“I’m in the gym five days a week, two hours a day,” she says.
“I’m doing 8 super sets for each body type. Five on two off,” he says.
“Why aren’t I making any gains?” they both ask.
My two friends are both very active, very experienced athletes. They put in enormous efforts and I am in awe of their dedication as well as their determination. But their concerns are ones I hear on a too regular basis. Especially with folks just getting started on their journey to a healthy, active lifestyle.
If you are putting in three (or more) hours at the gym and have no results to show for it, here are the Top Three Reasons Why Your Efforts In The Gym Aren’t Working:
- You’re not doing it right – Unfortunately the scourge of $10/month gyms filled with hundreds of machines has steered people into using machines, instead of becoming the machine.
When we’re not in the gym, we do not have a rigid iron frame to support the weights we’re trying to move through space. And yet we think getting on a seated chest-press machine that perfectly balances and stabilizes the weight is the same as moving that same weight through space without any mechanical support. It’s not. Pick up free weights. Use good food. Be concerned about doing 1 perfect movement instead of 10 crappy ones. It will train not only your small stabilizing muscles, but also your nervous system. (That’s a different article, though…)
I understand the demoralizing impact of admitting: “I can’t press as much on the free weight bench,” but if you want real, functional strength or you have stopped making gains on the machines, you need to be the machine, not use machines. Work on your form and stability with free weights, then you’ll see the gains as you develop motor control and muscle recruitment.
The same goes for the treadmill / elliptical. Watch that person do 10MPH running on the treadmill. Then ask them to run with you for a 5K street run. Chances are, unless they regularly train on the street, they won’t be doing 10MPH outside.
I understand the demoralizing impact of admitting: “I can’t run long outside,” or “I can’t breathe,” but if you want real, functional conditioning or you have stopped making gains on the treadmill, you need to be the machine, not use machines. Work on your running form (hint hint!) and look into some breath work, then you’ll see gains as you develop better form, better muscular conditioning, and improve your respiratory abilities.
Spinning on a bike versus riding on the street? You guessed it. The street (or the trail!) is where you want to be. Swimming in a pool versus in open water? Right again! The pool has its limit, nature is more challenging.
- You’re not doing enough – If you are doing the same thing you’ve been doing for months/years, it is pretty easy to imagine that you’re going to need to increase resistance or speed or duration or all of the above.
But it isn’t uncommon to see people get started and not challenge themselves enough. I encourage folks who are starting from years on the sofa (or behind a desk) to get started on the treadmill, at first. But once walking is comfortable for you, you need to get uncomfortable and pick up the pace. Your cardiovascular system is not going to improve unless it is challenged.
The same goes for free weights. If you’re able to do a dozen or more reps with any given weight, dial up the load! We get stronger and bigger through a nerdy concept called “supercompensation” where your body adapts to demands that exceeded your previous norms. If you are never exceeding, you are never adapting.
- You’re doing too much – If you don’t give your body time to recover, your body likely cannot adapt to new challenges. One of the concepts I try to drill into my athletes is: you make gains when you recover, not when you’re training. We train (in the gym or on the road or in the water) to challenge our norms (and lightly damage our bodies) then we recover to heal from the training. Overtraining is a common problem in many advanced athletes, but new athletes have to also give themselves time to heal
Those three situations cover many of the problems people experience when they aren’t making progress in their training. A couple of changes and most folks find themselves improving again.
Give it a shot. Stick to it. I think you’ll do well.
I invite you to let me know your results.