It can be daunting to start a new exercise program, especially if strenuous physical activity isn’t a part of your regular routine – or hasn’t been for a long while. There are many challenges you can expect to encounter.
In this article, I’ll explain the three most common challenges you’ll face and how to handle them.
If you’re just starting a new program, you’ll have to be prepared for soreness from muscles unaccustomed to the work, and also for the frustration from how how fatigued and weak you’ll feel in this new experience. It’s just the way it goes.
If it were so easy, then you wouldn’t need to do it.
Muscle soreness and feeling tired sooner than you’d like are normal parts of this whole process. You should expect it, but you can also expect to get through it if you keep on trucking and don’t quit.
But besides the usual difficulties with starting training, there are some issues that can stop you before you even get a real chance to start.
Other Reasons It’s Tough to Get Started
Our method of training emphasizes learning to move your body well through various bodyweight skills, in which you go through positions such as on your hands, squatting, and kneeling.
And for quite a lot of people these are very difficult, if not impossible, to do in the beginning.
This isn’t a reason to give up, but it does require some awareness of potential issues, along with smart planning to overcome and move on from them.
Below, I’ll describe some of the most common issues I see in new clients.
Then, I’ll share how I figure out what particular weaknesses may be holding you back or may get in your way if you don’t address them.
Finally, I’ll give you my recommendations for addressing these issues head on, without slowing down your progress.
Let’s get you set up for success.
The Most Common Physical Barriers to Performing Exercises
I’ve been lucky to work with a big variety of different clients and students over the years, and during this time I’ve noticed particular patterns in the way people move.
I can tell almost immediately what a person needs to work on when I see them try out a few simple movements. I then ask them what they do for a living and a little bit about their physical activity background, and then their limitations and particular issues tend to make a lot of sense.
Barrier #1 – Weakness in the Wrists and Hands
First, most people don’t spend a lot of time bearing weight through their hands – or even using their hands and wrists for more than pecking away at a computer. As such, their wrists and fingers are not used to the pressure of performing skills like handstands, cartwheels, and crawling.
This is a key area that needs to be worked on right away because all the repetitions and holding needed to improve your hand balance performance can be murder on the wrists if you aren’t ready for it.
Conversely, if you have consistent wrist pain, you won’t be able to endure the practice time needed to get better at those skills.
Wrist and hand stiffness and pain can stop you right in your tracks in bodyweight training. Solving and preventing these issues are keys to achieving success in your practice.
Barrier #2 – Tightness in the Shoulders
Another consequence of having less physically active jobs nowadays is that most of the movement in our upper body occurs at not much higher than shoulder to head height. Unless we actively move into a bigger range of motion, our shoulder muscles and joints will stiffen and limit movement to just the motions we actually use daily.
In Japan there is a term we use that translates to “40 year old shoulder,” also called “frozen shoulder” in the west.
It’s where the shoulders tighten up so much that people can’t reach up above their head. Usually it happens so gradually that people don’t notice it until that rare occasion when they stretch their arms up more than usual!
It’s so common here that it seems people expect it to happen. Well it’s not normal, and addressing this issue is vital to getting the most out of a training program (or out of life, for that matter).
Barrier #3 – Restricted Mobility in the Hips and Back
There’s a lot of alarmist news about how sitting will literally kill you. LITERALLY.
While it’s probably not as immediately life threatening as all that – we talk about this more in this podcast – sitting for long periods is not the best thing in the world for you.
Your hips and back are particularly affected, as they are forced into the poor positioning of sitting in a chair all day. The “chair shaped posture” is a real thing, with hips and back tight and weakened from being flexed and rounded.
We adapt to our environment and activities, which is both the best and the worst thing about our bodies.
Most articles and advice out there – and they’re great – encourage us to go into the complete opposite pattern. Standing with legs straight, hips forward, arms up, and bending back.
Again, it’s a great idea, and you would get a lot of benefit from doing this simple stretch throughout the day. Yet it’s better to address specifically what’s going on with your body and what you need. It’s more efficient that way and I think we can all agree that we should try and get the most out of the time we can make for our training.
You may already know what your weak spots are, especially if you’ve been working on some of the skills we teach.
Again, what I’ve talked about above are very common issues and even working on these areas in a general way will be very helpful. But now I want to show you a way to find out what in particular you need to work on to make the most out of your time.
And one of the great things about this is that the moves are simple, intuitive, and you can get started on it right away.
How to Assess Your Limitations So You Can Move Beyond Them
In addition to GMB, I run a gym where I live in Osaka, Japan.
When my new clients come in I make sure to take them through an assessment process so that I can tailor our programs to their needs. Most only need a few adjustments, some need a lot, but all benefit from taking the time to find out how to best get them started.
I’ve chosen four basic moves here from my client intake analysis to share with you all here. This assessment is not complex at first glance, but it allows you to see quite a few things right away if you know just what you’re looking for.
I’ll take you through it step-by-step and you can use it for yourself before beginning any training program.
My 4-Step Assessment for New Trainees
This is NOT your typical “let’s see how many push-ups you can do in a minute” sort of assessment.
I see that kind of thing quite a bit at gyms around here, and browsing online, and while it’s great for looking at your stamina and endurance, it’s not the best for assessing form or figuring out what’s preventing you from performing exercises safely.
Doing as many burpees as you can in a minute is just going to lead to bad form.
The movements I’ll share here will show baseline levels of flexibility, coordination, and body awareness for the skills we teach, and will give you a good idea of what needs to happen for you to get better.
In this video, I’ll show you how I take my clients through this assessment.
I’ll describe each exercise/hold in detail, and how each one tells you about your body’s makeup, and what may hold you back if you don’t take care of it as soon as possible.
I recommend you take some video of yourself performing each of these assessment exercises, as that will allow you to look back and see your progress.
It’s quite common for people to not really know what’s going on in their bodies, especially if they’re fairly new to exercise. So, taking some video can give you some visual feedback and help you understand what needs to change.
Assessment Exercise #1 – The Squat
The squat may seem like a simple move, but it can tell you a lot about your current level of performance.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, turned slightly outward.
- Squat down as low as possible while maintaining a relatively flat back.
- Keep your neck neutral, avoiding jutting the chin forward.
Don’t worry if you can’t squat down very low. It’s very common for people to have limited mobility in the squat, and that’s totally fine. This is about seeing where you are right now, not about trying to reach a certain level.
Below, I’ll describe what you can do to address any issues you may have with the squat. For now, just take note of your current position.
To take the squat further, you can practice the frogger jump, as I demonstrate in the video. This will give you an even better idea of your current level of mobility.
Assessment Exercise #2 – Seiza (Sitting on Heels)
This is another position that is quite difficult for most people living in the Western world.
Since I live in Japan, I don’t see many locals with this particular issue (it’s common for people in Japan to rest in this position throughout the day), but if you live elsewhere, you may have difficulty sitting comfortably in this position.
- Sit up on your knees with the tops of your feet on the floor.
- Then, lower your butt as close to your ankles as possible.
Ideally, your butt will be touching your heels, your back will be nice and straight, and this will be comfortable for you. If it’s uncomfortable, or if you are unable to bring your butt all the way to your heels, don’t worry.
Assessment Exercise #3 – “A” Position
If you’ve ever done a bit of yoga, this position may make you think of downward facing dog. Since we’re not using this as a stretch, but rather, as an assessment, just think of it as the “A” position for now.
- Start on your hands and knees, with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees directly beneath your hips.
- Push your hands and feet into the floor, raising your hips up as high as possible.
- Bring your heels as close to the floor as possible (ideally they should be flat on the ground).
If you have flexibility issues in your hamstrings, hips, lower back, or shoulders, those issues will show up loud and clear in this hold. That’s why I love using this particular position, as it gives me a quick and clear look at what’s going on with a person’s flexibility in a wholistic way.
Assessment Exercise #4 – Bear Walk
The bear walk is a great move that shows me how your flexibility, strength, and coordination work together.
- Begin in the “A” position.
- Move your right arm and left foot forward, maintaining the “A” position as best as possible, then do the same with your left arm and right foot.
- Keep your arms and legs straight throughout the movement.
Often, people will have trouble coordinating their opposite limbs to move at the same time, while maintaining the right position. Take note of how well you are able to move in this way.
This is a great move to video and look at each month or so to see how you are improving in your practice.
Additional Locomotor Assessments
In addition to the Bear Walk described above, I like to use the Monkey and Frogger locomotive patterns to assess flexibility restrictions, which you can see in this infographic.
How to Make Corrections Based on the Assessment
Now that you’ve read through some of the most common issues people face, and have gone through the four assessment exercises I use with my clients, you should have a good sense of where you’re starting from.
NOTE: Keep track of the videos and notes you took, because it’ll be important for re-evaluating yourself after spending some time addressing your weaknesses.
Strengthening Your Wrists
In the “A” position and bear walk, you’re placing a fair amount of pressure on your wrists, though not as much as in a handstand and other handbalancing exercises. If you are experiencing wrist pain or tightness already then it’s a clear sign that you need to work on this right away before it turns into a major issue.
We’ve provided a thorough wrist warm-up here, which should be done prior to any session where you will spend a significant time on your hands, from crawling to cartwheels to handstands.
Take the time to warm up correctly and you’ll be saving yourself from grief later.
If you know you already have problems that go beyond just needing a proper warm-up, then you’ll have to be even more vigilant about warming up and doing more to strengthen and stretch your wrists.
In this article, we share complete programming for extra warm-up and rehabilitation using two fundamental positions (flexion and extension).
Take your time and be patient with wrist stretching and strengthening, as it can take quite a while before your hands and wrists get adjusted to the work. But if you work on this sooner rather than later, you’ll be preparing yourself much better for the road ahead in learning bodyweight skills.
Improving Your Shoulder Mobility
As we’ve talked about earlier, decreased shoulder flexibility can turn into a big problem when people don’t have the chance to stretch out to their full range of motion. It’s not just one day that does it, but day after day of following the same routine and never opening up your shoulders will eventually lead to stiffness.
Just as with the wrists, the “A” position and bear walks will give you a good test of your shoulder strength and mobility. The proper positioning and movement in these exercises gives us a lot of information on the shoulder.
In the “A” position, you’ll notice that the hips should be up high and the chest brought down to form the “A.” You simply can’t do this properly with tight shoulders.
The same is true with the bear walk, only now you’ll be adding the components of shoulder strength and motor coordination, along with shoulder flexibility. If you feel fatigue in the shoulders in trying to keep the proper positioning and movement, then you are already aware of the muscles working hard with these moves.
We presented a comprehensive shoulder article which addresses all these concerns. From flexibility to motor control, there are a great variety of exercises and concepts you can use to help bring your shoulders up to par.
Loosening Up Your Hips
All of the four assessment exercises bring your lower body flexibility into play, from going into a deeper squat to sitting on your heels and stretching out your hamstrings in the “A” position and bear walk.
Tightness here is nearly universal for people just getting into exercise. We just don’t have many opportunities for working on full hip mobility in all the different angles during the course of our regular day.
- Our detailed post on the hips gives you a better look at what’s involved with the various muscles, along with stretching, strength, and motor control exercise examples.
- This other video shows a different sequencing that may help you more in the different rotational angles at the hips.
- And finally, if you feel that your hamstrings are the primary villain holding you up, here’s a post devoted entirely to opening your hamstring flexibility.
Stretching Out Your Back
These four assessment exercises will also give you good feedback on how your spine is moving.
In the squat, keeping an upright posture means having a good ability to bend backwards in the mid back and let your hips roll under at your low back. Sitting on your heels positions your pelvis in a way that supports backward bending at the low back, and finally the “A” position and bear walk also look at backward bending, which is essentially what’s happening when you want to maintain a flat line in the spine when bending forward at the hips.
The spine is a very complicated structure and we go into a good amount of detail, along with different movement sequences, in this comprehensive post.
Give the movements there a shot and find what you need to do to keep your back healthy, mobile, and strong. It’s not too much able to perform all things we are asking of it in our training and the rest of our daily lives.
Staying Consistent and Injury Free With a New Training Program
Getting motivated and starting up an exercise program is hard enough.
We don’t need to mix in joint and muscle strain and sprains to make it even more difficult! Once you decide to start and actually get going with a new training program, the last thing you want is to be stopped in your tracks by injuries.
And even barring any injuries, it’s natural to get frustrated because it feels like you simply can’t get your body to move into the positions and alignments that you want.
I’ve presented the most common issues, along with sharing my way of looking at where people are starting from and how to adjust their program to address these concerns. And while we are working on these issues I still have them practicing and training hard with what they can do.
You don’t need to stop everything else while you work on your weaknesses. Just focus on what you can do and work with what you have.
If you keep waiting until everything is perfect, then you’ll never start. Trust me, I’ve been there before.
The perfect place to get started is with our new program, Elements. It’s all about assessing your needs and working on the basics, in order to move freely with physical autonomy. You’ll work on strength, flexibility, and control in a logical, manageable, and enjoyable manner.
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