You’ve been going to the gym every week -- several times a week, in fact. You’ve taken classes, lifted weights, and sweated more than Muhammad Ali. But every time you climb on that scale, your weight stays the same.
What’s with that? Isn’t working out the sure-fire way to lose extra pounds?
Not if you’re making the same exercise mistakes that many do in the gym.
“The lifestyle that is involved with maintaining a healthy body weight involves more than what you put in your mouth,” says James A. Peterson, PhD, FACSM, the author of more than 80 books on health, nutrition, and exercise. “Many people think that if you go into the gym and bump up against a weight machine, you’re going to lose weight.”
Peterson, who oversaw the exercise program at West Point for nearly 20 years, says that misconceptions abound when it comes to maximizing weight loss through working out. One such example is confusing sweating with burning calories.
“Sweating just means you have a hyperactive internal system,” he says. “It doesn’t have a single thing to do with losing weight, or with burning calories, which is how much work you do. Also, sweating is all water weight -- which is all replaced once you take in liquid again. It doesn’t mean anything.”
A far bigger problem with weight control, however, is that many people simply don’t know how to exercise properly.
“They don’t know how to use the machines. They don’t know how to design and follow a proper exercise regimen, so they get in there and go through the motions, and don’t achieve a lot,” Peterson says. “Then, when they get discouraged, they go back to the lifestyle factors that caused the weight increase in the first place.”
So what else might you be doing wrong during your workout? Check out these frequent faux pas.
Exercise Mistake #1: Too much socializing, not enough exercising.
“I see a lot of individuals talking with each other in the gym,” says Scott Lucett, director of education for the National Academy of Sports Medicine and a certified personal trainer for more than 15 years. “Next thing they know, an hour has passed and the amount of time they have actually spent exercising is relatively low.” So focus on your workout -- and save the chit-chat for the juice bar.
Exercise Mistake #2: Lack of intensity.
Do you see your gym time as the perfect way to catch up on your reading? Are you leaning on the machines? Lots of people are just going through the motions, even though they may look like they’re working out. “They think that as long as they’re moving, they’re going to lose weight,” Lucett says. “But if the intensity is not at the level that it needs to be at, it’s almost a waste of time.”
In addition to increasing your intensity levels, Peterson also recommends working out for longer periods of time, increasing weights and distance, cross-training, working out on an incline, and maximizing your body weight while working out, by using a weighted vest or ankle weights, for example.
Exercise Mistake #3: Always training in the 'fat burning' heart rate zone.
You’ve seen those charts on the cardiovascular machines that list “zones.” But in the so-called “fat-burning zone,” your training intensity isn’t very high -- usually 65%-70% of your heart rate. Research, however, has shown that the higher the intensity, the more calories you burn -- not only while exercising, but after you leave the gym, when your body benefits from an “after-burn” mode.
“It’s as if you turn off your car engine, but the hood is still warm,” Lucett says. “The same thing happens with the body. You need to make sure that your intensity is higher than that chart.” Unable to work out that hard? Work your way up.
Exercise Mistake #4: Overestimating caloric expenditure.
Don’t let the number on the screen of your cardio machine fool you, either. “That’s a very general number and there are a lot of variables that play into that,” Lucett says. “The machine may say that you’ve expended 500 calories, but you could only be burning 250.”
This can be especially true when you do things to “trick” the machine, like leaning on the bars. Unbeknownst to that computer, which relies on speed and revolutions to calculate calories, you’re offsetting your weight, which means you are significantly decreasing the amount of work you’re doing.
Exercise Mistake #5: Not progressing/changing your program.
When you do the same workout over and over again, the body has no reason to change. “You’ll see an initial loss, but eventually you’ll get to a point of diminishing returns,” Lucett says.
Another challenge, Peterson says, is getting away from the machines and routines that you feel most comfortable with.
“You like the feeling of aerobic exercise, so you don’t do what it takes to maintain your muscle mass, which is the body tissue that burns calories -- the furnace,” he says. “Or you do only strength training, which maintains muscle mass, but you don’t lose weight." Those little string-bean guys who run marathons? They often don’t do anything to ensure the success of the process by, say, engaging in strength training. You have to have a mix.
Exercise Mistake #6: Spot reduction training.
Those articles that guarantee you can lose fat from your abs or glutes? Forget ‘em, say the experts. “People need to understand that genetics is the primary factor in determining where that body fat comes from,” Lucett says. “Your body is going to take fat from anywhere it wants.” The answer? Just focus on burning calories through a well-balanced training program. You’ll eventually lose the weight from all areas of your body.
Exercise Mistake #7: Improper exercise technique.
When you don’t know how to use a machine or perform an exercise properly, you can easily confuse mechanical inefficiency with caloric burn, Peterson says. Doing an exercise wrong can also lead to injury. “If you get injured, you can’t work out,” Lucett says. “And, if you can’t work out, you won’t be burning calories in the gym.”
The challenge, of course, is knowing when you’re doing something wrong -- especially if you’re relying on techniques from “back in the day.” Exercise science has evolved tremendously in the past few decades, and so have weight machines. So get an experienced gym employee to do the rounds with you, or consider hiring a personal trainer for a session or two (see tip #9).
Exercise Mistake #8:Doing too much too soon.
In addition to injuring yourself, if you jump into an exercise program too soon, you can become overly sore. Being sore isn’t bad; it’s actually your body’s way of telling you that it’s building muscle. But working out too hard, especially early on, can have a detrimental effect on your motivation.
Another symptom of overtraining is fatigue, which will impact the amount of activity you do the rest of the day. “You’re not burning a lot of calories in the gym. Most of your calories are expended throughout the other 23 hours,” he says. “It’s vital to make sure that what you’re doing during that hour translates into increased caloric expenditure the rest of the day.” The solution? Make sure you get a personalized program to help with your workout. Many gyms now have a computer that will do just this. If not, someone on staff will be able to help. Many people don’t realize it, but periodic one-on-one sessions are often included with those membership fees. Be sure to ask.
Exercise Mistake #9: Not working with a professional who is certified by an accredited organization.
A professional will also make sure that you don’t fall prey to any of these traps. “A personal trainer is your insurance policy to make sure you get the maximum efficiency out of your efforts,” Peterson says.
So whether it’s a certified personal trainer or an experienced gym employee, consider working with someone to customize your training regimen. He or she will take the guesswork out of the equation, create a personalized plan tailored to your specific needs, make sure you’re doing your workout correctly and even give you tips on proper diet - an even bigger piece of the weight loss puzzle. If you stick with it, you’ll finally start to see those pounds disappear.