Workout mistakes: Part 2 – You’re focused on the wrong things

In the first of this three part series, we talked in depth about the value of planning your workouts. In this post, I want to cover the fundamentals of training and physique transformation and help get you focused on the things that matter most.

For years I trained hard in the gym. Really hard. But the results just weren’t what I’d hoped for, especially considering the effort going in.

Over time, I came to realize that much of my time training was actually focused on the wrong things. Focusing on the minutiae and details, but not paying enough attention to the things that matter most.

Chances are, you are making many of the same mistakes. I see it all the time in the gyms I train in and in my conversations with people.

Have you ever asked (or at least thought) any of the following questions?

  1. Do I need carbs or protein immediately after my workout?
  2. I forgot to take my creatine last night. Did I miss my gains?
  3. How long should my workouts be?
  4. I read that straight-bar curls are better for biceps activation. Should I switch?
  5. I’ve heard slow negatives are great for building strength, should I use them?
  6. Should I include concentration curls to develop my biceps peak?

I’m really just scratching the surface here with these types of questions. The list of things we ask ourselves on a regular basis is just way too long.

And here’s the rub. There are answers to all these questions. Sometimes long, expansive answers. But invariably the answer to questions like these will always be … “It depends”.

Why? Because the context in all such things matters greatly.

Ask me one of those questions and my likely answer will be “You are asking the wrong questions!”

So what does matter? What is important when it comes to transforming your body?

Focus #1: Get lean first!

There’s no way around this one. If you are trying to build an aesthetic, muscled physique, you MUST get lean first.

The reasons are twofold.

  1. Improved hormonal landscape
  2. You’ll look better

Pretty much any attempt to gain size when you are already carrying an excess of body fat results in considerably more fat gained than lean muscle. Whereas a lean guy attempting the same thing will usually gain more muscle and a lot less fat. This is primarily due to the increased insulin sensitivity enjoyed by lean people.

Insulin is our body’s primary hormonal signal for energy storage into fat cells and decreased sensitivity to insulin stimulates the formation of new fatty tissue and accelerates weight gain.

Said differently, fat begets fat.

But when you are lean, lower body fat levels means insulin sensitivity is higher, and available energy (blood glucose) is delivered to your muscle cells first.

Hormones aside, even if you have some muscle hanging on your bones, if you’re sitting at 20%+ body fat, chances are you just look chubby.

Stripping away that excess body fat will improve your hormones, reveal your musculature and set the stage for growth.

And as a bonus, stripping away fat is visually the equivalent of adding pounds of rock hard muscle.

Focus #2: Adherence and consistency

I can’t stress this one enough.

In terms of improving your physique, nothing matters more than consistently showing up and putting in the work. And it’s the same with your diet too.

Does exercise selection matter? Absolutely. But only if you can stick to the workout week after week.

Is hitting your macros and eating from a wide range of food groups optimal? You bet. But not if you only do it three days in seven and routinely let things slide.

Adherence is everything.

Don’t start a program you can’t stick to. If you pick a six day split but can only realistically commit to four days in the gym, you are already setting yourself up for failure.

It’s the same with exercise selection. Never pick exercises you don’t like just because you read somewhere that it was the best for <insert optimal outcome here>. Best for who? And under what conditions? Toward what goal?

Instead, pick programs and exercises that work for you.

Adherence will always be higher with a program you enjoy and one that is in balance with your lifestyle and landscape for recovery.

Focus #3: Master the fundamentals

Everyone always thinks that they are not making progress because …

  1. They are not using the right split
  2. They aren’t including the right exercises
  3. They aren’t using the right protocols

Putting aside unrealistic expectations and a healthy dose of impatience (topics for another day!), chances are the above do NOT account for your lack of progress.

I see it all the time. Guys in the gym, with timers for rest intervals. Working slow eccentrics. Iso-holds. Rest-pause protocols. Lot’s of training to failure. Spotters shrugging out forced reps. And you know what’s common amongst 99% of the guys I see lifting like that? They barely look like they train!

Why? Because while all of these protocols can work, they are not needed by the vast majority of trainees and certainly not for the novice or intermediate lifter that hasn’t mastered the fundamentals of training.

Look. The reality is that the vast majority of guys and gals can make considerable progress off a handful of basic movements and protocols.

What matters most is learning to master the basics:

  • Adherence. Learn how to consistently make time for your workouts.
  • Figure out how to leave work stress in the locker room, park that spat with the wife and prepare your mind for training.
  • Once you are in the gym, have a plan. Know what’s on deck and be ready to go.
  • When training, practice mindfulness and getting the most out of every single rep. Be present.
  • Learn how to monitor and record your exercise in the gym. Journaling is important for tracking progress.
  • Become competent with basic barbell and dumbbell movements, establishing a baseline of form that compliments your physiology.
  • Understand the fundamentals of progression and how to regulate load and volume over time.
  • When you go home, eat a healthy meal and get a solid 7-9 hours of sleep.

Mastering all of the above for a simple, five-exercise program performed three times a week, every week, for a year will reap far better results than a top-flight program, designed for a professional performed sporadically due to burnout, incompetence or lack of enjoyment.

So in summary:

  1. If you are carrying excess fat, get lean and enjoy a host of hormonal benefits as well as looking better.
  2. Just about any program of exercise bring results, but only if you can stick to the program, show-up consistently and put in quality work.
  3. Make sure you are focusing on the fundamentals of training and not wasting precious progress worrying about minutiae.

In the next and final installment of this mini-series, we’ll cover the basics of nutrition and learning how to eat to support your goals.

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If you have questions or comments, start a conversation below. Or look me up on Twitter or Facebook. I’m here to help.

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