Maybe you’ve been a loyal, dedicated and consistent member of your local Crossfit class for months. Maybe you’ve been crushing the “100 Day At Home Workout Challenge.” You leave your daily workouts disheveled and drenched in sweat. But let me ask you one question, “how is that working for you?”
Whether we want to admit it or not, today’s fitness culture has warped us all into impatient jack rabbits, just jumping from one fad diet and workout program to the next. We’re always on the hunt for any “quick fix” and most of our buying impulses are driven by deceptive marketing of six-pack shredded abs, tiny waistlines, lean legs, and toned tank top arms that bombard our social media feeds. Often without a second thought, we think, “well if it works for him/her, then it ought to work for me, too!” But is it working for you? When was the last time you took an honest step back to evaluate your plan of attack?
Instead of spinning your wheels or running place (literally) for one more day, let’s consider if your current workout plan is right for you. Here are five surefire ways to know that your current exercise program isn’t working for you:
#1: YOU ARE LOSING MUSCLE AND/OR GAINING BODY FAT
Everyone has a different goal in mind when starting an exercise program: lose 15 pounds, build bulging biceps, or be able do a pull-up. Regardless of the goal, it’s important to take an objective view to ensure our program is getting us closer to our intended target.
If your goal is to make aesthetic changes, focus your attention on changing body composition, not the scale. While the scale can be a very useful tool, it should be interpreted appropriately, and ideally used with other measurements. Let’s say one month into your program and you are down 10 lbs! On the surface, that may seem amazing, but what if further measurements indicate that 5 lbs of that was muscle loss? Not so good. If you keep going at this rate, you may reach your 20 lb weight loss goal, but now you are left with a slower metabolism and a very high likelihood to regaining the weight (and then some). Ensure your program is allowing you to build and preserve muscle through adequate intensity and recovery. Invest in a scale that measures body fat and lean body mass. Over time, you should be losing body fat and gaining (or at least maintaining) lean muscle. You can also turn your attention to losing inches from your waist and hips, and judge your progress by how your clothes fit. Both of these can be positive indicators of progress, even if you don’t lose a pound!
#2: YOU AREN’T GETTING STRONGER OR FASTER
If your goal is more performance-related, be sure that your current program is gradually getting you closer to a new personal record. Is your bench press stuck at 185 lbs for months on end? Are you still struggling to get that pull-up? If you can’t confidently show that you perform more repetitions of an exercise using the same weight or that you can lift more weight than you could before, then your workout program is not working for you.
Track details during your workouts so you can look back and literally see the strength gains you’re making over time. This allows you to adjust and set new goals to push yourself forward, but also recognize how far you’ve come when you feel like new PRs are hard to come by.
#3: YOU HAVE UNRESOLVED OR NAGGING INJURIES
Unresolved injuries and/or constant soreness should be red flags. They are signs from your body that something isn’t right, and if you keep “pushing through the pain,” it will eventually force you to stop the exercise immediately when it presents you with a full-blown injury. Does your back always hurt when you deadlift, but you do it anyway? You’re on your way to potentially herniating a disc. Can’t lift your arm overhead without pain, but you insist on doing clean & jerks when they show up in your daily WOD? Get ready for a rotator cuff tear that will sideline you for months.
Don’t mistake soreness for progress. If you feel like you are constantly nursing a nagging shoulder injury, or you joke about having the lower back of a 90 year old, then it’s time to reevaluate what you’re doing. The proper exercise program should always take into account your unique anatomy, and should provide exercises to correct imbalances, heal persistent injuries, and incorporate movement modifications when necessary.
#4: YOUR SLEEP AND APPETITE ARE OFF
Not only does our body communicate through pain, it also sends a daily report card through things like sleep and appetite. Trouble falling asleep, waking multiple times per night, excessive sugar or salt cravings, as well as increases or decreases in hunger throughout the day should all be a noticeable cues that our body is struggling to manage our daily stressors, and often a high-intensity exercise program can be a contributing factor. While the proper exercise program should be a stress-reliever, and a way to build stress resiliancy, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
Any exercise is only as beneficial as your ability to recover from it. Hours of heart-pumping workouts cause our body to secrete high amounts of our stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol has the very important job of making sure we have enough energy to survive, so it turns us into a sugar-burning machine. Once the workout is over, any excess sugar in our bloodstream is converted to fat, and we are left craving sugary and salty foods (naturally higher in carbohydrates). We succumb to our cravings (or even worse…eat nothing) and our blood sugar roller coaster continues into the night where we are awakened multiple times. This vicious cycle continues day after day, and we wonder why we put in so much work at the gym only to feel fluffier and fatigued.
Instead of prioritizing workout intensity, focus on workout consistency, which takes us to our last point…
#5: YOUR WORKOUT PROGRAM ISN’T SUSTAINABLE
Do you need to love exercising? Far from it. But you do need to find something you enjoy enough to do consistently. Getting in a low-intensity workout 3-5 times per week is better than a weekend-warrior that busts their butt for a 1x/week workout that forces them to limp for the next week out of soreness. Find an exercise program that you at least tolerate and that can become an important part of your lifestyle.
There are many different types of exercise programs for a reason. Walking, biking, lifting weights, yoga, or even dance all have a time, place and benefit for you. Just don’t get stuck going “all in” on just one method of workouts as it will likely lead to gaping holes in your fitness, and could cause overuse injuries.
The best practice to increase exercise effectiveness and enjoyment is to vary your goals / focus every 3-4 months. For example, take a few months to focus on getting strong. Hire a professional, learn & prioritize lifting weights 2-3x/week, and track your progress. Then switch your focus to improving your cardiovascular endurance. Transition your lifting to 1-2x/week and take up running or biking for the next 12 weeks. You can change your focus to flexibility, power, athleticism, etc and decrease burnout or boredom. Regardless, your workout program should prioritize consistency over intensity.
There is no one-size-fits-all exercise program, but if you notice that you are struggling with one or more of these issues, it’s take time to step back. Ask yourself honestly, “I know I love [INSERT Crossfit / Spin Class / Marathon Training, etc], but does it love me?” Exercise should be challenging and nothing good comes easy, so applaud yourself for the hard work and time commitment you’ve put in, but don’t be afraid to seek out a program that truly gives you more solutions and less problems.