I’ve been lifting weights consistently for almost a decade now. I remember when I first started I training I didn’t have a clue.
But I did have a burning passion to learn.
I made it up as I went and made a lot of mistakes along the way. As time passed, I gradually increased my knowledge through books and advice from people I looked up to.
Ten years in the gym pales in comparison to my friends who’ve been at this game for decades.
I’m thankful I learned these lessons while I was still young, and managed to listen to the wisdom of men smarter than me.
Here are some things I picked up along the way.
1# If It Hurts Don’t Do It
If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this. God knows it took me forever to learn this lesson:
If it hurts don’t do it.
Like any young guy in the gym, I was obsessed with having a big bench press. Because a big bench makes you king of the gym right?
When I first began training it gave me zero issues. However, I eventually reached the point where bench pressing seriously hurt my shoulder.
I was pissed.
Why could my friends bench press pain free, but I had this problem? Like a stubborn mule I persisted.
I rationalised it didn’t really hurt [all that much] and it would eventually pass. Suffice to say, my bench press never really went up and my got progressively worse.
My progress ground to a halt.
Eventually I wised up and quit all forms of pressing. I focused on improving my posture and I got a great tip from Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes:
“Train the shit out of your upper back.”
Several months later I resumed pressing pain free for the first time in years.
If there is an exercise that causes you pain, stop it immediately. Take a step back to figure out why it hurts. If there is no clear solution, consider ditching it entirely.
2# There Are No Must-Do Exercises
As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat and so it is with the gym. There are no must-do exercises.
I used to think the world revolved around bench press, squat and deadlift.
While these types of exercises are great for building a physique – they’re not the be all and end all. You can build great quads with squats, but you can also do it with a leg press.
Similarly, if you experience pain on a certain exercise, then there’s usually a variation. So for instance, if wide grip pull-ups hurt – try a neutral grip instead.
It’s easy to get stuck in the black and white mindset that you have to do certain exercises.
Beating up your body when you’re a young bodybuilder is easy. But you eventually pay the price.
Consistent compression of the spine and wear and tear on the knees and shoulders can cause big problems down the road.
3# Keep Your Ego in Check
The single biggest obstacle to your progress in the gym is your ego. In the battle between lifting more weight or perfect form, most guys choose weight.
The problem here is twofold. Firstly, not using proper form because of heavy weight means you’re not targeting your muscle fibres correctly. This is because other muscles pick up the slack for the weaker ones that can’t take the load.
So for example, doing heavy bicep curls, but using your back to get the weight up defeats the object. This is pure vanity and serves no purpose. It just inflates your ego.
As bodybuilder Kai Greene says, ‘I’m not a weightlifter’.
He goes into the gym to destroy his muscle fibres, so they grow back bigger and stronger.
Not to destroy his body because he put too much weight on the bar.
Secondly, loading up the weight and using shitty form is a recipe for disaster. And it will result in you getting hurt sooner or later.
Despite this, the ego is not entirely negative. You can use it positively and channel it effectively.
Let’s face it:
If you didn’t have an ego, you wouldn’t care how your body looked.
In all honesty, I think the ego is to be embraced. Tim Grover, coach to elite NBA stars, writes in his book Relentless; Elite athletes use their egos to fuel their fire and drive them.
There is nothing wrong with taking pride in your appearance and your body. Don’t listen to people who tell you otherwise.
Just take care to ensure you control your ego so it doesn’t control you.
4# Less is More
The idea of doing more goes back to the early bodybuilding magazines. These magazines would show typical high volume routines of famous bodybuilders.
Then young guys would try and duplicate these routines and wonder why they didn’t have any success.
In reality, if you’re a natural lifter then likely you need to spend less time in the gym rather than more. Following Dorian Yates’ or Ronnie Coleman’s Mr Olympia routine is a one-way ticket to burnout city.
Remember, what you do inside the gym is a small part of the overall picture.
The key is to train hard then allow your body to recover. It’s what you do outside the gym, i.e. proper nutrition and rest, that determines your results.
5# Machines Are Your Friend
I used to scorn machines thinking they were for pussies and free weights were for the real men. I recall one time watching a video of Dave Tate saying you’d be laughed out the gym by the pros if you chose to ignore machines.
It suddenly dawned on me (not for the first time) how little I knew.
My original training philosophy was simple:
Lift free weights, do compound exercises and you’re guaranteed a great physique! In reality, building a physique to be proud of takes a lot more thought.
Machines allow you to maintain constant time under tension.
For example, when you do regular pec flys, the tension is removed at the top of the movement. Whereas machine flys keep your pecs under constant tension throughout the range of motion.
What’s more, machines allow you to target muscles from multiple angles. As a result, you can develop your muscles in a way that is simply not possible with free weights.
Finally, machines are kind on your joints and reduce the possibility of injury. It’s not often you see people getting injured using machines. But how many people do you know who got banged up using free weights?
This not an argument to say one form is better than the other. It’s to point out there are benefits of using both machines and free weights in your routine.
Perhaps you’ve noticed an underlying theme in everything – remaining injury free.
It’s important to train hard and push your body to its limits to make meaningful changes. However, if you’re constantly beat up from training, you need to take a step back.
Going to the gym is part of a long-term vision – training for a better tomorrow:
For better health and a better body.
Making a PR on your bench today and tearing a pec in the process is not long-term thinking.
It’s important to get strong, but not at the expense of your health.
When you’re young the body can take an incredible amount of punishment. And by all means you should capitalise on this to build the foundation of a great physique.
Take a look around at the older guys in your gym who are in great shape. They were once young bodybuilders. Chances are they learned how to train smart early on.
If you do come across someone like that, befriend them and ask them for advice. You’ll learn something new in the process.
For young bodybuilders it’s hard to think long term. You’re in the prime of your life and you feel invincible.
But what it comes down to is:
Am I training for a better tomorrow or am I just focused on what my ego can do today?