the joy of strength training


November 3rd, 2009 at 8:54 pm

Are you having a training experience?

I live in Newquay, the surf capital of the UK. Every year thousands of people come down to Newquay on holiday, wanting to learn to surf. Surfing looks really cool, the clothes are funky, surfers are hot and everyone wants a piece of the lifestyle for a few days.

A typical surf lesson lasts 2 hours. In that time, people go from never having touched a surfboard before to standing up in a wobbly sort of way in two-foot deep white water ‘riding’ a wave.

Now don’t get me wrong, this is way cool. I know, I’ve been there. Managing to get to your feet on a surfboard while being propelled along by a tiny white wave is the biggest stoke!

My first surf lesson, spring 2007

My first surf lesson, spring 2007

But it is about as close to real surfing as London Zoo is to the Serengeti. Getting even to the point of being able to paddle out beyond the white water, catch a real wave before it breaks and actually ride the thing can take years to master properly.

The majority of people will never get past the wobbling-in-the-white-water stage. They will go in the water a few times over the course of the weekend or week they are on holiday. They will have a whale of a time and then they will go home. The next time they come down, they won’t have had a chance to build on what they learned in their first lesson so they will basically be at the same stage they were before.

They haven’t been surfing, they’ve had a ‘surfing experience’.

This is analogous to the majority of people’s attempts at training. Typically someone will go to the gym for a few weeks with a not very clearly defined goal in mind (“lose a bit of weight”, “get fit”), they will perform a bog standard programme given to them by a fitness instructor and after a few weeks they’ll get too busy or lose motivation or get distracted by something shiny and they’ll stop going.

Will they see any changes? Yes, of course! If you go from doing nothing to going to the gym a couple of times a week, even if doing the most basic perfunctory things, you are likely to see some changes. This is very exciting, like your first experience of ‘surf stoke’. But really all you are doing is learning how to hold a surf board the right way up and clamber onto it without immediately falling off again. It’s fun, but it’s hardly the stuff of legend.

People in this situation aren’t training, they are having a ‘training experience’, which gives them a taster of what real training might actually be like.

It’s a great feeling of achievement – but really you’ve only just dipped your toe into the water of what you can achieve if you pursue training properly.

A typical surfing experience

A typical surfing experience

So what is it to pursue training ‘properly’?

This goes beyond simply teaching you what training feels like, getting used to the equipment and so on. It goes beyond those first few exciting results when you need relatively little effort to achieve relatively significant changes – although the effort may feel big because you are not used to it.

Training properly means working towards a clearly defined goal in a sensible and systematic way. That doesn’t mean it needs to be complicated but there has to be some logic from session to session that works towards the goal.

Consistency of effort and prioritisation are very important. What you do outside the training session (eating, recovery etc) becomes almost as important as what you do within the training session.

You also need to push yourself and regularly move out of your comfort zone. Sometimes you may have to step back to fix a problem – progress isn’t always linear.

That said, the big picture must show progress.  Things need to change over a period of time and stay like that. The biggest mistake made by most people is that through the wide angle lens, nothing much changes. Training periods are like holidays; in between times, all the progress is lost and they must start over again.

Training modalities

Something similar happens when you change training modalities. If you go from a typical hypertrophy gym programme to a boot camp-style, high intensity group training session, you will be blown away. It will almost kill you but you will be so stoked you can’t wait to come back for more!

Again, not to take anything away from this experience, it is great fun and very motivating. But after that initial euphoria wears off, where will you be? I have seen people at boot camps simply coast along at a level where they are reasonably comfortable. The training stopped working months ago but they feel good so why do anything about it?

They are turning up for the ‘experience’, the social side, the feeling that they are doing something useful with their evening. But they are still just messing about in the white water.

When you do something new, you appear to make lots of progress in a short space of time and it is natural to be stoked by the experience. But this is a taster, it’s not what training looks like over a consistent period. I’m not saying you can’t have fun (in a way) every time you train but it’s useful to recognise when you are going for the training ‘experience’ and when you are simply training.

Constant excitement, constant buzz can lead to false expectations. In real training there are long periods where nothing much seems to be happening and you have to keep faith with yourself. Sometimes you might feel that you are going backwards.

But you need to keep in mind the big picture. Have a goal, do sensible things to try to meet it and be consistent. Try not to dabble in a plethora of new experiences in search of a new workout ‘high’. Work hard, eat right and then as Dan John often says good things are going to happen.

Stumble it! Share Subscribe to this blog
  • 1

    Awesome post, very well said.

    More people need to read this ASAP.

    Niel on November 4th, 2009
  • 2

    That sounds good, but I must assert I’m happy without a specific goal toward which I work. Rather, I push myself hard during my workouts, which, presumably because I am sensible about the particular exercises I do and how I do them, seems to result in getting stronger. The process is enjoyable, and the resulting strength and presumed improved health is a bonus for the effort.

    BTW, great photo of the moment you transcended surfing with a board and reached oneness with the ocean!

    Steven on November 4th, 2009
  • 3

    I think the thing to take away from this post is that you need to keep mixing up your training, once you get settled into a rhythm for a while it ceases to be productive. Good post.


    Fitness instructor on November 4th, 2009
  • 4

    Stumbled onto your blog. Great stuff. I liked a lot of the links too . Got me motivated to pursuing creating my own blog on Maintaining weight loss by getting addicted to sport and a good diet. I lost around 60Kg in 11 months and I am now 1 year into maintaining it which has been a great ride. Never thought I would be this addicted to just doing sport at the age of 36.I have had a problem working in the last 2 years and would spend more time just doing sport everyday and not billing enough hours ) . Been spending 12-15 hours a week now.

    I think its all worth it though and hopefully one day I can make a living through something sport\health related and not solving damn computer problems
    I am looking forward to leaving the rat race one day soon if its at all possible..

    Keep up the blog.

    Charles on November 8th, 2009
  • 5

    @ Cheers Niel!

    @ Steven: that photo even makes me laugh (usually I hate photos of myself)

    @ BB: interesting take. That wasn’t quite what I had in mind with this post, but nothing wrong with mixing things up *if* the underlying effort and theme is consistent. Don’t mix things up for the sake of it.

    @ Charles: hey, great story and well done on your progress so far! If you want to leave the rat race, leave the rat race. There’s never a perfect time for such a thing, so might as well start living your future now. You can do it!

    gubernatrix on November 8th, 2009
  • 6

    I went water skiing once. It was quite a training ‘experience’. I realized that having a strong grip can be a liability when you don’t know when to let go. Hmm, that’s a pretty good quote. Thanks for the inspiration Gube!

    Boris on November 9th, 2009
  • 7

    “In real training there are long periods where nothing much seems to be happening and you have to keep faith with yourself. Sometimes you might feel that you are going backwards.

    But you need to keep in mind the big picture. Have a goal, do sensible things to try to meet it and be consistent.”

    I don’t care if my boss is watching I’m putting this up right now!!!

    Nice one Ms M!

    fizzYcaL FITNESS on November 10th, 2009
  • 8

    Great article….although I am not sure about the opening statement….Surfing is the biggest stoke!!

    Snowboarding is where its at…..champagne pow…tunes playing in the ‘phones….the silence of the snow filled glades, if you choose to leave the ipod at base [that may be interrupted by a brief ‘WOO HOO’ usually yelled by an idiot on a split board!!]

    Seriously…..good article….enjoy the surf


    glasshouse_bc on December 2nd, 2009
  • 9

    I’ve never been snowboarding 🙁 One day…

    gubernatrix on December 2nd, 2009
  • 10

    […] Are you having a training experience? […]

    Too many goals? | Hard Sweat on March 26th, 2010
  • 11

    […] Are you having a training experience? […]


RSS feed for comments on this post | TrackBack URI