Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lessons learned as an adolescent (and adult) lifter

I get a lot of questions from young guys through e-mail and on here and Facebook, and they are usually the same questions, but phrased different ways.  I have written several articles that address training for young guys however I want to go into more depth about why I think most young guys struggle so much with paralysis by analysis when they start lifting and learning more about lifting.

Mainly, they don't understand/accept the speed of their development, especially in relation to their peers or set unrealistic goals and time lines to reach said goals.

In my mind, this is the main reason why most young guys bounce around from routine to routine, failing to stick with basic tried and true philosophies for long periods at a time.

When a young guy starts lifting, he knows very little.  He makes progress fairly fast, and is usually satisfied because it's all new.  After months of lifting however he notices a peer that is bigger and/or stronger than him and basically, jealousy and coveting sets in.

"I want to be as big/strong as him"

Do not Covet made the top 10 list

Everyone is blessed in different ways physiologically.  I was watching football the other night and I watched Brian Dawkins make a few plays for the Broncos (yuck).  Dawkins has been an all-pro safety for a long time and he was standing next to some offensive lineman from the Chargers talking in between plays.  Both guys were playing on an NFL field, making NFL money and starting for their respective teams.  But what if both guys, in some strange parallel universe, decided they wanted to play each others position.  The offensive lineman wanted to play safety, and Brian Dawkins wanted to be an offensive lineman.  It's a great chance that neither guy finds himself on an NFL field, making NFL money, and starting for any NFL team.

Understanding your limitations as a lifter is vitally important in maximizing your progress.  Brian Dawkins and that offensive linemen ended up on the same NFL field because they both understood their limitations.  Dawkins was never going to be an NFL offensive lineman, and that lineman was never going to be an all-pro safety.  People associate the word limitations with failure far too often.  That's simply not the case.  Everyone has limits.  Period.  This bullshit I read from ego inflated guys about how there is no limit and they don't like to set limits makes me laugh.  I love the quote from Robert De Niro in Ronin when he was talking about being tortured and holding out.

"No one can hold out indefinitely.  Everyone has a limit".

Even Max Cady understood limits

Well the guys that talk that no limits bullshit are spewing just that.  Everyone has limitations.  As a young guy, understand, you may not grow as fast as that other guy, or get as strong as fast as he does.  This doesn't mean you suck, or that you have to continue sucking (if you have been).  It just means the ladder of progression for you is different than it is for him.  That's all.  And part of getting to where that guy is, if you are capable, is to understand your limitations so that you can build your training ideology to maximize your progress.  I never said to say to yourself "I can NEVER be as big or as strong as him".  But understanding your limitations is saying "I can't train the same way he does, to maximize my own results."  Again, UNDERSTAND what limitations means.  Then apply properly.    

Understanding your limits helps you know what you are capable of over a training cycle length, and how much training stress you need.  Without knowing those things, you can and often will do too much, and short circuit your gains.

For example, lots of guys preach volume, volume, volume.  And volume, for me, has to be limited.  I don't recover well from high volume, and never have.  I do well on limited volume and focusing on a limited number of sets.  Anytime I up my volume to what I would consider "high" I become lethargic, lose interest, lose strength, and usually get injured.  Training high volume along with a high frequency style does not work well for me.  It does not mean it doesn't work for anyone, just not for me.  And on the flip side, just because it works for Brian Siders, doesn't mean it works for me, or will work for you.  So I don't try to train like Brian Siders, because I am not Brian Siders.

However on the intarwebs, where everyone has all the answers, someone will in fact use Brian Siders as "proof" that high volume training is the best way, because of his very elite strength.  Or, someone will say "you only lift X amount, and you're saying that a guy who lifts X amount, that his training doesn't work?  You're an idiot!" etc.

This is hogwash.  What a guy lifts in comparison to another lifter isn't the measuring stick as to the knowledge of those two lifters.  Yes, the amount of weight on the bar does count, make no mistake.  No one deadlifting a max of 225 after 10 years of hard training can be trusted to raise your deadlift.  However a guy deadlifting 700 also might not have all the keys to the kingdom either.  Being born with great leverages to a lift doesn't mean you also have divine knowledge in regards to how that lift should be trained for everyone, nor does it grant you super "bro powers" for internet discussion.

For example, why does Georges St. Pierre hire boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and judo coaches?  He's already possibly the best pound for pound fighter in the world.  So why doesn't he just train by himself, save the money, and show up on fight day?  Because GSP is smart enough to know that just because he could run through the guys that train him, doesn't mean he can't learn from them.  I had martial arts instructors that I could have destroyed.  But I was there to learn from them.  I could take what they knew, and apply it and become better.  Lifting is no different.  The strongest or biggest guy isn't always the best guy to learn from.

GSP demolishes opponents because he's smart

If there is any one painful lesson you will learn about training, it's that you will often have to fail many times before you find your answer.

"Good plan bro..."

Most often, however, young guys decide to use a training plan and then they search out the confirmation of others through boards and e-mails that tell them they are on the right path.  They ask for permission rather than forgiveness.  Then the insanity ensues.

"Hey bro, I want to do 5x5 bro.  Will it work for mass?"

"Yeah bro.  It will.  But I don't do it that way.  I change it around.  Because 5 reps aren't enough to get big bro."

"How do you do it then?"

"Well I use the 5x5 outline but I do 3x12, then what I do is superset the next two movements and do like 5 burn out sets bro.  Makes my arms pumped to the max bro."

"But that's not 5x5."

"Sure it is bro.  I use it almost exactly like it says.  I just add my own thing to it.  So it's almost the same.  I've gotten jacked this way bro.  My arms have never been so swole."

"Sounds good bro.  I will do that."

I can search almost any training board and find a discussion similar to this.  People bastardizing routines, giving out shitty training advice, and saying "so-n-so lifts X amount so I'm doing his routine".

It is a vicious cycle.  And all of this isn't even the complicated part.

"should I do side laterals?"

"should I do leg extensions?"

"how many sets?"

"how many reps?"

The next thing you know the guy isn't even training or going to the gym, he just writes out routines all day and never puts anything into action, paralyzed by his own thoughts and confusions about training.

Training isn't about routines.  It's about a philosophy.  My routine "changes" every few months.  But the philosophy of my training hasn't changed in years.

- Train hard on the basic movements like squat, deads, bench, dips, chins, etc.

- Cover, don't smother, with training volume.

- Maximize recovery

- Condition

- Have some form of a progression plan

That's about it.  There is no magic routine out there that is going to make you jacked overnight or add 30 pounds to your bench in 30 hours.  A good, sound, training philosophy is far more valuable than any temporary routine you are going to find.  You can always go back to the well and draw from it, and never get thirsty.  Or you can chose the mountain spring bottled water, and be satisfied for a short while, but eventually you will be thirsty again, and have to go find another bottle.  This again, is about understanding limitations.

This doesn't mean I don't make mistakes either.  Just recently I split up my deadlift and squat again, knowing full well that I can't do that for very long before I actually start to lose strength.  I either have to keep them together, or train them on alternating weeks.

But post-surgery I thought it might help to split them up once I started deadlifting again.  Feeling that my deadlift needed special attention.  7 weeks later my squat was taking a dive and my deadlift had just barely crept back up to 600.  At least 50 pounds below where I was at the time of my injury.  Informing Jim Wendler of my stupid mistake, he proceeded to tell me "Do I need to scold you like you scolded me a while back?"

Staying the course and following your own advice can be difficult and painful at times.  I scolded Jim because he told me how great he felt training twice a week and running a lot.  He was in his best condition in years and was hitting rep PR's every few weeks.  He then proceeded to tell me he was going to change his training around completely.

"Why?" I asked.


"Ok.  Seems stupid.  You're hitting PR's every other week doing very little and you feel great.  Why the hell would you change anything?"

"I have a plan.  It will work."

"We'll see bro"

4 weeks later Jim told me he was injured and realized he had screwed up.

"Well I'm not the type to say I told you so...but here goes.........." 

I repeated the above line at least 2 or 3 hundred times.  I'm sure he appreciated it.  He said the same to me upon informing him I made similar mistakes in my own training.

Told you so too...

Ask yourself...

If you want a simple way to cut through the bullshit in your training, then don't ask everyone else to figure it out for you.  Ask yourself why you are doing everything you are doing.  And be honest about the question and the answer.

Why am I doing good mornings?

Is it because someone told you it would raise your squat and deadlift?  Or because you have weak hamstrings and know this?  And how do you know this?  Because someone told you?  Or because you figured out that your hips shoot up high at the start of a deadlift and your strength off the floor is incredibly weak?

Asking the right questions will give you the right answers.  Then training can be maximized as well.

Why am I lifting 6 days a week?

Is it because Bodybuilder-X does?  Or because powerlifter X does?  Because some soviet comrade told you to?

If these are your questions and answers, then it's a safe bet you're on the wrong track, and will find yourself holding that bottle of water again.

Ask yourself why you are training as often or as little as you are.  Why you are doing certain movements.  I did a consultation with a guy that said he never felt "right" squatting because of his scoliosis.  He said his hip felt like it turned inward, and no amount of working on form could fix this.  It was a physiological problem associated with his scoliosis.  He said he only felt good on the Hammer Strength Squat machine.

"Do you plan on competing in powerlifting?"


"Then do the Hammer machine.  If squatting is hard on you because of your scoliosis then don't try to fit a round peg into a square hole.  Do the Hammer machine and have a progression plan for that lift."

Problem solved.  When I put it this way to him, it was like a light bulb went off in his head.

"I don't know why I didn't think of it that way before." he told me.

Mainly because people often get too caught up in finding the acceptance of their peers.  Then they spin their wheels doing unproductive shit, rather than asking themselves the right questions.  For him the right question was "am I going to compete in powerlifting?" and the right answer was "no".  So his problem was solved.

To sum up this long and way too wordy article...

- Understand (as much as you can) your limitations.  Set realistic goals based around them.  Don't worry about comparing yourself to others.

- Ask yourself good questions about why you are doing the things you are doing.  If something fails, understand to the best of your ability why it failed, and make changes.  Whatever change you make, have a reason for that change.

- Build a philosophy of training based on the principles above, rather than relying on routines, so that it serves as your wellspring.  Don't be the bottled water guy, constantly needing a new routine to quench his thirst.

The metaphor for your training 



  1. Paul,

    Excellent as always! I think that many times (myself included) I get excited about training and want to maximize everything. Training is about balance just like everything else in life.

    BTW, when are you going to be writing for elitefts? You would be one of the best writers there.

    Stay Strong,

  2. Easily one of top five blog posts I've read in the past year.

    I'm guessing a lot of people will completely miss this because of the holiday week so please be sure to re-post this at another time.

    Nice job.

  3. Geez.. I wish I would have read this 2 years ago!

  4. Straight from the heart Paul. I would say to sticky this on every Beginner forum across the net, but those never get read by the kids who need it anyways.

  5. That Travis, is the real travesty. I didn't outline a routine. So to them, this article will be for shit.

  6. Paul-

    Excellent post. Now that family has taken over as my priority in life, I stress less about training, take more time off, and go by feel. The funny part? I am getting leaner and stronger then I ever was before...

    For the next few weeks I am doing 2 exercises a training day, one for each body part for that day. I am doing 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 resting the same amount of breaths as reps, and back up from 1 to 10. That is it. I get done in 30 minutes, then it is baby time. I am on my second week and I am down another 4 pounds bodyweight and my lifts are still going up. My cardio is sky high! Last time I ran a 7:30 minute mile was high school when I was I am doing it at 215...

    I recently smoked a 20 pound pr on the 2" axle deadlift as well...funny how that happens.

    Keep it up! Happy Thanksgiving!


  7. You must of read my mind. I've been struggling lately with my training and questioning what I'm doing and why. Problem is that sometimes it's hard to take that step back and take an objective look at yourself. I suffer from some pretty chronic lower back pain (10 years) and now since starting squatting and deadlifting about a year ago, hip and knee pain. It's keeping me from progressing on my lifts (hovering around 300 for a long time). I'm not competing in anything anyway, so why am I hurting myself? I like that type of lifting (Wendler 5/3/1, starting strength, madcow) and that has allowed me to actually stick to training and making it part of my lifestyle. SO, I am struggling: should I stop deadlifting and squatting heavy for awhile and start doing high rep stuff to help rehab the hip, back and knees; or massive deload and work back up? OR drop the squats and deadlifts and find something else? ugh.

    Sorry for the long post, just thought it might help to write it down !



  8. Rick - Great stuff! Happy Turkey Day to you too!

    Richard - Find movements that don't cause you pain! End of discussion. Training is never fun when you walk in and worry about an injury or something hurting because of the movements you are going to do.

    Figure out the movements you can do, pain free, and set up a progression path with them from there. Good luck!

  9. Love your posts Paul, always insightful. Man if I could go back a decade and start again lol. Stepping back and being able to take things into perspective is definitely a hard earned skill.

  10. The funny thing is.. People, myself included have been looking for so long for the "Holy Grail", the "ultimate secret for unlimited strength, ripped abs and 22inch arms".. And here it is. You just reveiled the true "secrets".

    I really wish someone would have told me sooner, no I'm lying, people told me, I just didn't listen, and couldn't understand at the time. My light bulb went on just half a year ago, when I realised I had become a big fat-ass just because I assumed powerlifters were supposed to bulk and eat like shit. I tried every routine available.. I noticed my lightbulb just a few months ago, when a few friends, I hadn't spoken to in a long time, gave me some harsh critique, and basically said what you said in the above article. Then it hit me, how stupid I was, how much time I wasted.

    I now have my own routine, I try things, and if it doesn't work, I don't do it anymore, if I don't have a strong reason for it, I don't do it.

    I eat what I think is good for me, or what I'm convinced of it's good for me, I try different sort of things diet-wise, just trying to find out how my body responds.

    Biggest lesson for me: no big changes, small changes, evaluate, ditch if worthless, keep if good. A principle that works in just about every aspect of life: exercises, programs, sets/reps, food, diets, friends, movies, books etc.

    I'm done talking crappy english.

  11. Your english is fine Mark. Nice post.

  12. Paul,
    I've been away from training for a good while with just a dab of it back in the summer. I'm finding it hard to just get started again, I guess due to other interests. I really enjoyed this article. It just sort of gave me permission to do what I really want to do instead of what someone says to do. I know that may sound funny since I have trained so long, but sometimes a man does get swallowed up in thinking too much about it. I guess I really don't have that problem anymore since I have a hobby I enjoy thousands of times more than weight training. Anyway just wanted to say good dang read.

    Jeff Roark

  13. Thanks Jeff! And it's your life. Do the things that make YOU happy regardless of what others think you should be doing. Live life in a way that is fulfilling to YOU.

  14. Paul, I really love the pic that represents the metaphor of this article (just wanted to say that first)

    I'm confused, though. "Know your limitations." I understand your point, to an extent, but isn't the whole point of doing something like weight lifting, the "joy" of it, to PUSH your limitations? I'm not quite talking about being a complete idiot and doing something you KNOW will get you hurt, fail, etc. Idk, I guess i feel like if I "know" my limitations, what is the point of pushing against them?

  15. your limitations won't be known to you straight out of the gate. The main point of the article is to understand limitations and in fact ENJOY your journey.

    Far too many guys get wrapped up in doing things in a month that may take them two years. When it doesn't happen in in a month, they say "this program sucks" and change things again.

    One of the smartest things I ever read from Jim was when someone asked him what his pressing goal was after he pressed 300 overhead for the first time.

    "press 305"

    He didn't become a braggart about it or say "350" because before he can press 315 or 350 or whatever, he has to be strong enough to press 301, 302, 303, etc first. So he said 305. An attainable goal.

    This is Jim knowing his limitations. Thus, he conquers his goals.

    Most often, when someone sets their goals too high, they never achieve them and often go backwards or don't move at all. When a guy makes a modest goal that seems attainable, he usually can and does achieve it. When you tack on small attainable goals over and over again, the next thing you know you've made tremendous progress.

    As I noted, the word limitations is too often associated with failure. It's not. It can be associated with success because it can make someone look at things with realistic objectivity. If you have never been able to run fast your entire life and you're naturally a chubby a white guy, you can give up any dreams of running a sub 10, 100 meter dash. The guy that wastes his life away trying to do so never realized his limitations. So no matter what he does, ultimately he is going to fail at his goal.

    However if he were really good at shot putting naturally, he could pour his energy into that and possibly make it into the Olympics one day. This is exactly like my Dawkins/Offensive lineman comparison above

    Knowing your limitations actually speeds progress and success rather than hinders it. But finding them out takes trial and error.

  16. Well I wrote up a long post and it didn't get posted. Damn.

    One of the best things that Wendler ever wrote, IMO, was after he overhead pressed 300 for the first time. Someone asked him what was next.


    This is Jim knowing his limitations.

    The reason guys bounce around from routine to routine too often, and fail to make meaningful progress, is because they don't know their limitations. Knowing them can be the difference in failure and spinning your wheels.

    Knowing your limitations isn't about saying "I can never achieve X or Y." It's about saying "I can't accomplish X or Y in X or Y time frame".

    It's like a guy saying if his business doesn't make a million dollars within 9 days of opening it, that he will close it. Well maybe it can make a million dollars, but the chances of it doing so in 9 days of opening it are slim and none. So rather than make unrealistic expectations, he sets in to simply make a profit in the first 9 days. Maybe it's just a hundred dollars. But he made profit. SO now he plans on making $200 in the next 9 days.

    Realistic attainable goals have limitations.

    So don't take the attitude the 9 day millionaire guy with your training. That's about knowing your limitations.

  17. Just found this article, and it is awesome, great job.