the joy of strength training

Gubernatrix

January 11th, 2011 at 8:17 pm

How to have an awesome time at the gym

Girl doing a standing barbell press

Hands up if you love the gym!

So it’s the new year and you’ve decided to get back into the gym. But how do you stop this year being like every other year, where you start with loads of enthusiasm which gradually peters out and you end up not getting the results you want?

Is it your programme? Is it the number of sets and reps? Should you be doing 5×5 or 5/3/1 or 1-2-3 or whatever the cool kids are doing this year?

Chances are, your problems have very little to do with how many sets and reps you are doing. While you are contemplating the difference between 2 sets of 10 and 3 sets of 6 or wondering whether ViPRs should be a part of your life, you are missing the big picture.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you actually going to the gym on a regular basis? Have you gone yet this year? How many times?
  • Do you stick to your programme or do you just chop and change whenever it suits you?
  • Do you seek the help of fitness professionals, or do you just post on message boards and do whatever Keyboard Warrior No 1 with his three months of training experience suggests?
  • Are you open to different ideas and approaches or are you drinking the Kool-Aid?

You can answer those questions for yourself, but from a tour of the message boards I can see that hundreds of people are already in danger of heading off in the wrong direction, getting tied up with little details and not making sure that the fundamentals are in place.

Dan John coaching olympic weightlifting

So Dan, should I be doing 3 sets of 10?

Sticking with it

This seems to be the number one problem for you busy professionals. But the key to success in the gym is…actually going. So you need to make some rules for yourself. It’s like saving money: there’s always something to spend money on but if you want to save, you have to be strict with yourself and do the saving first and the spending later.

Find cunning ways to include a gym session in your day, rather than giving up and letting work take over. For example, if you are too tired at the end of the day, go to the gym at the beginning of the day. Find a friend to train with, so that it’s more difficult to back out of a session.

And once you are there, decide on a training programme and then just do it. It always amazes me how people get a perfectly serviceable programme from their local PT but feel the need to punt it all around the internet for random suggestions before they actually get on and do it – or abandon it for whatever the latest T-Nation fad is.

Forum legend ‘MacCharles’ over at Ross Training has some very wise words to say about consistency:

“The guys who bust their ass for the first couple of years and just strive for more and more weight on the bar will go farther than the boys who search for the ultimate in periodization, form and programming efficiency right off the bat.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve been in the same position myself. You can get strong on practically any programme so long as you focus on progression. So don’t worry about whether you have the perfect programme (note: there is no perfect programme), just get your ass down the gym and train.

Choosing the right gym

If you want to do something specific, like a barbell strength programme, make sure you join a gym that actually has barbells and a squat rack. If you want to do kettlebells, choose a gym that has kettlebells. Don’t join any old McGym and then post on internet forums about alternatives to the squat.

It doesn’t matter if your gym is the cheapest gym in the universe and is right next door. Those things don’t make it a good gym. Good gyms have the right equipment for what you want to do and the right people who can help you.

If you are already a gym regular but you are not making progress, now might be a good time to find somewhere else to train. For example, if you want to get stronger but you are already the strongest person in your local gym, find a gym where people stronger than you train. You’ll make more progress and learn more than if you remain the biggest fish in your little pond.

Mark Felix deadlifting at Adlington Barbell Club

Hang out with people who are better than you

If you don’t want to or can’t change gyms, at least pop your head above the parapet every so often to broaden your view of what can be achieved. As Dan John suggests:

“Get out of the comfy confines of your local spa and go see what the best are doing. Go to a clinic. Take a certification course. Find out what is really going on. Get your hands dirty and relearn (or simply learn) the basics.”

It’s not just humbling, it’s motivating!

Personal training

Some gyms will be trying to sell you personal training almost as soon as you walk in the door. But don’t dismiss it out of hand; for some people, personal training is the perfect solution. If you’re not going to do this whole gym thing properly on your own, then you are wasting your money even being a member. So why not spend a bit more on getting someone to help you? It doesn’t have to be forever, it can be something to get you started.

There’s a lot of rubbish talked about personal trainers on the internet (surprise surprise). There are good PTs and not so good PTs, for sure, but I don’t know anyone in real life who has been worse off when they’ve had a trainer or coach.

Not being an idiot

Everyone on the internet loves to rant about idiots at the gym. But how do you avoid – the horror! – inadvertently being one?

Well the first thing to keep in mind is that a lot of people who rant about ‘idiots in the gym’ (IITG) are actually IITG themselves. For some reason, intolerance is deemed to be cool among IITGs. I have heard people moaning about such terrible crimes as “talking”, “texting”, “grunting”, “curling in the squat rack” and “wearing beanies”. Seriously, how is that impinging on your workout?

The really experienced hands rarely moan about other people, generally because they’ve seen it all before a thousand times and have learned how to stay focussed on their own workout.

If you leave your ego at the door, don’t act like you own the place and are generally polite and considerate, you shouldn’t have to worry about infringing gym etiquette. Oh, and put your weights back when you’ve finished with them.

Enjoy it

For many people I speak to, going to the gym is a bit of a chore. People feel they need to do it, but they don’t look forward to it, even if they enjoy it once they are there.

I absolutely love the gym, so in order to have empathy with this feeling I have to think of something else that I don’t like doing but feel I have to do. For me, this is cooking.

I used to find cooking boring and time-consuming but I started doing it every day because I wanted to eat healthily and be able to prepare decent food for other people. So long as I keep my mind fixed on the ultimate goals (stay in shape, be healthy, entertain friends), I find that the cooking itself ain’t so bad. The more I learn about it and the more proficient I become, the more painless the process. It’ll never be my favourite hobby but the better you get at something, the more enjoyable it becomes.

The gym can be the same. You don’t have to love it, but if you have a clear reason for doing it and you keep your mind fixed on the desired outcome, you’ll find the process isn’t half as bad as you thought it was going to be. You’ll build a repertoire of movements, you’ll get stronger, fitter and feel better. You might even come to love the gym one day!

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  • 1

    again agood post Gubes!

    another point is to find something they like doing, not necessarily gym based, some people prefer running or swimming or team sports and just dont like using the gym or weights, well i tell them to find something they like doing rather than that they have to do TTFB/SL5x5 etc.

    Better to sort the diet and find an activity they like and will keep doing rather than what you or I or a PT somewhere will tell to do, but not enjoy it.

    OK we all know fat loss, building strength etc is best got from resistance training plus cv PLUS diet, but if they struggle for motivation to go to the gym, better they do something they like several times a week consistently for a long time, than do the normal big jan/feb push then give up.

    you must have been reading the MH board a bit, all to often you will get people worry about getting the perfect workout and diet before they even go to the gym and end up doing bugger all.

    same as joining a gym first and then trying to do TTFB/SL5x5/SS whatever, and finding out there is no barbells or rack, then trying to modify the programs, sorrys chaps, it just wont work the same.

    thats another one, some one buys an expensive but rubbish home multigym then comes on and asks how to use it, its like well you should have bought a barbell or kettlebell set first bud, sorry!

    tentigers on January 12th, 2011
  • 2

    Hi there

    A couple of points:

    > but I don’t know anyone in real life who has been worse off when they’ve had a trainer or coach.
    A 20 yo PT, certified in *six* weeks (yes, that’s possible today) and advising his client not to squat below parallel (defining it by bottom of thigh of course!) or not to squat at all, because “it’s bad for your kneez” is surely a negative. A clueless gym goer will rely on someone like that and give up in a few months of 0 results, instead of picking up Rippetoe’s ‘Starting Strength’ and making progress for years.

    > such terrible crimes as … “curling in the squat rack”
    Given the tendency of most run-of-the-mill gyms today to focus on cardio equipment at free weights’ expense, curling in a squat rack is a terminal sin! So are partial reps at an artificially high weight accompanied by excessive grunting, as if the said IITG just squatted 400 lbs RAW ;]

    On the topic of message boards, any personal recommendations? I am a fan of StrongLifts’ forum, as well as Rip’s StartingStrength, but tend to avoid BB focused boards for the reasons you described above.

    PS: Your blog is a little gem 🙂

    KaKTy3 on January 12th, 2011
  • 3

    @ KaKTy3: PT training may be sparse but don’t underestimate what you can learn in 6 weeks of intensive work. The big difference I see between people who have done a proper certification and people who have just read a couple of books and looked around on the internet is that the latter have a lot of holes in their knowledge (I know this because I was in exactly the same position myself). PT certs are structured to teach you how to teach others and they cover what you need to know to do this safely and (as they see it) effectively. Have you done a PT cert yourself? Have you ever taught a stranger?

    Also, I don’t see what’s wrong with curling in the squat rack. Who are you or I to dictate what someone else should be doing? So long as no-one hogs the rack and allows others to work in, people should be able to do whatever exercises they like. Turning up your nose at curling in the squat rack is just snobbery.

    I’ll be honest with you, I used to be just this kind of snob when I first got into ‘serious’ lifting. I thought I was the bees knees, I thought I had The Answer when all around me were doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Now several years down the line, older and wiser, I realise that I was a blinkered idiot. I realised that before I could shoot something down, I needed to understand how it came to be in the first place and then assess it for myself. I learned that it was all too easy to reject one doctrine, only to become a proselytiser for another (like all the Rip fans out there who simply won’t listen to anything else). I learned that teaching others is a very different thing from teaching yourself, and you have a duty to at least understand the recommendations from national associations before you decide to junk them.

    I also learned from years of contributing to message boards that people rarely tell the full story when they post online. So enthusiastic amateurs giving advice don’t know everything they need to know (and everything a PT would ask) before diving in and making suggestions.

    Dan John says to keep an open mind, a “beginner’s mind”. He tells a story about how he went to discus camp and was bossed about by some 19 year old who had never come close to achieving what he, Dan John, had achieved in his career. But he shut up and did what he was told because he wanted to have a beginner’s mind, in order to learn.

    If you meet a PT and you instantly decide that they have nothing to teach you, you are unlikely to learn anything.

    I have to keep reminding myself of these things, every time I see or read something that doesn’t accord with my preferences or predilections. I used to think that I would never become a PT, I didn’t see the point. Now I understand how much you can achieve and what you can do for people and I respect the role a good deal more than I did. There are good PTs and bad PTs, just like there are good builders and bad builders, but I’m not going to damn the whole profession because of it.

    Re message boards: they are all pretty much the same. I like Sugden Barbell (strongman site) because everyone there just takes the piss the whole time. If you take yourself too seriously you’ll be ripped apart!

    gubernatrix on January 12th, 2011
  • 4

    @ tentigers: well said! Yes the MH board and others like it are a constant source of inspiration.

    If you are a personal trainer, it’s like you have a guilt switch: people automatically start telling you all the reasons they don’t go to the gym. I got a lot of this over Christmas and new year as I was hanging out with non ‘fitness people’. So it’s partly inspired by them. These people are never going to make the gym the centre of their lives (and neither should they) so it’s about finding something that can work consistently, just as you say.

    gubernatrix on January 12th, 2011
  • 5

    Being annoyed by people using the squat rack for curls can be snobbery, but doesn’t have be. It can be because, in most gyms, there are more barbells than racks. And, while you do need a rack to squat, you don’t need it to curl.

    I suspect that people have problems with PTs because of what they see them doing to their clients. It’s quite possible that people being made to wave 1kg dumbbells around whilst kneeling on a swiss ball would actually perform worse without said supervision, but it’s hard to believe.

    Granted the shitty ones are far, far more memorable (and so what comes to mind is not necessarily representative) than the ones quietly doing a good job, but, at the very least, you can see that the certification doesn’t stop people from doling out questionable advice.

    kalle on January 14th, 2011
  • 6

    Well, if the gym’s busy, the gym’s busy. In a powerlifting gym you will still have to wait for the squat rack or share it!

    To me this simply indicates an underlying issue with many gyms, which is that people don’t get to know each other and don’t work together.

    Personally I’ve always experienced a lot of camaraderie amongst ‘serious lifters’ – we tend to gravitate towards each other and stick together! It’s easier to get on equipment if there’s a bunch of you.

    In my weightlifting club at busy times there’s barely any space and we are often three people to a platform. The only way the club can function is to have people sharing the space and taking turns.

    I guess I should have added this to my list above! Get to know the regulars, find people to share equipment with, build some camaraderie!

    gubernatrix on January 14th, 2011
  • 7

    An athlete I coach told me he had started doing cleans in the gym. I asked him if he knew what he was doing and he said the PT had shown him and checked his form.

    On a visit to the gym I found what he was doing was reverse curls with the curl bar!

    If you have a friend who will train regularly get a squat rack, bench, some adjustable dumbells a good bar and some plates, it might cost you both 18 months gym membership but after that you’re in profit

    Nice blog

    Lee on January 17th, 2011
  • 8

    Personally, I feel you should just go with what works for you. I remember about 5 years ago I joined a gym-cost me £50 a month for almost a year and I must have gone about 4 times-partly because I was lazy, partly because when I went there were too many people fighting over little equipment-and the PT kept trying to get me to do cardio workouts that I wasnt interested in. Bottom line is I invested some money in my own equipment and I havent looked back since-but I’m sure there are many of you out there who prefer to train in company.

    Vince on January 18th, 2011
  • 9

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  • 11

    You have nailed it: its all about compromise and commitment. Compromise with your weekly tasks to get workouts in. Don’t compromise the workouts, commit to them! Can’t get to the Gym or training venue? Its always good to have a plan B: 30 minutes straightforward bodyweights program (avoiding the word simple, so its not misunderstood for easy!).
    I’ve never been too keen in gym & weights in all honesty. Always been a fan of training with bodyweight, which was what attracted me to your youtube videos and now the site. I love kettlebells and weightened vests (just no running on tarmac with it as I believe it can put too much pressure on the joints) + running cross country.
    Particularly interested as you aren’t biased towards weights only, nor do you just post what looks good. You aren’t afraid to show your videos as a beginner in certain areas along side the areas where you are strong. You keep an open mind.
    A lot of people can learn from that mentality and find something in it for both confidence and motivation.
    Great video posts, great blog. Thank you.

    Pedro on February 10th, 2011
  • 12

    Cheers Pedro! Thanks for visiting.

    gubernatrix on February 10th, 2011
  • 13

    It`s important to find something that you like. I go in the gym regularly three times a week. Recently I found a gym with punch bags. I used to train box and karate, and after six or maybe more years I rediscovered my old love. I do the resistant training, but I hit the punch bag as a cardio. Also I walk about 8 miles almost every day. This way I combine, strength training, endurance and some explosive training hitting the punch bag.

    Sinisa Janicijevic on April 18th, 2011
  • 14

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