They say lifting weights is so great! Right away, you should feel strong, renewed, and confident! Get on board the gains train and kill the day! All the health benefits await...
Then why do so many people quit??
The truth is, when you begin a new strength training exercise routine, it actually gets worse before it gets better. When that happens, many people think they aren't cut out for it, or worse yet - they think it is hurting their body and stop altogether. Unfortunately, it is this initial phase that no one ever expects, because no one really talks about it. Here are six major motivational killers:
Holy Christ on a cracker, the DOMS - aka, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness - will kill your will to ever move again. Usually the 48 hour mark is the peak, and it will have you shuffling around like Frankenstein's monster. Can't go up the stairs, it hurts! Going down the stairs is even worse! Forget about trying to sit down onto a toilet seat, spare yourself and wear a diaper. This condition is no joke, and is caused by inflammation and the release of metabolites into the muscle as they try to repair themselves. DOMS is often erroneously blamed on a lactic acid build up, but the lactic acid burn you feel during strenuous exercise has little to do with the stiff, sore, hell you find yourself in the first week (or two).
The good news is DOMS pretty much vanishes after a few weeks of a consistent routine. The more you lift, the less sore you are, unless you do a completely new exercise. Contrary to your instincts, the best thing for DOMS is to not stop moving. If you find yourself in misery, lighten the load considerably, but don't stop moving. Or, perhaps a half hour on the elliptical machine, at least. Feel free to take a few Advil or roll on some IcyHot. You can also soak in an Epsom Salt bath. (Some people prefer ice baths, but I'm not one of them.)
It's been three weeks and I haven't lost weight! In fact, I even gained a few pounds! This is bullshit... I cannot tell you how many people complain about the lack of weight loss, or confusing weight gain they initially encounter the first month of a new program. After all, everyone starts working out to shed some pounds. What the hell?
Initial weight gain and bloat is caused by - again - inflammation, and water retention. Your body hasn't used its muscles with purpose for quite some time and at first the inside of your body is a shitshow of damage repair. Your metabolism is used to a certain level of efficiency and it takes time to convince it you are really doing something new. Then it has to convert stored fat into energy on a cellular level. None of this happens overnight. You must literally re-train your body. If you've ever trained anything, you'll know it gets messy first, and then, once things click - your inflammation goes down, your water levels recede, and your metabolism starts burning your fat. It can take a month or two, so be patient.
You'll Get Sick
It never fails. As soon as you start your shiny new workout routine... you come down with the crud. Be it a cold, a stomach virus, a flu - it doesn't matter. Chances are high you will get sick. Perhaps you'll blame fate, or the gods, or the toddlers in the gym day care center. But really, high intensity working out, when you are not accustomed to it, raises both adrenaline and cortisol, which can weaken your immune system. Even seasoned endurance athletes are more susceptible to illness within 72 hours after a marathon or other boundary-pushing feat.
But, once you get past the initial garbage, regular exercise actually strengthens your immune system. Studies have shown that immune boosting cells that kill viruses and bacteria multiply and flush through your system more readily. Plus, it is theorized that your body's elevated temperature during exercise makes it harder for viruses and bacteria to survive (much like a fever.) Over time, regular exercise reduces your stress hormones, so your immune system has the advantage it needs to keep itself strong.
A weird thing happens when you work out hard. You can't sleep. Sure, you are exhausted, and hit the bed like a sack of rocks, but dreams will not come. You may feel tense, like your mental wheels are spinning, or that you are overstimulated, but beat, at the same time. After a week or two of this stuff, you're liable to think, forget it! I need to take a break from the gym and go to sleep!
Again, stress hormones are to blame. Adrenaline and cortisol interrupt your body's ability to relax at the end of the day. This side effect is only temporary, until your body gets used to the load. After a while, sleeping is as easy as 1, 2, Zzzzz. In the meantime, try a supplement with a little Magnesium, like ZMA, or take an Epsom Salt soak before bed. Try to loosen your muscles and decompress as much as you can.
ANXIETY AND STRESS
Are you getting the bigger picture, yet? The initial phase of tearing up your muscles and pushing your body causes stress. You are literally challenging all of your systems and shredding your muscle fibers. It is a violent change, no matter what. But don't let that make you think it isn't a necessary one.
Your body will inflame, and release stress hormones in response to the exertion. Instead of feeling relaxed after a good workout, you might feel agitated or stressed out. You may experience heightened anxiety just going to the gym. You might even break out in pimples like a teenager. (I did!) All these irksome symptoms can last a few weeks to a month or two, depending on your body. However, the more regularly you go to the gym, the more like home it will feel and less like Ramsay Bolton's dungeon. Your body will adapt, your hormones will chill, and then you can expect to feel less stress and anxiety than ever before.
Acute Pains / Headaches
When you start to hit more challenging weights, many minor things can happen that might feel like major things. You might tweak your lower back and it can seize up on you and make you wonder if you slipped a disc. You can tweak your upper back and get really gnarly headaches. A tendon or a ligament might get irritated and flare up, making you wonder if you tore something. And weirder, still, you may experience sharp pains in your body or on the side of your head with heavy exertion.... are you having a stroke? Should you quit?
You will hear many non-lifters and inactive people say, "Don't push yourself like that. You should stop immediately." I will say, if it is a symptom that scares you or is too painful to work through, see your doctor to rule out injury or high blood pressure/heart problems. But most of the time, it is just a minor tendon or muscle flare that feels major. Some ice, or heat, or bringing the load down 50% for a few days can all help.
You're not supposed to feel sexy right away. Remember that. There will probably be an initial phase of fluctuating bodyweight and random bloating, insomnia, aches and pains, anxiety, irritability, a cold, and possibly some acne thrown in for good measure.
But, if you stay the course and give it a few months, your body will start humming along. That's when you start to feel healthy and sexy. Your metabolism will get the picture, you'll be able to sleep, and you will feel less anxiety that whatever was normal for you. That is the prize - not tomorrow, not by next weekend for that wedding, not in a month for "swimsuit season" - but in 3-6 months of consistent training. That is when the magic STARTS happening.