THE BASICS PART 1: Five Things I Wish I'd Known

by Robert Maxwell

UPDATED 20Oct2018: If you're new to strength training or considering picking up a barbell for the first time, this article is a great place to start. Barbell resistance training is great, and better for the development of strength than any other form of exercise. Trouble is, without some key knowledge which I'm about to share, there's an excellent chance you're approaching strength training with some unrealistic expectations plus some serious misconceptions. You may feel certain you're not being hoodwinked by the vast, tangled fitness industry, but unless you've made strength a lifestyle for more than a few years, you probably are. That's why I wrote this article.


I'm 28 and have been lifting weights for over 10 years. I've never had an official personal trainer, rarely trained in a public gym, and almost never benefitted from a training partner. Most of what I know about strength and fitness came through personal experience, research, plus a whole lot of trial and error. The purpose of this series is to share that hard-earned knowledge with you, so you can avoid my early mistakes and misconceptions. Here are five things nobody told me about strength and fitness that I wish I'd known.


1. You'll probably never look like the guys on fitness websites without taking drugs

My physique after three years of hard training. I was pleased with my progress but also a little disappointed that I wasn't even close to as big as the guys on bodybuilding.com whose programs I'd been following.
My physique after three years of hard training. I was pleased with my progress but also a little disappointed that I wasn't even close to as big as the guys on bodybuilding.com whose programs I'd been following.

For guys new to fitness who are psyched about getting strong and "ripped", this can be a tough idea to swallow. After all, isn't having big, defined muscles and a rippling six-pack one of the main reasons most young men hit the weights? It sure was for me. Trouble is, there's a massive, thriving industry hell-bent on getting you to believe you can look like Arnold if you train hard and buy enough products. Training programs, gym equipment, supplements, diet books. They're all being foisted on young guys who desperately want to get huge and "shredded". The fitness industry is willing to sell you almost anything, convincing you it's what you've been missing all along, and once you've bought it you'll finally get the physique you've always wanted. This is a lie. No doubt the physique models and bodybuilders displayed on supplement containers and fitness sites work really hard to achieve the look they've got. Maybe they even use the products they're helping to sell. But hard work alone almost never gets such eye-popping results. Anabolic Steroids, synthetic testosterone, and human growth hormone are the hidden, unmentioned agents that make all the difference. If you start lifting drug-free and believe you can eventually look like a bodybuilder while staying natural, you'll most likely be disappointed. That's not to say you can't build a great physique without the health risks of drugs. It'll just take much longer and won't be nearly as extreme as guys who juice. But you'll be a lot healthier. 


2. How you eat is more important than how you train

This inconvenient truth took me far longer to accept than it should have. The idea that pumping iron is the be all and end all of getting big and strong is so firmly implanted into the minds of most new trainees, that it can take years to uproot and replace with the truth. Sometimes it never is, leaving guys wondering why after years of training their physiques aren't improving. Your eating is probably holding you back, big time. You might already have some vague idea that you should clean up your diet if you want to be fit. That's a start. But it's not enough when you realize your results will be more heavily impacted by what goes in your mouth than what you do in the gym. If you want to be strong and build a great physique, you need to eat properly. That means high protein, and if you've got lots of body fat to shed, low-carb with lots of veggies. If you're on the heavy side, you need to burn more calories than you eat. Otherwise you won't lose an ounce of fat, no matter how "healthy" your diet. If you're skinny and trying to add some muscle, chances are you're not eating enough. Probably not even close. You need to load up on high quality protein, lots of complex carbs, plenty of veggies and healthy fats.


3. After the first year, strength and muscle come really slowly

This is another hard reality for natural athletes. When you first start to train, you'll enjoy fast size and strength improvements known as "novice gains". It doesn't last. The bigger and stronger you become, the slower your progress. The reason boils down to your genetic potential. Your DNA dictates how big and strong your muscles are capable of becoming, and their potential isn't infinite. Even if you train and eat optimally, there will come a point when your body adds strength and muscle so slowly that you'll hardly notice it. This is a fact of life. The silver lining is that most lifters train for many years and enjoy lots of improvement before reaching this point. All this goes out the window when drugs become part of the equation of course, but that doesn't mean you should take them. Muscles and strength are not worth sacrificing your health.


4. There's always someone stronger

Unless you're Eddie Hall, your fitness journey will never stop bringing you into contact with people who are much stronger than you. Also bigger, leaner, and fitter. This isn't a bad thing, but it is something you need to prepare for if your ego is fragile. Constant exposure to people who are further along the fitness road than you can be inspiring and motivating. It gives you something tangible to set your sites on, and bolsters your faith that gaining more strength and muscle is possible. Just don't let this reality pull you into jealousy or despair. Somewhere out there are people, including a large number of women, will likely always be able to deadlift, squat and bench more than you. Accept it, and keep training. Maybe you'll become someone's inspiration, too.


5. Your program isn't that important

During my first year of serious training, I switched programs three times. Each time I was convinced that my previous program was lacking something crucial, and if I switched things up in the gym I'd finally enjoy the mind-blowing results I was hoping for. I was wrong. The truth is as long as your program includes squats, bench press, overhead press and deadlift along with a few assistance movements, it's not the limiting factor. You are. If you're lifting properly, training to failure regularly, eating right and resting enough, you're doing all you can. You shouldn't expect faster results, but you probably do. I did. So I'll say it again: your program is probably not the problem. Don't give in to the urge to constantly change it. This is counterproductive. Muscle and strength gains are nothing more than your body's natural response to the stresses of training. Your body doesn't care if these stresses come from Program A or Program B. Eat right, get plenty of rest, lift heavy, and don't obsess over your program. The rest will take care of itself.


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