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What did you expect? The stumbling block that could be holding back your fitness.

Getting your mindset right to optimise your workout

Mindset is absolutely key in sport and fitness. We know that races are won and workouts are completed based on the mental engagement of the individual.

We talk about positivity, visualising success, motivation, accountability - all of those things are important.

Today I'm going to talk about expectations.

As a coach, I know that managing the expectations of my clients is absolutely key to them getting the most out of their training in the moment, and also their long term resilience. It's really easy to get thrown off your game when you experience something you weren't expecting, and it's good to know what's normal, and what's not.

When I introduce an exercise I tell people how it should feel in their body. If I tell you that your glutes are going to be working, your mind goes there, and we build the mind-muscle connection that is an absolute game changer in terms of progress. More broadly, when I introduce a workout, I try to let people know what to expect through the session - is it a tough one, or are they going to have some breathing room to focus more on form? Can they expect an out-of-breath sweaty cardio session? Or not? Then when they are in the thick of it, they feel ready to deal with it.

In a culture of insta-perfect fitness, we see relentless positivity. It looks like everyone is having an easy time, their kids are angels, their food is hand-prepared and delicious, they're loving every second of their workout. It's easy to feel like you're less than average, and that's not a useful mindset either.

But it goes even further than that. Recently I have been taking more training in exercise for pain management. One of the issues that was highlighted there was how important expectations are, particularly for people coming into exercise with chronic pain. People who expected it to be easy, then found it challenging, tend to give up on their programme. People who expected a pain free experience often panic when they experience a physical effect that they were not expecting. Expectations even affect the likelihood that you will experience a pain flare after exercise. This is magic!

So I wanted to compile a list of common misconceptions when it comes to exercise expectations. Here we go...

How hard will it be?

Personal Training 101 - to make progress you need progressive overload. This means you set training at a level that is a little bit challenging, then gradually make it harder as they get better - so it should always be a bit challenging.

What not to expect - Your workout shouldn't be a complete breeze, there should be a point where you feel a bit of a struggle - this is good, and healthy.  I've known people to really struggle with this, but here's the key: It's OK to be a bit uncomfortable. You are safe. Learning to sit with discomfort is a really important life skill. I like to tell myself "you can cope with anything for 10 minutes". So take it 10 minutes at a time. Once you've done a few sessions like that, you will start to anticipate the rush of knowing YOU DID IT! Then it gets a lot easier.

On the other hand, it should be manageable, if you feel dreadful throughout, you might need to scale it down a little until you are a bit fitter.

Pain during exercise

I did a whole article on this, so if you want to get in depth, go here and read it.

During exercise, there is acceptable pain, and unacceptable pain.

It is normal for muscles to ache with fatigue. It is also normal to be aware of stiffness and associated pain from underused joints. If you have generalised chronic pain, you may find that while your resources are diverted elsewhere, you feel it a little more keenly (just like you might if you were tired).

Sharp pain in a joint needs attention, especially if it is new and undiagnosed (though if you have a historical injury that has been cleared for exercise, it may give you a bit of nonsense at the outset). Sudden pain in muscle or connective tissue is also an indicator of something that needs closer scrutiny, but does not have to mean that movement is a bad idea. There's a great video about this here.

But pain is not always a contra-indication for exercise, in fact often pain is caused by a lack of use and exercise is exactly what you need. New injuries and inflammation should be rested and treated, but once you are cleared to exercise - do it.

Clicking and crunching

It can be quite alarming when our bodies make noises we weren't expecting. Clicking, clunking, crackling and crunching in joints can be really offputting. It's also really normal.

It is rare that noise in joints is indicating a serious issue, while that knee crackle might sound or feel like "bone on bone", unless you have severe arthritis, it is more likely to be ligaments moving around doing their thing.

My knees are unbelievably loud when I squat, but they are healthy enough, there is no damage occurring and it certainly doesn't affect performance - so I put my headphones on and ignore them!

When clicking takes people unawares, their first instinct is often to stop, but again, this symptom may be an indication you need to move more, not less.

You can reduce these issues by warming up well, using certain supports -like knee sleeves- to keep affected areas warm, and including mobility work in your programme to develop healthy range of movement and stability.

Sometimes clicking can also be reduced by improving the movement patterns to ensure the joint is functioning optimally, so checking in with form, or considering a corrective programme are also options.

The aftermath

DOMS - It is not unusual to experience muscle soreness up to 72 hours after training, again, I cover this in my "No Pain, No Gain" post.

DOMS isn't an indicator of the effectiveness of your workout, nor is it inevitable, but it's good to understand it as a possibility. It's more likely to crop up if you suddenly change the style, intensity or duration of your exercise.

Some people suffer a pain flare (or post exercise hyperalgesia - where you become more sensitive to pain in general) after exercise. This is usually associated with chronic pain conditions and there are ways to reduce the risk of this with the right kind of programming, so if this is you, speak to your friendly fitpro about it. I have managed this successfully with clients and I will be posting more about it in the future.

Fatigue - Expect to be a bit tired after you exercise. You'll probably want a nice sit down and a snack afterwards. If you are left feeling like you have no energy for anything else for the rest of the day, you've probably done too much and need to scale it back a little. Exercise for health shouldn't wipe you out so that you can't do your usual non exercise activities, nor should it leave you so ravenously hungry you overeat.

The results

What goals you set and how soon you anticipate achieving them is another kind of expectations.

We are constantly manipulated by media and advertising to have unrealistic expectations of exercise and diet programmes. So let's be clear:

A healthy, sustainable rate of fat loss is about 1% of your bodyweight weekly. This is based upon the rate at which your body can metabolise fat stores, along with an understanding of other constituents of weight loss, plus the liklihood that you can continue with a programme for a meaningful length of time. If a programme promises more, it is not healthy, not sustainable, not fat mass you are losing or just plain lies. 

With general exercise, I never sign anyone up for less than 6 weeks. 6 weeks is the absolute minimum you need to see a result, I'd prefer 12. I really like people to commit to 6 months, because if you can make it that far, you've got a habit. So you can see why it's important not to expect a noticable result after a short period of training - it's disheartening and you risk giving up just short of making a difference.

In the first 4 weeks, you make progress, you will feel better, stronger etc - so if you want to check in on your progress, look to how you feel in your body, how your workout feels and how your fitness feels in other areas of your life. The results you see after 4 weeks are mostly neurological. That is to say that your brain is adapting to the exercise, becoming more coordinated, allowing more muscle fibres to fire at once.

After about 6-8 weeks you might start to see changes in your muscles, little bits of definition and suchlike. While you may find your muscles look larger, more defined and feel firmer after one good workout, this is a temporary effect, you're going to have to train regularly if you want to a result that doesn't fade!

Speaking of fading - remember your body works on a "use it or lose it" basis. While "maintenance" may not be as intense a process as the exercise plan that built that muscle in the first place (just as maintenance on a weight loss plan allows for a few more calories), you need to keep working those muscles to keep them. 

Remember that you get to choose and monitor the goals that work best for you, check in with a good trainer to find out what you should expect in terms of progress.

The more you know...

Realistic expectations of your workout make for a better experience, and results. So in summary, an appropriate workout for you:

  • will take effort
  • may be uncomfortable at times
  • will be achievable, even if it might not feel it for a moment
  • won't injure you
  • may trigger minor aches and pains
  • may cause crackling in some joints
  • may leave you aching a little, a day or two later
  • will leave you feeling a bit tired
  • will make you feel good when you've got through it
  • will feel different in your body from one session to the next
  • might feel brilliant fun, a bit of a chore, or a bit meh, with no clear reason why

Looking these over it might seem a little negative, but I like to think it's realistic. If someone is telling you their programme is easy and fun and it going to give you amazing results, they're not being entirely honest and you're going to figure that out. I believe trust is one of the most important elements in a trainer-client relationship.

Glossing over the tough bits gives the impression that the "fitness people" are some special breed that us mortals can't keep up with. Go into your programme ready for a few bumps in the road and you're equipped to keep at it long enough to see the benefits roll in.

Did you know I do online training? I can write you a fitness programme that fits your needs, and guide you through it all the way. Get in touch!


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