Every person makes mistakes. Often, we fail to learn from our mistakes and then we repeat them. Sometimes we never learn. Once a mistake is made, there's nothing one can do to reverse the mistake. It's a done deal. I've made plenty of mistakes in my quest to become bigger and stronger. What if I could do it all over again? What if I could use a time machine and warp myself back in time? How would I do things differently? Could I avoid making the same mistakes?
If I had the opportunity to travel back to the time when I first started lifting weights, I would make many changes along my journey to become bigger and stronger. Here's a list in no particular order:
1. Become a master technician of lifting technique
I can't stress enough the importance of technique. Even if you're a genetic stud, poor technique will eventually catch up with you and you may become plagued by injuries. Work on your technique so every repetition looks the same, whether it's the first rep of your first warm-up set or the last rep of a work set. Become machine-like when you lift.
2. Work out no more than two times per week
Less is definitely more. This is a lesson that took me years to learn. If you're working hard, two sessions per week can get the job done.
3. No explosive lifting
If you want to lift weights for a lifetime, and have a healthy body void of injury, perform your reps with a deliberate and constant rate. Remember that there are always people who can lift explosively and not suffer injury. But, they are in the minority.
4. Eat 5-6 small meals per day of good nutrient-dense food
My idea of food used to include frozen pizza, greasy burgers, and potato chips. Don't waste your time in the gym by not stepping up to the table and providing the fuel necessary to pack on muscle.
5. Forget about magic potions, pills, and powders
I was constantly looking for that magic supplement to propel me to new gains. The only thing that happened was I got lighter-in the wallet. If any of these supplements really did "work," they would be pulled from the shelves. You can count on a new "wonder supplement" being pushed every year. Someone recently asked Lyle McDonald on the internet what he thought the best supplement was. His answer was: "Squats and food." I agree. Spend your money on some good food instead of another fad supplement.
6. Don't perform these exercises
Don't perform the following exercises: press behind neck, bench press to the neck, cambered bar bench press, stiff-legged deadlifts off high blocks, Smith machine anything, hack squat, 45-degree plate-loading leg press, or super-wide chins. For the majority of people, these exercises are "body wreckers."
7. Perform the lying L-fly
I sure wish I'd performed this exercise years ago. I started performing the lying L-fly just over a year ago, and my shoulders have never felt better. Consult Stuart's technique book for how to perform this exercise.
8. Don't train like you're lifting in a competition when you aren't a competitive lifter
Too many trainees train like competitive lifters and use low reps and heavy weights too frequently. This type of lifting takes a toll on the body. The ramifications of this practice may not show up for years. Even competitive lifters should limit the use of heavy weights and low reps until just prior to a competition.
9. Do only one work set per exercise
If you can get the job done in one set, why bother with another?
10. Perform at most 6-7 exercises at one time
Focus your effort on a few basic exercises. Master the technique in performing these exercises. A program doesn't have to be complicated to be effective. In fact, some of the most productive programs are the simplest.
11. Check your ego at the door
Ego is the mortal enemy of common sense. The macho bull being spewed by some "experts" with egos bigger than a house will likely get you injured. Don't let your ego be your guide in lifting.
12. Keep a detailed training log
You can't determine where you're going if you don't know where you've been. One of my biggest mistakes was not keeping a detailed training log. What weights did you use 12 weeks ago in your exercises? If you can't answer this question, how do you know if you're progressing? If you can't answer the question, start keeping a training log now!
13. When in doubt, rest more not less
Even advanced lifters will add more sets and exercises when gains have all but dried up. If your gains have dried up, try resting more not less.
14. Base your training on the long-term not short-term
Don't get caught up in trying to make large gains in short periods of time. There were countless times that I tried to progress too fast in too short a time. I either suffered an injury, or hit a plateau. Resist the temptation to add weight too quickly when you're having one of those workouts where you feel like the only thing that can stop you is kryptonite. Be patient!
15. Use fractional weight plates
The use of fractional weight plates is related directly related to #14. For example, how can you expect to increase 5 pounds every week in the squat for a year? Five pounds a week for 52 weeks is 260 pounds! If you were squatting 240x20 today, can you really expect to be squatting 500x20 in one year? Of course not. Don't let your ego get in the way of using small plates (one pound or less). Small increases add up to big gains over time.
16. Don't arch when performing the bench press
Arching the back when bench pressing will only help to demonstrate strength, not build it. It's dangerous to the lower back as well.
17. Get as much sleep as possible
Sleep is a very important element of recovery. Staying up and watching the late show should not take priority over the health benefits of good night's rest. Where I work, most people's engines are running on the caffeine that they consume by the gallon when they drink coffee each day to stay awake. If you don't get enough sleep, you're sure to short circuit your efforts in the gym.
18. Never buy a muscle comic book
Since you're reading this magazine, you probably have this point covered. The muscle comics provide unrealistic expectations. The physiques attained by the bodybuilders in these magazines are obtainable by only a select few individuals, and the training routines advocated would likely kill an elephant.
19. Never round your back in squats or deadlifts
"I don't care if my lower back is rounding when I perform squats or deadlifts—I just humped up a new PR!" If you have this attitude about rounding your lower back in the squat or deadlift, I can almost guarantee that lower-back pain will exist in your future; possibly, for a lifetime. Again, work on technique and make it a priority, not an afterthought. Become a master technician!
20. Never rotate and flare your elbows when performing the bench press
When performing the bench press, keep your elbows from rotating at the sticking point such that they are no longer directly beneath your wrists. This rotation puts a tremendous strain on the shoulders. Add in some explosive lifting and you have an explosive combination for shoulder injuries.
21. Never wear a belt, knee wraps, or tight lifting suit
Belts, knee wraps and lifting suits are nothing but aids to demonstrate strength, not build it. If you're a competitive lifter and feel you must use this equipment to be on a level playing ground, then limit their use to just before the contest. And don't buy into the philosophy that this equipment "prevents injuries." See #11 for another reason that probably hits closer to the truth.
If you can squat, and do it consistently, you'll gain muscle all over your body. Once I started squatting, I grew all over.
23. Limit the use of SHIM (super high-intensity methods)
Forced reps and negatives are two examples of what I would consider SHIM. Use them sparingly. Most trainees cannot tolerate such high-intensity methods every single workout without burning out.
24. Deadlift every other week
The lower back is easily overtrained. The deadlift is a total body blaster. The higher the poundages used, the more rest is needed, especially if you're squatting hard as well.
25. Forget about gadgets, gimmicks and gizmos
There are no special machines, techniques or training routines that are "magic." Adding weight to the bar little by little consistently over time is the real magic.
26. Never work out when sore
If your muscles are sore, you're not recovered in my opinion. In fact, just because you didn't get sore, or the soreness has subsided, doesn't mean you're ready to hit the weights again. Experiment with recovery time. Depending on what you did in your last workout, it could be significant period before you're truly recovered even after soreness has subsided.
27. Focus on the basic compound exercises
Squats, deadlifts, Trap-Bar deadlifts, presses, rows, chins and bench presses are all examples of exercises with a definite bang for the buck for building muscle and strength. Leg extensions, triceps push-downs, concentration curls, shoulder laterals and pec flyes are not.
28. Use a range-of-motion in your exercises suitable to your body structure and flexibility without exaggeration
Don't perform exercises with exaggeration in the stretch positions. This will likely lead to injury and you don't get any benefit from the extra stretch.
29. Pack it in when necessary
If you begin a workout and everything seems to be going wrong, don't be afraid to pack it in and come back another day. Maybe your lower back starts to stiffen up, your mind is wandering because of other distractions in your life, and you've a cold to boot. Remember, it's just one workout, and missing one workout or simply returning to work out the following day will not kill your progress. In fact, you may save yourself from injury or falling into a bigger rut.
30. Put training in the proper perspective in life
Your life should not revolve around your training. There are plenty of other elements in life that should take precedence over training. Don't get your priorities mixed up!
For every one of the thirty items in this list, I used to do the exact opposite. Unfortunately, there's no machine to send me back in time to start over. Don't be afraid to admit that you've made a mistake in your training. If you get injured, you've made a mistake. Try and determine what led to the mistake, and make sure you write it down so you can avoid repeating it. Hopefully, by reflecting on my errors and presenting the appropriate changes to make, this article will help you to avoid making mistakes in your training.