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  • Writer's pictureAsh Radford

Over motivation- the great killer of new exercise routines

Every now and again you hear something that sticks with you.

In 25 years of Personal Training 4 or 5 things have stayed with me.

One though stands out:

“The biggest killer of new exercise routines is over enthusiasm.”

Upon hearing that my understanding of how to start exercise, and make it habit, changed.

It was on a sports training video. The fact video has since disappeared and DVD’s are also almost gone, that shows how much has changed. What hasn’t changed though is the validity of that statement.

All I’ve experienced since has only confirmed the wisdom in that 1 sentence.

Credit to the man who said it- Ashley Jones. A respected strength and conditioning coach. He’s worked with many pro sports teams including the mighty All Blacks. I doubt he knew that one line would have such impact on someone. It did because my approach to fitness training was ‘enthusiasm wins’.

My mind-set was to go hard, and often. As soon as that shifted my own training became more sustainable and enjoyable. While any new personal training clients had a gentler yet more effective experience. They stuck around longer as well. Why though does over enthusiasm kill exercise routines?

There are several reasons;

1. Go too hard too soon and injury risk skyrockets

Injury puts a halt to exercise.

Try to train like an Olympian after a long lay off and you invite injury. The rise in exercise injuries during Covid 19 lockdowns shows that.

Great resolve to a new fitness routine can come with an exuberance. This can impair judgement. Even when aware of injury risk, it's easy to get carried away and plough ahead at full steam.

Injury costs time and money. It dents confidence and motivation to re-start as well.

2. You can't keep up Rocky Balboa level intensity for long

Highly motivated runners lying exhausted after race on athletics track
Photo by Massimo Sartirana on Unsplash

Back in the late 90’s while I working in a corporate gym, a young guy joined with big plans to become a body builder. Driven by the break-up of his engagement, he committed to working out 6 times a week. This was in spite of no history of regular weight training. He threw himself into his supersonic new routine.

All the staff supported him while watching on with interest. It was a long shot- he was attempting a complete physical transformation, and fast! It was like watching Rocky rising up against the odds.

Not surprisingly after 4 to 5 weeks he started to miss workouts. A month later he wasn’t coming at all. He started with a blaze of glory but didn’t reach the point of making exercise a habit.

Nice guy and no great harm done. After all he didn’t get injured, life just got in the way. Such an extreme level of change and commitment proved too much.

We’ve all felt that excitement when starting a project. Although it can be useful motivational fuel, it’s almost deceptive. It seems like the great drive will last forever.

Once the shiny newness fades we’re faced with the inevitable days when it all feels too hard. Novelty and optimism give way to a sense of grind. It’s the point at which we typically stop, feeling the eye ‘of the tiger’ spirit has left us. Never to return.

It can feel like we don’t have the fire within- like all those fit people must.

3. It limits progress which impacts motivation

It seems counter-intuitive as we tend to think results are proportionate to effort.

With exercise though, you need to leave some space for improvement. This takes some explaining:

Let’s say the most push ups you can do is 10 and your goal is to up that to 15. You decide the best way forward is to start doing 3 sets of 10 push ups, 3 times a week. Each week you’ll add a repetition i.e. week 2- 3 x 11, week 3- 3 x 12 etc. After 6 weeks you’ll be doing 3 sets of 15 push ups- goal achieved!

Seems like a great plan. Well, not quite. There are 2 problems with this approach. Firstly, you can't do your most possible 3 times

If 10 is your best, it is your best when muscles are fresh. Try for 10, rest for a minute and do your most again and you'll likely get to about 7. Wait another minute and with third attempt it'll be around 5 you're able to push out.

That'd mean 22 total push ups. Not the 30 you were planning on. Many of those 22 push ups would be hard work. Muscles will be too tired to effectively do other strength exercise to follow in your workout. Doing 3 sets of 7 reps would feel very different but you’d still get 21 reps done. It’d be more comfortable and take less out of you for any exercises after the push ups. This less intense approach is also much easier to find the motivation to do. Secondly, the rate at which you can progress will be slower At the 70% level (3 sets of 7) you’ll find adding a repetition weekly (3 x 8 in 2nd week, 3 x 9 in 3rd etc) allows you to progress for weeks on end. It’ll get a little harder as you near 3 x 12 but it’ll be achievable. That regular progress will be close to impossible if you go for your maximum each time. The body adapts but it needs some time and a small level of regular overload. Starting at 70% rather than 100% allows for that to happen. A study of young men strength training 3 times a week shows the superior results from more moderate effort. If you take the moderate option to start have that space to improve in 6 weeks you’ll do 36 total push ups (3 x 12). If you re-test your maximum you’ll find your new best will be close to 20- that’s a big change! It’s not just relevant to strength training either.

A popular marathon training method is the 80/20 rule. 80% of training at a moderate (60% of max) level, while 20% of time is spent doing high intensity efforts. They know the body needs a level of volume, call it practice if you like, to improve and taking it easy is the optimal way to do the miles. It’s training smarter not harder. It's less effort for more continuous improvement.

4. Extreme soreness is likely & that'll impact when you can next exercise

Imagine you plan to exercise on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Because you're keen though on Monday you go so hard it leaves you sore and hobbling. The Wednesday workout becomes almost impossible. The Friday session may be too much to bear too.

Not only are your plans for the week in tatters, but you look and feel like the like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz.

The idea is for exercise to enhance your life, not make daily tasks difficult or painful.

That deep ache and stiffness gets pretty tiring. Ever noticed how retiring sportspeople often say it’s one of the reasons they’re giving it away?

Let’s say you are able to muster up the motivation to exercise while sore.

Well, in spite of the best of intentions it’s not wise. Soreness is a good indicator you haven’t recovered. It’s likely micro tears to muscles are yet to repair. This makes you more susceptible to an actual muscle strain or worse still, a serious tear.

Should that happen progress of course will come to a grinding halt.

A degree of soreness is fine and some people take it as the measure of a good workout. That's poles apart from deep, debilitating muscle soreness. Which doesn’t help with getting regular exercise done.

How can you capitilise on enthusiasm without quashing it?

*Direct some of it into making and implementing a plan

If you accept going like a bull at a gate isn’t as smart, it's wise then to put together a plan. It’ll help optimise your chances of racking up the workouts.

You need to give some thought as to how hard, how long, how far you’ll go. Plus consider the logistics of where and when you’ll train. It’ll also pay off to think about obstacles that could come up. If you lead a busy life get real about what it’ll take to stay committed.

A sound plan is one that you can adjust to meet your needs. Plus, it helps keep you going when obstacles come up.

I don’t just mean a grand plan either.

I mean on a weekly basis preparing for the workouts ahead. This takes a deceptive amount of effort and energy, given the challenges life can throw up. This planning goes a long way to making exercise happen. After all, that’s what matters.

*Consider motivation and enthusiasm as limited resources

It’s understandable to want to take advantage of motivation and enthusiasm while it’s there. Excitement offers a pretty good launch pad. However, take a measured approach to start, the medium to long term payoffs are even more exciting.

You need to sustain effort to make fitness habit and get significant results. There is no other way.

Burn all your motivational fuel quickly and you’ll be trying to run on empty. Despite how it seems, the fittest aren’t those with blessed with incredible drive and desire. They are very committed to frequent, repeatable level efforts though.

Once exercise habit is a habit, it doesn’t take superhuman motivation to maintain. Motivation is needed but use up too much too soon and you won't reach that point where it's a habit.

Temper your enthusiasm, try saving some of it for times when the going gets tough.

Exercise science shows us that body fat gets used more as fuel as fitness increases. Similarly, you’ll find motivation easier to tap into as the exercise habit takes hold.

*For the first month of a new exercise routine finish every workout feeling like you could have done more

It’s a simple guide but I’m sure that’s not what most people feel when they start an exercise routine.

Consider a workout that leaves you feeling like you couldn’t blow out a candle. Compare that to the motivation needed for a workout in your comfort zone. Obviously the latter option will be easier to repeat for weeks on end.

Ignore the advice that you only get better by getting uncomfortable. It’s too simplistic. There’s more to improving and developing an exercise habit than that.

No doubt you want to feel exercise is intense enough to create change. At the risk of labouring the point though, you need to make it repeatable. As you establish the habit you can then push further into discomfort.

Finish a workout feeling like you could have done more and you’ll likely walk into the next one with a spring in your step. Enjoy that article?

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