The Ten Keys to Old School Success for New School Beginners

Updated April 14, 2009

The Ten Keys to Old School Success for New School Beginners, by Tim Donahey

1. Eat Like a King

Muscle isn’t made out of thin air, it’s made out of the fuel you provide it and that fuel is food. You can forget everything else you will learn in this article, but remember this; if you don’t eat enough to fuel growth you won’t grow. Many beginners have this idea that they can grow bigger and somehow stay smaller, that you can pack on 20-30 lbs of muscle and keep an Abercrombie six-pack. It ain’t gonna happen, or it’ll happen so slowly that your grand kids will grow faster than you do.

And if you’re saying to yourself that you can’t seem to gain weight, I got another name for you so-called “hard gainers,” it’s “under eaters!” If you’re having trouble adding weight to the scale you need to be eating everything that isn’t nailed down, then you need to eat everything that is nailed down, and then you need to eat the nails. For guys, every time you sit down for a meal it’s a banquet, a competitive eating contest, it’s an Olympic sport! Screw the light yogurt and the skim milk, you need to be downing whole milk, whole eggs, nuts, peanut butter, fresh fruits and veggies, plenty of meat and top it all off with olive oil! And one more thing; if it’s not something that your grandparents would recognize as food, it ain’t food! This immediately nullifies many things you’d get out of a bag, box or can. This means you need to be sticking to the outside of the grocery store where they keep all the fresh food and skimp on visiting the aisles.

2. Rest Like a Baby

It seems natural for most newbies to think that more is better, that twice the work will earn you twice the profit.  This couldn’t be more wrong.  You don’t grow while you work, you grow while you rest. Your hard earned sweat and blood will be wasted if you don’t give yourself a chance to recover.  Imagine a plant; if you constantly watered it, it would drown, what you should do is water once every couple of days and the rest of the time it will grow without any additional intervention.  You are no different.  Generally speaking workouts should last an hour, hour and a half, max, and time spent after that is when you actually grow, it’s rest time. For beginners this means taking at least 3 days off a week, getting at least 8, and more like 10, hours of uninterrupted sleep every night, and taking a full week off every 8-12 weeks. If you don’t have time to rest, then you don’t have time to grow, it’s as simple as that. When you take a day or a week off make it enjoyable; spend leisure time with friends and family, be outdoors, go for a hike or a swim. Give your mind, body and spirit all the recovery it needs to replenish itself and grow. It’s not being lazy, it’s being realistic.

3. Be Skilled, Not Sloppy

Weight lifting is a skill just like in any other sport, and where the skilled will be successful, the sloppy will be in the emergency room. Make it your top priority to always be improving your form, perfecting your movements and mastering your technique. This means educating yourself in the lifts that you will be performing before you perform them. Don’t walk into the gym and decide to “wing it” on a new exercise; learn it first, then practice, then perform. One basic rule of thumb will help guide you in all exercises: keep your body in line with itself. This means keeping a neutral spine (not bent or overextended), keeping your knees in line with your toes, your elbows under your wrist and your neck in line with your spine. I recommend that every one of you read Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. This is the best guide out there on performing the big heavy compound lifts. Also, don’t rely on mirrors to tell you what you’re doing; mirrors lie! A 2 dimensional representation of a 3 dimensional occurrence will never give you an accurate portrayal. I realize most gyms today look like the hall of mirrors in a fun house, but ignore them, and instead pay attention to what your body is telling you. Also if you have access to a digital camera you should record yourself and play it back later to assess proper technique. This is better than a mirror because a) you’ll be watching yourself after-the-fact, not during it, b) you can replay as many times as you like, and, c) you can post it on-line for immediate feedback.

4. Progress = Profit

Progress in weightlifting, strength training or bodybuilding are all measured the same for you beginners; it’s adding weight on the barbell and adding weight on the scale every week. These are the only two measures that you need concern yourself with at this point in your training. It’s not how much you bench, it’s how much more you benched than last week, it’s not how much you weigh, it’s how much more you weighed than last week. It’s not about where you are now, it’s about where you end up.  You are your own toughest competition and every week is a new chance to come out ahead. Little by little, just keep increasing the weight on the barbell and increasing the weight on your scale every blessed week. If one ceases to increase that means both will cease to increase. If that’s the case you’re doing something wrong and you need to fix it. 9 times out of 10 you’ll need to get more food and get more rest. It’s a lot harder to salvage your progress once it has stalled and much easier to maintain progress that remains consistent, so no matter how slow your progress may be, stay on course and avoid stalling. If however your strength or bodyweight actually regress, then more drastic measures might need to be taken. If this happens and it’s been more than 8 weeks since you last took a full week off, now is the time to do so. Otherwise another way of breaking the spell is to cut the intensity (the weight) of your workout by 50% for a week; this means benching 75lbs if you normally bench 150. This will give you the advantage of recovering without regressing. After either a week off or a week “deloading” you should be good as new and ready to go.

5. Be Consistent

If you haven’t been on a program for at least 4 or 5 weeks you have no business changing to a new routine. It takes at least that long to judge if a program is working or not, and if you’ve been reading, you’ll know exactly how to measure that progress. However if you’ve been on a program that long and you’re not adding weight, even then the program should be the last thing you change. Make sure it’s not something else in your lifestyle that is short changing your gains. If you can remove all other possibilities and are left with only your routine to change, then you’d be a fool to stay on it. But whatever you do don’t get in one of these vicious cycles of second guessing yourself every time you start a new routine. Changing your routine every week is not a program. Avoid paralysis by analysis, make a choice and stick with it. The same can be said of exercise selection; changing your sets, reps, and exercises every week is the same thing as changing the whole routine. Don’t do it unless you have to. Also be consistent in your diet and your rest. Consistent choices will give you consistent gains!

6. Supplement, Don’t Substitute

There is no legal supplement in existence that will make up for bad programming, bad nutrition or bad recovery. There is no legal supplement that is good enough to merit basing a workout routine on.  There is no legal supplement that is worth spending more money on than the food you eat. 99% of supplements are canned crap. That means that whatever expensive supplement you’re taking this week is in all likelihood a shiny brand new shrink-wrapped turd with a bow on it for all the good that it’ll do. There are only 3 supplements that you guys need concern yourselves with:

1.    A Mega Multi Vitamin. Your requirements for vitamins and minerals will be higher than the average person, so this is pretty important.
2.    Fish Oil. This stuff is as close as we’ve gotten to an elixir of life. It does so many good things that you’ll just have to take my word for it and look it up yourself. Take at least 5 grams per day. I take 12.
3.    Whey Protein. This will ensure you’re getting the requisite amount of protein that your body needs to grow, but it is not a substitute for food. Drink 1 shake post workout and that’s probably as much as you’ll need. If you’re drinking more than 2 per day, you’re literally pissing money away.  If you want to spend your money on extra sups, well that’s up to you. I think it’s a waste, but as long as you’re getting plenty to eat and you’re already taking these 3, then feel free to be a lab rat.

7. Overtraining = Underecovering

Overtraining is like The Black Plague of the bodybuilding world.  While it is indeed a very, very bad thing to get, as a beginner there is almost no chance you will.  You will hear this term thrown around a lot, eg., “You’re overtraining your legs,” or “That routine looks like overtraining.”  Understand this and explain it to as many people as you can; overtraining is not a finite event, you can not get it in an hour or a day and you can’t overtrain a single bodypart.  Overtraining is systemic, not local, in other words overtraining is something that happens to your whole body simultaneously.  Basically overtraining is a consequence of your central nervous system (CNS) not being able to recover itself.  Think of CNS recovery as your training capacity and imagine your training capacity is like a tank of fuel.  When you train, the fuel goes down 2 millimeters and when you rest the fuel goes back up 1 ½ millimeters.  Yes, you are depleting your resources faster than you can replace them, but you have a large reservoir of training capacity.  Overtraining is something that takes weeks or months to happen, so rest assured that there is no amount of training that you could perform today that would leave you overtrained for tomorrow (your car battery would shut off before that could happen… also not a good thing, but still).  What will overtrain you is not resting and recovering enough in between your workouts. Just because it won’t happen overnight doesn’t mean it won’t happen so train hard and rest harder (hint: it’s the 2nd Key) and you’ll never have to worry about getting this “deadly plague.”  But wash your hands just in case. 😉

8. Be Self Aware, Not Self Absorbed

Always warm-up before you work out. If a warm-up with 60% or 80% of your max weight feels heavier than it should, take a step back and assess the situation. Maybe you need to back off. Don’t lift with your ego. That’s a good way to get injured and not be able to lift at all. If you’re performing a new exercise always learn it first with little or no weight on the barbell. When starting a new program or routine never start with your max weight, always work your way back up over the course of a few weeks. Don’t ever test your 1 rep max unless you are highly skilled in the exercise and have a very good idea of what your 1 rep max is already. Showing off will get you nowhere that you wouldn’t have gotten by taking the sure path, except maybe a trip to the emergency room. Also, unless you’re talking about lactic acid burn, adages like, “No Pain, No Gain,” are bullshit and should be ignored. If you get injured don’t be a nimrod and work through the pain; You Will Lose. Instead do everything you can to heal it via rest, medication and rehab, and otherwise find a way to work around the injury. Make wellness your top priority.

9. Finish What You Start

Weight training is not like a 4 year degree, you don’t train for x amount of hours and then get to hang a diploma on your wall that says “Bodybuilder.”  Weight training is a lifelong endeavor. If you are serious you will be training for years and years to come and quite possibly for the rest of your life.  It’s because of this that weight training can sometimes seem like a marathon where the finish line keeps moving itself further away.  This can be draining for many people who attack it with the wrong perspective and they eventually give up altogether.  Instead of running for that “big finish” which doesn’t actually exist, think of it more as a relay race where the focus is on handing off the baton to yourself at specific predetermined points.  These hand-offs are reasonable short term goals that you know you can meet. Goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based. A goal could be adding 5 lbs of muscular bodyweight to the scale in a month or adding 50 lbs to your squat in 7 weeks. These are good goals to have and will keep you striving for the next hand-off. If however you find you do need to stop or slow down prematurely, make sure it’s for the right reasons (only you can define what those are), and set realistic goals for returning to your training as well.  Be patient, but also be persistent.  If you find you aren’t willing to put the kind of time into weight training that it demands, then don’t fool yourself, invest in a Bowflex and use it as a coat rack.

10. Drop a Log

The most successful bodybuilders keep very close tabs on their progress by recording every minute detail of their development. This means recording your exercise routines, the weight you used for warm-ups and work sets, and any feedback that the routine gave you such as on your technique. Also your bodyweight, your dietary menu and anything else that might impact your training. Having a detailed training journal ensures that every time you walk into the gym you’ll know exactly what it is that you came to do. You can’t assess your progress if you don’t record it!

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