I spend a lot of time in gyms. Between 1 on 1 clients, my own training, and my athletes, I probably spend as much time in the gym in a month as most people do in a year. This has led me to a few conclusions:
- People will take advice on training and nutrition from anybody with visible abs and a few thousand followers on Instagram, and
- The vast majority of people who actually utilize their gym memberships tend to be underwhelmed with their progress when compared to their expectations on the day when they fork over their hard earned dough on day 1 to join.
It sucks to see well intentioned people spin their wheels, grow frustrated with their lack of improvement, and decide that “strength training doesn’t work for them” so they might as well replace it with happy hours and nachos.
Now, I love happy hour and nachos, don’t get me wrong, but if we can get a few facts straight when it comes to training, then a lot of the other pieces will fall into place nicely, leading to more muscle, healthier joints, and happier people.
#1. Progressive Overload is the name of the game
If you want to get stronger or build muscle, you have to do more than you did in the past. It’s really that simple of a concept. If you are still squatting the same weight, for the same reps, with the same rest as you did on your 3rd day of training ever, then it’s safe to say that you’re body has adapted to that stress. That’s cool, because that’s what we want: stress the body in a training session, and while we rest and recover, it adapts by becoming more efficient at the movement, and builds a bit more muscle so the next time you pull that shit trying to stress it, it’ll be ready.
That’s why you have to stress it further. Whether that’s adding a few pounds to the bar, adding a few reps with the same weight, or adding a set from the last session, you’re continuing to challenge the body to respond.
For the first few years, this is relatively easy and you can pretty much add weight to the bar weekly, or at least every other week. The reason is, you’re far from your potential strength. There’s a wide spectrum that we all fall on, with one side being the completely untrained person, and on the other our maximum genetic potential. With every training session, you slide one iota up the spectrum towards your maximum capabilities.
Early on, it doesn’t take much to move up that spectrum, but as the years go by, and you get stronger and bigger, the gainz are harder to come by. Often, people throw things against the wall to see what sticks when their weights stop moving, but this is where you need to focus on the process and progressive overload the most.
I love the 5×5 concept on compound exercises when things get stuck. Find a weight and do 5 sets of 5. The next week, try to add 5 pounds and do 1 set of 5, reduce the weight back to what you did the week before, and do 4 more sets of 5. The 3rd week, add the 5 pounds again and do 2 or 3 sets of 5 with it, reduce the load again, and complete the rest of your sets until you get all 25 reps in. Sure, the progress is slower, but you’re getting better, and getting slightly better beats the hell out of staying the same.
Maybe you add a rep or sets. On things like chin ups, where you’re handling your entire bodyweight, adding a rep each week is pretty tough after awhile. If it was easy, everyone would rep out 365 straight after a year, which is obviously not the case. I like to add a set for 2 weeks, then add a rep. A 4 week progression looks something like this:
Week 1: 3×5
Week 2: 4×5
Week 3: 5×5
Week 4: 3×6
Week 5: 4×6
Week 5: 5×6
It doesn’t always work out this smoothly, but as long as you keep moving in the right direction, you’re going to be alright.
#2: Picking the right exercises for you, right now, will take you far further than trying to shoehorn yourself into movements that you can’t perform perfectly and pain free
It’s fashionable to train like a powerlifter these days by focusing on improving the 3 main lifts: squat, bench, and deadlift. I’m all for getting strong and prioritizing compound lifts, but a lot of people can’t perform these movements well with a barbell, for a number of reasons. If a bar is on the ground with 45’s on each side, it’s going to be a lot easier for a 5’10” guy to get in position to deadlift it with a flat back than a 6’10” person!
Maybe it’s an old shoulder injury that keeps someone from being able to squat with a bar on their back because they can’t get their hands in position without pain, or a back injury that gets irritated with compression ands shear. Whatever the reason, the important thing is to find the right variations that allow you to work through a full range of motion, with perfect technique, pain free. This will allow you to challenge the movement because you have the right muscles working the right way at the right time during the lift. This is how you get bigger and stronger, little by little, for a long time.
I love trap bar deadlifts, front squats, split squats, dumbbell presses, chin ups and 1 arm dumbbell rows for most people instead of the classic staples like back squats, conventional deadlifts, bench presses, and bent over rows-assuming that those people aren’t competitive powerlifters. That’s not to say I don’t use the other movements in my programs, but they’re not sacred and the exercises are selected based on the person’s movement ability, training history, injury history, and goals rather than some bullcrap stigma that if you’re not using a barbell then you’re a little bitch.
At least they’re not on a diet of ibuprofen and ice baths between training sessions and are able to kick ass in the other parts of life that matter, because nobody really cares how awesome you are at moving a barbell.
Well nobody that matters at least.
Think “same but different,” when you’re looking for variations that fit you and your situation. Dumbbell presses on various inclines, floor presses, alternating presses, and single arm presses are all great options instead of being married to barbell bench pressing. Kettlebell deadlifts, swings, trap bar deadlifts, and rack pulls might be better options that conventional deadlifts, at least until you gain the requisite mobility for the latter. And if you get brutally strong on rear foot elevated split squats or reverse lunges, pain free, that beats the hell out of a big barbell squat at the expense of a back that’s sore for a week.
The point is, plan out your training with movements that you can perform pain free, and that you don’t need to do an advanced yoga class beforehand in order to get loosened up enough to get into the right position, and then hammer the piss out of those movements for 3-6 weeks, make improvements, then progress the movements slightly and repeat.
At the end of the day, results are what you’re after, and improving over time beats the hell out of doing different stuff all the time through sloppy, half ranges of motion because some magazine article or Instagram model told you that you HAVE to do “X” movement.