6 Truths About Exercise That Nobody Wants to Believe

Success in the gym, as with most things in life, comes down to mastering the basics.

With that in mind, here are 6 exercise tips, weightlifting basics, and training essentials that nobody wants to believe, but everyone should follow.

Take these ideas to heart and you’ll reap major benefits. While most people waste time debating the endless stream of supplements, “new” workout programs, and diet plans, all you really have to do is focus on these simple concepts and you’ll see results.

1. Commit for the long-term.

Most people workout with a short-term goal in mind. I like looking at health in a different way…

  • The goal is not to lose 40 pounds in the next 12 weeks. The goal is to regain your health for the rest of your life.
  • The goal is not to bench press 300 pounds. The goal is to be the guy who never misses a workout.
  • The goal is not to sacrifice everything to get your fastest time in next month’s race. The goal is to be faster next year than you are today. And faster two years from now than you will be next year.

Ignore the short-term results. If you commit to the long-term process, the results will come anyway.

Furthermore, stop acting like living a healthy life is a big deal. You can go to the gym every week. That can be “normal” for you. Not a sacrifice. Not an obligation. Normal.

What’s funny is that when you commit to being consistent over the long-term, you end up seeing remarkable results in the short-term. That’s the power of average speed.

2. Set a schedule for your training.

Most people never train consistently because they are always wondering when they are going to train next.

They are always wondering…

  • “Will I be motivated to workout when I get home from work?”
  • “Will I have enough free time to exercise today?”
  • “Will I have enough willpower to wake up early and run?”

In other words, most people train when they feel motivated or inspired.

Here’s a better idea: stop treating exercise as something to do when it’s convenient and start setting a schedule for yourself to follow. This is what makes the difference between professionals and amateurs.

For example, I train every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6pm. I don’t have to think about when I’m going to train. I don’t sit around and wonder which days I’ll feel motivated to lift. I don’t hope that I’ll have some extra time to workout today. Instead, I put it on the schedule and then organize my life and responsibilities around it (just like you would organize your day around your class or your meeting or your kid’s baseball game).

Setting a schedule for your training becomes even more important when life gets crazy. There will always be occasional emergencies that prevent you from working out. It’s part of life. The problem is that most people miss one workout and before they know it, they haven’t been to the gym in 4 weeks.

But when you have a schedule for your training, you have a way of pulling yourself back on track as quickly as possible.

Top performers make mistakes just like everyone else. The difference is that they get back on track quicker than most. Miss your workout on Friday because you were traveling for work? Guess what? Your next training session is already scheduled for Monday at 6pm. I’ll see you there.

Let your schedule govern your actions, not your level of motivation.

3. Focus on the best exercises.

Great results come from great focus, not great variety.

Too many people waste time in the gym because they bounce around without any real goal, doing a little bit of this machine and a little bit of that machine. Thankfully, there is a simple rule that will always guide you toward the best exercises: the more an exercise makes you move, the bigger the benefits it will deliver.

This is why the clean and jerk and the snatch are the kingpins of weightlifting. They are the exercises that force your body to move the most (and the quickest). As a result, the people who do these exercises see incredible results.

Here’s a short list of the best exercises. In my opinion, at least one of the first five exercises should be included in every workout.

  1. Squat
  2. Deadlift
  3. Bench Press
  4. Clean and Jerk
  5. Snatch
  6. Sprints
  7. Overhead Press
  8. Good Mornings
  9. Pullups
  10. Pushups

4. Start light and train for volume before intensity.

Ask most people if they had a good workout and they’ll say things like, “Oh yeah, it was so intense.” Or, “I’m going to be so sore tomorrow.” Or, “I finished my workout by doing a set to failure.”

It’s great to push yourself, but the biggest mistake that most people make is not building a foundation of strength. Everyone wants to jump in and max out with a weight that is “hard.” That’s exactly the wrong way to do it. Your workouts should be easy in the beginning. (See: How to Start Working Out.)

Training to failure is a good way to wear yourself down, not build yourself up. You should have reps left in you at the end of your workout (and at the end of each set). Take point #5 (below) to heart and your workouts will get hard enough, fast enough. Trust me.

The phrase that I like to keep in mind is “train for volume before intensity.” In other words, I want to build the capacity to do the work before I start testing my limits.

Just to be clear: volume doesn’t have to mean “do sets of 20 reps.” (I rarely do more than 10 reps in a single set.) Instead, I like to think of volume over a period of weeks and months.

For example, right now I’m doing a 5×5 squat program (5 sets of 5 squats). I started light. The first week, I lifted with a weight that was very easy for me. Then, I slowly added 5 pounds each week. For weeks, it was still easy. Eventually, when I built up to a weight that was heavy, I had the capacity to handle it because I had already done dozens (if not hundreds) of sets over the previous weeks and months. Focusing on volume now allows you to handle the intensity later on.

5. Make SLOW progress each week.

Most people walk into the gym every week, do the same exercises with the same amount of weight, and wonder why they aren’t getting stronger. You’ll see people step onto the same treadmill, run two miles like they always do, and wonder why they aren’t losing weight.

Here’s a little story that explains the problem and the solution…

Imagine that you are in a quiet room and someone turns on a loud and noisy fan. At first, it’s obvious and irritating. But if you are forced to stay in the room long enough, the fan starts to become part of the background noise. In other words, your body registers the sound at first, but eventually it realizes “Oh, this is the new normal for this environment.”

Your body adapts and the noise fades away. Something similar happens when you exercise.

When you start to train, it’s like turning on the fan. Something new is happening in the environment, and your body registers the change by getting stronger and leaner. But after a few workouts, your body realizes “this is the new normal.” Your body finds a way to adapt to this new environment, just like it did with the noisy fan. As a result, you stop getting stronger and stop losing weight.

What got you here won’t get you there. If you want to see different results, you have to do something different. If you want to see progress each week, then you have to progress each week.

This is actually very simple to do. Add 5 pounds each week. Add an extra set this week. Do the same exercise, but rest for 15 seconds less between sets. These are all ways of changing the stimulus and forcing your body to slowly and methodically get better.

6. Record your workouts.

What gets measured, gets managed. If you can’t even tell me how many sets and reps you did with a particular weight two weeks ago, how can you guarantee that you’re actually getting stronger?

Tracking your progress is simple: get a small notebook and write down your workouts. (I use a little black moleskin notebook that I bought at a bookstore.)

At the top of the page, write the date of your workout. Then, simply write down the exercise you are doing. When you finish a set, record it in your notebook while you’re waiting to do the next one.

Recording your training is especially important because it brings all of these points together.

You can look back and see how you’re making long-term progress (point #1). You can see on which dates you trained and how often you were on schedule (point #2). You can verify that you did the best exercises each workout (point #3). You can see how you are slowly building up volume and developing a foundation of strength (point #4). And you can prove that you’re making slow, methodical progress each week (point #5).

What You Should Do Now

Your could spend your entire life mastering these six points, but these are the basics that will make a real difference in your training.

Here are your action steps:

  • Set a schedule. When and where, exactly, are you going to train?
  • Get a notebook and pen to record your training.
  • Focus on the best exercises that make you move a lot.
  • Start with a weight that is very light and train for volume before intensity.
  • Slowly increase the weight each week.

Happy lifting.

34 Comments

  1. Setting a time & sticking to a schedule…is the take away I find I nsightful.t alsolooking more at lifestyle changes & all about setting long term goals…whatever one wants to accomplish. Setting a daily time. Is sound & simple good thinking ,,,instead of waiting for capricious motivation,

  2. Great post James,

    I find that a lot of people go to the gym just to go to the gym without any purpose.

    I have found that if I hold a rep in and not push myself to get the pump feeling, then I have better gains strength wise.

    Also, I started to use the app Fitocracy to record my workouts. It’s been pretty convenient.

  3. Great post, but I’d add a few points. Consistency is a requirement for sure, but if you learn the skills that make training easier (not just following some arbitrary ‘program’) you will make training a lot easier on yourself. Passion follows developing good skills and passion makes things easier.

    Second, the clean and jerk, as well as the Snatch are fairly advanced exercises. While effective, is not ideal for I would say the majority of people (and I feel I can say this having trained people nearly every day for the last 8 years). Pressing overhead can be an issue for a lot of people too (there are 4 different types of shoulders, 3 of them can create difficulty here, and generally speaking people do better pressing overhead with dumbbells than they do with barbells which allow the shoulder joint to move more freely). I teach these lifts only to people who can clear them from a flexibility and mobility stand-point. If you can’t get your arms straight overhead, needless to say you should work on that before you add these lifts to your routine.

    Third, ‘Volume’ in training lingo actually means the total poundage lifted over the session. i.e. if you do 5×5 of Bench with 100 lbs, then the actual volume is 2500, which is almost the same as volume of 3×8 with 100 lbs (2400). If you do 3×15 with 50 lbs, even though the number of repetitions significantly increases, the volume is actually a little bit less. I think a better way to word this is, ‘start controlled.’ I like to teach people how to train to ‘technical’ failure as opposed to ‘absolute’ failure, meaning when your form breaks down even the slightest, you’re done. Lifting should never feel out of control.

    And lastly, recording is good, but to simplify this process I think the best thing to do is to just track personal bests or personal records (PB’s or PR’s for short) and keep a qualitative journal (write a sentence or two about how training felt that day with the poundages you used). This way you focus on what actually matters, as you said, the process, and you can simplify how much recording (and thus distraction) you actually have to do down to only a few numbers that actually matter.

    Great blog by the way, I discovered it on Quora of all places.

    • Darren — thanks for reading. And good points. Especially the note about training to technical failure rather than absolute failure. I like that approach.

      Keep rocking!

  4. Hi James

    Thanks for the latest email.

    I find myself practicing much of what you suggest. I am not a weight fiend as such. But I have regular palates and Yoga at the gym which is seven miles a way and I cycle to the classes.

    Having the classes booked means I always go. I always try and improve my cycle time (not that other road users necessarily appreciate that!) and the very necessary change comes from the variation in instruction that my professional instructors privide.

    Having said that whist I have lost almost 20Kg in the last year I have arrived at a point where I struggle to shed any more despite getting more flexible and faster on the bike. As you say the body has adapted. I think this concept of the body adapting is not at all well known and you should make more of it in future posts.

    In order to overcome it I have added in a couple of extra classes and thus another 28 miles a week, which I am struggling to keep up with as I am really tired but gradually getting the new routine set in stone.

    Much appreciate your posts. Keep them coming.

    Regards,
    Andy

  5. James –

    I think you are absolutely one of the bright rising stars of the blogging, fitness and wellness world. Love this post. But as I reposted I realized that the title was seriously misleading and sold the real value of the content short.

    Had to at least say something right?!

    Thanks

  6. Really good post :-) For the schedule tip, I’d like to add something: whenever you miss a workout, try to catch it up, so that you still spend the same time (or energy? ^^) in the gym than every week. For example, I have usual classes during the week-end (actually, on Friday, Saturday AND Sunday night), which leads me to skip when I’m invited somewhere. To avoid missing either the class or the invitation, I have decided on a favourite day to catch up the class, Tuesday. This way, if I miss any of these 3 lessons, it’s not skipped, it is just moved to a nearby day :-) Don’t abuse of that, of course, if you’re missing too much, you won’t be able to catch up.

    Otherwise, I especially like the point n°5, I think that’s something one can easily forget! Associated with point n°6, so that you really what you’re up to. I’m thinking about adding a small conditioning training after each of my kungfu class, do you know some efficient exercises I can make without tools? I only know about push-ups and sit-ups, it’s a bit light ^^

  7. What has worked better for me is keeping track of my workouts using one of the many android apps available. My current favourite app is ‘Noom’

  8. Love your post very helpful. I am a follower of jotting down my exercise routines. I follow incremental loading e.g. increase the weights or the reps in the subsequent workouts. Doesn’t matter how small it is. I agree consistency is the key. Lots of hype in the internet regarding motivation etc. but the truth is regular workout is the secret. Good job keep it up.

  9. I ‘m happy to hear that your a weightlifter too. I’ve been working out all my life. For 25 years martial arts and boxing with 2 days a week weights. Now I reached the age 65 and all the injures slowed me down, but I still go to the gym 3 days a week religiously. I only missed one year of workouts in 52 years not bad? Workouts is a lifestyle and your body makes you feel bad if you don’t keep it up. My workouts are only 1hour & 15 minutes,including stretching which I find very important after lifting. Each time I go I’ll do a different body part,like biceps then the next time triceps,etc… It’s amazing how your body gets use to a routine. So I play games with my body and fool it by changing my exercises. Every couple of months I will change my routine to 2 sets only with heavy lifting to shock my muscles, but only for 2 months. I don’t want to get hurt. You wrote a great article and I’m happy that that your a sportsman and not just a bookworm. I know, it’s important to exercise the mind to, with all we have to learn and question. Have a great workout!

  10. I totally agree with the ideas of never miss a workout, making it as part of your schedule as showing up for work, and thinking about it for the long term. If weight lifting and gyms in general isn’t your thing (and it’s not for everyone) I have a suggestion. Try to find a sport you like (or didn’t know you like). For me I found mountain biking in my mid thirties. The real-deal, dicey, scary, in-the-woods stuff. It’s hard work even a decade later and just life threatening enough to keep my on the bike 6-10 hours a week with a smile on my face. It’s mega cardio and big time work for the quads and hams but it’s so much fun, it doesn’t seem like it. And in the winter I spin – so I’ll be ready to roll by spring.

    Maybe it’s road biking, or a number of other sports. But if you’re tired of the gym, getting addicted to a sport will keep you fit and young.

  11. I love your approach as always, James.

    I have made HUGE strides in my schedule/routine by doing EVERYTHING at home – I grabbed one 55lbs kettlebell and use it to do a fast paced routine of one arm clean + jerks, swings, goblin squats, pullups, and handstand pushups.

    I end up not getting as much variability in as I would perhaps at a gym, but I ALWAYS do it because it’s so simple: I don’t even have to get myself to a gym.

    Thanks again for your tips, James! Anybody else have specifics techniques or tricks they use in this respect?

    • Hey Marshall!
      I agree that doing your workouts at home can help with the timing, but that doesn’t work with everyone :-) Personally, I love going to the gym, partly because I like to see the people there, and partly because it force me to have a precise schedule (my thing is kungfu classes, so the hour is fixed). I’m pretty sure if I was trying to train at home I will lose track of time and skip more than once… So sometimes, the gym is better ;-)

  12. As usual,your article is on target and insightful. I fully agree any weight loss and exercise program is for the long haul. “Baby” steps and small changes over time for a complete lifestyle change. Thanks for another great article. Tommy

  13. James – Great simple advice that works! I began writing down my workouts and runs at the beginning of the year, I found seeing the accumulation of kilometres over each week amazing. I have run nearly 700k already!! I have scheduled X-training three times a week,and apart from when I was overseas for a month I have never missed a session. I should correct that; last week I had emergency surgery and will probably be recouping for a few weeks (they say 4!!) I will see the Dr and my trainer next week to work out when and the best way to re-start :)
    Thanks for the great words.
    Sharon

  14. Hi, James

    I really enjoy reading you blog, and thanks for keep sharing. I have a question about ““implementation intentions.”, I do believe it’s more likely to do “things” after you write down. So no doubt for writing down on a piece of paper, BUT what a digital note, I use Evernote. Do you think the “implementation intentions.” still works?

    Thanks.

    Ernest

  15. Thanks for this amazing post, James! It’s just the encouragement I needed to get back into running after a year off.
    On a different note, thank you so much for all of your incredibly helpful and interesting articles. I so look forward to reading your newsletters, and regularly share and talk about your posts with others. What you are doing with your work is quite special and most appreciated! Keep up the really good work! I can’t wait to buy your upcoming book… :)

  16. Great tips. I was a former lifter in the 181 and 198 lb. classes , way back when there were three lifts,including the military/Olympic press. However, but at age 77, with both shoulders reconstructed, and with arthritis in my neck and lumbar region, I can no longer handle free weights.

    I still bicycle 150-200 miles a week, and would like to start back with weights. I would like to know if you have a recommended list of exercises and machines for us old dudes.

    I’ve never used machines, but I imagine they would be more stable, and put less strain on my joints than free weights.

    Thanks.

  17. Thanks for another inspiring post James! I originally found your site with a link to the “habits of 12 famous writers” post, and then the goodness just kept going. You distilled or echoed a number of great truths about exercise and life here, and one of my favorites was “What gets measured, gets managed.” (For me, with running, it’s a simple Google calendar where I note my daily minutes for a run and what type it was, then total at the end of each week.)

    However, I’d even supplement that maxim by saying that “What gets measured, gets prioritized.” Both seeing my progress, and wanting to avoid blank spots on the calendar, helps keep me motivated.

  18. ” stop acting like living a healthy life is a big deal”

    Love it!!

    I have been battleing an illness for over 15 years
    and find it very hard to be motivated when my body will not do what
    My mind wants to do! All this talk about fitness and health is wonderful
    If you have health! No one talks about the people who can’t just stand up
    and take it for granted that they can do any exercise they want when they want.
    If I have a good day I can do most things… But this leads to a few very painful days
    As my body shuts down again … Like someone has used a syringe and sucked every drop of energy
    out of me…. So I rest again for a few days… Get strength back… Start all over again…
    So having a healthy life is a big deal to me! I have to pace myself to have any type of energy,
    this is a hard thing to learn when in my mind I want to do so much more. Thank you for you wonderful messages of hope.
    I really enjoy reading everything you write. Can you please write more
    For people with immune deficiencies like me and what you suggest to get more energy. Thank you have a great day.

    • Jacqui, I’m about to graduate with a bachelor of science in exercise physiology (I’m currently completing my internship at an assisted living facility where I help people in their 80s and 90s exercise) and I have fibromyalgia. I understand where you are coming from. The American College of Sports Medicine has created a framework they refer to as FITT; it stands for Frequency, Intensity, Type, and Time. These four variables can be manipulated to create a workout specific to an individual and to provide the progressive overload needed to keep seeing gains. Frequency refers to how often you work out. For people in cardiac rehab, this can be as often as 6x a day, for a few minutes at time. Intensity refers to how strenuous your workout is. For most people, it should be moderate. Type is what kind of activity. Not everyone can run or lift weights, some people do much better swimming or doing yoga or tai chi or using a recumbent bike. Time is how long you do it for. If you tire easily, start small, with an exercise that is easy on your body and in a safe environment for you (since you said you have an immune deficiency). Try to work up to 30 minutes a day, even if you can only do a few minutes at a time (this is called the additive effect). Most importantly, even though it is sometimes hard, focus on what you CAN do, instead of the things your body won’t do. It is important to love ourselves;it is much easier to take care of things we love than things we don’t like.

  19. One thing I always tell people is that losing weight or wanting to be healthy should be looked at more as a lifestyle change. People typically find themselves in the physical condition their in because of the choices they’ve made in their lives, so in order for them to see those positive changes they desire, they must be willing to make the appropriate changes in their lives. These changes are permanent.

  20. Hi James,

    I like your honest, straight-forward advice. I would like to ask if perhaps you could comment on what a weeks training program for you is?

    I know I would be very interested (and I would suggest a lot of people feel the same). There is a lot of questionable programs and blogs out there, and I think everyone would really enjoy reading a practical example of the workout program you conduct.

    I understand that everyone is at different stages of health etc, but I am really curious!

  21. It;s very good. However, I do exercise everyday and I do have my chart to follow every day. So I do keep track of my workouts and as you had mentioned it clearly shows which I was doing badly…

    Thanks a lot for this motivation.

  22. Keeping healthy is the best thing you can do for yourself. Starting to execise for some people can be a bit confusing. So I’m grateful that I was able to get to know about this 6 truths that some people don’t want believe.

    The time is 5:00 a.m and I start now with my exercising! Iyooo! Nothing is going to stop me now, come whatever may but I’m not going to lose focus on my long term goal (my health).

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