Ever wished you could ask the best personal trainers in the country about the lessons they learned the hard way? Consider it done.
Bruce Kelly, MS, CSCS
Owner of Fitness Together in Media, PA:
Focus on the basics in terms of strength training: Can you squat, hip hinge, pull (think chin-ups and rows), push (think presses and pushups), and control and stabilize your trunk? Everyone wants the new “sexy” YouTube exercise and avoids mastering the basics. And that can take a lifetime and you still might not have mastery!
M.E.D. = Minimum Effective Dosage. It’s not quantity but quality that counts. No one gets a prize for time spent training but you are rewarded for how effective it is. This is true whether it’s strength training, mobility work, power training, or conditioning work.
All the training in the world won’t overcome a poor diet. Good eating is really quite simple: If it doesn’t have a mother or come from the earth, then don’t eat it. That distills good nutrition to its essence.
A San Diego-based personal trainer and owner of Axiom Health and Fitness:
There is no secret workout or formula. While there are obviously more effective ways to go about training for a particular goal than others, there is no hidden exercise that pros use to give them an advantage. They do the same exercises you do—they just do them better.
Real training is about connecting with your body, with your muscles; it’s about feeling every part of the movement you’re completing and concentrating on the target area with the intent of feeling every single muscle fiber contract during the movement and creating a stronger mind-muscle connection with each rep. Mastering this element of training will propel your progress more than anything else.
Exercise physiologist and registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition and Fitness Professional, LLC in Austin, TX:
There are multiple parameters of fitness. Focusing on strength and/or muscle gain all the time can lead to weight gain that sabotages your cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and agility. Maintaining a healthy weight, even if you are all muscle, is still important for cardiovascular efficiency, flexibility, and agility. I know that when I’m 190 pounds and can squat and bench really heavy, I have trouble running under a 9-minute mile, whereas at 175, I can run a sub-8 minute mile with ease.
I can work out with a lot less volume than I used to and maintain a great physique by lifting heavy and eating right. If I eat too little when trying to cut or lose weight and am exercising intensely, my sleep suffers.
A personal trainer and health coach in Dallas, TX:
There’s a reason there are so many different training protocols and that reason comes down to age. I started working out at 13, started training people at 16, and am now very, very close to hitting that magical age of 40 at which point my body is supposed to implode, or something to that effect.
However, I am as strong and as energetic as I ever was in my teens and twenties and early thirties and, if anything, my body looks and feels better than at any point in my life up to this point. The “secret” comes down to following the basics of eating to perform and live well and training smart so your long term goals are enhanced by your short term goals (i.e., don’t do anything too stupid to impress the hot girl that just walked by). The most important thing is to know your long-term goals for health and life and how you are built (for endurance or power or flexibility or all three, if you’re a lucky genetic freak) and train with these things in mind 80 percent of the time, with the other 20 percent used for all other types of training.
Personal trainer and strength coach in Encinitas, CA:
One of the things I’ve learned is the importance of sleep. As I get older, I value a good night’s sleep, especially on the nights after a hard weightlifting workout or sprinting. Our body produces growth hormone and testosterone when we sleep, and men will produce less testosterone over the age of 35. Strength training workouts can boost T production and when combined with a good sleep of 7 hours or more it can help elevate T even more.
Another is taking the opportunity to learn new things. Learning stimulates the brain to develop new neural connections, so learning new hobbies or picking up new sports is an important part of enhancing cognitive function. Over the past few months, I’ve learned how to record and edit podcasts and have started building Lego models (theoretically with my daughters) in an effort to challenge myself to learn something new.
Kendra Coppey Fitzgerald
Founder of Barefoot Tiger in-home personal training in NYC and LA
I wish I had known…
…that I didn’t have to kill myself every single workout to be in shape. I could have saved myself from a lot of down-time dealing with injuries if I listened to my body more.
…that I didn’t have to lift really heavy weights to be strong, and that done correctly and deliberately, bodyweight exercises can be hard as hell.
…that it’s OK not to be crazy sore after a workout, and it’s ok to take time off from working out. I wasn’t going to lose all of my hard work if I took 1-2 days off every once in awhile, and more than likely, I would have seen better gains because my body could rest and properly recover.
…that “if it doesn’t mold, don’t eat it.” I thought I was a healthy eater way back when, but if I really looked at what I was eating, the amount of processed and nutrient-less food in my “healthy” diet was astonishing.
…to listen to the aches and pains, even when they feel minor. Minor aches can quickly turn into major pains.
…how important it is to strengthen the rotator cuff, deep core, and hip muscles before getting into the bigger, gross movements. With the little muscles, a little effort goes a long way.
..that trainers need coaches, too. I wish I’d worked with a trainer or a coach sooner than I did. The outside perspective of someone looking at my form and alignment and critiquing my movements would have saved me a lot of shooting in the dark and injuries early on.
Personal trainer and founder of CakeFit in NYC:
The biggest lesson that I teach clients and that I’ve had to learn myself was the importance of mindful movements. If I can’t be mentally inside my body, there is no way I can engage the right muscles or minimize my risk of injuries.
If something doesn’t feel right, don’t just accept it as a fact of your life. A perfectly functioning fit body will not live in chronic pain, or feel chronically weak in the same places. There’s no such thing as, “Oh, I’ve always been prone to this so I just have to deal with it,” because that’s just accepting dysfunction. Just like life in general, your fitness life is a never-ending journey that requires constant tweaking, adjusting, improvements, and searching for answers.
Personal Training Coordinator at Charlotte Athletic Club:
There will come a time for many of us where you have to step it up. You will have to drink less, say no to late night pizza, you will need to make a real breakfast, and you will need to fit in a 30-minute run in SOMEWHERE. At some point your body will tell you that what has worked within your routine for the last however long will no longer work and you will need to switch it up.
Matt Tanneberg, DC, CSCS
Of Arcadia Health and Wellness Chiropractic in Phoenix, AZ
I used to go to the gym and isolate every muscle with different machines, taking breaks between every exercise. My workouts would last an hour and a half to two hours each day. Now, I do circuits with multiple muscle groups being worked out per exercise. Performing full body circuits is a great way to get your workout done in a reasonable amount of time. Also, it increases your cardiovascular output at the same time that you are building muscle. You can do a full workout in circuits with only your body weight that can be better than using machines. When you use your body weight, you are forced to control your own weight in different planes of motion. This will not only help to develop muscle, but also improve your overall fitness and coordination.
Brian Durbin, CSCS
Founder of 212° Fitness:
I wish someone had told me about the value of the eccentric motion—or the controlled return to the “start” position of an exercise. Without taking the time to learn proper mechanics during resistance training, especially during eccentric loading, you can predispose yourself to both injury and lessen your overall results. When eccentric muscle training is done correctly, it can substantially improve muscle strength, size, and recoverability. My advice to all of those people out there still rapidly flinging weights around their weight room for months and years on end, take some time to periodize a few weeks of eccentric training into your program at least a few times per year. Slowing down and focusing on the eccentrics will result in a tremendous benefit to your muscles.
NYC-based TV journalist, author, and fitness expert:
When I was younger, I would and could work out for days in a row with no regard for rest. I’d always push a little too hard, and as a result, I’d tweak/sprain/turn/pull something and continue to train regardless. Had I just listened to my body a bit more, taken a rest day when my body ached for one, I’d have probably stayed healthier (and happier).
Today I’m as focused on recovery as I am on training. I make stretching, warming up, yoga, massages, and rest days as big a part of my regimen as my intense training. And at 42, I’m in the best, and strongest, shape of my life.
Don’t underestimate how much a recovery day can and will do for your muscles, and your mind. You come back stronger, faster and more focused than struggling through a workout with a sore and tired body.
What I wish I had known years ago is that consistency is king. I tell my clients, “I don’t care if you go to the gym today, and I don’t really care if you go to the gym tomorrow. I care that you’re in the gym 20 years from now.” Even if you just resolve to work out just two days a week, if you can do that for the rest of your life, you’re crushing it. Knowing this long ago would have saved me and my clients a lot of time beating ourselves up physically and emotionally.
Founder & President, Walnut Health in NYC
Fitness life lesson: The idea of “sweating it out” is a myth; you can’t go out drinking and expect just to compensate for it by hitting Barry’s Boot Camp in the morning. The gym isn’t church; “atoning for your sins” won’t reverse the damage caused by alcohol and sleep deprivation on hormones, metabolism and muscle growth.
In my early twenties, I lived by the old adage of “work hard, play hard,” thinking that as long as I exercised regularly, I could stave off the effects of a toxic lifestyle. What I finally realized was that I was spinning my gears; never progressing, and actually losing muscle over time. Once I got my other habits in sync with my workouts, I saw an amazing difference in recovery and development. Now in my thirties, I’m the strongest and fittest I’ve ever been! And because I feel healthy and naturally great, I don’t even miss the partying.
Personal trainer and owner of Balance Guy Training in Dallas:
Treat every single repetition like it’s your 1RM. More often than not, gym goers (including myself in the early days) go through the motions during their warm up or sub-maximal strength work. Sloppy form can lead to bad habits and bad habits can lead to a visits to the physical therapist. Trust me, I’ve been there. To prevent this, lock in your form and set up for every lift, no matter what the exercise. Yes, even biceps curls.
Some days you walk into the gym feeling like dog crap and you crush your session. Other days you’re high as a kite and you cannot press a pink dumbbell above your head. Not every training session is perfect. On those days that are less than perfect, reduce the intensity, focus on technique, and live to fight another day. Your body will thank you in the long run.
Fit exercise to your schedule (not the other way around). A routine that requires you to be in the gym five days a week for 90 minutes but you can only spare three days a week for a 45 minutes is setting yourself up for failure. This often leads to heartache and a trip to the fridge to find the ice cream. Yum… ice cream. Instead, avoid disappointment and fit exercise into your schedule. Works out much better this way.
I used to take exercise way too seriously. I’d grunt, make faces, slam the weights on the floor and be really pissed when I missed a lift. Yes, I used to be one of those gym jerk guys. Many years and lots of injuries later, I’ve mellowed
Jessica Matthews, MS
Assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College, senior advisor for health and fitness education for the American Council on Exercise and yoga teacher based in San Diego:
One of the things that I’ve learned from experience is just how important flexibility training truly is. Early in my career, I noticed that the high-impact nature of the many exercise classes I was teaching were taking a toll on my joints, and that the way in which I was strength training coupled with the long hours I spent seated as a student had produced chronic tightness in key areas of my body.
It wasn’t until I took my first yoga class that I was truly made aware of my extreme lack of joint mobility and also stability. Through consistent stability and mobility work as part of my yoga practice and with flexibility and balance as added components to my personal workouts I began to move with greater ease, not just in the gym, but also in everyday life (which, yes, includes being able to lift heavier weights).
Eric M. Emig, MS
Owner of Evolution Fitness in St Louis:
Most of us learn how to strength train by tagging along with a friend or family member to the gym. But often, we don’t learn how to properly set up our bodies to get the maximum benefit from the exercise. We pick up bad habits that could result in tendonitis, fractures, muscle tears or worse. We’ve all seen people at the gym overload a barbell with lots of weight for a bench press and then the range of motion is limited to just a few inches, grabbing heavy dumbbells and rocking back and forth from attempting to do a standing bicep curl, or squatting and not going deep enough or having their knees veer forward over their feet.
Learning proper form is like hitting the bull’s eye with each and every rep. You maximize and speed up your results, you avoid injuring your muscles and joints from repetitive improper posture or limited range of motion.
Tiffany Chag, MS, CSCS
A fitness coach in NYC:
Muscle gains are made with weights, not with cardio. But find cardio you enjoy—battle ropes, hill sprints, boxing, ViPR, plyos—you don’t have to enter an Ironman or marathon to get lean. Flexibility doesn’t get enough love, either—stretch, boys! By improving how bendy you are, you improve your range of motion at a joint, which means you can recruit more muscle during an exercise—and get stronger.
A personal trainer based in San Francisco, CA:
I had been lifting heavy weights for years before I truly began to appreciate body weight movements. I used to look at exercises like burpees, tuck jumps, and box jumps and think they didn’t really have a place in my programming. I was lifting heavy, I was doing some HIIT sprints here and there, so what did I need bodyweight exercises for? Boy was I wrong. I decided to experiment with adding more bodyweight movements into my program and my strength and stamina skyrocketed. Not only that, but I started noticing muscles in places that I hadn’t had before. Bodyweight movements are also a fantastic way to get a great workout when you don’t have access to a gym—no excuses!
Don’t let the scale get in the way of your progress. I truly saw my dream body start to take shape when I committed to becoming less obsessed with the number on the scale, and more focused on how I looked, felt, and performed. What did this mean? It meant I gained some solid muscle, lost some fat, and got a hell of a lot leaner even though my scale weight went up a bit. Bottom line? Use other indicators of progress including measurements, clothing, and progress pictures. The scale has its place, but it’s not everything.
Personal trainer and founder of Remodel Fitness:
I wish I had known that working out is a skill and a process that shifts and improves forever if you let it. Even people who seem to know everything about lifting are still learning. It was very intimidating to me how some people seemed to know the right way to do everything, and it took me years to realize there is no right way—they had just found a good way for them! Some lifting form tips work best for some people and not others. Effective form (and effective programming!) will vary from person to person, goal to goal, and even change over a person’s lifetime as their muscle activation and strength and size changes. The best trainers in the industry recognize that even they don’t know everything, so you’re certainly not expected to. There will never be a moment when you know everything, which means you’re free to own wherever you are in your process.
Author of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger and founder of Muscle for Life:
High-rep “burnout” workouts are overrated. Back when I didn’t know what I was doing. After years of that, my chest had grown, of course, but it was slow going and I was flat-out weak—I couldn’t even rep 225 on the freeweight bench press after seven years of lifting. Yikes. What I didn’t know is that high-rep training with an emphasis on “feeling the burn” should never be the focus of a natural weightlifter. Instead, we should focus on lifting heavy weights (80%+ of one-rep max) for about 60 reps per major muscle group per week.
To put that in perspective, here’s what a chest workout of mine looks like now:
* Incline Barbell Bench Press: Warm-up sets and then 3 to 4 sets in 4 to 6 rep range
* Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 to 4 sets in 4 to 6 rep range
* Flat Barbell Bench Press: 3 to 4 sets in 4 to 6 rep range
Personal trainer and indoor rowing coach and owner of Anatomically Correct in NYC:
I wish I had discovered the great benefits of indoor rowing sooner. During all my years of bodybuilding and powerlifting, I had a habit of starting every workout by warming up on a little-used machine tucked away in the corner of the gym. All I knew then about indoor rowing was that it was a good all-round warmup exercise. Even today with the growing popularity of indoor rowing, the majority of gym goers still use the machine primarily as a warmup exercise.
About 10 years ago, I took an indoor rowing instructor course with a former elite on-water rower and I soon discovered that it offered way more fitness benefits than I realized. I also learned that indoor rowing is a sport and that Olympic rowers do much of their training on the same Concept2 “erg” found in most gyms today. The ergometer is a high-performance exercise machine that accurately measures the “work” you put into your workout. Indoor rowing has become my primary exercise and my sport and I don’t believe there is another workout that is as effective or as challenging.