Checkpoint: 15 Things 15 Years of Working Out has Taught me

I think I'm finally old enough to do one of these.

I’ll be 34 this year, and I’ve been working out with a semblance of “purpose” since I was a varsity athlete in university. I wanted to wait till the 15-year-point to put something like this together, to avoid feeling the wrath of the grizzled vets in the industry who are assured that I don’t even know what I’m in for.

It certainly is crazy. At 19 or 20, you haven’t got an idea of plenty of things in the weight room. You can also just look at a barbell or dumbbell and see results. The passing of just one decade (and a half) can make for radical differences in the way you approach things.  As far as first hand experience goes, I have to say I’ve got plenty.

1.  Training for Life means Checking the Ego and Respecting your Mileage.

I figured I’d start with what’s likely the most general tip of the set. We can easily become caught up in the culture – which sounds like a good thing, but can be to our detriment when we consider the real plan should be to train impressively well when we’re 80 years old.  What we do when we switch from our 20’s to our 30s, 40’s and 50’s, should make their presence known as clear dictators of our eventuality. We can still train hard, but we’ve got to train smart too.  Acknowledging that we’ll probably have developed injuries, more sources of stress, more responsibilities, and possibly a lifestyle that wasn’t as active as it was when we were in college, it’s imperative that our training successfully navigates those new variables. Chances are, it means less PR attempts and more scaling things back in the name of consistency and the long game.

2.  Training methods should change over time. And Planes of motion matter.

A couple of things here. First and foremost, barbell strength training is important – but there needs to be a time where someone can say ‘barbell strength training WAS important’. That doesn’t mean it’s no longer necessary; rather, total fitness training transcends simply loading maxes on 3 or 5 key lifts. Changing the emphasis from strength training day in, day out, to hypertrophy or even strongman style training can benefit the body in a very serviceable way, while still exposing it to heavy loads. I’ve also found that pursuing a baseline of conditioning training, including calisthenics and bodyweight work in multiple planes of action is worth its weight in gold.

3.  More Mobility, less Rushing.

Especially since I’ve been injured, the thing I’ve found becomes the most compromised with neglect is my range of motion and mobility. When that happens, the development chronic pain isn’t far behind.  Respecting the freedom of joint integrity by using full ranges of motion where possible, and also by performing mobility drills, stretches, and anything else that just plain makes me feel good is half the battle to training longevity. And above and beyond all, I NEVER forsake my warm-up before training. You shouldn’t either. Rushing into a loaded set never helps.

4.  Time of Day matters.

We have different schedules – for some of us it even changes throughout the year. The most important thing we can do is stay consistent with our workouts. For me, that’s meant some late night workouts, some early morning workouts, and the majority of my workouts during my preferred time frame – between 10AM and lunchtime. I’ve learned that certain kinds of workouts don’t agree with my body if I’m not training at a desired time for me. I’m generally not a person who’d ever advocate lifting very heavy, first thing in the morning in a 6AM session. I have the belief system that the nervous system needs more time to prime itself up, and the spine needs some time to drain some fluids from its discs. Anecdotally, I’ve NEVER felt great after a heavy training session that happened in the early morning. It’s taught me that when I’m stuck with a 7AM session as an option, it’s best for me to focus on conditioning or lighter loads for higher volume instead of heavy triples.

5.  Cardio is Cool. Don’t Listen to anyone who says it’s not.

Through my 20’s, I was on team “want cardio? Lift weights faster”.

It’s a fun adage, but I don’t believe in it anymore. For life, it’s useful for us to do things that are locomotive in nature, and aren’t strictly in place to “preserve our muscle” so we don’t “lose our gains”. That’s bro talk. And my gains mean nothing if I can’t catch a bus, run a mile, or get winded climbing 3 flights of stairs.  You can argue that HIT weight training is all the cardio you “need”, and not running, rowing, sprinting, or using the stairmaster or elliptical.

These days, I have experience with all of the above. And I can say with confidence: They’re not the same as weight training. They’re uniquely different and are effective ways to keep your heart rate elevated to train your cardiorespiratory capacity in an athletic way. If you’re not a kid, you should start adding days like this to your cycle.

6.  Don’t Mess with your Routine, or your Rituals.

Especially in the world of heavy strength training, I’ve found that I don’t like to make too many changes to the environment and setting that makes me the most comfortable. This probably comes from my history as an athlete, and using the same routines and rituals to gear up for a race or long jump attempt. On that note, if you’ve got a big lift to do, warm up the same way you have prior to it. Don’t add unwarranted “extra” stuff. Use the same bar you like, and choose the same rack you have a history of great lifts in. Now’s not the time to get experimental. Save that for other workouts.

7.  Injuries should trigger CHANGE. Not just “Recovery”.

The biggest mistake that many people (my former self included) make when they have a setback or injury is that of recovering well, only to return to the same exercises, habits and program structure that got them injured in the first place.  An injury is our body’s brutal way of telling us something about it that we should know – and should probably address. I learned the hard way that only focusing on getting my big lifts back up shouldn’t be a lone mission. If you don’t have a well-rounded base of fitness (or aren’t pursuing one) once you’re past the bloom of youth, your body will let you know you don’t have it. When it does, work on your weak links. That’s different than only working on weak lifts.

8.  As far as resilience goes, you’ve either got it or you don’t.

On a similar note, the last decade especially has made me think about individual resistance to injury. I’ve never been a lifter – or an athlete – who’s had the coveted “bulletproof body”. I was never the basketball or football player who could take all kinds of contact, get leveled on the court or field, and not be completely banged up for the days or weeks that followed. I had friends and teammates who were.  The same holds true for lifting.  There are always going to be dudes who come into the gym and lift heavy with abysmal form, and never even get touched by it. I’m the dude who tweaks his back deadlifting a very submaximal load, with what appears to be great form.

And that’s life.

It’s a lesson learned that “pushing yourself” has to be relative, as it’s helping no one to try to ignore pain or warning signs. Remember – Long game.

9.  For More Results, Train more often.

The times I saw the most physical results from training – be it aesthetic or performance-related – I was always training at a high weekly frequency. After my biggest injury, I actually made a point of training every single day for a year, partially as a commitment to my rehab and recovery, and partially as an experiment to see what I was capable of pulling off. I was pleased with the results.

It sounds pretty straightforward, and it is. But there’s an asterisk that belongs next to this directive.

With more training comes more responsibility to have a lifestyle that harmonizes with this. If your nutrition and recovery aren’t on point, you’re probably doing yourself more of a disservice training 7 days per week, compared to getting 3 to 4 quality sessions in. If you’re really committed to making your goals come true, then you’ll be willing to do more than just increase your training frequency to get there.

10.  Start competing against yourself. Not standards made by others.

Part of this realization comes from the fact that I’ve spent close to the last 5 years speaking and writing about the differences in individual anthropometry, and how they can and should affect strength training. If you’re familiar with my paid work, you know that I mention the caveats associated with strength standards when examined from a “work” perspective and less from a “percentages” perspective.

But there’s more to this.  

As time goes on, I’ve found that the amount I can lift is becoming less and less important in the grand scheme of things – partially because I’m realizing what tasks life throws at me daily. And partially because, well, I just don’t care as much anymore. In my mid 20’s I could strict press over 200, bench over 300, squat over 400, and deadlift over 500.

Then I got badly injured at 30, and had to use a wheelchair, full leg braces, and crutches for a summer before I could walk on my own again.

By 32, I could strict press over 200, bench over 300, squat over 400, and deadlift over 500.

I am grateful for having a baseline of strength, but I’ve also realized that constantly looking for “more” in that department isn’t too useful past a certain point. And I’m past that point. One could argue that going for your own PR’s is the literal definition of competing against yourself. But I’ll say that it usually comes with a frame of reference of some strength standard, or in comparison to some other big number you’ve been inspired by.  I’ve learned to strength train in ways that make light weight feel heavy – which keeps me far below my actual PR numbers, 90% of the time that I train big lifts. Tempos and pauses have been game-changers in that department, and really make my lifting honest.  Today, my best back squat is 405.  My best paused back squat is only 345.  I like to consider THAT my PR.

11.  Being Bad at something is Good.

I’ve noticed that I’ve gotten some of the best workouts (and results) when the most stuff I absolutely suck at exists in that program. It makes sense to me, since becoming stronger at a movement coincides with acquiring more skill and efficiency at the pattern. When that’s the case, your strength may continue to increase, but it could be at the expense of fast results in your other areas of fitness. Especially if your goals are more athleticism, body comp, and physique-oriented (which mine have become these days), it’s a huge service to take a break from the overkill of barbell squats, deadlifts, and presses. There are thousands of exercises for you to explore to create a  new stimulus – and many don’t even require weights to hit you hard.

12.  It’s time to Ditch the “Program”.

It’s almost like a ‘graduation’. My letting go of fixed programming has its cons – for one, there’s much less to track, and less to be accountable for.  But it has several more pros that serve me well. Having the flexibility to workout under “umbrellas” rather than a set structure gives me the freedom to train intuitively, diversify my training approach and methodology, and scale things back if and when needed – even mid-workout.

I call it a graduation because I’ve put in plenty of time following structure. And I built the strength and the muscle to prove it.  Now that I’m older, both in real age and in training age, I’ve realized just how much more important having diversity and the ability to depart from strictures is for me as a healthy lifter. Following loose ideas rather than stringent programming has helped me remain consistent and become more rounded in my overall abilities. The last thing someone past 30 should want to be is one-dimensional in their fitness.  If you’ve put the time in the gym over the years, I recommend the same.

13.  Your Diet choices are an R.R.S.P.

You save for your retirement. If you don’t start fairly early, there will be ground you just plain can’t make up. Especially over the last year or two, I’ve noticed how many things I simply can’t “get away with eating” anymore if I have certain physique goals in mind.  You can’t out-train a bad diet. Anyone who knows me, knows fast food is my kryptonite. The amount I had in my teenage years and through much of my 20’s was something that didn’t appear to have too negative an effect on my physique, recovery and athleticism – but since my late 20’s, my metabolism slowed down right on cue, and my body has definitely sang a different tune. It’s really been a matter of realizing, within the name of balance, that there are foods that I just plain can’t indulge in nearly as often nor in the same quantities anymore, if I have certain goals. From a health perspective, your insides so desperately crave the vitamins and nutrients from plenty of vegetables, fruits, and natural flavours from good quality whole foods without the added salt or preservatives, that it becomes more imperative to create the habits of eating this way as often as possible, as early in life as possible.

I’m playing “catchup” with my body as we speak, in attempts to reverse the effects that constant bad food had on my body over the years. It’s not a simple or short-lived task. If you don’t want to look or feel like crap when you’re older, try to eat well most of the time while you’re younger.

14.  Making change happen starts with being honest with yourself.

There have been a couple of things I’ve done in the last couple of years that I’ve actually surprised myself by accomplishing, just like that 365 days of training challenge I mentioned earlier.  I’m not one to be all about the “no excuses” mantra – but sometimes we can be doing just that when it comes to really buckling down.

Not for a heavy rep or a tough set.  Not for a trip to the gym at an inconvenient time.

I’m talking about buckling down and making the necessary changes to diet, lifestyle and schedule for a long-term approach for change.

We could be using the idea of “gradually changing our habits” as something of a euphemism for our laziness or lack of true commitment. That happens. We could be resistant to put our foot down and say “no” to the wrong foods, to late nights out, or to a serious training schedule for no other reason than we’re afraid and not yet ready to take the plunge. And that’s only something we can identify for ourselves… if we’re ready to do that.  

15.  Sleep and Lifestyle are Key players for Success

I’ve touched on this in various places above, but I think it’s a worthwhile final point to drive home. If the last decade of my life hasn’t been enough evidence of this truth, then the COVID-19 quarantine phase certainly iced the cake. Not having to wake up at 5 or 5:45AM for clients, 6 days per week, gave me the opportunity to get 7 hours of sleep per night, which worked wonders for my energy levels, workout quality, and results achieved. For everyone who’s up to their neck in responsibilities, approaching (or past) middle age, and trying to train hard despite getting 4 or 5 hours per night, you’re shooting yourselves in the foot, whether it feels like you are or not. Even if you’ve seen results with a long-term lifestyle like this, just know that you aren’t anywhere near your potential.

15 for 15

That was 2700 words.

Every time I think I won’t have anything to say in articles like these, I surprise myself. This just goes to show I belong to an industry that keeps on giving through no vehicle other than experience. The hindrance it is to one’s personal training or lifting career to assume they’ve learned everything they’d ever need to, is immense beyond words.  And it represents an attitude and line of thinking that should be avoided at all costs.  On that note, I’ll be looking forward to what the next 15 years of training – and life – reveal for me and my fitness.  I’ll make sure to share it on this blog.

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