That’s how long I’ve been strength training. During that period of time I’ve learned a lot. Not just about strength training, but the effects it has on my body and mind. I’ve also learned some other valuable lessons that one is bound to experience from having a heavy barbell in their hands.
Here are 28 lessons I’ve learned over the past 13 years of strength training.
1) The reason you begin strength training most likely won’t be the reason you continue to strength train long-term. I would estimate that approximately 95% of clients who hire me do so because they want to lose fat and look better. But that’s not what keeps them motivated long-term.
Sure, at first all they’re concerned about is looking great, but once they strength train the Beautiful Badass way, they crave way more than that. Instead of focusing on losing fat, they begin to care about setting new personal records. They want to see how strong they can get. They strive to achieve physical feats they’ve never been able to do. Their mentality changes from physique oriented goals to performance oriented goals. That’s not to say trainees, and myself included, no longer care about looking great; it’s just that our focus is on what we can do and we reap the benefits of building a better body in the process.
2) As you become more experienced and stronger, you’ve gotta do things differently. In short, what works when you’re a beginner won’t necessarily work when you’re an advanced trainee. I’ve reached several plateaus in my training career and I had to change things up — the exercises, intensities, training frequency, and other variables — so I could keep making progress and stay healthy.
3) Strength training does more than build a strong, great looking body. It’s a powerful tool for forging greater self-confidence, mental fortitude, and grit. Tooting around with dinky isolation exercises for half an hour most likely won’t do a thing for your body or mind. But, when you’re ripping twice your bodyweight off the ground, pushing through a brutal set of squats when your mind desperately wants to quit, busting out bodyweight chin-ups, running hill sprints, or doing other exercises that test your body AND mind, that’s a whole different story. Those things build you.
High rep squats. A great way to test your physical and mental fortitude.
Unfortunately we live in a day and time when most peoples’ daily activity consists of walking to and from the car, so most people never even test their physical and mental capabilities. But when you push yourself (safely, of course) and depart from your comfort zone, then you’ll be able to forge some serious mental toughness. And it sure can be fun and incredibly rewarding.
4) Strength training allows you to value and appreciate your body for what it can DO, not just for how it looks. It’s easy to get wrapped up in building a better looking body, but strength training can show you just how awesome your body is and what it can allow you to do.
5) It’s a great way to teach and show young women how to choose strength over dieting. Young girls need positive role models to show them how to be strong, confident, and proud of who they are. They should be hearing words like “strong” and “confident” and not “diets” and “skinny”.
6) Strength training is incredibly versatile and provides a ton of variety. Some people think “strength training” means nothing more then performing the traditional powerlifts — squat, bench press, and deadlift — and hoisting super heavy weights. Truth is, there are tons of different ways to strength train.
You can work out exclusively with bodyweight exercises, kettlebells, dumbbells, strong man equipment, or any combination thereof. Furthermore, there are no “mandatory exercises” you have to do. It’s all about using proper exercise variations (these are covered in the Train to be Awesome Guide) that work best for you.
You don’t have to lift super heavy, perform conventional deadlifts, or incorporate kettlebells exercises just because they’re popular. Do the exercises that work best for you depending on the equipment you have, your training and injury history, and personal preferences. As long as you follow a well designed program, you’ll be just fine.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to try new things from time-to-time for a change of pace and a new challenge.
7) Strength training is a great stress reliever. Anyone who’s had a less-than-spectacular-day and goes to the gym to break a personal record in protest knows this one is true.
8) Strength training can be a great tool for feeling better, but it can also wreck you. Have some nagging aches or pains? Or maybe you just need to strengthen your tendons and get your blood flowing. Strength training is a great tool for building your body. You can also strength train in a way that alleviates nagging aches and pains caused by super heavy lifting or from general weakness.
For example, if you’re feeling a bit beat up from heavy lifting, try switching to predominately dumbbell and bodyweight exercises for moderate to higher reps for a few weeks. I’ve done this several times myself throughout my strength training career, and it’s a great way to feel awesome and train hard while allowing some aches to heal.
However, strength training can also wreck you if you’re not careful.
Here’s an important lesson I learned a long time ago — do NOT force yourself to perform exercises that just don’t agree with your body. There’s this theory that if an exercise causes pain or discomfort that it’s an execution problem from improper form. But sometimes it’s not a person’s exercise form that’s the problem. Some people genuinely cannot perform certain exercises, no matter how perfect their form may be.
You may have certain imbalances or injuries that prevent you from safely performing certain exercises. Or, sometimes there’s no logical explanation and your body just doesn’t like a certain movement.
If your form is perfect and an exercise still causes pain — either immediately or the next day — don’t force it. Stop doing that exercise(s) and switch to one you can do absolutely pain free.
9) As you proceed with your strength training journey you, hopefully, realize the weight on the barbell is important, and not the weight on the scale. The scale is stupid (there, I said it) and most people rely on it unnecessarily. Train hard, eat well, have some fun, and forget about the scale. There are much better indicators for your fat loss and body transformation success anyway such as how you feel, energy levels, how your clothes fit, and your performance in the gym.
10) Makes activities of daily living easier and allows you to participate in more activities. I’m not going to deny the importance of specificity with skills or activities, but, strength training has allowed me to participate in other recreational activities with a smaller learning curve. For example, the first time I went bouldering and rock climbing I did quite well because I had trained my way to being able to bust out sets of pull-ups. When I go ski-boarding I notice I’m strong and stable from doing single leg exercises.
Strength training has some carry over to other activities and even makes regular activities of daily living easier, and this is especially important as we get older.
11) You can always do something, even if you’re injured. If you’ve got a broken ankle, you can still train your upper body. If you have a bum shoulder, focus on your lower body. You can always do something. You can always get better.
12) For beginner strength trainees or those who haven’t spent much time on the basic exercises, it’s a great way to build momentum that lead to greater health transformations. A long-lasting transformation begins with a small, sustainable change.
For some people that means adopting a fun workout routine. Just by working out consistently, they start to make additional healthier decisions like being more active and eating better.
Strength training is also wonderful for producing some immediate results, especially for beginners. A beginner can see quick strength increases which can build a lot of momentum for making other smart choices in their daily lives.
13) Discover strengths about yourself you didn’t even know you possessed. In a world where we constantly compare ourselves to others, strength training is an awesome activity for revealing YOUR natural strengths, talents, and abilities. We all have different body types, bone structure, tendon origins and insertions, and limb and torso lengths that have a direct impact on our natural strength levels.
Strength training reveals and allows you to embrace and highlight your natural abilities.
14) The longer you stick with it, the more benefits you reap. As you become more experienced, not only do the strength gains come at a slower pace, but so do the physique changes. However, if you track your progress for years, it’s pretty dang cool to see the changes that can occur. You’ll get stronger, your body will be shaped differently, and your confidence will continue to increase.
15) Strength training can take many forms. You don’t have to be a member of a huge mega gym with all of the latest and greatest equipment. You can get strong with different exercises and equipment. From powerlifting, to kettlebell training, to advanced bodyweight exercises, there are plenty of ways to strength train. Don’t sell yourself short and think there’s only “one way” to train hard.
16) It’s a terrific gauge for tracking progress. In my experience, if your performance in the gym is constantly improving, even if by just a little bit, there’s a dang good chance you’re going to achieve your health and physique goals.
17) A great tool for learning to listen to your body. If you’re mindful while strength training, you’ll really learn how to listen to your body, which is something a lot of us suck at, and I did for many years. Be present when you’re training, focus on every rep of every set, and pay attention to how your body feels. How does the barbell feel in your hands? Pay attention to your muscles as they push and pull the weight. Focus on your range of motion.
Strength training helps you become more aware of your body, how it moves, and what it best responds to.
18) If you get bored there’s always a new challenge available. This is one of my favorite things about strength training. I won’t lie — I get bored with my workouts on occasion. Sometimes I get tired of doing the same exercises or following the same training split for too long.
But there are always some cool strength training techniques you can use to break up the monotony. You can set new challenging goals to revive your enthusiasm for training as well. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and present your body and mind with a new challenge. The possibilities are endless — you can set a new conditioning challenge and start running hill sprints, you can make it a goal to dominate your bodyweight and be able to do flawless sets of pull-ups, dips, and pistols, or you can learn some new lifts.
If you have a home gym you can always add a new toy to the mix, just like I do every few months. For example, my latest toy is a pair of homemade parallettes.
19) Sometimes you need to get out of the gym for a while. I love strength training, but sometimes it’s beneficial to get out of the gym for a solid week. Don’t be afraid to give your body and mind a rest and do something else. For example, whenever I go on vacation nowadays I don’t strength train at all. I have fun in other active ways.
20) As you become more experienced you can get obsessed with chasing personal records. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, if you get bit by the strength training bug, it’s easy to start basing your success off your performance on a day-to-day basis. For example, in the beginning it’s not uncommon for a trainee to add 5-10 pounds to a lift on a weekly basis.
They can become addicted to these huge jumps in weight. Inevitably as they enter the intermediate training stage the strength gains come slower. To some people, this is very discouraging because they’re used to, and want, HUGE gains every week. If they don’t achieve them, they think they’re screwing up.
Don’t get overly focused on beating personal records, especially as you become more experienced. Your success or failure does not hinge on a single weeks’ worth of workouts. Learn to enjoy the journey itself without getting to obsessed over a single goal.
21) Sometimes less is more. It’s quite easy to fall into the, “If some is good, then more must be better” mindset. As a result, trainees will start out lifting weights 3 days a week, but then they bump it up to 4 or 5 days. While this can be good for a change of pace and to break through a plateau, it can also lead to mental burnout, injury, and unnecessary stress from going to the gym most days per week.
If you’ve been doing more and more but you’re not getting results or you’re feeling burned out, you may want to take a step back and return to the basics.
22) If you’re feeling a bit beat up, do yourself a favor and lower the weight. Getting stronger can be addicting. But sometimes the best thing you can do is scale back the weight by 15-20% and really focus on your form. Give your joints and mind a break from the heavy, intense lifting and focus on the movements themselves with a weight you can control and dominate. This is good for the body and mind.
23) If you have the right mindset with your workouts, this can also lead to positive nutrition changes. The “right mindset with your workouts” means, at least in my opinion, that you’re focused on your performance in the gym and being proud of what your body can DO. Strength training is not punishment for eating too much food or anything like that.
If you’re strength training to become a better version of yourself, then this can lead to positive nutrition changes as well. In my personal experience and with many of my clients, having a positive, performance oriented mindset can be helpful for making better nutrition choices and breaking free from OCD eating habits.
24) Beware of analysis-paralysis. It’s easy to stray from the basics and look for the latest and greatest secrets to losing fat, sculpting muscle, and getting strong. Heck, I’ve done it too many times in the past then I care to remember.
Sometimes we get distracted by shiny new “techniques” and workout programs that we end up jumping from one to the next every week. We get trapped into thinking that some other program could deliver even better results.
Come up with a goal, pick a program suited to that goal, and stick with it for at least a few weeks. If you’re getting results and feel good, stick with it.
25) After you’ve spent enough time with a barbell in your hands, you develop a pretty good BS detector. Building a stronger body and mind is a great way to develop a keen sense for popular hyperbole and things like The Skinny Rules that are promoted in magazines and on TV.
26) Beware of the strength training ego. Ah, the ego of the strength trainee. Don’t let it dictate how you train ever day. Listen to your body and take a break when needed or use a lighter weight if necessary. You can’t set personal records every day, so don’t let your ego tell you otherwise. I’ve listened to my ego too many times and got injured as a result.
27) Our body provides plenty of feedback; we just don’t always listen. This ties in to the point above. Our bodies tell us if we have the energy to set new personal records or if a weight is too heavy today. Maybe we have a little ache in our elbow, but we push through with our workout anyway and “work through the pain”.
The very best thing a strength trainee can do is learn to listen to their body on any given day, and respond accordingly. Take advantage of the days when you feel great. Likewise, know when to back off.
28) Strength training is an amazing way to become an even more awesome and stronger version of yourself. This is the goal that matters most. Make it yours, too.
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