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The Most Common Home Workout Mistakes

If you’ve decided to self-train – or gym closings have decided it for you – there is no need to panic. Being open-minded, creative, and conscientious will ensure success (and fun)

It’s probably safe to say that most people don’t need more obstacles in their way when it comes to committing to their New Year’s fitness resolutions, but this particular year has made those vows just a little more challenging than normal. With gyms closed and restrictions in place in many parts of the country, people have had to find new, creative ways to work out without benefit of trainers, gym buddies, and the concentrated focus of dedicated machines and classes.

The year 2021 is the year of self-training. This may have its drawbacks, but it also presents new opportunities to find the joy and the fun in feeling good. Look, we believe that you can see gains without necessarily suffering the pains, and we also believe that you can get all the benefits of a gym using just what you have at your disposal. Just be smart, stick with it, and be safe.

“One of the major issues is what people associate with an effective workout,” says trainer and award-winning fitness author Andrew Heffernan C.S.C.S. “They feel like, ‘I’m not done until I feel like I’ve been beat up with a tire iron.’ You really want to play in that edge where you’re pushing yourself a little bit – but remember your body’s a squishy, organic organism, not a machine you can just pound with a hammer.”

Heffernan understands the difficulties associated with self-training – the lack of equipment, thee difficulties in self-motivating, and the uncertainty around whether you’re doing too much or too little – so we asked him to give us some tips so you can start 2021 fully confident that you do, indeed, “got this” all on your own. 

Some People Don’t Embrace Their Space

When starting out creating a self-training routine from scratch, a lot of people simply end up trying to recreate the gym experience. As Heffernan advises, it’s more productive – and more fun – to accept your new lack of boundaries.

“To an extent, creating a gym in the wild is kind of do-able, but I think it’s more advisable to take advantage of the positives in working out at home or working out outside,” he says. Typically, gyms are stationary experiences – you move from machine to machine, you literally go nowhere on a treadmill – and during exercise you’re not really occupying too much actual space. Not to mention that while you’re trying to make the real world feel more like a gym, those machines you miss so much are all designed to try and replicate…well, the real world. Stairmasters, treadmills with rising and lowering ramps, rowing machines – they are artificially recreating experiences you can have freely anywhere, while actually covering ground and looking at more than just the heart rate monitor in front of you.

“You can have different types of terrain, you can find a hill and have all kinds of fun running up and down or lunging up and down or sidestepping up and down,” says Heffernan. “Take advantage of what these other contexts can do.”

Working parents can utilize outdoor playground time to do something healthier than doom scrolling on their phones by, say, doing some tricep dips on a park bench or even knee tuck planks on a swing set. In other words, the “working out at home” shouldn’t be all that focused on the “at home” part all the time.

Some People Feel Lost Without Equipment

The most interesting thing about the need to recreate the gym experience at home is the weird duality of the problem – on one hand, people may feel lost without the structure and the gear provided by their gym or community fitness center; on the other hand, such rigid, robotic monotony often makes going to the gym or fitness center a drag.

There’s also the specter of prohibitive cost. Some people may be (rightfully) hesitant to invest a lot of money in things they’re not even sure they need. Not having equipment doesn’t mean you have to go broke buying lat pull down machines – it means you get work out your imagination as well as your core.

Heffernan explains this in the context of what’s known as “convergent” equipment and “divergent” equipment. The former is designed to do one thing (like a leg press) while the latter can be used in many different ways (like a medicine ball). “A couple of divergent pieces of ‘equipment’ – not even equipment, just a heavy thing – is a great way to compensate for a lack of stuff,” he says. “You don’t even have to buy anything, you can create with what you have – a bag of soil, a bag of dog food, you can do curls with a gallon of milk. You can take a backpack and throw stones in it. If you’re determined, you can do it. It’s not hard and it’s not expensive. People are hamstrung by this idea, ‘I don’t have the gym, so I can’t get fit.’ I think that’s backwards thinking.”

Not to mention that devotion to a gym-only experience can suck you into what Heffernan describes as “the metaphorical fitness treadmill,” where people begin to feel as though they can only work out with this type of machine, and they need these kinds of clothes, and they can only do it at this time of day. Accepting self-training means opening up to new possibilities and, very likely, a whole new enjoyment of exercise on its own, and not just the accoutrement that comes with going to the gym.

Some People Worry About Going Too Hard or Going Too Light

None of this is to say that taking on your fitness responsibilities doesn’t require a great deal of effort and some discipline, because it does. It may be hard sometimes to motivate to go and workout at a fitness center, but once they you can fall into your routine and usually wake yourself up. At home, with countless distractions as well as potentially a vague sense of what’s “too much” and what’s “too little” can pose problems for the new self-trainer.

“I would guess that, when left to your own devices, you’re probably a little less likely to push as hard,” says Heffernan. “The home gym is very convenient, but you’re also right in the middle of all your distractions. Your kids need help with their homework, the faucet breaks…all of sudden you have to get involved in something else mid-workout.”

The enthusiasm of a New Year’s resolution can, however, result in people diving into the deep end too soon and too frequently. “The danger is, I’m going to do everything, day one,” explains Heffernan. “Hold back the reins a little bit. That motivation is really valuable, so instead of burning through it, do half what you planned on doing.” He suggests changing that 90 minute workout into 40 minutes, or 30 minutes so you don’t exhaust yourself.

“Hold on to some of that enthusiasm and excitement. And then come back a day or two days later and you’re still fired up. Then you’ll make progress.”

Although certainly not as dangerous as pushing too hard, going too light can mean you won’t meet your fitness goals, won’t feel or see results, and may therefore continue to lose motivation. Trying to power lift on January 1st could lead to strain and serious injury, which may turn you off from exercising before you’ve truly begun. Heffernan uses the example of power lifter Phil Stevens, who can deadlift 725 lbs. He says Stevens often laughs at the notion that he’s doing that much weight every time he goes to the gym. “His whole thing is, ‘You think I go to the gym every day and max out? Absolutely not.’ There’s no point in just destroying your body every time.” But doing a little bit and pushing in small increments keeps you energetic, engaged, and healthy.

The vacuum created by the lack of an instructor, trainer, or even motivational gym partner can also be filled by Instagram fitness enthusiasts – which, like everything else, has its pros and cons. It’s great to follow people who inspire you, and they can often provide helpful routines or diet tips to further your fitness journey, but you also have to be sure to bring a healthy dose of self-awareness with you. Unlike an instructor or trainer who knows you and can see you, social media fitness gurus aren’t tailoring their messaging to just you.

“If you’re a 52 year old woman, you don’t necessarily want to turn to a 22 year-old guy who’s been blessed with incredible genetics doing backflips in Instagram,” says Heffernan. “It’s very hard when you’re a young trainer – and I speak from experience – to empathize with someone who doesn’t have your inclinations and skillset or even specific love of exercise. I’ll be 50 next year and I understand now how to approach things much, much differently. So I’d suggest finding someone who is closer to your demographic, or who has enough experience with people in your demographic so they’re not just grafting their high skill level onto you.”

A Lot of People, Though, Are Getting Used to This

Freeing yourself from the confines of a gym, allowing yourself to get creative with your workout “gear,” and allowing yourself to reach your goals at your own pace will not only make the transition to self-training easier, it will keep you motivated and engaged in a whole new way.

As Elizabeth Segran writes for Fast Company, this may very well be the future of fitness. “TD Ameritrade found that 59% of Americans don’t plan to return to their gym after the pandemic, and analysts and industry insiders believe that gyms and fitness studios as we know them could become a thing of the past.”

It’s like every trainer says, you sometimes need to change things up and confuse your muscles in order to see results. Doing the same thing over and over won’t get you there. So embrace the new year and this new start, and you may find yourself with a whole new set of (literal and figurative) strengths you never knew you had.


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