Lessons From a Life With the Iron

A lot has changed about training in the last three decades, but these concepts haven’t.

When it comes to your training and nutrition knowledge, I always say it’s not the years but the miles; the wear and tear you experience teaches you what you need to know. No one pushes the iron for a number of years without a few nicks and scratches along the way, especially if you’re the type who pushes your limits and tests your mettle.

I’ve always thought of myself as a student. Once I started teaching at a university level, it was an odd experience to be on the other side of the classroom for the first time. However, I found myself the student once more, trying to convey formal knowledge, personal experiences, and a sense of genuine interest (for the students and myself). Always learning, indeed.

But today, I would like to pause and take a quick look back at what I’ve learned over the years. As a lecturer on strength and conditioning programming and basic resistance training methods, I’ve noticed the same principles I’ve learned and followed over the past 27 years or so still hold up quite well today. With all of the “tips” and “tricks” riddling the web today, it’s nice to look back and understand what really mattered.

Nothing Beats Discipline

Most will blow right by this section. They think that it’s nothing new, and feel as though they’ve got this one principle down pat. But if we’re honest, discipline is something we all need to work on. Laziness, lack of focus, and distraction creep into our lives without warning or worry, causing us to miss training days, make poor nutrition choices, and fall short of our goals.

Ask yourself if you practice real, dedicated, consistent discipline when it comes to training, eating, resting and mindset. No matter what special, cute little program you’re following at the moment, nothing—I mean nothing—will work unless discipline is consistently applied. I can look back over the years and clearly see the times where discipline was enforced, and when it waned. The simple (not easy) act of discipline is the starting point for all things. If you don’t have it, get it.

Commit to Your Experiments

We’ve all heard that we should try new programs, but I want to challenge you to add commitment to what you try. Too many lifters dip their toes in a new program, but never really take the plunge. I’ve been through the wringer with programs over the years; German volume training, high intensity, rest/pause, high volume, compound exclusive, circuit style, and countless others. I can look back and say that I truly committed to all of these programs when the time came.

Dedicate a significant amount of time and effort into experimenting with new techniques and programs. If you simply try something out for a day or two, you will never have given the program a chance. The body isn’t a machine; it takes times to adapt and benefit from new stimuli. Also, don’t play it safe and simply add a set or two or try only one new exercise. Don’t be afraid to screw around with your training, get outside of your comfort zone, and throw a wrench in the system. Sometimes the gamble will work; other times, you’ll just learn a lot, either way, you win.

Have a Fall-Back Plan

This next piece of advice may seem a bit contradictory to the above, but bear with me. When you experiment, the goal is to find out what works and what doesn’t; to find a possible new method or mode that suits your goals and needs. After some time, you will find a rough path to follow and things will start to progress in a comfortable way. In other words, you’ll finally start to have a grasp on what works for you. 

You will start to have a better understanding about how your body reacts to certain types of training methods. Once you have that established, you should have just a few go-to programs at your disposal that you know will work for your body, to fall back on if one of your experiments fails. You will have gained enough knowledge and experience to be your own coach and truly know what’s best for you.

Develop Patience

I’m glad I grew up in a time before technology took over our lives. Tech does make our lives easier, but it’s also greatly distracted us from what’s truly important—especially life lessons that require real effort. Patience is one such lesson that I had to develop the old-fashioned way. Results in and out of the gym require real patience. In this “I need it now yesterday” society, patience is becoming scarce. Those who can master this trait will be better off for it in the long run.

And that’s the trick; this whole fitness thing is a long game, not a quick fix. Make a sensible, credible plan, set it in motion, then muster up enough patience to see it through. Yes, you will ebb and flow as with anything in life, but rest assured that when you practice these things, you will eventually possess real, long-lasting results to build on.

Roll With the Punches

The longer you live, the more experiences (good and bad) you’ll encounter. Setbacks are inevitable, and I’ve certainly had my share. From military deployments, to cancer treatment, to natural disasters, I’ve had to learn how to cope along the way. There isn’t a user’s manual for life’s surprises, other than going through them.

When it comes to training, variation in your progress and success will (not may) become a reality. From illness, to injury, to bad choices, to unexpected circumstances, life it will rear its head when you least expect. The trick is to always be open to it. I was once so bent on my routine, my way of doing things and my personal comfort zone that when something shifted out of line, I wasn’t able to effectively adjust. But with an open mindset and a willingness to improvise and adapt, you will be better prepared for impending change.

You Can’t Go All Out, All the Time

You’ve heard tales of epic workouts, and may have had a few yourself over the years. The image of brutal, intense, balls-to-the-wall training sessions are looked at as badges of honor. Lifters have adopted “go heavy or go home,” and “crawling out of the gym after a leg day,” as standard practice. It’s as if this image is required in order to make any real progress.

But like most things in life, moderation reigns supreme, especially when it comes to training. Going all out every day is a one-way ticket to Burnout-ville. Yes, you will have to train hard to make progress, but not at the expense of injury and a potential loss of interest in training altogether. The point of training is sustainable progress, not forcing your body into something it’s not ready to do.

Have Some Freakin’ Fun

If you don’t enjoy the process toward your goal, find something else to go after. If you suddenly find that you’re dreading the gym, you have two choices. One, you can take a break or adjust what you’re currently doing. Maybe you need to shift gears and try a new program or possibly take a much-needed rest from training altogether. Two, you may need to try something completely different. If you’ve been lifting weights traditionally for some time, you may want to experiment with other forms of exercise such as running, obstacle course racing, triathlons, recreational sports, or any other form of activity.

The bottom line is to have fun. Don’t continue to dread your workouts and have it feel like a job you hate, versus something you love to do. You’ll end up miserable and depressed—and do you think you’ll be successful in that mindset? Don’t take yourself too seriously, find joy in training with friends, and just have a little fun along the way. 

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