In the Beginning

By Michael Krueger

Even if you have been exercising for a long time, you may still be a beginner. This can be a good thing or a not so good thing. A beginner can be someone who is indeed an untrained novice working for the first time toward his ultimate fitness goal. A beginner can also be someone who has been training for awhile but hasn’t learned or progressed enough to be in control of his workout destiny. Thinking of yourself as a beginner no matter how well trained you might be can make you open to what you might accomplish in every workout.

The True Beginner

If you haven’t worked out consistently in a well-designed program within recent memory, or if you have never really worked out, then you are a beginner. Often new clients will regale me with tales of their workouts of long ago. These stories are usually associated in some way with participation in high school or college sports or sometimes I think just a very active imagination. This attitude is often more of a hindrance than a help. I have to (gently) remind them that “that was then, this is now; check your ego and reconnect with reality.”

So as a true beginner, you come into exercise with a clean slate. What happens next is very important. How do you get started? Unfortunately, most new exercisers have a “friend” who is willing to help them. This person usually means well but, more often than not, doesn’t have a clue as to how to help a nonexerciser begin a program. If they are a body builder, that’s what they teach. If they are a power lifter, then that is what they teach. The goals of the trainee don’t really enter into it; they teach what they think they know.

Another possibility is the purchase of a DVD set off television or the Internet. I know people who have had some success with such DVDs but only because they were well aware the narrative claims are bogus. They knew what they are after, and they ignore the hyperbole and got the best these programs had to offer. Or you could get a book. It is possible to learn to run, lift, or become fit from a book, but it is tough to find one that either isn’t full of pseudo-science, celebrity hype, or written like a textbook and therefore unreadable without a degree in exercise science.

There are many different modes of exercise available, and picking one that suits you is a very important step on the road to your ultimate success. You must consider your personality, enthusiasm, current state of fitness, past injuries, experience, and ultimate goal. Everything considered, it is best to get competent, professional help.

Choosing Your Help

I’m obviously biased, but I would recommend hooking up with a professional trainer. A good trainer will help you on your way by creating for you a safe, solid, and challenging program, but one that won’t leave you puking and feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck. Too often beginners jump into a program that is ill designed for them, have a miserable time, get sick, get hurt, and quit. They blame themselves for the failure when it wasn’t really their fault. A good trainer will listen to your hopes, fears, history, dreams, and desires, then ease you into the program while making adjustments to suit your abilities and personality. While engaged in a good, progressive program, you will see quantifiable evidence that it is working.

Remember, feeling like you’ve been beaten up isn’t evidence of a good workout; it is evidence that you’ve overreached and abused your body. A workout should leave you tired, but exhilarated, and looking forward to the next workout.
It isn’t necessary or even desirable to work with a trainer every time you work out. Athletes and celebrities may benefit from daily supervised workouts, but for the average person it is overkill. Speaking from the trainer prospective, it can become tedious seeing someone four or five times per week, walking them through the workout, holding their hand every step of the way. These clients seldom accomplish much. They believe simply working with a trainer will ensure their success, rather than accepting that it is their own hard work that will make it happen.

I have found that if a beginner does eight weeks of twice-per-week workouts with a trainer and they work hard, ask questions, and give feedback, then they are on their way to being an independent exerciser. As an independent exerciser, working with a trainer once a week or every other week, depending on the client’s motivation, discipline, and goals, is usually enough to keep everything interesting, on track, and progressing.

By learning to do the majority of your workouts on your own, you learn to gauge your effort and your ability. You build confidence in yourself and in your program. You will learn that “Nobody can push you like you can push yourself” and you also learn when enough is enough. If you work consistently, progress in the basic lifts, and make progress toward your goals, then after two years you may shed the mantle of “beginner” and move into being an intermediate lifter.

The Eternal Beginner

Some lifters never progress beyond the beginner phase no matter how long they keep at it. They don’t make much progress because they lack discipline or confidence and are frequently “Chronic Routine Changers” or CHRs.

The CHRs are those who can’t stay with a program long enough to illicit a training effect. They believe that somewhere, someone has found the perfect workout. Whenever they see someone doing something different from what they are doing, they assume that it must be better. Any combination of exercises, reps, and sets must be superior to what they are doing. They are impatient and unsure of themselves. They often believe they are in some way genetically inferior when it comes to adding muscle and therefore a very special case.

They are usually voracious consumers of muscle magazines, trolls on Internet sites, watchers of infomercials, and fond of slightly odd and offbeat physical and nutritional practices. Frequently, they are drawn to protocols that are difficult to judge insofar as quantifiable progress goes. They desperately want to believe that the success they see others attain must be the product of something other than consistent hard work on tried-and-true exercises. They just know that the perfect program is out there, somewhere.

The Beginner’s Mind

Finally, we come to the ultimate mindset for successful training, “The Beginner’s Mind.” This can occur anywhere along the training continuum but most often happens after many years of training. You’ve weathered some missteps but gained much wisdom about yourself in the process. You have accepted that the success you’ve enjoyed is commensurate with the effort you have invested and you are okay with that. The beginner’s mind means that you are always open to learning, but these lessons come from within, not from television, Internet salespeople, or muscle magazines.

You should begin every workout grateful that you are able to run, swim, lift weights, or whatever else you do. You understand that a great many people are unable or unwilling to put forth the effort or summon the discipline required to progress, much less succeed, along the path to fitness. You have learned to listen to your body and heed the warnings of pain as well as feed the desire and enthusiasm required for progress.

Sometimes your body will tell you to stop or to avoid a particular exercise. You know to heed this warning despite what others might tell you. Then you figure out what the issue is and perhaps there is a variant or an alternative exercise that will give you the results you are after. Other times, your body will signal you that it is time to ramp up your activity or to make some changes. Still other times it’s your head that will bring issues to the fore. You may have developed an attitude that is holding you back, or your ego may be pushing you so hard that an injury is inevitable. Either way, it is going to affect your progress in an extremely negative way. Unfortunately the path to self-knowledge is not linear.

Understand why you are doing what you are doing. If it doesn’t make sense to you, find something that does. If it isn’t making you happy and taking you in the direction of your ultimate goal, change and do something that does.

Make Up You Own Mind

Everyone with whom you come in contact within the world of fitness is going to have an opinion on how you should be training. There are dozens of protocols: Some are very good, some are okay, some are just silly, and a few are downright harmful. Based on my understanding and experience, I could offer you my opinion as to which is which. Believe me, though, that someone else may have the exact opposite opinion. In the right situation, under the right conditions, and with proper application, many programs might more or less work for some people.

A final word: Beware of the dogmatic individuals, those who insist they have found “The One True Way”;  odds are, they haven’t.

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