Don’t Overthink These Things When You’re Getting Into Fitness

Don’t Overthink These Things When You’re Getting Into Fitness

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There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about fitness, which isn’t so surprising when you think about how it means different things to different people. Some people train for competitions, while others exercise to be healthy. Some people love cardio, and some would rather lift weights all day. This variety in perspectives is enough to overwhelm a beginner, so let’s cut through the noise with a list of fitness misconceptions you can safely ignore.

But before we dive in, what does matter? I would boil the important things down to the following:

That’s all you really need to know to get moving. What follows are a list of things that (in my opinion) beginners spend far too much time worrying about. That doesn’t mean this stuff doesn’t matter at all, but they are things you can mostly ignore and still be able to get stronger, fitter, faster, and healthier.

It barely matters how many reps of an exercise you do

Should you do eight to 12 repetitions of each strength exercise? Or five sets of five?

While shorter sets are supposed to build strength and longer sets are supposed to build size, the truth is that strength and size go together. When you get stronger, your muscles get bigger, and vice versa. As a beginner you really don’t need to worry about whether you’re in the “optimal” rep range for your goals, so long as each set feels like hard work. Sets of five with heavier weight and sets of 10 with lighter weight will give similar results.

You don’t need to change your body weight right away

People often get into exercise at the same time they decide they would like to lose fat, or gain muscle. Some exercise programs come with instructions that say you should eat a ton of food and “bulk” while you’re running them; others assume that your goal will be losing weight and that you’ll want to create a calorie deficit.

If you want to change the size of your body, that’s up to you. But you don’t need to connect that to your fitness goals. You can simply start exercising now, and decide later whether you want to be bigger or smaller or if you’re fine at the size you are. (Please do make sure you get enough protein, though.)

It’s not bad to take “walk breaks” when you’re running

One of the first things you need to learn when you take up running is how to run slow enough that you don’t exhaust yourself in the first 30 seconds. You also need to understand that your body needs to build the fitness to be able to run continuously. You simply may not be ready for a continuous half-hour run yet. That’s the idea behind walk-run approaches like Couch to 5K.

But one downside of a Couch to 5K is that many think of the running parts as “real” running, and the walking parts as “breaks,” or as somehow failing at the task of running. The thing is, if you get from the start to the finish line of a race (5K or otherwise) at anything other than a fully walking pace, you’ve run it. What’s more: you’re still building cardio fitness when you walk quickly, and that cardio fitness is what will eventually enable you to run more and to run faster.

You don’t need “perfect” form on your exercises

Perfect form is overrated. You need form that is good enough. If your squat is a complete mess, your knees are touching, your thighs are nowhere near parallel, and you hurt when you’re doing it, then yes, something is wrong. But if you’re squatting a loaded barbell and it feels good and the weight is moving well, you don’t need to obsessively rewatch videos of yourself in search of subtle signs of “knee cave” or “butt wink.”

Yeah, maybe you’re not perfect yet. Nobody is. But if you’re lifting safely and effectively, your form is good enough. You’ll refine it as you go.

You can’t waste your newbie gains

When you’re new to exercise, it’s easy to make progress. You’ll gain more muscle and strength in your first year of lifting than in any following year, which is pretty cool.

This is just because there’s a lot of low hanging fruit you can collect as a beginner. It’s not because newbie gains are some kind of magical spell with an expiration date. The principle of newbie gains just states that the weaker you are, the more room you have for improvement.

In short: you can’t “waste” or “lose” your newbie gains if you take a break during your first year. And you’ll still have plenty of room to improve even after you’re out of the noob stage.

No one piece of equipment is all that special

It’s easy to get caught up in the marketing hype surrounding booty bands or ankle weights or Pelotons or airbikes or that weird machine that lets you do an assisted squat.

None of this stuff is important. There are literally hundreds of ways to exercise your booty without booty bands. No single piece of equipment is essential, not even my beloved barbell. As long as you’re doing some kind of cardio and some kind of strength training, you’ll be okay.

Your workout split does not matter

One way of organizing your strength training is by body part: chest on Monday, back and biceps on Tuesday, for example. You can do a five-day split, or a push-pull-legs split, or an upper-lower split, and there are good programs that follow each of them.

But the split itself does not matter. A split is just organization. Asking about the best split is like saying, “I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Is that a good diet?”

There is no “best” warmup routine

Whether we’re talking cardio or strength, the point of a warmup is to prepare you for the workout ahead. Maybe you have a body part that tends to be stiff; some stretches for that area can help limber you up. Maybe you need to practice the proper technique for one of your exercises to be sure you’ll do it right; some technique drills in the warmup can help set you up for success.

That means there’s no “right” warmup for everybody. If you’re clueless about what to do when you walk in the gym, hop on a cardio machine or do a few bodyweight exercises (walking lunges, pushups, rows) and then start in on your workout for the day. If your body needs something more specific than that, it will let you know.

You don’t need to worry about your heart rate (at first)

All the gadgets these days can measure your heart rate and tell you whether you’re in the right “zone” for the kind of training you intend to do. But they all use a formula based on your maximum heart rate, and they’re probably wrong. While there are formulas that can guess your maximum heart rate, every body is different, and your gadget doesn’t actually know your max heart rate unless you’ve done a max effort (which, as a beginner, you probably never have.)

Instead, know that most cardio should be done in “zone 2,” which is the effort level where you’re breathing a bit harder than at rest, but you can still easily hold a conversation and you don’t feel out of breath. The other zones are higher, with zones 4 and 5 (in most systems) being an effort level you can hold for less than a minute. Go by these perceived effort levels at first, and simply notice what your heart rate is when you’re in them. If a heart rate of 135 feels hot and sweaty but not killer, that’s probably in your zone 2, no matter what your watch says.

You don’t need to worry about the mind-muscle connection

Can you feel that muscle working? It’s okay if you can’t. Some people have trouble feeling specific muscles working; some of us never pay attention to it at all, and we still get stronger anyway.

There’s no way to do a pullup or a lat pulldown without using your lats. There’s no way to do a bicep curl without involving your biceps. There’s no way to do a bench press without involving your chest and your triceps. If you’re doing the exercise, the muscle is working, whether you feel it or not.

Your strength will fluctuate from day to day

We aren’t at our best every day. You know that about everyday life: you don’t expect to be optimally focused at work every single day or equally patient with your kids every second of every hour. So why do we get so surprised if we did five pullups on Monday but only three today?

The truth is that myriad factors affect our performance in the gym, not least fatigue from our previous workouts. That’s not a bad thing; feeling fatigued is part of the same process that ultimately makes us stronger. We have a guide to when you can expect to hit personal records in the gym, and, get this: the answer is not “literally every day.”

You don’t need to know what you’re doing on the first day

If you’re new to the gym, you probably assume everybody in there knows what they’re doing, and you’ll be the odd one out. But the truth is, a lot of people in there don’t know what they’re doing. That’s not a bad thing; we all kind of figure out life as we go along. It may make sense to think of working out as being like “adulting”—a thing that many of us feel intimidated about but somehow manage to do anyway.

Don’t worry if you’re the weakest or most out-of-shape person there; going to the gym is how you fix that. And if somebody tells you you’re doing something wrong, don’t question all your life choices up to that point. Just read our guide to dealing with unsolicited gym advice.


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