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Common Fitness Habits that Can Prevent You from Reaping Maximum Results

November 15, 2013 

Story at-a-glance

  • Five common fitness habits that can hamper your progress include avoiding exercise due to sore muscles; ignoring severe pain; staying within your comfort zone; exercising without a plan; and avoiding strength training
  • While you can get away with skipping the warm-up when you’re doing a low- to moderate impact workout, not warming up can easily lead to injury when you’re doing high-intensity sprinting
  • Research suggests stretching is best avoided prior to strength training. But in other instances, such as when you’re doing high intensity sprinting exercises, prior stretching is imperative, and should NOT be skipped
  • Compelling and ever-mounting research shows that the ideal form of exercise is short bursts of high intensity exercise. This can dramatically cut down the time you spend exercising while reaping greater results
  • For optimal health, you’d also be wise to incorporate aerobic, strength training, core exercises and stretching, for a well-rounded fitness program

By Dr. Mercola

When it comes to creating a sustainable, healthy lifestyle, your habits can literally make or break you. Setting good habits from the start can save you a lot of frustration and wasted time down the road.

Two featured articles address some of the detrimental exercise habits many get trapped in, and a third article offers up helpful tips to improve your workout.  I’ll summarize some of these here, and focus on what I believe are the most important parts of a healthy fitness routine.

Busting Bad Fitness Habits

Prevention Magazine1 and fitness trainer Jillian Michaels2 recently wrote about common fitness habits that you would be wise to reconsider, if you want to improve your results.

This includes:

  1. Avoiding exercise due to sore muscles—More than likely, you’ve at some point experienced the muscle soreness that sometimes follows a new or vigorous workout, called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).

    Tempting as it may be to coddle and rest your sore muscles, recent research3 has found that exercise using light resistance actually provides acute relief similar to that of massage.

  2. Ignoring severe pain — On the other hand, ignoring messages transmitted through sharp pains is not to be recommended either.

    Pushing through pain can result in hard-to-heal injuries, so always listen to your body. Pain can signify that you’re doing an exercise incorrectly, so make sure to pay attention to your form.

  3. Staying within your comfort zone— This is a critical flaw of any fitness regimen. Without variety and challenge, your body will quickly adapt and plateau.

As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, you need to increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body.

  1. “Machine hopping” without a plan — According to exercise physiologist Tom Holland, quoted in the featured article, this has pro’s and con’s.

    On the one hand, jumping from one machine to another automatically prevents your body from adapting to any particular routine. On the other, he warns, “ you need to develop a sound strength base before you can build on it. Jumping around doesn’t allow for that.”

    He suggests making sure you maintain a certain amount of consistency to start, and sticking with a particular routine for four to six weeks to develop a solid base. Once your fitness and strength increases, you can give yourself more leeway.

  2. Avoiding strength training— Many people, women especially, avoid weight training because they don’t want to “bulk up” a’ la Schwarzenegger. This is another critical mistake, as strength training has significant health benefits that have nothing to do with building “bulky” muscles.

For example, weight-bearing exercise, like resistance or strength training, can go a long way to prevent brittle bone formation, and can help reverse the damage already done. It also has brain-boosting side effects, which can help you avoid age-related dementia.

Two More Common Mistakes: Skipping Warm-Up and Stretching

While you can get away with skipping the warm-up when you’re doing a low- to moderate impact workout, not warming up can easily lead to injury when you’re doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises, especially sprinting. The same applies for stretching, which I’ll discuss in just a moment.

As previously noted by John Paul Catanzaro, a Certified Kinesiologist and exercise physiologist, it takes only 10-15 seconds of muscular contractions to raise your body temperature by 1ºC, and a proper warm-up should raise your body temperature by 1-2ºC (1.4-2.8ºF). This is enough to cause sweating, and is really all that’s required in terms of warm-up.

“Simply going through the motions of any exercise is sufficient to supply blood to the appropriate working muscles. Just a few repetitions is all you need to really warm-up the muscles; aerobic activity is not necessary, and will zap valuable energy and time,” he says.

So, instead of aerobics, Catanzaro recommends performing the following dynamic stretching routine before your workout. Start slow and shallow and gradually increase speed and range with each repetition; 5-10 reps per movement is all you really need.

Squat Arms horizontal
Split Squat PNF pattern
Toe Touches Arm circles
Waiter's Bow Wrist flexion/extension
Side Bends Wrist circles
Trunk twists Shoulder shrugs
Arms vertical Head tilt
Arms vertical alternating Head rotation

To Stretch or Not to Stretch?

There’s plenty of confusion to go around when it comes to stretching as well. As a general rule, it’s not critical to stretch before a workout, and in some cases it may even be contraindicated. For example, a recent study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research4 found that passive static stretching prior to lifting weights can actually make you feel weaker and less stable during your workout. The researchers concluded that such stretching should be avoided prior to strength training, noting that the passive stretches may have impaired strength because of joint instability.

In other instances, such as when you’re doing high intensity sprinting exercises, prior stretching is imperative, and should NOT be skipped.  When I first began sprinting, I ended up injuring myself by ignoring the recommendation to stretch properly beforehand. The stretching exercises I demonstrate in the following video finally helped me recover, but I suggest you avoid making the same mistake and just do the stretches before you start sprinting.

Fitness trainer Jillian Michaels also notes that stretching is ideally done after your workout, when your muscles are nice and warm. My own trainer agrees that while light stretching is okay prior to any workout, it’s better to leave more intense stretching to the end.  In her article, Jillian Michaels5 offers a simple dynamic “butt-kick” stretch that can be done while walking or jogging:

“As you walk or jog, exaggerate the knee bend so that you are trying to kick yourself in the butt. You want your knee to point straight to the ground as your heel comes toward your butt. Keep your arms pumping in the normal running motion... The higher you get your heel and the more you keep your knee toward the ground (instead of coming up in front of you with hip flexion), the more of a quad stretch you'll get.”

Remember: Intensity is a Key Ingredient for Fitness Success

Another common mistake is to focus your workout on longer, slower aerobic exercise. Many get into the routine of just plodding away on a treadmill for 30-60 minutes, and then calling it a day. High intensity interval training (HIIT), which is a core component of my Peak Fitness program, is key for reaping optimal results from exercise. There are many versions of HIIT, but the core premise involves maximum exertion followed by a quick rest period for a set of intervals.

My Peak Fitness routine uses a set of eight 30-second sprints, each followed by 90 seconds of recovery done after a proper warm up as discussed above and followed by a cool down period.. Phil Campbell, who is a pioneer in this field, trained me in this technique. Also, while I typically recommend using an elliptical machine or recumbent bike, it can be performed with virtually any type of exercise; with or without equipment.

Ideally, you’ll want to perform these exercises two or three times a week for a total of four minutes of intense exertion, especially if you are not doing strength training.You do not need to do them more often than that however. In fact, doing it more frequently than two or three times a week can be counterproductive, as your body needs to recover between sessions. If you want to do more, focus on making sure you're really pushing yourself as hard as you can during those two or three weekly sessions, rather than increasing the frequency.

Remember, intensity is indeed KEY for reaping all the benefits interval training can offer. To perform it correctly, you’ll want to raise your heart rate to your anaerobic threshold, and to do that, you have to give it your all for those 20 to 30 seconds.  To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. That number is your maximum heart rate in beats per minute. Here's a quick summary of what a typical interval routine might look like using an elliptical:

  • Warm up for three minutes
  • Exercise as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds. You should be gasping for breath and feel like you couldn't possibly go on another few seconds. It is better to use lower resistance and higher repetitions to increase your heart rate
  • Recover for 90 seconds, still moving, but at slower pace and decreased resistance
  • Repeat the high intensity exercise and recovery 7 more times

When you're first starting out, depending on your level of fitness, you may only be able to do two or three repetitions. As you get fitter, just keep adding repetitions until you’re doing eight. For a visual demonstration, please see the following video.

Easy Ways to Improve Your Workouts

The third featured article, published by,6 offers several helpful tips for getting the most out of each workout. Listed suggestions include:

  • Use a stop watch. This is particularly useful for when you’re doing Peak exercises discussed above. Resting too long between sets will lessen the overall intensity of your workout.
  • Take notes to track your progress. As mentioned earlier, you need to continually increase the work you do in order to keep improving. So note the weights, reps, and intensity of each exercise, and kick it up a notch as soon as each exercise becomes easy to perform.
  • Choose the right music for your workout. Research has shown that music can significantly boost your exertion level during a workout. While your body may be simply responding to the beat on a more or less subconscious level, the type and tempo of the music you choose may also influence your conscious motivation. Together, the synchronization of moving to the beat along with being motivated by the music itself allows it to do its magic.
  • Allow your body to recover. While most people suffer from lack of exercise, once you get going, it can be addictive and some people do end up exercising too much — either by exercising too intensely, and/or too frequently. A really important part of creating optimal fitness is recovery. An equation to keep in mind is that as intensity increases, frequency can be diminished.
  • Tailor your diet to your exercise regimen. The featured article suggests eating slow-digesting carbs (the author suggests whole grains) prior to your workout. While research has indeed shown that eating easily digestible carbohydrates before exercise may enable you to work out longer, there’s also plenty of research that strongly supports skipping eating before exercise… especially if you’re interested in maximizing your fat-burning potential.


    When you exercise while fasting, it essentially forces your body to shed fat, as your body's fat burning processes are controlled by your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and your SNS is activated by exercise and lack of food.  The combination of fasting and exercising maximizes the impact of cellular factors and catalysts (cyclic AMP and AMP Kinases), which force the breakdown of fat and glycogen for energy. One study7 found that fasting before aerobic training leads to reductions in both body weight and body fat, while eating before a workout decreases only body weight.

    Also remember that on days when you’re doing HIIT, you’ll want to strictly avoid all sugars, especially fructose, at least two hours before and after your workout.  

    Restricting these carbs after exercise will prevent the production of the hormone somatostatin, the role of which is to inhibit the production of human growth hormone (HGH). If you consume fructose before or after high intensity exercise, you effectively negate one of its most potent benefits—the production of HGH, also known as “the fitness hormone.”

Aim for a Well-Rounded Fitness Program

Ideally, to truly optimize your health, you’ll want to strive for a varied and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates a wide variety of exercises. Remember, without variety, your body will quickly adapt. As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, you need to increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body. I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program:

  1. Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods.
  2. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff. The following video offers a demonstration of his techniques:

Total Video Length: 1:52:03

  1. Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.

Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman, is an integral first step of a larger program he calls “Modern Moveology,” which consists of a catalog of exercises. Postural exercises such as those taught in Foundation Training are critical not just for properly supporting your frame during daily activities, they also retrain your body so you can safely perform high-intensity exercises without risking injury.   Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.

  1. Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
  2. Avoid Sitting For Prolonged Periods: Last but not least, emerging evidence clearly shows that even highly fit people who exceed the expert exercise recommendations are headed for premature death if they sit for long periods of time.  My interview with NASA scientist Dr. Joan Vernikos goes into great detail why this is so, and what you can do about it. Personally, I usually set a timer to go off every 10 minutes while sitting, and then stand up and do one legged squats, jump squats or lunges when the timer goes off. The key is that you need to be moving all day long, even in non-exercise activities.

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