Most of us remember what it was like the first time we started ‘attempting’ to workout.  I look back on my early trips to the gym and I just laugh.  Absolutely no clue what I was doing, but yet thinking I was doing productive stuff anyway (hint:  I wasn’t).  Lots of bad form, lots of skipped leg days, lots of bicep work, and plenty of “cardio” with heart rates in the double digits.  I was a beast.

The point of this post is this:  you can be well beyond that stage and still be a beginner in the gym.  With a lot of work, practice, and research you can progress to something more in the ‘intermediate’ range.  Being ‘advanced’ in my mind means that you have an absolute mastery of every common move and many uncommon moves.

Mastery in this sense means that you have absolute control over your body, can feel the muscles working easily, and fix it mid-set if they aren’t doing what they should.  If you ever find yourself mentally checking out during a set or – worst of all – doing an exercise without feeling and engaging mentally with the muscles that are being worked, those are the Tier-1 problems that need to be addressed immediately.  Anyone call execute a lat pulldown, but the real question is this:  can you manually engage your lats well enough to fatigue them on that exercise using a very light weight?

An advanced lifter also has an innate sense of the ‘right’ weight for a given set.  In our business, heavier isn’t always better – finding the sweet spot where you body feels the exercise to a maximal degree is what we’re after.  You might be able to curl 50’s, but sometimes when you switch out to 35’s, while also slowing down and squeezing harder on each rep – you can get more out of it, induce real muscular fatigue earlier in the set, and make the muscle work harder.

That sweet spot is also something that can change regularly, which is a good next point – advanced lifters don’t fall into ruts or patterns, at least not commonly.  The dance is a careful combination of OCD note-taking and lifting intuitively, and going by what is best for your body that day.

An advanced lifter also knows one key thing – the thing that makes a workout difficult comes primarily from within.  It’s your ability to focus, select the right weights, make the muscles work, and push past the point of failure that makes a workout effective and challenging.  Workout design is something I have a great passion for, but ultimately what I’m doing there is trying to optimize things – good transitions from one move to the next, a good flow, getting a good pump and making it easy to sustain.

If you find yourself struggling, here’s a good path to right the ship and get your workouts moving in a more productive direction:

  • Make your workouts less complicated – attempt to do more (more fatigue, more mind/muscle connection, more reps past failure, better form) with less.
  • Reduce your workouts to a handful of core exercises that you feel comfortable with, and move beyond comfort and closer to mastery.  Slowly incorporate additional exercises only when you’re supremely comfortable with the existing lineup.
  • If you struggle with getting certain movements to register and can’t seem to engage the proper muscle groups, enlist the services of a quality coach or trainer to help you out.  A good one isn’t just going to yell at you, count your reps, or write a plan for you – they should be aiming to teach you every step of the way as well.
  • Practice posing!  Even if you’re not competing, posing practice has incredible benefits when it comes to conditioning and – yes – BODY AWARENESS.  Being able to accurately manipulate your body and isometrically work muscle groups is key to developing a better connection with what those muscle groups are doing when you’re training them.  I wrote about this previously here.

In closing, you need to do more of what most people assume bodybuilders do very little of:  think.  Engage your brain when you’re in the gym and continue to learn with every single rep.

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