1. Don't build strength on top of pain or dysfunction
Having a physical assessment done before you start a workout routine is key. Any dysfunction in the way your body moves can have an effect on the things you do, in and outside of the gym, including simple walking. Have you had any injuries in the past? Have you recently hurt yourself performing an simple task? Are you troubled by shoulder, hip, knee or low back pain right now? If your answer is yes, then the way you execute exercises will most likely be affected. Human body is very smart in adapting to pain and dysfunction by developing faulty movement patterns (compensations) such as when you use your low back to bend over instead of your hips. Reinforcing dysfunctional movement patterns can lead to strain or injury and that's the last thing you want from your journey to getting healthier. Can you perform a solid, pain free squat, lunge, hip bridge, push up? Can you touch your toes? Investigate the way you move and clean up any existing issues before you put additional stress (i.e. exercise) on your body.
2. Master basic body weight exercises first
Make sure you can repetitively sustain a good form during body weight exercises before you start loading them, or making them more difficult. That could take some time and that's ok. I see magazine articles with examples of exercises that are ofter very far down on a progression scale, creating an unrealistic picture of what everybody should be able to do right away. Too many times, have I seen a 'feet elevated push up on the stability ball'. Most people have a hard time performing a body weight push up from the floor, forget having your feet up, and on an unstable surface. Another prime example of an extremely difficult, yet often suggested, exercise is the double leg lowering (when you lay on your back with both legs straight up, then you lower them down and bring them up). Most people, lacking sufficient core strength and stability, will compensate by arching their back and putting excessive stress on their lumbar spine. If done repeatedly, this can lead to low back pain, strain or even injury.
3. Have goals that are SMART
Some of you may know this from marketing. SMART goals stand for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. If you want to be successful at the gym, your fitness goals should be based on those principles. I will give you an example of NOT A SMART GOAL: "I want to have a six pack in 4 weeks" - it may sound specific but it is most certainly not realistic or achievable for the time-frame given. Now, a SMART goal would sound something like this: "I want to lose 20 pounds in 6 months by training 3 times a week, while cutting all processed sugars out of my diet".
Your gym adventure may start as a twelve week boot camp or a pre-bikini season workout craze, but if you really want to maintain your goals whether it's weight loss, getting stronger or improving your health, you're in it for a long time.
4. Always have a plan
You need to know how you want to achieve your goals therefore... Plan your week knowing on what days you will work out. Prepare your workouts in advance. Track your sets, reps and weight - every time. Just like you would check your weight to see if you're losing weight, achieving your goals is impossible if there is no way to measure them.
Moreover, since the human body adapts to stressors (i.e. exercise) fairly well, it's essential that you modify your workout (sets, reps, weight) before you hit a plateau (usually about 4-6 weeks but could vary significantly from person to person).
If you take a lot of group exercise classes, make sure you remember what weight you were using last time and how you felt, then once certain exercises become too easy, ask the trainer how you can make them more difficult. Don't just glide through workouts, hoping that as long as you sweat, you're still making progress. Being successful actually requires as much mental thought as physical effort.
Additionally, as you plan your workouts you need to plan your rest time. Achieving your fitness goals will not be possible if you don't allow your body to properly recover. Overtraining leads to exhaustion, and exhaustion leads to an increased injury rate, so having days off is crucial.
5. Have a back up plan
6. Work on exercises that are challenging for you
There is a big chance that what you really need is the exercise that you hate the most. It's natural. As humans, our brains like to take shortcuts, and subconsciously we will always pick what's easy and familiar over what's challenging and hard. When faced with a difficult math problem, our pupils dilate and our heart rate goes up - that's our body's natural reaction to the challenge that our brain is facing. And our lazy brain will always favor things that we can do on an autopilot. We naturally prefer to do things we are good at. I know for a fact that people who are really good at push ups, have a lot more push ups in their workouts, that what they really need, which is pull ups (or any other pulling exercise). I personally despise stretching. I will do literally anything to avoid it. Knowing that about myself I design my workout to always incorporate mobility drills to ensure I have a proper range of motion in everything I do. You need to realize your weaknesses and work on them. Struggling is a part of learning. Overcoming your physical limitations and mental challanges is what will make you stand out and really succeed.
7. Avoid distractions and prioritize
Unless you're on call, a doctor or a fire fighter, chances are, the world will be ok, without you using your phone for an hour. I don't know any good exercises that you can actually successfully perform while using your phone. Working out takes effort, both physical and mental. Also, leave the chit chat till you're done working out. If you're low on time, prioritize. Pick multi-joint exercises to maximize muscle recruitment and minimize rest time to keep your heart rate up. Make it short but super efficient.
8. Work hard
I swear there are people out there who truly believe that just stepping onto the gym floor makes them burn calories. Some people feel proud of themselves for belonging to a gym that they never go to. News flash. You do actually need to work out. And no, 10 minute walk on the treadmill (unless you're recovering from an injury and getting back into shape) followed by 30 minute shower and steam doesn't cut it. People take their time rolling, stretching, chit chatting - by the time they are ready to start their workout, it's almost time to go. Same goes for hiring a trainer to work with you. Just by doing so doesn't guarantee your success. No matter how good the trainer is, how great the program is, it's up to you to put in the required work. If you chat your way through a session and still wonder why you're not getting stronger, think again.
9. Be smart rewarding yourself
First of all, pre and post workout nutrition is absolutely essential to your success. Having food before your start ensures that you have enough energy to repeatedly lift something heavy without passing out. Having enough nutrients after enables proper muscle repair and recovery. Scientifically speaking, in caloric deficit scenario, your body would rather sacrifice muscle than fat. So if you work out like a maniac and not eat properly you may actually find yourself losing weight but it will be coming from muscle rather than fat. And that is the worst scenario ever, because muscle is what burns the most fat. The more muscle you have the more calories you burn per minute and strength training builds a lot of it! Protein fuels muscle growth so, beside carbs, make sure you include enough of it, especially after your workouts. Personally, I have a protein shake with 25-40g of protein in it (depending on the intensity of my workout) within 30 minutes of finishing, no matter whether I'm hungry or not.
Secondly, you also want to make sure that, you're not using your workouts as an excuse to have otherwise forbidden foods. It's easy to fall into a trap of going to the gym so you can have that extra glass of wine or bigger serving of pasta. Occasional treat, sure, go ahead, better have it on a workout than on an off day. But don't make it a habit. You may be overestimating on how much you're actually burning in your workouts and how much you're rewarding yourself after.
Wonder how many minutes of exercise will burn some of the 'bad' foods:
53 minutes of lunges for 1 glazed donut
87 minutes of crunches for 1 grande mocha
135 minutes on the elliptical machine for 1 small theater popcorn
272 consecutive burpees for 1 slice of pepperoni pizza
27 minutes of beach volleyball for 1 chocolate cupcake
80 minutes of cycling for 1 Cinnabon
65 minutes on the treadmill for 18oz chocolate milkshake
40 minutes of lap swimming for 2 pancakes with maple syrup
10. When motivation fails, trick yourself
Find what will MAKE you want to work out. It could be a simple as packing up your gym bag the day earlier and putting it in your car. Wearing gym shorts under your work clothes. Playing your favorite tune that puts you in a right mood. Telling somebody that you work out 3 times a week and keeping that promise, every time. Anything that triggers your mind to getting it done. And if you are one of those people that just hates exercising but loves walking, get a dog. It's been proven that people who have dogs have healthier lifestyles than those who don't.