Over the past few years, I have made many mistakes and really learned a lot about my training, my diet, my performance, and myself. I feel it would be appropriate to share those mistakes with others. Additionally, some of these mistakes are not my own, but mistakes that I commonly see others make.
1) Mistake: Not Enjoying the Process
Let’s be realistic – human beings typically don’t do things they don’t enjoy. Diet and training are no exception.
This is not to say that you need to love every minute at the gym. When I am going in for my last set of a heavy squat I sometimes can’t help but stare at the ground and mutter, “I really don’t want to do this.” The same goes for the sets of work for one-armed chin-ups. The negative feelings, however, are far outweighed by the positive. All in all, when I walk out of the gym I find that I thoroughly enjoyed myself – despite the fact that I may have had a bad day or didn’t perform as well as I wanted.
Similarly, when it comes to diet, very few of us are happy to watch everyone else eat the birthday cake or huge bowl of ice cream. Forcing yourself to sit on the sidelines of social eating is going to set you up for a poorly balanced diet. This is because many people fall back into the trap of consistently eating poorly after a “day off” from eating well.
This gives rise to two troubling questions: How can I enjoy what I hate? How can I consistently stay away from what I love?
To address the first question, we need to find goals that you would absolutely love to achieve. Maybe you really want to run that mile track around the park. Maybe you play in a weekend softball league and would like to get around the bases faster. Maybe you just saw a video of someone demonstrating parkour and that really lit your fire. Everyone’s life involves movements – find the movements you really enjoy performing and identify workouts and short-term goals to achieve them. Going to the gym for years to “look good” will have one of the following results:
(a) You stop working out after a short time.
(b) You get bored and become jaded.
To address the second question the answer is simple: don’t. Dieting and training doesn’t need to be boring. If you seriously don’t like tuna and brussell sprouts then you don’t need to eat them even though they are undeniably “healthy” foods. Instead, identify those foods that are really enjoyable to you AND considered healthy. Make a menu of these healthy foods and then you know exactly what you can eat and what you can avoid. Even then, once you have established a relatively “healthy” way of eating you may want to incorporate a scheduled “cheat day” into your routine. Avoiding the things you love for an unpredictable period of time is a proven cause of stress. Having a cheat day alleviates immediate stress; scheduling the cheat day alleviates long-term stress.
The key to healthy living and dieting is consistency. If you have one day a month or week where you eat a terrible meal that’s not a travesty. If you have terrible meals every day then its a problem. The best way to stay consistent in eating healthy is to schedule a cheat day (one day a week or something similar) and stick to it no matter what. This helps keep sanity and you get to really eat the things you love.
2) Mistake: Not Understanding Mistakes
Over my years of training in various disciplines, I obviously made many mistakes, learned a bunch, and grew from it. I see many people who, in their training, lack the open-minded nature to understand that what they are doing is not correct. Rather than admit that they may be wrong, they continue to do poor workouts without exploring their methodology. Understanding that you will err in some way is an important part of the growth process.
3) Mistake: Working Too Hard
When most people find their way into an athletic lifestyle, they get addicted to their sport and to being active. This is great but comes with a major caveat.
Many athletes, even some who consider themselves seasoned, often neglect the importance of rest and recovery into their regimens. Working out for 6 hours, 7 days a week, is a bit overkill. When I first fell into my athletic lifestyle I was going to the gym twice a day for 3 hours at a time, then would scratch my head as to why my performance was not improving.
A vast majority of the population can be considered a novice or intermediate trainee. At this level one can recover quite quickly from the stresses of a workout. Therefore, a short, 20-30 minute workout 6 days of every 8 will provide substantial performance gains. Depending on goals, these times and cycles will vary, but the bottom line is that less is usually more.
You must remember that you are an individual, and your own rest cycles will be determined based on your personal level (novice, intermediate, advanced, or elite) in your domain (all inclusive, power lifter, weight lifter, long-distance runner, short-distance runner, bodybuilder, etc.).
4) Mistake: Violating KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)
A common error I see among novices, self included, is a lack of simplicity in diet and exercise routines. Usually those who become obsessed with fitness start reading very much, from very different sources. The sources never seem to agree and always seem to have very strong points that contradict one another.
Results, however, are one thing that you can never, ever question. At a novice and intermediate level, keep your workouts simple. Do not worry about your fast and slow twitch fibers. Don’t worry about your energetic pathways. Don’t worry about your omega-3 to omega-6 ratios in your diet. Sure, these things are important, but you are better off worrying about them when you know much more about them. If you stick to eating real, whole foods in tandem with a regular workout program then you can certainly see major results before you have much knowledge about the details.
If you try to make things too complicated too soon, it is disheartening and you wind up swearing off training, diet, research or all three because it is much too complicated.
An important thing to remember is that, no matter who says any different, no one knows EXACTLY how the body works. An overwhelming number of biological and physiological findings have occurred within the past 20 years, and most of the groundbreaking discoveries have only been happening in the past 100 years. Hell, DNA was only discovered in the 1940s. The effects of IGF-I on muscle growth are still being explored, and were only been discovered about a decade ago.
The point is, don’t let yourself get bogged down by science that is still yet incomplete. Train for results.
5) Mistake: Blindly Following Sources/Informers
This is where the fitness industry fails horribly in delivering quality content to its members. Standing in line at the grocery store you can be looking at five different magazines – each of which is advertising 10 days to flat abs or 30 days to sexy legs. Sadly, an overwhelming number of people begin a program involving these ineffective cookie-cutter workouts. The results are never good – this is just a bad idea.
Another bad idea is to not question a more scientific or practical source – such as an article from the Journal of Applied Physiology or the ACE’s certified personal trainer study guide.
Having dealt with dozens of PhDs and trainers on a daily basis, all of whom are well respected in their field, I have come to learn much about the knowledge possessed by both individuals on opposite sides of the spectrum. Whether the source in question is a PhD or a trainer, they have respect from a group of people somewhere. Their certifications, degrees and titles leave people with the impression that they know what they are talking about. While many PhD holders and trainers have an in-depth knowledge of a specific aspect of their field, oftentimes the buck stops there. Some individuals in these positions realize the limitations of their expertise. Others, however, apply their specific knowledge to a broad domain – which results in myths and falsehoods spreading through the fitness industry like wildfire. A good example of this is how many studies attempt to extrapolate data found in a nutritional study based on a population of ten undergraduate students.
Recent studies are showing that individuals totally turn off the part of their brain associated with critical thinking and counterarguing when they are confronted with advice from someone they consider an “expert.”  The way to counter this natural tendency is to remain vigilant and question all sources.
With this in mind, anything written by a trainer or PhD should be taken with a grain of salt until they have been proven credible through your own research or their acceptance in the fitness community in which you belong. Even then, one should constantly be trying to reevaluate the validity of the expert statements. Would you convict someone of murder based on a single eyewitness testimony? Some more hard evidence is usually needed.
You should always question what people tell you, including those who are “credible.” What you will come to realize over time is that some people know very much about one domain but know little about another. For example, Fred Hatfield (a.k.a “Dr. Squat” and, anecdotally, a PhD holder) knows much about heavy squatting, but I would not go to him for advice or information specific to planche progressions. Some (poor) trainers think that because they know much about one domain, that they know much about all domains. This is just not true. You will never see an expert on airplanes trying to fix a locomotive. They are two different things, both accomplishing similar goals, and you should keep this in mind when reading articles or asking advice from trainers.
A true professional trainer will not only enjoy answering these questions, they will likely be happy that you asked. If your trainer gets upset by questions like this I would seriously question their experience and merit.
6) Mistake: Lack of Goals
Goals are pretty much the only reason any of us exercise. Training is a means of achieving your goals. You probably have goals even if you don’t think you do. However, you likely have not framed them in a quantifiable, useful manner.
For a long time I had no quantifiable goals, I just wanted to “look better” or “not be fat.” You run into this mistake with a lot of people, in my experience. Their only goal falls into the following categories: “be skinny,” “workout without getting too big,” “be healthy,” “looking good naked.” To fix this trend, it is important to make sure your goals are quantifiable. Setting quantifiable goals, a wide variety of them, will accelerate your training vastly whether you are male or female.
Quantifiable goals usually have a magnitude and specific direction. “Be able to perform 10 kipping pullups” is a good quantifiable goal. “Lose 10 pounds by May 1” is another good example.
Firstly, setting quantifiable goals gives you direction. It gives you something to check off a list. Studies show that creating to-do lists, and then checking things off of them, actually releases neurotransmitters that heighten mood. If you don’t believe this, try it for yourself – you will notice that crossing something off your list actually does give you a little bit of a high.
This is what psychologists call “positive reinforcement” and is known as the most effective method of behavior modification. We are modifying you as an athlete and your dedication to your training. Taking advantage of your biochemistry and psyche is a great way to accelerate your training and keep you focused on an ever-changing list of achievements. Before you know it, the list of goals gets tremendous and you have tons of new things that you want to do. With a longer goals list there is just that much more room for growth.
7) Mistake: Failure to Keep a Log
This is another one that is pretty major and often overlooked. When you do finally set goals, how do you know when you have achieved them if you never write them down? If you do write them down, but do not note your progress, how do you know that you are actually getting closer to your goal? If you feel like you are on a hamster wheel in your training, looking back over your log is a great way to make sure that you are not just running in circles but actually progressing.
Another aspect of log keeping, especially in a skill sport like parkour, gymnastics or weight lifting, is often overlooked. Recording your training in a log allows you to record how you have been FEELING during these workouts. Sure, your day of training might have sucked, but you might have felt that you were not up to par that day. Maybe you had a stuffy nose or you went on a bender the night before, which negatively impacted your performance. It also lets you note how much fear and/or confidence you had that day. I recently went to the Museum of Sports in NYC where some logs of elite-level athletes were put on display. Each of these logs not only listed performance metrics, but also their state of mind and thought process. It was nice to see things like “Felt great today, focused on positive thoughts and the game went really well” in an olympian’s training log. These small, seemingly insignificant thoughts impact your training, which impacts you reaching your goals.
Another benefit to keeping a log, especially if you maintain it on a forum, is that this leaves it open to critique and criticism. At this point, you should understand that you WILL make mistakes. Asking others, especially those with more experience than you, to review your logs allows you to get more detailed advice from them and achieve your goals faster.
8) Mistake: Misunderstanding Workouts Selection
It is extremely important to understand why you are doing what you are doing.
Perhaps someone suggested that you do a 5×5 linear progression on olympic lifts. Maybe another person told you to do a split routine including biceps curls, bench presses and front shoulder raises.
Which one do you do? What influenced your decision?
If you honestly don’t know why you do the exercises you are doing, then I recommend that you STOP doing them until you figure that out. A good example of this is wall sits. Many people do this exercise, but why? There are few, if any, situations where your body will be in this position functionally. Yet many people train this, some of them with goals to hold wall sits for over an hour. There are many workouts and goals like this. If that is what you want to do, then more power to you, but you should understand WHY you are doing it.
Once you identify why you are doing a certain movement, you should really verify that this movement/technique will actually help you achieve your goals. This can be done by seeking out external resources and experts with more experience and better formulated opinions than your own while you figure out the details.
9) Mistake: Arrogance
Once I started hitting some of my goals, particularly in weight loss, I began to think that if anyone needed advice they should come to me. It took me being put in my place by quite a few people before I realized that I did not know it all. I think this is just human nature, because since I realized the error of my ways, I have noticed this is a problem with many people.
One thing to remember when giving advice is that there will always be someone out there with more knowledge and information than you. Unless you can back it up with solid facts, don’t say it or pretend like you know anything about it.
Coaching people takes experience. Not just experience doing something for yourself, but experience as a teacher and a trainer. You need a solid understanding of what you are trying to coach. A solid understanding denotes that you have examined multiple people from multiple angles.
At my current level of experience and understanding I do not consider myself any sort of authority in any aspect of fitness. This is why I give most of my advice with the disclaimer that it’s based on my personal research and opinions rather than my professional knowledge.
This is something many people can, and will, learn the hard way. The hard way means posting or speaking out in public and being put in your place brutally by someone who knows much more than you. When this happens to you, then my advice is to embrace the moment, be humbled and hit the gym/library to learn more so it doesn’t happen again.
10) Mistake: Reinventing the Wheel
We see further ahead by standing on the shoulders of giants. That is, we learn more by learning from those before us. As I said before, there is no real reason to try to invent movements or ways of training. People have been training for centuries. Some of the best methods of getting strong and fast for long periods of time are already well known and developed.
It will save you a lot of time if you learn to ask the right questions and read the right articles so that you can stick with what has been shown to work, as opposed to trying new things that will just impede your training.
While gains at the highest levels of performance are constantly being reevaluated, you should wait until you know more about the techniques surrounding your goals before attempting to work out like an elite athlete.
Keep it simple and always focus on achieving your goals!
- Engelman, J. B., Capra, C. M., Noussair, C., and Berns, G. S. (2009). Expert financial advice neurobiologically offloads financial decision-making under risk. Public Library of Science One, 4, e4957, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004957.