I have a box in my storage room that contains all my training journals. Besides sets and reps, I toss in what’s going on in my life. Often, I find long essays about the future, lists about “what works,” and funny little tidbits about my life that I would’ve quickly forgotten had I not wrote them down.
It hit me when I picked up this box the other day that I’ve been recording workouts since 1971, five years after first picking up a weight. That’s forty years! I started to think about the lessons I’ve learned and, before I knew it, I had a list of forty lessons that I had to learn the hard way.
1 – Keep a journal of some kind.
It makes me smile to see my attempt at neat handwriting in my first journal entries. The bench press workout was 85 x 8/8/4. I noted, “I was supposed to do six on the second set but it was too easy.” In the summer before my freshman year, I benched 100 pounds; my sophomore year, I benched 200 pounds; and I got 300 during my junior year in track season. I would write what I benched as a senior weighing 162 pounds, but you wouldn’t believe it.
I have a few notes about my coach’s son who came to our weight room one afternoon to see if I was “really as strong as my dad said I was.” I told him I’d already lifted and he said something that questioned my lifts. So, I put a low 300-pound lift on the bar and it went up so fast that he told me to stop. “I believe you…wow, I believe you.”
The value of a journal is seeing the progress (and the regress) of your training and training philosophy. I believe a thorough review of your old journals is probably as good as a training session.
2 – Eat like a man
Eat Like a Man pulled together some wonderful disconnected links that had spun in my brain for a few years. Yes, low carb is good, but carbs are not evil. For the strength enthusiast, or someone who wants to just be powerful, this article gives the template. The carb-depletion workout fit perfectly with a weekly volume day. The carb-up fit perfectly with life!
Now, you can agree or disagree with the diet, but all the athletes I had use this template found that their ability to train longer and harder was enhanced naturally by this simple eating program. And, as the author notes, people fear you in the supermarket!
3 – You must master the squat movement.
You may not need to ever squat heavy, and you may also discover that there are some better tools for you (for you, read that carefully) like Bulgarian split squats or pistols, but mastery of the squat is worth every second you spend on it.
In past articles, I’ve given you a template to follow. However, I still feel that the message has NOT been delivered. You must master this basic movement. Spend years on it if you have to, as I did, but learn to do this.
4 – There are several “Modern Classics” that will support your training goals.
Yes, these are “books,” but the depth and insights will astound you.
Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” It still stuns me and scares me. The diet advice is unsupported by research.
T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” The first part is “The Sword in the Stone” and the book changed my life.
Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” The book is a science fiction legend, but the respect for education, in all its forms, makes it worth reading.
I would also tell you to read all of Harry Potter. Any book that introduces a character in the first chapter that’s so crucial to the whole story, yet won’t be seen again until the third book, and a question from the very beginning that isn’t answered until literally the end, deserves one’s time and energy.
There are others, of course, but the idea is that at times big goals and big stories also include epic tragedy and overcoming failure.
5 – Lift outdoors.
When I first made waves as a writer, I was usually quoted for insisting we go outside and train. It’s still great advice. I think that carrying equipment outside and working out in a communal gathering is the single best way to train. As a discus thrower, bringing my kettlebell to the field to do a few movements “now and again” was a game changer in helping me improve my throws. Grab some food and drink and a training tool and go outside and have some fun lifting.
6 – The Southwood Program works.
I wrote on this a few years ago. It’s very simple.
The Southwood Program is to be performed three days a week in the gym:
- Exercise – Reps
- Power Clean – 8-6-4
- Military Press – 8-6-4
- Front Squat – 8-6-4
- Bench Press – 8-6-4
Although I learned this while Nixon was President and nobody traded with China, it still holds fast as a great training program. You don’t miss a single bodypart, it’s simple to learn, and a bit rigorous to do. It also demands that you clean and military press which we’ll get back to later.
7 – Learn to meditate or relax “on command.”
If there’s a skill that’s overlooked it’s the ability to nap when necessary. If my athletes struggle with getting or staying asleep, we’re going to have issues down the line. Training oneself to relax is the first step. I recommend squeezing a muscle tight, then breathing out and releasing it. This helps enable falling effortlessly asleep literally any time, anywhere.
Sleep is the best recovery tool I know, but the skill of sound sleeping is often overlooked. Although I recommend ZMA®, Z-12™, and eyeshades and earplugs to just about every audience I speak to, I still say that one also needs to practice relaxing. There are many CDs, DVDs and downloads that walk you through this skill and I can’t comment on them all, but it’s worth your time to practice this underrated skill.
8 – Never pass a pull-up bar without doing some pull-ups.
I learned this from Pavel. It’s a “truism.” My all-time best number of pull-ups was 14 when getting ready for my senior year of high school football. I know this because of my journal (see Lesson One!). As I grew larger, I let myself slide all the way down to four reps. I also noted my shoulders hurt.
Taking Pavel’s advice, I started doing one or two pull ups throughout my training workouts. When two became ridiculously easy, I moved to three and soon four. I am now back to nine pull-ups and “miraculously” my shoulder health is back to being fine.
One surprising point about pull-ups is that they’re also a wonderful abdominal exercise. I don’t know why that is, but it will be evident the day after a long pull-up workout.
9 – The old time weightlifters had it right: “Fixed” weights are better for most of us.
I love pictures of the old time strongmen with the huge kettlebells and fixed bars. When I first started training, gyms had fixed barbells in a rack, so you could grab a 75-pound barbell or a 105 pounder, just like the dumbbell rack today.
There’s some beauty in this. Originally, all I had was a 53-pound kettlebell and a 70 pounder. So, when I trained, I had two options. The “lack of options” made me dig down harder for certain movements. A few years ago, I noted that most of us should toss out the bulk of our weightlifting plates and just use 45s and 25s. One would have thought I’d blasphemed! I got negative feedback for weeks from that.
I stand by it. Yes, it’s a jump to go from 185 to 225. It means you have to own 185 and you’d better be ready for the load at 225. It’s also how we trained in college as the small plates were all broken and the football team stole all the 35s to stick on their machines (I won’t comment).
So, my first group of recruits when I began coaching learned to lift with 95, 135, and 185 pounds in the snatch and clean. They mastered the loads quickly because, well, we had no other options!
10 – I believe that for overall health, you need to help the body cleanse.
At nearly every talk I give, I note the importance of dental floss. Flossing is really good for you and it seems like it makes a difference in heart health. It takes about a minute to do it, too. But I get emails from guys who tell me, “I’ll do anything to get to X, Y or Z.” When I ask them first to floss twice a day, I get a return email that says something like “that is a problem as…” Listen, if you don’t have the discipline to floss twice a day, good luck with the Velocity Diet.
I do all the weird stuff. I use a Neti Pot for my sinuses, and I no longer take allergy medicine, so it “works.” I use a tongue scraper every morning, and learned that some foods really do make mucus, and I always supplement with fiber. Now, I don’t go so far as to do some of the higher-end stuff like colonics, but that’s not a judgment on my part.
I think that taking a little time each day to “cleanse” is worth it to your overall health. To me, it’s like eating vegetables and fruit. It’s got to be good for you at some level. And, let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to do.
11 – “90% of success is simply showing up.” Woody Allen
When I first began throwing the discus as a 118-pound tower of terror, I won a lot of meets. No matter what, the kids at the other school would tell me, “If (insert name of fat kid) would’ve been here, he would’ve beaten you.” I used to believe that crap.
Whenever I win something, especially now in the Internet age, I always find out later that “somebody else” would’ve won it if, of course, they’d just shown up. Folks, it’s a truism that should be stuck to your bathroom mirror. “Show Up!”
I’ve fond memories of helping a friend off the floor as he was dieting down for an amateur bodybuilding contest and he was doing depleting workouts. He was in a brain fog for probably three weeks. Of course, on the dais under the lights, he looked magnificent and won “easily.”
The dude showed up. If you’re gunna gunna, you have to show up to prove it. “Gunna gunna” was a phrase my mom used for people who were “gunna do this and gunna do that.” It’s like graduating from high school or college. I swear to you, if you just show up, you’re gunna gunna do just fine.
12 – Safety must be part of performance.
One of my favorite books is Steve Ilg’s “Total Body Transformation.” Published in 2004, the book has amazing insights into human performance and reflects on Ilg’s courageous victory over a terrifying back injury. In the book, Ilg looks at a quote made about Mark Allen that he had become the World’s Greatest Athlete by winning a series of triathlons. Ilg came up with an interesting contest to see who actually was the world’s fittest human.
Ilg’s contest included basic gymnastic movements, weightlifting maxes, and yoga moves. My favorite section was the third day’s endurance event, a mountain bike race to an uphill finish. His genius is realizing that downhill is where the injuries happen, so why not test the athletes’ fitness as safely as possible?
I’ve had a lot of injuries that have caused me to spend a lot of time in hospital beds. One thing I’ve learned is that it is “almost” okay to get injured in competition, but it’s insane to get hurt in preparation. Stopping several reps short of failure or injury may not sound courageous on paper, but coming back to train tomorrow is more important than an additional “junk” rep.
13 – We tend to be “glib” about our weaknesses.
I love the word “glib.” Usually, it means nonchalant (that has to be a French word; we need to find a way to say this glibly), but it also means “lacking depth and substance.” Now, most of my ex-girlfriends say that about me, but I digress.
I’ve always taken about six weeks a year to assess, reassess, and deal with my weaknesses. It’s always around the same few issues:
- I’m too fat.
- My hamstrings are too tight.
- I need to work on X, Y, or Z.
So, how does one usually address these issues? Most people usually address weaknesses while also doing literally everything else. So, what happens in a typical six-week assessment program is we continue doing everything we did before and hope the weaknesses vanish magically. Without Harry Potter, that isn’t going to happen.
In the last decade I’ve discovered that weaknesses demand full concentration. As I’ve argued before, if you want to really address fat loss, do the Velocity Diet. Oh sure, there are other fine options, but do the V-Diet once and then decide how “grueling” Atkins or Ornish or the Zone are in terms of sacrifice.
Weaknesses need to be given full attention. If you have flexibility issues holding you back, then you need some kind of challenge. In the past I’ve recommended the Bikram Yoga 30-Day Challenge (you promise to go to the 90 minute sessions every day for thirty days) and I still can’t think of a better way to address the issue.
Weaknesses need to be attacked with depth. I charge you to examine every possibility in your search for ridding yourself of this issue. I’ve had people squat five days a week to address poor squatting technique and do 1,000 full turns a month to deal with discus throwing issues. If you have a clear weakness, total focus with every tool and weapon you can muster has to be the plan.
Don’t be glib.
14 – Conditioning isn’t just jogging.
Neither is it treadmilling, or whatever machine you think of right now. Conditioning is more than that. I gave some insights in Four Challenges to Light Your Fire!, but few people were interested in trying out the tumbling. This little workout is the finest “finisher” I know and you only have to do it once.
- Five forward rolls
- Five right shoulder rolls
- Five left shoulder rolls
- Three cartwheels followed by three cartwheels to the other side
- One set of bear crawls (about ten meters)
- Sprint to waste basket
I think the intensity of conditioning trumps the duration most of the time. I have more to say on this later, but most people don’t train hard enough to get in and get out.
That said, I also think most under-appreciate hiking, biking, and long, easy treks along the beaches and meadows of this fine planet. As noted earlier, go outside and breathe real air.
15 – It’s the movements you’re NOT doing that are impeding your progress.
Recently, I wrote a series of articles on the five basic human movements.
- Loaded Carry
Now, you can certainly add vertical and horizontal and rotational and many other things to this list, but if you’re skipping one of the basic five human movements, your training isn’t optimal.
You’re probably missing loaded carries and squats. The one lesson I’ve learned over and over is most people ignore these two things. So, start doing farmer walks, waiter walks, suitcase walk, sleds, and pushing cars a few days a week and master the basics of squatting.
You won’t believe the progress you’ll make!
16 – There was a touch of brilliance in the Atkins Diet, and most people missed it.
I still love the Atkins Diet. I keep some correspondences from 1999 from a group of women who lost 100 pounds each doing the Atkins Diet and a little weightlifting. I probably learned more from them than I ever learned from those with a bunch of initials after their names.
Here was the genius behind Atkins, in case you missed it. Dr. Atkins notes in his book that to become obese, you did something “unbalanced.” To get yourself back to sleek, lithe, firm and fantastic, you honestly can’t do a balanced approach. Finding balance at 100 pounds over-fat will keep you there. He recommended an “unbalanced” approach to get back to your target.
I’ve used this contrarian thinking process ever since I read this. In coaching the throws, I teach athletes with bad habits to throw with the “other” hand, do things backwards, try throwing with the 56-pound weight, and a variety of things that I’d consider “unbalanced.” Now, if I’m working with a raw beginner, obviously I’d pattern and model the best technique possible, but with someone with ingrained bad habits, I look for ways to completely rework the system.
If you’ve been training for four years and never really squatted, I’d recommend you squat five days a week for two years. Crazy? Yes! But that’s exactly what Dick Notmeyer had me do, and not only did I add forty pounds of lean body mass in four months, I also mastered the movement.
This “theme” seems to be a reoccurring lesson in my career.
17 – You can’t do everything at once!
But if you do decide to “do everything at once” for a while, there may be benefits at the other end of the wormhole.
By the time I was a senior at Utah State University, I’d lifted at least three days a week, usually five to eight, for seven and a half years. I played football, soccer, wrestled, and competed at a fairly high level as an Olympic lifter. Oh, and I was a Division One thrower gathering points as a discus thrower, hammer thrower, and shot putter.
In January of my senior year, I hit the wall. I was sick of lifting and just couldn’t keep up trying to do everything.
This “plan” worked perfectly. After all those years of training half the year as a thrower and the other half as an athlete in another sport AND keeping an enormous load in the weight room, I backed off everything.
I never went over 385 that winter and spring in the squat. I did clean and snatch, but always within reason. I didn’t play in pick up games or intramurals or, honestly, anything. I went to school, lifted a little, and threw a little. I ended up with what Coach Ralph Maughan called “the greatest season in the history of USU throwing,” which, at the time, was quite a big deal.
The lesson? Well, after doing seven years of “everything,” backing off to just one thing propelled me to a level of success that simply shocked me with the ease I attained it.
Less is more. This is a fundamental truism in the strength arts. But you first have to really put a lot of “more” in. Like Earl Nightingale used to say about the fireplace, many people walk up to the fireplace and say “give me heat.” The right way to do it is to get some paper, some kindling, some logs, and light a match. Then you get some heat.
You have to explore and learn and try many things to be able later to whittle them all down into a simple package. I can show you some short cuts and so can all the other authors here, but you need to put the time and effort into the “more” before you can master the “less.”
18 – You want “less”? Let me give you less.
My friend, Pavel Tsatsouline, handed me this great two-day a week training program. I shared it with a young, busy guy who told me it was too easy. I knew he was lying, so I tweaked it for him. Here’s the “King of Less Training Programs”:
- Day One
- Bench Press
- Day Two
- Bench Press
That’s it. It’s the minimalist’s minimal workout. Now, let’s look at my tweaks:
- Only 45 and 25-pound plates!
- No less than ten reps on every set of bench and squat until the last set.
- No less than five reps on every deadlift.
So, the bench press workout was sets of ten, add weight, until the last set where you grind out as many as possible.
A bench example from 1993 when I did this same basic program:
- 135 x 10
- 225 x 10
- 315 x 10
- 365 x “as many”
For the squat, the last set should be around bodyweight, usually 185 or 225, and you go for at least 30 reps.
In the deadlift, keep grinding out those sets of five. Over time, feel free to slide this down to three reps, then two reps.
On paper, this looks so easy!
19 – If you really want a breakthrough, teach someone else. And if you need mastery, teach 65 fourteen-year-old sophomore boys something all at once.
Whenever I talk with someone who has been around gyms for a long time, usually this story comes up:
“I was just a young kid and I wanted to lift. So, I signed up and tried to do what I thought was lifting. Some of the more experienced guys would take time to show me how to (fill in the blank) and, boy, did I make progress after that!”
The interesting thing is the experienced guy probably got more out of the exchange than the neophyte. When you try to teach someone something you know, you begin to pick up those subtle points that you may have forgotten or, perhaps more common, you may know but never knew you knew it! Teaching someone to squat might make you rethink how you move the whole system down and not just bend the knees.
Oh, sure, you can lose your mind helping someone learn the basics of weight training, but for most the time spent teaching others is like finding a vein of pure gold.
20 – When reading something over the top, that has the markings of “secret” or “exotic” or even “expensive,” don’t leap in with both feet and break your ankles.
I’ve been there. I read those massive ads for Nautilus in Scholastic Coach and Athletic Journal and thought, for sure, that this was the ticket to success. Plyometrics had me leaping off tall buildings with a single bound and limping up flights of stairs. Don’t even get me started with the stupid things I’ve tried.
Most of “it” is crap. From the magic supplements, like B-15 (better than 14!) to the promises of this huckster or that guru, I’ve rarely discovered much beyond the basics that works.
I remember fasting for 14 hours before a workout and doing set after set after set of compound leg exercises and consuming a whiff of some exotic herbs to enhance my growth hormone. It enhanced someone else’s wallet.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
Lessons 21 through 40 will be featured in the second part of this article.