How many times have you thought to yourself: ‘if only I knew *insert thing here* when I started out in the gym, I wonder how *insert goal here* I would be now’? Probably a few times right?
Don’t worry about it. Everyone has made these gym mistakes.
We all went though ‘bro’ phase at least once, some people for longer than others and some still are yet to see the light!
I know I certainly did.
When I say ‘bro phase’ I mean relying largely on the fitness mags, anecdotes and gym lore for nutrition advice.
For training, you just copy what the big dudes do in the gym to try and then you’ll get huge like them.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If I could go back in time to that moment – 12 years ago – when I stepped into the gym for the first time as a fresh-faced student here are the top 10 things I wish knew:
1. Nobody Cares How Much Weight I Lift
Displaying a strong level of paranoia, most beginners, myself included, assume that everyone must be looking at them when they start training.
I mean those more experienced trainers couldn’t possibly be focused on their own workout, could they? Nope, they must be far more interested in what the beginners are doing and how much they are lifting…
Rather than be seen as an outsider, my newbie logic says that I must try and impress and be accepted.Nobody cares how much weight you lift! Click To Tweet
I’ll grab these weights that are far too heavy for me, throw them about a little (little being the keyword here as they’re far too heavy to do a full rep) then continue doing the same for most of my work out because in all honesty, I don’t have clue what I’m doing.
When you look back on it, it seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? Why did we think big weights meant acceptance but more importantly, why did we care?
It’s not just us, ego lifting is rife in most gyms.
If I could speak to my beginner-self I would stress that ‘form over weight’ is key!
I’d emphasise that if I can’t do a full range of motion for a given exercise because the weight is too heavy then dropping to a lighter weight is better than looking like a chump doing partials.
I’d also tell myself to stop being so cocky to think that everyone was watching me anyway.
In reality I was just another bloke in to lift some weights.
2. I`m Not A Pro Bodybuilder So I Shouldn’t Try & Train Like One
Once I realised that I didn’t have a clue what to do in the gym, I did what most people do and grabbed a copy of a fitness magazine to find a training programme.
I was spoiled for choice: Joe Blog’s 6 Week Back Attack, 8 Weeks To Massive Legs, The Freaky Size Workout, Hardcore Special Blood & Guts Workout….If you're not a pro bodybuilder, don't try and train like one! Click To Tweet
Flawed logic kicked in again. If that professional ‘super-supplement’ assisted bodybuilder trains like that, then all I needed to do to get huge was do what he does.
I started following various workouts consisting of stupidly high volume and using overly specific isolation exercises. I would go to failure on every set and trained at a frequency that just wasn’t appropriate for a natural, beginner lifter.
If only I had known that performing 40-70 reps per muscle group/per session was the sweet spot. Why did someone not tell me that the majority of my lifts should in the 6-12 rep range?
I didn’t know that training a muscle group 2 to 3 times per week was what the science suggests.
If only I had known this then I wonder how different (or marginally bigger) I’d look now?
3. I Don’t Need A Protein Shake Instantly After A Workout
Internet forums told me that you needed a protein shake within your “anabolic window”. Apparently this is around 30 minutes after a workout. The buff dudes at the gym said the sooner the better. I mean I didn’t want to miss that opportunity to grow. Why would you want a good workout to go to waste?
Lots of folks chug down protein shakes in the changing room so it must be the next rung on the ladder to achieving a great physique?
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know that research in the JISSN suggests that you’ve got much longer than the “45 minute anabolic window” that’s often touted by the fitness mags and gym dudes to eat some protein.You don't need a protein shake instantly after a workout! Click To Tweet
Consuming a shake instantly after a workout isn’t going to be any more beneficial than doing so within around 3 hours. I could have relaxed, had a shower, gone home then simply had a 25g+ serving of protein at a convenient time after exercise.
It didn’t even need to be a shake. A high quality source like chicken, fish, beef or dairy in your meal after exercise is just as good. [What is the best protein powder for beginners? Read this.]
4. I Don’t Need To Try And Spike My Insulin Either
Following-on from the last point, I was necking a protein shake after every workout on my quest to build muscle.
All was going swimmingly until someone said that I needed to spike my insulin (I didn’t even know what that meant at the time) using simple carbohydrates in my protein shake. I could do this by adding powder like maltodextrin or dextrose to my protein or by scoffing down handfuls of sweets too.
Apparently I needed these simple sugars to transport the protein into my muscle cells. At the time, that seemed legit.You don't need to try and 'spike your insulin' after a workout. Click To Tweet
Consuming 20-40g of protein, on its own as a shake, or as part of a mixed meal can do the job just fine.
The bottom line is that there’s no need to try ‘spike insulin’ by adding carbohydrate.
5. More Volume & Time In The Gym Doesn’t Mean More Gains
If a teaspoon is good, then a bucketful must be better. I applied the same logic to training. Working out once per day was effective then going in twice per day must be doubly so. If doing 3 sets of 3 different chest exercises was good, then surely 6 sets of 6 different chest exercises would be better…More volume & time in the gym doesn't mean more gains! Click To Tweet
Yet again my approach was skewed due to my lack of understanding surrounding volume. Too much volume not only doesn’t further increase muscle growth but it can have the opposite effective and even hinder progress! A systematic review (a study of other studies) published in Sports Medicine showed that around 40-70 repetitions per muscle group per session is the sweet spot.
For example, if you’re training chest then picking 2-3 exercises and doing 6-12 repetitions for 3 sets each would be ideal. No need to try and attack it from every possible angle using barbells, dumbbells, cables and the kitchen sink.
6. Feeling Sore Is Not An Indicator Of A Good Workout
A no-pain-no-gain mentality coupled with copious memes about the ‘feeling after leg day’ made me think that I wasn’t growing unless I was suffering.
Having DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) after each workout was the high that my gym buddies and I would all chase.Feeling sore is not an indicator of a good workout. Click To Tweet
When I was starting out, I didn’t know that DOMS is caused by connective tissue and muscle damage. This causes inflammation, hence the discomfort. It is most likely experienced after a new training stimulus (a change to exercises or volume). Not simply after a ‘hardcore workout’.
What’s more, some muscle trauma is necessary if muscle gain is the goal. DOMS isn’t the only measure of muscle damage nor does it indicate muscle growth or signify how effective a workout was.
7. Most Supplements Are A Waste Of Time
Nothing says ‘bodybuilder in the making’ like a gym bag filled with pills, powders and potions.
Once again, I fell victim to the flashy advertisements in the magazines. I bought all the supplements the stacked dudes on the cover said was the key to their shredded physiques.
I was sold!
Unfortunately, I didn’t know that there is hardly any evidence that shows glutamine is effective for building muscle.
Not only that but there are numerous studies which show arginine does not actually improve training performance.
I obviously didn’t know that if you consume sufficient protein that BCAAs are unlikely to make much difference.
Glutamine is useless too!
Now these are just a couple of examples, the list could go on. Unfortunately, there are very few supplements that actually have the evidence to support their use (creatine is pretty good though, more on that here). Most are a complete waste of time. Legendary sports nutritionist – Ron Maughan – once said:
If it works, it’s probably banned or dangerous, and if it’s not dangerous, it probably doesn’t work. Click To Tweet
If it works, it’s probably banned or dangerous, and if it’s not dangerous, it probably doesn’t work.
8. Preventing Injury Is Easier Than Recovering From Injury
Yoga and Pilates, no thanks. Take a de-load week so I don’t risk overtraining? You’re joking right, I can’t take time out, don’t you know that I need to be in the gym to grow?
^ the kind of naivety displayed by me and many others when starting out. We rarely think about injury until we’re actually injured.
Had I known the benefits of yoga and Pilates, stretching and active recovery then I’d likely have skipped the various back, shoulder and hip injuries that I’ve sustained in the gym. I’d probably avoided periods of fatigue which hampered my training too!
If I could start-over then I would follow the advice detailed in the strength and conditioning journals. I would take a de-load week (lifting about 60% of my usual weight in the gym) around every 6 weeks. I’d also plan a yoga or Pilates class at least once per week. Even if it meant I’d have to do one less resistance training workout.
9. Good Form Is Better Than Partials No Matter How Good The Pump Is
Whilst going super-heavy may look cool, doing partial reps isn’t.
When I was earning my gym-wings, I didn’t know that a full range of motion (ROM) with less weight was going to be much more effective than using more weight but with a shorter ROM.Good form is better than partials no matter how good the pump is. Click To Tweet
The science is there to support this too. A study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research got one group of volunteers to do their leg training only using 0 to 50 degrees while the other group had a much larger ROM and trained from 0 to 90 degrees. Guess which group was stronger and experienced most muscle growth after 12 weeks?
Another study looking at arm strength found the same – a full range of motion is superior.
10. Consistency Of Effort Is Greater Than Intensity Of Effort
It doesn’t matter how world class, optimal, research-based, badass or amazing a training plan is if you can’t stick to it.
When I was a beginner I went through phases of training all the time. I’d hardly ever take a rest day and as a result I would get injured or feel burned out. I’d take the forced rest then I would do it all again.
I wish someone told me that:It’s better to be consistently good, and not occasionally perfect. Click To Tweet
This is certainly true when it comes to nutrition (I tell my clients this all the time) but it also applies to training.
Newbies or people returning to exercise after a long layoff love to go full throttle (fair play to their enthusiasm) but it is often short-lived.
Rather than committing to an unrealistic exercise programme that involves you being in the gym five times per week, planning three sessions to start with is probably going to be more sustainable in the long run. Eric Helms says training should follow the REF principle: Realistic, Enjoyable & Flexible. I couldn’t agree more!
Takehome & Infographic
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There we have it folks. The 10 things I wished I knew when I started lifting.
This entire article can be summarised in the sexy little infographic below which you’re more than welcome to share on your social media pages or your own website.