The road to success in strength training begins with the resolve to train regularly. For any routine to produce results, the athlete must work out consistently. Hit-and-miss scheduling just doesn’t get the job done. I’ve often noted that a poorly designed program done with persistence will bring about greater gains than a perfect program done haphazardly.
For scholastic and collegiate athletes that isn’t a problem because regularity is built into their program. A well-equipped gym is readily available, as well as a coach to organize and supervise the workouts and a requirement that the prescribed workouts be done at certain times and days during the week. Plus there’s the luxury of training with teammates, which makes the experience enjoyable.
It’s what happens when athletes aren’t attending classes that really determines how motivated they are to get stronger. High school and university athletes face a great many distractions when they’re on break—party or train? Some athletes have jobs, which greatly squeezes their free time. Frequently they have trouble finding a gym that has the equipment they need. Or they don’t want to pay $10 or more for a workout at a la-di-da fitness facility. So they decide to just wait until they return to school to resume their strength programs.
The story’s much the same for those who have graduated from high school or college and have, in effect, ended their careers in their chosen sports. They lifted weights in the first place so they could excel at their sport, but as that’s now history, why train? Those who have decided to retire from Olympic lifting and powerlifting frequently find it a difficult transition to training merely to be fit. Preparing for contests was the fuel that drove them to put in hours in the weight room. To switch that mind-set is something quite a few are unable to do. If they do continue training, it’s usually halfheartedly, and skipping workouts is the norm.
Strength training, however, isn’t just for competitive athletes, nor is it just for the young and robust. Rather, it needs to be an integral part of every person’s life for as long as he or she can move and is breathing. Keep in mind that strength training is a relative term. While the pro lineman who moves massive amounts of iron is doing strength training at the extreme level, so is the 50-year-old who trains with much lighter poundage in order to stay fit and achieve a pleasing physique, and so is the individual coming back after a serious knee injury with hopes that he’ll be able get strong enough to run again. The one thing those who are trying to maintain or improve their strength all have in common—and I’m including activities that involve the respiratory and circulatory systems—is that if they want to succeed in their quest, they must train regularly.
Changing from a competitive attitude to one aimed at better overall health isn’t easy. The rewards for being proficient in a sport are tangible—trophies, recognition, high self-esteem—but those in their 20s and 30s rarely think much about their health. It just isn’t a major concern, and they take it for granted. Of course, as they get older and the aches and pains start mounting up, they begin thinking seriously about taking some steps to aid their cause.
It wasn’t easy for me to make the change. Olympic lifting was the core of my existence. I woke up thinking about my upcoming training for that day and fell asleep going over what I did in the gym. My diet was built around gaining size and strength. My daily routines on a training day were geared to put me in the gym at a certain time of day, fully prepared for what lay ahead. My relationships, work and leisure time revolved around my training.
After I lifted in my last Olympic meet in California, I moved to Hawaii. Since I couldn’t come up with a good reason to beat myself up with the weights any longer, I quit training for the first time in 17 years. While competing, my training credo had been based on consistency, and I’d guess that I missed only a couple of dozen workouts over those years.
Oh, I was going to exercise because I was vain enough to enjoy how I looked, but instead of pounding my joints with iron, I was going to swim in the Pacific, only 50 yards from my house, run on the beach and do chins, pushups and ab work.
That lasted about three weeks. I found I couldn’t swim long enough in the ocean to do much for my pulse rate, and the beach was too slanted to run on. Running on the road was out of the question because there were no shoulders, and the locals drove as if they were at the Daytona 500. What really altered my decision to stop lifting weights, though, came when I visited the campus of Church College of Hawaii in Laie. I wanted to see if the school’s library had sufficient references on nutrition, which I planned to include in my book. It didn’t. I wandered around, found a small weight room, then a wrestling room. A climbing rope hung over one of the mats, and I was curious to see whether I could still climb one. I’d taken pride in the fact that I could make it to the top without using my feet or legs. I got halfway up and was exhausted. I had to hang there for several minutes before I got my composure under control, and then with feet, legs and hands gripping the rope for dear life, I slid down and dropped to the mat, totally spent.
I was stunned, but the real kicker came after I regained my breathing and walked outside. There was a chinning bar, and I vowed to redeem myself. When training at Muscle Beach, I’d finish off each workout by doing chins and could generally do a minimum of 15. Maybe I hadn’t been warmed up or mentally ready when I tried the rope: With determination I jumped up, gripped the bar, did three chins, let go and had to lie down on the grass because I was so dizzy—at that point both angry and confused. How in the world had I lost all my hard-earned strength so fast? More important, why had I allowed it to happen? I’d become weak, and I hated it. From the age of 15 I’d wanted to get bigger and stronger and through many years of weight training had achieved that goal. Because I’d gotten lazy for just a few weeks, it was gone. I still looked strong, but that didn’t matter because I knew the truth. I was a wimp.
That’s when I pledged to myself that I would rectify the situation regardless of how long it took, and when I got strong again, I’d never, ever lay off. That was 36 years ago, and I’ve kept that promise to myself ever since. It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve been in positions where finding any type of gym was a problem. On two separate occasions when I didn’t have a car, I had to walk for more than an hour to get to a gym. One winter I stayed with a friend who lived on a remote hilltop where there wasn’t a fitness facility within 30 miles. Within a few days I scrounged equipment from neighbors and worked out on a Sears bar with plastic weights.
Those who know me realize how much I loathe mornings, but if my options are to miss a workout or train in the early a.m., I’ll choose the latter. I remember the time Tommy Suggs, weightlifting great and the guy who brought me in to work at Strength & Health years ago, bought a nice chunk of land in Arkansas and wanted me to come and see it. As it was a day and a half drive from the Gulf Coast, we had to be on the road by no later than 8 a.m. I worked out at 6:30. On the way back we spent a night in a motel, and I got up before the sun to get in my scheduled run—certainly not fun, but worth the trouble to stay consistent. I’ve also trained in Fielder’s Shed when it was 17 degrees with no heat and over 100 degrees without even a fan.
My point is not to give the impression that I possess some special fortitude. If anything, I’m no more than average. Many friends and former training mates can relate similar tales, some much better than mine. All it takes is a bit of dedication, and anything is possible. I mention them because if I can do it, so can you, as long as you do some planning and make adjustments in your program.
Tommy Suggs was a tax accountant at the time I stayed with him and Karen. Tax season meant that he had to spend long hours at his office because those six weeks brought in about 90 percent of his yearly income. Normally he trained with a group of his friends in his garage at four o’clock. During tax season he went through a shortened version of his normal routine at 6 a.m. His workload dropped during those six weeks, but he was able to get it back quickly once April 15 came around. What it boils down to is just how important training is to you. If it ranks high, there’s always a way to make it happen.
The reason so many fail to stay consistent when they embark on any type of strength program is that they’re not realistic. Typically, they do too many exercises and schedule too many days for training. They join a gym, write out a routine that includes exercises for every bodypart, and, because they’re so eager to make gains, they vow to lift no fewer than four times a week, sometimes five or six.
That’s fine on paper, but they fail to consider the many other factors in their lives, such as work, family, social obligations and unexpected circumstances. For a few weeks all goes according to plan. Then they’re forced to miss a Wednesday because of a surprise birthday party for a close friend. The very next week that same friend gets tickets for the North Carolina–Maryland basketball game—can’t miss that. They skip two sessions the following week because of visiting in-laws. And so on and so forth.
After two months of hit-and-miss training where virtually no progress has been made, the decision is made to put aside training until there aren’t so many interruptions. Sadly, that time never comes because, as we all know, things get more hectic, not more placid, as we go through life. There will always be some excuse for not training if you’re not dedicated to your cause.
Instead of embarking on an ultra-ambitious program to get in shape fast, the smarter approach is to use a three-day-a-week schedule and limit the number of exercises for each workout. That gives you a great deal of flexibility and is one of the keys to staying regular with your training. Let’s say you can’t make it to the gym on Monday, your heavy day. No big deal: Just do that intended workout on Tuesday and come back on Wednesday with your light day. Using the heavy, light and medium system also gives you an edge, as the light day is easy to slip in next to the heavy and medium days.
Then there are hectic times that force you to miss training on Monday and Tuesday. You’re still okay. Train Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. That may not be something you’d want to do often, but it’s fine occasionally and in all likelihood will only happen a couple of times a year. Three back-to-back sessions aren’t that demanding when you employ the heavy, light and medium system. Also keep in mind that you really have seven days for getting in your three workouts.
As important as the work that you do in the gym is the positive mental attitude you gain by being consistent. Knowing that you fulfilled an obligation you made to yourself is satisfying and self-motivating.
The second part of the equation is to keep the workouts simple. Three primary exercises for the major groups and one or two ancillary movements for the smaller muscles are sufficient. If you apply yourself fully on those exercises, you’ll reap greater gains than if you spread out your sessions with six or seven exercises. By limiting the number of exercises in your routine, you’ll be able to complete the workout in an hour or an hour and 15 minutes. Contrast that with trying to do a long list of movements; you’ll end up being in the gym for two hours. That’s too long for the following reasons: It isn’t as productive, you won’t be able to recover as well, and when time is short, you’re more apt to skip a longer workout than you would one that you could complete in an hour.
Another helpful consistency idea is to have one program in your repertoire for the occasions where you unexpectedly get jammed up for time. It’s happened to all of us for one reason or another. One Friday I arrived at the gym at my usual time and found a note on the door stating that the building would close at four o’clock. The gym was part of the Parks Department, which closed at every opportunity under the sun and without any prior notice. I hurried in, checked the clock and saw that I had less than 40 minutes in which to do my regular Friday session, which took twice that long. It was irritating, but I had a plan for just that kind of situation. It wasn’t the first time I’d been squeezed for workout time.
I shortened my warmups, set up three stations for the exercises that I’d planned to do that day—back squat, bench and shrugs—then did them in a fast circuit. Really fast. No rest at all between sets except to change the weights. I was really blowing at the end but felt great because I’d been able to work up to nearly the same amount of weight on every exercise that I normally used for a longer session. I was also pleased with myself for being prepared enough to adapt to the problem.
Vacations and travel present unique difficulties for consistent training, but they can be overcome with some planning. If you know for certain that there isn’t going to be any place where you can work out at your destination, carry a pair of 20-pound dumbbells in your car. They’re compact and very versatile. It’s not rocket science to be able to put together a vigorous workout with just those dumbbells.
If you’re going to be staying with friends, ask them to find out where the nearest gym is located. If you’re staying at a motel, find out if it has a fitness facility. If it doesn’t, ask the clerk to look in the Yellow Pages to see if there’s a gym close by. Travel on your nonlifting days, and I’ve found it invigorating when I’m on a long drive to stop about halfway there and take a 45-minute walk. If I can find something to do chins on, I knock out two or three sets and get a jolt of energy for the rest of the trip.
When all else fails, figure out how to do a freehand workout in your motel room. You’ll be surprised at how many exercises you can come up with once you set your brain to the project: pushups, handstand pushups, chair dips, situps, crunches, kneeups, leg raises, squats, lunges, calf raises, good mornings. If there’s anything around to use as weights, such as phone books, you can add curls, triceps kickbacks, front and lateral raises and presses. Many people are surprised at how effective such an innocent workout can be. More than one person has told me that he actually got sore in some muscles after such a low-resistance session. They all said they felt a rush of energy after they exercised. They also felt good because they hadn’t skipped a workout. While it may seem like a small thing, to me it isn’t. It means that when you make a commitment to yourself or to others, you’re duty bound to honor the pledge. Do it with your training, and you’ll be more apt to do it in dealing with your family, friends and business colleagues.
Now for some suggestions for those who are really pressed for time. I know of quite a few in that situation, most of whom are athletes I worked with at Hopkins who are moving up the corporate ladder. The jobs pay very well, but people exchange those financial rewards for long hours, which means there’s little time left in which to train. In many cases the gyms are closed before they end their workday. The solution: Use the same type of program that in-season athletes benefit from, which is one heavy day on either Saturday or Sunday and another light day some time during the week. The light day can be completed during lunch hour or at home. It helps to have some equipment available in your house or apartment, even if it’s just dumbbells. An Olympic bar and some bumper plates give you a lot more choices, but dumbbells will suffice for a light day. It works, but you absolutely have to do both workouts some time in that week.
Speaking of having equipment at home, that’s one of the best things you can do to help you train consistently because it gives you a great deal of flexibility as to when you train. It saves traveling back and forth to a gym, having to wait for a station you need to use, the expense of memberships and the necessity of training within prescribed time limits. A well-stocked gym is great, but even a few pieces are often enough. Over time, you can add to what you have by buying used equipment from classified ads or yard sales.
As you grow older, the importance of training habitually goes way up simply because you’re not able to handle as much volume in a workout as you did when you were younger. So a missed session will set you back not just a few workouts but often a few weeks. I’ve found, however, that older athletes have little difficulty in staying consistent. They know the value of systematic exercise and usually have more freedom in their daily and weekly scheduling of activities.
One of the main reasons training consistently is critical to making progress is that any program worth its salt is designed for synergy. That means the various workouts fit together and influence one another. When formulating a program, keep in mind that what you do on Monday has a direct bearing on the Wednesday and Friday sessions. If you miss any of those workouts, not just the next one is negatively affected but the one following that as well. Getting stronger is a long-term process, a systematic rhythm of training and recovery, both of which are aided by good nutrition and rest.
When someone tells me that he’s having trouble getting excited about training again because he can’t see any purpose in putting in all that time and effort when he’s no longer participating in a sport, I give him a list of reasons for making it a priority in his life. For starters, regular training makes you physically and mentally stronger. Strength is the foundation of all movement. Movement means freedom from dependence on others—and that in itself is enough motivation for me. The mind works more efficiently in a fit body. Exercising on a regular basis benefits the circulatory, respiratory, digestive and nervous systems. You’ll rest more soundly, have a better appetite, be able to control your bodyweight and have a more active sex life. You’ll have more energy, and because you look fit, you’ll have higher self-esteem and a more positive outlook on life.
People who train consistently pay closer attention to what they eat and take nutritional supplements that enable them to work harder in the gym and recover faster. They also make sure they get enough rest to be at their very best at their next workout. No matter how much money you have, you can’t buy strength or overall fitness. They must be earned with sweat and determination. The good news is, they’re available to anyone willing to put forth the effort.
So whether you’re a sophomore in college wanting to make the starting lineup on next year’s football team, a thirtysomething executive in a growing corporation who wants to maintain your strength and physique or a 60-year-old retiree who wants to continue to feel good and stay active, train consistently: the best way to achieve all those goals. Heavy or light, it doesn’t matter—just so you train regularly. I’ll close with an appropriate adage: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com. IM