As someone who’s been working out for over half of her life, I have to admit that over the years, I’ve made a fair share of mistakes in how I approached fitness. I used to rely on tips from various fitness magazines aimed at women, bits and pieces of information I’d find on the internet, my own experimentation in attempt to defy conventional wisdom – all of this on top of my dietary manipulations (read: working out on an empty stomach, waiting to eat for at least an hour afterwards, and wondering why the heck my muscles weren’t growing).
Am I the cluster of fitness wisdom today? Of course not – I still discover new information all the time, which includes learning about things I’ve been doing WRONG since the beginning. I’ve doubled down on my fitness aspirations about ten years ago, so today I’d like to share ten things that I wish I’d known back then. To think of all the frustrations I could have avoided!..
10 Things about Fitness I Wish I’d Known at 21
1. Lifting heavier weights won’t turn me into a Lady Hulk. Women (and female-bodied individuals in general) have to put in a huge amount of work and discipline over a long time to get the muscular look of your average female bodybuilder. However, there is a huge benefit in lifting weights as it helps us maintain our muscle mass and bone density, reduce stress, and get that sweet feeling of being able to crush anything that life throws at us!
2. Compound movements (i.e. exercises that work your entire body at once) will bring on way better results than hammering out one muscle group at a time. There’s a reason weightlifters primarily focus only on three moves – deadlift, squat and bench press. I spent years using various machines at the gym to train my upper body, but only saw gains in strength and muscle mass after I started regularly doing various types of compound lifts.
3. Running is great. Running intervals is great. Running intervals every day… not so great. Yes, in my early twenties I used to run intervals a few times a week, and had regular injuries to show for that. Now I know that any training program that’s worth a damn will provide opportunities to go hard AND to back off the intensity whenever needed. Sure, running intervals can lead to improvements in our speed, but it should never be the only type of running we do. Running for longer periods of time at a slower pace has its benefits too – it trains our endurance and helps us become better-rounded athletes.
4. There’s no need to hammer out Every. Single. Workout. Sure, pushing ourselves to go longer, heavier, or faster is great, but if we do it every time we exercise, we’re putting ourselves at a higher risk of injury and heading to a potential burnout and loss of interest in working out altogether. Gotta take it easy every now and then!
5. There’s absolutely no machine at the gym that calls for doing 3 sets of 180(!) reps. There was this seated hip abduction machine in my gym that I couldn’t pass, and since it didn’t bring on any results whatsoever, I thought I just needed to do more reps, until one day I found myself doing 180 reps for three sets – I kid you not! The absurdity of that situation only became clear later in my life when I started working out with free weights. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation at the gym, either 1) go up in weight, down in reps; or 2) leave that machine alone for good and pick a barbell instead. Something I wish I’d done before I turned 30.
6. Taking rest days is not a reason to feel guilty. No one’s ever lost all their fitness when they took a day off, or even skipped a workout. Each of us knows their body better than any coach, fitness program, or a training device, so if we feel too beat up from a few hard workouts in a row, we’re always better off taking a rest day. Muscles grow during recovery time, y’all!
7. Cellulite is a natural skin condition and not one’s personal failure as a human being. About 98% of female-bodied individuals have cellulite, including those of us who are rail-thin or very fit. Photoshop does wonders, as this former Victoria’s Secret photo editor reveals in a Refinery29 article. If cellulite is so common, shouldn’t we embrace it and move on?
8. Food is not our enemy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! Fueling our bodies properly is important for building strong muscles, bones and tissues. I’ve fought disordered eating patterns for years while wondering why I wasn’t growing any muscle or gaining strength. My experience taught me that my fitness gains will only happen If I fuel myself right, especially around my workouts. These days, I never go to the gym hungry, and have a snack right after a workout. My preworkout snack is usually a banana (carbs = energy), and a post-gym snack is a protein shake (protein = muscle repair).
9. A scale is far from being the best tool for gauging our fitness progress. I feel like everybody has already heard this, but ICYMI I’ll say it again. A consistent fitness routine (lifting weights regularly) may cause the amount of muscle in our bodies to go up while causing the fat amount to go down (“may” is important here because we can’t expect all bodies to behave the same). Muscle weighs more than fat, which may result in disappointment for those of us who are eager to see a lower reading of the scale. If exercise leads us to gaining strength, fitness and mental clarity, then why should we care about what the scale shows?
10. Bad workouts are not a reason to throw in the towel. Life – with its stressful situations, lack of sleep, less than stellar eating habits – happens, and when all of these bumming factors align while we’re at the gym/out running, we may get a shi**y workout. Best case scenario, we embrace the fact that it’s not our day and move on, hopefully stopping short of pushing through and potentially getting injured. Worst case scenario, we get so bummed out that we question our physical abilities (“I’m not a runner!”) and retire the good ol’ sneakers. Frankly, we women hear so much discouragement already that giving in to yet even more of it coming from ourselves seems at the very least unfair. It’s our job to decide if we want to be our own champions or naysayers.
Question for you: What exercise or diet-related advice would you give your 21-year-old self? Please share your thoughts below!
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