Let’s be honest: most “tips and principles” articles suck.
With that in mind, I did my best to write a “tips and principles” article for you that doesn’t suck, and it ended up being long as hell. I’ve dubbed them Beautiful Badass tips and principles since that’s what strength training should be about — becoming the most badass version of yourself.
Strength training is one of the best activities you can do for your body. Are you reaping all possible benefits from your efforts? These 32 tips (useful suggestions) and principles (fundamental truths) will keep you on track to ensure you reach your goals while staying healthy.
1. Use the best exercises for your body. There is no one exercise everybody must perform because there is no one exercise suitable for every body. This means you must take into account your current mobility, injury history, or any limitations, and choose your exercises accordingly. Not everyone can deadlift a straight bar from the floor correctly or comfortably. Not everyone can press a barbell without shoulder or elbow discomfort. If your form is correct and an exercise causes pain or discomfort, switch it out for an alternative you can perform.
2. When in doubt: Quality > Quantity. Get the most out of every set of every exercise you perform; commit to making every rep count. Don’t rush through a set just to get it over with. Use less weight for a while and refine your technique, if necessary. Learn how to accomplish more with less. The first rep of a set demands as much effort and focus as the last. If you’re time in the gym is limited, quality is even more important. Make it count.
3. Coat yourself in a thick layer of bullshit repellant. In health and fitness there’s a massive surplus of bullshit. Supplement companies are getting sued, pyramid schemes are being exposed, and there’s no shortage of other insane diets and programs touted by professional marketers. If something sounds bat-shit crazy (e.g., putting almost 500 calories of butter and MCT oil in your coffee with promises of special fat loss and performance enhancements) then it’s probably bullshit. Stay away from fads, gimmicks, and likely anything that promises to be revolutionary, the ultimate “hack,” or some other fancy term.
If something sounds crazy, there’s a strong chance it is. If something sounds too good to be true, it’s likely bullshit. Avoid it; all of it.
The basics of strength training and nutrition have been proven through research and real world experience. While new research shows methods that can be used to fine-tune a strength training program (e.g., longer rest periods between sets may be better for increasing muscle size; slowing down the eccentric phase leads to increases in muscle size), problems arise when people obsess over these minute details instead of mastering the basics first. New research can provide us with useful tools to tweak and enhance the basic principles that have already been proven to work.
Stated another way: don’t skip the importance of learning correct form on some big basic exercises and getting stronger. Those things must happen first before you change other variables like rest periods, manipulating lifting speed, and training frequency.
4. Focus on slow, steady improvements in performance. Improvement is mandatory, but it doesn’t need to be in huge jumps. Perhaps you performed 3×10 (3 sets, 10 reps – 30 total reps) last week with 95 pounds. This week perform 1×11 and 2×10; this way you perform one extra total rep (31), therefore improving your performance. It may not seem like much at first, but if you perform one extra rep each week (e.g., the following week perform 2×11 and 1×10; the week after perform 3×11) you’ll improve your performance by 3 reps after a month. (Refer to the Double Progression Method for additional information and programming.)
When you repeat a workout ask, How can I do a little better than last time? The improvement doesn’t always have to come in the form of adding weight or doing more reps; you can also improve your form/technique or decrease the rest periods a bit. Slow, consistent improvements add up to large changes over time. Don’t be in a hurry to add 20 pounds to a lift; focus on achieving the next 5 pounds first.
5. You can’t go wrong with a Big Three workout. By Big Three I mean a workout that includes three compound exercises: an upper body pull, upper body push, and lower body exercise (e.g., dumbbell bench press, dumbbell row, squat variation). This way you work your entire body and, as long as you work hard, it’ll be one of the most effective workouts you can perform.
Remember: as long as you use compound exercises and a challenging load, you’re going to have a terrific workout. You don’t need to do a lot of exercises; you need to do a few well, with purpose. (Check out the Ultimate Lift Like a Girl Template for sample workouts.)
6. When in doubt – get stronger. Too often women fall into the trap of working out exclusively for fat loss. There’s nothing wrong with that goal, but every woman should dedicate several months of training to the sole priority of getting stronger. Don’t worry about burning calories or slimming down your stomach; focus on improving your strength by adding weight to the bar (gradually, and consistently) and/or progressing to more challenging bodyweight exercises.
If you’ve never done this, give a try: for the next two months focus exclusively on getting stronger. The only thing that matters is doing a little better than last time.
7. One goal that never changes – become the best version of yourself. The phase “become the best version of yourself” gets tossed around so often people forget what it means. Being the best version of yourself includes a physical, mental, and emotional component. (For many it includes a spiritual element too.) Strength training helps immensely with this goal as it teaches many valuable lessons. Know what, and who, is important to you. Choose your values. Make sure your daily actions line up with these things.
8. You can’t fake strength; you can’t conceal weakness. Physical strength is something everyone can benefit from, so everyone should do it to whatever capacity possible. Whether your preferred method is getting brutally strong with basic barbell lifts or you despise going to a gym and train at home exclusively with bodyweight exercises – you need to strength train.
9. Do your best on any given day. Some days you just feel like a hot damn mess; do what you can and call it a day (yes, somedays this may mean resting instead of working out). Some days you’ll feel invincible; take advantage and do your best, or push a little harder than usual. Every day is different, and you must adjust accordingly. And, yes, this means some days you won’t be able to improve your performance as instructed in number 4 above. That’s okay. It happens. Every workout is not going to be great. Speaking of bad workouts …
10. Embrace the suck. Like jobs and even life, some days just suck; but it’s a mandatory part of the journey. Every day can’t be awesome, and neither can every workout. So next time you have a terrible workout, embrace the suck. Chock it up to what it is: one bad workout. Get over it, and move on. And you have my word – it won’t be the last bad workout you endure. This is why it’s important not to get emotionally invested in any single workout.
11. Focus exclusively on what you can do, not the things you can’t. Whether a limitation is temporary or permanent doesn’t matter. There will be some exercises you likely can’t do, either forever (due to injuries, mobility, lack of equipment, etc.) or for a period of time. You can always do something. That is what you focus on. I’ve seen too many people blame their lack of results on the things they can’t do; this is a victim mentality that only leads to failure. Always make the most of what you can do and refuse to allow excuses of what you can’t hold you back. (This is the powerful Shut Up and Do Something method.)
12. Stop overlooking the basics. If you don’t strength train a minimum of twice per week on average (I prefer three workouts) using primarily compound exercises and you don’t eat mostly real, minimally processed foods, don’t even think about looking for something to “enhance” or tweak your workout and eating habits. Strength training consistently with an emphasis on improving your performance and eating primarily real food is a solid foundation for health and fitness. You can’t build the walls of a house without having the foundation firmly set in place; health and fitness is no exception.
13. Fitness is not a tool for fixing flaws. You’re not damaged. You’re not in need of repair. Health and fitness is not punishment or atonement for your eating sins. If the only reason you work out is because you made poor food choices or to punish yourself for missing a workout, change that now. This is not a valid reason to move your body.
14. Finish barbell exercises strong. By “finish strong” I mean you should not grind out any reps or use sloppy form. Unless you’re competing in powerlifting I see no reason for the average trainee to attempt brutal singles. Stop a set knowing you dominated it; don’t attempt a weight you’re not confident you can handle. That last rep should be as strong as the first, but perhaps a bit slower. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t work hard, because you absolutely should; but train smart.
Training closer to failure is more appropriate with bodyweight, dumbbell, and cable machine exercises. If you want to feel great while getting stronger, train for strength with barbell lifts – not failure.
15. Consistency is still the most important factor for success. Those who reach their goals and appear to maintain them easily are masters of consistency. The only way you’ll look and feel noticeably different six months from now is if you are consistent with your efforts for the next six months. You can’t perform every scheduled workout this month and then only a few next month and expect to achieve great results.
If you’re missing workouts more often than not, you have a consistency problem. Find a way to fix it (e.g., perform shorter workouts).
16. Limited time is not a legitimate reason for not working out. Yes, yes, cue the eye-rolling. This isn’t that whole “What’s your excuse?” bullshit. When I first began personal training a few of my clients were business owners and had large families; time was not a luxury. These clients could only dedicate three 30-minute sessions per week with me. I promised them that as long as they did what I said and made simple, smart nutrition choices along the way, they’d achieve great results.
This was “only” 90 minutes of work in the gym every week, but everyone lost fat, built muscle, felt great, and transformed their bodies. If you’re truly strapped for time, that just means you need to work hard and smart with the time you do have available. Hell, you can always dedicate just one or two workouts to the gym and supplement with a bodyweight workout at home. Your schedule may not be ideal, but I guarantee you can make something work. But you have to do it.
17. When life gets chaotic, don’t drop taking care of yourself from your to-do list. This is a big reason many people fail to reach their health and fitness goals; when life gets messy the first thing that gets neglected is themselves. They stop working out and making smart food choices. Look – I get it. Sometimes life hands you a humongous shit sandwich. If someone you love is dying, I’m not suggesting you go work out and prepare a few healthy meals in advance.
Aside from truly catastrophic events, things in life will go wrong (but with less dire consequences). Problems will happen. Shit will get messy. And because these events are inevitable, you must start practicing right now to choose to take care of yourself in their midst. Your go-to response when unforeseen events occur can’t be to stop moving your body and making good food choices.
When events out of your control thrust unexpectedly into your life is when practicing things you can control become even more important. In the presence of real life problems and tribulations is when taking care of yourself becomes of utmost importance. Always make taking care of your body a priority. Perform shorter or less frequent workouts, if you must, but don’t quit completely. Buy prepared healthier meals if that makes your life easier. At the very least, do the bare minimum, but don’t neglect your well-being.
18. Get out of your comfort zone on occasion. Strength training is a phenomenal tool for not just building strength, but testing your grit and mental fortitude. Try a new exercise or present yourself with a unique workout challenge. See what your body is capable of doing and your mind enduring. (Yes, do this safely and intelligently; and only occasionally).
One of my favorite occasional challenges involves squats. I put a weight on the bar I know I could handle for at least 15 reps on any given day, and then I perform as many squats as I can possibly muster (with good form, of course). Toward the end my legs are shaking, my lungs feel scorched, and my mind is telling me this was a stupid idea and I’m a damn idiot for still having that bar on my back. But I’ll keep squatting until I’m confident I couldn’t do another rep with good form.
You can do other less brutal challenges like doing 50 push-ups in the fewest sets possible followed by 100 bodyweight squats in the shortest period of time. Or find a hill and sprint up it several times. These challenges are great to repeat every couple of months to see if you can beat your previous best.
19. Be your own guru. While you can certainly follow proven strength training programs, you still need to learn how to listen to your body. This is something that gets easier the longer you strength train, and it’s important. Take note of how certain exercises make you feel, how you feel when you lift heavy loads for low reps versus moderate loads for higher reps. Pay attention to how your body responds to various elements of training. What makes your joints feel great, or perhaps a bit beat up or achy. You can’t always allow an article or book to guide your training – sometimes you must listen to your body and respond accordingly.
For example, maybe you have a knee that doesn’t like too much unilateral work (e.g., split squats, lunges). Keep that in mind if you’re following a program that includes a lot of single leg exercises – do a few sets but swap out the rest for bilateral exercises (e.g., goblet squats, leg press) you can do without any issues. Or maybe you have an old shoulder injury that doesn’t allow you to press overhead without pain; stick with dumbbell lateral raises for your direct shoulder work and swap out the rest.
Commit to becoming your own guru and discover what works best for your body. (Within reason, of course. This isn’t a license or suggestion to do anything stupid, extreme, or be lazy.)
20. When the circumstances are right, take advantage. Maybe you have more time for yourself when the kids are in school – take advantage. Perhaps the next two months give you more time than usual, and you can plan to really kick ass for the next eight weeks and train a bit harder. There will be occasions when your schedule allows you to focus more time on your health and fitness; use this period to your advantage to kick things up a notch.
To gain an edge and make relatively quick strides in improvement, commit to a period of 4-8 weeks to prioritize your training, when your schedule allows (or makes things a bit more manageable). Perform every single workout. Make smart food choices and go the extra step to ensure you follow through (e.g., prepare meals in advance, only have good choices in the house, etc.). This isn’t a recommendation for doing a crash diet or something extreme, but rather a time of intense focus and effort on the few things you must do consistently.
Likewise, when time is a precious commodity and not a luxury, adjust accordingly. Respond by doing fewer, or shorter, workouts. See numbers 5 and 16 above.
21. Move often in ways you enjoy. There’s too great an emphasis on “structured exercise.” Just move your body; doing something is more important than a specific activity. It’s not about what’s “best” or ideal – it’s about finding something you can do frequently, and consistently.
Walk your dog every day; hike; ride a bike around town. Go to an indoor rock climbing gym or take some Yoga classes. If you’re the type of person that despises structured exercise like walking on a treadmill, do something else. Stop looking for ways to exercise and discover or create opportunities to have fun.
22. Put in the work. And then do more. Do you know how long it will take you to reach your body-transforming or strength-building goals? A few months? A couple years? The answer, my friend, doesn’t matter. There is no finish line. No final credits will play once you reach your goal, because you’ll never be done. Strength training and fitness is a lifelong journey with no final destination.
This shouldn’t piss you off or scare you; it should be comforting. It means you can achieve your goals – you just have to put in the work. And then do more work. (Note: don’t confuse “more work” with an ever increasing output on a weekly basis. “Work” as in doing the right things, consistently, and repeatedly. Meaning, do three purpose-driven workouts this week. And do three next week, and the following week.)
Just like you can’t clean your house once and never have to do it again (wouldn’t that be nice), so too must you move your body and keep it strong and healthy forever. We can have goals and stops along the way, but this journey doesn’t end until our bodies quit working.
Consistent, repeated work is mandatory. The sooner you accept and embrace that fact, the better.
23. Keep your elbows happy, and healthy. When it comes to single-joint isolation exercises for your biceps and triceps (e.g., dumbbell curls, triceps extensions, etc.) I prefer to keep the reps primarily in the 10-15 range. Very heavy curls or things like skull-crushers can be hard on your elbows, and I see no benefit from curling the heaviest weight possible for six or fewer reps. Put another way: the potential benefit does not outweigh the possible risks. Keep your elbows happy and stay at 10 reps or higher for your direct biceps and triceps work.
24. If you have achy joints or arthritis, use barbell lifts cautiously. Die-hard squatting and deadlifting fanatics will hate me for this one, but tough crap. For older trainees or people with beat-up joints or arthritis would benefit from using most dumbbells, cable machines, and bodyweight exercises with a suspension trainer; these tools are more joint-friendly than barbell exercises.
If this describes you and you want to continue squatting and deadlifting with a straight bar, keep the volume of those exercises low and get the rest of your work from the tools mentioned above. For example, perform two challenging sets of squats and then get the rest of your work from goblet squats, lunges, and back extensions.
Strength training should make you feel great. Train smart and keep yourself healthy.
25. There are things about your body you can’t change – own it. Even without the muscle mass I’ve added to my shoulders, they’re quite broad. It’s always been a challenge to find jackets and shirts that fit my shoulders without being too big everywhere else. But I can’t change my broad shoulders.
You can’t change your height, limb length, or other parts of your physiology. Don’t waste time and energy disliking these things – own them. They are yours. Find a way to either love them, or use them to your advantage in the gym. Or, at the very least, look at them neutrally and find something you do like about your body to focus on.
Life is too short to hate things about your body you can’t change. So don’t.
26. Fatigue and soreness are not markers of success. Muscle soreness reminds us that we worked out a day or two ago. As you struggle to bend over because your hamstrings are screaming you remember, “Oh my damn those deadlifts were tough!” Muscle soreness is a physical sensation that we equate with a productive workout.
While muscle soreness is normal, it’s not mandatory. Problems arise when people assume their workout wasn’t productive because they didn’t get sore. Don’t chase soreness or fatigue. Performance improvement is the element that matters most, and it won’t always make you sore. Train for gradual improvement – this is what will transform your body.
27. Be efficient. Unless you’re the type of person that loves spending 60+ minutes in the gym each workout, you better be efficient. Let’s say, for example, you want to improve the appearance of your triceps but don’t have much time to work out. You’d be better off including exercises like close grip push-ups, close grip bench presses, and parallel bar dips in your training program. Those exercises will smoke your triceps, in addition to your chest and anterior shoulders.
You don’t always have to do more – find ways to be more efficient.
28. Don’t do too much too soon. We’re an impatient species. Like, obnoxiously impatient. This is why quick-fix fads are so prominent; why in the hell would you follow a 12-week program to see noticeable results when this oh-so-enticing, ass-blasting fad promises drastic results in only two weeks? This is also why many do too much too quickly when they want to lose fat. “I want to lose fat, so I’m going to do 2 hours of cardio every damn day because … fast results, bitch.”
That’s not the best approach. Assuming you’re already strength training 2-3 days per week and, you know, making good food choices consistently, would be to gradually increase your physical activity. Don’t start doing intervals or extra cardio every day. Start doing something simple, like going for a 20-30 minute walk in the evening. Track your results over the next 4-6 weeks. If you’re losing fat steadily, keep going until it stalls. Then add something else; perhaps increase the length of the walks a bit, or add one interval training session into your weekly schedule.
The same applies with adjusting your caloric intake for fat loss or building muscle; don’t remove or add too much from the beginning. Give yourself room to adjust in the future.
29. Don’t become consumed with your goals. It’s easy to equate health and fitness with a never-ending battle to get leaner or improve certain parts of your body. Don’t constantly chase “improvement” in the form of fat loss or changing the appearance of your body. Health and fitness is about building a strong, healthy body you can maintain without having to starve or deprive yourself, or kill yourself in the gym on a weekly basis.
Have goals you enjoy working toward, but don’t obsess over reaching a certain body weight or body fat percentage for an extended period of time. If your motivation to work out for the past several months (or years) has been to achieve constantly lower body fat levels, it’s time for a change.
30. There’s nothing wrong with changing your goals. Why you strength train 10 years from now will likely be different than why you do so today. My goal almost 10 years ago was getting brutally strong with the powerlifts (bench press, deadlift, squat). All I cared about was adding weight to the bar and lifting heavy singles, doubles, and triples. Today, my main concern is feeling great and improving my strength in other ways, with different exercises.
And when I’m 76 my goals will surely be different than when I was in my 30s. (Like, you know, being able to chase down kids who think it’s funny to ring an old woman’s doorbell and then run away. But what those little shits won’t know is that the 76 year-old woman has been strength training for decades and has been fully prepared for such an event, and she’s gonna run their young, punk-asses down.)
Your goals can change as you get older, as your interests and priorities evolve.
31. Infinite motivation is a scam. Learn how to take action when motivation is absent, and definitely don’t wait for its arrival to propel you into action. Sometimes you have it, and when you do, take advantage. Sometimes you don’t, and you must act regardless. And don’t be surprised if motivation develops because you took action; oftentimes it precedes motivation.
32. Your ability to adapt will determine your success. Think back to when you started a new workout program or committed to finally getting fit. You were going to stick to the plan no matter what happened, right? Well, life happened and you got off track, or quit completely. If you want to be successful, you must become great at adapting.
- You’re stressed from work, trying to sell a house, running a kid around to various after school activities. Adapt.
- Your shoulder hurts so you can’t bench press. Adapt.
- You get handed a big project at work and your time is severely limited. Adapt.
- You have a relative move in with you and your schedule gets obliterated. Adapt.
- You’re going to have surgery in a month. Adapt.
- Your gym closed down. Adapt.
- You have to travel for an extended period of time and will only have access to a crappy hotel gym. Adapt.
- You end up at a fast food restaurant and want to make a good choice. Adapt.
Nothing is perfect. Nothing in life goes exactly as planned. Prepare to adapt to any given situation. Many circumstances are out of your control, but you decide how you’ll respond to them.
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