Since moving to Vancouver to work with an MLS club, I no longer have access to my own world class training center. And because the team I coach for won’t be in our new training center until next year, we’ve been bouncing around between several training sites….only one of which has a dedicated weight room. So much of the time when I want to train, I find myself forced to go to the local health club. Before this, I hadn’t trained in a commercial gym for years because I always had access to my own training center or the weight room of the collegiate teams I coached on. So it’s been eye-opening to train amongst general population (rather than athletes) who’ve mostly never worked under the guidance of a strength coach. You see some odd things. Some good. But mostly bad. And you see why so many people who train at health clubs fail to make the progress they’re looking for. Here are a couple things I’ve picked up in my time at the local gym that I thought might be useful for those training without a strength coach:
- Check your ego at the door: Trying to max out every day, doing partial reps to use more weight, attempting to squeak out reps beyond technical failure or countless ‘forced reps’ with the help of a spotter secondary lifter are sure guaranteed to stunt your development. Check your ego at the door when you step in to the weight room and do a challenging weight for an appropriate rep range through complete ranges of motion.
- Stick to the basics: I’ve seen some of the strangest exercises since going to a commercial gym. Some of the highlights include:
- Anything you can imagine done on a bosu ball (including dumbbell power cleans and a swimming action with dumbbells in hand),
- Single leg upright rows on a smith machine,
- Single arm cable resisted overhead squats, and
- High knee in-place running with dumbbells
- Single leg half squats standing on a medicine ball
As you might guess, none of these folks are doing standard barbell exercises like presses, squats, rows, and lunges. And as a result, they aren’t getting results and certainly aren’t getting stronger at anything but stupid human tricks. While those other exercises might look novel and sexy (or idiotic?), in the best case scenarios they are just icing on the cake. In the worst case, they’re a serious injury waiting to happen. If you aren’t doing the big barbell lifts technically well with decent loads you’re wasting your time with those exercises.
- Focus on efficiency: Unless you’re a strength athlete (powerlifter, strongman, or Olympic weightlifter) you’re doing something horribly wrong if you’re spending more than 5 hours in the weight room each week….and that’s on the high end. Most athletes should be able to get by with 3 hours in the weight room and many will do just fine with two or three weekly 30-40 minute sessions. The caveat of course is that you make the most of your time. 30 minutes on rotator cuff exercises isn’t the best use of time (although I’ve seen it quite often in my commercial gyms). Likewise with wrist curls, neck extensions, or most isolation / single joint exercises. Pick exercises that allow you to get the most bang for your buck. Sticking to big barbell exercises from the previous point will serve you well in this regard. Also, don’t waste your rest periods. You don’t have to do a non-stop metabolic circuit but if you need 3 or 4 minutes of rest between sets of heavy squats why not throw in a set of an upper body exercise? Push-pull combos as well as upper-lower body combos work perfect in this regard and allow you to more efficiently use your time in the gym without taking anything away from the workout.
- Progressive overload: The body is designed to adapt to any stress you place on it. If you don’t apply increasingly greater training stimuli (whether load, volume, frequency, time under tension or other) then you’re sure to see stunted development. Many go to the gym and do the same routine with the same weight every time. That’s a recipe for mediocrity.
- Working without a plan: There’s a clichÃ©d saying that failing to plan is planning to fail. While overused there’s definitely some truth to it. Now I’m not saying you have to get as detailed with programming as I do, but you should have a general scheme of what you’re doing in the weight room that is geared towards your specific goals.