Nearly everyone I know started their gym career with a membership and a pair of wide eyes… And very little else. This is the way of things. Heading to a gym, feeling shit-scared and not really having a clue what you’re doing, being surrounded by angry-looking dudes twice your size, so green you flinch at the sound of clanking iron… Well, it’s a rite of passage, isn’t it?
I’m not hating on anyone who just stepped into a gym this week. This isn’t about looking down, it’s about helping up. I made mistakes early in my training life, and the more I look around, the more I see a lot of these same mistakes being played out again and again by the next generation of gym-goers just like I was. Below are a few of these common errors, and the things you can do to avoid them.
Okay, I’m going to start with why fasted cardio is ridiculous, then I’m going to talk about a better way to spend your time, regardless of your goals.
When you do any extended cardiorespiratory exercise, you put your body in a place where it’s going to prioritise fuel over muscle, which means burning muscle to use for energy, It’s unlikely you want this. Even if you’re not keen on getting muscular, less muscle will slow your metabolism, which will make you more inclined to store fat.
Now, what do I think you should do instead? I think you should lift weights. No, scratch that. I know you should lift weights. If you want to lose body fat, you should prioritise lifting weights because it encourages fat-burning long after your session is done. If you want to build strength, lift weights. If you want to build muscle, lift weights. If you want to improve athletic performance, lift weights. If you want to live longer, lift weights. If you want better quality of life as you age, lift weights. If you want to burn off that cheeseburger you ate last night, lift weights. If you want to reduce stress, lift weights. If you want to improve your sleep, lift weights. If you want to reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and all-cause mortality… Yeah. Lift weights.
You don’t have to go too heavy too quickly. Focus on your form, and strength will follow. No-one ever got bigger than they wanted by accident. Just keep lifting until you’ve achieved the size you desire, then look at a maintenance program. Putting on muscle takes time, big guy. Be patient, and don’t fear getting “too big.” You’ll be okay.
FOCUS ON SUPPLEMENTARY LIFTS
I’m not saying you shouldn’t throw some curls, some skull-crushers or some quad-extensions into your program, but let’s be clear about what’s going to get you your results. Everything I named above is a supplementary lift. They exist to either sculpt the body of someone who’s training at an elite level, or to improve performance at the major lifts. So if you do a few hammy curls you might even see the benefit in your deadlift, but the deadlift’s the move that’s going to get you across the board results. A couple of skull-crushers might help with tricep activation and bump up your numbers slightly on the bench, but it’ll be the bigger numbers on the bench that’ll change the shape of your arms and chest.
Squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press. Master these four before you start worrying about how much you can curl. Build up muscle throughout the body, and make sure you’re producing enough testosterone for those curls to be worth the time and effort once you eventually do them.
I’ve written a billion programs for a billion gym newbies. After we’ve had a session going through exactly what each exercise is, how to do it, and why they’re doing it, they trot off excitedly and get started. The programs always got written the same way. We would sit down and discuss at length what they wanted to achieve, their timeframe, their limitations, and then I’d go away and construct a tailor made program to their requirements.
A week later I’d walk into the gym, and they’d be there engaged in an activity that not only wasn’t on their program, but is completely unrelated to their goals.
“What are you doing?” I’d ask.
“Oh, I don’t know what it’s called,” they’d reply, “but I’m standing on this ball with one leg, trying to push this other ball over my head without falling off.”
“Mmm, I don’t know what it’s called either. Why are you doing it?”
“I saw someone else doing it.”
Now my mother always had a response to this particular comeback. She’d ask me, “And if everyone was jumping off Tower Bridge, would you do it too?”
As an adult I realise that the logical answer to this question is “No, because jumping off Tower Bridge seems to be more immediately detrimental to my health than standing on this ball and trying to push another ball over my head.” However, for the first time I really began to understand the state of mind that might have prompted my mother to ask me this question in the first place.
If you’re reading this, and you’re a gym newbie, I’m not accusing you of doing this, I’m just telling you right now why you shouldn’t. You have no idea what the person you saw doing that exercise was training for. You have no idea if their goals were anything like yours. You have no idea what their personal philosophy was when it came to reaching their goals, and you actually have no proof that they weren’t just an escaped mental patient who enjoys playing with brightly coloured balls.
A better course of action if you see someone doing an exercise that interests you is to ask someone about it. A trained professional. If they’re not sufficiently eloquent to answer your question, ask another, better, trained professional.
Gym memberships are like cars. Owning one doesn’t mean you necessarily have the skill set or knowhow to get where you want to go. The difference is that most buyers understand that about cars, and work to acquire the skill set before they ever try a road trip to Brisbane.
Most commercial gyms, however, just love to tell you that all you need is their membership card in your pocket and everything else will fall into place. They’re pretty convincing, too.
If you’re new to the gym you’re going to see a small change in the beginning no matter what you do. This, unfortunately, mostly only perpetuates the idea that you don’t need any sort of expertise. Pretty soon though, and long before you get to your goal, these results will diminish, and then stop altogether. Most newbies blame themselves at this point. They think they’re not working hard enough. Maybe they need to do more repetitions of standing on the ball pushing the other ball over their head. Eventually they find themselves having to do such a high volume of work to see such a small result that they conclude they’re not really cut out for this and their membership card gets relegated to the back of their wallet along with their membership card for the Thundercats fan club.
The problem is that everyone’s solution is working harder, when a lot of time they’re putting in sufficient sweat, just not in the right places. Educate yourself and work smarter. You can engage the services of a professional, or you can read voraciously on the subject. In the beginning it will appear like there is a lot of contradictory information out there, often coming from the same sources, and that’s because there is. But you will develop an ear for what’s good and what’s bullshit. I’ll let you in on a little secret, I’ve never met a trainer yet who didn’t love to talk about exercise. The best thing you can do is have a reputable coach program your way to your goals for you, but at the very least you could ask a good coach a few questions and listen to the answers.
LISTENING TO EVERYONE
Fitness is like politics and parenting, everyone’s got an opinion, and no-one really needs much fact or information before they’re willing to hold court like an expert. This means that the absolute worst thing a gym newbie can do is listen to anything anyone says to them when they mention they’ve just got a gym membership. Even in the event there is some good advice in there somewhere, it’s going to be indistinguishable from the sea of absolute crap spouted by the majority of “experts,” because it’ll all get delivered in the same, one-hundred-percent self-assured tone.
I think this is a great time for a scaling system. If the information is coming from a qualified research scientist and coach (yes, there are people who wear both of these hats), it’s probably pretty much ten out of ten information. The only risk you sometimes run here is that research scientists can get bogged down in theory as opposed to the application of it. An experienced coach with a background in successful, evidence-based training might range from an eight to a ten. A less experienced coach or newly qualified professional is a grey area, depending on where they got their qualification and how seriously they take their new vocation, you might be getting anywhere between three and eight-level information. The average newspaper’s health section is a two or a three. A specialist magazine will be slightly better, maybe a four or a five, but the information will be inconsistent because magazines still just report findings, it’s not their place to stick to one consistent ethos. Some I’ve read would be only a two at best. Your mum, your dad, your grandmother, your co-worker who lost ten kilos on some TV trainer’s program? They’re a two. Anyone who has a cigarette in their hand or mouth as they talk to you, and anyone who’s either still very overweight or talking to you at the gym when they could be training is a one.
Choose wisely who you listen to, and learn to spot expertise designed to inflate the ego of the dispenser as quickly as possible.
Avoid these pitfalls and the road to your goals is going to be a lot quicker.
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