There have been many times where I was dead-set on being right about things, only to later find out I was wrong.
That’s the beauty of exercise and strength training: continuing to learn and grow. You should never be complacent with what you know. Buy books, read articles, ask around your gym. You can only benefit from this. You can add to what you already have in your arsenal and become a complete package. Here are some things I wish I knew when I started 8 years ago. (Disclaimer: this is mainly directed at beginners, but some of these things may be new to you even if you’ve been lifting for some time)
Just because your numbers are going up doesn’t mean you’re doing the exercise right. I remember hitting plenty of milestones in regards to benching, squatting, and deadlifting. However, I would later find out little things I was doing wrong that could have led to injury. Fixing these minor tweaks made the exercises much harder, but I felt much stronger and safer because of them.
Mobility work is extremely important. After a couple years of lifting, I was at the top of the world. I was bigger, stronger, had more confidence, etc. However, I didn’t realize how tight I was, and how that was restricting much of what I did in the weight room and in my life. If you don’t know much about mobility, do some research. Thoracic spine mobility, shoulder mobility, hip mobility, ankle mobility, the list goes on and on. Look up people like Kelly Starrett, Eric Cressey, Matthew Ibraham, and others. They all have YouTube channels and their attention to detail in regards to range of motion, stability, and mobility are some of the most useful and eye-opening pieces of information you can find.
Never underestimate the power of warming up. I see a lot of people walk into the gym, do a couple of shoulder circles, then jump into their workout. I used to do the same thing. However, once I started adding in dynamic warmups and prehab/mobility exercises before lifting, I noticed a world’s difference. Consider the exercises you’ll be doing that day and work on those areas before you hit the weights.
Compound movements really do trump all. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I used to do the typical back/biceps, chest/triceps, shoulders/traps, legs split (which, depending on your goals, isn’t necessarily a bad thing). However, once I switched over to Push/Pull/Leg splits, I really noticed a change in my body. Cut down the isolation work. Focus on exercises that will truly challenge your strength, stability, and coordination. Pull ups, chin ups, bent over rows, squats, deadlifts, RDLs, overhead presses, bench/incline bench, pushups, dips, cleans, snatches, etc. Those are the exercises that should make up the majority of your workouts. Find ways to make them harder if you’ve already mastered them. Not only will your strength increase, but you’ll look even better.
The best core work you can do (in terms of both safety and results) doesn’t involve crunches and russian twists Just hear me out on this one. I used to do the usual ab exercises — sit ups, crunches, leg raises, russian twists, side bends, etc. While these will all work your abs, they do little to nothing to help your overall core stability. Start using movements that will help you in your other lifts (and they will strengthen and grow your abs as well). These movements refer to anti-extension/flexion, anti-rotation, rotational movements, etc. I’ve been doing these exercises for my core and have noticed my other lifts improve because of them (in addition to being extremely sore the next day): Hanging leg raises, Pallof presses, landmine rotations, woodchops, planks on a stability ball, rollouts (wheel or stability ball), dead bugs, bird dogs, back extensions, dragonfly’s, rotational throws, plank slides with gliders, side planks, farmer carries, overhead carries, L sits, etc. A lot of these can be done on one knee or can be made harder by taking away an arm or leg. Basically, any exercise that challenges your body’s ability to stay stable has a profound effect on your overall strength and still give you that ab soreness that so many people desire (even though that’s not what we’re after..but you know what I’m saying). Another note on this: people tend to think of the “core” as just your abs. But your core is actually all of the structures that support your trunk and limbs. This includes your abdominals, obliques, shoulder joints, hip joints, lower back muscles, etc. By strengthening these areas, you improve your trunk rigidity. When your trunk rigidity increases, it allows more freedom of movement from your limbs. All proximal tightness will improve distal ROM.
Kettlebells are AWESOME I avoided kettlebells for a very long time up until these past few years. Talk about a game-changer. Kettlebells allow you to do some crazy movements that’ll challenge your body in ways that you didn’t think possible. Kettlebell swings are towards the top of my list. Not only are they great for glute strength/power, but it has a carryover effect for teaching proper hip hinge mechanics, and is a great tool to add in for high intensity conditioning. Turkish get ups, windmills, clean and presses, one-armed presses, goblet squats (great for beginners), and many other exercises challenge you in a unique way. If you haven’t tried training with kettlebells, I recommend you start now.
Cardio really, really, really does not have to be a drag I know a lot of people have recently moved away from the long duration treadmill, elliptical, stair-stepper, and biking trend that has dominated the fitness culture for so long. But a lot of people still limit themselves to just that. Circuits and HIIT are truly superior if you want to add in cardio work. Not only is it faster, but it’s way less boring and much more fun and effective. Some ideas of exercises to use for your conditioning: PROWLER PUSHES, kettlebell swings, rower intervals, ball slams (both front and side to side), plyometric work, speed ladders, tire flips, mountain climbers, box jumps, sprints, battle ropes, jump ropes, sled pulls (with a rope, working primarily your back), etc. These will not only leave you gassed but also work your entire body instead of just your legs. The possibilities are endless.
Writing out, or following, a detailed workout program will get you to that next level I can’t tell you how many of my workouts in years past consisted of me walking into the gym and meandering from exercise to exercise. Sure I walked out with a nice pump, but how did I know I actually made any progress. When I follow a pre-written routine, I go into the gym on a mission. I know what I’m going to do, how many times, and how much weight I’ll use. This really drills discipline into you. Some days you come in feeling sluggish, but if you have a routine set up, you know that you must finish what you wrote down. Otherwise, you’d probably cut your workout short. Having a specific goal changes your mindset completely. Tracking your progress keeps you honest and prepared. Looking back on your numbers and seeing them increase is an awesome feeling. Look into programs like 5/3/1, starting strength, PHAT, just to name a few. Or, if you feel competent enough, write up your own. Take progress pictures. Track your numbers. It is essential for success.
Learn your damn anatomy. A lot of things really started clicking for me once I began studying anatomy and physiology. Although it may be boring, once you learn about where each bone is, where your muscles originate and insert, how the contraction process takes place, etc. then you will start viewing lifting in a whole new light. Biomechanics is a big one too. These things can change how you lift and help you pay more attention to your technique. For instance, you know you need to keep your elbows back to target your triceps during dips, but do you know WHY? Did you know that your pec actually inserts onto your humerus (arm bone) therefore when you keep your arms close you’re essentially taking the pec out of [majority of] the movement? Not only will this help you, but it will help if someone ever needs advice or has any “why” questions. Do your muscles flex? Well, no they don’t. Your joints flex and extend. Your muscles contract and relax. Find out the function of each muscle, what muscles contribute to elbow/shoulder/hip/knee extension and flexion, and you’ll learn a lot of new things. Look up websites like getbodysmart.com which have great illustrations of muscle function and placement.
Nutrition and sleep really are as important as people make them out to be. I know, I know. Everyone has heard this by now. But I had to mention it. Just google the benefits of sleep if you don’t know them, but they are substantial. Nutrition..well, I could write an entire essay on that subject alone but you must, and I mean MUST make this a priority over everything else. If you have your nutrition on point, everything else will come with relative ease. Don’t undermine its importance.
Breathing mechanics are important. This is one that I’ve really had to learn to incorporate lately. And I’m not talking about the typical “exhale when exerting/using concentric contractions and inhale during lowering/eccentric contractions. I’m talking about proper breathing and rib alignment. Google or YouTube proper breathing mechanics and setup. 90/90 breathing is a great exercise to use. Most of us here are chest breathers, when in reality we need to be using our diaphragms. This will change the way you do pretty much every exercise.
Film yourself. I’m adding this one a day late because it totally slipped my mind last night. There’s a difference between what you feel like you’re doing and what you’re ACTUALLY doing. The best way to find out the truth is to film yourself from the side. This is such a big help, especially if you’re wondering how your form is. Try to have a friend film you squat or deadlift in slow motion, and watch the video carefully. Look at how you initiate the movement, if/when you start rounding your back, how your head position looks, etc. Or, you can even film yourself doing these exercises in your room with no weight. Although it may sound weird, doing certain exercises with a shirt off will actually show you the muscles themselves moving, and if you do an exercise from a rear view you can see your spinal mechanics at work. It’s really an interesting thing to do and will help you spot any errors and correct your form.