So, you’ve gotten the ball rolling and have tried your best to follow my advice, but dangnabit, you’re just not seeing the results you want. Or perhaps you feel like you’re doing something all wrong. Don’t be embarrassed about it! Most beginners, by virtue of being beginners, have trouble with one thing or another. I’ve screwed up in just about every way there is.
One of the main things that beginners need to learn is to trust their instincts. If you feel like something is wrong, and I don’t mean a general “Gee, this squat makes me feel kinda funny barfy-like” sensation, but rather a sudden, “Uh-oh, that ain’t right” insight, then STOP immediately! See the injury page for more on distinguishing between good and bad pain. Luckily, most problems in the gym are not really about injury, but more about not getting optimal results.
The second thing beginners need to understand is the importance of learning from mistakes. It’s not stupid to make a mistake, but it is stupid to make that mistake again and again and again without ever trying to use that mistake as an opportunity to do better next time. I once heard someone say that there is no failure, only feedback. Use your performance as output and evidence that guides you to make better decisions in future.
Finally, beginners benefit from setting short- and long-term goals. If you don’t know what you’re trying to do, how do you know if you’re succeeding or not? You need to be able to monitor your progress on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. I like to work in short cycles of 4-6 weeks. This is a long enough period for me to make noticeable gains, but not so long that I go on doing something mediocre forever without ever clueing in. At the end of each cycle, I look back on what I was doing, and evaluate it. Did I get the results I wanted? If so, what was I doing right? If not, what could I have done better? What changes could I make both for variety and improvement? What did I like and not like about the exercises, split, schedule, etc.? I also check my progress within the cycle itself, noting during workouts how I felt, which exercises didn’t really work very well, and so forth. For example, one day I might have a bad workout because I didn’t eat properly beforehand; I can see that immediately and remember that for next time. Or I might have felt a certain exercise was causing bad pain, so I can amend it for next time or strike it altogether and substitute something else. Your goal is to find a good balance of consistency and change. You want to stick with something long enough to see if it works, but you also want to notice what things can be altered in the short- or long-term.
Now that I’ve given you a nice lecture, have a gander at this handy troubleshooting guide and see if you can find a solution to your problem. If you don’t see anything useful here, drop me a line and I’ll do my best to help.
problem: strength gains slow or stalled
- Diet. This is always the first place you should look. Are you eating enough? Don’t underestimate how much you need. Try eating a bit more for a week or two, particularly concentrating on getting more protein and fat, and see if you notice any improvement.
- Overtraining. Are you weight training heavily more than 4 days a week? Are you trying to do too much in every workout? Weight workouts should be no more than 45-60 minutes, and the intensity should not be maximal every time.
- Routine. Are you using compound movements such as squats and rows? Are you lifting heavily enough to challenge you but not so much that you can’t control it, or end up lying on the floor afterwards? You need a weight range that is neither too heavy nor too light. Are you focused on what you are doing?
- Rest. Are you getting enough sleep? Have you been sick recently? Is there stress in your life, whether mental, emotional, or physical? Your body can only devote so many resources towards strength gains, and if it has to allocate energy to solving various other problems, your workouts will suffer. You can either decide to eliminate or minimize the stress somehow, or if that’s not possible try to give yourself more rest and allow yourself to be mediocre in the gym till the stress has passed.
- Change. Have you varied the intensity of your training in the last 2-3 months? Have you been doing same-old, same-old for ages now? Intensity variation and progressive resistance (adding weight/difficulty over time) are important. Change one or more of these variables in your program: weight, rep tempo, number of reps, number of sets, rest intervals, exercise type, or workout split.
- Timing. How slow is slow? As a beginner you will make gains with every workout. As you progress those gains will diminish, but they should still be occurring every 1-3 workouts, whether those gains are an extra rep or two, an increase in weight, a fuller range of motion, an ability to handle a slower tempo.
problem: fat loss slow or stalled
- You may not actually have a problem. Fat loss is usually no more than 0.5 to 2 lbs weekly. Some weeks you won’t lose anything. The body is just like that. It doesn’t operate using nice mathematical systems. Faster weight loss will often happen if you begin at a higher bodyfat level. The closer you are to your ideal bodyfat level, the slower your fat loss will be. If you are trying to do more than that you will chew through muscle, lose mainly good lean body mass, and put your body into starvation mode (which will come back to bite you on the ass when your appetite hormones kick in to compensate). Understand that the scale is not always the best guide to fat loss. Since muscle is denser than fat, you may register a weight plateau or even a slight gain despite an actual fat loss. For a more accurate gauge of progress, use calipers, measuring tape, and a mirror. Take your measurements once every 1-2 weeks, not daily, and take them in the same way each time (I always do mine first thing in the morning since at the end of the day I’ve added about 2-5 lbs of water weight). Allow also for the temporary water weight fluctuations of your menstrual cycle.
- Diet. Try cutting out all simple sugars and starches such as pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, sugar, pastries, etc. Fill in the gaps in your meals with more lean protein and fruit/veggies. You want to keep your caloric intake at about 9-12 x bodyweight. If you are sure that you have not dropped your calories too low, try eating slightly smaller portions more frequently. Do not try to purge fat from your diet; rather, try to get fat in the form of essential fatty acids like flax seed, hemp, or Udo’s Choice oil (believe it or not, eating these can actually help you drop fat).
- Cardio. If you’re doing regular, low/moderate-intensity cardio, change 2-3 of those sessions per week to interval training.
- Incorporate a regular “refeed” period where you eat 14-16 x bodyweight in calories for 24 to 48 hours. This helps “reset” the hormonal mechanisms that are responsible for preventing what your body perceives as starvation. The leaner you are, the more frequently you’ll need to refeed, but in general, once a week is probably OK for most folks. Usually it works best to pick a day or two on the weekend to do this, since it also fits with many people’s lifestyle.
- Timing. Fat loss generally begins to happen quickly, especially (as I note above) if you begin at a point which is much higher than your ideal bodyfat level, then tapers off the longer you do it. Very overfat folks can lose up to 5 lbs. per week in the beginning with no ill effects, because 5 lbs. represents such a small amount of their overall mass. Later on, as bodyfat levels drop, 5 lbs. becomes a larger piece of the whole. It’s not uncommon to plateau for a couple of weeks too, then see a sudden drop. Have patience.
problem: squats make you want to hurl your cookies/roll into the fetal position/cry for mommy
- Don’t panic. First of all, this is normal.
- Have patience. Squats become relatively easier as you get better at them. Stick to them; they are the grandmammy of all great exercises and have major benefits.
- Sip (don’t chug) a sports drink during your leg workout. This will help keep your blood sugar level at a reasonably constant rate.
- Eat beforehand, or don’t eat beforehand. Some people say that doing squats with anything in their tummy is barf city. I find it the other way around: if I don’t have a small meal within 60-90 minutes of squatting, it’ll be a terrible workout. Figure out what works for you.
- Have a couple of antacids before the workout. This seems to work for some people.
For more ideas, see the Effluvia page.
problem: this exercise hurts in a bad way!
- Always, always, always check your form! It is the first place you should look to determine why an exercise doesn’t feel right.
- If after following my suggestions below, the exercise still hurts, don’t do it. Find a substitute. And if difficulties persist, check with your doctor/physical therapist to see if you have an underlying medical problem. Don’t try to work through serious pain. It will only make things worse.
- Stretch around the joints that are giving you difficulty. Sometimes this can make all the difference.
- Try using a lighter weight for the exercises. Not all exercises are optimal with lower reps.
1. Bench press. If it hurts your shoulders, try switching to dumbbells instead of a bar or machine. Do supplemental shoulder exercises to strengthen the muscles around the joint, and don’t forget to include rotator cuff exercises.
2. Behind the neck presses or pulldowns. Just don’t do them. Pull in front of your head instead.
3. Dips. Try using a narrower set of bars (many gyms have a V-bar instead of bars that are parallel, so that you can use whatever width you like). Don’t go down below a 90-degree elbow bend. Use lighter weights (if you are using weight) or an assisted dip machine to allow you to work in a higher rep range.
1. Triceps extension. This includes lying presses, cable pressdowns, etc. If it hurts your elbows, don’t lock them.
2. Bench press. Same advice: don’t lock elbows.
1. Upright rows. Switch to a wider grip and a lighter weight. Or avoid this exercise.
2. Pullups/Pulldowns. Try a wrist wrap for the time being, and incorporate some grip work into your workout to strengthen wrists. Avoid, if you can, movements that jerk or pull at your wrists suddenly. Try to keep wrists straight as much as possible.
3. Biceps curl. Try using an E-Z curl bar (the zig-zaggy bar) and making sure wrists stay straight.
1. Leg extensions. These are a double-edged sword. They can be a good exercise for healing knee problems, and for causing knee problems. They can help build the vastus medialis, which if it is weak is a prime cause of knee problems like patellarfemoral syndrome, chondromalacia, etc. To use them remedially, only use light weight and only work in the top 1/3 of the rep (from about 120 degree bend in knee to straight). If you are prone to knee problems, never begin a leg extension with leg bent more than 90 degrees, and use lighter weight.
2. Squats. As I said above, and on my injury page, problems here are usually a result of strength imbalances. Try varying your stance, including the degree of toe turnout, and building up the vastus medialis. Also check to see that your knees are not drifting out over your toes. If squatting deeply really hurts, then don’t do it. Front squats and/or stepups are usually good alternatives.
1. Squats. Lift with your legs, not with your back. Use lighter weight, and try to keep your back as upright as you can with a natural arch (women often have to lean forward a bit more). Do not round your upper back as you come up.
2. Deadlifts. Same advice. The drive comes from your legs, hips, and glutes. Back should be as straight (not necessarily upright) as possible with a natural arch in the lower back. At the top of the rep, squeeze your hips and glutes in a sort of pelvic tilt to drive the hips forward. As the hips come forward, the back straightens on its own. Use lighter weight till you get used to this sensation. When the weight is too heavy people are tempted to haul with their back too much. Think of your arms are just hooks from which to hang the weight. They should do nothing but keep the weight from falling out of your grip.
3. Weak lower back. Try adding in some extra lower back work and cutting back on squats and deadlifts for a little while until your weak link catches up. Don’t use good mornings if you are prone to problems; instead use slow, controlled back hyperextensions. Also make sure abs are strong. A strong abdominal and lower back column is your preventive measure against injury.
4. Lifestyle factors. Do you sit slouching at work? Do you work out immediately after getting up in the morning, when the tissues of the back are more sluggish in their response and prone to injury? Do you perform household lifting tasks with poor form, including rounding the upper and/or lower back? Examine risk factors outside the gym.
problem: boredom, lack of motivation
- Check out my page on getting motivated as well as on setting goals and try some of the tips there.
- Are you overtrained? See above.
- Plan ahead. If you just go into the gym and wander around waiting for inspiration to strike you’re going to have a difficult time maintaining a consistent effort. Make a detailed plan of attack and stick to it. Get into the gym, train hard, then get out. Eliminate distractions and workout destroyers. Pack your gym stuff well in advance of hitting the gym so you can’t use the “oh-well-I-forgot-my-gym-stuff” excuse. Keep some extra stuff in the trunk of your car, or your locker, or under your desk at work, if you can.
- Are you having fun with your workouts? If each trip to the gym is pure unadulterated torture and ennui, then you’ll have to rethink your plans. Find an activity that you enjoy to supplement your weight workouts and to give those workouts some meaning. If you like cycling, for example, remember that squats will help you when you hit those hills.
- Get involved in learning a new and challenging skill, sport, or activity, such as Olympic lifting or kick boxing. Try a new exercise. Experiment with different kinds of workouts. Novelty is the enemy of boredom.
- Get a workout partner. Sometimes just having to be somewhere to meet someone can get you going. A good partner can motivate as well as entertain you between sets and make the gym a positive experience. It can be lonely being one of the few, or even the only woman at your gym who trains seriously with weights. Find a supportive community wherever possible.
- Some people absolutely swear by their iPod or mp3 player. Having music that makes you want to tear up the gym with your teeth is always a plus. I think any alternative to the cheese they play in most gyms is an improvement.
problem: bad workout
- Don’t get discouraged – get angry! Transform frustration into creative energy. Finish the workout as best you can. Sometimes workouts that start badly manage to end on a good note.
- Figure out why you had a bad workout. Are you under stress, did you eat enough, did you get enough sleep the night before, etc.? Then take steps to eliminate these factors next time. And there WILL be a next time… bad workouts are like falling off a horse: you just have to get back on again.
- Bad workouts happen to the best of us. Sometimes the mojo just isn’t working. If this happens once in a while, get through it as best you can, then try to avoid it next time. If it happens often, look at possible overtraining.
problem: fear and self-doubt
- This is the biggest, most evil bugbear in the gym. We doubt our capacities and skill, particularly if we consider ourselves nonathletes. The gym is full of large scary guys who seem to know what they are doing, and who we fear will laugh openly at us if we screw up. Remember that you have a right to be in the gym, and claim your space.
- If you can afford it, get a trainer to show you the ropes. Familiarize yourself with the equipment, including the squat rack/cage and deadlift platform. Keep your eyes open and observe what others are doing, but don’t be deceived–the majority of people in the gym aren’t doing things quite right, and many are screwing up substantially. Hit the bookstore or local library and get out every book on strength training you can find. I particularly recommend anything by Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield, Stuart McRobert, and Bill Pearl (Dr. Squat and Bill Pearl also have great websites). Look at ExRx too; they have an excellent section for beginners.
- Try hitting the gym when there are few people there. For my first attempt at squatting, I went to the gym early in the morning when it was nearly empty. This made me feel less shy about possibly messing up and I was able to concentrate on attempting the exercise.
- Celebrate each small success. Did you add 5 lbs. to your bench press? Did you lose 0.5% bodyfat? Did you try something new? Each workout affords the opportunity to celebrate achievements. You are only competing against yourself, so don’t get down about how much you’re not doing. Get excited about how much you can do already, and by how much you’re going to do in future.
Once you’ve done your homework, trust yourself. Allow yourself to make screwups, but know that you’ve done some research and know what you’re doing. Knowledge is power, after all.