This article started as a question: “knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?”. So thinking back, these are the things I wish I knew, or reminded myself of when I was starting to change from just working out for the hell of it, to goal oriented training. It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete after a record, competing in your first bodybuilding show, or looking to shed a couple pounds for summer, you can find something that applies to you and your training. These tips are the 9 most effective training tips that I’ve compiled over 10 years of training myself and hundreds of others. Some of my more avid readers will notice some crossover between this article and the “6 things I’ve learned about life and training from 1.5 years and counting of rehabilitation” but I think the fact that some of those have cracked my top 9 shows just how important some of those lessons have been. Here they are in no particular order
1. Know Your Personality
I know I said no particular order but this may be the most important tip on this list. Are you one of those personality types that needs a kick in the ass to get out the door? Do you skip a training session just because your training partner cancelled? Or do you train through sickness and injury, staying a slave to your program because it’s written for 5 days a week; you have a broken arm, but it’s bench press day? Do you think you cannot skip a day because you’ll instantaneously shrink and your whole program will be ruined? Take a hard look in the mirror and figure out what side of the fence you sit on, and act accordingly.
One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard that puts this into perspective was “I spent the first 3 years of my training career learning to be consistent and never miss a workout, I spent the next 30 years learning to listen to my body and back off when needed” – wish I knew the author, but I’m pretty sure it came from the Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline Book, Easy Strength.
2. Keep a Training Journal
I’ve written entire articles on the importance of keeping a training journal, so I won’t go overboard here, but I will hammer this one point: How do you know if you’re objectively improving and not just fluctuating up and down? Did you do 300lbs for 10 reps or 12 reps last week? Was your spotter yelling “it’s all you!” with a death grip on the barbell? Maybe that was the week before? You have to write it down to be sure.
3. Don’t Overreact to the Natural Highs and Lows
You will have good weeks, you will have bad weeks; you will add 20lbs to a lift in a week, and you will go backwards in another. You’ll wake up cut and dry one morning and the next day you’ll feel bloated and fat. Your 40y time will go up and down. Natural up and downs are part of the process, and for some reason the body tends to adapt in wave like cycles. Two bad workouts in a row doesn’t mean your program is shit, you’re shit, and everything needs to change, and two excellent workouts in a row doesn’t mean you’ve found the holy grail of training and now every single workout going forward will be a cornucopia of rainbows and angelic harp music leading to 1million Instagram followers and multiple world records. If you chart your progress, it should look something like a well performing stock; take a birds eye view of your training and make sure you’re trending in the right direction and don’t pay too much attention to the small fluctuations up and down.
4. Know why you’re really doing this
A lot of people will say they train just to lead a healthy active lifestyle, and for many of them that’s true, but for the lion’s share of people reading this I’d argue that the reason runs a little deeper. I’ve been training people for a really long time and have heard some intensely dark reasons for why someone wants to train to get stronger or to improve their physical fitness/body image; they range from abuse, to childhood comments, to wanting to know what it feels like to walk into a room without staring a floor in shame, beating drug addictions etc. By all means keep telling people you just want to be healthy and feel better, after all it’s none of their damn business, but know your own reason, internalize it, and make it a source of strength that you can feed from. Study after study shows that intrinsic (or internal) motivation, beats external goals or measurements of progress when it comes to making lasting changes.
5. Educate Yourself
I heard L-Arginine is good for nitric oxide production, no wait that’s only in alpha-ketoglutarate formation, no, now arginine doesn’t help with nitric oxide production it’s other nitrates that raise blood levels. Why is nitric oxide important again? It’s for pumps right? But I read somewhere that the pump doesn’t actually build any muscle, so do I even need this? Some other article says it doesn’t build muscle on its own but it helps you recover from strenuous exercise….
Man, it can get really confusing, and even more confusing when someone’s trying to sell you something. Your bullshit filter is your biggest ally in your quest to improve your fitness, and it can be tough to know where to start. My personal recommendation is to stick with one source of information at the start. I’ve made some recommendations in the #1 Reason People Don’t Make Progress Article, and once you have a foundation, then you can start branching out and expanding your knowledge base, which leads me to my next point
6. Keep an Open Mind and Positive Mind
I used to hate CrossFit; there, I said it, and with many of the gyms I still do. The inventors of CrossFit pretty much piss on 60 years of strength and conditioning research, know it, and market it with a smile. They take the highlight reel from every effective training modality and makes a watered down fast food version that they sell as the cure to cancer and sadness for everyone. BUT what I should have been thinking is: hey, looks like a lot people don’t want to specialize, like varied and fun training methods, and are interested in community-based fitness, and there has to be a way we can give it to them without the glaring errors in programming and injury risk. Also due to the popularity of CrossFit, some of the industry’s most brilliant minds turned their collective heads towards fixing some of the more significant shortcomings, new studies are being conducted, and with all the people experimenting with variants of concurrent training, we just might learn something that we can apply elsewhere. If you keep an open and positive mind you will learn so much more than if you shut yourself into a training cult.
7. Ask for Help
This one is straight from the 6 Lessons article, so again I won’t beat it to death, but never let your pride get in the way of getting better. I may be guiltier than most on this, but I’m working on it, and every time I beat the instinct to just do everything myself, I always come out better for it. Even just bouncing ideas off someone else and hearing yourself think out loud can do wonders. Suck it up and ask for help when you need it; you will be happy you did
8. Thinking you need X piece of equipment to achieve your goals
I am admittedly an equipment whore and am extremely picky about type of equipment I buy and put in the gym, but that being said I pulled my first ever 500lb deadlift with nothing more than a barbell and a set of dumbbells, a squat rack and an adjustable bench. If you have those basic items you have everything you need to train an elite athlete, compete in a bodybuilding show, lose 20lbs of fat, gain 20lbs of muscle, get faster, improve general or specific endurance, etc. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your progress would be 10x better if you just had X piece of equipment, it may help, or make something easier, but it’s never an excuse for lack of progress.
9. Even if you want to excel at many things, focus on one or two things at a time
“Check out my Sheiko style routine that I modified using the rest-pause method and intraset stretching, I’ve added tabata intervals to keep the fat at bay and fat burner for extra support. I’m also going to take creatine this cycle to maximize my mass gains and add in aerobic work for recovery, and sprints because I’ve heard they can alter the fast to slow twitch muscle fiber ratio. I’m also thinking about integrating peripheral heart action or bioenergetic sequencing to really optimize this training cycle, and on top of that I’ve got this new diet all set up” – Great. I don’t know what would be worse, if it worked or if it failed miserably. If you try everything at once, chances are it won’t work the way you intended, and even if you have some mild success, how are you going to repeat it? Was it the volume? The intensity? The specialized methods? The supplements? Would you have gotten better results by using the same routine with one specialized method? What caused the greatest interference effect? Can you sustain this workload forever, (you can’t), how will you change it to progress?. If your plan doesn’t work and you start running yourself into the wall, chances are you scrap everything and try the next super combo that you read about on X website and likely run into equally disastrous results. I talked about this in the “Can CrossFit be Cured?” article on the Blacksmith Fitness Facebook Page. Focus on one or two things at a time, evaluate the effectiveness of the methods, and sequence them in a logical order. I’d check that article out even if you’re not even remotely into CrossFit
There you have it, the best 9 tips for improving your fitness. As I look back on the list now that all 9 relate to the mental/congitive/emotional side of the training equation, and the more and more people I train, the more confident I am that the mind is the single most important factor in determining their success. Win the battle of the mind and you will crush your fitness goals, and you just might find that the iron teaches you something about yourself in the process.