What Exercise Could You Barely Do at First That You Now Rock?

You may want to consider hiring a personal trainer to teach you the basics.(Getty Images)

Last June, when Miranda Carruth began working out with a personal trainer in an effort to lose weight and become more fit, she quickly came to dread one part of her workout: renegade rows, an exercise that’s similar to a cross between push-ups and weight work. Carruth, 25, of Baltimore, would get in a modified push-up position, with one hand flat on the floor, to the side, and her other hand wrapped around a 20-pound weight that lay on the ground. She’d pick up the weight and, using a rowing motion, lift it back over her side, and then lower it to the floor. Then she’d rest. Doing a single renegade row exhausted Carruth and left her arms burning. “It was terrible,” Carruth recalls. “It was painful. Holding my body weight on one arm was the most challenging thing. My arm would get so tired I’d have to stop and take a break.”

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Dani Singer, Carruth’s personal trainer and the director of Fit2Go Personal Training, instructed her to shift her weight-bearing hand so it was centered under her chest. Singer also had Carruth place her feet wider apart, to broaden her base of support. Within about two weeks, Carruth did five repetitions without resting. By late August, she completed 20 renegade rows without pausing. During the first week of September, Carruth rocked 35 reps in a row. “It was exhausting but really great, too. I’m super-pleased,” she says. “At first, doing two in a row felt like a miracle. Next week I’ll shoot for 40 or 45.”

If you’ve ever felt lost or hopeless while trying out a new form of exercise, like Carruth did during her first renegade rows, you’re in great company. It’s common that people don’t know what they’re doing when they first try a new exercise, whether it’s lifting weights, doing squats, working out on a resistance machine or executing renegade rows. “These are movements you have to learn,” Singer says. “It’s the kind of thing where the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. When you start off, you don’t even understand how much there is to learn.” Mastering the proper technique for any exercise allows you to work out more efficiently with less wasted energy, he says.

Even before they’ve perfected or even improved their technique, some people make the mistake of expecting to be an expert, or at least highly competent, at a new exercise, Singer says. Such expectations can be self-defeating. “If you expect to be great right away, for sure you’ll fail,” Singer says. “The only way to be successful is to view it as a journey.”

The pace of your progress can be quick – as it’s been for Carruth – or much slower, as Natanya Nobel of suburban Maryland would attest. About four years ago, Nobel, now in her early 60s, started working with Singer to become fitter. One of the first exercises she tried to do was a burpee, which vaguely resembles a vigorous yoga move. To execute a burpee, you stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides. You push your hips back, bend your knees and lower yourself into a squat, then place your hands on the floor in front of you while thrusting your legs back so you’re in a plank position, with your back straight. Then you jump your feet back and do another squat; then, you jump up.

When she started working with Singer, Nobel couldn’t do a single burpee without fudging on at least one of its steps. For example, she’d skip executing the squat component. “I didn’t have the leg strength,” she says. Slowly, over time, with instruction and encouragement from Singer, Nobel improved her form. He provided props, like a ball that she could lower herself into for a modified squat. After about a year, Nobel says, she could do a legitimate burpee (without jumping at the end). Today, she can do 10 without pausing. “I love burpees,” she says.

If you’re starting a new type of exercise and feel anxious about your ability to do it well, experts recommend these strategies:

Set specific, attainable goals. Establish exercise goals that are achievable and measurable within a defined amount of time, says Josh Laudig, the fitness coordinator at Texas A&M University Coastal Bend Health Education Center in Corpus Christi, Texas. Set goals like being able to run three miles or do 100 sit-ups after six months, for example. “Don’t set a goal of ‘becoming more fit,’ because that’s vague,” Laudig says. “Set a goal that has a 50 percent achievable rate of success. You don’t want to set a goal that has a 90 percent fail rate or one that’s too easy. You want to challenge yourself.” He advises setting goals adhering to the concept of SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Work out at your own pace. You don’t need to sprint to reach your fitness goals, says Tevia Celli, director of education at CycleBar, an indoor cycling franchise company that has more than 130 in 34 states throughout the nation. If you overexert yourself, you may suffer an injury, which could discourage you from continuing to work out. “Pause when you need to,” she says. “You want to make it doable for yourself.”

Consider hiring a personal trainer. A competent personal trainer can teach you the proper form for whatever exercise or exercises you want to do, Singer says. Look for a personal trainer who’s strong in whatever you need. For example, a trainer may be a great motivator but not the best at describing movement patterns or form, or vice versa, Singer says. “Some people need help with form, some with motivation, some with both,” he says. “I think everyone would benefit from working with a good trainer for at least a month to get started on a training regimen.” He advises looking for a trainer who’s been certified by the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit; the National Academy of Sports Medicine; or the American College of Sports Medicine.

Be sure you have a clear grasp of the exercise. Understand the proper technique for whatever new exercise you’re taking on and its benefits, Singer says. If you don’t do an exercise correctly, you’ll probably waste energy and could run the risk of injuring yourself. Don’t try to simply mimic the movements of someone you see at the gym. Instead, have someone who knows how the exercise should be performed walk you through it.

Practice until you get it right. Claire Grieve took up Vinyasa yoga a few years ago. Her first efforts at doing a handstand weren’t picture-perfect. “I fell over,” she says. “You fall, you laugh a little and you go on.” Grieve started practicing handstands while bracing her feet against a wall. “I’d do them all day long. When I finally pulled my feet away from the wall and could hold it, that’s when I knew could do a handstand,” she says. Grieve not only advanced in her yoga practice, she became an instructor. Now she’s a well-known Los Angeles-based yogi with a raft of celebrity clients, including Odell Beckham Jr., a star wide receiver for the New York Giants, and other NFL and NBA players and model-actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Grieve typically does a handstand a day, sometimes more than once. “Going upside-down is so good for you,” she says. “It gets the blood moving, it’s good for circulation and digestion and it expands your spine.”

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Ruben Castaneda, Staff Writer

Ruben Castaneda has worked at U.S. News since September 2016. Mr. Castaneda has written extensi…  Read moreRuben Castaneda has worked at U.S. News since September 2016. Mr. Castaneda has written extensively about Baby Boomer health and exercise habits, strategies for losing weight, health care issues affecting distressed communities, yoga and substance misuse. In 2018, the National Press Foundation chose Mr. Castaneda as one of 15 journalists nationwide to participate in a deep dive seminar into reporting on the opioids crisis. In 2017, the USC Center for Health Journalism named Mr. Castaneda one of 24 journalists chosen from around the nation to participate in the center’s National Fellowship. Mr. Castaneda was awarded a grant from the Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Fund. The grant helped support Mr. Castaneda’s reporting for a five-part series U.S. News published focusing on how the Trump administration’s immigration policies are affecting the health and well-being of children of immigrants, their parents and health care providers and teachers who work with the kids. He has appeared multiple times on “Just Ask David,” a podcast that covers health and beauty issues. Before joining U.S. News, Mr. Castaneda worked as a reporter for 22 years at The Washington Post, where he primarily covered crime in the District of Columbia and courts and police misconduct in Prince George’s County, Maryland. His 2014 nonfiction book, “S Street Rising: Crack, Murder and Redemption in D.C.” chronicles Mr. Castaneda’s struggle with crack addiction while covering the crime beat for the Post during the violent crack era. The Post named “S Street” one of 50 notable works of nonfiction published that year. Mr. Castaneda has also appeared on NPR, CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and on several local TV news shows . He has written for Politico, Washington City Paper, Los Angeles Weekly and Hispanic Magazine. Mr. Castaneda is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Mr. Castaneda graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Southern California and completed a six-week fellowship at Duke University, part of a partnership with The Post. You can follow Mr. Castaneda on Twitter, and LinkedIn, or learn more about him on Wikipedia.

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