Who Wouldn't Want Weightlifting Advice From Someone Who's No Longer Strong, Cut, Fit, Healthy, or Particularly Big?
lifting weights is a set of tools, not a philosophy, way of life, or religion
Since I wrote about and talked about lifting I’ve gotten a lot of requests from subscribers to have a general weightlifting advice post. (Genuinely a lot!) I’ve been putting it off for the simple reason that there are oceans of words out there about how and why to lift weights, almost all of it produced by people who have far greater standing to discuss the topic than I do. This is precisely the sort of post that compels some people to say “who does he think he is?,” and the answer here is simply that I’m a guy with a lot of experience who has been asked a dozen times by readers to write this piece. I’m strong for a human but not particularly for a guy of my size. I claim absolutely no expertise, and if you (sensibly) think that you should therefore not listen to me, just don’t read it. I am also not going to marshal a bunch of studies and citations for everything I say, as you can find evidence both for and against every point I make here. Exercise science rivals education research in the capacity for every individual to bend the data to their priors, I’m sorry to say.
Absolutely everything I will say here is controversial and challenged by other people, and I do not in any sense mistake myself for a person who is in a position to settle those disputes. (I expect the comments to flood with “nyuh-uhs!” and links to random sites that say the opposite of what I’m saying.) So I’m telling you now: this is just what I believe, and I share it only because people keep asking me. Caveat emptor. (Also if you’re one of the people who complains every time I write about something other than politics, please relax and wait 24 hours.)
This isn’t a program because there are untold thousands of free weightlifting programs available to you online. It’s also most certainly not motivational material because I’m a cranky hater. It’s just some broad philosophical thoughts along with some more practical tips. Make of it what you will.
The One Commandment: WAYOW
This, above all things: worry about your own workout. Everything good flows from this rule. Worry about your own workout. When you are in the weightroom maintain your focus at all times on your own routine. Obviously you must be aware of your surroundings and perceptive of social mores, especially given that the gym is a place filled with unwritten rules. But unless you’re someone’s working out partner or you’re training them, other people’s workouts are not your business.
(Whether you silently make fun of their workout clothes, on the other hand, is between you and your conscience.)
This is not merely a rule to maintain social peace, though it performs that function. Certainly to look at another person's workout and mock them, even internally, is a shithead thing to do - you don't know them, you don't know their exercise plan, you don't know their body, you don't know their injuries or illnesses. Also, whoever you are there's someone bigger and stronger than you, so don't judge. If you’re that guy who plays the Mountain That Walks on Game of Thrones, maybe. Otherwise, you can’t be big or strong enough to have some sort of intrinsic right to judge others. That guy whose form you think sucks, doing standing rows over there? Maybe he's adjusting to suit some injury. Or maybe he’s learned some interesting new technique and he’s trying it. Or maybe he’s just beginning and he needs time, like all of us do, to get better. You don't know and it's not your business. WAYOW.
But the bigger thing is that focusing on the workouts of others is a good way to mess up your own. The classic case of this is guys who have been in the gym for a little while, they’ve started to put a little weight on the bench press or squat rack, and find they can’t stop fixating on “outlifting” other guys near them. Oftentimes this takes the form of rushing when they approach a milestone - 135 or 225 or 275. That is, they’ll have gotten to their current level with patience and carefully-controlled progression, perhaps only moving up 5lbs in weight when they can comfortably complete X reps at their current weight. But then they’ll get near, for example, “2pl8” - a bench press weight that for some stupid reason has taken on holy significance among the kind of idiots who talk lifting on Reddit - and suddenly they’re dropping all of that discipline. They want to put up 225, so when they get to 205 instead of painstakingly building 5lbs at a time in the same manner that they got there they’re suddenly one rep maxing every workout. All to be seen doing it by other guys, which is a stupid reason to do anything, and which will make them weaker in the long run than if they had just stuck to their plan. Can be avoided if you WAYOW.
It’s not just that there’s nothing more intrinsically important about 135 or 225 etc. than, say, 155 or 215, other than the meaningless historical quirk that (imperial weight system) plates max out at 45 pounds in many gyms. It’s also that there’s nothing remotely special or important about a one-rep max. Why should the amount of weight you can press once be more essential to you than the weight that you can press six times? There are particular use cases where that matters, sure. But in terms of overall strength and conditioning I’m personally much more invested in whether I can get X weight at, say, eight reps than one rep. For me, the combination of power and endurance is more meaningful thanks to my particular goals. Whatever your goals, one rep is not the Platonic ideal. The issue, of course, is that guys want other guys to see the absolute most that they can lift. Which is stupid. (Sub-commandment: You’re there for a workout, not validation.) Lift for your goals, and have more adult goals than “that stranger is going to see me squat my mildly impressive one-rep max.” WAYOW. Tunnel vision is healthy in the gym.
That’s the prototypical example, where you can comfortably lift X for one rep but your workout doesn’t call for one rep sets because that’s stupid but every workout you end up one-rep maxing for no reason other than so that random guys can see your max. But also, when you’ve studied and trained to do an exercise one way but then see someone else doing it another way, you get insecure, and start doing it their way. Or you see someone else exercising and their performance/level of fitness discourages you and throws off your workout. Or you observe that a stranger that you’ve worked out alongside for months is making faster progress than you, and you assume this means you have to change your routine. Or you see that everybody else in the gym has abandoned situps for doing planks so you do the same. Or you’re that asshole that constantly tells everyone what they’re doing wrong. All of these undesirable behaviors can be avoided if you WAYOW.
Steroids are ubiquitous and you must work hard to develop a healthy understanding of your own body in that context. Those guys in the superhero movies who you never thought of as big who suddenly have immense muscles? I assure you almost all of them are on juice. Your favorite YouTube fitness influencer? Almost certainly on juice. And the ones that aren’t are truly rare genetic anomalies and you are not, so it’s foolish to try to look like them. Seriously, I can’t stress this enough: anabolic steroids, HGH, and other performance-enhancing drugs are far more common than people seem to think. If you work out in any sufficiently popular gym I promise you that there are guys working out around you who are on gear. This is another reason to WAYOW, because fixating on what other guys are doing or how they look will frequently put you in the unhealthy position of comparing yourself to results that you cannot physically accomplish. For reference, in one of the most commonly-cited studies men who did not lift and got testosterone gained more lean mass than guys who lifted but did not get testosterone. You cannot compare yourself to them and maintain a healthy sense of your improvement.
Even absent concerns about steroids you have a genetic endowment, and it will have a huge influence on the kind of gains you can achieve in the gym. Like all of life, this is not fair. A lot of guys (again, more than you think) try to compensate for this unfairness through chemistry. If you are resolved not to do this, then you should work very hard to set realistic goals. Don’t, for example, look at Chris Evans as Captain America and say “that is how I want to look.” You can’t look like him. He’s paid millions of dollars to work out, and while I have no idea whether he’s juicing or not I do know he has access to all sorts of advantages you don’t. Don’t set yourself up for frustration.
I would not do amateur endocrinology, personally. On that subject… look, I’m not your mom, and I agree with those who say that the dangers of steroids are typically overstated for the same reason that the dangers of all illegal drugs are overstated. That said, I can’t imagine an aspect of my body that I’d less want to mess with than my hormones. They’re mysterious and tricky things that have profound consequences for your entire body. I personally would not trust somebody on the Bodybuilding.com forums, no matter how informed they may genuinely be, to guide me through messing with that stuff. Even highly trained medical professionals are often loathe to tamper with hormones and for good reason. You can make your own decisions but at the very least pause and consider whether you can really dedicate as much time and energy to the weightroom as it would take to get to the size that would make the risk worth it in your head. My advice is to opt out of steroids/HGH/etc., as I have done.
(By the way, steroids cost a lot of guys their hair, and there are many women who would prefer you to have hair than muscles. Just saying.)
Returns diminish. The Lean Muscle Diet estimates that a beginner can gain 2 to 3 pounds of muscle mass in a month, an intermediate lifter can gain 1 to 2 pounds a month, and someone who’s been lifting for years is unlikely to to add more than a half-pound. This is a good reason to start if you’re considering lifting - the returns are so much easier in the beginning - but also something you have to get real with yourself about as you grow. You will plateau. We all do.
That said, give it a good nine months to a year to see anything. Strength gains come early and fairly easy in the weightroom; size gains are slow and hard. The first year you’ll be adding plates left and right but you’ll be frustrated when you look for changes to your body. By year three you’ll likely have gained a good amount of mass but feel good about every five pound increment you gain. That’s how it goes. Trust that size will come, if you’re patient.
Your frame is as big of a deal as your muscles. In many gyms, there’s a guy whose biceps are quite big compared to others, but which don’t look big because he can’t get the “peak” he obsessively chases. There are guys who are bigger in sheer mass than the other guys around them but who don’t look as good because of the way their muscles sit on their frame. Looking muscular and fit is as much about proportion as it is about size, and while you have a limited amount of control of your size you have very little control over proportion. Again, genetics matter a great deal for your overall body composition:
“The research team took 12 pairs of identical twins, all relatively lean but sedentary young males, and overfed them for 100 days. The average increase was 18 pounds—about two-thirds lean tissue and one-third fat—but the range was from 9 to 29 pounds. The number-one predictor of how much an individual gained was how much his twin gained. (Genes also determined where they added the fat.)”
Think of AA and the serenity to accept what you cannot change.
The weightroom is not a site of virtue. Banish from your mind any thought that what goes on in the weightroom is somehow related to your character, aside from the regular prosocial work of being polite to people around you. I don’t think you need some higher calling to make weightlifting worth it; the gains make it worth it or they don’t. If seeing lifting as some sort of noble battle of you against you helps motivate you, great, but please don’t expect others to see what they do in the weightroom as any more related to character than what they do in the laundry room. Both are just places where you utilize machinery for quotidian human purposes. Relatedly, pain from exercise is not ennobling. I love Jane Coaston's work but this is pretty alien to me. Her point is that she enjoys it personally, which is great and all the justification she needs. Different strokes etc. But I don’t like pain, myself, and try to avoid it, including in the weightroom. I work hard and I get tired and my muscles hurt at the end of a set like everybody else. But I go through that because it’s necessary to pursue the gains I want. If I could find a way to get those gains while working less hard and feeling less pain, I’d jump at the chance. I mean… why wouldn’t I?
Relatedly, no bro mysticism or woo woo. It you start talking about “the iron” as some sort of magical force in the universe, consider that perhaps what you need is not to lift weights but to investigate Catholicism. Nobody ever got stronger because they communed with “the iron.” Save the woo woo for Instagram where it belongs please.
Powerlifting is great, but it's also a fad right now. I wrote about this before so I don't want to belabor it too much, but - powerlifting is a great sport that a lot of people enjoy. Many who don’t compete still find that approach to the gym best fits their goals and their bodies. Which is awesome, I have no beef with that. But as a different sort of dude filtered into the weightroom in the past decade or so he brought with him this weird assumption that only powerlifting is “serious” lifting. I WAMOW, so I don’t care what they do. But a lot of guys I know personally, or who chat with me in the gym, or especially that I see online are caught up in this weird definition of weightlifting seriousness. I find it unhelpful. Lifting is a series of tools utilized to achieve a particular end. There is no intrinsically more or less “serious” way than any other; there’s simply your goals and the most efficient means to pursue them. That’s it. Powerlifting is an approach to lifting that’s dedicated to increasing one-rep power in three major lifts, and its practices are oriented towards the most efficient pursuit of those goals. Increasing one-rep power in those three major lifts and gaining greater full-body size and definition are different goals. Which is part of why the weird lifting-as-virtue/strength-as-character stuff has cropped up - it serves as a justification for practices that are hard to justify otherwise.
Here’s where I reiterate again that I think powerlifting is great for people who are into it for its own sake or because they want to increase power in specific movements. I have not and would not denigrate powerlifting. It’s a sport; if you like that sport, you should get into it. But powerlifting’s widespread adoption by guys whose specific goal is to look bigger and have better aesthetics does not make sense to me. Lift for a purpose and match your plan to your purpose.
Serious powerlifters are big guys for their weights. They’re certainly bigger than me. But big time powerlifters are typically not as big as they could be relative to their weight, genetics, and work. Which makes sense, as they’re not optimizing for aesthetics but for strength. Optimize for what you actually care about. (Looking good. You care about looking good. If you’re like 90% of people in the gym you’re there to look good. Be honest with yourself about what you’re in the gym to accomplish.)
Put another way, gaining strength and gaining mass are related but not the same and the most efficient way to gain strength is not always the most efficient way to gain size and achieve better aesthetics. This was part of lifting conventional wisdom when I started 20 years ago and I’m surprised it has seemingly gone out of fashion. A good deal of gaining power is teaching your body to recruit already-existing muscle fibers rather than to create more fibers. (Warning: bro science.) Of course as strength increases muscles will get bigger, and vice versa. But if the goal is hypertrophy itself - simply, growth in muscle volume and mass - then training purely for strength is a mistake. What they call “time under tension” is a big part of inducing hypertrophy, and if you’re doing three-rep sets then the amount of time under tension is very short. (There is perpetual interest in lifting very slowly as some sort of cheat code, and if anything’s there the perceived effect may be due to greater time under tension.) You can go and do your own reading and investigate this, and you will find plenty of people affirming and plenty disputing what I’m saying. Personally, I think that history shows that many guys have consistently gotten bigger by using a rep range of somewhere between 6ish to 15ish reps, or maybe 8 to 12, of course with exceptions for exercise and situation. If your research suggests otherwise, that’s fine - but do the research, lift with purpose.
That said, strength gains can help with organization and motivation. As long as you know what you’re lifting for and arrange your program accordingly, strength gains can be great for motivation (because they show improvement in a very concrete way, helping your hard work feel worth it) and organization (they offer quantitative information about where you’re improving and where you’re not). Just remember that strength gains don’t just mean one rep max gains! Adding to the amount of weight that you can bench eight times is no less important or legitimate an indicator than the amount of weight that you can bench one time.
If occasionally taking your one rep max helps to motivate you, cool, do it every three months or so. But why on earth would you do it every week? You think you got that much stronger in seven days?
For most of us, gain mass = gain belly, lose belly = lose size. I’m afraid that this goes back to that “not having special genetics” thing. Many or most people find that gaining muscle mass requires eating to the degree that they gain visible fat, and that losing visible fat typically entails size losses. I have never done the whole alternating bulking and cutting thing, and I certainly don’t think that’s some universal approach. But I do tend to get chubbier as I get bigger and weaker/smaller as I get skinnier. The circle of life. Some people are lucky enough to be able to do both, but most of them are like 22 years old. The other’s are God’s lucky children.
If you’re starting from scratch, consider not doing the “big three” for your first six months/year of lifting. Sacrilege to many, but
You will build strength and develop experience which will make eventually adding bench, squats, and deadlifts to your workouts safer.
You will feel far less internal pressure to lift heavier weights due to weird competitive pathologies or anxieties, which will in turn help you stick to your program and also to avoid injury. You’re not going to ego lift calf raises. (I hope.)
It will be easier for you to avoid an unbalanced body, a common condition given that many guys throw themselves lustily into ego lifts and find every excuse to do them while constantly half-assing or skipping other lifts. Can’t focus too much on the big three if you aren’t doing them at all.
They’re not sacred. Really. They’re useful exercises and I recommend that you eventually integrate them into your plan if they fit your goals, but it’s very healthy to understand that you can lift, lift seriously, and lift effectively without them. They’re just tools.
Relatedly, Starting Strength/5x5s are a good way to begin, but they are not The Way. I don’t have any desire at all to rag on Starting Strength specifically or a 5x5 or similar approach generally. That stuff has worked for a lot of people and I’m glad for that. But, first, along with the rise of powerlifting as “serious lifting” has come an assumption that 5x5s are some sort of holy expression of what beginners should do. As I just suggested, you can absolutely make serious progress as a total beginner without incorporating heavy compound lifts at all. And, second, generally speaking these models were designed to be a way for beginners to get started in lifting and build a base of strength to then attempt other things. But many guys just never move on, and they’re sacrificing gains they could be making by not switching to a more efficient program to suit their needs. And if you decide to stick with 5x5s (which is fine) it should be an informed and intentional choice, not the product of inertia.
Why not try reverse pyramids? If you're invested in being seen lifting heavier weight - and, like it or not, many guys are - perhaps you should try reverse pyramids. They have some passionate advocates and I've had a good experience using that scheme myself. They're also a good example of a different routine you could try if you've been doing the same thing for years. As with everything else, there’s an ocean of things to read on this topic available to you online.
Pay someone to train you for the major compound lifts, if you start doing them. To repeat myself, bench press, deadlifts, and squats are highly technical lifts that are typically performed at very heavy weight relative to other lifts you’re doing. This is a recipe for disaster if you’re not careful. As the “everyone should be a powerlifter” mindset has grown, so too has the number of guys piling into the gym, throwing 225 on an Olympic bar, and promptly popping a disc in their lower back as they attempt to deadlift without guidance. The assumption that weightlifting necessary involves regularly lifting at close to your max encourages people to lift in a way that can dramatically increase the risk of injury. So: if you don’t have an experienced friend willing to do it for free, find somebody online and pay them a couple hundred bucks or whatever to observe your form in heavy compound lifts you intend to do. Check their resumes and reviews to make sure they know what they’re doing, and tell them that you need one session to observe and correct your form on key exercises. Then take their advice. Seriously. Somebody how knows what’s up needs to see you do it and let you know how it looks.
You don't rest enough. This may very well be the most controversial one. But because people are working on the misguided assumption that more pain = better results, many believe that shorter rest periods are necessarily better for muscle growth. But while the research record is as ever spotty and inconveniently complex, there’s a lot of reason to believe that this is not true, that in fact gains may be greater with more rest. Here’s a resource with lots of links to evidence, although as always I encourage you to investigate other opinions. Ideas like central nervous system fatigue are core to this debate, and obviously I can’t resolve any scientific debates with personal experience. But for what it’s worth, when I stuck to a rigid rest schedule early in my lifting career my form worsened, I did less total volume, and I lifted lighter weights in later sets. When I switched to resting until I felt rested - heart rate down, breathing normal, feeling “ready” - I found that my workouts improved substantially. I suspect that ultimately the ability to work at heavier weights later in workouts is valuable, compared to further exhausting myself with limited rest and not moving as much weight. Overload, and all that. Like I said, though, for me it’s just anecdote and opinions disagree. But where I’m sure I’m correct is in disdaining the common assumption that because something in the gym feels worse it’s inherently more effective for meeting your goals. No exercise Puritanism please.
Help cultivate a culture of working in. It often strikes me how inefficient it is - one person taking breaks of several minutes while several other people wait to use that equipment. Squeezing into little overcrowded NYC gyms has deepened those feelings. Many people are too shy to ask others to work in, but far fewer have a problem with letting others work in. Classic problem of misaligned manners. You should feel empowered to politely ask if you can work in, and when using a piece of equipment you should politely welcome anyone asking to do so, absent a compelling reason why not, especially if you take my advice about resting longer.
Yes, balance anterior and posterior chain. This one has become conventional wisdom and is a positive development. Your anterior (front) chain includes the muscles in the front of your body and your posterior (back) chain includes the muscles in the back of your body. In the past few years I’ve seen a welcome growth in understanding that many people inadequately work their posterior chain relative to their anterior chain, for the understandable reason that we can see the muscles on our own front halves but not the muscles on our back halves. (Some elements of the posterior chain receive more attention than others….) So it’s important to try to devote equal time and effort to both sides. I think this can be taken in unhelpful directions; some guys now say that you should be able to do the same amount of weight on upright rows as you can bench. That doesn’t seem at all sensible to me - your lats are not in some simplistic sense the opposite partners of your pecs, the have different structure and function, etc. But the spirit of the idea is correct in that it’s really easy to overemphasize the muscles you see in the mirror compared to the ones you don’t.
Deadlifting with hex plates isn't worth it. I find it a uniquely frustrating experience, especially given the exhaustion involved. Some may have the ability to gracefully return the plates to resting position such that their rhythm is not impeded, but I am not one of those lucky souls. Find a gym with circle plates or else do rack pulls.
Jaw loose when shrugging. You know when you sleep wrong and you wake up unable to turn your head in one direction? You know how much that sucks? Well it's really easy to induce that condition when you're shrugging if you're not careful. Clenched jaw, tight neck, tight traps, pulled muscles. Relaxed jaw, loose neck, loose traps, all is right in the world.
I don’t know why you’d curl with a straight bar. In the beginning, after a couple months of lifting I developed hellacious wrist pain from curling straight bars. Switching to EZ curl bars cleared it right up. You’ve got the EZ curl bar, you’ve got dumbbells, you can do chin-ups or use cables - I don’t see the advantage of doing any straight bar curls, personally. If your concern is forearm development there are exercises you can perform that will better target those muscles anyway.
Spotters don’t “help.”
Protect your shoulders when you bench press. If I could go back in time and tell my younger self something, nothing related to weightlifting would make the top 1,000. But if I had to make it about lifting, it would be to pin my shoulders back when I benched, every time, every set, every rep.
You want your rear delts in contact with the pad at all times. A lot of guys, like my younger self, will finish a rep/lock out by allowing their shoulders to rise up off of the pad. This is brutal for the delicate tissues in your shoulders and isn’t even working the muscles you’re benching to improve. As I have mentioned here in the past I have had a labrum tear and a full-thickness rotator cuff tear (separately) in my right shoulder and have had two partial-thickness rotator cuff tears, contributing to tendinosis, in my left shoulder, the second of which was just fourish months ago. I can’t say that all of this is due to bad bench press form; I've been lifting for 20 years and wear and tear inevitably accumulates. But I am absolutely certain my bench press form contributed significantly. Scapulae retracted and depressed throughout the exercise. Some people describe the way to achieve this as a “Superman opening his suit” movement, like this:
Protect your shoulders all the time, actually. Honestly. This shit sucks. There aren’t a lot of things that I just can’t do in the gym, but a lot of movements for me are a clicking and popping mess now, in or out of the weightroom. There’s a lot of weird feelings inside and I’m constantly waiting for a snap. The shoulders are often described as the most vulnerable joint, as they allow for far greater range of motion than others. Protect them. Listen to them. Use your head.
Hands go first when you face pull.
It’s an exercise that has quickly become considered essential in the last few years, and for good reason - rear delts are notoriously underdeveloped on a lot of people and they’re a pain in the ass to work, and face pulls are pretty good for that, but more broadly they’re working a trouble area for a lot of people and help balance for bench fixation. But do them right. I don’t know if it’s really anatomically possible for your hands to “beat” your elbows to the end of the contraction, but you don’t want your hands to significantly trail your elbows, which can easily become a rowing motion.
Find a good list of exercises not to do and don’t do them. There are tons of lists of exercises that you shouldn’t do. (Of course, some of them disagree.) I don’t feel comfortable telling you which ones to put on your own ban list, but you should get a few opinions. Certainly I’m glad to see upright rows (which are the devil), leg extensions, good mornings, and behind-the-back seated shoulder presses/lat pulldowns falling out of fashion. I don’t do any of those, personally. Investigate!
It’s very possible to get more protein than you need. Protein (and amino acids) are indeed necessary components for building muscle, and yes, if you want to get big you have to eat, including sufficient protein. But a) protein is not a supplement in the way some people think, and will not suddenly supercharge your gains, and b) if you overdo it at some point your body isn’t going to absorb all that protein. You’re just going to poop it out. Sure, have a protein shake. But you don’t have to go crazy.
You aren’t big enough for protein timing to matter. The Rock’s team of trainers and nutritionists can worry about what the precise best time it is for him to eat another helping of cod. You are not the Rock. You and I are regular schmoes who would like to gain a little muscle. Drink your protein shakes when you can. It’s fine. You’re fine. Don’t overthink it.
Please bathe and regularly wash your workout clothes. Do me a favor.
Use clips on your barbells, dumbass. If they're in short supply at your gym, first complain, then order some of your own on Amazon.
There's a fine line between talking between sets and lifting between conversations. Try to stay on the right side of it, for the sake of your own workout.
All glory is fleeting.
Start making peace with your aging body sooner than later. At 40 it’s entirely possible that I still have more gains to go, at least in terms of strength. I haven’t squatted in something like seven years, after a couple of scares with my lower back in a short period of time; I got weird, nerve-y, something’s-not-right-with-my-spinal-column feelings both times and I just said, OK, never again. I am not yet doing conventional barbell bench presses yet since coming back from my latest shoulder tear, but before that happened I was working up to repping 225 5-6 times, which is… fine. It’s fine. I’m fine with it. Where will I get back up to when I am ready to bench again? No idea. But I’m deadlifting as much as I ever have and I’m within striking distance of some longstanding goals. I’ve got a lot of good lifting years ahead of me and I look pretty good, I think, all things considered.
However, even at only 40 years old, my body has changed, and every day I adjust my expectations and goals to fit my changing physical reality. Getting abs back is probably out for reasons other than just age. Also I get minor injuries more easily than I did at 30, recovering from those injuries takes longer than at 30, I stay sore for longer than I did at 30, and gaining strength and mass do seem to have meaningfully slowed down compared to where I was 10-15 years ago. I know, this is not surprising. I can still get bigger and I can still look pretty good and also I’m gently slowing down in the weightroom and that’s fine. My point here is simply to say that it starts happening sooner than you think, and (again unless you’re deliberately messing with your body’s most delicate chemistry) you don’t get to choose when your decline happens. So if you’re in your 30s try to gradually adjust your expectations and goals in a way that’s realistic and fair to yourself. I understand that this is easier said than done. But my advice is to build an emotional offramp, if you will.
Nobody ever knows the exact day they achieve a certain level of performance for the last time. You get that latest nagging injury, think you’ll get back up there when you recover, and you never do. You get lazy, lose a couple months of training, and you never get back. It may not be now; yet it will come. So give yourself a break to the degree that you can.
Rejoice, for progress is possible. For me, the true upside of weightlifing lies in a) reliability and b) durability. That is, compared to various other kinds of exercise I find lifting weights produces more certain benefits and that those benefits last longer. Every two or three years I resolve to become a runner again, I plod along and wheeze terribly for the first month, I get a wee bit more endurance and it gets a wee bit easier, but six months of work after that I’m entirely unsure if I have really gained anything at all. It’s always like that with cardio for me, this constant uncertainty if I’m getting anything for all that work. I don’t mind that exercise hurts, but I hate worrying that it hurts for no benefit. Same thing with yoga. I did it twice a week faithfully for a year and a half and found I still could not touch my toes or stand on one leg, found in fact that I seemed to be no closer to either. So I stopped. But lifting, as slow and laborious and annoying and maddeningly incremental as it can be, has always resulted in change in my body that I can see. When I lift my muscles grow. When I don’t lift they don’t. That has been a calming kind of certainty in a life that has sometimes lacked it. And, thankfully, the results last much longer than cardio, where whatever gains I make seem to evaporate if I have to take two weeks off.
Of course, whether it’s all worth it is a matter of perspective. Here’s me.
The guy on the right is not some strapping muscleman and has what would be few people’s goal body. He’s also someone who has gone through the period of initial fast results and the accompanying rush when starting out, the frustration of plateauing, the endless cycle of injuries, rehab, rededication, progress, and reinjury, and most importantly the gradual acceptance of what his body is and is not going to be. The guy on the right was once bigger and significantly stronger than he is here, but found that as he aged he couldn’t be that big and stay acceptably thin, and also wrestled more and more with those injuries. He tried to change his goals and his routine in a sensible way and sometimes he did that well and sometimes less well. Eventually he felt OK with where he was, but would forever feel that there was some better level to get to that he just never achieved.
Also his sleeves are clearly much too tight.
But the guy on the right is also someone who hated the way he looked when he looked like the guy on the left, and so he set about to change it, and whatever else is true he did meaningfully change his body. And he did it in the weight room. No steroids, no expensive personal training, no exotic routines. Just year after year, day after day, set after set, rep after rep of slow and steady work, all of it leading to results that feel permanently disappointing but nonetheless real. As with everything else in life, there’s what you wanted, and then there’s what you come to see as good enough. I’ve worked hard. What I got back has been good enough.
I’m much heavier than right picture guy now, ten years or so later. So it goes.
You can’t just choose to love your body. The internet is full of horseshit about how we have to love ourselves, which is annoying and presumptuous at the best of times. It’s particularly irritating when it comes to loving our bodies. If we could just choose to love our bodies nobody would exercise! We go to the gym to negotiate with our self-hatred. But maybe, if we meet in the middle by controlling what we can control, get in a little better shape, and focus not on loving our bodies but on forgiving them, we can reach détente. A ceasefire, perhaps, if not a lasting peace.
This month, I’m challenging my readers to raise $12,000 for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). I’ve donated the first $2,000. You can contribute here