Being an athlete is hard and becoming a great athlete is even harder. Here are the top 9 things I wish I knew when I started training seriously, and as any tricky writer would, I saved the most important point until last and you won’t experience it with full gusto unless you read them all (so, do that).
1. Training environment is everything.
“If you want to squat 500 lbs, go to a gym where everyone squats 500 lbs.” – someone who knows things about lifting.
“You become who you have coffee with.” – Robin Sharma
Find a gym where excellence is an expectation and train with a team among whom jealousy isn’t a thing (both really exist)!
If you want to be a world-class athlete, train with people who are better than you. You can talk to your online coach about how to set up for your bench press, or you can watch the best athletes in the country set up and then mimic them multiple times in one training session. It’s not even close to the same thing.
Train with a team who wants to live vicariously through each others’ successes. There can be friendly competition, but any jealousy should be stomped out; it’s poison that limits the people on both ends.
Choose an excellent training environment and if you can’t, then and only then do you train alone.
For more on training environment, check out our podcast with 58 kg Team USA weightlifter, Jessica Lucero, and her coach Aimee Everett from Catalyst Athletics.
2. Hire a coach now.
If you’re serious about becoming a top athlete you’ll work with many fantastic coaches throughout your career; you might as well start now. Coaches have worked with a variety of athletes with different capabilities; let them start molding you now because you’ll become much better with their experience and eye than you can on your own.
Choose a coach who you jive with and who’s worked with athletes you want to be like. If he’s worked with great athletes his methods work, but what’s even more important than practices and programs is that you get along.
You want a coach who takes as much pride in your progress as you do, and who sees you for the athlete you can become. You’ll know him or her when you talk to them about your future and they make even bigger plans than you do.
Also, having a coach who can make you laugh is at least as helpful as the programming.
3. Don’t try to please haters or fans; just do what you love.
If you love posting all your training videos, do it! Jessica Lucero shares a lot of lifting videos and nobody complains about it – she’s been lifting since she was 14 but if she started when she was your age I bet her videos wouldn’t look as pretty. Keep posting if it makes you happy, even if some people don’t like it, because they aren’t the ones who have to wake up every day inside your body. Be patient with yourself and as you practice, those haters will turn into fans and admire the way you can move a barbell.
But if a hater says something that there is some truth to, take it to heart and work on it. Critics can be some of our best coaches.
Don’t lift for the fans or you’re missing out on the joy. You deserve to experience your wins fully and to feel happiness swell up in your heart and spread through to your skin before you share them on social media. Even keep some of your special moments locked away in your heart just for you to remind you why you do this when things get tough.
4. Eat carbs around your workout and choose foods prepared and grown with love.
CARBS are the missing ingredient for maximum power for many athletes – like me when I started lifting. Glycogen is the fuel that makes our muscles strong and powerful and it can only be built by first breaking down carbohydrates.
Eat some rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, oats, parsnips, other whole grains before and after you train (eat lots after you train – stop rationing yourself; fuel your body like you love it, don’t hold back from it like it isn’t enough and you need to change it) and notice the difference in your performance and recovery. If you train longer than an hour, sip on some Gatorade or coconut water to keep you powered up throughout your session.
Choose the best damn quality foods you can afford – foods with care and positive intentions poured into them. Now that I’ve been doing this for awhile, I think calories and macros are important, but I believe there’s more to it than that and that meals made or grown with love can give us the positive energy we need to reach the next level. Choose locally grown, humanely raised, homemade things whenever possible over packaged, processed, and prodded.
5. Spend at least ½ as much time on mobility as you do on training.
Whether you’re an athlete or not you should have at least four mobility sessions a week. Our bodies weren’t designed to be tethered to desks or hunched over cell phones. We’re showing up to lifting class with hips and chests that won’t open. Then we force our joints into challenging positions, train our muscles to exhaustion, and return to our desk the next day to repeat the process.
Roll out your glutes with a lacrosse ball. Get into your armpits with a softball. Smash your traps and your quads with a barbell. Stretch your ankles or smash them on the handle of a kettlebell when you’re sitting behind it. Twist your spine at least twice a day because it all starts there. And stretch stretch stretch with both dynamic movements before you warm up (I like a deep lunge with a spinal twist side to side), and static holds for upwards to 4 minutes to help fascia release. Try ROMWOD or sign up for Yin yoga.
Your lifts will go up when you don’t need to jam your joints into good positions because your muscles and fascia actually allow you to get there with ease.
For more on mobility and the desk crisis, check out our podcast with the creator of Mobility WOD, Kelly Starrett: Deskbound to Gymbound.
6. Choose a long term vision over crazy, short term goals.
When you first start, it’s okay to have ambitious short-term goals, but know that a year or two into it if that’s all you have you’re going to give up. Once the newb gains wear off you need a 5-10 year vision because no matter how quickly you improved at first, that’s how long it’s going to take you to become your best.
Always ask yourself, “What’s going to help me become my best in the long run?” It might mean sitting out for a few weeks now; do that instead of risking a greater injury.
Follow a good program and be patient with yourself. It takes 10000 hours to achieve mastery at anything. Put in your time.
7. Find joy in the daily training and not just hitting PRs or competing.
It’s easy to love what you do on the days you hit a PR or have adrenaline rushing through your body to push your performance to the next level at a competition; anyone can do that, and if that’s the only time you enjoy yourself you’re going to quit after a year or two when it literally starts to take years to see progress instead of days.
Learn to love filling your shaker cup and putting on a good playlist before hopping into your car to go to the gym. See the smiles on the faces of your teammates when you walk through the door. Feel, really feel that empty barbell in your hands before you slap some plates on. Don’t check your phone. Don’t think about your post workout meal. Laugh with your training partners. Feel your breath. Notice what your body is doing as you execute the lift. Be present in that moment with that body and that barbell because it’s all you’re guaranteed (and if you can learn to be present in training, you’re going to be totally there on competition day and you’re going to fucking destroy it).
8. Learn how to breathe and how to brace.
It’s the most basic thing we do; it can change our entire mood and it can help us safely execute an enormous PR lift, and yet most of us don’t know how to take a proper deep breath.
Here’s how I describe good breathing/bracing technique:
- Pull your shoulders back and down into their sockets tightening your lats.
- Squeeze your glutes.
- Take a big breath through your mouth into your belly pressing your abdominals and obliques out as far as you can and top that breath up to maximum capacity through your nose.
- Do a mini-sit up pulling your rib cage and pelvis together ever so slightly to lock it in.
- Execute the lift maintaining all tightness possible for powerlifting type movements, or with loose arms and explosive legs and traps in the Olympic lifts regaining all tightness possible when you reach the landing position.
- You can exhale when you’ve passed the sticking point in your powerlift. In your Olympic lifts exhale (or grunt) to reach full extension and again when you’ve passed the sticking point standing it up.
Easier said than done, I know, but start by signing up for yoga which I think is the best place to learn to breathe or at least practicing breathing into your belly every day, and work on this bracing technique every time you lift.
9. Work on your inner self as much as you focus on physical training.
This is the most important point, the hardest to do, and the most neglected by athletes, and yet I think it’s what separates the best in the world from the good, great, and average. Learn to meditate (start with the Headspace App). Listen to mental training audio books (I liked, the Art of Mental Training by DC Gonzalez). Learn to feel your emotions in your body (does happiness feel like your heart is overflowing with rainbows? Does sadness feel like your heart is aching and your breath gets short?).
When two athletes step up to the same barbell with the same physical preparation, the one whose done more mental training wins.
Don’t wait to start your mental training until you’ve plateaued physically. Be ahead of your competition by working on both from the beginning.
- Choose a training environment where excellence is an expectation and where jealousy is non-existent.
- Hire a coach now – one who makes you laugh, preferably.
- Do it for yourself; forget the haters (unless they offer legit advice), and be grateful for your fans.
- Eat a mutherfucking potato. Carbs are the missing piece to awesome performance for many athletes.
- Mobilize mobilize mobilize. I could write it 100 times and you still probably aren’t going to mobilize enough. Mobilize for at least half as long as you train.
- Have a 5-10 year vision instead of crazy short term goals and use that vision to make all of your decisions.
- Find joy in the day-to-day training by learning to be fully present (put your phone away), instead of only being happy when you’re crushing PRs or competing.
- Learn to breathe and to brace. Make your belly look like Santa’s when you lift.
- Work on your mind and love your spirit instead of just beating your body into awesomeness. You’ll be your best only when you’ve reached your highest self in all areas.
If you want to become the best athlete and human you can be – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, it’s your last chance to sign up for my program Projekt Possible. It starts Monday. Don’t fall behind your competition and stop putting your own growth last on your list of priorities. Now is your time.