by Robert Maxwell
Sometimes in life you need to learn things the hard way. Sometimes you need to learn the same lessons over and over before they sink in. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, and when it comes to strength training, probably more so. I've always had a tendency to let my enthusiasm run away with me. If I really want to do something, I'll attack it full force and not look back. This approach has let me make terrific progress in a number of different realms, including powerlifting. Trouble is, one way or another, I always end up burning out. My attempts to learn a new language sputtered and died due to the difficulty of rising at 5 AM each day and studying for 2 hours. My reading of various self-improvement and educational books petered out because I couldn't keep up with the rigorous reading schedule I'd set for myself. Recently, my strength training has suffered the same fate. I've only just returned to the gym after a hiatus of several weeks, which for me is a long time to be away from the weights. The reason is a recurring back injury that I thought I'd dealt with, but hadn't. The reason the injury is recurring is that I tried to run before I walked on the road to recovery. This knocked me right back to where I started, to the point that simple everyday tasks like bending down to tie my shoes caused me lumbar pain. The lesson I hadn't learned properly yet was that slow progress is still progress, and sometimes, it's the only way to move forward. Perhaps even more often than not. After months of back pain and weeks away from the gym, I'm finally starting to come back in the slow, methodical manner I should have from the start. I train with very light weights, and don't do any exercise that causes even the slightest bit of pain to my injury. If I remain pain free, I add several pounds to the exercise in the next session. In the past, this snail-like pace would have frustrated me. Now I see it for what it is – my one and only path to progress. I wish I'd learned this lesson sooner, since my recovery time would have been much shorter if I hadn't re-injured myself by trying to leap ahead. Now that I've finally internalized the concept of slow, steady gains in the gym (and in life), I have two helpful thoughts I try to keep in mind to prevent frustration or the trap of rushing progress.
Going Too Fast Will Ultimately Slow You Down
Locomotives that go too fast over a curve in their tracks will derail. Cars that hurtle down the highway too fast crash. Athletes who train too fast and hard for too long get hurt, and either quit for good, or make a slow comeback. Thing is, comebacks aren't necessary if you don't fall off the track in the first place. Retraining after an injury takes weeks, months, and sometimes years. If you try to rush it, you'll end up right back where you started, or worse. That's why progressing slowly and methodically from day one is the way to go. This minimizes your chance of injury long term, making it counter-intuitively the fastest way to move forward. If I were still adding 10 to 50 pounds to each of my gym lifts every single week, as I did for years, I'd probably be a world class powerlifter by now. But I'm not doing that. I'm lifting tiny weights, working my way back from a lumbar injury, and seeing a chiropractor every week.
Staying Healthy Is More Important Than Moving Big Weights
Even writing the above heading is difficult for me, let alone living it out. But it's the truth. I'm still struggling with my desire to lift massive weights at all costs, but I think brains are finally starting to win over brawn. Twenty or thirty years from now, it won't really matter what PR's I set in the gym. The way I trained for those years will matter, and will determine whether or not I'm still able to train in my later years at all. If enthusiasm is held in check, lifting weights is extremely healthy and beneficial. Gym injuries only happen in two situations: bad lifting technique, or bad training practices. Overreaching for months or years at a time is a bad training practice, and a great way to shorten your lifting career. That's a lesson it took me far too long to learn.
As I've probably made clear by now, I wish I'd learned the lessons above sooner. If I had, I'd probably have made much more progress in strength training. Enthusiasm is necessary, but needs to be controlled. This doesn't just apply to lifting weights, either. Human beings are always becoming unbalanced in one way or another. They either don't pour enough of themselves into a task, or they pour too much. I poured to much too quickly into getting strong, and it cost me. Whatever your goals, don't make the same mistake. Learn to keep yourself in balance, and always remember that slow progress is still progress.