34 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Working Out

I started going into gyms regularly at the age of 14. Since then, I’ve yo-yo dieted, been on-again/off-again, hurt myself plenty and paid close attention to all kinds of things that don’t matter. I’ll stop there or else I’ll be sitting here forever finding the best possible way to describe how many mistakes I’ve made with this stuff.

Won’t keep you waiting though, here’s 34 things I want you to know about this thing we call working out. I hope it helps you.

1. Go out of your way to go a little light in the beginning.

It’s funny, I still remember getting this right at 15 years old. I had this bench in my basement and starting on Day 1 of school, I came home every day and ripped off 5 sets of 10 reps on the bench press. I started day 1 really light, but I reasoned with myself that if I did it every day it would add up. Really, I have no idea where the wisdom came from — that 15 year old kid got something right.

I hope you take that approach. Let it add up over time.

Err on the side of too light to start – that way you’ll be adding a little bit each week for a while and it may actually start to feel really good. And if it’s way too light, just make it a bit heavier. Beats going too heavy and taking weight off the bar.

I get it, you want to be challenged. That’ll come. Challenge yourself with things like consistency and movement quality.

Long game. Play it.

2. Pick a goal and stick to it

Few things will get in the way of your success than not deciding to tackle one main thing. It happens all the time. “I wanna build muscle”, then 4 weeks later, “no I should burn fat”. No wait, I’m just gonna get strong and go to yoga.

Program hopping and goal hopping. Can’t have it.

 3Training matters for getting leaner, but diet matters more.

When looking to get leaner, you should strength train. You will probably be disappointed if you prioritize anything else when it comes to exercise.

Create an energy deficit with diet. Keep the muscle with protein and strength. Many ways to do it, but in the end, are you eating little enough to lose weight? Are you forcing your body to keep muscle with strength training and protein?

Answering those two questions still make it all happen. If you read anything that takes you away from those two things, you’re being, to an extent, misdirected. No matter what anyone tells you, good info or bad, those two things can’t be missed.

But diet’s where *most* of your attention needs to be to see changes.

4. No special programs

 The Internet is full of false promises and it won’t take you long to find programs that fit the bill.

There are good programs and bad programs. Great programs only happen when you consider the individual and how the individual uses the program. They also build off each other over time.

Truth is, if you’re pursuing this to look good, get stronger and move better the most important part of any quality program you get is YOU. Do you add weights slowly, while prioritizing technique. If you’re looking to lean down, do you couple the program with a diet. Looking to build muscle? Are you eating enough.

There are fat loss programs, muscle gain programs, strength programs and hybrids. Done well, they are good programs. They only become great or special as they build upon each other. And they depend on you executing properly.

5. How much protein? How little food? How much strength?

Protein?

Ideally as close to 1 gram per pound of bodyweight (or ideal bodyweight if you feel you’ve got a lot to lose).

How much food for weight loss? Here’s some general guidelines.

Anywhere from 9-12 calories per pound of bodyweight. Not a hard and fast rule but this will work for most and allows for a little wiggle room.

So, a 200 pound person would be around 1600-2400/day.

A 150 pound person would go from 1200-1700 calories/day.

Many will go to the low end of this because they want to lose it fast, and I assure you, you can go lower than this. I just wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a coach guiding you. And your coach may suggest it isn’t a good idea anyways.

It’s not pleasant. And the risks of rebound increase if you aren’t careful.

How much strength?

It’ll take you years and years to build up “too much”, so pursue the art of a little bit more weight on the bar for as long as you can.

No special diet ensures you’re losing fat – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you’re getting weaker while losing weight, you’re probably losing muscle. That’s a good gauge.

And avoid doing too much work — 3 sets of 4-6 exercises, 3-4 times a week — that’s plenty. Supplement this with protein and sleep and you’ll be fine.

6. If you aren’t making the progress you want on your own, find a coach.

Few actually know this, but when I was 19 I used some birthday money to hire an “online coach”. It was the first time I saw real progress. I was too shortsighted (and distracted) to continue after 2 months, but I sure as hell learned just how much of a difference diligent calorie counting makes.

I didn’t have baseline habits down, lost the progress and, well..

It took me 10 years of in/out consistency to get it right again. What made the difference? I hired someone again. This around online training had exploded and I happened to hire one of the best. Jordan has been one of the better investments I’ve ever made.

Twelve months and counting.

There are many people out there that have no problem getting to the gym, that know what to do, but just aren’t doing it. And if they’re doing it, chances are, they don’t do it for long enough before something gets in the way.

If that’s you, you’re probably also the most likely to be looking for the latest program, nutritional hack, or even supplement to solve your problem. Your best bet is to hire someone to listen to instead of continuing to listen to the endless amount of good people you find on the Internet.

With regards to burning fat and building muscle, they’re all basically saying the same things in their own way anyways.

7. When trying to change the look of your body, consider calorie counting (and protein)

What was the most impactful common denominator in my two online coaching purchases? Calorie counting. Very diligent calorie counting. I learned a ton about food and calorie counting is easy if I ever want to dial in. It also taught me a lot about maintaining my progress.

People typically hit snags after a few months of “eating healthy”. If they’re really solid on their decision to avoid tracking, instead of looking for a way to cut calories (without counting them), they add workouts, workout even harder, look for special programs, and maybe even buy into a supplement sales script.

If you want to keep losing fat and seeing the scale go down, the answer is calorie restriction. I think most will do better if they aren’t guessing.

That being said, calorie counting isn’t an end game, but I do think people really start to learn things when they commit to it for a while. It also gets easier.

Either way, this article sold me.

And it led to this…

unnamed
                               He calorie counted too.

8. Piggybacking on #7 – carbs and fats are pretty much irrelevant.

If you want to count carbs and fats because myfitnesspal told you to, that’s fine. But if it makes life easier for you, you can definitely stop.

Calorie intake will drive your weight loss more than anything else.

Protein intake (and strength training) will give your body what’s necessary to keep muscle while the body chooses fat for energy.

It is true, the difference between carbs and fats is there – they have different impacts on your health. Carbs and fats both have good and bad sources. But for weight loss? The difference is pretty much irrelevant.

They work themselves out if calories are low and you’ve set protein to take up a lot of the already limited calories space.

9. If you’re gonna count, make sure you have the basic habits down

There is a lot to be said – and fat to be burned – if people would just:

  • quit eating when they aren’t hungry most of the time
  • build most (or all) meals around protein
  • eat more fruits and vegetables
  • saving sugary/processed foods for times when it’s worth it (holidays, social hours, etc).
  • build an exercise routine

Why? Because just by doing that you’ll be heading in the right direction. You’ll also feel better, have more energy, and have habits that will help you keep your progress.

Note: You’re gonna get that progress someday. Best know how to keep it 🙂

I wish I would have learned this one earlier because although calorie counting does work if you eat like crap, without those habits built in your chances of holding on to results at all are very low.

10. Seriously consider paying attention to measurements of progress

If it’s strength you’re after, clearly journaling your numbers will be important. You may be able to go a while just tracking in your head but somewhere down the line you’re gonna get to periods where you lift 165 pounds for 10 reps and think that’s not good because months ago you lifted 180.

Your journal says you did 180 for 4. That means you got stronger.

If it’s the look of your body, I’d still journal your workout numbers. Yes, even if it’s a hassle. Strength matters.

But for visual changes? Weight, body measurements and pictures. Set a schedule for two of these minimum. Preferably all 3.

You’ll either not see progress and you should be able to find a good reason why. Or you’ll see progress and you’ll be able to tell your brain to buzz off because a lot of the times what forces people to quit is doubt.

All the knowledge in the world won’t help you when your brain forces you to doubt whether your efforts are worth it. You need to have a comeback.

11. There are no exercises that burn fat in any specific area

Fat loss is a general process and where it comes off is usually determined by where you are in the process. And hormones. Don’t get tied up in the hormones part, if you’re healthy and eat good food and sleep, you’re, in all likelihood, fine.

If you have quite a bit to lose, bad news, it’s not going to come from the places you want first. Nothing you can do about it.

By all means, have a “core day” and choose exercises that burn up your abs, just do it knowing that it isn’t helping you burn belly fat.

That’s why crunches never worked.

12. The most effective exercises for fat loss?

Big movements that work the whole body. Deadlift variations, squats, presses, rows, etc.

And if you want to take it into high gear, pair them together in circuits and do “cardio with weights”. Just don’t forget technique.

Here:

  1. Goblet Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat  x 8/side
  2. 3 point row x 12/side
  3. Goblet Squat x 12
  4. Push Up (off a bench?) x 10-15
  5. Assisted Leg Lift x 15secs

*repeat, with perfect form, as many times as you can in 12 minutes. Burn city.

13. Plenty of bad information on the web, but plenty of good too.

Just know that if you’ve found information from quality people on the web, in a lot of cases, they’re all just saying the same stuff but in their own words and preferences. Try not to pay attention to too many people. And sometimes they’re speaking to highly specific crowds that may, or may not, have relevance for you.

www.examine.com (for supplements)

http://www.precisionnutrition.com (for nutrition)

http://www.t-nation.com (all kinds of articles on everything fitness)

www.bretcontreras.com (the guy that popularized and refined the hell out of glute training)

www.girlsgonestrong.com (leading the female strength training movement)

www.alanaragon.com (his research review is one of the best bargains in fitness)

www.syattfitness.com (all kinds of topics covered in words you can understand)

www.robtrainsystems.com *

www.ericcressey.com *

Just the tip of the iceberg really.

*Speaking of these two, no two individuals have been more impactful in pointing me in the right direction. I found an article series they co-authored on T-Nation the night I realized I couldn’t walk more than 15-20 minutes without limping.

I was 26 and felt 72.

Through their work, I fixed myself and started learning the foundations of functional anatomy that still guide my work to this day. My debt to these two only grows.

Their work probably holds only limited use to you, but I list them because people ask how I got into this. And out of sincere appreciation.

14. Don’t do timelines

When I coach a client, I emphasize patience. You’ll need it – we can’t predict injuries, life stress, etc. Substantial, sustainable and life altering changes from fitness usually take 2-3 years.

You aren’t in as much of a rush as you think. And if you absolutely have to be, like an actor getting ready for a 20 million dollar payday, or maybe a wedding day, you best be ready to go all in.

People talk about how fast life goes. It does. They’re also talking about 80ish years, so what’s 2-3?

A blip on the radar. Lightspeed. You choose what you do with that blip.

15. All programs should have a variety of movements.

It’s called “structural balance” – all it means is that we respect the body’s anatomy by using a variety of different movements evenly (or close). This way we respect its desire to stay in balance. This leads to better symmetry, posture, movement, injury prevention and longterm gainzzzzzz (bro).

Many people have different opinions over what those movements are.

I go with these:

Knee Dominant (any squat, like a goblet squat)

Hip Dominant (deadlift variations, hip thrusts, pullthroughs, etc)

Single Leg Knee Dominant (like a split squat)

Single Leg Hip Dominant (like a single leg RDL)

Horizontal Push (like bench press)

Horizontal Pull (like a 3 point row)

Vertical Push (like an overhead press)

Vertical Pull (like a chin up or lat pulldown)

Carries (like suitcase carries)

Core (planks, rollouts, side planks, pallof presses, etc)

Isolation/bodybuilding work

  • Shoulders
  • Triceps
  • Biceps
  • Chest
  • Calves
  • Hamstrings

Doesn’t mean everyone of these has to be in every program. In some cases, some should absolutely be omitted (injuries, pain, limitations, goals). I underlined the one’s I’d use as a bare minimum, that’ll keep the body in balance.

16. Movement and strength are your foundations

Learn to do the exercises properly. The more diligent you are about learning the movements the better. And then get strong at them.

The stronger person will have a better foundation to lose fat, build muscle and even prevent injuries and feel amazing. But you’ll only get strong if you’re stacking it on quality movement.

17. Find more motivation than just looking better naked.

Nothing wrong with it being your primary motivation. No shame whatsoever in that. Hell, embrace it, that’s what pretty much everyone else is there for.

But find other reasons to motivate you.

They may not be quite as sexy, but anti-aging effects, avoiding osteoparosis, better movement/posture and positive brain effects are all very cool. And very backed by science, mind you.

And movement? Don’t forget the opposite sex is either consciously or unconsciously paying attention to the way you move. And your posture. They’re also paying attention to your brain, mood and youthfulness.

So if you’re in there to impress the opposite sex, great. Pay attention to more than just biceps and ass and your chances of getting there increase.

18. If you’re not getting the results you’re after with 3-4 workouts a week, chances are 5+ isn’t going to change anything.

I talk to a surprising amount of people that tell me they’re training 5 or more times a week. And I mean training pretty intensely, not just a light cardio session or some gentle yoga, like, hard sessions.

I’d quit it. Unless you’re actually able to devote your life to training like an Olympic athlete would, adding 5+ intense workouts on top of your job and other stuff is gonna to beat you up. You can fight through it all you want and in the early going motivation may win out and you might even like it.

Doubt it lasts.

Truth is, regardless of what your goals are, you don’t need it. You better really just be one of those people that loves the gym if you’re gonna be in there more than 4x a week.

You don’t have to love the gym to get amazing benefits and reach your goals though.

19. Just because an exercise is listed as the best doesn’t mean you should do it.

The ab wheel rollout may be one of the holy grails of core training but most people are risking injury if they try it. Getting there takes some serious work with exercises that are similar but easier – I go over many of them HERE

20. You’re best off just ignoring everything a supplement company ever says.

You won’t really lose out ignoring anything honest they might say, so don’t worry.

It’s pretty much all BS though. Give a supplement company enough attention and they may convince you to believe whatever they say. Partly because it’d be great if their claims were true. Always remember, the supplement industry is largely unregulated and run by slick marketing schemes and people who don’t give one fuck about you.

A decent protein powder always helps people hit their protein numbers. And creatine does actually do something. But it’s not like people didn’t hit bigtime fitness goals before it – it won’t make or break anything.

chemist-meme2
                                                  Get it today for only $4.67/serving.

21. There’s a time and place for it all – bodyweight, free weights, cables, machines, smith machines, bands and whatever else.

Bodyweight exercises: are and always will be the bigger bang for buck class of exercises. Chin ups, squats, push ups, etc. The fact you’re moving and stabilizing your entire body through these moves means you’re working lots of muscle at the same time. Done correctly they build athleticism, symmetry and healthy joints. More muscles worked means more muscle and more metabolism.

Machines: Best for building muscle. Only rely on them heavily if movement/athleticism is of no importance to you – in general, or in a specific phase of training. There are exceptions here though – I’ve used machines in situations I’d never expect when nothing else worked.

Cables: many different uses, but the nice thing about cables is you can change the direction of pull (by changing the setting) to suit athletic and bodybuilding training needs. There’s also plenty of exercises you can do on cables that are hard to duplicate elsewhere. Facepulls and pallof presses are good examples.

Free weights (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells): Good for everything. Can be used to load bodyweight exercises like chin ups and squats and serve as tools for lifting favourites like bench presses and bicep curls.

Smith Machine:

A coatrack.

Haha, but seriously, just another machine with a fixed path of movement.

Much like regular machines, I just think too many people rely on these because they haven’t learned how to move properly move or use free weights. You’re better off learning those and supplementing with machines — in most cases.

As a general rule of thumb when it comes to machines, I’m not crazy about people using them if they haven’t learned how to learn proper movement patterns like squatting, pressing, rows, etc. There can be exceptions.

Bands:

Versatile and portable. They also give a different feel as the resistance increases the farther you pull them.

22. Most of the time you want to work at about 70-90% efforts.

There’s a time and place to go all out, but a lot of people get stuck in this mindset that unless you’re trying your absolute hardest nothing is happening.

Couldn’t be further from the truth.

You need to find that sweetspot where you’re working really hard but under the confines of exceptional technique.

And if you find yourself needing to break technique to add weight to the bar you’ve probably either never learned proper technique, you’re having programming issues, or you’re having nutritional/sleep issues.

Over the course of your workout “career” don’t be ashamed to spend a few months at a time not chasing something with everything you’ve got. These “easy” periods are actually really normal (and suggested) over the long haul.

23. The best fat loss program or the best muscle building program is rendered very ineffective without matching it with proper nutrition for those goals.

If someone’s eating enough, a great “fat loss” style workout could probably turn into a decent muscle building workout. If someone’s eating too little, the best muscle building program won’t yield any muscular gains but you may get a little leaner.

Neither are optimal at all. You need to match training with nutrition if you’re goal is to burn fat or build muscle. ‘

24. Food quality doesn’t play a huge part in fat loss

When I started playing around with diets, I’d go on these “phases” of cold turkey, no fun, avoid all sweet/tasty/treats, and no wonder it didn’t work.

Go to the party and have a slice of cake — not 5. Or at least accept the consequences ;).

Empty calories and even harmful nutrients like trans fats and excess sugar aren’t actually going to have very noticeable impacts on your body composition as long as calories and protein are controlled.

This means you can have a life, not that you should see just how much crap you can fit into your calorie counts. It’ll backfire. Low energy, cravings, illness are all things and the more you fit crappy food into your diet the more you’ll get em.

Please note: If you can’t have certain foods without eating too much of it. Punt them far away.

25. Never listen to anyone solely because they look the part.

Doesn’t mean they don’t have the right advice, but it certainly doesn’t mean they do.

I read a facebook post from Nick Tumminello – someone I’ve taken some mentorship from – and he talked about how so much bad fitness advice out there prevails because those who look a certain way in gyms are so trusted. I’m pretty sure Nick used the word “big”, by the way, but it all applies. People trust people who look a certain way in gyms.

beforeafter
                                Always willing to teach you how he did it.

 

26. The principles may be simple, but they aren’t easy – especially when….

Psychology, behaviours, opinions, stress, life in general all combine to make it very challenging to just stick to a process.

Humans have bad days, then they doubt themselves. They miss a day or have a bad weekend, then they beat themselves up and stop. They try something that may actually work if they stick to it. But then their coworker pipes up with a “you should be doing it this way”. Even if it’s good advice, it throws you off and you stop…or you bounce around to yet another goal or program.

Every one of these are more responsible for your lack of progress well ahead of the processes being all that confusing.

Stick to a program/plan for 2-3 months before you reevaluate or let anyone tell you what else you should do. Or follow #6.

27. The difference between doing exercises wrong and doing them right.

Doing them wrong:

  • Puts too much stress on some joints and not enough on others
  • Builds the body less symmetrically
  • Will eventually hurt you
  • Feels crappy
  • Does not look good

Doing them right:

  • Distributes stress evenly across joints
  • Builds symmetry
  • Will help bulletproof your body against injury
  • Feels good
  • Looks graceful

28. It doesn’t matter how often you eat or when

So, never think you have to eat 6 meals a day. You don’t.

And never think you have to eat breakfast or you have to eat right after a workout. You don’t.

Let those decisions work themselves out based on your preference so you can actually pay attention to the stuff that really matters — how much you eat, how much protein and how much, uh, food quality.

29. The skinny on rep schemes

  • 1-5 reps per set – Strength (not size, like many think)*
  • 6-8 reps per set – Strength/building muscle
  • 10-15 reps set – usually best for building muscle

*good for power if moving lighter weights (or bodyweight) explosively

All of this is influenced significantly by nutrition. As far as fat loss goes, all of these work fine and you’ll want to have some strength focus (that’s what’s gonna help keep muscle the most), but the determining factor is diet.

As a general rule of thumb, lower rep sets at the beginning of a program and longer rep sets at the end.

Here’s a simple example:

  1. Modified Stance Sumo Deadlift 3 sets of 5
  2. Split Squat 3×8
  3. Plank 3×15 seconds
  4. DB Romanian Deadlift 3×12
  5. Goblet Squat 2×20

*Not ground breaking programming at all, but if someone dieted with this, it’d help them lose fat. If someone ate more with this, they’d build muscle. That’s just there to show you how typically you’ll have lower rep sets to start and higher to finish. There’s always exceptions and different ways to do it.

30. Learn to deadlift properly before you hurt yourself several times

I must have had gym layoffs about 3 times coming directly from improper execution of the deadlift. It’s not as technical as the Olympic lifts, but there’s more to it than just bend over and pick up the bar.

The deadlift is arguably the best total body strength exercise out there. You can take serious benefits from it whether your goals are muscle, fat loss, strength, better posture, or just feeling really good about yourself.

That said, just because you read an exercise is really good for you doesn’t mean you should just walk in there and get after it.

I hope these help you do it right:

These will help you learn the movement:

Dowel Hip Hinge

Band Reaching Hinge

Here’s a basic deadlift progression I use with clients:

Kettlebell Deadlift

Trap Bar Deadlift*

Modified Sumo Deadlift

Conventional Deadlift

Kettlebell Swing**

*There’s a pretty good chance you don’t have access to a trap bar. That’s okay. It’s a great tool but you can skip it if you don’t have one available.

**I know, I know, the KB Swing isn’t a deadlift. But really, it kinda is. Don’t bother with it until you can nail some (or all) of the moves before it properly.

*** As a general rule, one you’ve developed some strength in the deadlift, you don’t want to spend too much time (or any) going over 5 reps. KB and Trap Bar Deadlifts are a little different as good form is easier to maintain, but careful with barbell deadlift variations off the floor.

31. About Core Training

As I stated in this article, most of your core training should be about teaching your core to prevent movement at the spine, not create it (like crunches).

Examples:

Preventing backward bending of the spine (preventing “extension” of the spine):

Plank

Preventing sideways bending of the spine (preventing “lateral flexion” of the spine):

Suitcase Carry (sometimes I just call these “walking side planks” because they work the body similarly).

 Preventing rotation of the spine ( preventing, um, “rotation” of the spine):

Pallof Press (shown here in “half kneeling” position)

Aside from adding definition around your entire midsection, training these 3 functions consistently will go a long way to building a core that acts like armour for your low back.

32. If it hurts, don’t do it.

Seriously, stop hurting yourself more and teaching your brain pain. Not good.

If your knee hurts, focus on hip dominant stuff (like deadlifts and hip thrusts). If pressing hurts, try carries or work your back more that day – or try a neutral grip (hands facing eachother). If you have chronic low back pain then see if single leg exercises work better.

It’s gotta be really bad for no workaround option to be available. The research shows finding them can actually help the healing process or alleviating pain.

33. Strength standards are useful (and fun), but have patience.

 

I remember this one time a guy at the gym asked me what a good deadlift number to shoot for would be — he looked pretty new to it all. I’m pretty sure I said 2x bodyweight.

Three days later I walk into the gym and he’s got 325 on the floor – not far from 2x his bodyweight. Not to mention a totally determined look on his face that he’d hit that number as soon as possible. There’s no way it ended well.

I should have told him to spend the next year or two progressing slowly to it. You’ll need patience for anything in fitness.

34. Fat loss workouts do work, but only if…

You’re doing what needs to be done with diet. At the risk of totally sounding like a broken record, it’s true.

Whatever you call them, metabolic circuits, high intensity intervals, conditioning, etc  -they are the best at elevating metabolism. But it really doesn’t matter if you erased the calorie deficit with too much food. The harder you work in the gym, the more you eat without thinking about.

There’s value to fat burning approaches, like shorter rest periods, circuits, and short-duration workouts aimed to send your heart rate to the moon, but again, gotta get that diet.

So there it is, 34 things I wish I knew before I started working out. I’m sure there’s more, but I think that’s a good start. If you have any questions based on these, or figure I could add a few, let me know anytime. You’re always welcome HERE.

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