In the last 25 years that I’ve been working out and in the last 4+ years that I’ve been training clients I have experienced first hand what it’s like to be a “newbie” to exercise.
Between family and friends and the hundreds of clients I’ve trained, I’ve seen one too many beginners start off super strong with tons of energy and excitement, ready to make big changes to their fitness but then drop off after a month or two. As a trainer who knows the value of consistent effort over time versus all or nothing approaches, this just breaks my heart because in the end the person trying to get going isn’t any more fit, healthy or happy. Worse, they oftentimes feel like a failure for not sticking with it and are less likely to try again.
It’s my mission to help beginners get past those first couple of months (science shows that on average it takes ~66 days to form a new habit) and not end up as another failed fitness attempt.
What does it take to push ourselves past beginner status to become a bonafide regular exerciser?
Looking back over the clients I’ve helped successfully navigate those tricky first few months to stick with regular exercise long term, I see 5 main areas where they shine.
Here’s what they do:
1. Anticipate that there will be some physical discomfort at the beginning
Unfortunately as we ramp up at the beginning of any new exercise endeavor our muscles are going to have to adapt and go through some soreness. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is what happens when the muscles get increasingly sore for 24-48 hrs after more intense physical activity. It is particularly common at the beginning of any new exercise program and although it doesn’t feel good it is completely normal.
I’d argue that you should have DOMS to some degree if you are pushing your limits and challenging yourself. But if you jump into a new program naively and don’t anticipate DOMS then it can really set you back mentally. The initial energy we might have felt can get dampened. By anticipating it and planning ahead for it to show up we can develop a bit of mental toughness and dig a little deeper with our commitment.
Bottom line: muscle soreness and minor aches and pulls are not ideal but very common when you start a new exercise. The best thing to do is know that it is coming, rest and recover adequately then get right back to working on your goals as soon as the soreness subsides. When you are acutely sore you should definitely rest and just stick to gentle movements like walking, stretching and foam rolling.
2. Treat work out time as a priority
What we make a priority is what’s most likely to get done.
One of my top tips for newbies is to block off time on their calendar for their new healthy habit. Whenever I am trying to cement a new healthy habit in place, I make sure it gets on my daily to-do list and has designated time blocked off on my calendar for me to work on it. This makes sure it stays at the front of my mental (and physical) vision so I’m less likely to forget about it or push it aside.
If you have more than three priorities you don’t have any.
3. Do something every single day
My most successful clients know the importance of adequate rest and of staying consistent. More than a couple of days completely off (meaning: no exercise, significant movement or active recovery whatsoever) can make it harder to get back into the game and easier to completely stop.
What I recommend is to do something every single day.
Now, let me be clear: I don’t mean that you should exercise every single day. That would actually backfire and stall your progress due to inadequate rest. I’m talking about making sure we intentionally move and do something fitness related each and every day. That means on the days you are not doing a full workout you still make space in your day for a quick 10 workout burst or for active recovery.
Active recovery could be leisurely walking, slowly swimming or biking, stretching, practicing yoga, foam rolling, tai chi or even meditation. The point is that you are intentionally setting aside at least 10 minutes every single day to work on helping your body feel its best and function at its best.
4. Don’t overdo it
Be sure to check your ego at the door to help prevent injury- anything from straining your back, pulling a muscle or just getting so sore you can hardly walk the next few days will force you to take time off and risk losing your momentum.
I know, it can be so tempting to grab the heaviest weights, sprint your very fastest or try to match the advanced move of the person next to you when you are just starting out. Being a newbie is a vulnerable position to be in so it makes sense that we try to fit in or match those around us. I’ve definitely let my ego get in the way, but then had to pay the price!
The clients I’ve seen successfully navigate from beginner status to experienced exerciser have done an excellent job listening to their bodies first and my cues second. They find that sweet spot where they are challenging themselves- for their level right then- but not dying at the end of each set.
As a general rule of thumb, I’d recommend that for the first 2-4 weeks aim to pick a level of weight/resistance, intensity or variation of a movement that feels challenging but allows you to successfully complete all repetitions for each set without having to rest, reset or go down on the weight. Eventually I’d recommend getting to a point where you challenge yourself with heavier weight and intensity but for the first few weeks the reward isn’t worth the risk in my opinion. My ultimate goal is to get my clients to really push the intensity and weight a la “Rest Based Training” Metabolic Effect style, but I prefer to get a solid foundation in place first.
5. Manage expectations
If we go into a new program expecting immediate results it can be super disappointing when they don’t materialize as soon as we’d like. Same as tip #1, anticipation is key: if you can anticipate that results will take a few weeks to show up then it is easier to manage expectations. If we know it’s going to take a bit of time, we are way less likely to give up at that critical point at the beginning when our bodies are adapting and about to show us results for all our hard effort.
Every individual is unique but most everyone follows this general guideline when starting a new exercise program:
Successful clients that I have worked with first notice feeling better in the first 2 weeks and are really happy with that positive change. They celebrate it rather than undervalue it because they’d prefer to see dramatic changes in weight or muscle tone.
Then after about 4 weeks they start to see changes in their appearance. Depending on their starting point, this usually manifests as either fat loss (weight loss) and/or increased muscle definition.
Finally, around 2 months of consistent hard work they often report getting positive feedback from family and friends about their new physique, energy level, commitment, etc. Other people have finally started to see the physical changes and are noticing the commitment to making lasting changes versus just moving through a fad or a short lived phase.
Bottom line: getting your mind right and staying consistent will pay off big dividends over time. The key is to trust the process and not give up at the first sign of struggle. I’m here for you if you need some help along the way- be sure to reach out if feel like you are losing momentum!
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