A lady at my gym does everything wrong…
This one took some self-control on my part, mostly to NOT watch the train wreck floating between machines and free weights. Everything from exercise selection to exercise execution, resistance level to lift cadence were dead wrong.
If that in any way offends you, you NEED to hear this, because it means you value participation trophies over right practice in the domain of strength training and mind-body development, and you’re destined to be THAT person if ever you take up a serious strength training regimen for yourself. There are certain prerequisites for change in the human body, and they have nothing to do with personal preference.
But don’t worry, you, me, we got each other, and we can learn from this. We can stay safe, get rapid results, AND keep training time to a minimum.
I learned a long time ago - long-long - not to give advice unless it was asked. And I’m not the gym owner in this case, and I’m not playing the role of real-world coach, save for remote coaching. Despite that, I nearly broke my own rule yesterday and stepped it. Nearly. It was painful to watch.
Here, a list of the strength training mistakes that offended my deep sense of structure, movement, and applied stress:
- Sole focus on isolation exercises.
- Weights selected were far too light.
- Angles of many exercises were incorrect (could not activate muscles targeted effectively).
- Majority focus was on resistance training (error listed above), and almost no aerobic training.
I could go into great detail dissecting each of these errors, but I’ve done that, and done that, and if they don’t resonate, check out the chapter ‘From Businessman to Beast’ and ‘The Austrian Actress and the Shaolin Imperative’ in In Pursuit of Weightlessness, where I go into great detail about exercise selection, programming, and principles of applied stress.
But if you’ve read that, or get these, then consider this a refresher… the reasons this woman will not see the results she’s after, and what you must always keep in mind:
- Almost nobody needs isolation work. It’s a modern myth of training, only appropriate for bodybuilders, sport specialists, and those otherwise crushing foundational work and looking for specific physique enhancements. Despite this, even many trainers don’t understand this, and have their clients wasting time (and money) with ineffective prescriptions. If you’re doing leg extensions and ignoring weighted squats and lunges - ya busted. If you’re doing bicep curls and ignoring pull-downs or heavy rows - ya busted. And I don’t mean 10 light rows when you could manage 30 with a gun to your head. I mean 5. 5 rows that tax your body and make your brain explode. 5 squats (free, machine, or otherwise) that make you question if you can even continue the workout (this does not mean that 5 is the only rep range that matters, it means if you don’t know how to design progressive programs, 5 reps will ensure you don’t get distracted by rep count and fail to go all in). DO NOT GO TO THE GYM TO EXERCISE. Go to train. Go to test your capacities and get stronger. Every. Workout. That’s what moves the needle (for both men AND women, for both athletes and the average gym goer).
- 3 Vectors must govern your strength training: Push, Pull, and Squat. These cover 80 to 90% of your training needs and can (should) be covered in less than 30 minutes per session, and ideally less than 20 (to signify sufficient intensity) for beginners (4 to 5 sets per vector). Ideal pushing exercises are pushups and bench / machine presses. Ideal pulling includes rowing and pullup related movements. And ideal squatting includes squats, lunges, and dead lift. One exercise per vector per workout is sufficient. Set the weight / resistance per set to where 6 or 7 reps wouldn’t be possible if your life depended on it. Advanced trainees may need to periodize these movement vectors over several workouts, and perhaps even reduce weekly volume to allow for greater intensity, as discussed in The Warrior Training Arc, but beginner to intermediate trainees, or those carrying more than 20-30 lbs of extra body fat, should hit them every workout, three times per week. Secondary considerations are the press vector (ideally shoulder press) and twist vector (any of the key core abdominal exercises, with emphasis on crunches (weighted or otherwise) and / or leg raises (but these do require technical training for most people)).
- Aerobic conditioning (Cardio) matters. There are many ways to skin a cat, from steady state cardio to HITT workouts to sport for fun. If you’re strength training with intensity, steady state cardio can be a great supplement. If not, HITT kills two birds with one stone. It’s very difficult to do both strength training and HITT within the same weekly program due to neural fatigue and prolonged recovery time, but if you’ve got appropriate program design, it can be done. But make no mistake, you gotta give some attention to sustained output (aerobic exercise / cardio), both to strengthen the heart and to support fat mobilization / fat burning in the body (among other reasons). This can be done independently of your strength regime on another day, or after it within the same workout. It should be both challenging and sustainable, for fifteen to thirty minutes. Many things can accommodate this, but my preference is always for those things that allow for clear measurement and incremental adjustment. WARNING: You must strength train! It’s first and foremost, regardless of your personal objectives. Whether you want to build size or trim down and get super lean, strength training builds the structure and stability required to make aerobic exercise safe.
If those workout guidelines make conceptual sense but you’re not sure of your form, please, I beg you, don’t just ignore them and go back to bicep curls. Angels literally lose their wings over that shit.
Hire a strength training coach. Not a personal trainer. Not a CrossFit trainer. A strength coach.
Someone who gets people strong for a living, very strong, and who can show you strict, technical form for primary lifts: Deadlift, Pullup, Pushup, Bench Press, Shoulder Press, Squat, and Lunge.
Ask him if you can film the lesson (he may not agree) if you keep the video private and get both his instruction AND your own attempts on tape from front and side angles. If he doesn’t agree, take notes, and photos.
We spend money on shit. All of us do it.
We buy trinkets we don’t need, and extra beers we sure as shit don’t need. You could likely hire an excellent coach for $100 to $200 a session. If you do the above, you could do a follow-up session four weeks later after you conscientiously apply, correct, apply, and correct your key movements three times a week between consults (This assumes you may not invest in frequent coaching, which would be even better, but comes at a higher cost).
This may sound like a lot of money, but it would be the best money you’ve ever spent.
Most people think the value add of a coach is to have someone that pushes you. It shouldn’t be (at least it shouldn’t ONLY be for that).
If you need someone to push you to take care of yourself, that may be something to reflect on, for the implication is clear… you won’t do it properly otherwise. The only problem is, this is YOUR health. It’s YOUR body. You get just one of them. And its condition affects everything from how you get off the toilet to how confident you feel in new environments, executing purpose-filled tasks, and while taking new risks.
Here is why you SHOULD hire a strength coach: Knowledge and Insight.
Please read that twice. When you’re dealing with an experienced coach who makes people strong for a living, they know things. They know things you think you know already, but you don’t. They know your body better than you do. And they see things.
They see your weaknesses as soon as you walk through the door (not merely physical ones). And they know where your body will break; they know this YEARS in advance of any injury or chronic pain manifestation. Your body carries a story years in the making. Some people are masters at reading that book.
Knowledge and Insight.
It’s what we all need. And it’s what an expert can give at the price of sacrificing ten to twenty Starbucks coffees or IPA’s over the next couple months.
I will acknowledge that we live in an awesome era where true masters live on YouTube. If you have time and drive and are athletically inclined, you can likely learn most of what you need that way. But as someone who has worked with other bodies for over a decade, many people are not great visual learners and don't have the proprioception to know their copied movements don't quite match those of the coach in the video. With no one there to give verbal or physical correction, skill acquisition that might take weeks to months could instead take years, lead to injury, or never come at all.
I’ll leave you with an old anecdote to put that investment in perspective.
Guy goes to a street artist in New York, gets his portrait drawn. The portrait, masterfully sketched, was completed in just fifteen minutes.
“That’ll be $150 bucks,” said the artist.
The man, shocked, said, “That only took fifteen minutes, why the exorbitant price?”
The artist corrected, “Twenty years and fifteen minutes, to be precise.”
He saw, in a second, the relevant details in form and structure of the face. And he applied the most relevant techniques to create something from nothing, art that will last a lifetime.
Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it ain’t there. A good coach will save you from a future of pain, of joint replacements, of illnesses due to weak metabolism and a lack of muscle mass (all of which cost money to fix), and of countless moments of insecurity and self-doubt – not believing you can accomplish what you dream, because the character in the mirror doesn’t look like the ones in the movies who tear shit up and win.
I implore you, don’t reduce the hour with that coach to an hour of making you do shit you fundamentally don’t want to do cause 'science' or the Morning Show says it’s good for you. Frame it as the purchase of twenty years of wisdom appropriated to your exact needs, so that you can flourish tomorrow and thereafter.
And when you walk in that door and see coach sizing you up, let him know that Tom Fazio sent you, that you’re not just there for a workout, and that you’re ready to party.