Why Your Workouts Aren’t Working

When you think of the reasons why you should exercise or do your workouts, what do you think of?  Improving your health?  Increasing your fitness abilities, such as your strength, endurance, or flexibility?  Changing your body composition?  Changing how your body looks and feels?  Increasing your energy levels?  As a personal trainer in Schaumburg, I can tell you that all of these are wonderful reasons to exercise.

Now, when you actually go and exercise, what do you think of?  While you are doing your workouts — the running, the lifting weights, the group fitness class, the biking, the whole exercise thing — what are you thinking of?  Are you thinking about how your body is feeling?  Are you thinking about what your body is doing?

Or are you focused on something completely different than your body?  Are you thinking about the weights you are moving, the events from your day, your to-do list at work, or the song or podcast you are listening to?  What about the TV show that’s playing in front of you?  Or are you curious about what the other people around you are doing?

Here’s the issue:  you know you need to exercise.  That part is clear.  And, likely, you know why exercising is important.  You know why you should be exercising and what good may come from you exercising.  But, when it comes to actually exercising, you tend to lose focus on all of these things.  See, all of the answers to “why you should exercise” have to do with one topic: your body.  But, when you go and do the exercise thing that is supposed to be for your body, you focus on everything EXCEPT your body.

It’s like you are driving your car down the road but your focus is constantly being diverted out the side windows.  While you may progress towards your goal, the likelihood of crashing and being stalled is significantly higher than if you keep both eyes on the road ahead.

What should you be focused on while you are doing your workouts?  YOUR BODY!  You should be thinking about how to squeeze different muscles and how your joints are feeling and the sensations you are experiencing in the muscles that are being worked.

Why?  Because it flat out gets better results.  Bodybuilders know this.  They call it the mind-muscle connection.  What is happening below the surface is the muscles you are thinking about squeezing are getting more signal from your nervous system to contract.  In the motor control world, this is called having an internal focus of attention.  For you, having an internal focus of attention while you are exercising will cause the muscles you are challenging to undergo a greater adaptation.  In other words, you will get better results.

More on this concept can be found here.

But not only will your results improve, you will also be less likely to injure yourself or wake up feeling sore the next day after your workouts.  By keeping your focus on your body, what your body is doing, and how your body is feeling, you will be able to monitor when you have had enough and when you are getting closer to doing too much.  This means that by simply keeping your focus internal, you can get an awesome workout in, get better results, and wake up with minimal to no soreness in the days following.

The challenging part is maintaining your focus on what is happening within your body.  Your body is designed to work as efficiently as possible.  Forcing yourself to concentrate on each muscle that you are squeezing is not a very efficient way to move.  Because of this, your mind will likely wander during your exercise.  It takes immense discipline to regain control of your mind and bring it back to feeling your muscles squeezing and concentrating on your body.  Fight the urge to let your mind wander.  It will be worth it.

Related:  One Exercise Tip To Rule Them All

With this in mind, here are three things you can do the next time you workout to help keep your focus on what is going on within your body.

1) Lighten your weights

“What?!? You are always telling us to lift heavy!”  I know, I know.  You should be lifting heavy.  But remember, heavy is relative.  I have found that if I go too heavy, I lose my ability to focus on the muscles I am trying to squeeze and it becomes a “Holy crap use everything and anything I can to move this weight!!” kind of situation. That’s not what you are going for.  I want you to lift heavy enough to challenge yourself and bring yourself to momentary muscle failure, but not so heavy that you can’t feel the muscles you are trying to squeeze.

When I play around with this during my personal workouts, I notice some interesting trends.  In order for me to really feel the muscles I am trying to challenge, I have to use about 50% or less of the weight that I am physically able to use.  For example, I can load up my knee extension machine with 305 pounds and mindlessly crank out reps.  No problem.  But, if I really want to feel my quads squeezing, I have to drop the load down to around 150 pounds.  The lighter weight allows me to have better control over the load and really zero in on feeling my quads squeeze.

Check out this video for an example of what I mean when I say focus on squeezing your muscles during your workouts.

2) Close your eyes

**If it is safe to do so**

One of the best tricks I have found to help me feel my muscles better is to close my eyes while I am doing the exercise.  This works in two ways: 1) It limits the, “SQUIRREL!!” issue that so many of us have where we will be concentrating on something until something else comes into our field of vision and then BOOM concentration is gone. 2) It plays to the idea that by limiting input into some of our sensory organs (i.e. our eyes) we can increase the sensation of other sensory organs (what we are feeling within our body).

Please, be responsible with this tip and ONLY CLOSE YOUR EYES IF IT IS SAFE TO DO SO.  I tend to use a lot of machines when I workout, so this tip works really well.  Probably not the best idea if you are going for a run, though.

3) Use headphones to help block out conversations

There are few things that are as blatant of a lie as somebody telling me that they are concentrating on doing an exercise… while they are doing the exercise.  If you are able to focus on a conversation–whether on your phone, with your workout buddy or trainer, or via eavesdropping on what the people next to you are discussing–you are not focusing enough on what is going on within your body.  Remember, the reason you are exercising is for your body, so keep your focus there and hold off on your office drama discussion until after your set.

If you feel like your workouts are not working for you, you may need to shift what you are focusing on while you are exercising.  You are exercising to help change or maintain something about your body, so that is precisely where your focus should be–on your body.

Feel free to drop any questions you have about this in the comments below and share this with somebody who would benefit from this information.

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Charlie Cates
Char­lie Cates, M.S. is a Muscle Activation Techniques® Master Specialist (MATm), an MATRx® Full Body Specialist, a mastery level Resistance Training Specialist™ (RTSm), and a Cer­ti­fied Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Charlie attained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Williams College in 2010, where he played varsity basketball for four years. In 2016 he graduated from Northeastern Illinois University with a Master of Science degree in exercise science.

A type-1 diabetic, he is the owner of Muscle Activation Schaumburg in Schaumburg, IL. He is an instructor for the Muscle Activation Techniques™ program, introducing students of all different backgrounds to the MAT™ process.

Charlie specializes in managing and improving the function of his clients’ muscular system through the MAT™ process and utilizing RTS™ principles.

He can be reached via e-mail at charlie@matschaumburg.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter and Instagram at @CharlieCates!

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