***First, a Quick Fatherhood Update***
Em's had a pretty gnarly cold (her first one) since last Wednesday, so I've been at home with her while Hien's been working weekends/overtime helping open the brand new wing at Stanford Children's Hospital (exciting!). Em for the most part has been a trooper, through oodles of snot and all.
I, on the other hand, have struggled with my patience as I've found myself mentally drained at the end of long days of sucking out snot and cleaning up mucus-filled poops. Nothing in my life has really forced me to stare my flaws in the face as much as parenting has so far, but the positive is it's shown me how much room there is to grow to be the father I want to be. I've also got a great example to follow in Hien, who's been an amazing mom to Em and calming presence for me when I've needed it. I'll try and tackle this topic in another post soon...
Now, to the topic at hand...
There's something very primal about lifting weights. No matter the particular lift you're trying to perform, it's ultimately a battle between your muscles and gravity. Sure, the gym, and weightlifting in particular sometimes get a bad rap as a result of "gym-bro" culture that permeates many big-box gyms today, but at its essence the challenge is a simple one to appreciate: take object X, weighing Y, and see if you can move it from point A to point B.
I've always enjoyed spending time in the gym; for me it's a place of solitude. It's a bit therapeutic in a way; I can forget about everything else I may have on my mind that day, and for just that hour or so, zero in on my workout plan and goals for that session.
Anyone who knows me knows that I like a lot of different sports and have always tried to stay active, dabbling in sports ranging from rowing, to cycling, to running, golf, etc... The one consistent staple through it all has been resistance training, although I've approached it with varying degrees of seriousness over the years.
I thought I'd share a list of "top-10" gym and strength-training-related lessons I've learned over the years as I've gained more perspective and tried a lot of different things. Disclaimer - While I consider myself just slightly more knowledgeable than the average gym-goer, I'm certainly no personal trainer. That being said, it doesn't take a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology or kinesiology to put together a well-structured and effective program that you feel confident in to help you hit your goals, whatever they may be. These are also not meant to be "do it this way or you're wrong" pointers, but rather "these may work for you" tips. Just because something worked for me doesn't mean it will work for you, and vice versa. Finding fulfillment and self-improvement through fitness takes a lot of trial and error!
1) Know your "why": A lot of people hit the gym or are more broadly into fitness because they want to look and feel good, which is great! When you look good, you feel good, and when you feel good, that confidence can have fantastic ripple effects through all facets of your life.
My "why" originates from my childhood, as I was bullied a lot from elementary school through early high school. When you see pics of me from that time it's not hard to see why.
If you have a copy of Webster's Dictionary from the early 90's stashed away anywhere, dust it off, look up "nerd", and I'm pretty sure you'll see a picture of my face. I was a tall, gangly, socially awkward kid who dressed like I'd time-traveled from the 70s. To make matters worse, I was "that kid" in class who always eagerly raised his hand -- practically levitating out of my chair -- to answer each and every question the teacher asked. Looking back on it, I made myself a ridiculously easy target. My classmates let me know how they felt, ridiculing me, shoving me on the playground, and excluding me from playground games. It's the searing memories from these childhood experiences that built up a massive and heavy chip on my shoulder, a constant feeling that I had to prove I was "good enough" or "better than _____". In my mind, building my body up and getting in shape as I reached adolescence and adulthood created a sort of "armor" for me when my self-confidence in other areas was lacking. Being in shape and taking care of my body gave me the confidence I needed to help me achieve my other life goals, so for me strength-training (and sports more broadly) has really been a means to an end and not the end itself.
No doubt childhood experiences like mine are quite common, and serve as the "why" for many people, but the "why" can really be anything, so long as it's rooted in something important to you. A "why" of wanting to have washboard abs to show off at the beach is great, and if that's enough to fuel your workout program then more power to you, but for the average person that's probably not enough to consistently get them to endure months of workouts at the gym. A higher-purpose "why" of wanting to be in good health so you can run around with your kids is an example of one that may be more meaningful and more likely to result in the behaviors and actions necessary to succeed.
On that note, it's probably time for me to update my "why" to something with a bit more positive association... work in progress!
2) EVERYONE starts from square one: Common comments I've heard over the years from people are along the lines of "I want to get in shape but don't know where to start", or "I don't want to look weak/stupid in the gym". "Gymtimidation" is a real thing people, particularly as you move closer to the free weights or barbell areas within a gym. Seeing gym bros and juiced-up meatheads wearing stringer tanks certainly doesn't create a welcoming vibe, so the hurdle is understandable.
Don't let gymtimidation scare you though! If you have a buddy who hits the gym regularly then have he/she show you the ropes. Having a reliable workout partner is a great motivator and accountability tool. The only caution I'd throw out there is that you want to make sure that you're both practicing safe lifts with proper technique. More on that later...
Personal trainers can be a great first step as well. While I was lucky to have coaching in high school/college and haven't used a personal trainer myself, hiring a good/qualified personal trainer for a few sessions can be a great way to learn enough to get you started on a beginner program. Provided you have the internal motivation (see above point on 'know your why'), you can then shed the trainer and further develop/tweak your program as you gain experience and confidence.
3) Set realistic goals: I think when a lot of people (guys especially) start lifting weights, they have this end-goal image in their minds of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron or Leonidas from "300". While there's nothing wrong with aiming high, those just aren't realistic goals for the majority of the population. What any one individual can physically achieve really boils down to three things:
While it's great to have a long-term aspirational goal that you're working towards, whether it be losing 20 pounds, or getting down to 10% body fat, it's helpful (and a lot more fun) to set yourself frequent, intermittent goals as well. Monthly, weekly, or even per-workout goals are great to help get you looking forward to and focused on each and every workout. I'll cover a couple examples of different workout programs later on that are well-suited for this.
4) K.I.S.S.: Yes, keep it simple. Reverse-grip cable rhomboid crunches, decline single-arm EZ-bar skull crushers, overhead quadricep double-leg lateral raises... Have you heard of any of these? Neither have I....and that's because I made them up (and they make totally no sense), although they don't sound that far off from some actual exercises that you'd read about in a fitness magazine. Another key cause of "gymtimidation" is that newbies sometimes just feel like they don't know where to start. With weightlifting encyclopedias and magazines like Muscle & Fitness featuring hundreds of pages of different exercises showing you "63 explosive ways to build bigger biceps", where the heck does one begin?
My theory is that there's an inverse correlation between the length of the name of an exercise and its usefulness. Case in point:
I've focused my current workout regiment on the squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift. I won't go into much detail on any of these exercises specifically as there are thousands of videos on youtube that can show you how to perform them correctly, but suffice it to say these lifts form the foundation of any credible resistance-training program. I've added barbell rows, weighted pull-ups, and weighted dips as secondary compound exercises that I focus on, mainly cuz I just like 'em. I do a handful of isolation exercises (single-muscle exercises, e.g. bicep curls) in each workout, but always save them for the end so that if I'm short on time I can cut them out with no harm done. If you focused on nothing but the seven exercises I mentioned, you'd probably get 98% of the way there.
At it's simplest, muscle growth is an adaptive response to stress. If you do a few sets of really heavy squats, for example, and hit failure on your last set, your body is receiving signals that your legs need to get stronger, and it's during your rest and recovery days that the growth happens. Compound lifts are basically a way for you to activate many muscles in your body to send that signal to your brain at once. Compound lifts are also much more functional -- if you think about it, how often in day to day life do you ever need to bicep curl anything? A beer perhaps... Compare that to how often you need to lift things off the ground (a.k.a. deadlift).
So the next time you see a magazine article touting "8 new exercises to blast your pecs", skip it.
5) Less is more (and respect your limits!): In my younger days I might have spent 2 hours throwing weights around at the gym, with often-horrible form. I could get away with it then, but now that I'm older (and wiser? Maybe?) I've changed my approach and have tried to really focus on quality vs. quantity. What do I mean by that?
6) Find a program you like and stick to it: I'd venture to say that <50% of dudes at your average gym are actually following anything resembling a structured workout plan. If you pay attention, you'll notice most guys tend to aimlessly float from one piece of equipment to the next, with the bench press and bicep curls making frequent appearances in their rotations. Typically, the closer a piece of equipment is to a mirror the more use it will get from this crowd. These same guys, if you notice over time, probably won't look much different nor will they get much stronger. These guys are mostly wasting their time, and will plateau very quickly. The point here is, picking a well-structured program that you enjoy and can stick to over a period of 3-4 months will put you ahead of most guys at the gym pretty quickly.
The best part is, you don't have to pay ANYTHING to find great programs that are beginner-friendly and kick butt. A couple popular examples are:
At a high level my current resistance-training program is a 5x5, broken up the following way:
While I'd recommend the 5x5 as a solid program for beginners, the best way to find one you like is to give a few different programs a try for yourself and see what sticks. There are a ton of solid variations of beginner programs available online. Starting on a structured program doesn't mean you need to carry a notebook around and studiously write down every exercise you do, what weight you used, how many sets you did, and how many reps you got (although that might be helpful as you're starting out). I have my workout pre-set in my head before I go to the gym, and I've got a pretty good memory for what weights were used and how many reps I achieved in previous weeks, so I'm able to more or less track my progress and adjust things as needed in my head.
7) Change is good: Consistently sticking to your workout schedule is good. Consistently doing the same exercises or the same workout program for too long is not necessarily good. As mentioned earlier, muscles grow and adapt in response to stress. If you do the same exercises week in week out for months upon months, eventually your muscles will stop sending the signals to your brain that they need to grow and you'll plateau, struggling to eek out more gains. Changing programs, rep schemes, and/or exercises every 3 months or so is a great way to keep your body guessing, and also to keep things mentally fresh and interesting.
8) Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition: Many of us have heard the adage "abs are made in the kitchen". Unfortunately, it's true. I'd actually say that, if you're goal is to get lean, nutrition is MUCH harder for most people to nail down than the workouts. I've always struggled immensely with being disciplined in my diet, and it's something I want to chart out a plan to do in 2018 to shed a few pounds and get down to ~12% body fat. I'm a bit of an emotional eater (yet another topic for another post?), and will occasionally embark on epic junk food binges that harken back to my college days. Going back to point #1, my "why" here needs some work.
In college one of my favorite post-practice indulgences was to down two In-N-Out double-doubles, two fries, a large shake, followed by a half-dozen Krispy Kreme donuts. I get nauseous thinking about it now.
Given I've pretty consistently failed in this area, I don't have much credible advice to give, but fortunately there are a lot of tools out there that can help make this easier for those who have the willpower. For a while I was tracking my macros/calories using MyFitnessPal which was super helpful. Most of us drastically overestimate how active we are and underestimate how many calories we eat day to day, so using an app to track your food, even if just for a few days, can be an eye-opening reality check.
Hopefully in 2018 I'll be able to write about how I turned the corner here; we'll see!
9) Don't skip leg day. Unless you want this to be you:
The vast majority of guys at the gym don't do legs. As in, their workouts primarily consist of bench press and throwing some dumbbells around while gratuitously flexing and grunting in front of the mirror. What these guys fail to realize is that legs are literally the foundation upon which everything else is built. A byproduct of strengthening your legs is that everything else gets stronger as well. As an example, stronger legs will help your bench press. Don't believe me? See for yourself!
I don't particularly enjoy leg day, but I slog through it week after week because I know it's essential and will aid my other lifts.
So, Don't. Skip. Leg. Day. Period.
10) ...And don't crop dust: I understand that straining through a difficult set of any exercise can cause some gastrointestinal distress, but please, if you need to break wind, at the very least walk to an empty corner of the gym to handle your business. The last thing anyone wants to smell when they're gasping for air in between reps is your partially digested lunch.
Now what are you waiting for? Go get your swole on! 💪