Why getting strong is hard – Part I

Choosing to concentrate on strength training is a solid decision. But it’s a hard one because for most people it’s not like anything they’ve done before. Even for those familiar with press-ups (body weight exercises) or dumbbell curls, you have to open your mind to many new lessons, and unlearn or defend against incorrect ways of exercising. These next few posts will highlight traps it’s easy to fall into when learning and training to become stronger.

At present I’m an intermediate weightlifter. This is where I’ll always be – I don’t have the time nor inclination to become seriously strong. As an intermediate lifter I have to make progressive gains i.e. lift heavier and heavier weights, by sometimes going forward and hitting plateaus, dropping back (also called deloading), and building up again. This is because I am often lifting at the limit of my strength, the limit of the strongest I’ve ever been.

Beginning weightlifing for most means being a novice. Even after starting gently and establishing a routine with good form, it will not take long before a novice lifter is tackling physical challenges they have never attempted in their life. The pleasant surprise to most people is how capable their body is at responding to the stress of lifting: if you prepare and rest correctly, you can go several months where you increase the weight you lift every week.

This is a blessing that will give you encouragement in the early days, but it comes at a price. Like I mentioned at the start of these posts, there are a lot of opinions about how to lift, with a lot of people absolutely swearing that methodology X is the best way to proceed. This is how personal trainers can get people to lift weights while standing on a gym ball. As a novice lifter the body responds superbly in the beginning so almost any fitness training routine will have positive results.

Thinking you’ve cracked the code to lifelong fitness too soon as a novice is damaging because you could be creating invalid biases about how best to proceed. Worse than just using a training routine which walks into a plateau or ill health, is one that leads to injury because of bad technique. From personal experience I wish I could have advised my younger self about how to squat and overhead press correctly before damaging my lower back trying to lift heavy weights with poor technique.

As you begin your strength training sessions and in your early days you see amazing results from consistent progression, keep a strict and critical eye on your lifts and routine. Watch videos of lifters including those of yourself; read descriptions about the mechanics of compound lifts; speak to other weightlifters and ask them about their technique and how well their routine transitioned from novice to intermediate. Be prepared to change your mind about lessons thought previously learned.

Now the warning has been given, most importantly, enjoy being a novice lifter. Never again will you make such fast and impressive progress.