Happy New Year! At the start of a new year, most people hit the gym with gusto. Those starting for the first time, those getting back into it, and those who train regularly are all on the same mission – to make this new year their best year. Why is it that gyms are packed in January yet back to normal by mid-February? Why is it that most people start the year in the exact same shape they started last January? If you want to make this your best year of training, you must avoid these 5 New Year’s training mistakes.
Mistake 1: Overcommitment
One question I always ask a new client is, “How many days a week can you train?” When asked this question in January, most people will say, “Every day!” While this approach seems hard-core, it rarely works. Not only is this over-commitment impractical for those of us with jobs, families, and responsibilities, it is physically unsustainable for most. Training too often leaves too little time for growth and recovery. This makes your progression slower (or non-existent) while increasing your risk of burnout or injury.
A Better Approach: Reasonable training schedule
Schedule 2-4 hard training sessions per week at the gym (or your home gym). While it may not seem like much, 2 days of hard progressive resistance training for 52 weeks beats 6 days a week of training for 6 weeks. On the days when you are not doing hard training – continue to be active. Go for walks, play sports, ride your bike, do outdoor physical activity, or go dancing. Find fun, restorative ways to move your body.
Mistake 2: Starting too hard
Still riding the motivational sugar high of their New Year’s resolutions, most people hit the gym with gusto. However, starting with a #gohardorgohome approach can leave you with bad training habits, burnout, and injury. In addition, starting too leads to excessive soreness which delays recovery and slows (or stops) your progress. Please understand I’m all for moving into hard training. Most people don’t know how to push themselves and never train hard enough to give their bodies a reason to grow stronger. However, starting too hard will hurt, and not help your training.
A Better Approach: Train appropriately hard
Beginners: If you are a beginner, enjoy this phase of training where you do not have to push hard and can still make amazing progress. Focus on doing your exercises correctly. Then, you can safely and gradually increase your effort level.
Getting back into it: If you are returning from a long layoff from training, remember that your mind does not detrain. As a result, your mind will want to start where you left off – don’t! Back your weights down and ease back into training. Before long, you will be ready to push hard. Your initial patience will reward you with better long-term results!
Training regularly but starting a new program: Ease into your new program for the first week. Remember, new exercises can make even the most seasoned gym goer sore. This ease-in week will prevent excessive soreness and let you get the feel of things before cranking it up the following week.
Mistake 3: Seeking fatigue and excessive variation
Mainstream fitness is often nothing more than creative ways to make people tired. While training hard is necessary to stimulate adaptation in your body (especially past the beginner phase), seeking fatigue is not your goal. Long, high-volume workouts can leave you tired – but not bigger, stronger, or fitter. Excessive variation while fun and exciting can distract you from what really matters in your quest for results – progress.
A better approach: Seek progression
Improving your strength, performance, or muscle mass, is not about getting tired. It is not about how hard or long you train. It’s not about trying to “confuse” your muscles with excessive variation. Results are about progression – getting better at your best exercises. For example, if you add 100 lbs to your squat for reps, you will have bigger, stronger legs. If you squat the same next January as you do now, your legs will not look or perform any differently. This year, focus on your best exercises. Keep a training log. Gradually increase the weight on these key exercises. Be realistic with your rate of progression. If you are a beginner, you can make faster progress (due to neurological adaptations). If you are advanced, further progress will be very slow and require a lot of hard work and patience.
The secret to long-term progression is to progress at a level where the next training session is harder but does not feel harder.
When it comes to the amount of training variation, consider your personality. Some people love change and others hate it. In addition, avoid changing exercises that you are still progressing or continuing to do exercises that have stalled.
Mistake 4: Programming popular pieces of equipment
In January, good luck getting any piece of cardio equipment. You are dreaming if you think the leg press, bench press, chest fly machine, leg extension, or other popular pieces of equipment will be magically ready and waiting when you want them. If you program popular pieces of equipment, you will waste your valuable time standing around waiting or having to adjust your program on the fly. You may also end up with anger issues while some dude hogging the bench takes 10-minute phone and girl watching breaks between sets of his 95lb bench press and then tells you when asked how many sets he has left, “A few more.” (Not that I have ever had to wait for a guy like that).
A better approach: Program alternative exercises
At least for January, avoid the popular pieces of equipment. Do if possible cardio outside. If you are stuck indoors with the weather, consider alternatives such as stair sprints, skipping rope, kettlebell swings, or shuttle runs. Consider exercises such as dumbbell split squats, deadlifts or Romanian deadlifts, dips, dumbbell rows, dumbbell shoulder pressing (standing or ½ kneeling if no benches), and pull-ups/chin-ups. After 25 years working as a trainer, I’ve never seen a line-up for the pull-up bar – every – even in January. If you absolutely insist on using a certain popular piece of equipment (e.g., bench press) in your January program, at least be sure to program that later in the week (e.g., Friday) when the gym is relatively quieter. (Remember, Monday is International Chest Day – when most of the benches will be occupied).
Mistake 5: Seeking fast results
Ask someone in January how fast they want results, and most people will tell you by Thursday. While much of modern life's conveniences have eliminated or drastically reduced traditional wait times, changing your body will take more time and patience than most people have. Rapid results only exist in the fairytale world of fitness marketing and photo filter apps. There is a secret to getting the fastest results you can realistically get – that is do everything right – all at once. If you nail your sleep, lifestyle, stress management, nutrition, training, and mindset all at once and can hold on for 12 weeks, you can see some impressive short-term results. However, most people are unable to stick with this drastic lifestyle change for even 12 weeks and virtually no one can last 12 months. As a result, even the unicorns who do make impressive short-term transformations often fail at lasting change.
A better approach: Habit accumulation
unless you have a short-term event (e.g., photo shoot, contest, movie role, bet with a friend, etc.) that demands rapid transformation, take a gradual approach. Instead of changing everything in your life all at once, focus on gradually accumulating the habits you need for lasting improvement in your health, performance, and body composition.