man putting bumper plate weight on barbell in weight lifting gym

Getting back into fitness with achey muscles

I’m trying to get back into shape after the last three years of having a really sedentary job. My muscles feel ridiculously tight from lack of use combined with getting older,  and I think they hurt more than they should. 

I want to start lifting weights again. Is it best to do cardio or stretch for the next month to get my muscles loose before I start lifting?

Taking the time to prep your body is going to make a huge difference to getting back into lifting weights. Being too stiff and sore after a workout is one of the main reasons people don’t stick with exercise, and weight lifting in particular can leave you a bit tender. Probably 90% of my clients are in your situation when I start seeing them. There are two things we focus on in the first few weeks to get muscles loose and lifting well.

First, focus on self-massage techniques. Muscles get tight when we don’t move much, which is pretty normal for a work-from-home situation (and months-to-years of lockdown). Tight muscles aren’t able to contract or relax as well as they could. This can limit the movement you can get from any joint connected to that muscle. In turn this limits how effectively you can lift. 

Decrease muscle tension by using a trigger point ball, a foam roller, or massage stick or massage gun, or another self-massage tool. If you have the ability to get treatment, get massage. Finding a good remedial massage therapist (or in the US, an LMT or licensed massage therapist) can be very helpful. Hands-on work is more effective simply because your appointment will last longer than the amount of time you’ll spend doing it yourself. Plus, your therapist can get into tight sports way more easily than you can. If you can’t get hand-on treatment, don’t worry. The DIY options will work just as well, though they sometimes take a little longer. 

Second, once muscles are loose, you can stretch effectively and appropriately. The way we use our bodies everyday shortens the muscles on the front of our bodies more than the back, so I recommend focusing your stretching efforts there. The biggest bang-for-buck stretches will be your pecs, your lats, your quads, and your hip flexors. 

You can work on self-massage and stretching at the same time. I’d spend one to three weeks with this as your focus. Taking this time will decrease the stiffness and soreness you feel when you start doing the heavier stuff. It’s also a great way to decrease your risk of injury generally. And once you’re feeling good and loose, a little loosen and stretch time makes for a great warm-up. 

For best results, take one to three weeks focusing on the self-massage and stretching before you start adding any significant weight to your workout. This gives your body time to recognise that looser, longer muscles are what you’re working towards, and adapt accordingly. You can maintain this by continuing with the self-massage and stretching as a part of your workout. (Life demands are still going to trigger muscle tension and shortening.) I prefer to use the foam roller and dynamic stretching as a general warm-up, but adding these to a cool down or as a stand-alone session also works. In the end, you have to find what works with your body and weights routine. There’s no right or wrong as long as it keeps you moving.


man putting bumper plate weight on barbell in weight lifting gym

Can I get stronger if I don’t push myself too hard at the gym but go consistently?

Yes, you can. Consistent exercise is actually way more valuable in building strength and muscle size than sporadic gym sessions that leave you feeling sore and uninspired (at best). There’s even a program called Easy Strength that’s built on this concept. Let’s talk about why this might be. 

Going to the gym means… 

Many many people think that going to the gym means always pushing yourself hard. As a result, for many people gym sessions also mean:  

  • Sore joints and tired muscles
  • Skipped workouts (not helpful in making gains or long term progress; skipping can make it harder to go back)
  • Feeling flat, like you can’t get through the workout (almost as unproductive as skipping it entirely)

Not shockingly, sessions that make you feel worse are not motivational. For lots of people, it’s enough to make them skip a few workouts. That very easily leads to skipping a few more workouts. Then you might as well start again next month. Then you forget. Then it’s been six months and now it’s hard to get back into the habit…

Try this instead

Training moderately and consistently might be better for long term strength and muscle gains for a couple of reasons. It’s easier to recover from less demanding training sessions, so you’ll be ready to train well again sooner.

When you lift weights, your muscles get tired. They bounce back quickly during the session; rest periods of three to five minutes between sets should see your muscles recover to your session starting point. 

But heavy lifting – really pushing yourself to the limit – can mean enough overall fatigue to set you back for your next session. One study showed that after a short, intense weights session, the lifters only tested at a return to baseline level 33 hours after their initial session (read the study here) . You could assume then, that the more you push during a session, the longer it will take your body to be ready to go again. Lifting at a moderate intensity allows you to come back to it frequently. 

It’s about more than rest and recovery 

Consistent, frequent workouts also help your nervous system get better at recruiting your muscle fibers. As background: when you start doing a new exercise or a movement that you aren’t used to, the signals from your nervous system come through haphazardly to your muscle fibers (the individual muscle cells that contract).

The more frequently you complete the movement, the more smoothly these signals will start coming through. This makes the same weight feel easier, because more of your muscle is contracting at the same time to move that weight. It also makes the movement feel more coordinated and smooth. Long-term practice helps cement the nervous system signal pathways, resulting in what we commonly talk about as “muscle memory”. 

For most people, working out consistently with moderate effort is the way to go. You’ll minimise the aches, pains, and fatigue of pushing hard every session, and still make a surprising amount of progress. This is absolutely a winning approach!


The key to habit change

Habits drive a huge portion of our daily activities, from small to large. If you pay attention, you might find that you brush your teeth the same way every day, or go through the same actions every day when you get home from work. These are the ingrained behaviours that let us live a lot of our lives on autopilot, and leave our brains free for thinking about important things.

While these automatic behaviours save us a lot of time and mental effort, not all habits are helpful. I used to head straight for a snack when I got home from work, even if I wasn’t actually hungry. Not super useful! But with a change in mindset, we can turn our less-useful habits into more useful healthy habits.

Be Mindful

It’s very difficult to change a habit without being aware of what’s going on. Mindfulness – simply being aware of what is happening – is key to creating this change. Mindfulness is most helpful when we apply it in layers.

What do you want to change

Identifying the less-helpful habit makes it much easier to change it. You might start this process by thinking about an average day for you. What do you normally do during your day? What actions happen when you get up, go to work, while you’re at work, when you get home, when you go to bed?

Most people can identify at least a few actions they take as they go through a normal day. (If you struggle to come up with a list, simply pick a day and pay attention to what you do as you go through your day as normal.) From this list, you could choose one or two things that you think aren’t helping you be healthy. Being mindful of any habit makes it easier to change.

What do you want to change to

Once you identify one or two things you’d like to change, you can plan what you’d like to do instead. This might seem like a very short, simple step, but it’s very important. Because habits are automatic, you might find you’re halfway through doing something you don’t want to do, before you even realise it. Knowing what you’d like to do instead will help you plan for this, and make it easier to not start the old habit in the first place.

Making the habit change

Consider the when, where, and how of the old, less-helpful habit. These cues are what tell your brain it’s time for that specific automatic action, and can also tell you when it’s time to put your new healthy habit in place.

By planning the steps of your new habit, you’ll be better prepared to put them into action. In my snacking example above, I knew that getting home from work was my cue. Rather than walking straight to the fridge, I had to find something else to do. So my goal was to stop for a moment, put my keys down in a certain spot (another habit I wanted to form), put away all my work stuff, and get together everything I needed for the next day.

By planning out these “substitute” steps and being mindful of what my cues were, I was able to avoid going into the kitchen until it was time to start dinner.

Added bonus: It’s easier to act on these plans when they are on your mind (this is mindfulness!). While I was working on making this change, I would try to think about the steps I wanted to take instead, at several points through the day. I found it especially helpful to think about them when I was on my way home from work. Remembering that I wanted to make the change made it a lot easier to put into practice.

Mindfulness made it possible for me to change this habit. Because I took the time to identify my habits, recognise my cues, and plan for a new healthier habit, it was a lot easier to not automatically stop for a snack. My plan has modified a little from my original, but I have stuck with the “put away” part of my new habit. Your new habits will likely evolve as well. This is fine, as long as you are on autopilot in ways that support your goals and health.


Healthy pantry = healthy eating habits

Healthy eating often comes down to having healthy habits. When the healthy choice is the easiest choice you can make, you’ll keep making it until it becomes automatic. That’s how healthy habits are made.

My friend Dave and I were talking on our most recent podcast about things that make healthy eating easier. One trick that helps me consistently eat healthy is keeping my pantry and freezer stocked. This makes it easy for me to throw a few things together, mix-and-match style, and eat well in every sense of the term.

What’s in a healthy pantry?

This varies for everyone, of course. Mine looks like this:

  • Lots of canned goods: various beans, diced tomatoes, coconut milk, artichoke hearts, and fruit
  • Natural peanut butter (tastes so much better that the super processed stuff), tahini, honey
  • Rice (various types), pasta, rice noodles, and wraps
  • Tuna – plain and flavored
  • Spices, which is where you can really make meals shine. RecipeTin Eats has a great post on spice essentials, and if you aren’t up for mixing your own, spice mixes are also great.
  • Soy sauce and other asian condiments, various vinegars, and good Dijon mustard (technically this lives in the fridge but same category)
  • Olives and roasted red peppers
  • Onions and garlic
  • Salsa and Thai curry pastes

In my freezer, I usually have:

  • Chicken, steak, and fish
  • Frozen veggies
  • Frozen fruit
  • Extra meals from earlier meal preps
  • Partially prepped ingredients like chopped onions, already portioned out
  • Cooked and portioned rice

In the fridge:

  • Eggs and tofu
  • Veggies (seasonal/on special)
  • Fresh ginger and turmeric

Making meals

The base of most good meals is having a balance of food types on your plate. I feel good when I eat a lot of protein and fibre, some amount of fat, and a little bit of carbs. Knowing this helps me prioritize what I put on my plate. Some of my favorite mix-and-match meals, straight from the pantry:

  • Black beans, diced tomatoes, Mexican spice mix (packet or DIY), and whatever fresh veggies I have on hand, for a quick and easy chili
  • Chicken cooked with Thai curry paste, frozen veggies
  • Diced tomatoes, diced onions and garlic, Italian seasoning, olives, roasted red peppers, fresh veggies on hand for an antipasto salad
  • Rice, stir fry frozen veggie mix, frozen fish steamed with ginger, spring onion, and chili
  • Black beans, scrambled eggs, spring onions if on hand, cheese, and salsa for a breakfast-for-dinner breakfast burrito
  • Rice noodles, stir fry frozen veggie mix, chicken, soy sauce and sesame oil

How to stock your healthy pantry

What do you like to eat? It’s not worth stocking your pantry with healthy food if it’s healthy food you hate. Think about the flavor combos that you like, or meals that you would choose if you’re eating out. What do you need to replicate those at home? Find the at-home ingredients for these, and you’ll be all set


Middle age woman walking for fitness

What does it mean to be healthy?

What is health? Great question. But more importantly: What does it mean to you to be healthy? I think it’s a very valuable question to ask, especially if you are considering making some lifestyle changes to move yourself in a healthy direction. 

There’s a standard dictionary definition of healthy: Showing physical, mental, or emotional well-being; being free from disease (From Merriam-Webster’s dictionary).  And the World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

I read these definitions and I think “Yes, that’s not wrong.” But I also think that on a personal level, this can be much more specific. For each different human being, being healthy might mean:

  • Decreasing the medication you need to take
  • Moving without pain or restriction
  • Waking up without feeling tired
  • Feeling good after eating a normal meal
  • Having the energy to get through your day without dragging

And of course, many other things could be “healthy” for someone. All of these do fit into the official definitions above, but as we get more personal with our own definitions, they become more meaningful and therefore more motivational.

Making “healthy” personal

If you aren’t sure what healthy might look like for you, there’s a quick thought exercise you can undertake to shed some light on it: 

First, pretend you are the healthiest version of yourself. This is a perfect world situation, so just for the moment, forget about all the things that might be holding you back from perfect health right now. Don’t worry about running around after the kids, a job with too many required hours or high stress, or a partner who just doesn’t like vegetables. Let your imagination run wild and really get to know this Healthiest You. 

Once you’ve spent some time with Healthiest You, you’ll have a better idea about what they might do for: 

  • Eating and drinking
  • Exercise or movement
  • Work time and relax/unwind time
  • Stress management
  • Sleep routines
  • Anything else that boosts your health

This is a great starting point for planning. It gives you clarity around what “healthy” actually means for you, and it helps identify some starting points to start moving in a healthy direction. Not bad for a few minutes of thinking!


Why soft tissue work is important when you exercise

Soft tissue work, or care, as I like to think of it, means looking after the muscles and other tissues that help you move. This is a key ingredient in getting fit without getting injured. And it’s not just for athletes or gym junkies. Even if your workout routine is a low-key walk after dinner, you can benefit from looking after yourself. 

What is soft tissue?

In this instance, the soft tissues I’m referring to are the muscles and the connective tissues surrounding them, called fascia. These tissues support stable joints, help us maintain joint and posture alignment, and create movement. When they are tight, they can also limit movement, mis-align joints, and trigger pain responses. 

I talk about both of these together, but muscle and fascia are two different types of tissue. Both can get stiff from prolonged tension, such as being stuck in one posture or position for an extended time, or prolonged load, like hours of working out every day. When soft tissues are stiff, it means that movement can’t happen as well. 

What is “stiffness”?

Let’s take a moment for a quick refresher: When muscles contract, they pull on bones, which creates movement at the joints. A single joint movement can count as exercise (like a bicep curl), as can more complex movements like a squat, where many joints work together. Fascia helps transmit the force of the pull from one contracting muscle to another, or through another set of joints. Together, soft tissues that are pliable can contract, relax, transmit force, and perform these jobs with ease. 

Back to “getting stiff”: Muscles that are under tension for an extended period of time can end up staying partially contracted. This means they won’t actually relax OR contract well, so the “pull” on the bones is less efficient and productive. Prolonged tension can also change how stiff your fascia is. This can have a huge impact on overall soft tissue tension and stiffness, because fascia is EVERYWHERE. It surrounds: 

  • Individual muscle fibres (strings of individual cells)
  • Small bundles of fibres
  • Larger bundles of fibres
  • The whole muscle
Each of the structures pictured here are covered by fascia, which blends into the tendon and also covers the bone. It’s everywhere!

The layer surrounding each muscle blends into the layers surrounding other muscles or anatomical structures, which can “spread” tension even farther. Fascial stiffness anywhere in the body can impact how easily the muscle can contract and relax. 

The “soft tissue work” referred to is the treatment of these tissues so that they stay pliable, with what we call good tone. This can be done as self-treatment with foam rollers, trigger point balls, roller sticks, etc or you can see a remedial massage therapist, physio/osteo/chiro for manual therapy. Both do the same thing – use pressure or stretch-strain on the tissues to stimulate a decrease in tone.

Why does any of this actually matter? 

Beyond feeling tight, which is generally unpleasant, stiffness can cause short and long-term problems. When you’re stiff, your movement changes. It might be so subtle that you don’t even notice it. Over time though, stiff tissue can get increasingly tight, since noticing means not changing its length. In turn, this can start changing how you move. This is one way people develop compensation patterns that can lead to injury. 

Tension in any of the soft tissues can also impact joints in more isolated ways. Tightness can generate “hot spots” or areas of higher strain in joints where the attachment point pulls on the bone. Tension can also lead to poor alignment between joint structures, in turn leading to friction and potentially inflammation and pain.

The most important point: Looking after your soft tissue

There are a number of things you can do to look after yourself, including DIY options that are easily done at home, as well as sessions with a manual therapist. 

Small, frequent doses of “treatment” is the most effective way to keep your soft tissue feeling good. You can easily do this at home, making me a gib fan of DIY options. My general recommendations are spending 20-30 seconds on any sore spot before moving on, and doing this most days. If you have a lot of different muscles or sore sports to work on, try doing different spots on different days. For example, you could treat upper body spots on one day and lower body spots on the next. You can use a variety of self-massage tools, including a foam roller, a trigger point ball, a massage gun (also called a theragun), or a massage stick are highly effective for muscle tissue. Low intensity stretches held for several minutes per stretch is a great way to treat fascia. 

Last, but possibly the most effective: Go and get some hands-on treatment from a qualified professional. This is the soft tissue work that is more effective, both in terms of efficiency and how long it lasts. This may be remedial massage, physiotherapy (also called physical therapy, depending on where you live), or even some chiropractors or osteopaths, depending on their style of treatment. You’re looking for someone who can apply useful pressure (not to heavy, not too soft) in a way the creates a change in the muscle. Specifically, you’re looking for someone who can keep your muscles pliable and ready to move, without causing you too much pain in the process. It’s a huge help in keeping your body pain- and injury-free, and keeping you feeling good. 


man putting bumper plate weight on barbell in weight lifting gym

Do I really need a personal trainer? 

Whether or not you need a personal trainer comes down to a few factors. One, how confident are you in being in a gym, or in designing your own workouts? Two, how much accountability are you looking for? I’d argue that with a bit of instruction (the internet is full of great resources) anyone can set up their own gym program. 

But just because you can doesn’t mean you’ll want to, and that’s totally ok! There are a number of reasons why hiring a personal trainer might be good for you. I would consider it if… 

You want some accountability.

Most of us have days where we don’t really feel like making an effort. A set appointment with a trainer often means we’ll turn up even when we don’t want to. And everyone always feels better when it’s done! 

You want some company.

If gym isn’t your thing, it can be boring. Someone tagging along and keeping you company can make it a lot more fun, especially if you get along really well. 

You want a plan. 

I have written a thousand gym programs, and yet I pay someone to train me. I just want to turn up and do the work. As an added bonus, having someone else plan for you means that it’s more likely your weaker points will be addressed; when we create our own workouts, we gravitate towards the things we’re good at. 

You’re looking for some guidance. 

Gyms, and especially the weights areas, can be intimidating when you aren’t used to them. A personal trainer can be your guide to the gym the same way you might hire a guide to go on safari in Africa. They can show you around, teach you the local customs, keep you safe, and generally help you learn to be more comfortable in a new environment. For some people, working with a trainer is the confidence boost they need. For others, it’s just a bit of insight into a new gym. When I worked as a trainer, I would occasionally have clients hire me for a session right after they joined the gym. They just wanted an indepth tour and to learn the how-tos for some of the more unusual equiment we had. That’s just fine! 

Guidance can also mean teaching. Your trainer should be teaching you to do things correctly. Eventually it will sink it enough to the point where you could do it on your own if you wanted to. 

You do better with a little encouragement. 

This goes hand in hand with wanting a little guidance. Sometimes you might not be sure you’re doing things right, or safely. Having a trainer with you can make all the difference, not only in you trying, but how hard you try too.   

Overall, personal trainers are generally great if you are healthy, not dealing with any injury (old or new), and not entirely sure what you want to do or how to do it. Everyone has their own reasons for working with a trainer. If that’s what it takes to keep you moving, go and enjoy!


man putting bumper plate weight on barbell in weight lifting gym

Questions on: Side crunches & Reading during cardio

Ask your health and fitness questions here, and get answers that you can actually use. Whether it’s help with motivation, safe and effective exercise programs, or how movement can impact general health, you’ll find common sense info here.

Will side crunches make my waist boxy?

Nope! A “boxy” looking waist will come from shoulders and hips that are similar in width to your waist, not from any specific abdominal exercises.
If you want to create the shape of a smaller waist, focus on building muscle elsewhere, rather than losing size at your waist. Any exercises for your back, shoulders, and glutes will help create an hourglass figure. As an added bonus, an increase in muscle mass will help you keep your body fat percentage lower and improve your general long term health.

One last thing: If you’re worried about your muscles getting too big – don’t! It actually takes a long time to build big muscles. You’ll easily be able to stop when you’re happy with how you look.

Is it safe to read while I’m on a treadmill or an exercise bicycle? Could I fall off if I get distracted?

Lots of people read while they do cardio. It’s unlikely you’d fall off a stationary or spin-style bike, or elliptical machine. You remain in contact with the machine while you’re exercising. You probably won’t fall off a treadmill, either, though this a slightly higher risk option since you may have less contact with the machine and the belt could move you backward.

Personally, I don’t love reading while on a cardio machine, unless you’re aiming for a long, slow workout. Reading will make it more difficult to exercise at anything more than a low to moderate intensity. You’ll be distracted, and the reading posture will disrupt your movement pattern. However, there is a place for a long, slow, easy-ish workout in most programs. If your aim is to work at a 2-3 out of 10 scale for a workout 45 minutes or longer, reading while you’re at it won’t be too disruptive. For everything else, audiobooks are a great option!

Have a health, fitness, motivation, or exercise question of your own? Send it through here.


Podcast: Choosing a group fitness class

Love the idea of just turning up to the gym and not needing to think about what you’ll do? Group fitness is for you.

Whether you are looking for strength building, cardio fitness, better balance and flexibility, or almost anything else, gym classes have you covered. You can even find specialised classes like heavy metal yoga or roller-fit if you want to do something super specific.

But if you aren’t sure what you want to do in a class, the array of choices can be daunting. In this episode of the podcast, we’re tapping into Dave’s extensive knowledge of group fitness. He provides a simple, straightforward overview of different class types and formats so you can make a choice that you’re more likely to enjoy.

Have a listen and learn:

  • What you can expect from some of the biggest “brands” in group fitness
  • What is the difference between choreographed and freestyle classes, and the pros and cons of each
  • How different classes focus on different elements of fitness (e.g. strength, cardio, etc.)
  • How to get the most out of your class

Saving the best for last… We wrap the episode by talking about a really important point. Doing any class for the first time can be really scary. Some of us (yes, hello, me) are not coordinated and do NOT want to be seen doing it wrong. It’s so normal to feel like this, even if you’re a regular exerciser. Dave walks us through the steps you can easily take to make starting the class way less scary. You might even have fun! 😉

Group fitness really is it’s own world. But like any other sort of exercise, try it once and the second time becomes way easier – mentally and physically! Jump over to the podcast here and find out where group fitness can take you.


Introducing Common Sense Fitness

Common Sense Fitness, our (relatively) new podcast, is an audio version of this blog. Dave and I have (your hosts) have a driving desire to make exercise easier to start and easier to stick with, so you can get sustainable results. Our podcast takes on popular trends and long-accepted “how to”-s, takes away the hype, and lays out how you can make this information work for you. 

  • Want to know if you should do a specific type of workout? We can tell you who it’s good for. 
  • Interested in helping your body feel better? We’ll give you some ideas. 
  • Not sure how to pick a good gym? We’ve got you covered (and can let you in on a few secrets.)

If you’ve been wondering about anything to do with health, fitness, and wellbeing, send us an email. We love answering questions on the pod – it’s the best way to help people. As they say, if you have a question, chances are many others do to, so you’re doing people a favor. Nothing is too small or silly, so please don’t hesitate! 

The library isn’t extensive – yet. But we add a new show every week, and have some cool topics in the pipeline. And just like this blog, we’re more than happy to answer your questions about health, fitness, and wellbeing. Keen to check out Common Sense Fitness? You can find it here, or wherever you normally get your podcasts. 

About Dave and Erin, your podcast hosts 

Dave is a long-time group fitness instructor, qualified personal trainer, and running coach, as well as an avid runner/gym-er/and exerciser himself. He shares my drive to help people move better and feel better. One of the best things about Dave? He is super-amazing at making workouts fun and helping people enjoy themselves. 

And me? I’m Erin, an exercise physiologist and remedial massage therapist. This combination of work has helped me develop an in-depth understanding of how we move (or why we can’t!). I’ve been working in the industry for over a decade, and really get excited to see people start to feel better! The HealthFit Coaching blog is where I share the written versions of things we talk about on the podcast. If you’re keen to see your questions answered on the blog, contact me here.