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“I Don’t Know What I’m Doing.”

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“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

This is the most common answer to my question: “What do you do when you go to the gym?”

Most people tell me they do some cardio, some people tell me they play around in the weights room.

But no one I speak to seems to know exactly how to get the best out of the time they invest into their fitness.

Stuff we think is simple causes confusion amongst people who aren’t fitness professionals, which makes total sense…after all, put me in your work place and I wouldn’t have a clue what I was doing either.

“I don’t know what’s best, stretches to warm up or just running for 5mins.”

“I don’t know what order to do my exercises in…I’ve heard people talk about ‘leg day’ and stuff like that, but I just kinda move round the machines.”

“Sets and reps are a mystery to me…I just choose a weight I’m comfortable with and do as many as I can.”

(Again, this isn’t mean as a dig at you if you fall into this camp. Give me a toolbox and ask me to fix something…the outcome would be You’ve Been Framed level funny.)

The thing is, going to the gym is fantastic. If you’re already spending 2-4 hours per week exercising you’re definitely ahead of the curve.

But the majority of people I speak to aren’t happy with what they’re getting from their training.

They’re putting the time in, sure. But they’re not getting a return on their investment – in terms of an improvement in shape, strength, confidence and/or fitness – that justifies them continuing to put the time in.

That’s why the majority of people fall off the fitness wagon.

It’s not because they don’t want to continue to put the time in. It’s that they don’t feel that it’s worth the time they’re putting in because they’re getting nothing back from it.

It’s totally understandable.

After speaking to at least 8 new guys this week who all had similar stories, I thought it’d be helpful to throw a bunch of words at a page aimed at helping them understand how this whole fitness thang works. And I figured it’d probably be beneficial for you to read, too.

So here goes…

The most important thing to note is that everyone is different.

At Improve, we predominantly train 4 people at a time with one coach calling the shots. There’s very rarely a time when we’ve got 4 people doing exactly the same movement or lifting exactly the same amount of weight.

We’ve all got wee niggles, we’ve all got different skill levels and we’ve all got different ability levels; in terms of strength, fitness and even down to human characteristics, such as: determination.

Niggles can be managed with easier versions of the same exercise, which requires knowledge of movement. The majority of gym goers tend to stick to cardio and resistance machines so a knowledge and understanding of movement is never really developed.

Machines are built so that they kind of fix you in place and prevent you from doing anything majorly wrong. They’re great in some cases; i.e. for bodybuilders and for those who’ve got injuries, but at the end of the day, you’re sitting on your ass on a machine moving one body part so it’s difficult to develop an understanding of movement…or burn a significant number of calories.

Skill is simply acquired by doing things more often. The best way to explain this is through a quote I heard when I was younger: “The best way to get better at squatting is to do it every week for ten years.”

So if you’re in the stop-start majority of gym users, it’s difficult for you to see major improvements because the stuff you’re doing (if indeed you’ve even gotten so far as to try lifting weights) is never really getting a chance to get embedded into your brain.

Along the same lines, in terms of ability, if you’re not getting better skill-wise, your ability isn’t going to improve. And if you continue to try to force your body to get stronger/fitter without putting the time in to developing the skill you’re going to be putting yourself at a greater risk of injury than is necessary.

It’s about as unsexy as a pair of granny panties, but this fitness thing takes time.

If you’ve never set foot inside a gym before, it’s unrealistic for you to walk in on day one and smash it.

You’re more than likely going to have to spend a few months sussing out movement patterns developing a basic foundation of strength and muscle development before you can really start smashing things.

Don’t get me wrong, you should still achieve every single time you walk through the doors.

Whether that’s lifting a weight for the first time, finally nailing a movement (a squat, for example) that you’ve been struggling with for ages or making it through a cardio-based session without giving up half-way through.

These are all wins.

Furthermore, you’ll be burning more calories, which means (as long as you’re not using that as an excuse to eat more food) you should be noticing positive changes to your body shape.

The cool thing is that the more your skills develop the better your ability will become and the more your body will be able to do. The more you’re able to do, the more calories you’ll burn and the more impact you’ll have on your body shape.

So, whilst you’ll be notching small wins from the get-go, the real wins will come when you put in the time over a longer period than just a few weeks.

I’m going to move on to talk a bit more geekily about training, and what you should be doing. Maybe you’ve gotten enough from this article to get off the train and get on with your day. If that’s the case, farewell my friend.

If not, let’s keep on rollin’, baby.

There’s three energy systems you should be concerned with when you’re training (or exercising…but let’s stick with training) and they all have different jobs when it comes to improving your wonderful self.

We’ve got the phosphocreatine system, which I’m going to be referring to as the ‘strength system’.

This is when you take a big movement, for example a squat or a deadlift, and you aim for between 4-6 sets of between 1 and 6 repetitions (depending on your program).

Typically, the weight will be heavy here and because of that and the demand it places on your body, you’ll need quite a bit of rest between sets. (Typically 90secs-3mins.)

(NOTE: If you’re new to training you’re going to be best skipping this energy system for the first wee while. The main reason for this is that the strength zone is where most injuries occur, and injuries tend to happen when skill levels aren’t up to the challenge you’re making your body face.

Your focus should simply be on getting better at the movement and you’ll do that by doing loads of reps; i.e. sets of 12-20, which is more ‘toning’ than ‘strength’. You’ll be able to shift a bit more weight after a while, but don’t rush it.)

We’ve got the lactic acid system, which I’m going to be referring to as the ‘toning system’.

The toning system is where you do more repetitions and take less rest. This is what most people do when they go to the gym. You’ll do 3-4 sets of 8-12…even up to 15…reps and you’ll rest for between 30 and 60 seconds between sets.

When you’re training in this system things gets really burny, which most people consider a good thing because they can feel ‘it’ working.

The more experience you have training the easier it is to feel this ‘burn’. If you’re brand new, you’ll probably find your muscles don’t burn the way a more experienced person’s will. You might even find muscles working that shouldn’t necessarily be working.

This is cool…again, you’ve just got to put the time in developing the skills and allow your muscles to slowly adapt to the new stresses you’re placing upon them. It might take a few weeks, it might take a few months but sooner or later you’ll feel that burn and you’ll know you’re heading in the right direction.

As I mentioned above, this system (or zone) allows you to develop skill because you’re doing more reps. It also helps build muscle, which is what gives us that ‘toned’ look. And, even cooler, the more muscle we build the more weight we can lift so we can then start utilising the strength zone safely.

If we can develop our skill and ability in both the tonight and strength zones, it means we can place greater stress upon our body (safely) and therefore yield greater results from our efforts.

The last of the three systems is the one most people are familiar with: the aerobic system, which I’m going to call the ‘cardio system’.

This is when you exercise for between roughly 2 minutes and, well, however long you like: 20mins, an hour, 10 hours, without stopping.

This is what gets the majority the most hot and sweaty and therefore it’s where most people spend most of their time when exercising. It’s where people feel the most ‘bang for their buck’ is and they’re right…to an extent.

The problem with only training in this zone is that it’s very difficult to build muscle in it. So people will burn a ton of calories (and therefore should lose weight), but they’ll struggle to achieve the ‘toned’ look that the majority of people are after because they’re not placing any effort into building muscle.

But, if we consider the 3 systems together…the cardio system is what helps develop the heart and lungs (which is obviously fantastic for general health and wellbeing) and the better they are at dealing with the demands of exercise, the more you can do without having to stop. Which, similar to the strength and toning zones, means that you can place more of a demand on your body and yield greater results.

To bring it home, in my (not so humble) opinion, we should all aim to train each of these 3 systems.

Each one helps the next one out and they all combine to improving you, both as a human being and as a physical specimen…so, yeah, it’s the smart thing to do.

We can train them all in a variety of different ways; i.e. train strength for a week, tone for a week and cardio for a week…or even months at a time.

But I think it’s best, for the lion’s share of us, do train all three energy systems in the same session.

We’re busy after all, aren’t we?!

We can do this in two ways:


A1) Trap bar deadlift: 5 sets of 6 reps, 90secs rest

B1) Walking lunges: 4 sets of 12 reps, 60secs rest

C1) Push ups

C2) Inverted row: 3 sets of 10-12reps, 45secs rest (do both exercises together with no rest in between and rest after you’ve done both)

D1) Mountain climbers x30

D2) Knee hugs x15

D3) Dumbbell push press x15      Do all four exercises back-to-back and rest for 60secs. 4x

D4) Burpees x10

Beginner (NOTE: Skipping the strength zone and making a few movements a little easier.)

A1) Kettlebell deadlift: 5 sets of 15 reps, 45-60secs rest (Some American dude in the video…not me with a new accent.)

B1) Step ups: 4 sets of 12 reps, 45-60secs rest

C1) Push ups

C2) Inverted row: 3 sets of 10-12reps, 45secs rest (do both exercises together with no rest in between and rest after you’ve done both)

D1) Mountain climbers x30

D2) Knee hugs x15

D3) Dumbbell push press x15      Do all four exercises back-to-back and rest for 60secs. 4x

D4) Straight arm plank x20-30secs

Hopefully reading this post has given you more of an idea about what ‘training’ is and helped you understand how you can get more out if it.

If you’d like a little bit of help to get you started, you can apply to join our 30 Day Trial by clicking on the link below:

We’ll help you get to grips with everything and get the ball rolling for you.

Also, if you’ve found this post helpful it’d be awesome if you could share it. I’m sure there’s people around you who would benefit from reading it too.

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