10 Things Every New Lifter Should Know

New year and hopefully the same old bullshit and no more hiding in the house for the first quarter of the year.  I hope you have a good break.  You might be feeling that now is a good time to develop new habits and a healthier routine.  Maybe you have decided to take the life enhancing option of lifting weights as a hobby.  Maybe you want to get healthier, maybe you want to look better naked or maybe you just want to be stronger.  

No matter the goal, welcome to the citadel, friend here are ten ways you can help yourself stay on hallowed turf and stay away from the pitfalls and gains goblins that trap many a new adventurer. 

It’s a marathon not a sprint

Hopefully you are going to have a long-lasting and life enhancing relationship with weights.  To this end you need to set your time preference to the rest of your life.  There seems to be a preference with new people to want to try and achieve a lot of things in a finite period of time.  A very common question you get talking to people who are brand new is how long do you think it will take to achieve this could be fat loss, weight on a lift or muscle on their body.  But when a beginner starts training it is pretty common for them to want to achieve something in a set time.

I suppose for them its an investment of time, money and effort into someting new.  They might not like it so if they are going to do it they are going to know what is in it for them.  Which is rational however it doesn’t work like that.  There are too many variables that govern your rate of progress and most of them rely on you and since I don’t control you I can’t give you a reasonable estimate never mind any kind of guarantee or reassurance of the progress you are going to make in a finite period of time.

The only way you are going to realise any real progress or change of substance is to embrace it as a new part of your identity and lifestyle and that means you are in it for the long haul.  And only by being in it for the long haul are you going to realistically see the progress and change you want.  Welcome to catch 22.

You probably aren’t going to hurt yourself

For some reason in gyms there is a commonly accepted “fact” or should we say myth that the free weights area needs to be treated with some kind of reverence or that if you just start lifting without instruction you are going to hurt yourself.  However if you were to actually look at the data you would see that lifting even competitive lifting and somewhat precarious looking sports like strongman and CrossFit have very low rates of injury compared with something that the vast majority of people wouldn’t even think twice about like going for a jog.

It is actually pretty hard to hurt yourself when lifting weights outside of being an idiot and dropping something on yourself.  The thing about weights is you can’t lift what you can’t lift so the chances of you going too heavy and hurting yourself are very slim and again mainly from you being an idiot.  If your best ever full squat is 40kg and you go ahead and load 140kg onto a bar and try and squat it you are going to get your just desert but chances are even then you aren’t going to hurt yourself you will just fail the lift and look like the twat you are.

To hurt yourself by going too heavy you almost have to earn the right by week to week loading on weights that are too heavy as overload injuries take time to build up and they are the main form of injury you will get lifting weights.

If you do hurt yourself it’s no big deal

Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill essentially.  Injury is part and parcel of any form of exercise especially if you want to get better at it.  The vast majority of injures you will get over your life time as a lifer will sort themselves out with time this is know as return to natural history.  Even really scary and sore instances of lower back pain will resolve themselves with time.  The main thing is to not panic or blow the situation out of proportion.

Accept that it has happened, look to establish the boundaries of what is useful to do at this minute in time.  Coming back from injury is mainly establishing boundaries on what you can do in terms of loading, coming up with a plan on how you are going to return to full training and finding weaknesses and addressing those with additional conditioning that your normal training maybe isn’t providing you.  That in essence is what all rehab is about.

Getting the help of a professional who understands these factors can really help to speed up the process and help you to not get stuck in any pitfalls or traps.  But the main thing is to not panic and to calmly start to seek resolution. 

Quality over quantity

There is a huge push for beginners to seek progressive overload or to just add one more rep or 2.5lbs more.  When you first begin lifting it is when you will learn the fastest and it is also when you will gain the most amount of strength the fastest.  The term noob gains exists for this very reason.  The fact is you are going to get stronger no matter what training you engage with so there is no real point in forcing the issue.  Consistently increasing the challenge in terms of weight or reps week on week is only going to ramp fatigue too high and also not give you the space or the sandbox required to learn more optimal technique and figure out how to move.

It is more important for new lifters to be taught competency in a variety of movements and styles of training/loading than it is to try and keep it overly specific and trying to get as much progress in the first year as possible. I personally would much rather see my beginners progress on to moving through a full range of movement with good technique rather than putting 200% on their squat in a few months and the quality being poor.

Again it’s a marathon not a sprint.  If you want to run for a long time and go far you should probably focus on learning how to run well and efficiently rather than trying to rush to get your first couple of miles done as quickly as possible. 

You are going to have to learn how to walk before you can run

This ties into the above point.  I always think you should humble yourself as much as you can when it comes to training.  Competition is the time to be cocky and arrogant if that is what helps you to perform but when it comes to learning and training having a humble approach is what is going to pay off the fastest.  Don’t try and get ahead of yourself when it comes to training take your time, pay your dues and try to learn and understand well rather than trying to learn fast.

Even if you don’t make any progress in terms of weight on the bar in the first 12-24 weeks of lifting weights, if you spend that time understanding what you are trying to achieve and managing to learn how to move well.  When you start trying to progress your loads you will advance a lot faster and for a lot longer than those who try to advance too fast.

You can build your foundations on solid concrete taking your time to learn and to understand and you will be able to build very high.  If you don’t take the time needed and fill your foundations with sand you won’t be able to build high and eventually you will have to tear down everything you have built and relay the foundations so you can build higher.  Learn right and you only have to learn once. 

You are going to have to learn how to run and it’s gonna suck

Whilst a lot of the previous points have talked about longevity and thinking about quality over quantity there is the unavoidable fact that getting stronger or getting better is hard.  You are going to have to push yourself.  If you don’t look at a workout or a protocol every now and again and think oh fuck I am not sure I want to do that then chances are you are either not getting stronger or you are leaving progress on the table.

There are some really good protocols to help beginners learn how to push themselves.  Two of my favorites are ramping 10s linearly or a set and reps scheme followed by a rep out set.  Below are two examples of 4 week loading cycles you can use with beginners or early intermediates to help them to see what it’s like to wade into deep water and to keep going.

ProtcolWeek 1 Week 2Week 3Week 4
Ramping 10s3×10 @ 65%3×10 @ 70%3×10 @ 75%3×10 @ 78-80%
Volume load with rep out5×5 @ 75%
Rep out set 5 to RPE 9+
Goal 11-13 reps
5×4 @ 80%
Rep out set 5 to RPE 9+
Goal 8-10 reps
5×3 @ 85%
Rep out set 5 to RPE 9+
Goal 6-8 reps
3×2 @ 90%
Rep out set 3 to RPE 9+
Goal 4-6 reps

A lot of strength training is mental and learning what it truely feels like to push yourself and get close to failure is a big part of learning what you are capable of.  Going to failure is an unpleasant but actually really useful tool in training it is something I would advise staying away from for the most part but if definitely has it’s uses.  Learning how to really push yourself is something we all have to do if we want to get better.  It’s tough but so is training.

Don’t fade the basics

It can be tempting to try and look under every rock to try and see if there are any technical points or more advanced programing ideas you can leverage to try and speed up your progress.  The biggest waste of time when it comes to training is majoring in the minors.  You probably aren’t even touching the sides when it comes to maximizing the 99% never worry about searching for that extra 1%

Even for elite athletes the extra 1% is probably just noise. What it comes down to one question. Who is hammering the basics and when it comes to comp day they perform to their capabilities? None of that is down to the 1% extras people try and look for.  There is no use being a superstar in training if when it comes to competition or when it matters you aren’t performing at your capability.

Maximising your capability means doing a better job of 

  • Developing your mindset
  • Making every rep count in your training
  • Making sure there is no weakness in your body that will result in over load injuries
  • Making sure you are sleeping as much as is optimal
  • Making sure your nutrition and protein is 90% there
  • Making sure you are hydrated 
  • Staying healthy
  • Keeping life stress as minimal as you can with in reason

That is a non exhaustive list spending time on any of the above will result in far more progress than any supplement can ever hope to achieve.  There are lifters who are taking amounts of performance enhancing drugs and steroids that is taking years off their life expectancy. Yet they have lives that are shit shows and they would probably make more progress in the gym if their life wasn’t a circus.  Forget about trying to chase the magical gains dragon and nail the basics.

Training is really simple, stay away from people who make it complicated

People always want to over complicate things.  I don’t know if it makes them feel smarter or if they think people who use a lot of big words to convey concepts seem to be more worth listening to.  However when it comes down to it the concept of training is incredibly simple.  Below is a simple feedback loop that lays out pretty much everything you will need to conceptualize when it comes to training.

Training follows three trajectories generally speaking

  • Positive flywheel – this is when the training stimulus is set to the right challenge level for the day, there is sufficient time allowed for recovery to be maximized and the lifter’s lifestyle is geared towards allowing them to progress in as optimal a manner as possible.  This leads to really good progress being made at rates that can seem unbelievable to outside observers but they aren’t observing the workings of the flywheel.
  • A non adaptive system – when training stress or recovery aren’t in a place where equilibrium is being punctured.  This means the lifter will maintain pretty much the same condition and strength levels.  This state of affairs will not stay the same for ever and as with everything in life if there isn’t upward pressure the natural trajectory is governed by gravity so these feedback systems will end up negative in time if they aren’t adapted to start moving in a positive direction
  • Negative flywheel – when the training stress is too high for the lifter’s condition and they start getting frustrated, start to doubt themselves and what they are doing and they start to compromise lifestyle factors by making short sighted and naïve decisions.  If a lifer isn’t looking after their lifestyle factors eventually training will ramp to the point where they will start to enter a negative feedback cycle.

Understanding  training as a system with inputs that lead to outputs will lead you to see how each lever affects outcomes and how finding the best way to adapt this to your own lifestyle, body and mindset will maximize your progress.  

Everything out width of this concept is noise.

Understand most of your results come from outside the gym

The reality is that the training we all love to do and engage in is a stressor.  The moment of stress is not when progress is made it is only when we either rise or fall to the level of the challenge put in front of us.  The size of the challenge we can rise to in training or in competition is governed by the level of challenge we get used to overcoming in training but also the time we spend recuperating from the stresses of training.

  • Sleep
  • Calories
  • Protein
  • Creating a less stressful environment
  • Getting our mind right
  • Looking after our hydration status
  • Getting the small detail of recovery in place (supplements and other aids)
  • Having a plan for our training
  • Making sure we are trying to identify and identify weakness

Are all the bricks in the wall that make for a long term successful lifter.  If we aren’t paying attention to this piece of the puzzle then we can’t really be surprised when we are falling below the levels of progress we expect when it is only the stressors we have been ramping and paying attention to. 

You will fall to the level of your routine and habits so make sure you have them in place

Engagement and motivation are great and when we have them we should leverage them or if we are leaders we should look for touch points to try and increase the frequency of these events with the people we work with.  However if we are relying on things going well or on us feeling good and being ready to go all the time we will fail. 

We will fail because we are humans. Humans have emotions, changing circumstances and environments.  If we don’t take the time to build or nurture these circumstances how can we be surprised when we don’t succeed.

  • Your environment should reflect what you want to achieve.  If you want to be the strongest powerlifter ever if you train in pure gym on your own and don’t interact with lifters who are better than you or coaches who have helped people to become successful you are handicapping yourself.  If you want to get lean and you live in a house where there are no whole foods at hand but there are lots of biscuits and chocolates you are handicapping yourself.  If you are trying to stay hydrated but you don’t have a handy source of water or drink to your side for all of the day you are handicapping yourself.  Look at your environment.  Does it reflect what you want to achieve?  Cultivate it to reflect what you want to achieve.
  • What is your daily routine and schedule? Do you have one? Is it helping or hindering your progress towards what you want to achieve?  If you are finding you never have time to train why is that? Where are you spending your time?  We all have time we just spend it on our priorities if we realise it or not.  What are you prioratising?
  • Do you understand what habits are? Do you use positive reinforcement to help you to develop and cultivate habits that are going to make it easier to achieve what you want to achieve?  

Habits and routine put it on autopilot and if the autopilot is set in the direction of our goals.  Success isn’t just easy, it is inevitable. 


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