Unpopular Opinion: Your Training Goals Don’t Matter Anymore.

You've trained for years and justified your strength. Now it's time to plan for the long game. That means listening to your body more, and a program less.

I’m a professional in the fitness industry.  You can choose my title. There are many that apply to what I do.

Some say strength coach. Others say trainer. Others still say fitness expert, or something else under the umbrella of health and wellness.

Truthfully, they all mean the same thing. I help clients and athletes get in better shape.  The main thing people like me try to figure out in the early stages of helping our clients is their “why”.  Understanding why they hired me in the first place can help me steer them toward sustained results.

The thing is, having a “why” is contingent on something else: having goals.

For most people reading this, it goes without saying; you’d be a fool to enter the gym without a training goal. Anything outside of this structure is a waste of your time as a lifter. And I’d usually agree. But my age and personal experiences have me singing a different tune at this point in the game. It’s likely an unpopular opinion subject to ridicule from purists – but I believe there’s a time and place for fitness goals.

Especially in light of what we’ve been going through as a planet, it’s not always in our best interests to do whatever we can to keep our PR’s intact in the weight room. Making peace with the fact that it’s okay to deviate from a structured program is the first step to fleshing out this topic.

What I’m Not Saying

Let me be clear.

As highlighted above, having a plan can go a long way for establishing your own training solidarity, your overall fitness journey, and learning about your body and training as a whole. Structured training is, in many cases, the gold standard of fitness – and, by some extensions, it’s the reason I have a job.  Many young, green trainers or trainees will look at this title and opening subheading and think they should overhaul their training for an elixir of randomness.

They shouldn’t.

Each and every one of my beginning clients follows structure. Simply put, I acknowledge a beginning client’s goals, but I also set two of my own goals for them too.

  • Learn to move well.
  • Get strong while still moving well.

That’s it.

Mind you, these two goals I “set” for clients are often right in line with theirs to begin with, so I have less explaining to do.  For those who don’t include the above in their set of goals, it’s still an easy conversation:  Moving well and being stronger will never disadvantage you in any pursuit of life – athletic or not. My philosophy is, if these aren’t part of your goals when training in a gym, they definitely should be.

With that all said, tracking progress, following a plan, and minding the numbers is quintessential for improvement. This sets the blueprint for building a resilient, injury-free body that can handle whatever it is that “life” throws at you.  Too often, however, lifters and coaches can blow that out of proportion (that’s something I spoke about in my last article). A functional training frenzy often accompanies the notion that no number is a good number for acceptable, useful, transferable strength. And my field of experts drops the ball that represents balance.

It all builds to a big question: How strong is “strong enough”?

In my books, there are drawbacks from not taking a step back and realizing that you’ve come a long way. If it’s been years of lifting heavy, making gains, getting “the” body composition, and having a foundation that speaks for itself, then it won’t kill you to go freehand for a while.

What I am Saying

Instead of repudiating this idea, think about it a bit more deeply.

A lifter who’s spent years following programs, getting great gains, and seeing benefits can assure us of a few things.

#1: That lifter probably has a good idea of how to lift.

This is a big one, and it’s time to give yourself a little more credit if you fall into this category. Sure, everyone can use a little help via a professional coach – but training 4 or 5 days per week for 10 years using expert programming you’ve carefully found and applied from your independent research needs to count for something. Any good, written program has a goal. You can bet that a lifter in these circumstances will have learned a lot about his own body (and the body as a whole), and be able to differentiate generally good training advice from horrible advice.  If he’s been disciplined and learned from good sources, he’s probably made training and physique gains in the process.

We both know I’m being modest.

Lift well and use programs for a decade, and 9 times out of 10, you’ll have a fair amount to show for it. And a lot to share with a beginner on how to do the thing. With that said, it may be time to shirk the program and instead go for some intuitive training.

#2: That lifter is older now than when he started.

I wrote an article for T-Nation a couple of years ago called “Lifters Over 30 Need to Get Real”. That article’s popularity came from the incredibly mixed opinions people had on the subject. The reality of the situation is, training hard and heavy for an extended period of time has countless benefits, but the undeniable trade-off is that constant heavy weight training does take its own toll on muscles, joints and connective tissue.

This becomes even truer if a) your starting point isn’t a “clean slate” of injury and imbalance-free health, and b) your technique in all those lifts isn’t picture perfect – especially respecting your personal anthropometry and leverages.

A 35 year old lifter who’s been training hard since 18 is going to have more “mileage”, wear and tear, and possibly a bigger injury history than a 22 year old lifter who’s also been training hard since 18. It’s the exact reason it’s extremely rare to see sports athletes perform career-best work in the second halves of their sport lifespan. Using the Vince Carter example is a perfect way to illustrate this. At 43, the 22-season NBA veteran was known as basically a human highlight reel during the first 10 years of his career. His high flying dunks and insane athleticism couldn’t be topped.

But then he changed his game.

Likely because he knew that style wouldn’t last forever, and keeping with it as he got older in the league would probably result in him getting injured in a hurry. From his early 30’s to 40’s, he went from being the “dunker”, to becoming more of a role player with a smoother game, more court sense, and a solid shooter. And every now and then, he’d surprise the fans with a poster. That’s what made him last, and that’s the lesson we should learn as lifters.

This is Vince Carter, about to make a poster as a 42 year old NBA star. He played his cards right.

If the plan is longevity in fitness and health, it’s time to respect what will do us good and extend our lifespan in the gym.  It’s also time to tread carefully around things that produce a bit more risk versus reward. We might be able to still max out, but there’s less of a point when we’ve already proven ourselves and our strength. Now it’s time to plan for the long game, and train accordingly. That means listening to your body sometimes, and not a program.

#3: That lifter is not benefiting as much as he used to from trying to get stronger or more muscular.

I mentioned a risk/reward. Every exercise and choice we make in the gym presents one.

It’s up to us to determine whether we’ll derive more benefits from doing something in the gym, or potentiate more disadvantage from it. Having a goal of only getting “stronger” at all costs, is nice for a beastmode hashtag on Instagram when you’re 22 or 24, but at 38 or 40, it’s the definition of treading on thin ice. With all things equal, the older we get, the more narrowly we’re likely escaping injury with every max effort attempt, every inadequate technique, and every rep performed through pain. It’s a mindset that for many, takes a lot of work to overturn in favour of balance. And it’s important we do so if we want to last the long haul.

If our training has paid off to this point, years deep in the training game – if we’ve already got the strength, got the muscle and got the size – we have to know when to say it’s time to train to STAY strong and muscular. Make no mistake: That’s very different than resolving to train to get even stronger.

#4: That lifter is probably deprived of many training methods that aren’t as important for strength or size training.

When you can deadlift 550, squat 475, and bench 365, it’s even more of an embarrassment when you get winded walking up a flight of stairs, can’t sprint to save your life, can’t support yourself in a bodyweight bridge, struggle to touch your toes, look like an uncoordinated disaster playing any sport, and aren’t mobile enough to put your arms straight overhead without a hitch. All of that strength and muscle you’ve been going after isn’t serving you in ways that transcend being barbell-strong, looking jacked, and being able to say what you can lift.

When you’ve dedicated your entire training life to getting more  in the strength or size department, it leaves plenty of other goals and benefits of training hanging out to dry. Benefits that can have a serious impact on your long term health as lifter, and as an everyday individual. Remember: the strength and conditioning world and educated training resources are partially to blame. As important as strength training and hypertrophy often are, they could be sometimes positioned to overshadow any other goals in this arena. More importantly, remembering that there are actually eleven components that make up fitness and health can be a huge influencer over what we prioritize in the gym and why. Strength and body composition are just two.

One More thing: It’s Good to Suck at Stuff

So you set goals. And you reached those goals, so you set new goals.

You reached those, and the cycle continued to repeat itself. Likely for years.

This is the general idea behind the concept of training. Training comes from repeated efforts on a plan, to achieve a specific, measurable outcome. It involves building skills to become more efficient at performing an action.

That building of skill and efficiency is great for having task-specific results. But after a while, it might not pay quite as many dividends toward greater impacting your health and fitness – especially compared to when you were just starting out.

That’s why the rate of change to get from a 0 pound deadlift to a 300 pound deadlift is much more rapid than the rate of change getting from a 450 pound deadlift to a 550 pound deadlift.

When you get really good at something, the body might not have to work as hard to fight for every successful rep – it’s used to it.  The exposure to new training methods are the birth of the funny term “I feel sore in muscles I didn’t know existed”; a line that always gives trainers a chuckle.

The first time I did Chinese planks, Bent presses, Cossack squats, isometrics, Copenhagen planks, or hit the rowing machine, I was humbled. One strength training exercise is far less “transferable” into other gym movements than many might think. That will never be realized until a lifter actually tries it out.

Putting all that strength and built muscle to use by changing your training style for a while, and throwing a bit less “structure” to your workouts can be a blessing in disguise for improving fitness, opening your eyes to your athleticism, and maybe even breaking through a plateau – you know, if getting stronger or more muscular is still your thing.

Be Mature

This isn’t a strength coach saying to throw all your goals and programming in the trash bin. Take the content here with a grain of salt. In one statement, my message is clear:

If you’ve been in the lifting game for a while, training right – and you have the strength and development to show for it – then your body will probably welcome the opportunity to take your foot off the gas pedal when it comes to goals of pushing new maxes, breaking new PR’s, or adding 5 more pounds of lean tissue.

Trust me, by this point you’ve probably earned the right to train more intuitively and less “by the book”. Especially if you fit the category above, and you’re also well over 30 years old. If you want to last the test of time in the gym, train hard and impressively into your 50’s and past retirement, and function even better, it’ll all depend on how seriously you take this now.

But make no mistake…

This is just my opinion.

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