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Even though we all have our personal goals and measure success differently, there are some common reasons why people find themselves in a rut and struggle to see results from working out.

People work out for different reasons, that might be to maintain health, for fun, to be social or (I think the most common reason) is to make some form of physical change. I will say, it’s impossible for anyone to endlessly keep up that upward curve you may have had when you first started – “beginner gains” are a real thing and it’s only normal that your progress will slow down over time. But, if instead of making slow progress, you’re not seeing any results from working out or find yourself regressing you might need to reassess and change up your approach.

The following are 7 common reason people stop seeing results in the gym:

1. YOUR GOAL IS TOO VAGUE

If you’ve hit that workout plateau but not sure why, the first thing I would suggest is to take a closer look at your goals.

Apart from not having a goal at all, the most common mistake exercisers make is that the goal they set for themselves is either set too far away (which usually leads to lack of motivation) or the goal is too vague.

An example of a target that isn’t specific enough could be: “My goal is to become stronger”, which is what probably 50% of my clients say to me when we start, or they say “my goal is to tone up.” But how would you measure that? How do you define what exactly is stronger or more toned? A clearly defined, attainable and measurable goal is important to establish; in doing so you are able to pursue and plan for something that indicates your progression, rather than wandering around the weight room looking for anything. An example of a goal could be “1.5x or double bodyweight full range of motion squat in 20 weeks.” Then once you reach your goal set a new one!

2. YOUR GOAL IS UNREALISTIC

Many times the clients I work with don’t believe enough in themselves, but some of them take it to the other extreme and set the bar way too high for them to reach. As a result, they end up getting knocked down by disappointment – all because of unrealistic expectations.

So, it’s important to be aware of what is attainable with your current fitness level. For example, if you don’t have a strong running background (let alone if you have no running experience at all) setting a goal of running your first marathon in sub 3 hours means setting yourself up for failure.

A more realistic starting point could be to aim to run a 5K or a 10K first. If you go for the 42K, your first marathon should be about gaining the experience and crossing the finish line, never mind the time. My point is, aiming high isn’t a bad thing, but it’s important to recognize and pinpoint the milestones on the journey, and what your prerequisites might be.

3. YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO MONITOR PROGRESS

Setting attainable goals that you can measure is key, but the next step is to understand how to monitor progress.

If you set a big goal for yourself and six months from now see if you got there, there’s a chance you’ll find yourself nowhere near where you wanted to be because you’ve been doing things that haven’t been working for you. The key is to set and measure smaller milestones along the way and adjust your plan as you go. There are various ways to do this but to name a few, here’s what I suggest:

  • If your goal is to back squat with double bodyweight in 20 weeks, start the cycle with a test to see where you are in the beginning and then re-test in 8 weeks to see your progression. Then adjust your program accordingly to achieve your main goal in the end.
  • If you’re looking to add more capacity to your conditioning, one way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to choose a time for a certain rowing or running distance. Then monitor your heart rate for that time and see if you can lower your average heart rate in the following weeks in the exact same domain. If your average HR drops progressively, you know your work capacity has increased.

It’s good to have at least 3 months to see proper physical change no matter what your goal may be. Ideally, if your main goal is, say, 3 months away, I would set smaller goals/milestones, for every two weeks and make sure they are realistic enough so you’ll be able to hit them and get a sense of achievement and a nice motivation boost.

4. YOU’RE NOT VARYING YOUR WORKOUTS

Plain routine is the enemy blocking your way to better fitness results. Repeating the same exercise routines will lead to plateau in workout performance and results – not to mention you’ll get bored and lose motivation. Your body needs new stimuli and progressive training if you want to see results. 

Both HIIT and steady-state cardio are essential even if your main goal is to build muscle and strength. To optimize muscle growth and there-on strength, you need a solid cardiovascular base to feed your muscles with nutrients etc. The best way to vary your workouts is to do functional fitness due to its complexity. If you do constantly varied functional movements the hormonal responses in your body will be greater because your body won’t be able to adapt as fast and will need to work harder to keep up with the new stimulus.

There are numerous ways to spice up your workouts by varying intensity, weights, duration or working on entirely new muscle groups or trying completely new activities – vary your workouts and the results will speak for themselves.

5. YOU DON’T WARM UP

You’re pumped and can’t wait to get to your actual workout or maybe you’re short on time and need to be out the door quickly. I know it’s tempting to skip warming up and just get right to the point. But, if you don’t warm up, you’ll get less out of your workout as your body won’t be ready to give it your 100%.

The purpose of a warm-up is to gently activate and prepare your muscles for the workout and get your heart pumping more blood into the muscles with every beat. How to best prepare for your body for exercise depends (naturally) on the workout you’re about to do but there are some common principles that apply to warming up in general.

A good warm-up should always include three steps:

  1. Progressively increase your heart rate to get the blood flowing in your whole body by doing something simple e.g burpees, jogging or rowing.
  2. Perform a mobility routine to get your body ready and mobile for the actual workout, e.g if you are going to run then focus on your ankles, calfs, and posterior chain.
  3. Get your mind in the game and start practicing the movements ahead. It’s important to make a clear difference between training and practicing, e.g before a heavy olympic weightlifting session you are practicing all the different technical components of the movement.

6. YOU DON’T RECOVER

The saying goes: “No rest, no gain!” That means seeing fitness results requires recovery. I often say to my clients that their success is not determined by the hour they spend with me once, twice or three times a week, it’s determined by what they do outside of their time with me.

Of course, your level of fitness will affect the time you need to recover. A rule of thumb would be three days of training per week for beginners and up to six for the more advanced.

In addition to post-workout recovery routines, rest days and active recovery, sleep is one of the key factors in recovery. During your sleep the hormonal production is at its peak so the amount and quality of your sleep will clearly affect your results.

7. YOUR DIET IS OFF

With all the conflicting nutrition advice out there, figuring out what and when to eat is easier said than done. For many people optimal nutrition is individual so the only way to truly know what works for you is to try, monitor and adjust.

Because our bodies are unique, it’s challenging to give out generic nutrition advice applicable to everyone, in all situations, but if you aim to eat unprocessed whole foods, high-quality proteins and essential fats (e.g. from avocados and nuts) as often as possible, you’re off to a great start.

Written By: Ashley Dunwell, MS, NASM-CPT