Comparing Yourself

photo-1433616174899-f847df236857In many aspects of life comparing yourself to other people can motivate you to get better.  It can cause you to see others doing something that you aren’t able to do.  That is a genuinely helpful and positive aspect of comparison and that’s not what we’re talking about here.

There are also two very negative things that can come out of constantly comparing yourself with others.  In a negative sense, when you compare yourself to someone else one of two things happens: you feel superior to them or you feel inferior to them.  Neither of these two things really do you any good.

Superiority Complex

You see this all the time.  Someone squats two plates for the first time and then starts looking at members of the general public as weaklings.  To them everyone who doesn’t squat is an idiot and the people who squat 20 pounds less than them are weak novices.  They can readily spout off a dozen reasons why their program is superior and they love to look at others doing less than them to feel gratified about how far they’ve come.  They love to give advice and “help” others who aren’t as good as they are.

Even if you change this scenario to a competitive lifter who frequently places in the top in his or her region, it doesn’t do them any good to look at people who are weaker than them in order to feel a sense of superiority.  If you already feel you’ve made it and can look down upon others where will you get your motivation to improve yourself?  Some people feel the need to look at others who aren’t as good as them to validate their progress and feel better about themselves.  That’s just sad.

We all know that everyone has to start somewhere.  Looking down on a beginner who is trying their best to learn and progress at something is a great way to discourage them from continuing and isn’t even fair to begin with because you’ve been doing it longer than they have.  Even looking down on someone who you just narrowly beat out isn’t helpful.  There are plenty of others who could just as easily compare themselves to you and be unimpressed.

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Inferiority Complex

The other side of this is people comparing themselves with others who are better than they are at something and feeling inadequate.  Watching elite level athletes or practitioners in any field do what they do best can be inspiring.  It can motivate you to push yourself to get where they are.  Or it can be discouraging and make you want to quit.  There is a tendency to look at your own progress, compare it to someone better than you, and feel weak and discouraged.

I don’t care how strong or awesome you are at something.  If you look around long enough you can find someone better than you.  Even if you’re the best in the world at something the chances are you won’t be forever.  There will always be someone bigger, stronger, smarter, faster, more creative, and more successful than you.  You should embrace that.  If you keep trying to compare yourself to these people you will only feel down about how far you’ve come.

Some people refuse to pick up a new skill or start a new sport because before they even begin they’re discouraged that they could never be as good as the best in that field.  I remember someone who was a pretty good musician telling me they quit guitar because they saw too many awesome videos of guys playing way better than them and it made them feel they could never get there so they didn’t feel a need to even try.  Clearly if your comparing yourself to others makes you want to quit, it’s not helping you!

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Compare Yourself to Yourself

So instead of constantly comparing yourself to others and wondering if you could lift more, if that guy could beat you up, if this person makes more or less than you, if you look better than that other person, etc. what should you do?

Compare yourself today with yourself yesterday. Compare yourself today with yourself several months ago.  Compare yourself today with you when you first started.  How much have you progressed?  Do you need to change something up to keep getting better?

This way you can celebrate your achievements in the weight room and in life in general without feeling inadequate.  You will also have a bit of humility and the feeling that you can always improve but you won’t feel complacent and superior to others.  You can get a sense of how far you’ve come and feel secure in your achievements but there won’t be any need to look down on others.  The best mentors and motivators are like this.  They might be elite in their field but they won’t put a complete novice down and they also won’t feel inferior if someone does it better than them.

You can always push yourself to be better than YOU have been.  You are you and other people are themselves.  Forget about them and push yourself to be stronger, faster, smarter, or whatever it is.

What has been your experience with comparing yourself with others?  Leave me a comment below!

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Finding and Putting Yourself in the Right Environment

“If you want to remain mediocre, train with mediocre people and have mediocre friends”- Dave Tate

For this article I would rephrase that to “If you want to remain mediocre or even worse, train in a gym with a negative environment and no helpful support from others.”

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I don’t think many of us acknowledge the power of finding the right training facility with knowledgeable and supportive fellow trainees.  We recognize the importance of exercise.  We make financial and time sacrifices to get our workouts in.  We take time researching the best program for us, spend our money on all the necessary clothes and shoes, spend hours learning and refining proper form and technique, etc.  Unfortunately, when it comes to finding a gym many people just settle for the cheapest or closest place to them.  Many gym goers don’t bat an eye at paying $50 for an hour of personal training but they think spending more than that per month for a quality gym service is ridiculous.  They get sucked into the big box commercial gym contract and the crappy big box gym atmosphere.

commercial gym

Once you find an awesome gym it’s really hard to go back.  I have a hard time training in most commercial gyms.  They’re usually overcrowded, filled with lots and lots of equipment that I never use but not enough of what I actually want.  There is often a non-supportive, everyone-for-themselves ambiance where so many people crowd together to get their workouts in.  People fighting over equipment, laughing at others who are struggling with their weights, people using improper form, and terrible advice being freely given are just a few examples of what I’ve seen.  Newcomers are often intimidated and consequently end up on an elliptical or treadmill, quietly pounding away at their workout step by step only to get sub-par results.  I imagine many of you experience this type of environment all the time and may have eventually come to expect it.  Obviously not every gym is this bad but almost every commercial gym I’ve been to has been somewhere along this line.

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Even if everyone in the gym is pleasant and doesn’t bother you, there is so much more you could be getting out of your physical strength and conditioning experience by putting yourself in a helpful and supportive community of other people who want to help you get better.  Simply put, I would like to argue that it’s worth the time, money, and effort to find the right gym for you.  Don’t settle for a gym that doesn’t provide the best tools for you to learn and push yourself.

A little over a year ago I moved to a new city and one of the first things I tried to do was find a new gym.  I had been training in a garage with some buddies from school and that was a fantastic environment.  We all knew and helped each other out.  After I moved I tried local rec. centers and a few commercial gyms and had pretty bad experiences.  The equipment, helpful atmosphere, and community were all lacking.  It amazed me how bad so many of these gyms actually were.  My attitude changed from looking forward to my workouts to dreading the fight for each weight and station I would use throughout my workout and the negative and unhelpful vibe I got from most people.

Fortunately, I stumbled across a powerlifting and Olympic weighlifting style gym and started training there.  It’s basically a large warehouse with lots and lots of weights, squat racks, benches, pull up bars, etc.  The members are actually a supportive community and we help each other to get stronger and lift safely.  There are members who squat 600 pounds and members who are learning to safely squat 95 and yet no one is judged.  After a few months of working out there I gained more experience and know-how than I ever would have if I just stayed in the big box gym without help and advice from others who have much more knowledge from time under the bar and are willing to share that with me.  Many others have shared this same sentiment and experience.

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Now maybe you go to your local commercial gym where you know no one day after day, put in your headphones to block everyone else out, and get a great workout in.  You may be fine to do it by yourself and get all the information you need from books or the internet.  If that’s you and you are getting the most out of it then that’s great.  I’m not here to judge or change your ways.  I just believe that there are many people who can greatly benefit from putting themselves in a positive and helpful environment and their gym provides anything but this environment.

A better environment doesn’t have to be found in a warehouse or garage style gym.  There definitely are commercial gyms out there with awesome supportive atmospheres and a great community of members who you can learn a lot from.  Anyone who is willing to spend the time and money to develop their body’s strength and conditioning can benefit from putting in the effort it takes to surround themselves with others who are motivated to do the same and who are willing to help other people get there.DSC00900

The 4 Principles of a Good Lifting Program

You can only go into the gym and do random exercises for so long before you realize that it’s not that effective and you need a plan.  You need an exercise program.  There are many exercise programs out there…an overwhelming amount, actually.  A quick Google search by a novice with no idea what to look for will quickly generate way too many results to search through in order to determine which one is best for them.  Whether it’s Starting Strength, 5/3/1, StrongLifts 5×5, Bigger Leaner Stronger or all the myriad of programs offered by Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Health, and Bodybuilding.com most every program will be very effective if it follows these four basic principles.

Getting stronger and healthier is actually pretty simple (it isn’t easy) and the main principles are not rocket science.  With that said, there are many BAD workout programs out there aimed at novices and although almost all of them will actually get you results for a little while, they won’t help you progress in the long run.  Why does almost every new workout plan work for a newbie initially?  Because when you are a beginner and haven’t yet subjected your body to the physical stresses of a workout plan almost any new stress you give it forces it to adapt and get stronger, if only a little bit.  When you’re new to lifting weights, almost anything new will work but some things just work WAY better than others.

The winners of the 1980 Olympic weightlifting competition.
The winners of the 1980 Olympic weightlifting competition.  Do you think they got that strong with some silly, ineffective muscle magazine program?

So here are the four main core principles of any good lifting program.  If whatever new program you are looking at follows them you can rest assured that with proper diet and recovery you will get stronger and look better.

Progressive Overload

If you go to the gym and lift the same weight every other day for 5 months, don’t expect to get stronger.  How do you expect your body to get stronger if you are just subjecting it to the same stress over and over?  Yes, you could technically add more sets and reps, decrease rest between sets, perform a slightly different variation of the exercise, etc. but at the end of the day the best way to get stronger is to add more weight.  The process of consistently adding more weight to the bar workout after workout is called progressive overload and it’s absolutely essential to any weightlifting program.  You’d be amazed how much stronger you can get if you just consistently add more weight in little increments.  Most untrained people can double their squat numbers in a couple of months if they just stay consistent and add about 5 pounds every new workout.  If your program does not have you progressively lifting more and more weight then it’s not a real program…simple as that!

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A Long Term Plan

The next time you see a “Get ripped in 4 weeks!” article in a muscle magazine I want you to put it down and walk away.  Or tear it up and throw the little ripped pieces all over the floor screaming “LIARS!”.  People don’t get strong in 4 weeks.  They might get strongER in 4 weeks but any training program that promises fast and amazing results is a lie.  Simple as that!  It takes time and dedication to add strength and change your body’s muscle composition and any program that refuses to recognize that is junk.  Getting strong is hard work and takes real time and dedication.  Anyone who tells you different is lying.  A decent program will provide you with a template to lift more and more weight for over a year to come or even longer.  A decent program will recognize that it takes time to get stronger and look better.  Unfortunately, since that doesn’t sell as well as a get-strong-fast scheme which necessarily forces you to need a new one in a few weeks, most muscle magazines don’t promote it.

(Side note: keep track of your progress in a notebook/journal.  With a good program, you will see your lifts go up little by little over the course of a long time).

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Keep track of your lifts and you will see your progress!

(Consider this: everyone knows that a proper diet and exercise are the best ways to get and stay healthy but where’s the money in telling people that?  People want quick results which is why there are so many unnecessary supplements, medications, and fad diets out there that make billions of dollars every year).

Emphasis on Compound Exercises

Compound exercises are movements that require the use of several muscle groups to perform.  Some of the best examples include front and back squats, deadlifts, power cleans, bench presses, overhead presses, push-ups, pull-ups, barbell rows, and the highly technical and difficult Olympic lifts: the Clean and Jerk and the Snatch.  Compound exercises are great because they recruit so many muscles, ligaments, and bones to perform and thus stress your body a lot (which is good because for the most part more stress = more strength and muscle growth).  Training your body as a complete system burns more calories, requires more balance and coordination, and allows you to lift more weight and get stronger.

Ah, heavy compound lifts.  They do the body good.
Ah, heavy compound lifts. They do the body good.

Non-compound exercises are called isolation exercises.  Examples include dumbbell curls, triceps extensions, calf raises, wrist curls, front raises, and leg curls.  While these may be great assistance exercises for targeting specific muscles, they are technically unnatural movements because throughout your normal life you operate your body as a system and don’t need to isolate and put great amounts of stress on ONE muscle.  Also, you have to do a LOT OF FREAKING isolation exercises to work your entire body and that takes more time than the average novice is willing to spend in addition to isolation exercises being overall less efficient at building real-world, useable strength.  I’m not anti dumbbell curls like some people, however.  I think if you want to curl go ahead and curl…just do it AFTER you’ve squatted, deadlifted, bench pressed, etc. because those movements are more important for building strength.

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If your program doesn’t have ANY compound lifts in it then it’s not a real strength and conditioning program.

Primary Use of Free Weights (Not Machines)

A good strength program will have you lifting barbells, dumbbells, kettle bells, body weight, etc. through free space.  That is, YOU will be the one moving the weight and your own body with no external support or locked in movement path.  Machines force you to move the weight through their set bar path.  This is bad for several reasons.  Firstly, it’s helping you and making it easier.  You’ll get stronger if you hold and move the weight yourself.  Secondly, it often forces you to move the weight in an unnatural way. An example would be bench pressing on a smith machine which forces you to have a completely vertical bar path.  All strong bench pressers naturally have a little curve in their bar path but you can’t do that on a machine.

Bench pressing in a smith machine.
Bench pressing in a smith machine.

Machines are bulky, complicated, expensive, and sometimes unnecessary.  I’m convinced most commercial gyms use them because the companies making the equipment make more money if they have more equipment to sell and your commercial gym looks more impressive to newcomers if it’s filled with fancy equipment.  All you really need to get strong is a power rack, barbells and weights, dumbbells (not even completely necessary for everyone), and a bench.

Just like isolation exercises, machines are great for assistance exercises but if they make the bulk or entirety of your program then do yourself a favor and pick another program.

Thousands of people have gotten incredibly strong in gyms with minimal equipment like this one.
Thousands of people have gotten incredibly strong in gyms with minimal equipment like this one.

So there you have the 4 main principles of any good lifting program.  Does your program follow them?  If you have any questions/comments/etc. please leave me a comment.  I’d love to hear from you!

Stop Lifting Weights in Running Shoes!

Almost everyone and their mother knows that when it comes to getting strong squats and deadlifts are two of the most important movements you can learn and train.  Unfortunately, many overlook their choice of footwear when learning to do these lifts and assume that any pair of running or athletic shoes will do.  Squatting and deadifting in running shoes is generally a really bad idea.  Running shoes are designed for repeated impact which is why they have squishy soles which compress when you come down with your bodyweight on each stride.  This makes them great for running but really bad for lifting heavy weights.  When you lift heavy weights (particularly with back and front squats, deadlifts, power cleans, and overhead presses) all of the added force comes down to your feet.  Your feet are the ultimate thing between you and the ground- the ultimate thing supporting you. You want a solid, sturdy base to stay upright and balanced during the lift.  You DON’T want the shoe to compress or rock during the lift.

Image credit: http://www.details.com/blogs/daily-details/Details_running_shoe_myth.jpg
Image credit: http://www.details.com/blogs/daily-details/Details_running_shoe_myth.jpg

Enter the weightlifting shoe.  They are designed to be sturdier, not flex or compress throughout the sole, and many have an elevated heel which helps you to get better depth in your squat.  If you look at any powerlifter, Olympic weightlifter, or strong man lifting heavy weights you won’t see them wearing running shoes.  You’ll see them wearing weightlifting shoes.

Image credit: http://strengthambassadors.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/snatch_valentin.jpg
Image credit: http://strengthambassadors.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/snatch_valentin.jpg

I’m surprised that many people I talk to who lift weights are either unaware that there are specific weightlifting shoes or think that they are unnecessary.  One of the quickest and easiest things you can do to help yourself out if you’re lifting weights is to get a good pair of lifting shoes.  The difference it makes can be quite surprising.  Some of the most popular weightlifting shoes are Adidas AdiPowers, Nike Romaleos, Reebok Crossfits, Converse All-Stars, and Adidas Powerlifts.  Some people use wrestling shoes because they are pretty stable and flat.  I’ve even used really solid hiking boots in a pinch (I was on vacation and used a local gym and forgot my shoes) and they were much better than running shoes.

Romaleos and Adipowers, respectively. Image credit: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/f1h7lSMPABw/maxresdefault.jpg
Romaleos and Adipowers, respectively. Image credit: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/f1h7lSMPABw/maxresdefault.jpg

When I first started lifting weights (which was basically isolation exercises and half squats in running shoes) I had no idea that weightlifting shoes existed.  Then when I got into compound lifts (full-depth squats, power cleans, etc.) I heard that many experienced lifters squat and deadlift in Converse All Stars.  I bought a pair and the difference was incredible.  I felt so much more stable and less wobbly while hitting full depth on squats and much more solid and flat on my feet while deadlifting.  A year or so later I bought a pair of Adidas Powerlift 2.0 shoes and the difference was even better.  The raised heel and even stiffer sole than the All Stars have made a huge difference for me in my stability and balance under the bar.

My trusty Adidas Powerlift 2.0's.  I expect to get at least a couple years more out of these!
My trusty Adidas Powerlift 2.0’s. I expect to get at least a couple years more out of these!

If you’re currently squatting and deadlifting in running shoes I strongly recommend trying a pair of Converse All Stars (you probably already have a pair already because they’re incredibly popular shoes) or Adidas Powerlifts.  These are both very economical options.  Nike Romaleos and Adidas Adipowers can be quite expensive but you can get a pair of All Stars for around $60 and Powerlift 2.0’s run about $90.  If you’re going to invest time, energy, and money into getting stronger than you owe it to yourself to be doing it from a solid, stable shoe.

A couple little side notes:

-You usually don’t want to deadlift in a shoe with an elevated heel because it pushes you forward a bit and you want to be as flat as possible when deadlifting.  I do all my lifts in my Adidas Powerlifts except deadlifts, which I do barefoot.  Converse All-Stars, however, are great for deadlifting because they have a solid, flat sole with no elevated heel.  I’ve seen guys deadlift 600 pounds + for reps in an old, worn out pair of Converse All Stars.

-If you only wear your weightlifting shoes in the gym they will last you for years.  You don’t want to be running sprints or pushing prowlers in your specific weightlifting shoes (although you might get away with it in Converse All Stars).  For that, go back to your running shoes you were wrongly using earlier!

-There are other flat-soled shoes people use that work great for them.  I have a friend who lifts in Adidas Sambas (which are meant to be flat-soled soccer shoes) and he won’t wear anything else.

So what shoes do you lift in?  Do you have any questions/responses/etc.?  I’d love to hear from you!

Why Strength?

Image credit: http://rebel-performance.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/deadlift.jpg
Image credit: http://rebel-performance.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/deadlift.jpg

I am thoroughly convinced that strength is one of the most important things in human life.  The first time I heard something similar to this, I brushed it off as something nonsensical and shallow.  To say that strength is that important is to downplay the more important intangible things like intelligence, emotional well-being, and our existence in a philosophical/existential sense, I thought.  Only gym rat meatheads with bulging veins and muscles care about being strong and use that as a way to think they’re better than everyone else right?  Intelligent, thinking people realize that there are far more noble and selfless pursuits than getting big and strong, right?

The thing is, no matter how intelligent, philosophical, religious, or happy you are, your physical existence as a human being governs everything else.  To exist happily and healthily it really helps to be strong.  Physical, muscular strength is how you move, how you pick things up, and how you interact with the world.  It simply helps your quality of life to be strong.  Physical strength gives you the balance, coordination, and skeletal and muscular ability to interact with your environment and move your body where you want it to go.  As of right now you may feel no need or appreciation for increasing your strength.  Unfortunately, as you age your muscles and strength naturally diminish.  What was once enough to get by in daily life eventually becomes insufficient.  We all know someone in their 50’s or 60’s who doesn’t have the strength to move properly or who fell (because they didn’t have the balance they once had) and broke a major bone (because their bone density wasn’t what it used to be).  Getting strong now pays dividends in the future.  If you are already strong then, biologically speaking, you should have an interest in maintaining that and if you are not yet strong then you should have an interest in getting there.

Powerlifting at Invictus Games

Aside from the myriad of physical health benefits getting stronger can offer (injury prevention, anti-aging, improved cardiovascular strength, increased bone density, lower likelihood of osteoporosis in women, and increased metabolic rate and calorie burn, to name a few) making a conscious effort to get stronger will lead you down a road of feeling better and more confident about yourself and teach you many life lessons.  You learn a lot from putting more weight on the bar week after week and pushing yourself to do what you were previously unable to do.  Building strength helps build character and teaches you not to give up.  If you make getting progressively stronger a priority in your life, then many other mental and physical things will fall into place.

It’s a shame that many exercise programs and fitness philosophies focus on physique and not strength as their number one goal.  This represents a great mis-prioritization. Interestingly, if you train for strength and have proper nutrition you will get what most consider to be a pleasing physique and you will be really strong and generally healthier.  If your number one training goal is looks, however, you might look good quicker but you will miss out on many of the physical and mental health benefits of being strong.

I invite you to take a good look at your strength.  No matter where you are you can get stronger.  It will not be easy and it will not be fast.  It will be a day by day process of pushing yourself but in the end it will be worth it for you physically, psychologically, and perhaps spiritually.

So here’s to strength…because strength is really freaking important.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on strength and its importance.  Please comment below with any questions/responses/etc.!