Success in the gym, as with most things in life, comes down to mastering the basics. With that in mind, here are 6 exercise tips, weightlifting basics, and training essentials that nobody wants to believe, but everyone should follow.
Take these ideas to heart and you’ll reap major benefits. While most people waste time debating the endless stream of supplements, “new” workout programs, and diet plans, all you really have to do is focus on these simple concepts and you’ll see results.
1. Commit for the long-term.
Most people workout with a short-term goal in mind. I like looking at health in a different way…
- The goal is not to lose 40 pounds in the next 12 weeks. The goal is to regain your health for the rest of your life.
- The goal is not to bench press 300 pounds. The goal is to be the guy who never misses a workout.
- The goal is not to sacrifice everything to get your fastest time in next month’s race. The goal is to be faster next year than you are today. And faster two years from now than you will be next year.
- Ignore the short-term results. If you commit to the long-term process, the results will come anyway.
Furthermore, stop acting like living a healthy life is a big deal. You can go to the gym every week. That can be “normal” for you. Not a sacrifice. Not an obligation. Normal. What’s funny is that when you commit to being consistent over the long-term, you end up seeing remarkable results in the short-term. That’s the power of average speed.
2. Set a schedule for your training.
Most people never train consistently because they are always wondering when they are going to train next.
They are always wondering…
- “Will I be motivated to workout when I get home from work?”
- “Will I have enough free time to exercise today?”
- “Will I have enough willpower to wake up early and run?”
In other words, most people train when they feel motivated or inspired. Here’s a better idea: stop treating exercise as something to do when it’s convenient and start setting a schedule for yourself to follow. This is what makes the difference between professionals and amateurs.
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For example, I train every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6pm. I don’t have to think about when I’m going to train. I don’t sit around and wonder which days I’ll feel motivated to lift. I don’t hope that I’ll have some extra time to workout today. Instead, I put it on the schedule and then organize my life and responsibilities around it (just like you would organize your day around your class or your meeting or your kid’s baseball game).
Setting a schedule for your training becomes even more important when life gets crazy. There will always be occasional emergencies that prevent you from working out. It’s part of life. The problem is that most people miss one workout and before they know it, they haven’t been to the gym in 4 weeks.
But when you have a schedule for your training, you have a way of pulling yourself back on track as quickly as possible.
Top performers make mistakes just like everyone else. The difference is that they get back on track quicker than most. Miss your workout on Friday because you were traveling for work? Guess what? Your next training session is already scheduled for Monday at 6pm. I’ll see you there.
Let your schedule govern your actions, not your level of motivation.
3. Focus on the best exercises.
Great results come from great focus, not great variety.
Too many people waste time in the gym because they bounce around without any real goal, doing a little bit of this machine and a little bit of that machine. Thankfully, there is a simple rule that will always guide you toward the best exercises: the more an exercise makes you move, the bigger the benefits it will deliver.
This is why the clean and jerk and the snatch are the kingpins of weightlifting. They are the exercises that force your body to move the most (and the quickest). As a result, the people who do these exercises see incredible results.
Here’s a short list of the best exercises. In my opinion, at least one of the first five exercises should be included in every workout.
- Bench Press
- Clean and Jerk
- Overhead Press
- Good Mornings
4. Start light and train for volume before intensity.
Ask most people if they had a good workout and they’ll say things like, “Oh yeah, it was so intense.” Or, “I’m going to be so sore tomorrow.” Or, “I finished my workout by doing a set to failure.”
It’s great to push yourself, but the biggest mistake that most people make is not building a foundation of strength. Everyone wants to jump in and max out with a weight that is “hard.” That’s exactly the wrong way to do it. Your workouts should be easy in the beginning. (See: How to Start Working Out.)
Training to failure is a good way to wear yourself down, not build yourself up. You should have reps left in you at the end of your workout (and at the end of each set). Take point #5 (below) to heart and your workouts will get hard enough, fast enough. Trust me. The phrase that I like to keep in mind is “train for volume before intensity.” In other words, I want to build the capacity to do the work before I start testing my limits.
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Just to be clear: volume doesn’t have to mean “do sets of 20 reps.” (I rarely do more than 10 reps in a single set.) Instead, I like to think of volume over a period of weeks and months.
For example, right now I’m doing a 5×5 squat program (5 sets of 5 squats). I started light. The first week, I lifted with a weight that was very easy for me. Then, I slowly added 5 pounds each week. For weeks, it was still easy. Eventually, when I built up to a weight that was heavy, I had the capacity to handle it because I had already done dozens (if not hundreds) of sets over the previous weeks and months. Focusing on volume now allows you to handle the intensity later on.
5. Make SLOW progress each week.
Most people walk into the gym every week, do the same exercises with the same amount of weight, and wonder why they aren’t getting stronger. You’ll see people step onto the same treadmill, run two miles like they always do, and wonder why they aren’t losing weight.
Here’s a little story that explains the problem and the solution…
Imagine that you are in a quiet room and someone turns on a loud and noisy fan. At first, it’s obvious and irritating. But if you are forced to stay in the room long enough, the fan starts to become part of the background noise. In other words, your body registers the sound at first, but eventually it realizes “Oh, this is the new normal for this environment.”
Your body adapts and the noise fades away. Something similar happens when you exercise.
When you start to train, it’s like turning on the fan. Something new is happening in the environment, and your body registers the change by getting stronger and leaner. But after a few workouts, your body realizes “this is the new normal.” Your body finds a way to adapt to this new environment, just like it did with the noisy fan. As a result, you stop getting stronger and stop losing weight.
What got you here won’t get you there. If you want to see different results, you have to do something different. If you want to see progress each week, then you have to progress each week.
This is actually very simple to do. Add 5 pounds each week. Add an extra set this week. Do the same exercise, but rest for 15 seconds less between sets. These are all ways of changing the stimulus and forcing your body to slowly and methodically get better.
6. Record your workouts.
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What gets measured, gets managed. If you can’t even tell me how many sets and reps you did with a particular weight two weeks ago, how can you guarantee that you’re actually getting stronger?
Tracking your progress is simple: get a small notebook and write down your workouts. (I use a little black moleskin notebook that I bought at a bookstore.)
At the top of the page, write the date of your workout. Then, simply write down the exercise you are doing. When you finish a set, record it in your notebook while you’re waiting to do the next one.
Recording your training is especially important because it brings all of these points together.
You can look back and see how you’re making long-term progress (point #1). You can see on which dates you trained and how often you were on schedule (point #2). You can verify that you did the best exercises each workout (point #3). You can see how you are slowly building up volume and developing a foundation of strength (point #4). And you can prove that you’re making slow, methodical progress each week (point #5).
What You Should Do Now
Your could spend your entire life mastering these six points, but these are the basics that will make a real difference in your training.
Here are your action steps:
- Set a schedule. When and where, exactly, are you going to train?
- Get a notebook and pen to record your training.
- Focus on the best exercises that make you move a lot.
- Start with a weight that is very light and train for volume before intensity.
- Slowly increase the weight each week.
- Happy lifting.
A version of this post appeared on James Clear’s website, where he writes about habits, behavioral psychology, and performance improvement.