I was lucky enough to start weight training at a fairly young age. Of course, with starting young, I had no clue what I was doing, other than what I read out of bodybuilding magazines. With starting young, I made so many mistakes, but with mistakes, I was able to learn what worked and what didn’t. However, there were plenty of things I wish I would have done sooner and had the patience to improve on. If I can give any help to the beginner and intermediate lifter, these are some of the things I wish I had realized a lot sooner.
1. Track Your Progress
This is probably the easiest thing to do, and yet I still see many lifters doing random exercises, sets, reps, etc. You, of course, will remember a few of your big PRs, but every exercise you do should have a purpose. You can make huge progress just by increasing your weight by just five pounds or doing one more rep than you did the week before. Also, one of the most important parts of tracking your progress is going back and seeing how far you have come. There have been plenty of times when I have been frustrated in my training, and progress has stalled. Nothing is more motivating than seeing how strong you have become from the previous year. Also, you can go back and see what worked for you when you were making progress and possibly why you have currently plateaued.
2. Master the Basics
You can make plenty of progress with just using a regular barbell and dumbbells. I’ve seen so many people go for all the specialty bars right off the bat and have no idea why they are using them. If you are lucky enough to train at a gym that has specialty bars, that’s great, but hold off on them until you have truly perfected the squat, bench, deadlift, etc., and I promise most of you reading this have not. The only exception I use these bars for with beginners is if they have pain squatting with a regular bar, and I will also use neutral grip bars for presses if there is shoulder pain. If you feel your progress has stalled, it’s most likely due to your technique, lack of programming, and not working on your weak points, which will come later.
3. Hire a Coach
Even the best competitors still have coaches. You have plenty of resources right here at elitefts. As a beginner, you need to choose a program and stick to it. One of the biggest mistakes I see is program jumping. You need to give a program a lot longer than four weeks to see if it works for you. Going back to Number 2, to master the basics, you’ll need someone to show you how to perform the basic movements: squat, bench, dead, overhead, and all of the variations. If you work with a coach online, then sending videos is paramount. I’ve worked with many competitors, and I require them to send in videos weekly. How many times have you seen a lifter added plates to his squat each week only to squat higher and higher? If you are planning to compete, this is a recipe for disaster.
4. Focus on Food, Not Supplements
This one took me a very long time to learn when I was younger. When reading all of the muscle magazines, you get brainwashed into thinking you need all these fancy supplements to gain any strength or size. I don’t want to even think about how much money I wasted on supplements that did absolutely nothing for me. Don’t get me wrong, supplements can help, BUT they are only a very small piece of the puzzle. If you are looking to gain weight and put on muscle, then you need to take in more calories than you burn in a day. It’s as simple as that. For protein, stick to lean meats, such as chicken, beef, and salmon; and protein powder. Carbs: potatoes, rice, pasta, oatmeal, and lately, I have loved cream of wheat before training. Fats should come from sources like avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, and lots and lots of nut butters! If you are curious about supplements, check out Mark Dugdale’s article here.
5. Surround Yourself with Stronger People
Your training environment is extremely important in reaching your goals. For years, I mainly trained by myself with no one to push me. Nothing will motivate you more than seeing people stronger than you. Being competitive is a good thing! There have been quite a few times where my motivation was lacking during training, but if my training partner hit a certain weight, then there was no way I was going to miss it. Also, being one of the weaker ones in a gym is exactly where you want to be. It means you have the most room to grow out of everyone else. I have some of the strongest lifters around at my facility, but if I had the chance to train with Brian Shaw, Thor, Eddie Hall, etc., I would jump at the chance just to learn from someone better than me. You have to lose the ego here. Being the strongest at your local commercial gym with one squat rack and dumbbells to 75 pounds means absolutely nothing. Get out of your comfort zone and check your ego at the door if you want to get better.
I started competing when I was 25, and I only wish I would have started sooner. I hear from so many people that they want to compete, but they don’t feel ready. I know this has been said over and over, but you will never feel ready to compete. Just get out there and do it and get some experience. Powerlifting is a great place to start since you are able to choose your own weights. I started competing for the sole purpose of being more motivated during my training. I needed another reason to push myself. I never thought I would be any good at powerlifting and certainly not strongman. At every competition, I learned from my mistakes and got better every time. Without competition, I wouldn’t nearly be as strong as I am now.
This took me way too long to learn. When I first started competing, I would never deload until the week before my competition. I would train for weeks without taking a break, and eventually, my body started to break down. I remember at one time every joint in my body hurt that I could barely move in the morning. I’m honestly lucky I didn’t seriously hurt myself during this time. It wasn’t until I hired a coach to work with me on my programming that I started deloading every fourth week of my training. With the added rest, my body felt way better, joints hurt less, and I got a lot stronger. At this point in my training, I look forward to the deload because I know I trained hard for three weeks, and I will only benefit from the rest.
8. Train Your Weak Points
This is a big one for beginners to learn right away. It’s very easy to get sucked in to doing the things you’re good at and avoiding the ones you suck at. When I first started competing, I only pulled sumo because that was by far my stronger stance. I pulled conventional when I had it in a strongman competition, and lucky for me, it was always raised, which is another strength of mine. I was able to get away with training only my strengths on the deadlift for a few years, but my deadlift stalled for a long time. It took me three years to increase my deadlift from 700 pounds to 800 pounds, and I didn’t do it by only deadlifting sumo. Conventional deadlifting from the floor and from a deficit were huge weak points for me. For nearly a year, I didn’t pull sumo at all and only focused on improving my conventional. By bringing up this weak point for me, my stronger pull went up without even training it.
9. You Can’t Do Everything at Once
We all want to be bigger, stronger, faster, leaner, etc., and one of those is the reason why we got into strength training. When you are a beginner, you should be getting stronger every week, so enjoy it while it lasts. The more advanced you get, the less you can accomplish at once. I’ve now been training for 20 years, and at this point, I have to pick and choose my goals. I’m currently working on gaining weight and strength. For the advanced lifter, it’s near impossible to put on solid muscle while getting leaner.
There should always be a priority for your training. For example, strongman is my priority right now, which is a mix of strength and conditioning. Conditioning is a lower priority for me, as it has always been a strong suit. You need to focus on the most important part of your training, which goes back to training weak points. You can’t expect to be at your absolute strongest for powerlifting and run a marathon at the same time.
This especially holds true to CrossFitters and why training for CrossFit is so difficult because you literally need everything. So again, the best approach is to train what you are weakest at. If you are a CrossFitter who comes from a strong powerlifting background, then it would be in your best interest to train your aerobic capacity.
10. SLOW DOWN!
I would say this is the most important lesson to learn as a beginner. The great thing about first starting weight training is everything you do will work. You can increase weights every week, and that is where there can be a problem. I have been training people for 18 years now, and I love working with someone new that has the determination and the work ethic to want to lift heavy and hard every week. However, your muscles adapt to heavier weight rather quickly while your tendons and ligaments do not. It is very easy to get injured when you first start lifting, as I’m sure many of you know.
A lot of this risk goes back to having proper form and having a coach to guide you. It is best to make small jumps in weight each week and make sure your form is absolutely perfect. I know you have all seen a lot of top competitors using poor form to complete a lift, but you have to realize they have built their bodies up to tolerate that kind of weight and that kind of form. Personally, I make sure my form is near perfect at all times, and if I’m in a competition, I will take the risk of getting sloppy to complete a lift. Many beginners are in such a rush to get stronger, and I understand especially if you are at a gym with a lot of strong people.
What I always tell people when they start is each week increase your weights five to ten pounds or get one more rep at the same weight. This may not sound like much from week to week, but if you can keep that pace up over a few years, you will be the strongest person in the world. You need to have patience when starting out, and I hate to say this, as it has been said so many times, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. Or as Dave Tate recently said at a seminar, it’s a series of short sprints. If you keep the pedal on the gas for too long you will get hurt, plateau, and eventually, give up. Slow down and enjoy the journey.
Learn from those who have more experience is one of the biggest pieces of advice I can give. To this day, I still have new members of my gym argue with me on nutrition and training, only to regret not listening later on. Follow these tips and you will not only continue to get stronger for years to come, but you will also stay injury-free, which is just as important.
What are some things you wish you would have learned sooner? Drop a comment below.