Here's what you need to know...
- Unsuccessful lifters seek out pain. Just because something hurts or causes discomfort doesn't mean it's working.
- They spend too much time agonizing over minor things. Don't worry about the best time of day to train or how long a workout should last; it's just not that important.
- They ascribe too much importance to single workouts. What matters is your average intensity over time.
- They don't document and monitor their training. Prior success leaves clues, but you won't recognize those clues unless you keep records.
- They push too hard too early in a workout block. They quickly accumulate so much fatigue that it ruins the later stages of the training cycle.
Bad Habits Are a Blessing?
Whenever you're trying to be more successful at a particular endeavor, you could (and should) examine the common habits of successful performers in that endeavor. Success leaves a trail, right?
But an even better tactic is to study the common habits of unsuccessful performers, then simply do the opposite. Here are the most common habits of weak or struggling lifters. If you see yourself in any of these habits, consider it a blessing, because it means there are things you can do to improve your training.
1 – They Ignore Pain or They Seek Out Pain
This habit is a tricky one to avoid, because it's based on at least a kernel of truth: Resistance training requires the application of physical stress to your body, and that means getting out of your comfort zone.
Now there are two related issues at hand here. The first is that there's a fine line between discomfort and pain. The former is an essential requirement of effective training, and the latter must be avoided at all costs.
The second point is that, "No pain, no gain" aside, not all discomfort is productive. Just because something hurts or is very difficult doesn't mean it's leading you toward your goals.
A good example of this is the various forms of "unstable" training, such as performing overhead presses while standing on a BOSU balance trainer. Sure, it's super difficult, but if you did this same exercise while standing on a stable surface (the floor), you'd be able to use significantly more weight, which would be a much more effective adaptive stimulus for the target muscles.
Understand that discomfort is associated with, but not causative of, effective training, in much the same way that tallness is associated with, but not caused by, playing basketball.
Focus on progress, not pain. If your numbers are moving forward, it's a sure sign that your training is on track, whether it hurts a lot or not.
2 – They Major In Minors
An exercise physiologist friend of mine says that when it comes to fitness and nutrition, "We're swimming in a sea of information, but drowning in ignorance."
When it comes to training, there are a vast number of variables that might contribute to our overall results, and many lifters have a very difficult time distinguishing between the important and the not-so-important factors that lead to good training outcomes.
People get into heated debates about the best time of the day to train, how long a workout should last, whether or not you should train to failure, and the relative value of split versus whole-body routines, just to mention a few. Now it's not that those topics have no importance, it's just that in the bigger scheme of things, they're not really that pivotal.
It's important to apply the 80-20 rule. About 80% of the effects come from roughly 20% of the causes, and you need to identify the 20% that lead to the vast majority of outputs. Learning this may not solve all of your training problems, but it may help you avoid some unnecessary angst.
Now, it's totally fine to geek out on the minutiae of training, but don't allow such over-analysis to become a source of stress or poor decision making.
Being comfortable with uncertainty is an essential tool as you navigate the learning curve. I've been practicing, studying, and teaching resistance training for a long time now, and I'm not certain about everything.
If you feel the same way, good! It's a sign that you haven't fallen prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes the cognitive bias where people of low ability overestimate their competency.
3 – They Place Intensity Over Consistency
Intensity has its place. In fact, it's an absolute requirement of effective training, especially as you become more experienced. Problems arise, however, when people allow intensity to interfere with consistency.
Much like proper nutrition, smart training is best viewed from the 40,000 foot perspective. Imagine if someone said to you, "Dude, last Tuesday I ate perfectly. No processed foods at all, I hit my macros and my meal timing was perfect. I was 100 percent dialed in!" To which you'd probably think, okay cool, but what about the rest of the week? Why so much emphasis on a single day?
Training is like that too. No single workout, no matter how hard you crushed it, is all that meaningful. Instead, what matters is your average intensity over long time periods, not how hard a single workout might have been.
Whenever an athlete tells me he's on the way to the gym but he's super tired, I always remind him that even a half-assed workout is far superior to a skipped workout. It's the difference between making slight progress and backsliding.
It's critical to set realistic goals at the outset. T Nation contributor Bret Contreras often says, "Out of every three workouts, one is fantastic, another is just 'meh', and the third totally blows." This is especially true as you become more and more experienced.
Job number one is consistency, regardless of whether you like to train three days a week, four days a week, or whatever. Your job is to hit those numbers without fail. Then work as hard as you can within that foundational framework.
If missing a workout is simply unavoidable (and it sometimes is), just combine the missed workout with the next scheduled session, but with only half of the planned work sets. While not ideal, this strategy is a fantastic damage control tactic when life gets in the way of training.
4 – They Fail To Track And Monitor Their Training
When something is important to people, they track and monitor it. Think income and expenses, blood pressure, and scholastic grades and you'll get the picture.
If you care about the results of your training, you simply must document and monitor not only your training, but also the results of those efforts. In other words, input and output, cause and effect.
A while back, while looking through my training records for clues about why my deadlift had stalled, I noticed a trend. During the weeks leading up to good deadlift performances, I'd been doing very heavy back extensions. And during periods leading up to crappy pulling sessions, I'd been doing no back extensions. My success had left clues, but I would've never noticed if I hadn't been keeping records.
Not keeping a training journal is the most obvious sign of a novice lifter. Don't be that guy.
There are plenty of good tracking apps available, and rumor has it that notebooks and pens are still available.
5 – They Push Too Hard, Too Fast
Most experienced lifters train in 4-6 week "blocks" or cycles where you repeat a weekly routine several weeks in a row, with the goal of bettering your numbers each week. If you're already doing this, congrats, it's a good sign of lifting competency.
But let's make sure you're not making the common mistake of pushing way too hard on the first day of week one. This practice is unproductive because it's unnecessary and it limits further additional progress.
Always training to failure is unnecessary. Assuming that you're starting your next training block with a new batch of exercises or different loading parameters, the novelty of the new training variables alone will be an effective form of adaptive stress.
It's simple. Whenever you've been away from a specific exercise or intensity bracket for a while, your body will be "re-sensitized" to it when you reintroduce it into your program.
Additionally, if you start a new training cycle by going 100 percent balls-out, you'll quickly accumulate so much fatigue that you won't be able to "out-run" it later in the cycle.
It's like trying to smash through a sturdy locked door – you wouldn't just lean up against the door and start pushing. Instead, you'd take a few steps back and run into that door from distance, which allows you to gain momentum. Think of your training progressions like this.
If you're starting a new 4-week training cycle, take your working sets to about a 7 on the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, meaning 3 reps from failure. On week two, use an 8 RPE or 2 reps from failure. Then on week three, a 9-10 RPE.
On week 4, you'll perform a deload to dissipate accumulated fatigue by dropping the number of work sets you did in week three by 50-70% (and possibly drop the RPE's to 7-8 as well) and then start a new training cycle, with updated exercise menus, and repeat the process.