Workout results mean different things to different people—after all everyone has different reasons for working out. Maybe you just want to keep your heart healthy, have more energy, and reduce your overall disease risk. Or maybe you have a specific goal, like training for a race, a heavier deadlift, losing weight, or building muscle. The last two, which are both achieved by changing your body composition (how much fat and muscle you have), can be especially difficult to do.
If your goal is to change your body composition (not that we're suggesting it should be, but if it is), know that many factors go into losing weight, burning fat, or building muscle. Your genetics play a significant role both in your current body composition and how difficult it is to change it. Factors like sleep, stress, hormones, and your fitness history also play a part. That's not to say it's impossible—just that it can be very, very difficult. So if you're not noticing the results you want, realize that can take months to change your muscle size or body fat percentage. You might be on the right track and just need to stay the course.
It's also important to make sure that your goals are realistic and attainable for you. The results you want might not reasonable considering your genetics or the amount of time and energy you have to dedicate to training and nutrition. In this case, it might be helpful to adjust your goal slightly to something that's more achievable.
That said, we understand that it can be frustrating to spend hours in the gym—plus mental and emotional energy—and see no visible results after months of hard work. While some factors (like hormone-related health conditions) may need to be addressed by a doctor before you can start to see a change, there are some things that most people can do to help move beyond a roadblock and get closer to their goals.
1. Prioritize sleep.
Weight loss especially is impacted by so many more factors than just diet and exercise. Getting poor sleep can sabotage your weight-loss efforts in a few ways. Being sleep-deprived impacts the hormones that control appetite, urging you to snack and prompting you to reach for quick energy—usually highly caloric sugary and fatty foods. Lack of sleep can also slow down your metabolism and simply leave you with too little energy to work out. Establishing a relaxing bedtime ritual, leaving electronics outside the bedroom, and quitting caffeine after 2 P.M. are all easy ways to help improve your sleep habits.
2. Try something completely different.
"If you are somebody who does the same thing every time and you have been doing that for years, then you need to switch it up," Chelsea Aguiar, founder of Athaya Fitness, tells SELF. When your body gets used to the same movements, it no longer has to adapt to keep up. "During physique changes and body composition changes, your body is adapting. When you're trying to make progress, you always want your workout to feel challenging. The second it becomes comfy or you feel like you can coast, your body is not making any adaptations," Aguiar explains. The way to force your body to adapt is by getting outside of your comfort zone.
3. Make small but meaningful changes to your current routine.
Sometimes tweaking your go-to workout (as well as adding some completely new exercises) can make a difference. "For example, at Flywheel where I teach, if you do the same RPM [or speed] but increase intensity, it’s a different workout," celebrity trainer Lacey Stone, tells SELF. "If you increase the speed on the treadmill by one or two [miles per hour], it’s a different workout." Lifting heavier than normal, or working out for longer, can both be helpful changes, too. Aguiar adds, "Make sure you’re only changing one thing at a time, and be very specific." If you're increasing the weight you're lifting, don't also add reps. "Pick one thing—duration, intensity, or load. Make two minor adjustments at most, but you never want to change too many things at once otherwise you put yourself at risk of doing something well beyond your capability."
4. Take active recovery days.
Active recovery is any workout that gets you moving but still lets your muscles recover fully—which is important so your body can reap the benefits of exercise without getting too burned out. A slow run, long walk, and yoga are all great forms of active recovery. This is a great way to keep your body moving (and burning more calories than you would if you took a full-on rest day) while still giving your body and mind a much-needed break from strenuous activity.
5. Cut out prepackaged foods.
"Nutrition is number one, whenever it comes to any type of weight loss or body composition goal," Aguiar stresses. She's not the only one who says this—any weight-loss coach or trainer will tell you the same. Newer nutrition research stresses that it's not just how much you eat, but what you eat, that matters. Focus on eating whole foods, and ditch prepackaged stuff that's often processed and has more added sugar and fewer nutrients. The best way to eat a healthy, balanced diet? Cook for yourself as often as possible.
6. Watch portion sizes.
There are several problems with counting calories for weight loss. For one, it can be annoying and time-consuming to track every single bite. In addition, calculating how many calories you need is incredibly complicated, and most formulas are inaccurate. A better solution for many people is to be mindful of portion sizes. To be honest, it can be really hard to control portion sizes, especially if you're eating out at restaurants and being served two times the size of a healthy portion. Here are some tips for getting your portions in check. (And just a reminder, if you have a history of eating disorders, talk with your doctor or a mental health professional before changing your eating habits.)
7. But maintain a sense of balance in your diet.
Eating healthy, whole foods and less added sugar is important, but so is balance. Saying you'll never have a glass of wine or cookie again will just set you up for failure. Some people avoid deprivation by scheduling "cheat days" (usually one day a week) where they eat pretty much whatever they want, but that may not be the best strategy for most people. Instead, try following the 80/20 principle every day: 80 percent of what you eat should be healthy, nutritious, filling foods, but 20 percent of your calories can come from less-healthy foods that you enjoy so that you don't feel deprived. Read more about why cheat days don't work—and why moderation every day is a better strategy.
8. Work out less often.
This might sound counterintuitive, but if you're working out so frequently that you're feeling burnt out, you may not really be getting much out of some of those workouts. Fitness pros emphasize the importance of taking a break so your body can recovery properly and so you have enough energy to come back to your next workout full force. If you're hitting the gym every single day and feeling exhausted, take a day off, get some rest, and see if you have more energy and stamina during your next workout.
9. Have fun.
Finding a workout you actually like and have fun doing will benefit you in countless ways. A few big ones: You're way more likely to stick with it, and you'll maximize the stress-relieving abilities of exercise. "There's a difference between fitness for results and fitness for fun, and I think having a really healthy balance of the two is key for sustained health and progress," Aguiar says.