By Michael Krueger
Here it is February already. You’ve been focusing on your fitness for more than four weeks in this New Year; so how’s it going? I’m just going to assume it’s going well, since I want to talk about how to not sabotage your ongoing success.
It’s amazingly easy to forget that if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing you can really mess it up. You’ve worked hard, and seeing the positive changes in your body and your attitude can be exceptionally motivating; but, all the same, little things can sidetrack you if you aren’t careful.
Here are a few things to watch out for.
You have been watching what you are eating for weeks now and you’ve done well, so the natural tendency is to feel you’ve really got it down and to cut yourself some slack now and then. When done properly, a scheduled diet cheat day can relieve the tension of day-to-day dietary restriction. Done properly, you treat yourself to a favorite food that’s no longer a part of your standard diet. It’s not done as a reward for work done, nor it is it a carrot (or slice of pizza) to dangle in front of your mouth to get you into the gym.
It’s not unusual that when people have some early success in the gym, they allow their diet to slip a bit. Thy may feel so good and confident about what they have accomplished so far that they decide, either consciously or unconsciously, that they know what they are doing and therefore no longer need to keep track. They may think since they are working out regularly and burning so many calories that the threat of putting on fat isn’t an issue. This is a big mistake; diet always matters.
If you are keeping very close tabs on your body composition, you know how much you weigh, how much fat weight you have, how much lean weight you have, and what your hydration level is. With this knowledge in hand, you can make informed, nonemotional decisions regarding your food intake.
Don’t allow success to turn into a new problem regarding your diet. Stick to your plan until you reach your goal, then reassess and move forward.
If you hadn’t been going to the gym prior to your current success, you may become overly enamored with the gym environment. The sound, the equipment, the like minded people, the energy, the smell(?)–it can all get into your head and next thing you know you are almost living there.
Hanging out at the gym is mostly harmless, providing it isn’t taking you away from more important matters, like friends and family. If your enthusiasm has gotten out of hand and you are actually working out every day for hours on end, it can cause a problem. Your muscles need time to recover, and if that time isn’t taken they will break down rather than build up. So it is very important to write your program down and stick to it. That means no extra workouts “just because I feel like it.” Maintaining discipline in your program will ensure that you get enough, but not too much, work as well as enough, but not too much, rest.
One other issue that can arise when you become a gym rat is one-upmanship. It is inevitable that someone will eventually challenge you to a bench contest or some other silly endeavor. It can be extremely difficult to turn down these challenges and still save face. It takes a solid self-image and commitment to your program to say no. I’ve gone both ways in these situations, meaning that I’ve wisely walked away from or foolishly accepted the challenge. I’m lucky in that I never got hurt or had any negative consequences when I was mentally weak and gave into ego (but when I did give in, I chose my battles well and never got beat either!).
My last word on this concerns cardio. If 30 minutes is good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that 45 would be better. Cardio is very important, but unless you plan on competing in endurance events it is best to figure out how much you need to improve your heart and lungs and stick with that. Excessive cardio has been shown to eat away at muscle gains, so it is best to think intensity rather than distance. Of course, if you are training for a marathon, you absolutely need to get in the mileage–and best of luck to you.
After a while, it is easy to fall for the “change for the sake of change” trap. It goes by many different names, but changing things up just because you saw someone doing something that you aren’t doing is not a good idea. If you are happy with your program, making good progress and staying healthy, there is no reason to change. Contrary to a popular infomercial, muscles don’t need to be confused to grow. They simply need to be challenged, and adding weight to the bar, reps to the set, or cutting rest intervals is more than enough challenge to get muscles to grow.
Often you will meet people in the gym who will try to convert you to their way of lifting. There is no harm in listening; in fact, you may learn something. Ask them lots of questions, observe them, and assess the efficacy of what they are doing with regard to your program.
Beware of unsolicited advice, particularly from people who look like they do a lot more talking than lifting. If the advice is given unobtrusively and humbly and if it regarding a possible safety issue, then pay some attention.
When it comes to your workout, remember the old saying, “Dance with the one that brought you,” and stay true to your convictions, so long as they are working for you.
Eventually your mind will start to cause some issues, even if your body is keeping pace with the plan. High-intensity workouts can start to weigh on your mind to the point where you just don’t even want to go the gym, much less really put out the effort needed to make it a good workout.
This might be the time to ease off for a workout or two. Look at your original goals and go back over your logs, then look in the mirror and remind yourself why you began this journey.
You mind is a tool; it’s not in charge. If you have a saw that needs sharpening, you don’t whine and continue trying to cut with it, cursing about how dull it is. No, you take the time to sharpen it, knowing that the few minutes it takes to file and set the teeth will pay back in efficiency and progress later on. It’s the same with your mind: If it’s the cause of your problem, you must take the time to figure out what’s going on and then take the steps needed to fix it.
If you train your mind to be tough and your body to be fit, wonderful things will happen in your life. If you ignore the signals your mind and body send, you will ultimately fail. If you understand that you are more than just your mind and more than just your body, your horizons are unlimited. In this case, one plus one equals so much more than two.
Lastly, you must stay humble. Don’t strut into the gym like you are God’s gift to the iron game. There are always people out there who will happily put you in your place. Confidence is a good thing; it keeps you focused on your program without wondering if something else might be better, but if it’s taken to an extreme, you might just become nothing more than a big strong jerk.
Hubris will ultimately bring you down in a smoking heap. If you don’t respect other lifters or you think that the laws of progress don’t apply to you and that you know more than everyone else combined, you will crash and burn and no one will care.
Offer encouragement to others when it is needed. Offer to spot someone before they ask. Clean up after yourself, smile, laugh, and don’t take yourself anymore seriously than is absolutely necessary.
You weren’t always fit and strong, were you? You struggled and had failures along with your successes. Remember that when you see others having a hard time. All of us who work on our fitness are traveling this path together. Be grateful for what you have and help others when you can.
Congratulations on your successes; now pay it forward!
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected]