Unspoken Gym Rules: You Joined a Gym!? Great! Now What?

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There are a lot of rules we have to follow. I’m all for following them, but sometimes it gets exhausting.

In elementary school (grades 1-5 here in the States), on top of learning our multiplication tables and how to write in cursive (maybe they don’t teach that anymore? I don’t know), we’re taught to raise our hands before speaking, refrain from eating paste, and to not run with scissors in our hands.

As we enter adolescence and into young adulthood, we’re taught to follow societal norms like respecting your elders, obeying speed limits, and to make sure that when our parents say 10PM is curfew that our rear ends are home at 9:59 PM.

And then as adults we’re expected to do things like pay our taxes, not kill people, and to wear pants out when we’re in public (<— which is bullshit).

To add more, all of this doesn’t take into account the stream of unspoken “rules” we’re supposed to follow. Much like it’s an unspoken rule to not bunt in the 8th inning when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, we’re equally encouraged in everyday life to avoid things like wearing white after Labor Day, that we have to invite our estranged Aunt Alice to our wedding even though we haven’t laid eyes on her since the Sega Genesis came out, and, well, I don’t care what anyone says: if a Junior Mint is dropped on the floor I’m still eating it.

5 second rule!!!

Taking this conversation to the health and fitness side of the fence, again, there are seemingly any number of “rules” people are supposed to follow.

Some have merit and can’t be disputed (you need progressive overload in order to get stronger); others are nothing more than hearsay and smoke and mirrors. I.e., gluten. Do we really need to be avoiding it? The minute few in the population who have Celiac Disease…absolutely! Or are you avoiding it because People Magazine told you to?

I’ve written in the past about my disdain for the words everybody, never, and always. I believe anyone – whether they’re a fitness professional or not – who uses those terms exclusively to defend their opinion on anything is an asshat. That’s about as eloquent as I’m going to get with defending that statement.

Just think about it:

– Does everybody need to avoid gluten? Riiiigggghhhhhtttt.

– Should we never deadlift? Please.

– Does it matter if someone always avoids spinal flexion? Seems a bit drastic, no?

I like to consider myself a middle-of-the-road kind of guy and more or less go out of my way not to be douchy with regards to being too controversial with my writing.

Mind you: I’m steadfast with much of the advice I give (I wouldn’t say if I didn’t believe in it):

– I believe most people should focus on compound movements. If more people squatted first in their workout, every workout1 they’d probably be pretty darn happy with how they look.

– I believe most people should stop overemphasizing steady state cardio as their main source of exercise; especially if their goal is fat loss.

– I believe the whole post-workout anabolic window conversation is overblown. Do yourself a favor and look up anything and everything written by Brad Schoenfeld on the topic. Total calories matters more than making sure you gulp down your protein shake within 17-seconds of finishing your last set.

– I believe cuing people to (0ver) arch and think “chest up” on their squats leads to more issues than it solves. Excessive extension (particularly in the t-spine) can result in increased spinal instability and lead to more compressive forces on the end plates and pars leading to an ouchie.

– I believe most people should deadlift2

– I believe people need to chill the eff out about eating Paleo.

– And, I still believe Tracy Anderson is about as intelligent as a ham sandwich.

Thinking more globally, however, when it comes to someone’s fitness and what “rules” they should follow I always operate under the mindset that there are no rules.

Maybe I should clarify: there are no rules when it comes to goal setting.

What works for one person, may not work for the next. Even though I like to lift heavy things and think it’s sexy as hell to deadlift a metric shit ton of weight, that doesn’t mean someone I’m working with wants to do that (nor will it help them reach their goal).

There is no rule that everyone has to train for 1RM strength.

There is no rule that everyone has to do yoga to improve their flexibility.

You get the idea.

But when you set a goal and you start to make a plan to attack that goal…..there are definitely rules to follow.

Side Rant: Not coincidentally it pisses me off to no end whenever I hear or see a trainer or coach insist that all their clients train the exact same way they do.

Some (not all) bodybuilders tend to train their clients like bodybuilders. Because, you know, it only makes sense that your female client who’s 30 lbs overweight work on her bicep peak!

Some (not all) powerlifters tend to train their clients like powerlifters. Okay, cool. Fred from Accounting can’t perform a walking lunge without collapsing like a game of Jenga, but having him squat with chains looks super cool. YOLO.

And don’t get me started about CrossFit.3

My lovely fiance, Lisa, wrote a blog post on this site last week extolling the virtues of motivation and what, intrinsically and/or extrinsically, motivates people to train.

The message: just get your ass to the gym. Anything is better than nothing, and it doesn’t matter what “motivates” you.

I agree. But to tie this long-winded post together into one, cohesive, “rules to follow” knot, for those just starting their fitness journey in 2015 do me a favor:

1. If you’re a dude and can’t perform at least 5-10 clean, chest to bar chin-ups…you have no business performing an “arms day” at the gym.

Girls = 1.

Your time could be better spent working on those compound movements mentioned above. Or juggling a bunch of chainsaws. You pick.

The reason why you don’t have “big arms” isn’t because you don’t perform enough arm work; it’s because you’re weak!

2. It’s been said that most people quit their resolutions within the first 2-3 weeks of resoluting them. This number may be even smaller for those who join a gym.

I think much of the reason(s) why most people fail to stick with their fitness resolutions in the long-term is because they’re too vague.

I’m sorry but saying nothing more than “I’m going to get fit” is like me staring my fiance straight in the eye and saying “I’m going to cook dinner tonight babe!”

[cue heel click]

We can offer ourselves all the inner congratulatory words we want, maybe even kiss a baby or two, but just because you bought a gym membership (and I made toast for dinner when Lisa was expecting something a little more non-bacheloresque) doesn’t mean much.

Listen, I’m not going to sit here and pamper you and say something like, “that’s so cute, you went to the gym twice last week! I’m so proud!!!”

Sure, it’s a step in the right direction and it should be commended, but I’m sorry snowflake, unless you’re more specific with your goals you’ll likely become one of those resolution dropper statistics. So do this….


Ladies, knock it off with being so obsessed with the scale. It’s a number. That’s it. I’d be more inclined to think that if you tackled that 1-rep chin-up goal (or emphasized strength in general: squatting “x” weight for “x” reps, performing “x” number of push-ups), and put your heart and soul into hitting that number (and then some), you’d be surprised as to how much your body will change.

Scale be damned.

The amount of effort, work, and dedication it will take to get to that landmark will trump ANY pink-dumbbell workout you could follow. Want “tank-top shoulders?” Do actual work!

I could keep going, but I’ll stop here. Read: I’ve been sitting here in Panera for a while now typing away and now I’m hungry.

The point of this post wasn’t to downplay or belittle people’s goals. Who am I to say what your goal(s) should be? Rather, it was just to shed some light on expectation management. You can’t expect to make much progress in the gym if 1) you major in the minors and 2) don’t hold yourself to a higher standard and set the bar higher with regards to your actual goals.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  1. this doesn’t imply you have to go heavy every workout mind you. If someone trains 3x per week, Monday could be a “heavy” squat day where the idea is to hit 2-4 sets of 3-6 reps; Wednesday could be a “light” or “technique” squat day where the idea is to focus on bar speed and accumulating QUALITY reps; and Friday could simply be a high(er) rep day with minimal axial/spinal loading (Goblet Squats).

  2. this doesn’t imply someone should walk in on Day #1 and perform a conventional deadlift. Learning to hip hinge IS deadlifting – and this can be accomplished with many “deadlift” iterations.

  3. you lack ample shoulder flexion and can’t lift your arms over your head? Shoulder’s been bothering you? Good thing today’s WOD includes kipping pull-ups!!!  Weeeeeeeeeeeeee.

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