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5 Mistakes Beginner Lifters Make

Written on July 30, 2013 at 12:01 am, by Eric Cressey

A lot has been made of how easily one can make progress in the first year of strength training programs.  It’s possible for beginner lifters to drop body fat and gain muscle mass at rates faster than these individuals will ever experience again during their training careers.

However, very little attention is paid to how much can also go wrong during this initial period.

Beginner lifters can pick up on bad technique that leads them down bad “movement paths” that lead to injuries down the road.  As Gray Cook has noted, you never want to lay fitness on top of dysfunction.

Additionally, these beginner strength training participants can gain a false sense of what effective programming really is.  If the basic muscle magazine garbage plan worked, then why allow your training program to evolve from there? You got strong on sets of 8-15 reps and used the Smith machine a ton, so why would you ever want to lower the number of reps per set or head over to the free weight area?

The point is that we’ve measured progress too much in terms of how people look and too little in terms of how people feel and move.  The truth is that it’s possible for beginner lifters to improve in all three areas with quality programming from the get-go.  With that in mind, I thought I’d outline five mistakes beginners commonly make in their quest to make serious fitness gains.  The timing of the post is actually quite fitting, as Mike Robertson introduced his awesome new Bulletproof Athlete resource.  I think this program has instantly set the new standard for an ideal beginner template.

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Anyway, without further ado, here are those five mistakes:

1. Overlooking the Value of Quality Nutrition

Let’s face it: there are a lot of frat boys out there who start lifting in college, and make ridiculous progress in spite of the fact that they crush beer, nachos, and chicken wings for about 75% of their total caloric intake.  That doesn’t mean optimal nutrition can’t expedite process and – just as importantly – set the stage for a better internal environment for long-term progress.  Just remember that even if you just want to “bulk like crazy” to start up, those fat cells are with you for life once you’ve made them.

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2. Not Building Work Capacity

Most beginners will build work capacity just by continuing to show up for training sessions and “surviving” the workouts.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re adapting optimally to set the stage for long-term progress.

That said, in light of the “interval training is awesome and steady-state cardio is useless” propaganda of the past few years, there are a lot of people who completely omit steady-state cardio form their training programs – opting either for no supplemental conditioning or for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) only.  While some HIIT is certainly appropriate and acceptable, it’s not a good idea to completely overlook the value of building an aerobic base.

This aerobic component early on helps to optimize during- and between-session recovery – which, in turn, enables a trainee to get in more quality work over the long-term.  In fact, some of my best gains came during my “intermediate” lifting career when I was doing low-intensity cardio twice a week for 20-30 minutes.  As I wrote all the way back in 2005 in Cardio Confusion, as long as the intensity is low enough, it won’t interfere with strength or muscle mass gains.

3. Not Appreciating Soft Tissue and Mobility Work

When you’re a gung-ho beginner, nothing can stop you.  You feel great for every training session and just want to keep working harder and harder when the mirror gives you great feedback.  The problem, however, is that it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.  In this case, your abs or biceps are the trees, and the forest is how you’ll feel in ten years if you don’t go down a path that includes foam rolling and mobility work.  Rolling around on the floor on a stupid cylinder isn’t sexy, and doing side-lying windmills really isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but trust me when I say that it makes a difference over the long haul.  And, the people who have the most continuity in their training career are the ones who make the best long-term process. 

I attribute a lot of my success in the weight room to the fact that I rarely get sick, and haven’t had any significant injuries over the year. In fact, at one point, I went eight years without missing a planned training session.  It took a storm with 38” of snow to get me to push a lift back a day!  I’m not saying you have to be this neurotic, but at the very least, set aside 8-10 minutes before you train to take care of your body.

4. Training Through or Around Injuries Instead of Fixing Them

Everyone has rolled an ankle at some point of another.  And, most people have had a cranky shoulder after a few hours of painting or playing catch.  There are obviously a lot of other examples of old “wear and tear” we might discount as normal and non-problematic.

There’s a problem, though: adding external load often brings these issues to threshold. A bum shoulder might not bother you grabbing a glass on the top shelf, but it’ll start to bark when you’re military pressing a significant amount of weight.  Don’t ignore these issues!

You see, we’re all resilient when we’re in our teens and early 20s, but things get a lot tougher as we get older for two main reasons.  First, we acquire structural abnormalities – bone spurs, rotator cuff tears, disc hernations, even fractures – that we never perceive until it’s too late.  Second, as we get older, degenerative changes kick in much faster, as tissues just can’t handle the same loading they once did. 

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The more proactive you can be with addressing old aches and pains at the start of a training career, the more likely you are to avoid missing significant training time for one of those issues down the road.

5. Getting Away from Compound Exercises Too Quickly

There’s nothing wrong with direct arm work if you want big arms.  However, early on in a training program, chin-ups and bench presses are going to give you a more impressive gun show than you’d get from curls and pressdowns.  Down the road, these isolation exercises may serve a valuable role, but build a solid foundation before you cross that road.  And, make sure the compound exercises remain the central focus all along.

These five mistakes are just a small sample of some of the flawed approaches a lot of beginners take; I'd love to hear your thoughts on the many more you've witnessed – or made yourself!  In the meantime, I'd highly recommend checking out Robertson's Bulletproof Athlete program if you're a beginning lifter or you work with those just getting into the "iron game."  It's a professionally organized, well written presentation of the right way to start people up with a comprehensive fitness program, from strength training, to mobility work, to energy systems development, to recovery/regeneration and nutrition. You can check it out HERE.

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17 Responses to “5 Mistakes Beginner Lifters Make”

  1. Bill Says:

    Asked this question in the last blog… This one seems more appropriate for those reading this one… Is it advisable to do assistance work at a higher rep range like 6-8, than your compound movement stuff at about 3-4 reps? If so, why? My goal with assistance work is to be strong just like with my compound stuff and want to train high threshold, fast twitch fibers for strength not size. Can I do assistance work at lower rep ranges, of maybe 4? Again for strength.

  2. Dar Forsythe Says:

    Once again, another great article.

    Thanks,
    D~

  3. Matt Says:

    Listening to other clueless lifters in the gym and not following a solid program like Maximum Strength

  4. Mike Says:

    Cressey,

    Could you explain this: “those fat cells are with you for life once you’ve made them.” to the scientifically dumb?

    Thanks man, and thank you for this article.

  5. Brandon Cook Says:

    Great insights Eric! Couldn’t agree more with avoiding these 5 mistakes. As important as proper training is to building muscle, your nutrition and lifestyle habits do play an equal role in the results you’ll see from all of your hard work.

    I think as beginner’s we get so caught up in achieving our goals that we don’t consider the long-term consequences of our actions. It’s usually in retrospect that we realize our errors and hopefully learn from them. If we were wiser we would do well to learn from the mistakes of others… without having to make our own.

    Fortunately, there are coaches like yourself and Mike Robertson that can help us learn, correct and recover from these mistakes. I’m using your program ‘Assess and Correct’ at the moment and highly recommend it to anyone who may have developed some muscle imbalances.

  6. Arthur Hall Says:

    I really like number 3 on your list. Because I to believe being as mobile as possible will only make you more successful…however I don’t do a very good job at doing so. My question to you is what would be a good 10 minute foam rolling warm up that you would recommend?

  7. Eric Cressey Says:

    Arthur,

    Give this a watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8caF1Keg2XU

  8. Carlos Solis Says:

    Eric,
    Great article as always. Fundamentals get lost in a world of gimmicks. People make “fun of me” for being so basic in my client programming as well as my own. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
    Off topic question: how do you go about assessing teams? Individually or in a group?

  9. CSIII Says:

    FWIW, the MRI image looks more like a “magic angle” artefact than a supraspinatus tear.

  10. James Cipriani Says:

    All great points, Eric. I’m glad to see someone else stating there are benefits to BOTH HIT and steady state cardio. I do wish I had some of these tips when I began. It wasn’t until I was training a good 15 years before I payed attention to mobility work. And even then, it wasn’t until your Show N Go program that I started to do it regularly within each of my own workouts.

  11. Terry Snyder Says:

    I certainly agree with mistake number 4. I pushed myself way too hard in my younger years and am now paying for it with bad knees from too many squats and frequent shoulder pain from always trying to get one more rep. Now I’m working with less weight and quicker reps.

  12. Eric Cressey Says:

    Carlos,

    I prefer individual assessment whenever possible.

  13. Eric Cressey Says:

    Mike,

    Good read on that front: http://www.fitwatch.com/weight-loss/the-incredible-shrinking-fat-cell-what-really-happens-when-body-fat-is-burned-452.html

  14. Eric Cressey Says:

    It really depends on the person, Bill.  That said, doing assistance work with sets of 4 would probably be too low rep to get the kind of benefit you’re looking for.

  15. Mike Says:

    Thank you!

  16. Kristy Says:

    My biggest mistake is not making the time for the mobility work…I really should be better about it.

  17. John Barban Says:

    Once again, another great article.

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