There are things we can all look back and say we did wrong. Call it the power of hindsight. The beauty of consulting a strength coach or personal trainer is not only are they qualified, but they’ve hopefully been through more training experience and have had more sets and reps of hindsight. I know I have and I can honestly say I would have saved multiple years to get to where I am now if I’d known what I know now.
Here are 7 things I’d go back and tell beginner Azad.
1) Row as much as you press.
It’s inevitable to say most gym rats when they go in know about three moves. The bench press, bicep curls and an incline bench press. Without even knowing, I found myself for the whole of two years blasting out angles on the chest press and pec decs to failure – leaving my shoulders in agony.
My main tip to all beginners would be to superset all presses with rows. If you do three variations of chest press, do the same for rows. If you’re isolating quads, then isolate hamstrings too. You get the idea.
Two words come to mind, proportion and balance. Two words I’ve hijacked from the bodybuilding world and they are very important terms. 5 years down the line with your pain-free shoulders, you’ll thank me.
2) Fat isn’t muscle
From experience, I can say that we carry way more fat on us than we’d like to believe. I hope this image can show you what I mean. My ‘lean’ weight was 73-75kg. On the left was me at 83kg – still with visible abs under good lighting. At the time, even I was in denial. I was posting and keeping notes that I had gained muscle size in 8 weeks and this had gone against all science. I didn’t. That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to getting 4-5kg above lean weight (especially in strength terms). It also helped me a lot through winter.
But just remember you haven’t come up with a new system because fat isn’t muscle.
Muscle is expensive to make and expensive to sustain. Your body will not make muscle unless it has a really good reason to. This is why it takes a severe exercise stimulus to cause muscle growth. Not just one severe stimulus though. Years of stimulus applied with progressive resistance (it will probably equate to hundreds of chest sessions before you can get it to the shape which you’ve grown fond of through magazines).
Similarly for people who have been working out and are trying to get lean (reduce their body fat percentage), don’t expect to see an 80kg lean machine underneath the fat. Unless you’ve been working out for around a decade it just isn’t going to happen. Of course this is a very broad generalisation. Don’t be disappointed and assume you’ve lost size as your clothes get loose, so long as you weren’t doing anything extreme, you’ve just lost fat and thought you had more muscle than you did.
I see it on almost a daily basis.
3) Be patient
Really this is an extension of the second point. Patience is something that we don’t seem to have as a #fitfam. We want to read the next article on bodybuilding.com and incorporate something today to accelerate our results. Whatever happened to being content with our choices and sticking to something.
We are sold the idea that you can get your dream body or pretty damn close within 12 weeks and it is simply not the case. Things take time and your fitness journey should be a long-term lifestyle, not a quick fix.
Muscle and strength take long to build. Eating a lot and going in ruthlessly will get you so far. Eventually you’ll need a more measured and smart approach. I’ve been working out now for 6-7 years and I may look short of what people’s expectations might be in their first year of training! But that’s fine with me. Similarly for people who have been overweight for 25 years of their lives, you won’t be getting slim and lean in 25 days. Be prepared to put in hours in the gym, hours in the kitchen and hours resting properly (where progress is made).
Put your trust in a coach (ideally someone who is educated and not just flexing) and then be patient. Besides stress and cortisol will only get you further from your results.
These are my results after 7 years in a gym.
4) Stick to the basics and do nothing much more
My first few years of training I did absolutely every exercise I thought of and saw others doing. The more years I’ve been training the shorter the list of exercise I pick from. My current routine which I will post below may leave you surprised. It’s very simplistic. It’s the basics. It’s what works and nothing much more.
The mistake we all make is trying to isolate every single muscle when we’re newbies. With all due respect (and I speak to my beginner self when saying this too), there’s no muscle to isolate. Beginners to lifting should work the compounds and not really much more. Accessories and isolation movements should come on in later on in my humble opinion.
So let’s break things down, that means exercises like squats, lunges, deadlifts, shrugs, rows, overhead presses, chin-ups, sprinting, bench press and some kind of conditioning work like tyre flipping, sled/car pushing or farmers walks. These are multi joint movements and give you the best return on your investment.
Isolation movements will be the leg extensions, bicep curls, leg curls, wrist curls, dumbbell flys and moves which are more associated with bodybuilding and ‘shaping’. I won’t say these exercises don’t have a place in anybody’s routine, they are a must for lifters to work on weak points. But their role is very overrated for beginners. I’d say use the 80:20 rule. Spend 80% of your time on the compounds and just the remaining 20% on the easy stuff.
5) Quit listening to the bodybuilders and pick up a scientific book
I’m going to keep this one simple and sweet. The physique anybody has shouldn’t be their call to give people advice or information. Me having a 6-pack and a lean build doesn’t make me qualified to give anybody information or plans, my education does.
When it comes to fitness and bodybuilding, the deeper I get into it the more I see cowboys. At the very least if you’re getting plans or advice from someone who is claiming to be a trainer or a coach then you need to see a level 3 personal trainer certification. Someone with an added degree is more beneficial. What you shouldn’t be doing is listening to somebody who is unqualified and only has his/her physique because of some successful cycles of performance enhancing drugs.
A completely different set of rules apply to people enhancing with drugs as compared to natural lifters. I’m guessing you’re natural if you’re reading this, if you’re after some legit help you can pick up a sports nutrition book or weight training book written by academics for fairly cheap at your local book store or library and you won’t need to worry about agendas or bro-science. Real science only.
Alternatively you can look up people like Omar Isuf, Elliot Hulse, Chad Wesley Smith or Greg Nuckols (YouTube). Some people who offer amazing informative content which is generally science-backed.
6) Train to stimulate, not annihilate
I once read that the word ‘workout’ doesn’t exist in the Russian language. They call their sessions ‘practice’. Completely in line with the whole strength is a skill philosophy – it must be practiced.
I will say that for some time it’s fine to do really tough workouts and smashing muscles from all angles just to get used to some stimulation and feel soreness, but it shouldn’t really be a long-term thing. Strength training should be smart. Keep in mind I’m talking about people interested in increasing their strength and muscle mass long-term through progressive overload.
Get into the gym, train whatever you’re training but focus on progressive overload. If you did 100kg for 3 sets of 5 on the squats last week then it’s time to do 3 sets of 6 or to increase the weight to 102.5kg. This is progressive overload. Giving your muscle and nervous system a reason to build up stronger and bigger. Get the job done and leave the gym, practice the movements and leave the gym, then leave it to rest. Don’t half heartedly do squats and then compensate by doing tons of extra movements like leg press, leg curl, leg extension, leg bounce and pounce. If you find yourself doing this then try a minimalist training approach.
7) Whole foods are always the king
An Extra one…every plan works until you plateau
The truth is everything works. Bring me a severely obese person and you can get the same results with weights as you can with simple walking. Everything works! To a certain extent though. Whether you do zumba, bhangra, kettlebells or John Smiths new state of the art arm routine, everything works (providing it is new stimulus for you).
The reason I mentioned this is that I was always confused. Should I do high reps, low reps, middle range reps, a mix of all? The truth is they all work. They will all be stimulus which will cause some adaptation and then you will stop getting adaptation from it (you will become used to it). It’s then time to switch things up.
The mark of a great trainer or someone who if informed is that they can always keep plateaus at bay by switching things up as need be. I’ve seen many cases of people getting fast weight loss on some ridiculous and unsustainable running routine with super low calories, then once they hit a plateau they can be there for months. In this situation the approach needs to be changed.
Stick to something for around 6-8 weeks solid, then it’s time for some change (a week off, a routine change, different goals etc.). This keeps things fresh and keeps the progress coming. Don’t be scared of adjustment, it’s very much a part of what should be done.