Who can truly call themselves experts in all things strength and conditioning? Is it the professional body builders who craft their physiques for pure aesthetics? Or the professional athletes training to crush their opponents? Perhaps the elite power lifters displaying incredible strength? How about the coaches and online program designers pushing the boundaries between science and application?
Once you have spent enough time in the gym, you will notice that no matter where their field of expertise may lie, all of these experts have undoubtedly made very similar mistakes over the course of their training careers. Their paths and goals may be different, but we guarantee that they have all had to learn ‘the hard way’ on their path to greatness.
The following will set any new lifter, athlete or general gym goer in the right direction and give you some sound advice to focus on (and some things to avoid) when starting out on your own fitness journey.
Related Article: Beginner Training Mistakes Part 2
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Changing Programs Too Frequently
Wendler 5/3/1, Smolov, FST-7, GVT, Daily Undulating Periodisation, Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training (PHAT)… the list is endless and growing on the daily thanks to the recent online fitness program boom. At the click of a button and swipe of a credit card anyone can have access to an inexhaustible amount of training program resources. As a result, it is very easy for a beginner to fall into the trap of ‘program hopping’; continually jumping from one training program to another in search of the ‘best’ program available.
The fact is that there truly is no ‘best’ program. Certainly the mentioned programs, and many others, have worked well for thousands of athletes and are based on solid scientific and strength & conditioning principles, but jumping from one to the other, or mixing and matching to make some ‘Wendler PHAT FST-7’ hybrid will not get you the results you’re after.
Instead, choose a simple program that focuses on adding resistance using the big compound movements, sprinkle in some accessory movements and stick to it for a minimum of 12 weeks. If you’re consistent and training with intensity your body will adapt to become a bigger, stronger more athletic version of your current self.
Changing Exercises Too Often
The never ending search for the ‘perfect’ exercise that will instantly turn you into a training BEAST goes hand-in-hand with ‘program hopping’… and similarly, it is also a wild goose chase.
Attempting to hit your quads from every angle, bouncing from one machine to the next, and utilising every intensifying technique you can think of will do very little for leg development if you can barely perform an equal bodyweight ATG squat.
As a beginner, you need to stick to the basics.
There is a reason why the squat, deadlift, bench press and pull-up are universal amongst body builders, athletes, power lifters and strongmen… They WORK! These foundation movements recruit the MOST muscle fibres, have the GREATEST potential for overload, and build the foundational base for all other exercises. So pick your basic exercises and stick to them!
Not Tracking Progress
Failing to record workouts may not seem like a big deal when you’re first starting out, but it should be stressed that consistently recording each exercise, set, rep and weight will have a dramatic effect on your progress.
To get your body to grow and get stronger you MUST push your body beyond what it has done before. It’s a principle called ‘progressive overload’ and it’s the holy grail of physical progress. If you are simply turning up to the gym, making exercises up as you go along and guessing how much weight to use for your sets and reps you won’t be improving as fast as you could be.
Recording your progress is simple; just use a notepad or an electronic fitness app and record every exercise, set, rep and weight, during your workout. The following week or workout, quickly revisit your notes on your last performance and attempt to add a little more weight, a few more reps or an extra set. By doing so you are ensuring that you are always improving. It’s also a great way to reflect on how far you have come in 6, 12 or even 24 months and keep your motivation levels high when things get tough!
Not Setting Goals
It is crucially important to have a point of focus and set yourself some goals when starting on your fitness journey. Don’t make the mistake of comparing yourself to those who are at the top of their game in their chosen fields, you will simply end up disheartened and likely quit in frustration. Instead focus on small consistent milestones and create S.M.A.R.T. goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic & Timely.
Be specific; don’t haphazardly say you want to get stronger or lose weight, set a specific goal such as ‘I want to workout 4 days a week using weights, perform 3 x 30 minute cardio sessions per week and lose 4kg in 6 months’.
Keep goals measurable; defining ‘how much’ or ‘how many’ will help you stay on track and ticking off small achievements along the way will keep you motivated.
Make sure your goals are both attainable and realistic; do your research and ask ‘Is it reasonable for someone my age or with my training experience to add ‘x’ amount of muscle or lose ‘y’ amount of fat?’ Although your opportunity to become the greatest body builder of all time may have passed don’t settle for lacklustre goals, they can be both high and realistic.
Finally, ensure your goals are timely; without a time frame you will likely throw your intentions in the ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ basket and we all know how quickly that can accumulate our personal dirty laundry. If you want to lose 10kg, set a realistic time-frame… ‘I want to lose 10kg in 10 months’ is a much more powerful and motivating goal than one that has no end date.
And if you share similar S.M.A.R.T. goals with somebody else, why not make them a training partner to keep you both accountable?!
Not Warming Up
Is it fun…? No. Is it easy to skip…? Yes. Will it make you perform better…? Certainly! Will it help prevent injury and keep you progressing towards your goals without any hiccups…? You betcha!
We get it, everybody starts out with good intentions to warm-up before every session, but when you find yourself short of time an adequate warm-up will be the first thing to go. If you are truly dedicated to being the best you can be and bringing intensity to every training session, it simply isn’t adequate to grab a barbell and bang out a couple of lazy reps as your ‘warm-up’.
The warm-up serves the purpose of stimulating your muscular, cardiovascular, respiratory and central nervous systems so that you can perform to your full potential at every workout. Don’t get into the habit of casually pedaling on the bike while firing off a text message or browsing Instagram… that just won’t cut it! You need to get yourself moving, build-up a light sweat, and mobilise your joints and musculature.
A quick but effective approach is to perform 5 – 6 x 30 second intervals on the bike/rower/ergo followed by some dynamic stretching/plyometrics such as: leg swings, air squats, arm circles, push ups, lunges and jumping to get all of your joints moving. The warm-up can also be used as an opportunity to perfect technique and movement and gives you an opportunity to clear your thoughts of any distractions outside of the gym.
Not Checking Your Ego
As a beginner, the gym can be an overwhelming environment. You look over and see someone in the squat rack busting out 150kg ATG squats for reps and immediately your ego kicks in and you decide to pile on more weight than you can handle. Your form & technique is compromised, excessive body-english and ‘jerking’ of the weight sets in, and before you know it not only do you look ridiculous, but your progress has stalled and you’re feeling every ache and pain from all those horrible reps.
There is certainly a time and place for some ‘loose’ reps, but these should make up no more than 5% of your training and used sparingly when you really need to push the envelope to see progress. Rather than being eager to load up more weight, switch your thinking and become transfixed on performing the most perfect reps possible with every rep on every exercise.
Think about the highest level body builders or athletes… yes, they move heavy weight, but their technique and movement are also "text-book". Start within your capabilities, make slow consistent progress and always use full range of motion and good form. This will set you on the right track for years to come, keeping you injury free and making consistent and measurable gains.
Related Article: Beginner Training Mistakes Part 2
Related Article: How You Should Train