Lessons Learned as a Trainer and Athlete

April 4, 2011


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I've been a personal trainer now for about two years, and I've been actively training myself for about three. It has been quite a journey, and I've come a long way. When I started, I could only dream of doing a pull up. Now it is my strongest movement. Handstands were so far beyond my abilities as to be pure fantasy, and now I spend a lot of time inverted. I've travelled a long road in a short amount of time, and I've learned a few lessons along the way that I thought I would share.

Lesson 1: Rest More

I alluded to this in my previous post on My Warrior Spirit, but the biggest lesson I've learned training is that we don't give ourselves enough rest. My physical progress has always been more closely tied to how much rest I'm getting, and not as much to how often I train. Unless you are training for mental toughness or otherwise have no other options about when and how often you exercise, take as much rest as you need to feel energetic and upbeat whenever you train.

The only caveat to this is if you aren't working hard enough. If you go to the gym, putz around on a few weight machines, and work the same weights over and over without ever pushing your limits, you don't need to rest. You need to try harder.

For people that are maxing out, sprinting until they feel like throwing up, and really pushing themselves, rest is vital. If you are still building up your strength and stamina, rest will get you there faster, but since you aren't working as intensely, your required rest will be less.

I've discovered that the harder I work, the longer it takes to fully recover, and since I can push harder as I get stronger and fitter, that means rest becomes even more important as I get fitter (you'd think it's the other way around). Until I had the ability to really go crazy, I couldn't push things to the point that I needed a full day of recovery. When my max deadlift was 185, I would be ready to go again the next day. Now that it's above 350, I need at least 4 days before I'm feeling ready to try again.

Basically, don't underestimate how much rest you need. If you're working hard, you should be resting purposefully as well.

Lesson 2: Always Warm Up

The only time I've found when it is perfectly okay to skip a warmup is just before going to sleep, and even then I sometimes think I'd sleep more comfortably if I'd warmed up.

Muscles need time to get loose. Tendons, ligaments, and joints need to go through a few motions to lubricate, loosen, and develop elasticity. Neurons need time to get fired up so that they can accurately control muscles and coordinate complex movements.

If you are doing any exercise worth doing, all of these things need to be in place in order to perform better and especially to perform safely.

The last time I neglected to warm up, I hurt my back for a week, doing squats at weights far below my max and my usual capabilities. The reason? Sitting in a car for 5 hours the previous day had deactivated my glutes and hips. Simply by warming up, I would have reset everything and been fine.

That's the thing: you never know what state your body is in when you start an activity. By warming up, you get everything back on track and work out any kinks or movement issues, before applying a heavy load. I didn't think my hips were so out of sync, and perhaps they are usually fine, but 10 minutes to get loose and warm would have saved me a week of wincing in pain every time I had to put socks on.

You should be sweating and breathing hard at the end of a warmup. Basically, you should be warm. I wear a sweater. When I get so hot I have to take it off to be comfortable, I know I'm warm. Until then, I keep moving.

Lesson 3: Flexibility is as Important as Strength

I work with a lot of younger guys who are enamored with being massively strong. They lift heavy day after day, kind of ignore technique and posture cues, and generally are monsters. They tend to get pretty strong and pretty big, but they also tend to get really stiff. In an attempt to protect themselves from poor lifting habits, their bodies lock up.

The result of course is decreased mobility and long-term risk of serious injury.

If you watch the world's greatest athletes, they tend to be very, very flexible. In the case of gymnastics, flexibility is what actually enables many of the feats of strength. In Olympic weightlifting, flexibility allows huge men and women to get underneath heavy loads in a stable and safe posture. Football and soccer players benefit from flexibility because when they take a hit or a fall, they aren't at risk of pulling a muscle that has no range of motion.

In Olympic weightlifting, one of the greatest determiners of how much weight you can get up is how low you can get under the bar. That requires you to be very flexible. If you aren't, it doesn't matter that you can pick up 300 pounds off the floor. You'll have to just muscle it up, and that means you are working with poor leverage and inefficient movements. I've done extremely well in weightlifting because of my speed and flexibility, which allows me to apply my strength at the single point it will be most effective.

So, yes, being crazy strong is handy, but you'll get a lot more mileage out of your current strength if you develop the flexibility to apply it where it counts the most.

Also, being strong is hardly worth it if it comes at the cost of impaired mobility and constant pain.

Lesson 4: The Routine is King

Show up. Every time you say you will train, make sure to actually show up. If you get there and you are too tired, make that decision after you start. Show up for the sake of showing up, even if you don't actually get anything done.

I can't tell you how many times I have distinctly not wanted to exercise, but I went in anyway. Sometimes, just by arriving, I got motivated enough to do something productive, but sometimes I would just go through the movements and work on my technique. But because I came every day, my body and mind got used to working at a specific time, and so they would be ready to go.

If you've been diligent, when you miss a day, you will hopefully feel a little out of whack. Your body expects its movement, and when no movement is forthcoming, it gets edgy. If you continue to miss training days, you'll find that you lose motivation far faster than you lose physical fitness.

Most people make a point of showing up on time every day for class or work. These things are important to them as an investment in themselves. Well, exercise, whether its a sport or just conditioning, is an investment in your health, which is as or more important than your finances or your education.

Respect the routine. I would go in to the gym to get up for my morning run when I didn't want to for the sake of building and maintaining the routine only. Once the routine is set, the training comes on its own.

Lesson 5: Enjoy Your Training

A lot of people come to me with the story that they don't like exercise, but they want to get in shape. I will train them, but I maintain that the best way to get in shape is to do something physical that you actually enjoy, rather than drag yourself to a gym you don't want to enter.

Personally, I've admitted that I enjoy gymnastics much more than weightlifting. I find gymnastic skills much more rewarding, more versatile, and they come more easily to me, so I prefer practicing them. If this means I favor gymnastics in my training, I think that is fine, since I will train more and harder doing something I enjoy.

On the other hand, when I tried to force myself to do a lot of weightlifting, I would resent my training, and look for ways to avoid it. So even if I was doing something to shore up my weaknesses, I was still not showing up with 100% effort.

Do what you enjoy, do it well, and don't worry about the rest.

Most people, myself included, don't like to exercise for its own sake. I like the feeling of strength, the thrill of overcoming physical challenges, and the sense of coordination that comes when you make seemingly impossible things happen. I don't inherently enjoy pushups. Every workout is a game or a challenge for me. I make of point of setting it up that way in my head.

If you have trouble playing mind games with yourself about traditional training methods, find a sport you enjoy and play it as often and as intensely as you can. For some, that might mean finding ways to 'play' your sport without a team: volleyball players might practice their skills on their own, tennis players can hit a ball against a wall, basketball players can always shoot hoops. If you break it down, those repetitive drills add up to basic exercises: squats, jumps, overhead presses, cardio intervals. The difference is that the framework is something you can relate to.

Get your mind into it, however you can, and the body will follow. You might even find that you get more interested in more focused physical training over time. But even then, find some way to make it enjoyable. Life is too short to cause undue pain, and intense workouts are too uncomfortable to do unless you're having a good time.

So those are my little nuggets of wisdom. I know I don't have tons of experience compared to some other trainers, but I've always prided myself on my powers of observation so I hope I have provided some illumination for people looking to get into shape or maintain the balance in their workout routines. For me, training is as much mental as it is physical, so keep in mind the value of the right mindset.

Summary:

  • Lesson 1: Rest More: Most people underestimate how much rest they need when doing intense exercise. Especially if you've been active for a while and can function while fatigued, make sure you let your muscles and metabolic pathways fully repair in order to keep making progress.
  • Lesson 2: Always Warm Up: Your muscles, nerves, tendons, and joints need time to prepare in order to safely handle high loads. Otherwise, you're asking for injury. Even if you avoid injuring yourself, your performance will be subpar.
  • Lesson 3: Flexibility is as Important as Strength: Flexibility and mobility let you avoid pain and maintains your integrity of motion. By being flexible, you can get yourself into the most advantageous positions for your movements, thus maximizing the effect of your strength.
  • Lesson 4: The Routine is King: Respect your routine, and recognize that maintaining the routine is sometimes as important as actually making training progress. If you show up just for the sake of continuity, that is time well spent.
  • Lesson 5: Enjoy Your Training: To exercise, do something physical that you enjoy. Be aware of the requirements of intensity and holistic, full-body functional movement, but try to make it enjoyable. Either select an activity you like, or cultivate a mindset that makes training a challenge or a game. You'll train more frequently and more enthusiastically.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this post, please e-mail it to 2 or 3 friends, or share it on Twitter.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous April 6, 2011 at 1:57 am

Very wise insight, I've learned a lot simply by reading this one post!

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Khaled April 11, 2011 at 12:43 am

I'm glad to help. Hopefully, you can avoid some of the mistakes I made on the road to learning all these lessons. :)

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