So, it’s January. A time where everyone dusts off their gym membership card. I have mixed feelings about the annual influx of January gym-ers. I’m happy that they are back and trying to get healthy. I’m a little annoyed they sometimes don’t know proper etiquette. But mostly I’m terrified that they are going to tear off a limb lifting weights or mangle an ankle on a cardio machine.
So many people hit the gym with the best intentions, but soon end up back on the sideline, either injured or discouraged. Getting started is the first step, the biggest step maybe, but getting started correctly will make the chances of developing fitness as a habit and seeing real, tangible results much, much higher.
As I’ve hit my forties and found my time to workout more limited, these are the five things I’ve found most helpful in making sure the time that I do workout is healthy, effective and safe.
1. Take the time to warm-up
This is one of the bigger mistakes I see and the one that can lead to a lot of preventable injuries further down the road.
What is a proper warm-up?
Jumping on the treadmill or elliptical and going “easy” for five minutes is not a warm-up. Neither is pressing an empty bar a few times.
A simple rule of thumb is sweat. You are ready for a good, hard workout when you are sweating. This is a signal that your body is primed and ready for serious activity.
How do you properly warm-up?
I prefer dynamic stretching, like lunges and jumping jacks (as opposed to static stretching), and then some time on the treadmill. You can find a good dynamic warm-ups at Strength Running or from Dr. Jordan Metzl’s Iron Strength workout.
If you let your muscles fully recover, you’re not going to force it to adapt and change anytime soon. A simple rule of thumb is to aim for a 1:1 ratio between work and rest.
2. Increase slowly
If you are a runner you’ve probably heard of the 10% rule. Never increase your mileage more than 10% from the previous week. The same thing could be said for any type of exercise. Starting out or increasing the intensity too fast, too soon is probably the most common cause of sports injury. It’s also how you end up only seeing the inside of the gym in January or February.
Be realistic with yourself and do what you are capable of doing. Don’t fall into the trap of doing someone else’s workout. Be comfortable using the 10 lb barbells. You can’t hurt yourself lifting too little weight. You need to acclimate your body to these new stressors.
Will you see dramatic change? No, not quickly. But ramping up slowly will let you go consistently and that will cement your fitness routine as a habit without leaving you too sore or injured to get off the couch.
3. Don’t rest for too long
I see so many people taking too long between sets. Stop checking your phone! The point of working out is to fatigue and literally tear up the targeted muscle to force it to repair and rebuild itself bigger. If you let your muscles fully recover, you’re not going to force it to adapt and change anytime soon. A simple rule of thumb is to aim for a 1:1 ratio between work and rest.
4. Listen to your body
If you are returning to working out after a layoff, you will likely be sore afterward. The trick is distinguishing between soreness and pain. Exercise soreness is actually a healthy response to lifting those weights. You should expect some soreness. Pain is not a normal response.
What’s the difference?
Soreness usually pops up after you are done exercising and can usually be mitigated with stretching and improves after a day or so.
Pain may come on during exercise, be sharp and acute and linger even after taking a few days off. All of those should be a red flag that you’ve injured something. Don’t try to push through the pain of an injury.
5. Track your progress and/or find a buddy
You’ll increase your chances of success with a support network whether that is a fitness tracking site or just getting the support of friends.
Tracking your workouts might seem like a pain, but it can really help keep your training consistent and make sure you are adding weight and/or mileage in a reasonable manner (see #2). You want to challenge yourself, just not to the point where you can’t recover in time for the next workout.
Finding a friend or a support group that helps motivate you, understands the lifestyle challenges and won’t judge you is like buying exercise insurance. You might be able to get started on your own, but there will come a day or a week when you just don’t feel like you can do it. Having a tribe to support you can make all the difference in continuing to develop that fitness habit.
Going to the gym and trying to develop a healthier lifestyle is not flipping a switch. Its not something you just start doing one day. It’s a skill and a habit that you practice and try to improve over time. There will be ups and downs. Cut yourself some slack, but keep going. It’s worth it.