I’ve been “working out” since I was around 13 years old. My first ever piece of equipment was a Total Gym 1700 that my parents bought and set up in the basement. The basement was my dwelling for Xbox Live and calisthenics. I was always down there, and therefore I used the Total Gym pretty extensively and made some improvements in my body composition.
This was long before I discovered the value of absolute strength, and my primary goal at the time was to build some broad, rounded shoulders. I didn’t just want to attain “the curve,” I wanted to sculpt colossal lateral deltoids. Like Lebron James deltoids.
Eventually I got good enough with that thing that I would jack it up to the highest incline and absolutely wreck my upper body. Rows, curls, delt raises, chest presses, flys, pullovers, tricep extensions, and reverse flys could all be performed reasonably well. Even though it has no business in any type of quality performance based facility, it really wasn’t that bad. Especially not that bad for an active 13 year old with limited resources looking to get his swole on.
It’s biggest drawback is that it’s absolutely useless for your lower body. Well, useless unless you’re one of those ever so common individuals who gets stronger from squats done with less resistance than gravity can provide. But I’m exaggerating. I used to do some single leg squats on the Total Gym that were actually challenging for higher reps. Certainly not optimal, but better than nothing!
I’m actually quite thankful that this is how I got started with training. The only resistance the Total Gym used was my bodyweight. I made noticeable improvements at moving my bodyweight around. Fortunately I was able to build up some type of foundational strength before I ever stepped in a weight room, where a new teenager has many more opportunities to damage their body.
It was when I did gain access to some weights that I started to jack myself up a little. I actually did the majority of the jacking up in about the span of a week, which I can recall quite well.
I was with my family on our annual spring vacation to Disneyworld. We were staying at a resort called the Beach Club, and I was just old enough to enter the fitness center with an adult. The family was actually pretty dedicated on this particular trip, and I can remember the four of us getting to the fitness center almost every morning before spending the rest of the day touring the theme parks and stuffing our faces.
The resort fitness center was obviously sub par. Some cardio equipment, a big smith machine, some body part machines, a cable apparatus, and probably some dumbbells up to 50 pounds.
Oh! And a couple of stability balls for good measure. Ya can’t forget about those huge spheres of rubber that are supposed to help get your body in a better physical condition. Remember, they are huge spheres of rubber, it only makes sense that they’ll make you stronger. And yes, people trusted these things so much that they were willing to hold heavy dumbbells and then LAY DOWN ON THEIR BACK ON TOP OF THE MASSIVE RUBBER SPHERE. Type “stability ball injury” into Google for a host of articles featuring accidents, injuries, lawsuits, and recalls. Fun stuff!
But seriously, stability balls are great for hamstring curls and the “stir the pot” core exercise. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to run through every commercial gym in America with a katana, slicing through each and every stability ball in existence. I’d also be wearing a Tapout shirt that I converted into a cutoff, because I don’t know, that happens? And forget scissors, I just ripped the sleeves off and then ripped the sides down all the way to the stitching on the bottom. I’m going for more of a modern look anyway.
Of course that’s just a random fantasy, so let’s get back to that week I was talking about.
I was freaking pumped about this fitness center. All I wanted to do was bench press with the smith machine, but I only got to try that a couple times because it was almost always occupied. A fellow gym goer even gave me a tip one day while doing tricep pushdowns with a rope attachment. He told me to force the rope outward as I pushed down, because “that’s what will form it for you.” He said this as he flexed his tricep, which was “formed” pretty well and helped raise his perceived credibility.
Looking back, that was a pretty good tip. That minor change noticeably intensifies the muscle contraction and just feels solid. If I ever did tricep pushdowns anymore, I would definitely do them that way. Thanks to that guy!
Anyway, I did a lot of resistance training this week. I had never really lifted before, but my Total Gym experience helped me a little bit with feeling the movements. I did almost all machine based isolation exercises. I spent the bulk of my energy on the leg press machine, and also doing my fair share of leg extensions. My knees were taking a beating and I was not even thinking about recovery. I pushed it hard I think almost everyday that week before we departed from Disneyworld to get on a cruise ship for the second part of our vacation.
The thought of playing basketball on the top deck of a giant, entertainment packed vessel in the middle of the ocean is pretty hard to resist. You know that first day we got on the ship that I played ASAP, with the hopes that my one week of resistance training would pay dividends with an increase in my vertical jump. Yeah, I really thought that might happen, and I was hecka wrong.
I got up to that half court and immediately tried to do a super athletic looking layup for my age where I jump really high off two legs and slap the backboard while sinking the layup. According to other basketball players, it’s like pretty much like the coolest thing you can do in basketball.
As soon as I planted my feet and put some force into the ground for that legendary layup, my right knee buckled and I almost fell over.
It was pretty painful initially. I had no idea what had happened. I walked it off for a little bit and eventually limped back to the room. I limped for 2 or 3 days after, still not really knowing anything except that the front of my knee hurt.
It took some time and some doctor visits, but after enough research it was concluded that I had Osgood-Schlatter disease. When I tell people that, almost nobody has heard of it. I don’t think it’s super uncommon, however, and I can remember a couple of classmates that had it in early high school years. The pain bothered me for about 3 years, but only significantly for about half of that. I was able to play basketball at 100% and only had to deal with minor pains and frustrations.
It really wasn’t that bad, and I fully recovered when I stopped growing, but it was there for a long time and it created some tiny imbalances that I still notice today. Nowadays, my knees as well as all my other joints feel great. I’m able to train hard 4 days a week consistently without having to deload very frequently. I can squat deep with near-max loads day in and day out, and both knees respond fantastically. I can squat deep with sub-maximal loads and more volume, and the knees feel no different.
So really the only downside of “suffering” through a few years of Ozzy is a permanently protruded tibial tuberosity. Or if you like anatomy even more, simply an epiphysitis of the tibial tubercle. Essentially I have this lifelong bump on the front of my knee, which sucks because I am like soooooo self-conscious about my knees.
I learned a lot from this portion of my training career. I saw some results, trained consistently, injured myself, and created some imbalances, among many other things. It wasn’t until about my junior-ish year of high school that I started training more for performance and function.
I’d say I have about 3 years of smart lifting under my belt. And it wasn’t until this past year that I really dialed in on the specificities of powerlifting and olympic lifting. But finally, I feel like I’m training as close to optimal as I ever have for my goal at that time, and today that goal is primarily to increase absolute strength with a secondary goal of increasing power output. I’d also like to compete in powerlifting within the next year, which adds to my motivation.
I’ve developed a number of habits throughout the past few years, most of them positive, and I think a lot of newer lifters could benefit from them. They’re simple and easy to follow and they will make a difference.
1) Full Squats and/or Goblet Squats Every Workout
Goblet squats will get you on the right track. Start with those. Full back squats and full front squats will take you to another level.
Once you can hit half of your bodyweight (dumbbell or kettlebell, I prefer dumbbell) for 10+ reps in the goblet squat, you’re ready for a barbell. Whether you decide to follow the progression or not will of course depend on your goals.
Looking to maintain your mobility and protect some lean body mass? You’ll be fine sticking with the goblet squat. You should still progressively overload it, but if you work your way up to a 75-100 pound dumbbell for consecutive sets it’s perfectly fine to maintain.
Looking to be a game changer? You’ll want to move on to the barbell. Just make sure your goblet squat is perfect with a 75-100 pound dumbbell.
Start with front squats. They’re easier to learn because they force good technique. The first thing you’ll do to compensate for weak squat form is lean forward and get your low back involved. If you do this with a front squat, you’ll dump the bar. The front squat heavily recruits the upper back, and people hate that because it’s a difficult position to maintain. It’s a good thing because just about everyone could use a stronger upper back and stronger thoracic extensors.
I back squat at least twice a week. I front squat sometimes too, maybe once every couple of weeks. If I’m not front squatting or back squatting, I’ll at least do a set or two of goblet squats during my warm-up.
I wear weightlifting shoes when I squat, specifically the adidas adiPower. The raised heel gives me a mechanical advantage so I can reach an ass to grass squat and increase the distance the bar travels. This isn’t mandatory, but I like the stability they provide and the leverage they help me get during the exercise.
2) Learning to Use My Glutes More Efficiently
This one was a huge difference maker for me because I completely neglected my glutes until this past year or so. I still did plenty of hip dominant exercises and some knee flexion ones as well, but I never really focused on anything except my hamstrings. This resulted in some strong hamstrings, but very weak and inhibited glutes. If I were to train glute specific exercises (hip thrusts, single leg glute bridges, etc.) my hamstrings would almost always take over. I had to develop a completely new mind-muscle connection with my glutes, which was beyond worth the time investment.
The horizontal back extension was extremely helpful here. I started performing them with a slight knee bend, my femurs slightly externally rotated, and a big glute squeeze at the top to bring me into posterior pelvic tilt. I like to focus on thrusting my hips into the pads as hard as possible.
The results were fantastic. My ability to manipulate the positioning of my pelvis has increased my confidence and positioning during my heaviest lifts. Whatever your goals are, consciously feeling your glutes contract and contribute to hip extension/hyperextension is a huge advantage.
3) Minimalist Footwear
This one could be skipped by simply lifting in socks or barefoot, but that’s not a great alternative for those who lift in commercial gyms or for those who feel uncomfortable without any footwear while training.
Minimalist footwear has made a significant difference in my movement quality, strength, and overall perception of certain exercises. The super thin soles combined with zero drop off from heel to toe put you much closer to the ground, giving you more “ground feel” and an overall better ability to direct force into the floor beneath you. I think it allows you to be more “in touch” with your body.
Excluding squats done in weightlifting shoes, I personally wear Vibram Fivefingers and New Balance Minimus when I lift. Both are excellent options, but any thin soled and flat shoe will benefit you greatly.
4) Very Limited Use of Lifting Gear
I’ve never put on a weightlifting belt for a set. I don’t use any type of knee sleeves or knee wraps. I rarely use straps.
Truth is I could lift more weight with these things, but I choose not to.
Instead of wearing a belt, I’ve spent time training the hell out of my core from all angles. I can brace my midsection to withstand large amounts of force, and I personally don’t want to be assisted by pushing out against a thick strap around my stomach. I could care less if I could lift 5-10% more weight with a belt on. I want to get as strong as I possibly can without ANY type of external assistance.
Build up your core. Grip things as tight as you can. Challenge your knees to resist and absorb strong forces. Chances are you’ll be more balanced out in the long run and less likely to develop joint instabilities or asymmetries.
5) Losing Focus in Between Sets
This makes no sense, but hear me out.
We’ve all seen those people in the gym who are clearly serious about their workout. Headphones in, flashy compression gear, rigid facial expression, pretty much “in the zone.”
I actually characterize all of those things. I’m sure it annoys some people, I’m sure it inspires some people, and I’m sure the majority don’t care or pay attention at all.
But I like to get “out of the zone” sometimes. I don’t want to take my workout too seriously, so I use my time between sets to relax a little bit. I record my exercises, sets, and reps in the notes section on my phone, so I’m on it pretty frequently. I might also text someone, check some social media or email, or even read a couple paragraphs of a fitness related article. Really just anything to get my mind off the task at hand for a moment. I also enjoy the music on my iPod and tend to groove a little bit while resting.
I also use this time to think about what I’m going to do next. I brainstorm about loading considerations, perceived rate of exertion, performance up to that point in the workout, and expected performance for the next set or exercise. I might do a quick joint mobilization that will specifically help my positioning and performance for the movement I’m about to do.
Once I feel ready to perform at high level again, I NOW regain my intense focus on the lift. If it’s a near maximum lift, I’ll find a good song for the moment and hype myself a bit more mentally, but most of the time I stay reasonably calm. I find my set-up for whatever it is I’m doing, build loads of tension, and initiate. After that, I don’t have to think about much of anything. I’m “locked in” by this point.
I repeat this process over and over throughout the workout. Brief periods of intense concentration on a very specific task, followed by longer periods of free thinking and brainstorming. I wonder if each state of mind complements one another. Maybe the longer rest periods allow the CNS to recover enough so I can come back with a stronger focus for the next set, and the accomplished feeling of lifting a near maximal weight makes it easier to sit back and reflect for a few minutes.
Either way, this mental approach has worked very well for me. Give your sympathetic nervous system a break and do something to relieve stress while you’re resting. It doesn’t mean you’re slacking at all, and for a lot of people it would result in better intra-workout recovery and increased subsequent performance.
6) Flexible Nutrition
Nutrition is a simple concept, but we do a great job of overcomplicating everything about it. Nutrition is how we fuel and repair ourselves. A nutrient is any substance that can be metabolized by an animal to give energy and build tissue. We need nutrients in order to have optimum nutrition.
Could it be possible that a larger variety and abundance of nutrients might lead to better nutrition? You’re kidding!
But really, you’d be silly not to understand that almost all of us would benefit from more protein, fat, vegetables, and water. Take time to make an investment in your health by learning how to read an ingredient list. The more ingredients there are in a food product, the more processing it took to create it.
It’s time to stop with the blanket statements, the food demonizing, and the bashing of others dietary choices. You can make better use of your time with more positive actions.
- Eat what you enjoy.
- Eat the foods that will give you the most nutritional bang for your buck.
- Don’t be afraid to binge on nutritious food occasionally.
- Don’t label things as “good for you” or “bad for you” but rather try to see the value (aka the nutrition or the nutrients you’ll receive) in every food.
- Cook for yourself as often as possible. Make sure the food looks good and tastes even better.
- Make trips to the grocery store more often but buy less. Use ALL of the food that you buy. Try to discover new ways to use what you have available.
And as with anything else in life, everything in moderation.
Learn to adapt to intra-workout biofeedback as quickly as you can. This is the most important habit to get into. I won’t delve into it here, but if you click on the link you’ll be directed to a full explanation of the concept.