I’ve been transforming bodies since I was 18, which means I’ve been doing this more than 15 years. In that time, I’ve seemingly made every mistake possible. Following bad workouts, training too much and then too little. Crazy on metabolic conditioning, anti-cardio, anti-biceps curls…the list goes on and on. I seemingly did everything but create effective workout plans. There were times when my mistakes made me question if I was in the wrong industry. Until I realized that the obstacle is the way.
Once I started using my errors as a foundation for smarter program design, that’s when things started to change. Clients lost hundreds of pounds. Lives were transformed. And rules of fat loss and muscle gain become more reality than myth.
Instead of blindly applying proven principles, I learned to adapt concepts to individuals, learning that body types, past training history, lifestyle preferences, and injuries were all just as important as nutritional and exercise science. This is where results happen: when evidence-based practices meet individual needs and are combined with personality considerations, which help with consistency.
Add that to lessons and mentorship from the smartest coaches (Jason Ferruggia, Bill Hartman and Mike Robertson, Smitty, Cosgrove, Cressey, Verstegen, Rooney, and Ben Bruno, just to name a few) in the industry—and I was able to take my greatest strength (finding your weaknesses) and apply it in a way that could make anyone (yes, anyone) look the way they wanted.
While there’s no magic pill in fitness, applying these tips is the equivalent of digesting 15 years of training advice in 5 minutes. You ready?
Think First, Lift Second
It’s important to build plans that are fun, and this shouldn’t be overlooked. If your client loves biceps curls, you better believe you should include some variation of biceps curls. Creating a system of reward (even if by exercise) is part of the equation that allows for more focus and intensity.
But your client is not the expert. Do what they want, and ultimately you’re ignoring what they need.
While there might be those that are more physically talented, Michael Jordan’s mindset is a big reason why most people consider him the greatest athlete of all time. MJ would find his opponents weakness and exploit them relentlessly.
I take the same approach with all clients. Find your weaknesses. Suck up your pride. And train until you’re proud of a lift you used to hide.
If you think you can find your Achilles heel, start by comparing some basics:
- pulling strength to pushing (how much can you row vs. how much can you bench?)
- quad to hamstring (how much can you deadlift vs. how much can you squat?)
- upper body to lower body (how often do you train your upper body vs. lower body; not just days, but also reps and sets)
These are very simple questions, but they give you a starting point of what to look for. It’s also good to ask yourself why you avoid certain movements. Most of the time, it’s because you’re avoiding something you need to work on. If you’re not finding weaknesses, you’re probably not looking hard enough.
Appreciate 5 Pounds
When my clients first receive a workout they almost always ask the same question: It’s either:
- How much weight should I use?
- Is my strength at a good level?
My response is always the same: the weight you start with doesn’t matter. What does is making sure each training session builds on the last. I don’t care where you start or focus on arbitrary goals like “am I strong enough?” (Unless you’re preparing for a competition or make lifting a certain amount of weight your primary focus, in which case, the goal is to hit numbers). I care about progress. Become better each session, and over time you can almost guarantee you’ll see some amazing results.
“Progress” can look like many things. It might mean more reps, more sets, or shorter rest periods. These are all good goals. But if I’m being honest, far too many people always manipulate those variables and ignore a fundamental principle of resistance training: strength.
That’s why my first phase usually starts with one goal: non-max lifts with the focus of adding at least five pounds to each exercise on each workout. The five pounds doesn’t sound like much, but if accomplished, you’re looking at some serious strength gains in a very short period of time. Then you can start manipulating reps, sets, and rest, and that’s when transformation kicks into high gear.
Consistent Failure Causes Failure
If the five-pound rule sounds a little lofty, it’s probably because you’re used to using the same weights workout after workout. You know what that says to me? You’re training to failure too often. The goal of your workouts is not to beat the shit out of your body ever session. While most people use soreness as an indicator of a good (or bad) workout, it’s fools gold. Soreness isn’t a real indicator. Anyone can easily make you sore with a workout. But that doesn’t mean it’s what your body needs.
I prefer other metrics like how you feel, the type of activities you’re able to perform, how you look in the mirror, how much weight you’ve added to the bar, how you sleep, energy levels, how your clothes fit, body measurements, body fat, and many other indicators of progress.
It’s easy to leave a workout drenched or be pushed to the limit. Add enough reps and sets and even a workout of one exercise can crush your body.
But if you really want to look and feel great, then achieving progress with each workout and prioritizing recovery are goals #1 and #1A. Focus on how you feel, and the changes will follow. Put another way: every time you walk into the gym you want to be able to push yourself as hard as possible. Some days it will mean a PR (personal record), and other days it will mean finishing a workout when you normally would have taken a day off. If you’re exhausted and too sore to train with intensity, you’ll put in effort that isn’t the most efficient route to your goal.
Cardio Is Not the Enemy
Cardio is an important part of all my routines because—despite every popular meme—having a strong aerobic system is a very good thing, whether your focus is fat loss, muscle gain, improving health, or becoming a better athlete. When you lift weights your body fatigues faster. But if you have a strong aerobic system, you will stay fresh longer, meaning intensity stays higher, and you can train longer and harder.
Need a place to start? Add 1-2 cardio session that never last longer than 30 minutes, with your heart rate around 60 to 70 percent of your max. It doesn’t even have to be anything in a gym. You can jump rope, go for a hike, swim, or almost any type of lower-to-moderate intensity activity.
In the gym and not a fan of math? The goal is avoiding a “run-for-your-life” sprint mentality. Instead, crank up a treadmill to a steep incline, and walk or jog at a moderate pace. Sure, it might not be as fun as max set deadlifts, but it will make a difference.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.