Want to make gains? Check your ego at the door
Joining a gym, whether for the first time or as a returning member, can be an exhilarating experience. It’s the first step towards your goals. Perhaps the tour of the facilities got you even more amped up. Good. You can use that temporary surge of motivation to get yourself started. There’s just one bit of advice to follow at this point:
Start from the beginning.
It might sound obvious, too obvious even. Yes, of course, you always have to start from the beginning. Right?
Perhaps you intend to start from the beginning, but a common mental obstacle can stand in your way. Intimidation runs high at the gym. Chances are you’ll see many experienced gym goers doing things you could only dream of: running faster and longer, lifting more weights, performing more reps. When you see that your subconscious goes to work. You don’t want to see like less of a person than them, do you?
Don’t jump into the deep end
If you don’t know how to swim, you don’t jump into the deep end of the pool. If you don’t know how to write, you don’t try to pen a novel. If you don’t know how to play piano you don’t sit down to compose a symphony. Why, then, do people who don’t know how to work out start off trying to lift way too much weight?
Here our egos can lead us astray. Instead of starting at the beginning and working our ways into programs, we feel as though we have to prove something to — who, really? To the person who just put up two plates on the bench press? To the well sculpted man or woman across the room? Or is it to ourselves, despite the conscious knowledge that we’re not ready? In any case, the ego-driven need to take on more than we can handle proves detrimental in the gym.
A cautionary tale
The idea that people take on too much at the start of a fitness program does not come from mere observation. It comes from personal experience. The refusal to start from the beginning set me back weeks, and caused me to miss something I enjoyed greatly.
After taking a couple of weeks off I decided to start in on a pure strength routine that involved mostly squats and deadlifts. This would have been fine if I’d started with light weights. But I wanted to get stronger now, so I loaded up the bars with as much weight as I thought I could haul. Of course, my decision was influenced by the guy who used the power rack before me, who was deadlifting 225. I can do that, I thought.
The next morning I could barely roll out of bed. Going to work was a no go; there was no way I could sit down in my car for an entire commute. My baseball game that weekend was completely out of the question. I could hardly stand at the plate, let alone swing a bat. It was only through dedication to rehab exercises that I was able to get back into functional shape within a week. But the effects have lingered.
The ill-effects of biting off too much
All told I got off easy. I missed just one day of work and one week of baseball. Within a few weeks I was back in the gym, though this time I made sure to start from the beginning. Things could have turned out a lot worse if I’d pushed even a little bit harder. Unfortunately, a pure beginner is much more susceptible to the ill fates of biting off too much.
Injury to muscle is just the start. You can also cause long-lasting, perhaps permanent, damage to your joints, bones, and ligaments. Worse, many of these problems might hide under the surface. You might think you’ve recovered, but they’re still there waiting for you to slip up again. Even with pure muscle problems, a simple strain is the least of your worries. Full tears can mean surgery. There are a ton of orthopedic surgery jobs available for a reason.
Any kind of structural damage can affect you for years. Damage your ligaments and you might lose range of motion. Damage bones and you’re on the shelf for months at a time, and have to rehab those atrophied muscles. Injure your joints and you might be headed for a sedentary lifestyle. No one wants these effects, yet so many still jump into the deep end at the gym.
Start from the beginning
The only way to confidently prevent these ill effects is to start from the beginning. Whether you’re a first-time gym goer or someone who has returned after a long layoff, that means one thing: start with the bar. Don’t worry about how silly it makes you. That’s none of your concern. Your ego might urge you to pile on the weight, but you have to actively resist this.
Starting the bar brings two main benefits.
1. It lets you build up over time. You won’t be lifting the bar forever. You know that. After you prove you have enough strength to move the bar you can add weight a little at a time. Eventually you’ll build enough strength to move those big plates that you see the jacked guys moving.
2. It lets you focus on form. Another aspect of workouts that leads to injury is poor form. When you lift too much weight at the start you’re likely going to employ improper form. That’s one of the big reasons injuries occur. By starting with a weight you can easily move, you can ensure that you employ proper form, which will help you as you add the weight gradually.
It will be tempting to start with more than you can handle. There will be others in the gym who can move weight, and your ego will have something to prove. In the long-term, though, that’s perhaps the worst strategy. It’s akin to jumping into the deep end before you learn to swim. Only by starting at the very beginning can you make progress towards your goals. Starting in the deep end only leads to sabotage and regret.
Joe Pawlikowski is a fitness fanatic writes, edits, and consults for many blogs across the web. He keeps a personal blog, A New Level.