Virtually every fitness authority with an eye for muscular development agrees that the key to building your body is to consistently be making progress.
This almost sounds like something Yogi Berra would say: “you get better at something mainly by improving at it.” Well, muscular development depends upon making specific types of improvements. I’ve seen too many young lifters hamstring their results because they think that “more is always better” no matter what kind of “more” they’re talking about: weights lifted, sets or reps, exercises per workout, workouts per week, et cetera.
It’s true, these things do need to be increased, but it can’t happen all at once, nor should it be done haphazardly.
When we think of the phrase, “going balls to the wall,” we tend to think of a little craziness, a little insanity, “losing it” just a little bit to accomplish a specific task. But think of it this way: a stunt biker prepares for a ridiculously long jump off a ramp. He’s about to go “balls to the wall.” But do you think it’s his first jump? Do you think he just decided to do this out of nowhere because he wanted to be “awesome” and be admired by his friends?
No! He’s doing it because he knows what he’s doing. He’s built up to this point, gradually increasing the level of challenge over time until he’s able to do something amazing.
That’s what tracking your own progress needs to be like. Gradual, incremental, patient, with a greater goal always in sight.
Just going to the gym seven times a week only to work out more, or harder, or longer, or with more exercises, but with no strategy for making concrete progress beyond “beginner gains” leads to one of two things: stunted results with no clear idea as to why, or injury.
The reasons are simple and common. I’m going to call them “newbie mistakes,” not because being a newbie is bad, but because almost every lifter makes them early in his or her lifting career. I’m going to discuss four main newbie mistakes.
The main newbie mistake that leads to poor results is expecting them too fast. Aside from those with ideal genetics and/or chemical enhancement, muscle is built very slowly over time. It’s easy to forget this when you’ve been “busting your ass” for THREE WHOLE MONTHS at the gym and your extreme hard work and devotion doesn’t seem to be paying off. And what is a common human behavior when a specific action doesn’t seem to be paying off anymore? Cessation.
The bodybuilders, fitness models, and actors that we look to for our fitness goals didn’t get that way in three months or even three years. Again, unless you have alien genetics or take steroids, the time required to look like Schwarzenegger, Ava Cowan, Tom Hardy, Terry Crews, or Gerard Butler is longer than you think. Do NOT forget that.
Another newbie error is bad form. If your form is bad, not only are the muscles that are supposed to be getting stimulated NOT getting stimulated, but you’re putting yourself on a road to injury.
This road starts with a little back pain, or a little knee pain. You tell yourself, “well, I guess deadlifts cause back pain,” or “I guess squatting causes knee pain.” A few more weeks or months down the line, you’re still piling on the weight, your form is getting worse and worse, and then, BINGO. Slipped disc. Torn ACL. No gym, six months. Who needs that?
Good form takes time to achieve. Additionally, it makes the exercise feel harder at first because you’re doing it right. But the results you supposedly want are dependent on, A) knowing how to actually exercise the muscles you’re trying to develop, and B) not putting yourself in the hospital. Simple. So dialing in your form is absolutely 100% necessary for long-term success in the gym.
Research good form and put what you learn into practice. Try to perfect one or two compound movements (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, row, lunge, dip, plank) per week, or per month. Keep the weights low and keep repeating to yourself the words of Dr Duke: “anything worth doing is worth doing right.” Making good form a priority means making results a priority.
The next newbie mistake I’ll talk about is being disorganized in tracking your progress. Plenty of workout websites and magazines and books tell you, “get a notebook and track your progress in it.” But do you? Maybe you scribble down the last set and rep scheme you used. Maybe you make a note about “my preworkout gave me a stomachache.”
But are you merely recording your activities, or actually tracking your progress? The difference lies in whether or not you are following a plan and pursuing a goal. Are you doing the same exact routine you did last time? What about it has increased? Sets? Reps? Weights? Et cetera. Are these increases deliberate, or haphazard? Are you adding some Pec-Deck Flyes to your chest routine because today’s the day to add them, or just because you felt like it?
This leads me to the fourth newbie mistake I’ll mention: being generally inconsistent, doing different exercises each week with no rhyme or reason. Doing this might get you your “beginner gains,” but eventually you’ll find that the key to progressing is doing the same thing for a while, only slightly more so each time so that you get better at it. Randomly changing what you do all the time makes it impossible to really track progress.
I’ll tell you a little personal anecdote. I used to think my mind was too “creative” to do the same workouts every week for two or more months at a time. I later realized I didn’t believe in myself and was looking for excuses. I wasn’t focused on seeing results, but rather on the entertaining distraction of a variety of exercises (which can be enjoyable but, like watching shows on TV, doesn’t really help you build towards anything).
I enjoyed exercise to a point, but lacked the discipline and faith in myself necessary to turn it from a pastime that made me feel kind of good about myself (but also like an underachiever) into something I wanted to really work at and derive true satisfaction from. It took time to realize that once you’ve worked at weightlifting for a while and started to see results based on your goals, that’s where the enjoyment and feeling of wanting more comes from, not from the variety. Not from messing around and telling yourself you just weren’t “meant” to reach for the same heights as other, more disciplined people.
So, perhaps you’re wondering, how did I start tracking my progress correctly and turn my situation around? I got organized. Initially, I used to write my workouts in a Google document and track my progress on my phone during the workout. But I found that wasn’t ideal. To me, it seemed less significant or meaningful to record my results as little tiny bits and bytes in a computer. Plus, you spend more time looking at your phone, which is full of distractions.
Eventually, I bought a notebook specifically to record workouts in: small, durable, distinct. I used it, and still do, at every workout. Every single one.
Each page has three columns: Date, Variation, and Weight/Reps/Sets, and each exercise in my workouts receives its own page for recording results.
Currently, these exercises include the Squat, Bench, Overhead Press, Row, Deadlift, Flye, Lying Leg Press, Lateral Raise, Crunch Movement (meaning any crunch variation like a hanging leg raise), Plank Movement (again, including any variation like Stir the Pot or Side Plank), and Bicep Curl. These are the main exercises my workouts focus on, and I track my progress with each one.
I designed all of my workouts to be based around one main compound lift with accessory work added in, using set and rep ranges that work for me. I do one Push Day focusing on Incline Bench (because I want to bring up my upper chest), one Pull Day focusing on unilateral back work (because I want to bring up my lagging right erector and lower lats), and one Leg Day per week focusing on back squats (because squats). I do these three workouts every week without fail. Sometimes I fit in a second Push, focusing on shoulders, and a second Leg, focusing on Lying Leg Press.
You might be wondering about my rep ranges. Well, my rep ranges are what work best for me. For legs, sets of 5-8 reps work best for size and strength gains. For chest, the 10-12 rep range works best. You might find something else works better for you. And herein lies the element of trial-and-error intrinsic to long-term lifting.
This is another thing that often scares away novice lifters, and kind of fits into the “expecting results too fast” category. They want something that is guaranteed to work. They don’t realize that, yes, there are general guidelines regarding what will most likely be effective, and these guidelines can be helpful places to start, but at the end of the day, people are different and different things work for different people and for different goals.
Don’t let this deter you. Do research and try different things. Give them a REAL try, not just one week. Don’t go with a certain exercise or rep scheme based on how you feel about it, or whether it’s fun or enjoyable. Instead, base your decision to stick with it on whether it WORKS (and make sure you’re doing it right). Then, the fun, the enjoyment, the satisfaction, the results, will come.
If you’re more apt to use your computer or phone than a notebook, all you need to do is create a document that allows you to track your weight, reps, and sets, from week to week and from workout to workout….
…Such as this spreadsheet, which I created for that purpose. You can download it, open it in Google Sheets or Excel (save it as a CSV file and then you can open that file in Excel), and use it on your phone at the gym. Or you can print it out (select “Fit to Width” and “Portrait” at the Print dialogue) and have one for each workout you do.
And if you want to alter it, select “Save a Copy” from the File me and go to town. Take out what you don’t need and add in what you do need. In other words, find your own way.
Now that you understand the importance of tracking progress, you’ll be able to avoid these newbie mistakes and start realizing your goals, whatever they are, that much sooner. Happy lifting!
The following article was used as a source about progressive overload and I strongly recommend it.