20 Lessons Learned from 20 Years of Training

The first time I touched a weight I was 13 years old. I grew up an athlete, playing every sport imaginable. I was on the Basketball, Hockey, AND Ski team (all winter sports) in 6th and 7th grade. I played baseball and ran track in the spring. I played golf and football in the fall. I don't know how my parents did it. 

I had always loved to play and practice the sports I played, but utilizing strength and conditioning to complement these sports wasn’t yet on my radar. I was young, and although I wanted to start lifting weights earlier, my dad bought into the fact that lifting stunts your growth if you start it too early (Which I don’t blame him for at all - the information abundance we have today wasn’t a thing back then). So at 13 years of age, just before high school began, I began hitting the weight room. 

Candidly, I didn’t fall in love with it right away. I was obsessed with football growing up, and had an above average football IQ and raw talent. Durability and resistance to injury was my biggest dilemma. I was also skinny and weak (about 140 lbs soaking wet).

After getting my bell rung several times throughout my freshman football season (I played every down of every game- we only had about 15 players on the roster), I knew I needed to get bigger and stronger. So I began diving into anything I could find on the internet at this time (2004ish), along with buying every muscle magazine I could get my hands on. I realized after playing with the big boys my freshman year that I needed to put in some work outside of practice.

Until this time, I never really understood the importance of strength and conditioning work. I had a natural propensity towards endurance activities and because I grew up on the Rocky movies, I figured all I needed to do was run and practice to maximize performance in my sport.

But once I started to see the results and experience the joy of getting a pump in the gym, I was hooked, and have been ever since. Of course, back then, I didn’t really know much about effective training. I did a lot of chest and arm workouts, as did most kids when they first start out.

But after a couple of years in the weight room, I put on some weight (not a ton, I’m a hardgainer) and also grew a couple more inches (nothing to do with weight training). By the time I entered my senior year of football, I was 6’1” 190. I had not only experienced newbie gains, but also gone through puberty. I was naive, so I thought I’d continue to make the same linear gains I had made throughout high school, forever. 

Much to my chagrin, this didn’t happen. So It was now time to either give up or figure out how to keep going. Whether or not I knew it at the time, by the time I finished high school, I enjoyed the weight room and the conditioning aspect of sport more than the sports themselves. I’ve been obsessed ever since.

Now, as a still-fitness obsessed 33 year old who has spent the last 20 years training for sports, various selections and training pipelines within Army Special Operations, combat deployments, powerlifting, crossfit, bodybuilding, and general health and longevity, I can say I've learned some lessons - mostly the hard way. I've also spent hours per day obsessively reading, listening to podcasts, watching youtube videos, and absorbing as much information as possible on all things fitness and being my own guinea pig to test out most of what I've learned. 

Today’s post will highlight 20 truths I’ve learned to represent the 20 years I’ve been immersed in training. Each point will be training specific, but In a future article I will list lifestyle factors (nutrition, recovery, sleep etc.). Some of these may be obvious to you, some of them less so. Some of these are based on science and data, others I’ve learned through experience. Most are a combination of both.

Some are dispelling common myths, others are more of just a reminder or a “good to know” piece of advice. My intent is to help you, the reader, be more mindful about your training, so that you can continue to do it for as long as possible.

Let’s jump in.

  1. You don’t need to train every day- The best outcome possible from training every day is that you make the same amount of progress as you would training 4-5 days/week. The most likely outcome is that you begin regressing, get injured, reach mental burnout, or mess up your health. You need to recover from your training to make progress. Training hard every single day ins’t sustainable for 99.9% of people. You can (and should) be active daily. But you don’t need to train daily (and you shouldn’t).
  2. You don’t need to leave the gym feeling like you went through war- Leaving the gym feeling better than you did when you entered should be the goal for 95-99% of your workouts. Occasionally testing your fortitude is fine (albeit not necessary for results). But your workouts should enhance your life, rather than detract from it. You still can train very hard, but try not to take it too far. Training pretty hard 3-5 days a week is far more result-producing than training balls to the wall on Monday and having to take 3-5 days off afterwards.
  3. Soreness is not indicative of a good workout- Being sore is ok. Being really sore means you overdid it. Your goal should not be to get as sore as possible from your workouts. Excessive soreness means your body needs to recover, but it won’t adapt. You’ll eventually get back to baseline, but your baseline will always stay the same (or if you do this too often, become lower).
  4. Sweating is not indicative of a good workout- People break a sweat walking to the mailbox in the summertime. They also sweat in the sauna. Some also sweat when they’re nervous. Does that mean they’re getting a stellar workout? NO. Sweating is great, but not sweating is ok too. A lot of it has to do with the environment in which you’re training. Judge your training efficacy and effectiveness on progress.
  5. Heart rate alone is not indicative of a good workout- If you watch a scary movie or if you’re about to give a speech to a large audience, your heart rate will go up. Does that mean your cardio health and aerobic performance is improving? NO. Heart rate alone is not a good proxy to judge your training. It is a tool, but must be used in combination with other objective and subjective measurements (aka- I was running for 45 minutes, my heart rate was at 140 bpm, therefore I became better at running and improved my cardiovascular function). 

*Note on 3,4,5: if these were indicators of a great workout, I would sit in the sauna (sweat/heart rate) watch a scary movie (heart rate even more), and punch myself in the quads over and over again (soreness). I’d be the greatest athlete/fittest human of all time.

  1. There are no mandatory exercises- You do not need to do a barbell squat. You do not need to bench press. You do not need to do push ups. Just because some exercises are touted as “the best”, doesn’t mean everyone needs to do them. Select exercises based on your goals, structure, mobility, and what you have available to you.
  2. There are mandatory movement patterns- There ARE mandatory movement patterns (if you want to get fit, which you probably do since you’re reading this). A squat movement, a hinge movement, a vertical and horizontal pull and push movement, a carry, and unilateral versions of all listed above are necessary. They don’t need to be done with a barbell. They don’t need to be 1 rep maxes, but they need to happen regularly in your training.
  3. Train for power occasionally- Most people do cardio. Most people do strength training. Most people do not jump, sprint, or do explosive lifts. This is a mistake. Do them 1-2x/week to maintain your fast twitch muscle fibers longer, and to reduce your chance of injury when you have to run to the top of the stairs to stop your toddler from tumbling. It doesn’t need to be an entire dedicated workout. It can be part of your regular strength training session.
  4. Run slow to run fast (and get healthier)- You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) go out for a run (or your preferred cardio modality) and go as hard as you can until you’re smoked every time. There’s a time and place for hard cardio, but it’s very infrequent. Running slow will build your aerobic base AND make you healthier. You’ll feel better on a daily basis as well. Save the hard efforts for 10-15% of your training. 
  5. Cardio plays a minimal role on your body composition- To lose weight, I should focus on cardio, right? You’ll lose weight, but you won’t improve your body composition to a significant degree through cardio. Your body adapts quickly to cardio, meaning it gets better at it and wants to become more efficient. Over time, you’ll burn fewer calories and become a smaller (but just as fat) version of your previous self. This is good for performance, but not good for calorie burn. In other words, cardio should be implemented for health, but to look better your focus should be on creating a calorie deficit through nutrition, staying active and lifting weights to maintain muscle.
  6. Rotate the barbell out of your program from time to time- The barbell is a versatile and effective tool. But if you never rotate it out of your program and replace it with dumbbells, cables, machines, etc, you’re more likely to run into joint issues at some point. Spending a couple months out of each year without using a barbell (or using it sparingly) is a good idea for most people.
  7. Consistency trumps all else- In order to make fitness a lifelong pursuit, you need to be consistent. Training 3x a week for a decade will get you light-years further than training 6x/week but going on and off the wagon. Make it a habit. Make it a non-negotiable, but don’t think you need to lift 5-6 days per week every single week forever.
  8. Mobility is important. Some people need more than others- Not everyone needs dedicated mobility work. Some people love doing it, and ironically they’re usually the ones who need it the least. Most people hate doing it, and, you guessed it, they often need it the most. Also, doing 30 minutes of mobility once a week is not nearly as effective as doing it for 5-8 minutes daily. If you’re stiff, banged up, or struggling with range of motion, you should do mobility regularly. Common problem areas are ankles, hips, lats, upper back and shoulders.
  9. Your memory isn’t what you think it is. Log your training- Having a training log will help you progress better. I don’t care how advanced you are. I don’t care what your goals are, write that shit down. Every week your goal should be to beat the previous week. This won’t always happen, but if you’re diligent with notes, you can usually diagnose the problem (and fix it) more effectively.
  10. Take a week off from the gym every year- This one is hard for a fitness fanatic. I struggle significantly with this. I usually take 4 straight days off 2-3x a year. You also could do it all at once, and take 7-10 days off. This is a game changing strategy for a hardcore lifter. You’ll feel 10x better when you come back, and your motivation will be off the charts. Don’t worry, you will not lose strength or muscle (you’ll gain more of it in the long run).
  11. Being an elite performer is not the same as being in great health, is not the same as having an elite physique- The best performers on earth must sacrifice some of their overall health in order to be elite. You can be a good performer and be in great health. You cannot be an elite performer and in elite health. You cannot perform to your fullest and be as healthy as possible at 4% body fat. The more you focus on just one thing (health, performance, aesthetics) the more it detracts from the others. There’s nothing wrong with having a main focus, just be mindful of how it’ll affect the other aspects of true fitness.
  12. The best way to progress is to do the basics over and over again- Boring, basic training is also the best training. Following the workout suggestions of your favorite social media influencer is not a good idea if you want to see results. Perfecting your technique and progressing week to week, month to month, year to year is the most effective way to train.
  13. Form and technique are outrageously important- People who focus on technique are able to lift more consistently because they’re never (or rarely) banged up or injured. Overload is still important, but to maximize your potential and feel good in the process, you must use proper technique. This takes time and practice.
  14. More isn’t always better- Doing the minimum work for the maximum outcome trumps doing as much as you can possibly handle every day of the week. To maximize longevity, improving the quality of your reps and sets will allow you to get more results out of less work, and less time in the gym. If you can get the same results doing 10 sets per week per muscle group as 15, choose 10. 
  15. If you only train to look or perform better, your training career won’t last long- People usually start training to look better or improve their performance (or both). This is fine, but if that’s the only reason you train, you’re less likely to fall in love with training and the chances you’ll stick to it forever are much lower. If you want to be in it for the long haul, train because it’s fun, train because it improves your mental health, train because it’s hard and uncomfortable and gives you a sense of accomplishment. A byproduct of this will be a better physique and improved performance.

There you have it, 20 things I’ve learned over the last 20 years of training. I have a ton more, but these are the ones that I believe are the most relevant and can help the most people. The sooner you start training smart, the longer you’re going to train. 

Thank you for reading! What’s something you’ve learned the hard way over your training career? What’s something in this article that stood out to you? Let me know in the comments below!

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