Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Five Important Things

by Jim Steel | January 21, 2020

close up of the bench press

Forty-one years ago, I lifted my first weights on a Universal machine in Mr. Mcclung’s class at Buck Lodge Junior High School. I was a big kid but weak, and lifting on the machine made me realize that I wanted to get better at this lifting stuff and find out what I needed to do to get bigger and stronger. Since then, I have tried just about everything in training and nutrition, whether it’s been for myself with football training, powerlifting, or bodybuilding, or while being a strength coach on the high school and collegiate level for thirty years. I have learned a lot over the years, and man, I have made many mistakes. But with each mistake that I made, I learned. My hope is that with this article, I can save you some time and confusion, and guide you on the path to Iron Game success. 

I have listed five things that I have learned over the years that may just help you out. Of course, there are many more, but these five can be a good place in which to begin. These points are not in order of importance, but just what came to mind when designing the list. 

1. Weight training is a skill. 

If you want to get better at squatting (or any movement), you must learn the skill of squatting. That takes rep after rep of squats with the correct form. You need to make it so that whenever you get under the bar, your body says, “Oh, I know this movement,” and that comes with consistent squatting over time – and its consistent perfect execution with a weight that actual challenges you to finish that perfect set of five. Anybody can use good form with light weight, but you really learn when that fourth and fifth rep are a bitch to finish. It's the challenging sets, the ones where you are pushing yourself to new limits, that teach you the most. 

2. Bust your ass and then go eat and rest 

When I first started training with weights, I did way too much in the weight room and ate way too little to make appreciable progress. All that I got out of all of that training was some wicked biceps tendonitis and very little gains. Then I noticed my high school buddy Carlo, and just how big that sucker was getting. While I was training twice a day and eating tuna out of the can, Carlo was training once a day, drinking milk, eating steak and pasta and getting big and strong. In fact, he would bench heavy, squat heavy, do a few curls and that would be it. He trained 3-4 times a week for around 45 minutes. 

I was doing 20 sets a body part and was training every day for hours and, reading all of the muscle magazines and training like the pros trained. And I was all hyped up all the time, even when I was at home, and chomping at the bit to make progress. Carlo was calm and relaxed away from the weight room, and taking daily naps. It took me years to understand that hard work is so important, but that the recovery from that hard work must take place in order to get bigger and stronger. What I realized over the years was to give myself the minimum effective dose of training, still very intense but less frequent and then get out of the weight room, fill up with good food and calm the hell down some. 

3. Don’t miss training 

Years ago, my son was in the hospital recovering from surgery. The hospital where he was staying was about a five-minute walk from the university weight room where I worked at the time. Every evening, I would tell the nurses that I would be back in less than an hour and I would walk over to the weight room and get a lift in. You know what's funny? I had some of my best training sessions during that time. I’d come in, either squat, deadlift, press or bench and then I’d leave. I’d work up to one all out set and walk back over to the hospital, all the time having in my mind just how tough my son was and that if he could fight through what was ailing him, surely I could pull 515 for 15 reps. And when I was done, I’d feel great, I’d feel worthwhile, and some of the worry and stress of the whole thing would go away for a while. My mind was suddenly clear and focused. 

My point here is that nobody should say that they are too busy, and nobody should say that they don't have time. I believe, quite simply, that unless you have a fever or a surgery yourself, you shouldn't miss a training session. Here is what I do when I have something that conflicts with training: I go a day early to train. I always think that if you skip a session and say, “Oh, I will just do it tomorrow,” then you missed it! For instance, I had a hunting trip planned for last Monday, a goose hunting trip down in Maryland. I usually train on Monday, but I knew that it wouldn't be ideal to go train after getting up at 3 am and hunting all day, so I went ahead and trained Sunday instead, took Monday off to hunt and then resumed the normal training cycle on Tuesday. That way, I didn't miss a session and I didn’t feel like a coward for not training. 

4. Take Training Seriously

Man! I hate it when I go to the gym and people talk instead of train. Why the hell are you there?? Are they just putting off getting under the damn bar? I was training the other day and this 18-22 year old guy was taking to another 18-22 year old guy and they were decked out in their tank tops, and had their shaker cup with whatever pre/intra/post-drink in it, and matching sweatpants and shoes, and the one kid was telling the other kid about what SARMS to take and how it all worked. He was totally wrong about everything, but that's not the point, The point is that I did 5 sets before they even did their next set. 

Shit, wait until you’re done, go eat your chicken and rice, and then talk about whatever the hell you want to talk about. But not when you're in the weight room. It's a sacred place of work and a place that requires total concentration. And how about the folks who are looking at their phone or texting between sets? Amazing. One guy was reading the paper between sets. How can you concentrate when you are reading about who the Phillies just acquired? You can’t. Of course, they weren't squatting or deadlifting heavy, so I guess that the exercises they were doing, some one-arm cable triceps pushdowns, does not take total focus. I still think it does, and I think that once the session begins, you should only focus on the training. And I have yet to meet anyone or see anyone who is crazy strong and or crazy big who wasn't concentrating fully on their workout. 

5. “You ain't weak, you're just scared.”

I had an outstanding assistant strength coach who worked for me at Penn, Brett Crossland. He came from the Rippetoe school of training, and he also did very well in Olympic weightlifting competition. He was a no-nonsense guy who told you exactly what he thought, good or bad. I remember one time we were in the weight room and an athlete missed a lift. He was strong enough to get it, but something was going wrong. His technique was fine. Brett looked at the kid and said, “You ain’t weak, you are just scared.” 

The kid looked at him and you could see on his face that Brett had hit the nail on the head. Sometimes, you need that tough love from a coach, a wake-up call. Because sometimes it's not your technique, or your programming, it's that you were scared and unsure of yourself and wimped out on the lift. Use that as motivation and conquer it with anger at your cowardice. Face it, defeat it, and you will succeed, promising yourself that it will never happen again. 

I know that there are plenty more points that I can write about, but I felt like these five points are some of the most important and definitely a good place to start. I really feel that if you heed my advice, your path to success in the weight room will be smoother and that you will reach your goals more quickly. 

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