The Science and Practice of Getting Started: Day One

Deciding you are all-in on something new like strength training leads to a bunch of other questions, the most important of which is “How?” How does anyone get started with something new in a way that will set them up for success? For strength, we tend to define getting started by what program or method of training is “best.” Too many people think that there is one program or one way of training and everything else is not worth their time. This all-or-nothing approach can paralyze those who lack the proper equipment or aren’t yet ready to start with something as challenging as a full barbell training program. Here we talk about the principles of getting started that apply to everyone.

The Science and Practice of Getting Started: Day One

By: Nick Soleyn, Editor in Chief

“The best thing is to do the right thing; the next best is to do the wrong thing, the worst thing of all things is to stand perfectly still.” –Alfred Henry Lewis

So, You’ve Decided to Get Strong

The next step is to get started. Many people, however, will wait. They wait for more time in their schedule, for the energy to workout, or until they find just the right equipment, which may require clearing space in their home, convincing their spouse, or saving up money. As they wait for the right circumstances to come to them, they’re not getting any stronger, fitter, or healthier. Waiting is the elephants’ graveyard for goals walled in by false starts, “I’ll-do-it-on-Mondays,” and recurring new year’s resolutions, each of which might have turned out differently had the person just taken a reasonable first step.

Deciding you are all-in on something new like strength training leads to a bunch of other questions, the most important of which is “How?” How does anyone get started with something new in a way that will set them up for success? For strength, we tend to define getting started by what program or method of training is “best.” This might mean you should start with a novice linear progression, or you might find that your best first step requires something “less than ideal.” And that’s okay. Too many people think that one program or one way of training is the best and everything else is not worth their time. This all-or-nothing approach can paralyze those who lack the proper equipment or aren’t yet ready to start with something as challenging as a full barbell training program. So, our “How?” becomes a question of “how can we use the same principles of training to get started in less-than-ideal situations and set ourselves up for long-term success?”

Decision-Making

Herbert A. Simon was an American economist and Nobel Laureate whose primary field was decision-making. Simon pioneered a theoretical framework for decision-making called satisficing—“a blended word combining ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice,’ [that] embodies the idea that when you choose among options… you settle on an option that is good enough but not necessarily the one that is the absolute best.” Simon wrote:

By giving up optimization, a richer set of properties of the real world can be retained…. Stated otherwise, decision makers can satisfice either by finding optimum solutions for a simplified world, or by finding satisfactory solutions for a more realistic world. Neither approach, in general, dominates the other, and both have continued to co-exist in the world of management science. Herbert A. Simon, “Rational Decision-Making in Business Organizations,” (1978) (from his lecture delivered in Stockholm, Sweden when he received the Nobel Prize in Economic Science)

Satisficing focuses on the real-life limitations that most people have. We can give someone a “perfect” strength program, but who is it really for if it is unbounded by the unique constraints of any individual?

Often, people get stuck trying to make an optimum solution work (one that will provide the best theoretical results) instead of finding the solutions that best fit their needs and circumstances. When getting started, a first step that meets you where you are—matching your motivation and your time, energy, and equipment—is more likely to lead to a second step. And a second step is more likely to lead to long-term success. This, of course, requires some knowledge and some ability to sift through the different starting points that will present themselves as the best options for getting started. For strength training, it helps to understand some basic scientific principles so you can then apply them to your needs.

Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is the keystone to self-set goals: a persistent belief in one’s efforts or process will help that person stick to and modify those efforts for success. ( “Self-efficacy and the Lesser Dragons of Disease.”) Intuitively, we know that one workout or isolated act will not change someone’s life, we lack any belief in its efficacy. If you are sitting at a computer reading this and you decide to get up and do two or three sets of push-ups, but then you don’t exercise again for the next ten days, did the push-ups matter? No. You would be silly to expect otherwise.

But what if you did those push-ups today, then in a few days, you did a few more push-ups? What if you kept up that process—adding a few push-ups every few days—until you couldn’t do any more push-ups, and you didn’t stop there? Next, you cleaned up your diet and lost a few pounds and found that you could do a few more push-ups. Then, you made the push-ups more challenging by elevating your feet on something. Finally, when you couldn’t make progress anymore, you added weights, lifting dumbbells or using a bench press to continue to improve your push-up strength. You might balance things out by alternating push-ups with planks to strengthen your ability to hold the push-up position longer. You might add in some inverted rows and, since you’re at the gym anyway, some overhead presses as well. Whenever you hit a plateau, you find some small change that helps you get a little stronger or make a little more progress. What if you did that consistently for three months, six months, or one year? You would by no means be training with a complete program or “optimally” for strength, but you would be damn good at push-ups. You’d be stronger, and you’d look different (and feel different), too.

What you do at first can turn into small changes and steady progress over a long time. What keeps you going is a belief that the process is working: self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy starts with some basic knowledge about how getting stronger works.

The Science of Change

The human body is a resilient and responsive organism, and we can use that resiliency to direct specific physical changes. When it is difficult or different enough from what we are used to, physical activity signals our bodies to change. That change is predictable based on what kinds of physical activity we do. When you lift weights, your muscles get stronger, your energy systems improve as needed to handle the capacity for strength training, and your central nervous system adapts to the feeling of heavy weights on your back or in your hands. You get better at lifting weights. When you lift weights consistently, the changes stick around as your body learns to accommodate the training as part of your routine.

You have probably experienced accommodation before from your environment, perhaps due to significant heat, cold, or elevation changes. Accommodation is similar to an immune response. If you get sick, your body rushes to heal you. Once the disease is defeated, the healing processes stop. As a result, the body is left in a heightened state of readiness against another similar stimulus, at least for a while. Physical activity can cause somewhat similar responses.

The best strength exercises, organized properly, signal the body to change. This is known as the alarm or shock phase of the adaptation process. Alarm produces transient responses that, if chronic, would be severely damaging to long-term health. Similarly, if you are sick from a disease and the disease never goes away, it will cause chronic problems. “Classically, this stage is associated with the release of epinephrine and increases in blood pressure, heart rate, ventilation, attention, serum glucose, and neuromuscular efficiency. In short, this is the ‘fight or flight’ stage.” The best training is different enough to cause change but relatively low-dose and allowed to dissipate.

Through this cycle, your body gets better at conducting stress; its responsive processes get better both at responding and returning to baseline levels. Continual disturbances will result in a new set-point for the body—a new normal state of readiness. Exercising for long-term physical change is little more than changing your set-point through continual disruption of what’s normal to you right now.

And the process is predictable. Strength increases come from loading and resistance to gravity. When we use coordinated movements (while on our feet), we require neural-motor coordination as well as mechanical uses of strength. The ability to increase muscle size and improve the mechanical aspect of strength is something we can make better for a long time with the proper methods of preventing the body from accommodating our efforts. So the best exercises for strength are those that require some degree of coordination—big, multi-joint movements are best—and ones that we can make steadily more difficult through modifications and loading.

As a person gets stronger, the challenge is to continue updating and changing the stress enough to provide a new sufficient challenge—but not so much as to move away from a strength-training-specific activity.

Strength and Other Goals

Even though barbell training is the gold standard for strength improvements and for combatting plateaus through accommodation or stagnant training, it’s possible to look at getting started a little bit differently. By choosing short-term goals that feed into a person’s ability to train effectively with barbells, a person can prepare for barbell training or make their training more effective in the long run. Some short-term goals might involve practicing balance and building confidence before introducing a weighted barbell.

There are attributes of strength training that don’t just come from the barbell, such as basic physical competence, muscular endurance specific to strength training, the conditioning necessary to complete strength training sessions, and recovery habits and capacity. They make up the basic athleticism of strength training. Typically, we improve each of these attributes during barbell training, but there are other ways to improve them that will transfer to barbell training. So, if someone doesn’t meet the minimum requirements for training with barbells (strength, knowledge, willingness, and equipment), that person can still improve in these other areas while working toward barbell training. The best program for strength meets a person where they are when they are ready to start and propels them forward in whatever capacity is appropriate for them.

Building Athleticism, Before Barbell Training

If training is a means to acquire strength, developing athleticism is the means to train better. Most of the time, we build the athleticism for barbell training while we lift weights. For example, the barbell is a great way to build general physical competence. When you learn a new physical skill, you engage a part of your brain that coordinates all your moving parts to accomplish a particular goal. (“Strength Training to Brain Training: Learn New Skills for Long-Term Benefits.”) When you first learn to squat, press, and deadlift, your movement is clumsy. If you study the barbell lifts, you may feel like there is “too much to think about” simply trying to move the bar from Point A to Point B. Even if you know what your body should do, the unfamiliarity of the new movement prevents you from doing what is in your mind’s eye. But the more you try, the better you get.

The coordinating part of your brain learns movement like you wear a path through the forest: repetition. Repeat the movement over and over again, with conscious and intentional corrections, and your body gets used to it. Eventually, your body unconsciously recognizes a squat, and you execute the movement with little conscious effort.

The physical competence that comes from barbell training is a combination of skilled coordinated movement, balance practice, and confidence in how the movement feels and the ability to repeat the action at will. Someone who is not yet ready for barbell training can start training by engaging the same processes for the same or similar movements.

We might have someone “find their squat,” for example, by having them lower themselves down to a chair and stand up with proper mechanics. Changes in chair height, removing the chair, or adding weight to the movement will improve their squatting skills, challenge their balance, and improve their confidence and strength to eventually graduate to a full barbell squat. It builds their athleticism for future barbell training at a level appropriate to them.

Taking that same idea further, a complete Day One for someone just getting started might look like the following:

Getting started should neither be haphazard nor held hostage by indecisiveness. Figure out what type of training is the best training you can start with, make use of our resources to help you with form, and start! (Visit our Technique Page for Help.) The next step is to stay on task with Minimum Effective Dose changes. Those start on Day Two, and we’ll be talking about them more in a future article.

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