If you really educate yourself and experiment with various methods of training, you’ll eventually find that getting stronger and looking better are not that hard for the majority of the population. Obviously there will always be people who aren’t as genetically gifted as others, but at the end of the day the training goals that most folks are striving for are probably a lot less complicated than they think. Through all the silly myths and downright idiotic propaganda that currently exists in the fitness industry, these are some basic principles that will keep you on track for lifelong progress.
Master movement first, then load
This is absolutely crucial. Please don’t be the person who slaps 500 pounds on a barbell for a “totally brutal” set of quarter squats while wearing a weightlifting belt and using a bar pad. If you want to lift pain free with minimal injuries for many years, you need to master the basic human movements. In the most basic sense, these include squatting, hinging, pushing and pulling. It wouldn’t hurt to include lunging and weighted carries in with that group either. The more you groove these patterns with impeccable form, the more you’re going to carve that movement into your head. I encourage you to get SO good at these fundamental movements that you get to a point where you can perform them without even having to think. Choose a squat style that suits your structure, deadlift with a flat back, pull just a little bit more than you push, and walk with heavy objects occasionally and you’re already on a good path for gains.
On the other hand, if you continue to add load to poorly executed movement patterns you’re not only hurting your chances of making steady progress by reinforcing bad habits, but putting yourself at a much higher risk for chronic injuries as well. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply take some weight off the bar, as basic as that sounds.
Strength is king
Getting stronger should almost always be your number one priority. Strength is the base of every other desirable fitness quality you can develop. Whether it be speed, power, agility, or hypertrophy, you need to be able to move some decent weight around before you can really get specific about these things. Increasing the amount of force you can produce in a variety of different movements will help you progress in all areas.
Remember here that slow and steady wins the race. Beginning lifters are going to make gains very rapidly. However this instant progress is mostly an adaptation of the nervous system rather than the muscular system. In other words, the reason why newbies make such amazing progress with just about any program they use during the first few months is due to the nervous system learning to fire more efficiently. Once these initial improvements start to slow down a bit, it’s going to require more effort on your part to progressively overload your body.
Don’t worry about increasing your lifts by a specific weight every single week, you likely have a great deal of years ahead of you and that’s plenty of time to get stronger. There will be days when you’re feeling weak and tired, and there will be days when you set PR’s you didn’t believe you were capable of. Be patient, train smart, and train hard and you will certainly improve.
When you were born you were granted with one human body that must carry you through the rest of your life. You can do whatever you want this amazing piece of equipment and we all have immediate access to it. You have nearly complete control over what goes in it and how much it gets used, therefore implying that YOU control how well it functions.
When it comes to strength and conditioning, continuing education is obviously critical. Reading books and blogs, watching DVD programs and interviews, attending seminars and conferences, and studying the habits of elite lifters and athletes can all help further your knowledge and expertise on the subject. However, nothing compares to getting yourself in the gym and experimenting on your own body. The experience you gain from either training yourself or training others is the most valuable education you can receive. The beauty of working out is the instant feedback you receive. You can implement a movement and within seconds you can feel the response to that stimulus. This type of feedback can’t be found anywhere else but the gym, so take advantage of that! Play around with different exercises, programs, rep ranges, and pieces of equipment. Use strategies from multiple training styles such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, or plyometrics. Take the time expose yourself to as much as possible and ALWAYS keep an open mind. You can’t immediately bash someone’s method of training until you’ve tried it yourself (unless it’s just downright stupid, of course).
And keep in mind that what works for you may not always work for someone else and vice versa. We are all unique in one way or another and we all have our own health problems and dysfunctions. Anatomical structure, hormone balance, genetics and many more factors vary from person to person. Understand that not every person should squat ass to grass. Not everybody should pull from the floor. Not everybody is capable of benching huge numbers or overhead pressing safely. This is where the exposure and experience with so many different methods of training is going to benefit you. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more problems you’ll be able to fix. Never stop learning and never stop experimenting.
Consistently showing up and putting in good work can make even a poorly designed program look awesome. For many people the biggest battle to fight is nothing more than getting to the gym. Sticking to a routine is always difficult at first and it’s usually consistency that holds us back from reaching our goals. Just like any other skill, in order to make consistent progress, it’s an absolute must that you remain consistent with your efforts.
One of the most common reasons people give for not exercise is lack of time. I don’t blame them, a lot of us live very busy lifestyles and hold other life values above training. The thing is, it doesn’t take six days a week for two hours each session to get stronger, better your physique and greatly improve your quality of life. You just need to prioritize your workouts. Focus on compound movements that target many major muscle groups. Four sets of ten tricep pushdowns should never be a higher priority than a few sets of heavy push presses. Unless you’re really interested in bodybuilding, ditch the isolation exercises. I can guarantee you there are better ways to utilize the small amount of time you have available to train.
Squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, lunges, pushups, chin-ups, push presses, rows, and farmers walks should make up the bulk of your training. You can get a lot stronger on just two workouts a week if you progressively overload these movements. Get in, do your work, and get out.
Now this isn’t to say isolation exercises should get zero respect. If you have the time and energy and you’ve already hit your “big-money” movements for the day, then there’s no issue with throwing in some direct arm/chest/calf/shoulder/ab/etc. work at the end of a session. These targeted exercises can also help grow stubborn body parts and balance out your physique. Just understand that the bigger (and much harder) movements target a lot more muscle, and as you get stronger the hypertrophy will be evident, even without single-joint exercises.
One last point
Although this goes along with keeping your priorities in check, remember that there are far more important things happening in the world than getting to the gym everyday. As much as I love to see people enthusiastic about their training, it’s easy to become obsessed with progress. Don’t let a good habit start to negatively control your life. If you start to feel uneasy or angry about the fact that you haven’t touched a plate in a few days, it might be time to reconsider your priorities. Obviously this is different if you’re preparing for an event or competition, but most of the time it becomes a problem. If you have an opportunity to do something you don’t usually do with family or friends, do it! The gym will still be there the next day. As with anything else in life, find the right balance with your training so you can still take care of business elsewhere. You’ll be a lot happier in the long run.