I’ve been steadily on the fitness wagon for about 4 years, now. I can’t even begin to describe the myriad improvements that have resulted from the journey. But along the way, I’ve managed to steer my wagon into a few damaging potholes that in hindsight, should have been obvious. In this post, I’m going to back up and put some orange road cones up for anyone else on this road.
1. Too Much, Too Soon
I have caused myself some severe setbacks by trying to progress too quickly. No matter how fit you’re feeling, you have to work yourself up to new types of activities. The body needs to get used to the motions and proper form needs to be developed For examples of this, I’ll refer you to my well-documented stress fracture incident and how I gave myself swimmer’s shoulder as I was trying to work around my broken foot.
2. Taking Habit Too Far
The key to kicking obesity out of my life has been to form a few healthy habits and then to protect those habits. Fiercely. About 3 years ago, though, I took this a bit too far and settled on a workout routine I didn’t change for over a year.
The routine was a 4 day split that cycled from light weight/high reps to heavy weight/low reps through a 4 week period. At first, it seemed to be working great. I got to know this routine so well after a few months of it that I stopped taking my exercise tracking sheet t the gym and stopped recording my weights. I stuck with it and didn’t realize until almost a year had passed that I had completely plateaued in all my exercises. I was making no progress at all. In fact, in some cases it felt like I was regressing. Worse, I was starting to feel nagging pain in my shoulders.
Of course, I should have been obvious. Had I been tracking my weights I would have noticed my lack of progress much sooner and I would have looked for ways to do something about it. But I was so wound up in my “habit” and scared to change it that I didn’t think to look for alternate routines. Most trainers say you should switch up your routine every 4 to 6 weeks, or at the most, switch programs when you stop making progress.
I changed my exercise routine and also adjusted my diet to introduce carbs at the right times and began making progress again. No harm was done to my healthy habit of regularly visiting the gym and eating right. I’ve been able to use routines that have me visiting the gym as few times as twice a week and I always find my way back on the days I’m supposed to.
Maintaining a habit doesn’t mean that every detail of it needs to remain unchanged: some variety is essential.
3. Crappy Form
The aforementioned soreness in my shoulders were partly because I was doing the same thing over and over again. But equally responsible for this was my poor form in several exercises. Physiotherapists have told me that my shoulders weren’t sitting right in their sockets. They were too far forward and high and this was causing a tendon to become impinged between the top of my arm bone and a little shoulder bone that sits over it. In my case, this has been resolved by a couple of things:
- Making an effort to keep my shoulders back and down when doing exercises that articulate my shoulder joints. For example, in the bench press, pretend you’re trying to pinch a penny between your shoulder blades as you’re pushing the weight (this hint from Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body). Believe it or not, this helps engage your chest muscles more effectively; you get a better workout and you lift more weight. Even pulling my shoulder blade back before palming the steering wheel to make a turn while driving helps avoid pain.
- Strengthening my weak rhomboid and serratus anterior muscles. Rhomboids pull your shoulder blades together and the serratus anterior pulls them apart. The opposing pull of these muscles stabilize your shoulder joint where it’s supposed to sit as you’re doing major motions.
In the process of focusing on my rhomboids, I also addressed another issue of poor form that was holding me back. When you’re doing exercises for your lats, like pull-downs and cable rows, trainers say to pull your shoulder blades together as you bring the bar towards you. For my first couple of years, I wasn’t doing this. Instead, I was focused on just moving as much weight as possible. My arms found themselves doing most of the work while my back was just kind of sitting there. My muscles developed accordingly- my arms got pretty big but my back remained average. Then I plateaued on all back exercises and my shoulders got sore.
Now, I really focus on feeling my back muscles when I exercise them. This usually means I’m using much lighter weights than I used to lift so I can get through a set with proper form, i.e. shoulder blade pulling back first. The improvement resulting from this change has been tangible.
4. Quick Fixes
In my effort to really focus on my back muscles and to truly feel them, I was experimenting with higher volume sets and lower weight. At one point, I found my grip strength on the bar was failing long before my back muscles started to feel the burn. “Aha,” I thought, “I’ll just use straps.”
And so on my next lat pulldown day, I used my weight lifting wrist straps to tether my arms to the bar so grip strength wouldn’t be a factor. I felt so strong that I pulled harder than I should have and strained a tendon in my elbow that wasn’t used to handling so much force without my grip failing first. This was over three months ago and I’m still paying for this stupid mistake. Turns out that this little tendon is engaged when you do lat pulldowns, bicep curls upright rows, and a bunch of other exercises. It’s critical for stabilizing a heavy dumbell.
As a result, this “quick fix” has caused me setbacks in several areas beyond the area I was trying to address, not to mention a fair bit of time and money with physiotherapy and putting a heat pad on my arm every night trying to get that stupid little tendon to heal. In hindsight, I should have just been patient and worked on my grip strength, or at least refer to Dumb Thing #1 above and not feel like a superhero using the straps.
If there’s a silver lining to this injury, it’s that the pain in that tendon has made my hypersensitive to when my arms are engaging on an exercise when my back should be doing the work. As a result, I’m still doing OK on getting my back caught up, assuming I stick to very light weights.
5. Ignoring My Metrics
Last year I followed the Slow Carb diet and got my body fat down to 9.5% according to a DEXA scan. I used that measurement point to “calibrate” my body fat scale and according to it, I probably went down to 8.5% before the fat loss stopped.
I decided at that point that I was going to turn my focus to building muscle, which meant I’d have to eat more. I went to see a dietician, who gave me some good advice that I followed for a while. I later mixed in some practices from other sources, some of which I now realize were better suited to ectomorphs than to my own endomorphic tendencies.
I had bought a Withings scale during my fat loss phase and though its ability to chart my progress graphically and effortlessly was awesome, its fat loss measurement seemed nearly useless to me. Compared to my older scale, which I had given to my sister, the measurement was all over the map, swinging by over 5 percentage points within a given day. From what I read, their “Athlete” body composition model is problematic and they’ve not corrected it since their last attempt last year. To make a long story short, I didn’t believe what it was telling me and I stopped measuring my body fat.
I didn’t really care too much – a bit of fat gain is normal during a bulking cycle. So over the course of 8 months or so, my weight went up about 20lbs, and I assumed it was mostly muscle. I was getting stronger. I wasn’t eating junk food, and my meals were still small and frequent. But I went too high on the brown rice and too low on the cardio. My last DEXA scan in early March had me back up at 16% body fat. Most of the extra pounds I put on were not lean muscle – they were lard.
So now I’m back on Slow Carb and I’ve seriously kicked up the cardio. I’m down about 10lbs from my starting point of 191, and damned if I know what my body fat is because my scale is wacked. But it’s fluctuating between an indicated 9 and 11% at my chosen time of day, which I’m guessing optimisticaly would be around 12% on the DEXA. I’ve got some way to go before I’m as ripped as I was at this time last year.
This year, assuming I can get down to 9% again, I’m at least going to watch how my fat level trends as I eventually switch my goal to more muscle gain. Naturally, I’ll course-correct sooner if my metrics go sideways.
So there you have it. These aren’t the only mistakes I’ve made over the past few years, only the major ones. My goal is to avoid accumulating any new content to share in *this* particular regard.