Why Your Workout Plan Is Failing You

This is a post from NF Team Member Taylor.

“Just start Starting Strength!”

“This 14 week workout plan is all you need!”

“Bro, get on this sick 5-day split!”

When we hear from newbies who feel completely overwhelmed, this is often the advice they’ve been told: “start this plan and don’t look back!”  Or worse, they’re told “start this plan” by 10 different people from 10 different sites with 10 different plans.

We get a lot of “I’m so freaking confused! HALP!” emails.  

Don’t feel bad.

We’ve all been there.

It’s just like playing a brand new video game:  We run through the tutorial levels, get out of the newbie zone, and only THEN do we venture off into the world and grind to level 50.

Fitness is no different: If you’re a fitness newbie, you probably have no idea what you need to do or where you need to begin.  So, rather than following the strategies employed by level 10s, level 20s, or level 50s, we need to understand the mechanics of the game first, and put the right strategies in place that work for us at OUR LEVEL.

Here’s how to stop worrying about what plan to begin, and how to START having success and see positive changes from day 1 of “I’m going to get Healthy.”

What video games teach us about habits


Whether you are looking to revamp your diet, rethink your sedentary lifestyle, or go on an epic adventure around the globe, you start at level 1.

If you’re playing Super Mario Bros or Halo, you don’t get to start on an expert level unless you already know what you’re doing. Try to start on hardcore or legendary while you are still trying to figure out the controls and it won’t be long before you end up like Jim in the Office playing Call of Duty.

None of us start out playing like this guy. 

If you’re BRAND NEW, you need a tutorial level! That “newbie island” of sorts to learn the ropes in a safe environment. Once you get your bearings, you can start upping the difficulty and fight more bad guys.

“DUH! I know I should not jump into a big program!” you might say.

Are you sure? The entire fitness industry is so polluted that you may not even realize. Take a look at some of the best selling fitness programs or DVDs and you are bound to find complicated programs with TONS of exercises. I won’t name any names, but I bet if you think of some popular fitness programs off the top of your head, you’ll realize that the programs many people choose end up throwing beginners right into the game. On hard mode.

Starting with a workout routine with 20 new exercises is madness! You’ll have poor form, struggle, probably not have a lot of fun, and potentially even hurt yourself.

Being Level 1 isn’t exciting in video games, but it’s essential.  You kill rats because you know that by doing so you’ll eventually end up slaying dragons.

Being Level 1 isn’t exciting in fitness either, but it’s essential. You need to be boring sometimes and “kill rats” because that will allow you to one day do handstands, pull ups, and stuff like this.

Ideal World vs Reality


In an ideal world, once someone realizes they are unhealthy, they immediately stop eating crap. They start eating healthy, nutrient rich foods to perfectly support their goals: muscle gain, weight loss, or to become the next TV superhero. They make sure they are regularly eating a deficit for weight loss, or eating a surplus for weight gain.

In reality, we we go on crash diets and rebound. We try the recent fad and find that we’re miserable, unhealthy, and back where we started.

In this ideal world, once someone decides they want to gain weight or lose weight, they immediately get on a great program, designed for beginners, and find something that meets their goals. They would then stick to that plan, 3-5 days a week, for months and months. They earn a “perfect attendance award.”

In reality, the average person looking to start has been filled with fitness “knowledge” from the mainstream media, commercials, fitness magazines, and infomercials which tells women they get bulky if they lift anything more than 1 lb and encourages guys to “get huge” by doing this sick 95 day split with 19 bicep variations! We follow the plan handed to us by a bodybuilding magazine or a trainer who is far too advanced, essentially setting our difficulty level to “Legendary” and then getting dropped into a world full of monsters.

In the ideal world, newbies quickly upload all the information they need to be successful…straight to their brains. Yep. Just like Neo. From gym etiquette, to fitness jargon, to how to perform every exercise with perfect form, they are now the masters of health and fitness.

In reality, the gym is #*%)@*% intimidating. Habits are hard to build. And just deciding you are going to try to get healthy or put on muscle is a freakin’ victory in itself.

We aren’t in a dream.  We aren’t in the Matrix. We aren’t in a video game.

And worse, in real life the situation is often more dire than complete ignorance. Often, many of us are starting from a deficit: misinformed and demotivated.

Maybe there’s a better way…

Starting a “plan” might not be the best bet


OK, so we know that when starting something, whether it be saving for your future or getting healthy, you need to start by getting your feet wet…not by jumping in face first.

This may work for cold pools and oceans, but you’ll have no such luck with new health and fitness habits.

  • The number one reason most people don’t get healthy isn’t because they don’t know what to do, it’s because they can’t follow through.
  • It’s not that they don’t have the perfect program, or they aren’t doing the right exercises, it’s that they aren’t doing anything consistently.

The good news is, there’s an easy fix.

Instead getting overwhelmed with a huge new program, get with started small IMMEDIATELY, and then learn more as you go.

What does this mean for you?

1) If you are more or less sedentary, don’t go from working out 0 days a week to working out intensely 5 days a week. Show yourself FIRST that this isn’t something you are just going to do for two weeks and quit. It would be far better to stick consistently with a tiny 10 minute workout, than start a 5 day a week program and quit after two weeks. Before you start your new “ideal” routine, create your new identity: the you that makes fitness a priority and works out regularly.

Try out some basic bodyweight exercises – The Beginning Bodyweight Workout is a great start. If that’s all new to you, start even smaller, with some pushups and bodyweight squats. Do them every other day. Just do something and keep getting better at whatever you small thing you choose.

2) If you are a runner looking to get into strength training, start making small changes in your routine to incorporate your NEW routine. Don’t jump overnight from spending hours and hours outside running to only going to the gym. That’s jarring, and for many people, a recipe for failure.  Cut back on some of your running and add in basic bodyweight exercises. Maybe at the end of your new shortened runs, do some circuits of pushups, pull ups, and squats.

3) If your diet is out of whack, DON’T jump into a HUGE dramatic change overnight. Whether you are trying to gain muscle or lose weight, don’t make these changes overnight. You can’t jump into that “perfect plan” that everybody is recommending. That’s just not how we humans are built. Say no to crash diets or the quixotic 14-small-meal-muscle-building diet plan.  Even with big changes like a Paleo lifestyle, get started slowly. NF Team Member Staci, who’s been “playing” the Paleo game for 3 years can now jump into “expert” paleo mode, but she didn’t start that way.

Celebrate small wins and get yourself to make nutrition a priority.

What Your Levels Might Look Like


So you just hit start on the Game of Life, and you’re itching to get started. Before we can get you to level 50, we need to get you to level 2 first. And then level 3.

Here’s an example:

Beginner zone:


  • Start a basic body weight workout, like this one
  • Begin to learn the form for squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses.
  • Eat a healthy for lunch every day
  • Cut back on processed carbs.
  • Cut back on all sugar from your diet.


  • Gym 3x a week plus and walk on your off days. Work on building good form with only a few big compound exercises.
  • Eat a healthy lunch and dinner during the week.
  • Work on some skill based bodyweight exercises, like handstands.
  • Start to eliminate grains, outside of foods like rice and oats.
  • Consider moving to a more advanced strength routine.
  • Incorporate some assistance exercises into your routine to support your main workout.
  • Add a new activity to your week, like yoga or a team sport.
  • Try going full Paleo or completely eliminating processed carbs and sugars.

And your “legendary” mode? If you’re into strength training, perhaps instead of powerlifting you explore olympic lifting, strongman, or gymanstics. A runner? Check out some Ironman races. Try out for Ninja Warrior. Who knows what you can become once you build a solid foundation.

Don’t go it alone

mario family

Games like the World of Warcraft aren’t fun because they let you grind incessantly to get better levels; they’re fun because they let you grind incessantly to get better levels WITH OTHER PEOPLE.

You have friends that:

  • Ask you to join them on raids.
  • Are slightly higher levels than you that can tell you the best places to hunt.
  • Are slightly lower than you who you get to mentor through the next cave
  • Yell at you when you’re not there to play.

Who is in your guild/party in real life?  Do you have these people who are yelling at you when you miss a workout with them?  People that are there to help you when you struggle?  Do you have people that YOU’RE helping?

Life isn’t a single player game – it’s a massively multiplayer real-life role playing game.

Don’t be afraid to get started. To pick your class.  Stumble and fall down.  Get back up.  Try new things. Find friends who are close to your level. And get weird.

What’s that you say? You don’t have any real life friends who want to join your exercise party?  Welp, now you got about 22,000 friends waiting to help, support, and push you.

Game on!

Train smart


Don’t spend time and energy building the PERFECT routine.  

There is no such thing.  The best workout plan is the one you actually do.

If trying the “all in” approach has repeatedly failed in the past, why not mix things up and try small victories and incremental levels instead?  After all, the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Don’t let a fancy program overwhelm and intimidate you. Just get started with something now, and after you find yourself heading to your workout like a robot, then hop on that awesome program.

The worst thing you can do is to continue to collect piles of underpants and sit on the sidelines, waiting for that perfect moment or that moment of clarity.

It doesn’t exist.

Hit start.

Put one foot in front of the other. Do something.

If you are currently afraid to get started, what’s holding you back?  Leave a comment and we’ll talk through it.

If you broke through the clutter and began, how did you do it?



photo source: Mario, DK, Matrix, Mario Family, Notebook, Chess

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  • Average Joe

    Great Article Tayler, it pretty much sums up the NF mentality and I have to say…It Works. Start small, Start Slow, Constantly tweak and adjust what works for YOU! Thanks to NF articles (like this one), 6 week challenges and all my Rebel friends since last spring I’ve gone from 255 lbs to 212 (and still slowly dropping)! Now I don’t have to wonder IF I can run a 5k, I wonder How Fast can I run it? 15 pushups before bed isn’t scary it’s habit. The weights in my garage are no longer my enemy they’re my best friend.

  • Know what you are doing

    By all means start right away by doing something, anything, but for the sake of your spine: GEEK OUT ON FORM right from the start. Form is not just something stupid fit people talk about to pretend that there’s more to exercise than mindless grinding and sweating.

    Seriously. For every new exercise, check out instructions and youtube videos on how it’s supposed to be done and learn to do it that way. If you can’t do it with good form, then you can’t do it yet and should find something easer. If you can’t do it more than n times in a row with good form, then you shouldn’t do more than that. Always quality before quantity.
    I learned this the hard way by doing too many kettlebell snatches with poor form and messing up my back in the process. Luckily my back recovered, but trust me, you do not want to spend weeks fearing that you might have messed up your spine for the rest of your life.

    Aside from the obvious heath benefits, striving for good form has psychological benefits. You can get into a nice flow state that makes time pass faster and you’ll stop caring what other people in your gym think about you. You’ll be too busy screwing your feet to the ground and organizing your spine to even notice there are other people around.

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  • CindyM

    Congrats on your fight – that is awesome! thanks for the info on p90X

  • Katthebeach

    Hi I am k and just trying to start a plan to help me loose weight. I thought maybe buy the diet meals like smart ones . Do u think that will be a good start

  • Katthebeach

    What is P90X ?

  • Rock Capuano

    I was 30 pounds overweight, hadn’t exercised in over 3 years, and drank beer like it was a scarce commodity.

    So when I started back on track to fitness, I did what I call the “baby-step” method and the “don’t look” method.

    The “baby step” method is what obvious. Take small baby steps when you are in the beginners stage. For me, this was a month of focusing on my diet. Getting rid of beer, extra carbs, juicing diet, smoothies, and eating clean. After that, it was a 2-3 slow laps around a lake in my backyard or a slow jog up the street. I can still remember the luggage I carried around my gut on that first jog.

    The “don’t look” method was refusing to look in the mirror for the first 3 months. This can stop progress quickly if one doesn’t see a change right away. We like fast and easy. Getting into shape is anything but.

    Once I stuck with these two methods, and KEPT TAKING ACTION, I was happy with what I saw in the mirror 3 months later. And that motivated me further.

    This post will help beginners unlike most of those programs you didn’t mention (but we all know what they are). The comparison with video games is perfect for this site as well.

    The best line to take away from this post:

    “Being Level 1 isn’t exciting in video games, but it’s essential. You kill rats because you
    know that by doing so you’ll eventually end up slaying dragons.”

    Thank you!

    Rock Capuano

  • Taylor

    A great way to think about this stuff, thanks Rock!

  • Taylor

    That depends entirely on where you are in your fitness / health. There are a few suggestions in the article 🙂

  • http://www.kyokushinblog.com/ Brett

    I never had trouble w/ P90x as far as the back pain or joint pain some people have voiced. What made it hard to maintain was that I can find 30 minutes or 60 minutes but finding 90 minutes each day of the week (and I get up at 5am for work) it tough.

  • Srijan

    The Truth About Fat Burning Foods


  • Ali

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  • Nick Hilden

    Hi there. I just came across NF and really like what I see. One of the most common things I recommend to people seeking fitness advice is to build up a routine over time. I call it the “brick by brick” routine. I wrote a piece about it on my own health blog: http://lifedonewrite.com/2013/11/02/reigning-in-control-over-your-body-part-ii-brick-by-brick/

    I’ll be back! Keep up the good work!

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  • Nick

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  • nicoli

    Love this tips, thank you

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