Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Curiosity Killed the Cat -- But Not the Regular Guy

At the beginning of 2015, I wrote the most accurate statement I've ever typed: I've made every mistake there is.

In that post, I covered stuff like not warming up, overtraining and trying to do too much too quickly. But back when I started the blog, I said that I hoped that doing this would help me learn at least as much as it helps other Regular Guys. And one big lesson I've learned: Don't be afraid to try new things.

It's All a Bit Much at First

If you join a gym, all the different machines and other equipment can be overwhelming -- especially if you're new to exercise. There are free weights, Smith machines, squat racks, Nautilus machines of every size and shape, cable-cross machines, Hammer Strength machines, TRX straps, kettlebells, medicine balls, treadmills, ellipticals, stair climbers, exercise bikes, recumbent bikes, row machines... It's enough to make your head spin.

Likewise, if you're just starting to get into serious running, there's long runs, tempo runs, all sorts of track intervals, fartleks, hill repeats, strides. You may also have heard about all sorts of paces -- easy, lactate threshold, VO2 max, all-out sprint... And of course, that doesn't even get into the contentious topic of running form.

I'm not a biker, but I'm sure it's equally confusing to the newcomer. Swimming is much more than just diving into the pool and doing laps. And so forth.

The easy thing to do is simply to find the handful of things that are familiar to you and do those. I think that's why you see so many people on treadmills at the gym -- people know how to do it, and they feel like they've accomplished something when they're done. 

But you're cheating yourself.

The Problem With Sticking to What You Know
In my opinion, a good fitness plan works all of your muscle groups and includes both aerobic and strength training. As we've discussed, you do need to do what works for you. You need to evaluate where you are now, what your goals are and what your interests are, and create a plan that fits. But that doesn't mean you should limit yourself. The issues:
  • If all you do is cardio -- i.e., all aerobic exercise with no strength training -- you're going to hit a plateau quickly. The better your strength -- even if it's sport-specific -- the faster or longer you'll be able to go.
  • Also if you ignore resistance training, you will likely burn fat and lose weight, but you won't have the nice definition that some modest muscle will give you.
  • On the other hand, if all you do is lift, you're also going to hit a plateau, because you will lack the fitness and endurance to hit it really hard. You may hear or read a lot of anti-cardio notions, but this, this, this, this and this give you plenty of evidence that it's essential.
  • But let's say you find two or three pieces of weight equipment you're familiar with. You're still not out of the woods. You need to work all your major muscle groups -- arms, legs, back, chest, shoulders, etc. -- or risk creating a muscle imbalance and getting injured. 
  • Also, if you keep doing the same couple of exercises, your body will adapt, and it will become easier -- too easy, and you'll again hit that plateau. Adding more weight can help, but it's not the complete answer, because, again, strength in some areas and not others is a recipe for injury.

Don't Be Afraid to Try New Stuff
What I've learned in my time at the gym is that most of the equipment is easy enough to figure out. I've also picked up a lot of ideas by watching other people and by reading solid fitness literature. Here are some ideas for how to expand your fitness regimen.

Add Things in Slowly. I have a friend who came up with a great metaphor for information overload: Our brains have only so much bandwidth. You have work, family, home issues, your other interests, and so on. Plus you have only so much time to spend at the gym learning to do new things. So add in new exercises one at a time. Watch other people. Find videos on YouTube. Ask a trainer if you have that opportunity. But first and foremost, learn to do one thing properly before trying to add the next.

Find Resources Online. Just about every discipline has at least one good website -- and usually more.
Keep Your Eyes Open. You can learn a lot just by watching other people at the gym or on the track. I've picked up a number of good exercises simply by observing other people. Just be sure that it's actually a good exercise. If it puts undue strain on a joint or just doesn't feel right, don't do it. Or find out more about it.
  • One important note: Don't steal by watching personal training sessions. Someone's paying good money for a tip you're picking up for free, and someone else is potentially losing your business. If you see something specific you like once in a while, that's OK, but if you make it a habit, you're stealing.
Just Ask. If you're unsure of the proper form on a piece of equipment, you can usually ask a trainer. If you see someone at the gym doing something that looks interesting, wait till he or she is done with a set, then ask about it. Everyone was a noob once, and just about everyone at the gym -- behind the grunts and scowls -- is more than happy to offer a piece of advice.

Don't Be Afraid to Push Yourself. The first time you try something entirely new, it's going to suck. Just accept it. You're asking your systems to do something they aren't accustomed to. Your muscles will be sore. Your lungs will burn. Your heart will race. These are good things, because next time, you'll be able to accomplish more. Finish the exercise.

But Go Easy the First Time. Learn how to do something right before you go all-out.
  • If we're talking about weight equipment, go nice and light. Get the motions down. Once you feel good about using it, you can start pushing. 
  • For track intervals: If you're relatively new to running, you're going to have trouble with 400-meter intervals. You have to know how to pace yourself, and you have to have pretty good aerobic fitness to start with. So go with just a few reps, or scale back to 200-meter intervals. 
  • HIIT is tough, too. You don't have to do every exercise to failure; in fact, unless your aerobic fitness is already in place, you won't get through more than a handful of moves before you're wiped.

Bottom Line: Don't Be Intimidated
If that exercise machine were really that difficult to use, you wouldn't see people on it all the time. If the side plank were really a mystery, it wouldn't be a staple of just about every bodyweight exercise routine out there. If intervals were just for elite runners, we'd need far fewer tracks, and most treadmills wouldn't have those programs.

You can do it.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. We all have, and we all continue to. I recently misread which peg to rest the Smith machine bar on and wound up getting pinned under the weight -- and couldn't get it up a peg. I had to push it up enough to squeeze out and escape. It happens. But those are learning opportunities.

There are so many options out there these days. HIIT, Crossfit, Olympic lifting. Running and biking trails. Treadmills. Everything else at the gym. Yoga. Don't be afraid of what you don't know -- learn! Not only will you learn more about fitness, you'll learn more about you.

And that is a key to Keeping Fit and Living Your Life.

I want to hear about your experiences trying out new fitness routines. What stuff did you learn? How did it benefit you? And what kinds of mistakes did you make along the way? Hit me up in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter!

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