How to Jumpstart Your Workout

Three local trainers offer tips on conquering the infamous plateau.

You work out … and work … and work. But those last few pounds won’t come off. What’s the deal? 

You’ve hit what exercise pros call “the plateau.” Either that, or you are doing it all wrong. 

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People often have a goal, but they don’t have a plan to accomplish it. So they end up doing the wrong things for the wrong times and not seeing the right results. “Then they hit a plateau because they aren’t maximizing their workout,” says Facts Fitness Elite Fitness Training’s Patrick Sarne, the general manager at Ellis Athletic Center in Newtown Square. “The truth is that they didn’t end up in the right place because they didn’t start in the right place.”

Exercising isn’t always exciting or fun. “TRX or Zumba—those are fun,” says Roger Schwab, owner of Main Line Health and Fitness in Bryn Mawr. “But you can’t give people only the fun things. Forget Jane Fonda leotards and cute, pink outfits—you need the eye of the tiger.”

Getting results means raising your heart rate to burn fat. “And doing a circuit-training routine to strengthen bones and build lean muscles,” Schwab says. “That’s not a sexy answer, but it’s reality.”

Reality is a great place to start—or restart—an exercise plan. “What’s your resting heart rate?” poses Dwayne Wim-mer, owner of Vertex Fitness Personal Training Studio in Bryn Mawr. “What should your heart rate be if you’re getting a good cardio workout? For how many minutes do you need to be in that cardio zone to get an efficient workout?” 

A surprising number of people don’t know the answers to those questions. They just start running, spinning or walking and expect the pounds to come off and the muscle to build. It may work for exercise newbies, but new stimulus is needed for long-term success, Wimmer says. 

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Finding that stimulus, however, can be dangerous. Some people think the answer is to exercise for longer periods of time or add more weight to existing routines, Schwab says. People who run five miles might decide to run six miles—then seven, eight or nine. But they’re unlikely to see much change in their weight or their times. All they are really doing is putting more stress on the same muscles and bones, which can lead to serious injury. 

Schwab knows this all too well. At the age of 19, he was a state-champion weightlifter and held the record for quick lifts. Then he developed chronic pain in his neck and lower back and was diagnosed with radiculopathy. “I was told I had the lumbar spine and neck of an 80-year-old person,” he says. “I learned the hard way.”

Schwab used circuit training to retool his body, building strength equally in each muscle group. There’s a precise way to do that, he says, which is why the machines at most gyms are arranged in a particular order. Schwab advises using all of them during every workout. “We’ve all heard people say, ‘I’m working my legs today and my arms tomorrow,’ and that’s the wrong approach,” he says. “When you go to bed, do you sleep different body parts at a time? Are you eating for arms one day and legs the next? Of course not. The body is a unit. It needs to sleep, eat and be exercised at the same time.”

And then there’s cardio, a necessity for heart health and weight loss. The key is to do it at the right intensity. “You could run for 10 miles at the wrong pace and not lose a pound, or you could run one mile at the right pace and get in great shape,” says Sarne. 

To find that pace, Sarne uses the Karvonen Formula. Other trainers use different calculations, all with the goal of finding the heart rate at which your body is working at the right intensity. How the body stays in that zone—biking, running, swimming—matters less than maintaining that cardio output. 

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Be sure to recalculate over time, Sarne says, because as fitness increases, the target zone needs to rise so the body is being challenged. It’s called the progressive overload principle. “Once your body adjusts to the level you apply to it, change the level of cardio to increase your gains,” Sarne says. “Increase the intensity of the exercise—not necessarily the duration, but the level or speed of the exercise.”

When it comes to weights, trainers advise increasing repetitions or adding resistance—slowly. “A good way to transition into a higher level of activity is to increase intensity for a short duration, then go through intervals,” Sarne says. “Measure intensity by your exertion. Don’t compromise form, but the last set should be challenging. Once you achieve that on the last set, that becomes your new baseline.”

And don’t forget to rest. “As you work harder, you have to rest more so your muscles recover and prepare to be stressed again,” says Wimmer. “If you’re a runner and you typically run 10 miles, then active recovery for you is a one- or two-mile jog. It’s not really exercising for you, but it’s not really rest.”

Lastly, don’t compromise your health just to reach a goal. “Exercise performed correctly won’t damage the body,” Schwab says. “I’m not the voice of wisdom—I’m the voice of experience. Numbers are just numbers. What’s important is how you feel and that you exercise in ways that help you live life to its fullest.”



The 10 biggest fitness fads of all time.


1. Bowflex​

2. Tae Bo DVDs

3. Vibrating belt

4. Body by Jake DVDs

5. The Thigh-master

6. Jane Fonda aerobics records, VHS tapes and DVDs

7. 8 Minute Abs DVDs

8. Roller-blading

9. The Shake Weight

10. The Ab Roller

illustration by dewey saunders

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!