I’ve learned a lot in my many years in the gym, and beginner-me would be shocked and appalled by the things present-me does during workouts. With the benefit of experience, I now do exercises I used to think one should “never” do, and I’ve broken pretty much every other rule besides.
We’ve covered a bunch of things you can stop worrying about as a beginner, but I’d like to expand on that list with a few more rules that even intermediate level exercisers can ditch without consequence.
If you can theoretically do 13 bicep curls with a certain weight, how many curls should you actually do? One common misconception is that if you don’t do all 13, you’re leaving gains on the table.
The rule kind of makes sense if you have truly no clue where to start; if you go until you can’t do a single rep more, then at least you know you’re not slacking off.
But the downside is that going to failure for every set of every lift is just going to make you exhausted. On bicep curls, maybe not so much, but once you’re squatting pretty heavy weights you’re going to feel pretty spent if you do every single set to failure, and that fatigue will get in the way of getting a good workout in consistently. What’s better is to follow a program that advises you on when to hold back and when it’s a good time to really push your limits. You’ll find that most of the time, you stop a set at least 2-3 reps shy of failure, and sometimes even more.
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Rest days are a convenient tool for making sure you’re not overworking yourself, but that’s all. Organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine recommend leaving 48 hours between intense strength-training sessions for a given muscle, but if you look at where they get that number, it’s meant to be a general recommendation for beginners and for people who are exercising just to stay healthy. Once you’re talking about athletes or enthusiasts, they acknowledge that training most days of the week is fine, if your program manages fatigue effectively (which often means heavier and lighter days, rather than complete rest).
The “10% rule” is a not-terrible guideline for figuring out how quickly to ramp up your training. But like many of these other myths, it’s a suggestion, not a commandment to be strictly obeyed.
As running coach Jason Fitzgerald told us, “While the adage is to only increase weekly mileage by 10%, this may be either too conservative or even too aggressive depending on where you start from.” When you’re coming back from a short layoff, you can probably increase mileage a lot faster. Same goes if you’re a beginner and your mileage is overall very low; if we took the rule seriously, you wouldn’t be able to increase from zero to any other number.
Meanwhile, serious running programs—once again, a program is a wonderful thing—may give you a bigger increase for a few weeks in a row, then cut back and decrease your mileage temporarily before ramping up again. Or they may keep you at the same mileage for weeks at a time before venturing a larger increase. If you were to stick to the 10% rule, you would miss out on the advantages of programs that work this way.
There are pros and cons to lifting before cardio, and to doing cardio before lifting. It’s more of an “it depends” than a rule. So here are some of the ways to decide which makes sense.
Lift before cardio if:
- Lifting is your top priority
- Your lifts tend to suffer when you’re fatigued, and doing them fresh is important to you
- You just prefer this order
Do cardio before lifting if:
- Cardio is your top priority and you want to have more energy for it
- Your lifts are the kind of thing that can get done even when you’re fatigued
- You just prefer this order
- Or you only intend to do a small amount of cardio before lifting
So a cyclist may prefer to do a strength workout after hopping off the bike, but a powerlifter would probably rather get their conditioning in after finishing squats for the day. Either is fine if you don’t care, or if you prefer to mix it up.
There are a few supplements that can help you in your fitness journey, but none of them are necessary.
Creatine is one of the best-known muscle-building supplements. It’s understood to be effective, but here’s the thing: Just because it does something for most people doesn’t mean it does very much. If you decide it’s too expensive or just that you would rather not have another thing to remember to take every day, you’re not missing out on any substantial amount of gains.
Likewise, protein powder is a helpful way to get more protein in your diet, but you don’t need to use a supplement; you can just eat more protein-containing foods.
And finally, preworkout drinks can give you more energy in the gym (it’s mostly caffeine) but the idea that you need it is a very recent development. Even ten years ago, it wasn’t really a thing. People showed up to the gym with a coffee or a coke or with no caffeine at all in their stomach, and worked out just fine.
Another thing that wasn’t a thing until the 2000’s: tracking every minute, every step, or every mile of your workout. You’re still a runner even if you don’t have an app that knows how many miles you ran. You don’t even have to track your sets and reps in your lifting journal if you don’t want to. Your body is what knows how much work you put in, even if your phone were to get wiped overnight.