This summer, I turned 32. It marks 16 years since I started work-ing out. Half my life. Weird.
I actually remember my first day in a fitness club. It was sensory overload: humming treadmills, bright fluorescent lights, aerobic classes, and lots of sweaty people. I found myself in the weight room with the free weights. I was a deer in headlights trying not to look like an amateur. Gym intimidation is definitely real and I had it. If it wasn’t for tons of reading, copy-catting, and asking questions from the trainers and gym veterans, I may never have found my way.
As I look back on all the years of sweat and clanging metal, there was a point, about two years after I started, where I had a strange epiphany. In every gym I went to, only a small percent-age of people continually got stronger, leaner, and continued to improve. But a much larger majority who populated the health club everyday didn’t seem to change at all, people who worked out hard and often. And yet, despite all their efforts, they hardly looked like they exercised.
Why is that? How can someone work so hard, show up so consistently, and yet, achieve almost nothing in terms of progress? Well, in the 16 years of training, I’ve found that this is usu-ally due to something I had when I first started: A flawed perception of what exercise is.
For a long time in my initial workout days, I thought the whole point of going the gym was to burn calories. I figured, I’m supposed to “burn off” all the food I eat, right? So, with about 40 pounds to lose, I’d do lots of calorie scorching activities. I would run, bike, elliptical, and hit any machine I could. I’d watch the monitor tell me how many miles and calories I burned with satisfaction.
It was effective, at first. But after a few months, I hit a plateau. No more weight loss. And the problem was, how do you bust through a plateau when you’re already giving 110%?
Nevertheless, I’d tried to cut more calories and do even more cardio. I’d wear a sweatshirt, sit in the sauna, get hopped up on pre-workout caffeine cocktails. I tried it all. I soon reached a point where I just couldn’t run any more than I was. And regarding my diet, I was already as “low carb” as you can get. Having done everything I could, I was stuck with nowhere to go.
My frustration led me to keep study-ing the literature on training and one day I came across a novel concept that I almost overlooked: Muscle is expensive. When your body builds muscle, that lean tissue has a cost, it burns calories to maintain. So as a person adds muscle, they increase the calories they burn throughout the day. The more muscle they have, the more calories they burn. If I increase my muscle, over time my metabolism would increase and in turn, burn calories in and out of the gym. This was a game changer.
I realized most of the exercise people do does the exact opposite. People, in the pursuit of more calorie burning, often end up overtraining with cardio and high volume, couple that with poor eating and it makes it hard to build lean muscle and causes whatever muscle they do have to get burned for fuel.
With my previous routine, the harder I worked, the harder it made it to keep my results because it worked against lean muscle growth. I discovered that if I wanted to transform my body, training in the gym should stimulate strength and preserve/build muscle. That’s it. Cardio should be used sparingly as a supplement to resistance training, not be the foundation.
After discovering this, by approaching exercise in a way that aligned with how my physiology was designed to change, I achieved more in three months than the previous two years (and with significantly less effort and time).
I know not everyone is in the gym to transform their body, I’m not talking to them. But if you are spending hours training not getting anywhere, this might be why. Change how you see exercise and what you see from exercise will change.
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