Recently, I had a friend come to me with a problem. I knew this guy in college, and he’s always been in great shape. We had a few classes together, and we definitely shared quite a few workouts in the gym. He’s an excellent lifter with a great physique, and he knows it. But the problem, he explained to me, was that he often hampers his own progress. He goes into the gym knowing what he wants to do, but gets derailed somehow or another and doesn’t manage to stick to his plan. What advice could I give him?
Ultimately smart lifters always do stupid things. That’s in our blood. We’re human. We screw up. No one is on 100% of the time, and we’re going to make mistakes sooner or later. Even Arnold, in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, recounts a time when he was completely unmotivated to walk into the gym until his friends dragged him in and reminded him of his goals. Ultimately, it shouldn’t be about our mistakes: it should be about how we handle them.
Lots of people spin their wheels because they fail to stick to a solid plan. Hell, I did that for about the first five years that I lifted weights. People just sort of do things without any plan, and as a result they never quite get anywhere. They might see results, but definitely not the ones they want. Ultimately, a smart lifter is set apart from everyone else by three things: a clearly defined set of goals, a knowledge of the right way to pursue those goals, and the motivation to follow through on the plan.
There’s one big problem I know I struggle with: effective goal setting. I’m always focused on getting stronger, and most of my training reflects that. It’s why I’ve gotten as far as I have. But When it comes to setting secondary goals, I’m all over the place. One week I want to cut, another week I want to bulk, a third week I want to learn Olympic lifting, and a fourth I want to add a bit of size to my biceps. The end result is that while my primary work is very focused, my assistance work is where I struggle to train optimally.
People like me ultimately just need to set a single overarching goal. Since my primary goal is strength, that’s the one thing that ties all my stupidity together. This is one of the reasons why even Mr. Olympia competitors need coaches and trainers: because having an external person to remind you of your overall goals is a must. (Also, why everyone serious should have coaches, even if they're a coach themselves and know what they're doing: it's hard to be objective about your own training, and you can easily screw up a lot without an external coach to keep you on track.) Prepping with a competition in mind also provides the structure you need to pick a goal and run with it. Honestly, a lot of people might do a lot better in the gym if they could pick some kind of amateur competition to shoot for, because it would really set their goals in line.
Secondly it comes to knowledge. When it comes down to it, knowledge is a thing you either have or don’t. You can pay a trainer to help you if you’re new, but if you’ve been training for a while, it’s up to you to learn the best way to train for your goals. When it comes to smart, experienced lifters, chances are you’ve already got this part down.
Lastly, it comes down to motivation. This is where a lot of misconceptions get thrown around. One of the huge problems with extremely rigid set and rep plans is that they can easily fail to account for the human element. Some days you’re going to feel like shit in the gym, and others you’re gonna feel like a million bucks. Working too hard on a bad day, or working too little on a good day: both are going to be suboptimal in your training. Learn to adjust your workouts to you, and play with your guidelines. As I’ve emphasized in my book, the UpLift Method, it’s all about finding out what makes you tick and running with that. No matter what you do, definitely don’t go look at all those godawful fitness motivation memes out there, because that’s not how motivation works and they aren’t gonna do a thing for you. Learn to develop habits, and focus on perfecting them.
Why do we make mistakes in the gym? Usually because we’re trying to do too much, or not enough. Another huge point: keep the long term in mind. If you keep at it, you’re going to get better no matter what, even if you just keep doing the same stuff over and over. It’s not gonna be optimal, but it’ll happen. In Deadlift Dynamite, Andy Bolton talks about how it once took him a year to put an extra 10lbs on his (world class!) deadlift. 10lbs in a year! Most of us want to put that on in a month. Learning to embrace the long term, and letting short term slip-ups fall to the wayside, is the first step to going from good lifter to great lifter.
No matter what you do, don’t blame yourself. Look at your mistake as a learning experience, find out what it says about you, and try to use that information in the future. Move on, and let even your mistakes and failures make you stronger.