Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Surprising Reasons You’re Not Reaching Your Fitness Goals

Guest Post by Geoffrey Chiu

Through years of experimental and observational research on human physiology and biomechanics, science has dictated the optimal way to train for specific fitness goals. The problem is, the most efficient route may not always be the most enjoyable -- especially for people new to exercise.

What often happens to beginners is that they begin to find their routine boring and monotonous. These people eventually fall off and stop working out all together; whether it’s due to boredom or a lack of progress/results. Now, much like science, where adherence is an important factor in experimental studies, adherence is also a crucial part of a beginner's long-term fitness success.

The Dual Process Approach

In order for a person to adhere to an exercise program, they must first have the intention of working out. Psychologists theorize that the strongest conscious predictor of behavior and adherence is intention (1). Does the person have an intention to lose weight? To get stronger? To run faster? The first step to exercising is being conscious about wanting to change their behavior. Psychologists have also proposed that the greatest unconscious predictor is habit (2)Habits are said to be automatic actions or responses to a specific cue. Together, they form what is called a Dual Process approach to exercise habit and behavior formation (3). The Dual Process approach proposes that both conscious and unconscious processes of the brain work in conjunction in order to successfully form a behavior.

Setting Goals – Intentions

Do you have a clear, conscious thought about exercising? Great, you have already formed an intention. But let’s get more in depth to make sure you take your first step towards exercising: setting goals.

Step 1) Evaluate your current lifestyle, what don’t you like about it? What areas in your life are problematic?

Step 2) Set long-term goals. This is what you dream about, losing 30 lbs of fat, putting 50 lbs on your bench press, being able to run a full marathon. Whatever your goals may be, write them down!

Step 3) Set a couple short-term goals. The word “short-term” can be ambiguous; does it mean within a 1-month time frame? 2 months? 6 months? I like considering short-term goals as the baby steps that you take towards your long-term goals. Some short-term goals might be

a)    Finding a local gym and buying a membership
b)    Planning your exercise frequency around your current work/school schedule (e.g. My short-term goal is to go to the gym three times a week. I will go after work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for 45 minutes each session).

Make sure the goals that you are setting are realistic and sustainable (which helps with habit formation). Setting a goal to hit the gym before you leave for work isn’t realistic if you have to be at work by 8:00 am and it takes you an hour to drive there, especially if you’re not used to waking up at 5:00 am. (The exception here would be if you have a very tight schedule and can’t find an alternative time.) Setting a goal to lose 30 lbs of fat in one month is also not realistic, as it would likely cause you to resort to unhealthy and dangerous ways of losing the weight.

Habit Formation

Researchers suggest that there are four factors that contribute to habit formation: rewards, behavioral complexity, consistency and environmental cues (4). Let’s go over each factor, including suggestions for increasing your chances of forming long-lasting exercise habits.


Operant conditioning (OC) often explains and drives many of our behaviors and psychology. The OC theory states that behaviors are controlled by consequences, specifically, through reinforcement and punishment (5). Reinforcement is a process that increases the frequency of the behavior either through a rewarding stimulus (positive reinforcement) or a removal of an unfavorable stimulus (negative reinforcement). Punishment, on the other hand, is a process that decreases the frequency of a certain behavior either through an introduction of an aversive stimulus (positive punishment -- yes, there is such a thing), or a removal of a favorable stimulus (negative punishment). 

The following figure illustrates the breakdown of the OC theory.

Exercise is unique in the sense that you go through periods of positive punishment before you reach the stage of positive reinforcement. The physiological adaptations and side effects of exercise/working out (resistance exercise, especially) are usually muscle soreness and overall body fatigue, which is considered by definition to be positive punishment (because there is an introduction of unfavorable stimuli). These outcomes are unavoidable with exercise, but it is our body’s ability to adapt to these stressors that makes us better and healthier than we were before.

It’s important to fight the urge to give up and fall off the exercise program.  The reason why we continue to exercise is that we know exercise is good for our health and that we expect results. So why do people quit after a few workouts? 1) They simply don’t experience the results they were aiming for, and 2) somewhere along their fitness journey, they decided that feeling uncomfortable, tired, and sore wasn’t worth it.

Getting a person to adhere to their exercise program (increasing behavior) is all about rewards (positive reinforcement). People’s exercise frequency and behavior increases when they start seeing their goals come to fruition in the form of fat loss, pain alleviation, increased mobility, etc. Knowing that, how do we increase the chance of positive reinforcement and maximize our rewards?

1) Education

Learning safe and effective exercise technique is key to maximizing your results and giving you the comfort of knowing that the exercises you are performing will move you towards your goal. Education is also important for setting realistic expectations. Knowing that it is physiological impossibility to gain 20 lbs of muscle mass in two weeks will save you frustration and disappointment when you realize that you look the same as you did before the past two weeks of “hardcore” weightlifting. People looking to lose fat mass may not see results until 3 weeks into exercising, whereas people looking to pack on muscle mass may not see results until 8-9 weeks of resistance training (depending on previous lifting experience).

2) Hire a knowledgeable personal trainer/coach

If you lack the free time to do your own research on health and fitness, it’s wise to hire a fitness professional to help you out. Unfortunately, it can be pretty hard to differentiate between a good and bad trainer (no, their physique doesn’t tell you much about their fitness knowledge). Read some reviews, and ask your friends or family members for a referral. Choosing a good personal trainer might also be a trial and error process.

3) Think long-term

Avoid programs like INSANITY, P90X, ab-blaster 9000 or any program that “promises” you results in a very short period of time. You will increase the chances of acquiring an injury, and the results you gain from these programs are most likely not sustainable. The truth is, you’ll most likely have to develop a good aerobic conditioning base, proper movement patterns, and flexibility before you can partake in high-intensity, high-impact, or heavy-loaded exercises. Ease your way into it and remind yourself that you’re in this for the long run.

Behavioral Complexity

The more complex the behavior, the more likely it will require conscious processes (6). Since the dual process approach proposes that habit is often created through unconscious, automated processes and cues, we must start off our exercise program with simple and easy-to-digest exercises. Although learning new exercise techniques does require conscious thoughts and increased body proprioception, it would be a much better idea to learn how to perform a bodyweight squat than it would be to learn a power snatch.

The complexity of the behavior (exercise in this case) is also related to self-efficacy. Exercises with a low complexity will boost our confidence as we believe we have more chances of succeeding it in (unconscious self-efficacy). This is why running, cycling, and hiking are more popular than resistance training or sports: they’re simple to do (plus the fact that they’re more accessible and convenient to the general population)!

Here are a few ways we can minimize behavioral complexity in hopes of maximizing habit formation:

1) Start slow and ease your way in

This relates to point #3 under Rewards. Building an aerobic conditioning base and learning simple movement patterns (squat, hip hinge, pushing, and pulling) will go a long way in helping you achieve your short- and long-term fitness goals.

2) Regressions and progressions

For bodyweight and resistance exercises, learn the regressions and progressions of each exercise (or hire a professional) so you can monitor your improvement and know how to reduce or increase the complexity of every exercise.

Environmental Cues

The environment also plays a big role in habit development, as it can “prompt or disrupt automatic behavior” (7). Contexts where we feel safe and comfortable will boost self-efficacy and greatly contribute to forming unconscious behavior. It’s hard for people with low self-esteem and social physique anxiety to participate in group classes or expose themselves to a whole gym. It takes time to realize that most people either a) don’t care about you or b) are willing to encourage you and help you achieve your goals. The rest are just assholes. So how do we control our environment for habit formation to work in our favor?

1) Choose an appropriate gym/health club

If you’re completely new to exercising, choosing a family-oriented health club may be the best decision. You will feel more comfortable and be around others with the same goals as you. Joining a hardcore powerlifting or bodybuilding gym (or any gym with an intimidating environment) would not be a good idea and may actually discourage you from going to the gym again. Also, picking a gym that is nearby will increase your chances of going (would you rather have a five-minute walk to the gym or an hour drive?

2) Partner training

Workout with your friend or family member. It’s a great way to hold each other accountable and motivate each other to reach your goals. You’ll feel more comfortable if someone you know is on the ride with you.

3) Getting out of your comfort zone

Realize that eventually you will have to reach out of your comfort zone in order to change your lifestyle in a positive way. Take small steps every day to improve your confidence and let the snowball effect take place!


Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, forming habits require a high degree of consistency. The more frequently and consistently we perform a task, the more accustomed and comfortable we are with it. In this context, we are talking about the consistency of exercising and practicing good health choices and habits. Here are some ways to stay consistent:

1) Monitor your progress

Track your bodyweight daily or weekly, write down the amount of weight you lifted, jot down how many miles or how long you ran for. Monitoring markers of health and exercise gives you an idea of how much you are progressing. It also motivates you to adhere to your exercise program in order to beat your previous personal bests. Many beginners do not monitor their progress closely enough, thereby failing to see the results they’re making. The mirror is generally not a good indication of minute changes in body physique or health markers!

2) Hire a personal trainer/buy a personal training package

Having someone to hold you accountable for your behavior is a good way to force yourself to stay consistent. Buying a package of 12 or 20 personal training sessions shows commitment and forces you to show up to training sessions… or you lose money!!

3) Plan ahead

Scheduling is of the utmost importance. In order to stay consistent, you must have dedicated time slots in your week to devote to working out. Carrying out a behavior or performing a certain task at the same time every day or week helps with forming habits; this concept is called temporal consistency (8). For example, I work out after school every other day.


Let’s say you’ve been working out for three months now and have been seeing results, but you’re starting to lose motivation because the workouts are getting boring and stale. How do you jazz things up and make them more interesting? After all, one of the keys to exercise adherence is variation.

Although it might sound cool to just pick random exercises out of a hat to include into your next workout, having a plan is much better (most of the time).

There are many different variables you can change in your workout to make them more interesting. An easy method is to pick several different exercise modalities to perform in one workout session, an example would be weightlifting and bodyweight exercises then followed by a steady state endurance exercise like swimming or cycling. Another strategy you can implement is adding exercises of varying speeds within the same group of exercises or muscles involved. If you were working on your posterior chain muscles (glutes, lower back, hamstring) in a workout, performing 3 exercises with different speeds would look something like this (from slowest to fastest): Isometric lower back extension holds, barbell hip bridge and explosive kettlebell swings. The exercise order can be altered to fit your specific fitness goals and experience. It changes the pace of the workout and keeps things interesting.

Along with exercise tempo and speed, you can also include exercises of various planes of motion. The figure below illustrates the planes of movement of the body.

Many people do a majority of their exercises in the sagittal plane (basically up and down), this includes exercises such as the squat, bicep curls, tricep pushdowns, deadlifts, etc. Because the prime movers of exercises in the sagittal plane are mostly flexion and extension muscles, our rotational, abductor and adductor muscles are often neglected. While they might be activated to a certain degree during sagittal plane movements (as synergistic muscles or stabilizers), it is smart to include exercises in the frontal and transverse plane in order to work these muscles through their whole range of motion. Some frontal plane exercises include dumbbell lateral raises, lateral box jumps and side lunges. Transverse plane exercise are rotational in nature and include Pallof presses, rotational medicine ball throws, and wood choppers.

Benefits of Exercise Selection Variation

Let’s face it: unless you’re a powerlifter, few people want to focus solely on squat, bench press, and deadlift. Doing a variety exercises of different tempos, planes of motion, and complexity is what makes working out enjoyable. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do effective compound exercises like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and military press. In most cases, these exercises should be at the core of your program, but you should add a variety of exercise modalities into your workout, especially if your goal is to increase your general fitness (fat loss, muscle gain, cardiovascular endurance). Here are my recommendations:

1) Apply the principle of progressive overload

Strive to add weight to the bar or increase the number of sets or reps that you do over time. Progressive overload is a principle that, in order for the body to grow better and stronger, we must gradually increase the amount of stress we put on it during exercise.

2) Select your exercises in blocks

Don’t switch up your exercises every day or every week; the concept of muscle confusion is a foolish one. Rather, select a group of exercises and keep them for three or more weeks. This gives us time to either improve our technique and allows us to apply the principle of progressive overload in order to reap the benefits of those particular exercises.

3) Individualize

Pick exercises you like and find enjoyable and simple. To address bodily weaknesses or asymmetries, carefully select exercises that will target those weak spots.

Practicing multiple movement patterns and perfecting the technique of various exercises serves as general physical preparation, which increases your general fitness so you’ll be more successful in whatever additional sport or activity you choose. Most of the great athletes in the 21st century usually have a history of playing multiple sports before they became great at their respective sport (Michael Jordan, Steve Nash).

Main Takeaways (tl;dr)

1) Understand and expect realistic results, set short- and long-term goals, monitor your progress (experiment --> evaluate --> adjust... repeat).

2) Creating sustainable exercise habits will require both conscious and unconscious factors. Understanding these factors and applying mental cues will help you maximize your chances of habit formation.

3) Expect to move out of your comfort zone if you want a positive change in your life.

4) Variation will greatly improve exercise adherence.

About the Author

Geoff Chiu is a NASM-CPT and a senior undergraduate in the School of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia. His focus is on periodization, exercise physiology, and all things strength & conditioning. Pursing his CSCS and Master's Degree in the near future, he hopes to get people thinking critically and intelligently about training and nutrition, while helping athletes reach their high performance goals.


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