Before I get into this article, let me just say that I'm really excited to write an article that's not 100% training related. Sure, the whole point of this article is for me to discuss the top ten things I've learned about training, but I'm hoping to share some insight with all of you as to how and why these things shaped my training philosophy.
These first couple happened really close to one another, and it's a time in my life I consider "The Awakening." Unfortunately, a lot of those around us really aren't awake; they see things as they choose to see them and not how they really are. This was an amazing yet difficult time in my life because I had to change my views and perceptions of a lot of things, just one of which was how and why I trained.
Enjoy the journey!
The Top 10 Things I've Learned
1) May 2000 – Read T-Nation
No, this isn't a ploy for TC to publish more of my articles; this is the honest-to-goodness truth. Want to know one of my deepest, darkest secrets? I used to read Muscle & Fiction!
That's right, when I first started training in high school, I thought M & F was the best training info there was. After a while I began to realize that all the articles sounded the same, and that they were publishing a lot of the same stuff year after year. It was sickening. I knew that there had to be a better way, better information. Then, like a single ray of sunshine peeking through the clouds, T-Nation emerged.
Here I was reading articles by all the top-flight strength coaches. These guys were giving you hardcore, in-your-face strength training knowledge that you couldn't (and still can't) get anywhere else! Let's just say I haven't missed an update since!
2) Summer 2000 – Practice What You Preach
Shortly after discovering T-Nation, I realized that it was one of my career goals to become an elite strength coach myself. All of my buddies were trying to figure out what branch of business they wanted to be in, but I just wanted to hang out in dirty gyms and help athletes take their performance to the next level.
In the Dungeon (the old-school training facility we have at Ball State), myself, assistant strength coach Justin Cecil, and head strength coach Wade Russell were having an in-depth discussion on what it takes to make it in the field. Want to know the best piece of advice they gave me? Practice what you preach!
If you're going to be a strength coach, you better not only look like an athlete, but you better know how to lift weights, go through dynamic flex, work on your own sprint technique and all the other things that go into being an athlete. I decided that if I was going to give this thing a run, I'd better make my body a serious investment.
This is one of the most simple, yet underestimated, rules in the game. You can be the most book-smart, well-read individual on the topics of training, nutrition, or recovery, but unless you have that under-the-bar knowledge, you'll never reach your true potential as a strength coach, personal trainer, or any other job in the profession.
3) Fall 2000 – Train the Big Lifts
This may be the simplest piece of advice I've taken, as well as some of the best advice I can give. The big lifts like squats, bench, deadlifts, chins and rows are hard. They take some intestinal fortitude. They take a mind that's so stubborn it doesn't know the word stop or enough. That's why these exercises work.
Strength training isn't the easiest gig in the world; if it was easy, everyone would be Godzilla strong and look good nekkid. But the sad fact of the matter is that most people are super weak and don't look good clothed, let alone nekkid!
I was one of those people who knew more than the average Joe when it came to weight training, but it wasn't until the Fall of 2000 when I started training exclusively for powerlifting that I started employing this tip consistently. Now, if I'm not doing some squats, bench presses, chin-ups, deadlifts, rows, power cleans, snatches or some other big exercise in a workout, then I'm not really training! You aren't either!
4) Fall 2000 – Learn the Value of the Recovery or "Down" Week
This is one of the best tips I can give to intermediate lifters. Why am I calling out the intermediate lifter? Because advanced lifters already know that they can't train hard and heavy every single week. Beginning lifters can train this way because their neuromuscular system is nowhere near its peak, and the amount of weight they're moving isn't all that great. The intermediate lifter who plans his training cycles with adequate recovery will not only stay healthier, but make more rapid gains in the long run.
Let's make this really simple and clear: Every couple of weeks you need to take the weight down some, get rid of some of the volume, and give your body a week to recover. This is as much a mental break as it is a physical one. As you get bigger and stronger, your margin for error grows smaller and smaller. It's imperative to have a solid training plan, but you also have to have periods of planned rest in the equation as well.
Too many lifters want to go hard and heavy, week-in and week-out, only to find themselves either overtrained or injured. I commend their work ethic, but it's vitally important to work hard and smart, not just one or the other. This very simple tip can help keep you healthy and making gains for a long time to come.
5) December 2000 – Compete!
I've always been drawn to weight training. Throughout high school and my undergraduate studies in college, I always trained with weights more often than the average person. Problem was, lots of little things seemed to get in the way: school, my girlfriend, intramural sports, boozing, etc. I loved hitting the iron, but if something else came up, well, let's just say the iron wasn't my first priority.
This all changed when I did my first powerlifting meet. There I was, looking like a 175-pound sausage stuffed in a squat suit made for a 148 pound guy. My suit and face were red, my legs were purple, and to top it all off, I was weak as hell! Looking back now, I'm ashamed at how weak I was on the outside, but amazed at how strong I was on the inside. At that moment in time, I could've thought to myself, "Mike, you're a really good athlete, but powerlifting just isn't for you." I could've stopped training seriously, never looked at the squat rack again, and moved on with my life.
However, I chose the opposite path, the one less traveled. I realized on that day that when you compete in any iron-related sport such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting or bodybuilding, it's only you out there. Whether it's on the platform, on the stage, or pursuing your athletic dreams, it's not competing against others as much as it's competing against yourself.
From that day forward, I made weight training a solid commitment in my life. I knew that if I was going to compete again, I'd better get a hell of a lot stronger. It had nothing to do with how other people viewed me; this was all about how I viewed myself. This has resulted in me putting almost 450 pounds on my best lifts, while also putting on almost 25 pounds of pure muscle. Not bad for a former stickman!
6) October 2001 – Realize that Intensity is Key (a.k.a. Train with Dave Tate!)
After my first year of powerlifting training, I realized that I was getting stronger, but I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. I knew if I wanted to get bigger, stronger and become a better powerlifter, I needed to learn from those that knew more than me.
Now, I'm not talking about the armchair powerlifters who blab about their totals behind a computer screen, I'm talking about in-the-trenches powerlifters who have numbers that speak for themselves. I recruited a few other friends from the Ball State powerlifting team and off we went to Westside Barbell for a squat training seminar.
Needless to say, Dave Tate is one big mofo. Beyond being a large mofo, he's a smart mofo as well. He may not even remember me and my buddies, but I promise we'll always remember him and what his guys taught us. Beyond the science of the Westside template, the amazing thing about this place is the intensity exuded from every lifter in there. You don't just saunter in and breeze through a workout at Westside; they'll either kill you during the workout or Louie will kick your ass out. This intensity is there every single workout and that's why these guys are so damn strong.
It's great to have a good routine, tweaked out gear or nutritional supplements, but most people worry so much about setting up the ultimate training or nutrition plan that they forget to just get in the gym and train like an animal. I soaked up more knowledge in that weekend than I did in a month of classes at school. The amazing thing was that every guy there was willing to sit down and talk shop, giving you their own personal insight as to how they got stronger.
If you're serious about getting bigger, stronger or putting pounds on your total, you can't afford not to attend one of these seminars or similar seminars with other knowledgeable, in-the-trenches people.
7) November 2001 – Do What's Hardest
I read a book a while back by Pat Croce (former President of the Philadelphia 76ers), and in one chapter he went on to explain that doing what's hardest in life is what builds character and confidence. This is extremely true in training as well.
I can't tell you how many times I've gotten e-mails from people using their body type as an excuse not to perform a certain exercise. The most obvious example is long-limbed people who absolutely hate to squat. Let me tell you something: I have some of the worst squatting levers you'll ever see, but I make improving my squat a huge priority in my training. Doing what's hardest is usually what brings the most growth.
This coincides with my previous point of doing the big exercises. Yes, these exercises are brutally hard, but you have a choice each and every day you enter the gym. Do you really want to get bigger and stronger? Is it really worth it, knowing the amount of work that goes into it? If the answer is "no," I assume you wouldn't still be reading this article.
Here's some homework for you: Figure out what lifts are the absolute hardest for you, the ones that make you sick thinking about them before you enter the gym. Now, make improving these lifts a priority in your next training cycle. You'll find that as you attack these specific lifts, not only will the movements themselves get easier for you, but you'll get bigger and stronger to boot! The benefits here are indeed mental as well as physical.
8) March 2003 – Keep Learning! (a.k.a Meeting John Berardi at the SCAN conference)
Okay, the secret is out. I'm in love with John Berardi in a non-homosexual, manly kind of way! Seriously though, this guy made a huge difference in my life. I'd been training for almost two and a half years and I'd come to a plateau. My training wasn't going all that well and I realized that there were a lot of things outside of lifting that I needed to work on to get to the next level. In comes Mr. Berardi...
It was a brisk March day in Chicago at the SCAN conference when I sat down at a roundtable discussion with Susan Kleiner and some guy I'd heard of before named Berardi. I'd read some of his articles at T-Nation, but couldn't remember the nuances of what he'd written about. Let's just say this guy totally floored me, both that day and the next! The day after the roundtable, John proceeded to put on the most scientific yet practical discussion on nutrition I'd ever heard. This convinced me that even though I knew a lot about training, there was a lot more that went into training than just training itself.
At the end of the roundtable, I decided to stick around and talk shop with JB. I found out that not only was he super smart, but a very humble and genuine guy to boot. When I stated I'd written a few articles, he suggested that I might want to send TC some of my work. The rest, as they say, is history!
9) March 2003 – Improve Your Diet
Obviously, this was directly related to #8. If John Berardi can't convince you that improving your current diet can improve your performance, either A) your diet is already perfect and you know this to be true, or B) you really don't care about your performance all that much anyway. After I met John, I made a concerted effort to refine my diet and take his recommendations to heart.
If you haven't read John's stuff here at T-Nation, or if you think there's any room for improvement in your diet, now's the time to do it. It doesn't make sense not to apply these simple changes, because as most of us know, training is only part of the equation. You also have to recover properly to truly reap the benefits of your training labor. Here are a few of the things I learned from John's presentation:
Eat more meat! This one was simple because I already liked eating meat, and this gave me a great reason to eat more. Lean sources of protein are absolutely necessary for maintenance and repair of your body tissues, as well as being the most thermogenic macronutrient you can consume. Get stronger and leaner with one simple step!
Improve your carb intake. It helps that my beautiful wife, Jessica, is also a registered dietitian who knows her stuff. We already used whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta in all of our dishes, but she's taken it a step further. Now, virtually any starchy carbohydrate that we take in is whole wheat. If you check out your local grocery or health-food store, you can now get whole-wheat bread, pasta, couscous, tortillas, etc.
Even though it comes from the Atkins people and their obsession with "net carbs," we're the ones who truly benefit. Not only does this slow the absorption rate down according to the glycemic and insulin indices, but it also helps you get your daily influx of fiber. Whenever possible, switch a white or bleached wheat grain for a whole-wheat grain. Your body will thank you!
Make post-workout nutrition a priority. I'm not going to kick this dead horse any more than necessary. Simply put, if you aren't using a quality post-workout supplement such as Surge after your training, you're missing out on one of the most opportune times to kick-start the recovery process. As some of the lesser educated here in the Midwest would say, "Git-R-Done!"
10) Spring & Summer 2003 – Develop an Amazing Health Care Team
While some of the points I've brought up may have seemed obvious, I hope that everyone reading will take heed of this last one. If you've been training for any length of time, chances are you've had at least one injury that's hampered your training. If you haven't, consider yourself lucky and get to work starting on your health care team before an injury does hit!
Unfortunately, I got hit the hard way with some serious back pain about two weeks out from a meet this past April. I hadn't done anything stupid, I'd just set up poorly for a very heavy set of squats and ended up paying the price. It was actually so bad that for the two weeks leading up to the meet it hurt to squat the bar, let alone any massive weights. I'd trained hard for the last four months to get in peak condition, so I wasn't about to throw it away and not compete. My only choice was to get as much therapy done as possible in the ensuing weeks and see where my body was come meet day.
Other than keeping my strength up, my only goal for the ensuing two weeks was to get my back healed. I had the Drs. Hartle doing ART and adjusting me almost daily, I was over at their house using muscle stim, and I had two massage therapists working on me over that timeframe as well to help get me healed up. This was all over and above the stretching and myofascial release I do every day!
As the meet came around I wasn't 100%, but I still managed to set a 17 pound PR in the squat, while matching my previous best in the deadlift. If a few things had gone my way, I might have managed a career best day, in spite of being injured leading up to and during the meet!
In this day and age, people in all iron sports can improve for quite a long time. The biggest factors in seeing improvements are hard work, consistency and staying healthy. The last one is something that not enough people take advantage of. Doctors of chiropractic, physical therapists, massage therapists, ART practitioners, myofascial release practitioners and anyone else who can help keep you in the gym and training at full speed can be included here. You have to find people that are understanding of you and your goals, as well as people used to working with athletes.
Another little tip I can give is that while working with these people, pick their brains! You're paying them your hard-earned coin, so you might as well get a little knowledge dropped on you while they fix you up. I've found that every discipline has a slightly different view of how to care for and heal the body, so by learning more and employing the best techniques of all disciplines, you can better care for and heal yourself.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Whether you're a powerlifter, Olympic lifter, bodybuilder or just someone who wants to look good nekkid, I hope you can take some of the things I've learned and apply them to your own training. If I can leave you with one last piece of wisdom, it would be this: It's not how much you know, but how much of that knowledge you apply that'll make the greatest difference.