I have been obsessed with fitness for a long time. It’s been so long, I barely remember when I was a beginner!
My obsession with lifting weights started around 12–13 years old. I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in my high school who had a weight bench in their bedroom. I didn’t even want it in the garage, it had to be right next to my bed. I even contemplated taking my bed out for extra space to train, but that’s a story for another time.
During those years, I used to read Flex Magazine, Muscle and Fitness, Muscle Mag, Muscular Development, etc. cover to cover. I gained a ton of useful training and nutrition advice, however, most of it wasn’t the information I needed at the time. The magazines do a great job putting out content that people WANT, not always what they need. I knew a lot about how the best bodybuilders in the world ate and trained, but not much about how a 100 pound teenager should.
The truth is, no one ever wants to admit they are a beginner at something. It’s human nature. We all want to skip the beginning stages and jump straight into the deep end. It’s exactly what I did.
It was many years down the road before I realized I needed to take a step back and focus on the basics. It doesn’t matter how advanced you are, revisiting some basic principles is always a good idea. There is so much information I wish I knew when I first started. With the right advice, I could have saved a lot of time and energy. With this in mind, I posed the question to my Instagram (@huntfitness).
What are some things you wished you knew when you first started lifting weights?
Huge credit to everyone who answered, you inspired this article! Sit back, relax, and enjoy as I unpack the 11 things every beginner lifter should know.
#1: Have a plan, don’t just wing it.
This is one I actually got right. I was always big on planning out my workout programs. Looking back, it makes sense. I like to have a plan with everything that I do. Now, my “programs” were more a list of exercises than a well-constructed periodized set up, but that is topic for another time.
At the very least, everyone should have a plan when they enter the gym. Know what muscle group and exercises you are going to do each day, for the specific amount of sets and reps. This not only helps you stay organized, it also saves you time.
In addition, I highly recommend getting a training journal and keeping track of everything you do. I personally use an old school composition notebook. Write down the exercises, the sets, reps, weights, how you feel, what time you are in the gym, how long the workout took, etc. The more information you put down, the better. This is a great piece of advice for everyone, not just beginners.
Once you have a plan, it’s important to stick to it. Progress comes when you can move in one direction for a long time. Don’t be in a rush to start something new every couple of weeks. A program needs time to work.
Bonus Tip: As a beginner, your program does not need to be super intricate. More complicated does not mean better. Find a program that you can stick to long term. The “best” program on paper won’t be effective if it’s not something you can really be consistent with.
#2: Progress doesn’t happen overnight, long term consistency is key.
I have watched so many lifters come and go over the years. The truth is, it’s pretty easy to go to the gym and eat correctly for a few days or even weeks. However, true progress occurs when you can buckle down and stick with this for the long haul.
I push consistency so hard because all big-time achievements can be broken down into small manageable steps. Waking up and eating a breakfast that moves you closer to your goal is a step in the right direction. Going to the gym is another positive step. Do this day in and day out for years, and you will be where you want to be.
It’s hard to sell consistency in a world filled with instant gratification. I get it, I really do. However, after working with thousands of clients, consistency is one of the only things all success stories have in common.
Making big time change takes time, probably longer than you think.
Bonus Tip: There are a ton of benefits to flexible dieting, that’s why I was on the forefront promoting it back in the day. However, too much flexibility is just as bad as not enough. When it comes to nutrition, you want to control as much as you can. Instead of starting each day with a blank slate of macros, plan out at least 80% of what you are going to eat ahead of time and only leave 10–20% for flexibility. This practice will dramatically increase your ability to consistently hit your daily calorie and macronutrient targets.
#3: Progress comes in peaks and valleys, it’s not always linear.
This is a big one. If progress was linear, everyone would be extremely strong and jacked. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.
Progress is very motivating. It’s easy to keep pushing forward when everything is going well. The real story is told once progress stalls. The ability to trust the process and continue working when things are not going well is a huge factor in success. Everyone will go through a period of time when progress slows down, it’s natural. When progress slows down, buckle down harder on the basics. Make sure you are doing all of the little things right before looking at outside solutions.
Bonus Tip: Focus on the process more than the outcome. Learn to love the day to day routine of going to the gym, preparing your meals, going to bed on time, etc. We can control our actions, we can’t always control the outcomes. If you do all of the little things right, eventually it will result in progress.
#4: The warm-up needs to be part of the workout.
The warm-up process might be the most overlooked aspect of fitness. Think about it, how many people do you see walk into the gym and immediately start their workout? Too many! You know the type of person I’m talking about. They walk in, do a couple arm circles, maybe a couple arm swings and boom — load up 135lbs or even 225lbs to the bar.
As you can guess, this is not the best way to handle business. I know, partly because I did it for years. Skipping the warm-up is one of the many mistakes I made as a novice lifter. I was young, weak and didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until I started looking at optimizing my entire routine did I start paying attention to what I needed to accomplish in order to properly warm up.
Warming up is definitely not “sexy” but it’s a very important part of the workout process. It has the ability to either enhance or diminish your ability to optimally perform the workouts.
Bonus Tip: You don’t need to follow some movement guru’s 45-minute warm-up protocol before every training session. Time is a big reason why people skip the warm-up. If you only have an hour to train, we can’t spend more than half of it warming up. Walk into the gym and do a 3–5 minute general warm-up. Get on a treadmill, exercise bike, or jump rope. Get the heart rate up, increase body temperature, etc. After that, pick 2–3 action item movements that get you ready to perform the workout for the day. These will be specific to everyone. As you advance, get stronger, and/or have more time to train, your warm-up can become more intricate. For more information about warming up, check out this article:
#5: Make it a point to learn the proper technique first.
Of course, using proper technique will increase the likelihood of staying injury free, but it’s also the best way to get as strong as possible. Lifting is a skill, and the better you get at performing the skill, the more weight you can lift.
It’s not uncommon for some of my clients to hit new personal records within the first couple weeks of us working together. Is it because of some special programming secret I implemented? No, I simply provided a few set-up and technique adjustments that buttoned up a few areas they were leaking performance. Technique can make a huge difference.
Bonus Tip: It’s hard to learn proper technique from a textbook or online article. Not everyone fits into what’s considered “textbook” form. Part of improving technique is finding out what technique is right for you and your individual biomechanics.
#6: Learn the difference between sore, hurt, and injured.
Don’t ignore aches, pains, and injuries as that is never a good idea. However, it’s important to learn the difference between sore, hurt, and injured. Look, training is not always comfortable. There will be times when you are sore, even beyond normal DOMS. Little tweaks and strains happen. The harder you train, the more things are going to hurt. Be smart, take rest days, work around issues, etc. but there is always something you can do. Don’t let a little soreness be the reason why you miss a bunch of time in the gym. All it takes is one little issue to pop up and it’s enough to take people out of the gym for weeks or even months. Don’t let that happen. Look for solutions, not excuses.
I want to reiterate, I am all for being conservative with pain. For the most part, we can always change to a different exercise and work around stuff. But, I don’t think the mental aspect of training gets talked about enough. You don’t have to pound your head against a wall to see progress but you absolutely need to push yourself beyond what is comfortable. To achieve great things in the gym (and in life) there needs to be periods where we go beyond comfort. There are times when you may be “hurting”, but you need to push through to make progress.
Bonus Tip: With all that being said if you think you are injured get it checked out by a medical professional. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Just don’t let them talk you out of squatting and deadlifting…
#7: Focus on progressing compound movements.
This is not a slight against isolation exercises. I love some machines and cable movements, however, all exercises are not created equal. 3 sets of 10 on a leg extension is not the same as 3 sets of 10 on a squat.
Compound exercises have a few advantages. The biggest advantage is simply they can be loaded more efficiently. Essentially, since you can lift more weight with compound movements, it’s easier to build in weekly progressions and create a progressive overload.
Secondly, they provide efficiency. A squat or deadlift is going to incorporate and strengthen multiple muscles at the same time. A program built around squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, etc. will not need as much exercise variety, which brings me to my next point.
A common problem people have with training is just doing too many exercises. You need to stick with an exercise long enough to progress it. Don’t try to create “muscle confusion” before focusing on basic progressions. Actually, aim to get better and stronger at a movement before changing it. A lot can be gained from just becoming better and more consistent with the basics. You don’t need to be fancy to get strong.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Focus on basic compound movements that have been proven to be effective over the last hundred years before you go adding in some random exercise you saw a goofball on YouTube do.
Bonus Tip: Progressive overload — lifting heavier weights, doing more reps with the same weight, etc. is essential for long term muscle growth. We want the training we are doing in the gym to be progressive. We have to force the body to make adaptations, it doesn’t want to get bigger and stronger for no reason.
#8: Learn the basics of nutrition — energy balance, macros, etc.
This is the biggest thing I wish I understood in more detail when I first got into fitness. Nutrition can be very confusing because people generally fall into “camps”. It almost takes on the same type of following as religion or politics.
The truth is, a good diet doesn’t need a name. Many of the “named diets” are based on arbitrary rules that don’t move the needle. The problem then becomes focusing on the minute details while missing the big picture. The best diet is going to be the one built around you, your specific goals, and lifestyle. Every diet can work as long as it meets the general requirements below.
Energy balance is key. If you want to build muscle and lose fat, it all comes down to a simple equation I’m sure you have heard before. Calories in vs Calories out.
Are there other factors in play? Yes, however calories in vs. calories out is the most important aspect of changing your body composition. If anyone says otherwise, they are not talking with any scientific grounding.
In order to build muscle, you need to eat more calories than your body needs to maintain. This is a caloric surplus.
In order to lose fat, you need to eat fewer calories than your body needs to maintain. This is a caloric deficit.
Bonus Tip: While it’s true there are no magic foods, and you can eat anything you want during a fat loss phase, there are some foods that are more problematic. Foods that are highly palatable make it hard to stay within your calorie and macro guidelines for the day. By highly palatable foods, I’m referring to high calorie/low nutrient dense foods that taste amazing. Everyone has their own personal favorites. Foods like candy, cookies, donuts, chips, pizza, pasta, alcohol, etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with these foods, however, it’s just easy to overconsume them. When dieting, it makes sense to limit how often you consume known trouble foods.
#9: Supplements are supplements
I love supplements, but I wasted so much money during my teenage years buying worthless crap. The truth is, very few supplements do what the label claims. Even the supplements that have some research behind them tend to be hit or miss.
As cliché as it is, focus on your nutrition and use supplements to help fill the gaps.
You know what I find funny. A lot of fitness personalities are quick to jump on someone like Brittany Dawn, and they should, what she did scamming people was horrible. But on the flip side, these same people are alright with promoting worthless cleanses, detoxes, sweat creams, etc. I see so many fitness “influencers” promote supplements the scientific community has shown to be ineffective. It’s sad.
Supplements absolutely work, but not all of them.
Bonus Tip: Stick to the basics that have the most evidence behind them.
Protein Powder to help reach daily protein goals.
Creatine Monohydrate to help build muscle and gain strength.
A well-dosed pre-workout to help with gym performance.
Fish Oil to make up for a lack of Omega 3s in the diet.
Vitamin D3 to make up for a lack of Vitamin D.
You could add a multivitamin, maybe some magnesium in certain cases, but that’s about it.
#10: Don’t let fitness take over your life.
Fitness should enhance your life, not take away from it. During my high school years, I let fitness take over my life. My day revolved around training and meal times. I had no flexibility. I ate six prepared meals at exactly 2.5-hour intervals. I didn’t have a social life. I didn’t allow anything to get in the way of me eating the foods I wanted to eat and training at the precise time I wanted to train.
There was a time when I trained three times per day. I used to go to the gym before school, after school, and finish the day in my home gym. It was excessive and unnecessary. Although I enjoyed it, I didn’t have time to do anything else.
It caused so much unneeded stress that I burned out for a brief period in time. Once I was able to create more flexibility and put things in perspective, not only was it easier to follow, I actually got better results.
Bonus Tip: This one is simple, keep things in perspective. More is not always better.
#11: You don’t need a coach, but finding a good one will really fast track your progress.
Reading this right now, you have a huge advantage. You can literally work with some of the best coaches in the world. Imagine that. You have access to some of the best, most knowledgeable, most accomplished coaches of all time. All you have to do is send an email.
Nothing will fast track your progress more than working with a coach. When I first got into lifting weights, I didn’t have access to the best coaches. So, in my case, I’m glad I learned things the hard way. Shit, I was able to create a career out of it. But, I’m obsessed with this. I mean literally obsessed. I have studied fitness every single day for the last 15 years. That is not an exaggeration. For most people, they would be much better off just finding someone who can lay out the blueprint for them.
Bonus Tip: Coaching is about more than just knowledge. Most people feel like they know what to do. That may even be you. However, in that case, why haven’t you done it? It’s ok to admit you need help with accountability to stick to a plan. At the end of the day, results are results. It doesn’t matter how you get them.
Connect with Kyle:
Interested in coaching? Let’s set up a time to jump on a call to talk about it.