Physical 

5 Things to Try When Your Workout Isn't Working

January 01, 2021 6 min read

Man working out on stairs outside

It’s common knowledge that exercise is essential for optimum health. Healthy weight management, improved mood, and stronger muscles are just a few perks of a regular workout routine. 

But what if you exercise daily without seeing a change? Lack of progress can be frustrating. It can also leave you feeling defeated, and you may lose motivation to workout. 

This is a common experience, and there are many possible reasons why your progress is slow. Here are five science-backed reasons why your workout isn’t working, plus five tips you can try to start seeing better results.

1. You Aren’t Increasing Intensity

If you’re repeating the same exercises without boosting intensity, you’re unlikely to see results. To get stronger and leaner, your body needs progressive overload (i.e., gradual increases in physical demand).

For example, you may increase the number of reps in a weight training set or increase the weight of the dumbbells you’re using. It’s important to do this gradually rather than rapidly; a quick increase in intensity can be damaging. Overtraining can cause injury, fatigue, soreness, and even illness, all of which can impede your ability to exercise.

How to Intensify Your Workout Regimen

Progressive overload is a technique that recommends subtle, controlled advancements in your workout routine. The 10% rule is a helpful baseline for understanding how much to increase your workouts each week. It includes factors such as distance, length of time, and overall intensity.

Let’s say you currently run three miles for 30 minutes every other day and lift 10-pound weights in reps of 10 on the days you don’t run. A 10% increase the next week might entail increasing your mileage to 3.3 miles. The third week you’d run 3.6 miles, and you’d run 3.9 miles on the fourth week. 

As for the weights, you might start by increasing your reps to 13. The third week you’d try 16 reps, and you’d lift 19 reps on the fourth week. You could also choose to run faster but keep the same distance or lift a slightly heavier weight for the same amount of reps.

If you’re new to exercise and 10% sounds daunting, consider a 5% increase each week. Either way, it’s important to remember that amping up your workout routine can help you improve when you’re struggling to see results.

2. Your Calorie Intake Exceeds Caloric Expenditure

To lose weight and get leaner, you must pair your workout routine with a healthy diet. Weight loss occurs when energy exertion exceeds energy intake (meaning you burn more calories than you take in through food). 

In contrast, weight gain occurs when energy intake exceeds energy exertion (meaning you eat more calories than you burn). To maintain a healthy weight, you must keep your energy intake and exertion balanced.

If you’re struggling to lose weight even when exercising regularly, it could be because you’re still consuming more calories than you burn. Studies show that the best way to lose weight is to combine exercise with caloric restriction.

How to Decrease Your Calorie Intake

To safely decrease your calorie intake, first consider your daily caloric needs. The average adult requires between 1,000 and 3,000 calories to sustain their body weight, depending on calorie expenditure. A calorie calculator can help you determine a healthy calorie intake based on your age, weight, height, and activity level.

Other ways to safely reduce your calorie expenditure include:

  • Eat filling, nutrient-dense foods that curb cravings
  • Eliminate foods high in fat and sugar
  • Reduce or eliminate highly processed foods and packaged snacks
  • Reduce refined carbohydrates like white bread and pasta
  • Add more lean protein to your diet

When combined with healthy portion sizes, these guidelines can accelerate weight loss and magnify the results you see from your workouts.

Person cutting cherry tomatoes and garlic on a cutting board

3. You Have No Motivation to Workout

The key to seeing results from exercise is consistency. But it’s challenging to stay consistent when one day you feel energized and the next you have no motivation to work out. 

The best way to motivate yourself is to develop personal motivation from within, also known as intrinsic motivation. Ask yourself: Why is exercising important to me? When creating these goals, it’s helpful to determine a motivator with lasting impact. 

For example, external motivators like losing 15 pounds in time for an event or looking like a social media star aren’t realistic. When goals are set too high, it can be hard to reach them, leading to a greater sense of discouragement.

Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation

While externally motivated exercisers struggle to stick with a regimen, establishing intrinsic motivation can help. Studies suggest that people who are intrinsically motivated to exercise are more likely to stay committed to it over time. In other words, establish a personal reason why exercise matters to you.

Examples of intrinsic motivations include:

  • Improved mood
  • Elevated strength
  • Increase confidence
  • Better sleep
  • More energy

Focus on these personal benefits when you don’t feel motivated, as they’re likely to remind you why you started working out in the first place.

4. You Don’t Have a Support System

Some people can self-motivate when it comes to exercise. For this group, it’s easy to find the intrinsic motivation to maintain a challenging workout schedule.

Others find greater success with healthy competition from friends and family. If you’re in this category, you may be struggling because you don’t have an exercise partner. In fact, supervision and support have helped previously sedentary people maintain a long-term exercise regimen. But support alone still may not be enough to motivate you.

Foster Social Competition

If an exercise buddy alone doesn’t do it, healthy competition may help revive your motivation. Research shows that certain people are more motivated when following an exercise plan alongside friends. Specifically, competition via social media platforms was demonstrated as a more effective way to increase physical activity levels compared to social support (encouragement via chat or text) alone.

This effect may be due to social media exposing you to photos, maps, and other documentation that proves your friends’ (and your own) physical activities. Participants also showed the most attendance at group exercise classes when their peers were present. 

When you have no motivation to workout, try scheduling an exercise session with a friend. Whether you join a studio class or decide to run a 5K, a friend can support your journey through healthy competition. 

If you’d rather spark friendly competition from the safety and comfort of home, apps like Strava, Fitbit, Nike Run Club, and PumpUp leverage social competition to motivate users. Sign up for a program through these apps and invite your friends to workout alongside you.

Group of friends getting outdoors to exercise together

5. You Aren’t Optimizing Recovery

One of the most critical elements of an exercise routine is recovery, but newcomers tend to overexert themselves too quickly. Lack of recovery is problematic for many reasons. 

First, your body needs time to repair muscles, which helps them grow stronger as your fitness ability increases. This replenishing period ensures you have the stamina to continue scaling up your routine’s difficulty in a healthy way that doesn’t produce excessive fatigue or burnout

Second, rest and recovery periods replenish nutrients and fluids that are essential to optimal health. Without this recovery time, your joints and muscles will remain in an overworked state. A string of intense workouts without rest can cause muscles to degrade and break down rather than grow. It also leads to spasms and cramps that can make you more susceptible to injury. 

Add Rest to Your Exercise Regimen

Recovery is essential in any effective workout plan, but it doesn’t equate to long sedentary periods. Instead, it’s better to pursue active recovery. This could include light stretching, a yoga practice, or walking. Other low-impact activities like leisurely biking, dancing, and kayaking are smart ways to spend your rest days.

Here’s what an example workout and recovery schedule could look like in a given week:

  • Three days of strength training
  • Two days of cardio
  • Two days of active recovery

Water is another important element to add to your recovery schedule. Staying hydrated after your workout replenishes water lost through sweat and helps prevent cramps and soreness. Similarly, electrolytes keep your muscles nourished while preventing cramps and fatigue. 

In Summary

It’s normal to get discouraged by your workout routine, especially if you don’t see the changes you expect. But there are a few science-backed reasons why your workout isn’t working (and fortunately, you can fix them). 

From increasing the intensity of your workouts over time to optimizing recovery, it’s important to remember that exercise is a full-picture effort that entails much more than the movement itself. These tips can inspire you to stay energized when you have no motivation to work out, helping you see better results and improved well-being in less time.

Michelle Polizzi - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice


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