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The secret to successful weight lifting? Following a training plan

When it comes to home repairs, my skill set is limited to basic tasks: fixing leaky faucets, patching busted-up walls – anything beyond that and I'm as useless as rubber lips on a woodpecker. Part of the problem, outside of a general lack of experience and knowledge, is my toolbox. It's hard to get a job done when all you have is three hammers, vise-grips, a level and a cordless drill. Even I, a man few would mistake for Mike Holmes, know that Rule No. 1 for any project is you've got to have the right tools for the job.

This principle holds true in the weight room as well. After all, every time we step foot in the gym, we're attempting to rebuild or remodel an existing structure. If you don't come prepared, you're setting yourself up for failure before you even start. I've talked before about body recomposition tools that don't work (namely the ever-present bathroom scale); now, we're going to talk about the tools that all successful lifters use in one form or another: the training program and training journal.

The training program

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Allow me to paint a picture: A young man walks into a weight room, protein shake in hand, aggro soundtrack thumping from his oversized Beats by Dre headphones. He quickly scans the gym floor before making a beeline to the dumbbell rack, where he performs a few sets of curls with a weight seemingly chosen at random. Next, he loads up a barbell and fires off some bench presses. Finally, he wraps up his workout with a round of crunches. Done! Fast-forward five years and I guarantee our friend is still following a near-replica of this very routine. I also guarantee his body won't have changed one bit.

I know this because for most of my training life, I was this guy. I'd try my hand at whatever exercises Men's Health was pushing that month (exercises, no doubt, that promised to deliver chiselled abs in only a few short weeks) with no real thought of what I was doing or why I was doing it. What's worse, nothing I ever did built upon my previous workouts. There was no sense of progression, of doing more tomorrow than I did today. I never got any stronger. I never built any appreciable muscle.

This is what happens when you don't follow a well-structured training program, one that adheres to basic principles of exercise science.

Thankfully, you don't need a PhD to get jacked. There are plenty of resources out there to help novice lifters with their programming, from personal trainers and podcasts, to websites and books. Some great options: Renegade Strength Club, Starting Strength, Girls Gone Strong and StrongLifts. Along with providing technical guidance and encouragement, a good program educates so that users can create their own programs, built around big, compound movements (e.g., squats; deadlifts; pull-ups; push-ups) and that focus on consistently moving more weight over time – a principle we fitness pros call "linear progression." Of course, we can't make progress unless we have tangible data to guide our way, right?

Enter the training journal.

The training journal

If not following a program is the No. 1 mistake people make at the gym, a close second – call it Mistake 1b – is not tracking your workouts. The importance of the training journal cannot be overstated ("If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go," said James Baldwin, speaking on matters of more importance than lifting slabs of iron and steel). There are no set-in-stone rules for keeping a journal. I've used day planners, fancy Moleskine diaries, simple spiral-bound notebooks – what matters is that you write down what you did and keep track of specific metrics (weight lifted, sets, reps), as well as any program modifications or exercise substitutions. I always include some notes on mindset and performance, too. If it was a killer session or a dud, I want to know why so I can either repeat or avoid that performance in the future.

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I recently took a break from tracking my workouts; after five years of meticulously noting my moods, my performance, my aches and pains, I decided to freewheel it for a month to see what would happen. The result? Chaos! Without a reference point to guide my way, weights were chosen at a whim. More often than not, it would be the wrong weight, meaning I'd have to restart exercises until I got things right. Was I getting stronger? No idea! My workouts suffered. So did my desire to train. Ultimately, that's the training journal's greatest gift – motivation. Seeing those performance numbers increase every couple of weeks provides all the drive you need to keep going.

Journalling isn't just for weight-lifting meatheads either. For those looking to lose weight, a food journal is your best friend – provided you record everything accurately. More often than not, our best estimates of how much we're eating are off by hundreds, if not thousands, of calories each day.

Getting in shape is like anything else in life – if you don't have a plan, if you simply fly by the seat of your pants and hope for the best, chances are you're going to be disappointed with the end results. Arm yourself with the proper tools, though, and success will be yours.

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