add up from a metabolic standpoint (you'd probably have to run for 3-4 hours to get the calorie burn equivalent to 4 slices of pizza), it opens the door for future binges and diet slips.
The old adage "you can't out-train a poor diet is", unfortunately, true.
In fact when it comes to fat loss or muscle gain, I think people tend to over-value exercise and under-value nutrition. It should be the other way around.
I have to find ways to stay motivated
In The myth of motivation, I talked about the popular misconception that everyone who trains frequently is always motivated to work out.
It's just not true.
Motivation is fleeting and rare. As I write this, I've got an hour-long run planned for later on this morning, and I have zero desire to get up and go. None.
But I'm still going to do it, because it's an appointment. And unless something truly urgent comes up, I can't miss it.
Instead, find your "why." Do the uncomfortable soul searching to understand what's behind your sudden compulsion to work out. If that reason is rooted in something deeply personal and real, that will always be there when your motivation isn't.
Lack of patience
I get it. You want it all to happen so, so badly. You're eight weeks in and despite all of your hard work, you're still not happy with how you look or how strong you are. I understand. I've been there many, many times.
But this is a long game, so settle in and start thinking in terms of 4-6 month intervals rather than 4-6 week programs. It's great that you trained three times last week, but have you done at least 75 workouts in the last six-months?
I honestly believe most people overestimate how difficult body transformations or improvements in athletic performance can be, and underestimate how long it will take to get there.
Measure, track, analyze, adjust...do all of that stuff. But also remember to relax and think of the bigger picture. Any kind of radical change with your body will take years, not weeks or months.
This is why the programming minutia isn't as important is most people make it out to be. What's important is consistency above all else.