Our team is always trying to think of ways to create helpful and inspiring content for a variety of different people. We like to think about the guy who’s never stepped foot in the gym, and provide basic, rudimentary material, while also speaking to our long-time reader who’s in the gym or working out three, four, or five+ days per week. A guaranteed no-fail: a lessons-learned piece. (After coming off of a SLAP tear repair—a torn labrum in the shoulder—I’ve personally spent plenty of time pondering my 12+ years of heavy lifting, circuits, intervals, CrossFit, surfing, and whatever else in between). Here are the 10 lessons learned, so hopefully you won’t have to.
1. Rest is more important than you think
Beating yourself into the ground is not a form of exercise. If you’re trying to build muscle and/or burn fat, hitting the gym day in and day out eventually catches up with you. And both beginners and advanced guys can fall into this trap. The beginner isn’t content with progress, so the more-is-better philosophy kicks in. While the advanced athlete might know the value of a good night of sleep and days off, sometimes the drive to keep pushing takes over. Either way, overtraining leads to injury and incredibly horrible irritability. Listen to the body, take days off, and get more sleep.
2. You're better off going lighter
Brute strength is definitely impressive, and it does have its benefits, but is it worth the risk? You’re not going to give much of a sh*t about how much you can bench after you blow your shoulder with an impingement, or how much you can deadlift from the floor after a slipped disc. And you won’t be worth a damn in your sport of choice either. Stanford University must be onto something, as their football player injury rate dropped 87% with training director Shannon Turley shifting focus away from heavy lifting to flexibility and balance.
3. Watch your grip
When you read about proper lifting form, one of the most important lifts to pay close attention to is the bench press. Ever get strange feelings in your shoulders after a “chest” day? Wonder why? It's quite possible that you're going at it with too wide of a grip, or you're flaring your elbows out. (I personally was developing my shoulders, but also ripped them up.) So if you’re hittin’ the bench, tuck the elbows a bit and position your hands inside shoulder width.
4. Always control the weight
It’s not just “meatheads” who throw around weights. All of us have an inner-maniac that comes out when lifting or working out. It’s the natural feel-good endorphins and serotonin boost that provide that sense of well-being, slight euphoria, and even a level of aggressiveness. But when it comes to lifting and training, it’s a wise move to be conscious of your own body’s reaction to exercise and how much you can actually nudge it to push the envelope. Anyone can jerk, yank, or toss an extra 10, 15, 20+ pounds. But the risk-reward isn’t worth it. Control the weight and feel the movement.
5. Vary your intensity
Hitting the gym with all you’ve got, especially to failure, is a great, but doing it day in and day out will catch up to you at some point. There’s a limit to everything—and that includes the body. If you’re continuously training to failure, no matter how much you eat, sleep, and reduce stress, it’s just not sustainable. For longevity, there should be weeks where you’re not pushing weight and exhausting yourself 100%. (I’ve found it useful scaling back on weight, volume, and intensity to about 80% every 4/6/8 weeks depending on how I’m feeling and performing.) If you’re seeing declines or not feeling as energized, it’s time to scale back.
6. Stay away from the scale
Scratching your head on this one? Thought so. Checking the scale and looking in the mirror can be a dangerous game you play with yourself. For starters, your body weight fluctuates several pounds in a day depending on the food you’ve eaten and how much water you’re retaining. Checking the scale every day, every week is going overboard with obsession. As for the mirror, bodybuilders like to use it as an indicator of what body parts are lagging, but you can expect the same physiological impacts. (From personal experience, as I progressed over the years, checking the scale routinely and using the mirror has led to constant obsession over size, leanness, or both.) There’s nothing wrong with focusing on how you look, but the important thing is feeling good.
7. Only compete with yourself
Physical fitness is an individual sport, hobby, or challenge. Competitions and watching the next guy might give you that adrenaline rush to push further and longer. But for longevity, and a true sense of accomplishment, it comes down to competing with yourself. We all have limits and our bodies know just how far we can go. If you know deep down that you can’t do something, it’s better to progress slowly over time to get there. Mix a type-A personality with endorphins and a high-intensity workout and you’ve got a potential recipe for disaster.
8. Always go in with a plan
Athletes of all levels can easily get stuck when there’s no goal or structure. Without a plan, vision, or goal there’s no defined way to get somewhere, or get back on track if you’re not seeing results. Beginners should always be following some type of programming to hit short-term and long-term goals. And advanced athletes, regardless of experience level, should have battle plans. (I rememeber hitting the gym for several months on end with no idea what I would do that day, I called it instinctual training. For some time it worked very well for me because I was very in tune with my body and what I could and couldn’t do, but after I while, I didn’t know where I stood and what I wanted. That’s when I knew a program needed to be put back in place.)
9. Diversify your workouts
There’s a huge push in the industry around “compound, multi-joint lifts” because they “train the entire body," "engage more muscles at once," etc. (While I completely agree that basic movements, like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press, are your best muscle-builders, wear and tear catches up.) Working with suspension trainers and cables is a great way to strengthen stabilizer muscles while giving the joints a bit of a rest.
10. Remember, only idiots don't warm up
Guilty. Been there before—excited to get a workout in, or not enough patience to properly get the blood flowing. Warmups may be boring, but you’re setting yourself up for disaster if you skip them, especially if you're an athlete who's been in the game for a while.