Now that I’ve been lifting with serious intent for 14 years, and training other people for 13, I’ve noticed a consistent pattern that occurs during the “lifespan” of a serious lifter.
Initially, (especially for those who start reasonably young, say in their teens or twenties) enthusiasm and passion combined with a lack of understanding of what it truly means to commit to a lifetime of lifting, and a lack of knowledge and experience regarding the “diminishing returns nature” of gains over a career, results in some poor decision making among novices. Many novice lifters simply don’t know just how good they have it, and don’t know that if they are even in the ballpark of decent training, they are probably damn near close to maxing out the rate of progress they can hope to make. They are so responsive to training that simply not doing things completely wrong, is damn near optimal.
Indeed, there is research (albeit in endurance exercise) showing that beginners respond just as well to a generalised training approach as they do to an individualised one . Often times, these combined mental and emotional factors present in novices lead to a few decisions that are counterproductive. For one, beginners tend to switch it up too frequently, “program hopping” in hopes that they can make progress even faster. Even when hopping from good program to good program, this is still a poor decision. For one, doing so is unlikely to make any difference and for two, as the beginner moves into the late-beginner and early intermediate stages where individual differences do start to matter, they are missing out on useful data collection opportunities that could tell them more about their needs by switching too frequently and not sticking with a singular approach long enough to gauge their response. Another behaviour that is problematic and common among novices is that they simply do too much, either in terms of intensity, volume or frequency. They maxed out their rate of progress at a training load much lower than what they are actually doing, and all the additional work they are doing out of sheer excitement and obsession simply piles on additional stress that at best is a waste of time, and at worst can lead to injuries and subsequent setbacks.
The message for beginners is that if you are making regular progress on your lifts in training, trust me, the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence and you simply don’t know how good you have it. Take a second and ask yourself, what’s the rush? Are you planning on not lifting next year or in five years? If you’re committed to lifting for as long as you’re able, enjoy the ride, work hard, don’t leave stones unturned…but also don’t play the role of the rabbit in the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare. Simply put, don’t lose your mind.
Now on the other end of the spectrum, we have the veteran. Now when I say veteran I mean you’ve clocked a decade or more in the weight room training hard. If you’ve been training for a shorter period than that and you think you’re anywhere near your full potential…I’ve got good news for you, you probably aren’t. Also, this classification of “veteran” applies to you if you’ve also been training smart. Meaning, nowadays you look back at the stuff you did as a novice and you laugh, and probably thank your lucky stars that you aren’t more banged up than you are from all the unnecessary, ridiculous and sometimes downright dangerous stuff you did in your early, overly enthusiastic days. Today, you’ve systematically trained yourself to not randomly do additional training, to not push yourself to failure on every set, and to actually hold yourself back a bit in service of longevity. Truly, learning to pace yourself is more often than not a critical step in making it to the veteran stage at all.
However, this sometimes comes with a cost. This self-training to hold yourself back can be taken too far, resulting in a softening of your edge and an inadvertent development of complacency. There should still be progress occurring if you are healthy, in your 30’s-40’s (maybe in your 50’s in some cases…look up Dave Ricks if you don’t believe me), and if you still have the drive to improve. But one thing is for sure, at this stage to make that progress occur, you have to want it. You have to be willing to get back to a place of discomfort. You will have to push past your current work capacity, create overload and force adaptation. But, you also have to retain your wits while doing so, and that’s not an easy thing to do.
Take a long look at the man (or woman) in the mirror(RIP Michael Jackson) and give yourself a real assessment. You may have regained your mind moving from novice to veteran, but did it cost you your edge? If you are stagnant and not progressing, and it’s not due to injury or a change in your goals (say to maintain, because you no longer want to compete and want to focus on your business etc.), you need to keep your head, but regain your edge.
So how do you do that? Well, more often than not, especially if you spent time tempering the enthusiasm of your novice stage, now you probably need to find a way to do more and train harder. While that’s certainly not always the solution (especially if you have gaps in your understanding of training or nutrition or struggle with adherence), it does tend to be that simple more often than not. For example, I’ve found in my journey through trial and error that if I want to progress now, I simply have to do more. I bench pressed 320lbs in competition in 2006 after 2 years of lifting…but my best after that was 325lbs in 2010. For four years I put 5lbs on my bench. Even worse, for the next 5 years I would make zero progress on my bench press. It wasn’t like I wasn’t training hard, and on paper anyone would look at my programming and think it was reasonable. I did 2-3 days of bench press per week, with multiple pressing accessories, trained in a variety of rep ranges, with volume and intensity focused periods, with sufficiently high RPEs and it netted me zip. Fast forward to 2016-2018, and I’ve been consistently benching in the 340-363lbs range. What changed? I simply did more. I started benching 4-6 days per week, subsequently doing more volume per week, including supramaximal eccentrics, cycles of frequent heavy singles, and I still stay up with my accessories. With that said, I also focused on quality. My bench press technique is much better, and I’m also fortunately someone who is very robust to high frequency and high-volume benching. Someone else who say gets shoulder pain, might have to be more savvy and include more dumbbell work, close grip work, etc, but the point, is I had to do more and I had to do it in a way that worked for my body.
Similarly, I really don’t think I made much of any physique progress from say 2012 to mid 2016. But from 2016-2018, I’ve made substantial progress, both visually and when I’ve had my body composition objectively tested. What changed? Well, I finished my PhD for one, and thus, I’ve had more time and energy to devote to being an athlete again. Specifically, I’ve committed to nailing more of the details that matter: I’ve been consistent with hydration, fruit and vegetable intake, protein intake and distribution, and outside of the kitchen I’ve improved my sleep quality, I’ve started meditating, doing static stretching away from my training, getting consistent warm ups prior to training, being consistent with my supplementation, and I’m also finding savvy ways to increase my total workload in the gym without getting tendonitis or joint pain and without over stressing my recuperative abilities (check out Bert’s recent blog on BFR as an example).
But most importantly, I’ve simply been willing to get pretty uncomfortable in the gym again. Doing 4 sets of leg extensions, after 4 sets of leg press, after 4 sets of front squats, twice per week…is simply hard, both mentally and physically. It’s nothing crazy compared to what I was doing back when I’d lost my mind as a novice, but it’s what I know I need to do in order to progress, and I had to acknowledge that I’d lost a step in order to change my approach and improve again. Looking back at recent years, I’ve come to realize that I did lose a bit of my edge. I was skirting the border between maintenance and minimal progress and I’d convinced myself this was as good as it gets at this stage. While I had the right idea relative to the insanity I was doing in my first 5 years of training…I had let the pendulum swing too far.
In short, if you’ve resigned yourself as a veteran and think the tank is empty, take a hard look at yourself and assess whether you really know that’s true. Maybe you’ve just lost your edge.
- Coakley, S.L. and L. Passfield, Individualised training at different intensities, in untrained participants, results in similar physiological and performance benefits.Journal of Sports Sciences, 2018. 36(8): p. 881-888.