These are my top rules for weightlifting which I follow in my daily fitness life, and I feel like they’ve carried me places. Read them and think about it!
1. Know Your Limits.
Get a full physical from your doctor before starting a fitness journey. You need to know what exercises are safe for you and if there are any limitations on your body of which you need to be aware – bad knee, bad shoulder, etc. If you damage yourself in the gym, then your fitness journey can come to an abrupt and permanent end very quickly – so you need to know if there is anything you should avoid.
2. Stop if it Hurts.
If you ever find yourself experiencing pain – not like muscle exhaustion, but real pain that puts you in agony – then stop immediately. I know they say “No pain, no gain” – but the phrase isn’t meant to refer to literal pain. We want muscle exhaustion, not pain- which are two different things. If you feel pain, then your body is telling you that you need to stop what you’re doing.
If the pain was bad, then you should see your physician or personal trainer before trying that workout again. If the pain was moderate and short-lived, then give it a day or two before trying again – and start with a light weight. If the pain is gone, great; but if you still feel some pain, then stop and get it looked at.
3. Get in the Gym Consistently and Frequently.
Make sure you have a regular gym schedule and stick to it – even if you just show up to do a half-workout or spend a little time on the treadmill. This is part of building fitness into your lifestyle, and it takes time. Fitness is a rolling stone – once you get a routine going, it’ll feel automatic. But if you’re not visiting regularly, then don’t expect to make gains quickly. I’m in the gym 5 days a week like clockwork – and once you get used to it, you’ll find it’s harder to MISS a workout than getting in the gym in the first place.
4. Have a Plan.
Any regular lifter can spot a “gym floater” from a mile away. These are guys who show up with zero plan or idea of what they’re trying to do – so they just kind of float around and grab weights/machines seemingly at random, pump out a few sloppy reps, then ramble on to something else. These guys are unlikely to have an effective workout and will not achieve their goals.
Until you’ve reached an advanced level of weightlifting – as in, you’ve been at it for a few years and have made real gains – you should NEVER step foot in the gym without knowing exactly what you’re going to do that day. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you can reliably ad-lib a workout if you want – but stick to a plan early-on. I have some days where I feel inspired in the gym to try a string of new exercises – or suddenly feel like I can place a burst of energy on another muscle group. This is great – but until you have that kind of know-how and confidence, stick to the plan.
5. Lift HEAVY Weights.
Now we get to the fun stuff! If you want to build muscle and strength, you need to ravage your muscle tissue and encourage your body to rebuild bigger than before – but this won’t happen unless you’re lifting sufficiently heavy weight to tear up existing muscle. You need to find where your max is for any given workout and lift weights close to, or at, your max – you should be breathing heavily and turning red by the time you’re done with a third set (generally speaking), otherwise I’d suspect you aren’t going heavy enough.
A common myth is that lifting lower weights with more reps will give you a “toned” look – this is nonsense! The best you can hope for from this is that you sweat and burn a few calories – but your muscles are not going to improve in size or definition. If that’s all you’re doing, then don’t waste your time lifting light weights – go get on the treadmill, you’ll burn more calories that way. If you want to build muscle, then you MUST go heavy – and as you gain strength, you need to keep pushing the needle forward.
Note – BE CAREFUL with heavy weights. If you’re using free weights with no spotter, like a standard bench press barbell, then don’t try to max – lest your arms give out and you crush your chest. I don’t usually have a spotter, so I rarely push anything approximating max weight on a free barbell bench press. I usually bench at the smith machine, which is safer for solo lifters. I can get closer to a max without putting myself at nearly as much risk, although you still need to be careful even with a smith machine.
6. Always Exercise with Good Form.
I wince when I see guys swing their whole body as they lift, or bend limbs when they should be keeping them stiff. It can be tempting to sacrifice good form for another few reps, especially when lifting heavy weight as recommended in the rule above. DON’T DO IT! Most importantly, poor form can lead to injury – if not immediate, then slowly over time. But also, poor form defeats the purpose of the exercise.
A well-controlled lift focuses the stress on particular muscle groups, making them “pop” – the bicep curl is an good example. As your arm bends, your bicep will – almost literally – pop out of your arm. But if you try to curl a dumbbell heavier than you can realistically lift, then you may find yourself swinging the weight as you curl and swaying your back in order to get the dumbbell up to your shoulder. This is taking the stress off your bicep and distributing it through the rest of your body, which diminishes the exercise’s effectiveness. Never sacrifice form for heavier weight – you’re better off lifting a lower weight with perfect form, rather than cheating form on a something heavier. “Muscle pop” comes with good form, and that’s where you will maximize strength and mass growth.
7. Learn Breathing Rhythm.
When engaging in heavy exercise, you need a regular supply of fresh oxygen to keep your muscles powered. Don’t hold your breath while exercising, but don’t hyperventilate either. I tend to find that exhaling during exertion gives me the most pump, while making sure to inhale as I de-exert the weight (is that a real word? De-exert?) So for example, the bench press: I inhale as the weight is lowered to my chest, and exhale as I exert the weight upward.
For any given exercise, find your effective breathing rhythm and stick to it – it’ll also help you focus during your workout, dwelling less on how uncomfortable you are while lifting heavy weights.
9. Find Music that Pushes You.
Good music is make-or-break for me. A really good song choice literally puts me over the top on some reps – so I recommend it. Locate music which is engaging enough to help push you during a workout, but not so distracting that it takes away your focus. What kind of music is that? You be the judge – find what works for you. Also, build a playlist of music that you can “set and forget” – meaning, not have to go back to your phone at the end of every song to make a new selection. It breaks up your rhythm.
10. Get Proper Protein Intake.
I’m not a nutritionist and won’t pretend to know any food science – so no jargon here. It’s simple – you can follow all of the above rules and blast your muscles on a daily basis, but you’ll never see excellent gains unless you give your body the material it needs to create more muscle mass. I spent YEARS thinking that simply drinking a protein shake after a workout was all you needed for intake – and that I could just stick to my otherwise paltry diet of peanut butter sandwiches and pasta for the rest of the day.
I started making my best gains and seeing true muscle mass increases once I began sticking to this cardinal rule I heard from an experienced weightlifter: “Eat a gram of protein every day for each pound of body weight.” This takes real work – for the thin guys out there who have never been accustomed to eating much, this can be a real struggle. But if you’re sufficiently exhausting your muscles and taking in enough protein to rebuild bigger and better than before, then you can expect to see gains in size and strength.
11. Supplement Effectively, Not Haphazardly.
Again, I’m not a nutritionist nor a scientist. In all likelihood, neither are you. So when we go to GNC or the pharmacy or wherever and look at the menagerie of workout supplements in their shiny holofoil lime-green bottles, it can be daunting to read all the varying claims made over proprietary blends. What actually works? What should you be taking? I have my own thoughts on this which I share on the page My Workout Gear & Supplements, but let me work this into a general rule here: Don’t take any supplements without a specific reason and understanding of EXACTLY what this supplement is meant to do.
The workout industry is somewhat predatory on newbies, in my opinion. I used to see it in the military all the time: stick thin 18-year olds would walk into GNC, tell the clerk they wanted supplements to help them get started with weightlifting, and they’d walk out of the store with two hundred dollar’s worth of various pills and powders without any real clue of what any of it was meant to do – and would need to come back for another load 30 days from now. I really don’t believe this is necessary and that these young guys are preyed upon for their naïvete. Do your research before taking supplements and have real, understood reasons for taking anything you put into your body – and err on the side of “less is more” when it comes to supplementation.