Strength training can be intimidating - there's no question about it. Heck, just going to the gym can be intimidating. And the idea of training with real weights (barbells and dumbbells) and mingling with all of the big, jacked, backwards-hat, bro-tank wearing, gallon of water carrying, yelling-on-the-last-three-reps-so-everyone-knows-they're-lifting-something-heavy guys can be... off-putting.
And that's ok. It's natural to be hesitant to try something new, especially if that new thing is done in a social setting like a gym. Add to that the lack of strength training knowledge that a new gym goer has to deal with and the hesitancy can quickly snowball into fear paralysis.
With that in mind, here are 10 things (well, the first 5) I wish I knew before I started strength training on my own.
(And as always, none of the information provided here should be considered medical advice. It is for informational/entertainment purposes only. Always consult your doctor for medical advice or before starting a new exercise or nutrition program)
1) Your performance capacity can vary significantly from day to day based on MANY factors.
So you went in and squatted 135 lb for three sets of five reps on Monday. You go back in on Wednesday and 130 lb now feels like 160 lb and you can barely complete a single set of five reps. What happened? Are you getting WEAKER?!
Hold on. Don't panic just yet.
Here's the thing: your gym performance isn't isolated from the rest of your life. All of these things will play a part in your day-to-day performance capacity under the bar:
Work stress Some studies indicate that our body doesn't necessarily react differently to different kinds of stress (physical, emotional, relationship, work, etc) in terms of decreased mental or physical performance. Sure there are different adaptations driven by different kinds of stress (physical stress can drive increased physical performance in the future, but emotional stress probably won't), but as far as your acute, here-and-now mental and physical performance capacity goes, mental and physical stress appear to behave cumulatively (mental stress also affects physical performance and physical stress also affects mental performance) rather than exhibit isolated mental or physical effects. In other words, if you're super stressed out at work, it will likely carry over to the gym and probably every other part of your life. If you're in the middle of a big work project, you're likely under a significant amount of pressure and that creates stress that your body has to deal with. If your body is dealing with stress, if has fewer resources to devote to making sure you are performing at your highest capacity in any activity - mental or physical - far less making improvements.
Training stress If you recently pushed yourself to your physical performance limits in the gym, there will be a period of time following that in which you are unable to repeat that level of performance. If a set of five 135 lb squats was near your limit that day and you did three sets, your body needs time to both recover from and adapt to that stress. If you recently trained very hard, you may still be experiencing decreased performance from that training stress - it doesn't mean you got weaker overall. Conversely, just because you lifted more weight for the same reps and sets as you lifted a lighter weight for last time, it doesn't necessarily mean you got stronger. You may have been training with more overall stress last time than you have right now, so the lighter weight was actually more difficult last time than the heavier weight was this time. Relative difficulty has to be considered to determine absolute strength gains.
Relationship stress Same story here. If you've got relationship problems at home, you will likely suffer the consequences in the gym too. Keep your relationships on the up and up, and your lifts will keep heading that direction too.
General health It sucks to lift when you're sick. Stay healthy. Eat right. Sleep. Take vitamins if you feel better when you do versus when you don't. Take care of yourself and your workouts will take care of you too.
Diet If you haven't eaten anything all day and you decide to lift at 6pm after work, it might not go so well. Strength training is hard work. It is an anaerobic activity and depends on energy that has already been processed and stored for quick access. If you haven't given your body adequate fuel to prep for your strength training session, don't be surprised when that empty stomach of yours steals weight off the bar and reps from your sets.
Sleep It would be difficult to overstate the importance of sleep. Sleep is when your body recovers, adapts, and gets stronger. It doesn't happen when you're doing the work and lifting the weight. Think of it like this: doing the exercise is like investing your money in the stock market. How much PRODUCTIVE work you do (short of overtraining based on your current level of conditioning and work capacity) is similar to how much money you invest. How much good quality sleep you get on a regular basis is similar to the quality of stocks your money is invested in. Getting good sleep is like investing in Amazon, Google, and Apple*. You'll get good, quality, dependable returns from good sleep just like you would (likely) get from those stocks. If you get poor quality or very little sleep (invest in poor stocks) then your strength gains (return on investment) go down the drain. (*This should go without saying, but this is not financial or investing advice)
Mental state/attitude If you've got a poor attitude for any reason or just don't want to be at the gym that day, your training will probably be less productive than it could be. Get your head right before you get to the gym. Remember WHY you are doing it. Remind yourself that each training session is an investment in yourself and your long-term quality of life.
2) Diet and sleep play an ENORMOUS part in training progress – possibly even more than the specifics of your physical training (movement selection, reps, sets, training frequency, etc).
As mentioned, sleep is absolutely key to capitalizing on the training investments you make at the gym. Sleep is where recovery and adaptations occur, not when your busting out those last few reps in the gym. Exercise is the investment and sleep determines the quality of that investment and the return on investment that you receive.
But diet also plays a huge part in strength development. Think of diet as the amount of money in the overall market. If no one is spending money (you don't feed your body with adequate amounts of, specifically protein, but also carbs, fats, and overall calories) then there is nothing to really be gained from your investment. If there's too much money in the market (you eat way too much or eat junk instead of healthy, useful foods) that's not good either and leads all kinds of other market (strength improvement) problems.
You need to give your body what it needs, but not so much extra that you just get fat and unhealthy. Check out this free PDF for more information and general nutrition recommendations.
(Side Note: This certainly isn't intended to be an economics lesson, but hopefully you understand the parallels we are trying to convey here.)
3) The best way to stay stuck and not make progress is to push yourself to the absolute max every single training session.
But "no pain, no gain," right?! Wrong. Again, progress doesn't happen when you push yourself way past your limits too often. Progress happens when you apply the right amount of stress to your body, take in the right ingredients through your diet to fuel an adaptation, and sleep enough to both repair the muscle damage and also allow your body to adapt and get stronger.
If you are constantly pushing your body to its limits, your body will be constantly trying to just keep up with repairs and won't have enough resources left to drive the adaptation that is needed for you to actually get stronger. That doesn't mean you don't need to work hard and push yourself - because you definitely do - but you need to be smart and intentional about it. Hard days need to be balanced out with intentional easy days to allow your body to realize the training investment you've made and capitalize on it in the form of increased performance capacity.
4) Your technique doesn’t need to be “perfect” when you start – or at any point.
"Perfect" technique isn't really THAT important for a few different reasons. The first is simple: it's better to train with less-than-perfect technique than to not train at all and become obese, develop heart disease, and die at an early age. I would rather you do quarter squats or half squats than no squats.
Another reason that technique isn't as important as some people will tell you is that "perfect" technique for a given exercise depends on your specific goals. Are you trying to squat as much weight as possible for a single repetition at a powerlifting meet or are you trying to become a better sprinter? Full, below parallel squats would be more conducive to increasing your 1-rep max for a powerlifting meet, but half-squats or even quarter-squats more directly resemble the joint angles during a sprint than a below-parallel squat. So which technique is really "perfect" for you? It depends.
Maybe your range of motion is limited by pain or an injury. Does that mean doing half-squats is pointless just because you can't go below-parallel? No! Absolutely not. Do what you can and improve from there.
5) Big, compound movements (squats, bench press, deadlifts, overhead press, cleans, and snatches) are the most efficient and effective use of your time in the gym for general strength purposes.
Ok, before every roid-raged body builder jumps all over this, let me emphasize that this statement applies for GENERAL STRENGTH PURPOSES. Here's why.
Body parts don't work in isolation in most sports or in common everyday activities. I challenge you to find a common activity that involves only your bicep and nothing else. Your body functions much more similarly to large, compound movements.
Lifting up a box at home looks a lot like a deadlift, which involves the hamstrings, quads, glutes, forearms, traps, etc along the entire posterior chain. If you get your butt kicked in a fight (or fall down ice skating on your first date with that girl you've been going after for two years) pushing yourself off the ground looks a lot like a pushup or bench press which works your triceps, chest, and shoulders. You're not likely to run into a real-life situation where your work on the pec deck machine helps you out any more than pushups and bench presses do. Training your body in the same way it is designed to perform (several muscle groups working together versus in isolation) just makes more sense from a general strength training perspective.
Compound movements also have the benefit of saving you time in the gym. Instead of having to spend tons of time doing sets of hamstring curls, back extensions, grip work, shrugs, and leg extensions, you can just do deadlifts because all of the same muscles (and more) are worked in the deadlift.
Alright this is getting to be a long post, so let's break it up a little bit. Check back soon for items 6-10!