1. Exercise vs. Application
Far too much time is spent debating the merits and demerits of various exercises. I have my personal favorites just like anyone else, but I don't think there are any ubiquitous "best" exercises out there. Likewise, I don't think there are many exercises that are intrinsically bad.
Sometimes I think the average lifter can be too swayed by the powerlifting mentality that the "big 3" (squat, bench, and deadlift) must form the crux of any good training program while everything else is relegated to "assistance" or "accessory" work.
That terminology annoys me a bit because it implicitly creates a hierarchy where some exercises are considered to be superior while others are marginalized. Such a distinction makes sense if you're involved in powerlifting and need to increase those three lifts specifically, but if you're just looking to build muscle, increase strength, and feel better, it's shortsighted.
For general training purposes, any exercise can be a "main" lift if you treat it as such, meaning you do it early in the workout, push it hard, and focus on progressive overload. That of course includes the big 3 – which are all great exercises – but it also includes a myriad of other exercises, too.
To use a personal example, for years I religiously started every lower body workout with a heavy squat, and would sometimes follow that up with some lighter single-leg work. I got stronger and my legs grew. No surprise there.
Now, to spare my lower back, I start my workouts with a heavy single-leg exercise (Bulgarian split squats, lunges, single-leg squats, etc.) and sometimes follow it up with some lighter squatting. I've continued to get stronger, and my legs have continued to grow. Both ways work.
There's more than one way to skin a cat. It comes down to exercise application as opposed to exercise selection.
2. Exercise Modification
Speaking of exercise application, let me touch on exercise modification, as I believe the two are closely intertwined. I often share different ways to tweak exercises to better suit your needs, but rather than simply list a bunch of random exercises, let's give those exercises some context and delve a little deeper into my rationale behind them.
Most of the variations I use are done either to make an exercise more joint-friendly or to alter it to where I don't need to use as much weight.
I have meathead coursing through my veins and love lifting hard and pushing myself to my limits. However, as time goes on and I get stronger, I can't tolerate just doing heavy deadlifting, squatting, and benching all the time without my body breaking down.
Consequently, to keep pushing the envelope without hurting myself, I've gravitated towards more unilateral work and advanced bodyweight training. I still focus on getting stronger through progressive overload, but I'm picking exercises that are a bit easier on the joints.
It's been working great for me, but sometimes progression can be a little tricky because a lot of the exercises can be tough to load after a certain point, so I do other stuff to manipulate it to make it harder.
I'll also modify exercises to satisfy equipment needs. Maybe I'll see something I like but don't have the same equipment at my disposal, so I'll think of a way to get a similar training effect using what I've got.
That all being said, I want to be very clear that I built my foundation doing an extremely simple routine and just hammering away at the basics.
I wouldn't recommend going into the gym with the intent to modify things just for the sake of modifying them. The basics work the vast majority of the time, especially for beginners, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
If you run into a problem – like something hurts, you need to make it harder/easier, you don't have the necessary equipment, etc. – then try to come up with a solution to the problem.
If there's no problem, then you don't need a solution.
I've toyed around for a long time and have developed a solid foundation of strength on the basics and a good knowledge of my body, so when something doesn't feel right, I make small changes. Note the emphasis on small.
Whenever I progress an exercise, it's because I've mastered the previous step first. That's very important. It's never really a big jump, just more of a natural progression.
Plus, I like to add in some variety from time to time to spice things up and keep it fun.
I'll share an example to make my rambling more concrete. Here's an exercise I've done from time to time to work my legs. For lack of a better name, I'll call it deficit skaters squats using "1.5" reps.
If I saw someone do this exercise without any context, I'd probably think it looked pretty silly, so let me explain why I do them.
As mentioned, I used to squat religiously at the start of every lower body workout. I focused a lot on developing good technique and always pushed myself very hard. See the video below.
I loved it and saw good results, but as I started getting stronger and squatting over twice my bodyweight, I could no longer justify doing them so heavy, given my history of serious back issues.
To me that's just common sense. If you've got a bad back and continue to load it with hundreds of pounds week in and week out, you're going to be in for a world of hurt sooner or later. I've learned the hard way many times that when you try to fight your body, it always wins.
With that in mind, to continue to work my legs without loading my spine as much, I switched to more single-leg work, including skater squats. I started doing them standing on the floor, but when that became easy, I stood on a small aerobic step to increase the range of motion and make it harder. When that became easy, I started adding weight until I was wearing multiple weighted vests, chains, and whatever else I could find to weigh me down.
It's extremely uncomfortable to load up that much and it takes forever, so after a couple bouts of slogging through that I decided to add in the "1.5 reps (do one full rep, come halfway up, go back down again, and come all the way up. That's one rep.) to make it harder so I don't need as much additional load.
So that's how that one came about. I don't do them that often, but it's a tool in the proverbial toolbox.
Still though, while I do sprinkle in some weird exercises here and there, the vast majority of my lifting is actually very simple.
If you're going to stray from the basics, make sure you already know them intimately well first, and make sure you have a good justification for what you're doing.
3. Learn From Everyone, But Understand Where They're Coming From
It always bugs me when I see people criticizing the methods of very successful people. At the end of the day, results talk, so any time I look at someone who's achieved success in a given arena – even if their goals are different than mine – I try to see what I can learn from them to make myself better rather than try to poke holes in their methods.
That's certainly not to say I always agree with everything every successful person does, but at this stage of my life, I think it behooves me to keep my mouth shut and just try to learn as much as I can and keep things positive. The last thing this world needs is another hater and critic. Or another movie in the Twilight saga. We've already got more than enough of those.
When I hear new ideas, I try to look at them through the lens of the person sharing them because that a) gives the ideas context and allows me to appreciate where the ideas are coming from, and b) lets me examine how (or if) I can apply those ideas to my own situation. Not everything will apply, but that's okay.
I've taken bits and pieces from sports performance training, bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, gymnastics, yoga, physical therapy, you name it. It's all good in my book, or at least parts of it are. Focus on the good and ignore the stuff that doesn't pertain to you.
It's amazing what you learn when you keep an open mind.
4. Read, Read, Read
I'm an avid reader. I really enjoy it, which is a bonus, but even if you don't, it's important to do it anyway.
Earl Nightingale is quoted as saying that "one hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years. Within five years you'll be a national authority. In seven years you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do."
I don't completely agree with this notion because I think there's a lot to be said for real-world experience that only comes from putting your time in, but at the very least, it gives credence to the adage that "knowledge is power," which I certainly believe to be true.
If you're an up and coming strength coach or trainer, an hour a day of reading is a good goal to shoot for. I usually end up reading more than that, but I'll admit to being somewhat of a nerd.
If you have a different job though and just train as a hobby, an hour a day is definitely overkill, but I'd say two hours a week is reasonable.
The more varied your reading, the better. Don't just stick to what you know or what you're best at, and don't just read things that reaffirm what you already think. Read different authors from different backgrounds – even if it goes against your current beliefs – and read with the intent to learn, not nitpick. You'll almost never agree with everything an author says. Who cares? If I come away with a few (or even one) useful tips, I'm happy.
Here are six good books that I've read recently that I highly recommend:
- Advances in Functional Training by Mike Boyle
- Never Let Go by Dan John
- Easy Strength by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline
- 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler
- Ultimate Speed and Agility by Jim Kielbaso
- Warrior Cardio by Martin Rooney
Anything you recommend? I'm always looking for new reading material and would appreciate any suggestions you might have in the Live Spill below.
5. Put Knowledge Into Practice
While knowledge is very useful, reading about strength training won't get you strong. You can be smart as hell and weak as piss.
Don't be that guy who skips the gym to banter on internet forums about the optimal training system. Any training system is better than sitting at home.
To see results you've got to put that knowledge into practice in the gym by busting your ass hard week in and week out for a long time.
In the quotation I shared in the previous point, Nightingale talks about one hour of "study" a day being the magic number to fast-track your success. I'm pretty sure he was talking about "study" as reading, but I'd argue that for gym rats, training counts as study, too. I know I've learned far more about training from just banging away at the weights than I have from any book, though both are important.
I've already suggested two hours a week of reading, so if we're to follow Nightingale's recommendation of an hour a day of study, that leaves five hours a week to train. I think that's a good goal, too. How you break those five hours up is up to you, but I personally think 3-5 days a week is best. That might mean three longer workouts, four average workouts, or five shorter workouts. Your call, but take at least one day off (more on this below).
Five hours isn't a hard-fast rule. For some that may be a little too much, while others may be able to tolerate more, so use that as a starting point and adjust accordingly.
If you spent two hours a week reading credible sources and getting smarter and another five hours a week getting after it in the gym and stick to that recipe diligently for a couple years, I think you'd be very happy with your results. It won't happen overnight, but what separates the mediocre from the good and the good from the great is hard work and consistency over time. Remember that.
6. Off Means Off
Just like no means no, off means off.
When I first started lifting I was so eager to get bigger and stronger that I never took days off from training. Like, ever.
I once lifted for over 50 days straight. I was worried that if I took time off I'd shrivel up and lose all the progress I'd made. It didn't matter what was going on or how I felt, I lifted, come hell or high water. I went to a 24-hour gym so if I had plans during the day, I'd wake up as early as 3:30 A.M. to get my lift in, often times pushing through sickness and/or injury.
That led to more sickness and injury. Go figure.
Over time I've grown to embrace time off, and my off days have gotten progressively more "off." I used to think of an off day as doing some high-rep work and maybe some low intensity cardio. Then it became foaming rolling, stretching, etc. Now I pee sitting down.
I take at least two days off every week, and every ten weeks or so I take a week completely off from anything gym-related. Once or twice a year I'll take around two weeks completely off. For me, those breaks are as much mental as they are physical, and I always come back with a rekindled fervor to kick some ass.
Learn to embrace time away and realize that in the big picture, it's bringing you closer to your goals.
7. Success Leaves Clues, But...
Tony Robbins says, "If you want to be successful, find someone that has achieved the results you want and copy what they do." Great advice, and I've tried to do this both as a coach and as a lifter. I've been extremely fortunate to have great mentors, and I can't overstate just how helpful that's been.
Here's the thing though: when you look to mentors for guidance, don't focus on what they're currently doing, focus on how they got there.
Many successful coaches will often talk about how they're trying to live a more balanced life, sleep more, and other things of that nature. That makes sense once you're already successful, but if you look closer at how these guys became successful, they usually did so by being unbalanced, working "too hard," and not sleeping that much.
That's the part I focus on. I hope to be in a position someday where I'm compelled to become more balanced, but for now, I'll just keep my nose to the grindstone and keep chuggin' away.
Same goes for training. Find someone who's achieved the kinds of things in the gym that you hope to one day achieve. Study them closely and observe how they train, how they eat, how they rest, how they conduct themselves, everything. If they'll let you, follow them around.
Then ask them how they got to where they are. Most of the time, it's drastically different. Following an advanced lifter's program before you're ready will slow your gains more than it'll accelerate them.
Be patient, and pay attention to the process, not just the result. Once you do that, the results tend to take care of themselves.
I have a lot more thoughts running through my mind, but I'll cut it there for now. Maybe I'll come back to it later and finish my original 27 thoughts, hopefully before I turn 28. Most likely though, the original list of 27 will continue to grow longer as I keep growing.
I guess one of the cool parts of being young is that I have a lot of years ahead of me to keep working at it and trying to get better.
Hopefully some of my tips help you to get better, too.