Why going to the gym and simply training what you feel like could lead to failure.
There’s a saying that ‘something is better than nothing’.
If you’re a beginner and recently started your fitness journey, I can definitely agree here.
Doing something and being active IS better than sitting on your arse all day, looking at your Fitbit and realising you’ve walked 893 steps – it’s 10:38pm Brad for fucks sake.
So let’s say you’re Brad and begin your fitness journey by joining a gym and exercising three times per week.
Brad has been watching some YouTube and scrolling Instagram for workouts on his chest, arms and abs. Brad wants to impress Kristy in the office when they’re on Friday team lunches.
Brad walks into the gym and begins to navigate through all the chest and tricep exercises he can think of. He also discovers a few machines at the gym for chest that he hasn’t seen before – hell yeah let’s get in a few sets of these.
Not entirely sure he’s doing the right thing but he can feel his chest fatiguing, it must be working.
A few weeks go by and people are noticing his progress.
Arman from maintenance asks if you’ve been working out, he gives you a tap on the shoulder followed by a slow head nod of approval.
At Friday lunch you roll up your sleeves to avoid making a mess realise you have created an even bigger mess as Kristy cannot contain herself after realising your biceps are bigger than her career ambitions.
James from accounts yells out ‘woah! Big bad Brad put those pythons aways! What’s your gym routine?’
It’s in that moment you realise that your routine up to this point has been more or less training how you feel and what you feel like on the day.
Okay so you can see here how it’s easy for people like Brad to continue following his current approach to training. People are noticing and he is making progress. What’s wrong with that?
Brad has basically gone through what is at times referred to as ‘beginner/newbie gains’.
The body has gone from a state of doing little to no exercise, to suddenly training multiple times per week. Anything you give the body right now is going to illicit a response.
As you begin training for the first time, the body will adapt a few ways:
- Carbohydrates are utilised faster
- Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) will become less intense
- Muscle Protein Synthesis is increased leading to the formation of more skeletal muscle
- Fat is better oxidised to assist in energy production
With newbie gains it is not unreasonable for a beginner to gain 3-5kg of muscle in their first 6-9 months of training.
You can see why Brad has continued to train whatever he feels like and why he may think that his training method is going to continue working.
But all good rides must come to an end
Eventually the body will adapt to this new found training regime and require more. Training will need to increase in difficulty to continue progress.
*Progressive Overload has entered the chat*
One of the key principles of exercise is that of progressive overload. Progressive overload means to incrementally increase the difficulty of training.
This can be with strength training or cardio based activities.
A simplistic view of progressive overload would be:
Week one: 3 sets of 12 reps with 5 kilograms
Week two: 3 sets of 12 reps with 7 kilograms
In cardio terms it might look like:
Week one: 5km run in 35:01
Week two: 5km run in 34:05
This small increase in difficulty week to week is what results in progress for the majority of people.
That being said progressive overload can occur with a variety of methods such as:
- Increasing repetitions
- Increasing sets
- Increasing weight lifted
- Increase/decrease the speed of the movement
- Better movement technique
- Decreasing rest time
- Increasing the number of workouts per week
Why can’t I just keep training the same way
There will come a point where 3 sets of 10 repetitions with the same weight will no longer create enough of a stimulus to lead to improvement.
The body is a lazy machine and will do whatever possible to use the least amount of energy.
As we increase strength, our body becomes more energy efficient. The amount of effort and energy required to lift 5 kilograms when you started in week 1 is substantially less in week 10.
If you want to continue progress, you have to increase the difficulty of training over time.
To continue progress over time you need only to implement 1 or 2 of the above methods at any given time.
Let’s use the example of 4 weeks.
Over the course of 4 weeks focus on increasing repetitions and sets performed. Change the sets/reps over the 4 week period. Don’t create large jumps in sets or reps performed.
Increasing sets by 1 or repetitions by 2 every 2 weeks is a simple approach.
Week one and two: 3 sets of 10
Week three and four: 3 sets of 12 OR 4 sets of 10
Then in the next 4 week period, potentially look at focusing on increasing weight lifted or another method mentioned above.
So why do I need a program?
Okay so hopefully you can see why beginners often make rapid improvements with training. Also why this rapid growth may lead people to think that what they’re doing is going to keep working for years to come.
A program is basically organised workouts in a sequential order with all the training variables (reps, sets, rest, intensity) listed.
There are many benefits to following a program
- Improve structure of workouts
- Record and monitor your progress
- Evaluate the effectiveness of your program
- Clear path to training goal via reverse engineering
- Take the stress out of thinking about what to do in the gym
Following a program can structure your week of training or even the session itself. Familiarity with training sessions allows the body to adapt and improve. Too much variety or a lack of structure may lead to soreness but not necessarily progress.
Keep workouts relatively the same for 3-4 weeks before making changes.
The changes you make could simply be manipulating the reps or sets or adding in 1 variation to your workouts.
Record and monitor progress
Following a program and recording your workouts allows you to see your progress over time and make educated guesses as to where your training will take you in the near future.
If week 1 you lifted 10kg and by week 3 you’re lifting 12kg it is safe to project you’ll lift 14kg by week 5 or 6.
You will still need to put the work in of course but now you have a realistic target to work towards.
This target isn’t just an arbitrary number either, instead it’s an educated forecast based on your previous training.
Evaluate program and progress
A key benefit of following a program is the ability to evaluate how you’re progressing. If you’re following a program and your nutrition and sleep are adequate – it’s sensible to assume you’re going to make progress and improve.
If however you’re not making progress or haven’t reached a new personal best (PB), well now you can look through your program and identify what may have gone wrong.
This does take some education to know what exactly you’re looking for so you might want to consult a coach or professional.
Some red flags to look for may include:
- Too large of a jump in reps/sets week to week
- Did you increase weight too fast too soon, limiting your future loads
If you’re tracking your nutrition, body weight and sleep you could refer to those numbers as well.
- Did your calories drop throughout the program?
- How much sleep did you average week to week?
Reverse-engineer your goal
Have a goal to bench press a certain amount of weight? Following a program allows you to visualise approximately how long it will take you to reach that goal.
Managing expectations and showing patience with training is crucial for long term progress.
Due to social media I feel that people see their favourite trainers and want to be as strong as them now. Or you see someone’s weight loss results and want to get there in 3 months, when it took them 12.
If you have been training for a while and have your previous training logs. You can refer to them and see what your progression looked like over 8-12 weeks.
Let’s say it took you 12 weeks to increase your bench press by 20kg.
It’s sensible to forecast that it may take at the minimum, another 12 weeks to increase by 20kg.
Now there are various factors that need to be considered such as nutrition, sleep and how you’re progressing during this time.
But this educated forecast is better than shooting in the dark and hoping for the best.
When you train what you feel like and hate your calves, you are not training your calves.
When you train what you feel like and suck at squatting, you are not going to train squats enough.
A program, especially one created by a coach will target your weaknesses as well as your strengths.
Often training the things we hate are the things we need to progress the things we love.
How will not following a program make me weak
Everyone has ignored IKEA instructions
Have you ever tried to bake a cake or cook a meal without looking at the recipe properly?
Have you ever driven to a new location without Google Maps/GPS?
Have you ever tried building an IKEA desk without looking at the instructions?
If you’re like me you probably have at least once.
How much time did you waste?
How much money did you spend?
How shit did the cake turn out?
Did you end up in Newcastle when you were supposed to go to Wollongong?
Training is not much different.
Not following a program means you are flying blind with your progress. Those educated forecasts? Can’t do that without the data.
How can you evaluate your training without a record of what you have been doing? Guess you’ll have to just blame yourself for not trying hard enough.
Training off how you feel means that your sessions are dictated by your emotions on the day. If you feel great and lift a lot and have an awesome workout – that’s honestly amazing.
But not every day is going to feel great and you’re not going to have amazing workouts all the time. That’s the harsh truth.
Also your one awesome workout has now caused more issues for future workouts as you will now have to always have awesome workouts to feel a sense of progress.
I say ‘feel a sense of progress’ because that’s all you’re working with – emotion. Whereas following a program you could track progress among other things (such as emotion).
A program can mitigate risk and takes emotion out of training. If set up well, a quality workout program provides you with the minimum required training dose to progress.
This minimum amount can usually be hit even on the shittest of days.
Minimise risk of injury
Tracking progress and recording workouts as laid out in a program can minimise risk of injury through load management.
Load/weight/intensity/volume are used interchangeably.
- Load management is a fancy term for being sensible with how much training volume you are accruing over time.
- The term ‘volume’ refers to the total number of repetitions performed multiplied by the amount of weight lifted for a particular exercise or session.
Example: 10 repetitions x 100kg = 1000kg of volume.
Remember that principle of progressive overload?
Well if you slowly increase your volume over time guess what? You are progressively overloading and making progress, yes baby!
However if you make too large of a jump in volume or too frequently make large jumps in volume, you risk an overuse injury.
You won’t be able to recover fast enough between sessions and thus go into future workouts already fatigued. Not good.
How can you monitor training volume if you just go into the gym guns blazing and smash out a million reps and sets? You may not feel the impact of erratic spikes in volume between two sessions, but over the course of weeks your risk increases.
“BuT ChRis ThAt’s WhAt ThE BoDyBuiLdErS dO, gO aNd LiFt HeAvY”
Yeah and are you taking copious amounts of drugs like the big boys are? Didn’t think so.
You could actually de-train and lose muscle
You train consistently and your body rewards you by adapting and growing muscle. You worked hard for that muscle. You ought to want to keep it.
That new built muscle does require consistent stimulus to maintain it.
If your training volume is all over the place, one week high, two weeks lower than average, then another week super high – not only do you risk injury as mentioned above but you may actually lose muscle.
Your training volume needs to stay constant in order to maintain it.
How to save your progress and future gains
Quite simply we have to get a program organised for you. There are literally millions available on the internet. Spend some time looking for one that excites you and fits within your goal(s). And then execute it.
Your first week or two on your first ever program may feel quite easy if you’re used to going all-out high intensity. Don’t let your ego get in the way and I encourage you to remain patient.
Review after 8-12 weeks and evaluate:
- Where you were at the start and end of the program (personal bests etc.)
- Any weaknesses or areas of improvement you need to work on
- Did you have fun and if not, what needs to change?
Summarising it all
- Beginner gains give a false sense of justification for doing whatever you want in the gym
- Eventually your beginner gains will plateau and you will need to structure your training
- A program organises workouts into a sequential order
- Progressive overload is key
- Following a program allows you to evaluate progress
- Reverse-engineer your goals through educated forecasts
- Training what you hate is what you need
- Minimise risk of injury
- You could lose muscle not following a program
Big thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you want to know more about Online Coaching here at Simple Strength I’d love to see how I can help simplify your track to success. Click here and I’ll be in touch shortly.