If you’re breaking a sweat on the regular but have little to show for it, these common mistakes could be holding you back.
If you’ve been running a ton of miles and working out like a beast and still aren’t seeing results, you’ve probably tried everything to break your plateau. When none of it seems to work, it’s discouraging. Usually though, there’s a reason for it. Take a look at six common reasons why your workout isn’t working, and use these tips and tactics to understand what you can do about it.
#1: YOU’RE NOT PACING YOURSELF
Most everyone who’s done weight training has encountered the same frustrations you have. Struggles are part of the journey and the reality is that results often come slower than you think they will. Here’s the big picture: Each time you lift a weight, you damage muscle fibers. That damage triggers cellular growth and recovery in your body. But that process takes weeks, not days, to complete, so any day-to-day changes will be very slight. Your muscles won’t suddenly grow to twice their size after one workout session.
#2: YOU’RE NOT SLEEPING ENOUGH
The majority of human growth hormone is produced during deep sleep, so if you’re going to bed late and waking up early, you’re likely not producing enough growth hormone to support muscle building and recovery. Sleep should be #1 on any exerciser’s to-do list.
“Getting enough rest after a workout strengthens your muscles and tissues, which reduces fatigue and exercise-related injuries,” says Douglas, who recommends getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Studies show that even a single night of sleep deprivation can reduce muscle synthesis by almost 20 percent.
What’s more, several studies have found that sleep loss activates pleasure-seeking parts of the brain while diminishing cerebral activity. The net result: Sleep-deprived people take a hard pass on wholesome foods and instead reach for sugary stuff that leads to weight gain.
If you have a hard time getting to sleep, try out a pair of glasses that block blue light two or three hours before bed. Research shows the blue light of phones and computers at night may interfere with melatonin production and sleep quality.
#3: YOU’RE NOT EATING ENOUGH
It’s virtually never a good idea to under-eat while you train, Doing so might prevent your muscles from recovering after your workout. So many athletes make the mistake of under-eating.
The amount of food (particularly carbohydrates) needed to fuel a workout might surprise you. Someone who works out at a moderate-to-high intensity for an hour each day likely needs about 5 to 7 grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight each day, For a 150-pound person, that's a minimum of 340 grams per day—much more than many people think they need. In terms of overall calorie needs, a lot depends on your age, gender, size, body composition and the type of workout you’re doing.
#4: YOU’VE GOT TOO MUCH STRESS
Getting results from your workout isn’t just about taking care of your body. If your mind is stressed from work, relationships or other anxieties, your muscle-building hormones will decrease while muscle-hindering hormones increase.
The relationship between stress and muscle growth is largely dependent on your sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight nervous system. Its purpose is to keep you alive during short-term threats, like running from a bear. Your body accomplishes this through releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which break down fats and proteins into high-octane glucose. These hormones increase your heart rate and temporarily boost your energy so that you can run faster and escape harm when you experience danger.
In the short term, this is beneficial. But if your stress is long term, these hormones will deplete your energy reserves and prevent your muscles from building back after a hard workout. Activities such as mindfulness, meditation and talking about your problems can lower stress—and therefore, the production of these hormones—and encourage muscle growth.
#5: YOU’RE OVERTRAINING
If you’re pounding the pavement or working out seven times a week, there’s a good chance you’re overtraining your body and preventing gains. Your exercise capacity depends on several factors, including your age, experience, genetics, stress and health. If you work out too much, your muscles and connective tissue become inflamed and broken down. Research also shows that muscle-building hormones such as testosterone are substantially decreased from overtraining. “You’ll become tired on a cellular level from pushing your system past its natural limits,” says Hickey, a registered dietician and personal trainer.
As you become experienced in your training, you’ll be able to push your body harder. But even then, you’ll want to include enough low-intensity and rest days to recoup your energy.
#6: YOU’RE NOT FOLLOWING A WORKOUT PROGRAM
Good results come from good plans. But many recreational weightlifters or cardio enthusiasts don’t follow one. According to Kasey Phillips, NASM-certified personal trainer in the San Francisco Bay area, this is the reason why so many people are struggling with fitness gains right now.
“Not following a workout program is like driving without a navigation device to somewhere you’ve never been,” says Phillips. “Sure, you might get to your destination eventually, but how long is it going to take you? How many detours are you going to make? How frustrated are you going to get?” Doing workouts that are guided by a proven plan—one that has helped others achieve similar results—is key, she says.
And if you’ve been following a workout program and have reached a plateau, it probably means it’s time to vary your routine. “You’ll want to change up your sets and reps scheme so that you can lift heavy on some days, medium on some days, and light on some days,” Phillips said. This “muscle confusion” technique is backed by research showing it to be beneficial for motivation and strength increases.
The bottom line: Over time, you should see results from your workouts, but don’t expect overnight miracles. Slow and steady is the name of the game when it comes to raising the fitness bar.