We "gurus" here at T-Nation have been asked to provide our best tips– the 10 (or whatever number of) things that have made the greatest impact on how we think and train. So this is my list.
By the way, I've purposely not read my other colleague's lists so as to not be influenced by their thoughts. Therefore, if what I write here mirrors the thoughts of others, I guess it means that great minds think alike. If any of my points below directly contradict what my other colleagues have written, I guess you'll have some fun coming to your own conclusions. Either way, it's my hope that the concepts and ideas below will enrich and improve your training experience.
First, here are 5 "philosophical" paradigms for success– what I consider to be better ways to think and to evaluate information:
1. The majority Is ALWAYS wrong, therefore DO THE OPPOSITE.
I consider this idea to be my central operating paradigm in life, and rarely have I found it to not be the case. Even if you apply this concept absolutely, across the board, without critical thought, to every aspect of your life, you'll end up better off.
Here are but a few examples:
– The majority of people have no goals. Therefore, establish goals for yourself.
– The majority of people don't train. Therefore, train.
– The majority of people think that seeing their doctor regularly is essential for optimal health. HAVING GOOD HEALTH HABITS is essential for optimal health.
–The majority of people don't plan for their future, and end up unprepared for their retirement. Therefore, prepare for your future.
–The majority of people watch TV for several hours per day. Therefore, don't watch TV.
–The majority of people spend many hours per day in a seated position. Therefore, spend more time on your feet.
–The majority of people don't read. You're reading now–good for you.
I could provide hundreds, even thousands of examples like this, but the few I listed above should suffice. But let's get a bit more specific and apply this rule to training and nutrition:
–Most people "work out" (primarily or exclusively) to improve their appearance. As T-Nation contributor Dan John has said, establish a context OUTSIDE of your workouts to assess the value of your workouts, e.g., you're training to improve your health, well-being or athletic performance. Or, just for the sake of challenging yourself. When you train for performance, aesthetics will always improve. The opposite is not usually true, however.
–Most people seek pain in their workouts. Seek PERFORMANCE in yours. Look, you know what I'm talking about. When you're feeling sore after a workout, you have a constant and gratifying reminder that you've actually accomplished something. And we crave that feeling of "completion," especially in today's "fuzzy" world where our professional tasks are often without hard borders. David Allen speaks about the "soft edges" of today's knowledge work–do you know why so many execs love to putt golf balls across their office? Click. Plunk. Click. Plunk. Completion baby, that's where it's at. It's better to use your performance as a gauge of what you've accomplished than how much you hurt the next day, however. Numbers don't lie–if your numbers are going up, so is your progress. The reverse is not true however–I trashed my back a few days ago doing something really stupid, and trust me, the fact that I can't tie my shoes right now isn't a sign of progress.
–Most people do what's fun. Do what's NEEDED. Once you've accepted that performance is a better measure of progress than pain is, make sure the underlying purpose is rational and healthy. Is your incessant desire for a 500-pound bench press tied to any worthy context outside of just having a huuggge bench? If you're a competitive powerlifter, and powerlifting adds purpose to your life, your answer is yes. But for the rest of you, maybe not. Only you can answer this question, and it's probably worth some exploration.
2. Paretto's Principle (The 80/20 Rule).
Twenty per cent of your actions are responsible for eighty percent of your results. Figure out what those actions are and do more of them. Next, figure out what the remaining eighty per cent is and do less of that. A common example would be a workout that starts out with heavy deadlifts, then progresses to leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises, cable abductions and crunches. In this workout, the deadlifts are responsible for at LEAST eighty per cent of the result. Do some self-analysis and apply this rule to your everyday habits, relationships and so on.
3. Average people who do the right things get better results than brilliant people who do the wrong things.
It's not about how smart or talented you are; it's about what you do, consistently, over the long haul. I define "intelligence" as the ability to make effective decisions. Learn the subtle distinctions between who you are and what you do.
4. Become your own authority.
If you're feeling not quite right and you go to the doctor, something interesting happens. He tells you what's wrong, and now you have an excuse to feel bad. You're off the hook. You've become a victim in a sense. Now, don't miss sight of the point–sometimes there really IS something wrong and you really DO need outside help. But whenever you seek and rely upon sources of help outside of yourself, you lose just a little bit of your power. Of course, many will disagree with me, but this is my opinion, and adopting this thought process has enhanced my life on every level, so I'm keeping it.
5. Understand your basic personality.
Are you a driven "A" type, or are you a bit more laid back? Be honest. If you can't be honest or you just don't know, ask people who know you well. Athletes are almost always in the former category, and with these people I almost ALWAYS reduce their overall training load right away, and so far, this tactic has always lead to immediate (and to the athlete) surprising performance gains.
Now using myself as an example, I'm a bit more laid back. I'm not lazy by any means, but I'm basically a happy person by nature, which is a double edged sword. Wanna explore this for a bit? I have this theory that most "highly successful" people are intrinsically unhappy–or at least discontented. Why? Well think about it. If you're totally, perfectly happy, you have no drive do you? If you don't have 20 inch arms, it's obviously because you're happy with your present arm size. Otherwise, you would have done something about it. Extreme "success" requires a strong dissatisfaction with things as they are. This is neither good or bad, it just "is." So if you're a happy, contented person, you need to find ways to get yourself amped up. A training partner(s) might be a good place to start.
An interesting corollary to the above discussion: most of us tend to assume that "If only I could be/get/do/have _________, I'd be happy." But then you get there and you're not any happier are you?!? Not if you have any drive. Happiness must exist previous to and independent of accomplishments. And high accomplishments tend to be reserved for those who are fundamentally discontented.
Okay, with the philosophical points out of the way, let's move on to more practical issues:
1. Don't SEEK fatigue– manage it.
This is a big one for me, and it should be for you. Let me provide an example. You want to have a super-productive training session for lats. You choose pullups as your core movement, which is a good choice. Now you've got to determine loading parameters–sets, reps, rest intervals and lifting speed. Would you agree that the more pullups you can perform in a certain time frame, the better (assuming you don't injure yourself)? In other words, the more work you can perform, the better, right? So what's the best way to arrange things in order to accomplish this goal? In other words, if you've got 15 minutes, and you want to perform as many TOTAL pullups in that time, how would you proceed? Would you go to failure on the first set? Would you use a 5-2-3 tempo? Would you rest 3 minutes between sets?
In other words, would you do what MOST people would do?
Hopefully not. And truthfully, if left to your own devices, you'd figure it out for yourself. You'd use the fastest tempo you could. You'd only do about 1/2 of the amount of possible reps for any given set. And you'd probably take short rests at the beginning while you were still relatively fresh, and longer rests later on as you became more fatigued. Toward the very end of the 15 minute time period, you'd try to crank out some singles in a last ditch effort to get your final number as high as possible.
Oh, by the way, if you're doing what I just described, you're now a master of Escalating Density Training (EDT). Congratulations.
2. More speed is almost always better.
As I alluded to just a moment ago, acceleration is a fatigue management strategy– it allows you to do more work in less time, which is the definition of power. At any given load, more speed means more tension on the muscle, which means a superior training effect. Accelerated lifting also has much better transfer to athletics and almost everything you do in life. It's also more fun. And less dangerous. And it takes less time. I really have a hard time finding the down-side of this approach.
3. More frequency is almost always better.
Look, read and learn everything you can, but don't be enslaved by what you learn. In this case, I'm asking you to forget all the stuff you've learned about "Each muscle group requires at least 72 hours of recovery after each workout" and anything else that even vaguely sounds like that. It's not that simple (nothing ever is). The mastodons over at Westside barbell often perform 12 or more workouts per week, and it's hard to argue with their success. Most national weightlifting teams train 6-9 times per week, and the most successful teams tend to be the ones who train the most frequently, by the way. Professor Zatsiorsky at Penn State said it best: "Train as hard as possible, as often as possible, while staying as fresh as possible." Training frequency is a fatigue management strategy–more frequent and shorter exercise bouts generate less fatigue, and therefore, better performances, than less frequent, longer bouts. Incidentally, two-a-days are a great strategy for fat loss through metabolic elevation.
While we're on the subject, a quick word about overtraining: this is a word to describe a concept which is intended to describe a phenomenon whereby training results decline (purportedly) because the trainee is training too hard, too long, too intensely, too frequently, etc. HOWEVER: none of those elements is capable of causing overtraining by itself. Declining performance is simply an imbalance between the work you do and your ability to recover from that work. This means it's possible to do 100 sets per workout, 20 workouts a week and not be overtraining. It all depends on the remaining factors.
4. Compound free weight movements are not only more productive, they're also safer than machine-based "isolation" exercises.
Most people still think that machines are safer than free weights, and that (for example) leg extensions or Smith squats are safer than barbell squats. Too bad. Of course, anything CAN hurt you, but machines force you into a pre-determined groove. If forces exceed your structural capacity, you can't escape–you're injured. With free weights, you can quickly modify your positioning to escape injury. The same idea can be applied to single-joint versus multi-joint exercises. This is why no one ever tests their 1RM's on things like triceps kickbacks or lateral raises–it's dangerous because all the load is focused on a single joint.
Another thought on safety and injury prevention: Stress isn't bad–EXCESSIVE stress is bad. We need stress to grow. So for example, you cannot train a muscle without placing stress on the corresponding joint. You must bend your knee if you want to get your quads to grow–you can't have it both ways. The trick is to find the happy middle ground where the stress is sufficient for growth, but not more.
In The Final Analysis...
(And this is my final tip) mastery requires a patience for not knowing. Not knowing is a good thing–it means you're a thoughtful person. You're a seeker. I'm happy to say that I have more questions now than at any previous point in my career. So enjoy the ride while you can, and pray that you never learn it all, because how boring would THAT be?