12 Things I Learned from 15 Years of Lifting

A version of this article was originally published on TannerBaze.com

I grew up in a really small town on the Texas/Oklahoma border and went to a very small school. There were 68 kids in my graduating class. It was the kind of community where most people never left, and most of my teachers were the same people who taught my Dad. In fact, the same weight room I learned to lift in was the same weight room my Dad worked out in.

When I was 13 years old and in 7th grade, I got my first taste of lifting. My friends and I used to walk into the gymnasium, and go up the stairs into an old and beat up weight room. The mirrors were dirty, the weights were old, the mats in the mat room were disgusting, and it was awesome.

We had no real idea what we were doing. We went in there and screwed around. Our middle school principal was always in there as well. His name was Dr. Pate. Dr. Pate was in his 60’s, and regularly benched 315 lbs. He’d ask us to spot him just to show off and remind a bunch of cocky 7th graders we should pay attention to what he has to say.

He would actually flex his pecs as we walked by him in the school. He was a cool dude.
I’ve never stopped lifting since that time. I’ve taken breaks, sometimes they last a week, sometimes a couple, but I’ve never stopped altogether.

In the 15-year period since I first started lifting in that old rusty weight room, I’ve learned a lot. I may not have an elite total in the big lifts or be 200 lbs and completely shredded, but I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and lifted for longer than most 28-year-olds can say, and I’m still stronger than the resident spirit animal of MFF and country music video superstar, Brian Patrick Murphy, so I figure there have to be a few lessons I can teach you.

Here are the 12 things I’ve learned in my 15 years of lifting.

1. For beginners, making it fun is all that matters.

When my friends and I first started lifting, you know what we did? We worked our mirror muscles. We curled, benched, and then repeated. We leg pressed a bit and sprinkled in some tricep work.

Had someone come in and been a douche about how we should only be doing compound lifts, we probably would’ve written it off. We only wanted good arms and to see our muscles in the mirror.

Looking back, this was paramount to me keeping with training for such a long time. My first exposure to the weight room was fun because it was a fun environment with good friends, and working on the muscles we could see. This played a major role in making lifting a habit.

Sure, I left a lot of gains on the table by neglecting squatting and deadlifting that early on. But I got hooked psychologically, and that’s far more important to me when it comes to longevity.

2. You’ll run into some horrible advice.

My high school football coach actually told me one time that rolling the knees in on the squat was a good thing, because it got your knees “up under you.” 10 years later, and I still have a slight valgus fault anytime the weight gets heavy enough.

Part of that is because I’m horribly flat-footed, my foot actually caves inward instead of having an arch. But I think back to that cue, and the pattern it helped ingrain, and shudder.

If you lift for long enough, you’re going to run into some terrible instruction. That’s guaranteed to happen. Most of the times this is done with a good heart because most people really just want to help. But that certainly doesn’t mean you have to listen to everyone trying to help.

3. Variety is awesome, up to a point.

In my small school setting, if you played one sport you played multiple sports. During high school, I played five sports at some point during the year. Most of my friends and I also did things like academic competition and FFA. Yes, Future Farmers Association of America. I still have my FFA jacket, just for your information.

That variety was invaluable when it came to learning to be proficient at new skills, how to move, and learning to compete. It’s similar to so many people who grow up dancing, acting, and performing. You pick up a whole host of skills and learn new things about how to move and control your body through space and do beautiful things.

However, at some point, you have to narrow things down if you want to continue developing in any one area. If you want to get really strong, you can’t do it playing 5 sports a year. If you want to get really good at football, you can’t expect to play basketball, baseball, golf, and run track while also devoting time to academic competition.

The law of specificity comes into play. Work on strength, work on building muscle, work on movement, just don’t try to do it all at once.

4. Just because you’re exhausted doesn’t mean you had a good workout.

I had some coaches who used to try and make us puke. We’d sprint 400’s and it’d be near freezing outside. If we didn’t make time, we had to do it again, immediately. Later on, we found out that we were actually running 440’s because our track was so old and outdated. No wonder we never made time.

Looking back at some of the things we did, I can’t believe how idiotic they were. It was the epitome of bad coaching. Most of our training was done just to make us tired and exhausted. It wasn’t well structured, but it beat us into the ground.

Just because you’re about to throw up after a workout doesn’t mean it was an effective workout. Don’t continually associate complete exhaustion with effectiveness. By the way, I never threw up. So eff you, Coach Townsend.

5. Find a great gym, because lifting in a community does wonders for your progress.

The summer going into my senior year I made better progress than I ever had in my life up to that point. I was doing summer workouts with many of my teammates, and the workouts were led by one of our favorite coaches. It was 90-120 minutes of lifting and running 5 days a week. I finished workouts that summer with an increase of at least 30 lbs on all of my lifts, and most of that I attribute to the fact that I was lifting in a community, and young hormones.

Later on, in college, I found what would become my favorite gym. It was barely 1,000 square feet and cost $2 a day for a guest pass. The squat and deadlift platforms were plywood, the mirrors were dirty, the upholstery had tears, and the equipment was all at least 20 years old.

The gym was full of powerlifters, bodybuilders, and barbells that looked like I probably needed a tetanus shot after I got done. I got a tutorial on the squat and deadlift and learned what it was like to actually “go to church” in the weight room for the first time. The community in that gym bred success.

The more I train and work with people, the more I believe the environment that person is in plays a gigantic role in their success. Environment is everything. If you don’t think you’re in one conducive to your success, change it.

This is also the same reason MFF is great. There is truly no place in the world that is dedicated to the love of lifting and using it as a vehicle for personal development quite like what happens in the halls of MFF.

6. There’s nothing wrong with training to look good naked.

Once I got to college it became apparent how vain everyone was. The hormone-fueled environment was focused entirely on creating a body that looked great at a pool party.

The more you dig into the lifting world, you’ll inevitably hear that you should be doing this sort of thing to look out for your health, wellness, etc. And that’s true. You should do these things because they’re good for you.

But there’s also no reason whatsoever for any of us to feel shame because we just want to see our abs. There’s nothing wrong with eating well and lifting so that you can look awesome when you take your clothes off. Admit it, own it, and be proud of it. That’s the reason most people step into the gym anyways.

7. You’re in this for long haul, don’t be afraid to try new things.

In 2012, I was worried to try the paleo diet for 30 days because I was unsure of what would happen to my lifting. I wasn’t competing in anything and had no serious end goals. I just wanted to try it at the peak of its popularity. I put it off for a few months because I didn’t want to lose any progress.

Think about how ridiculous that is. I put off a little self-experimentation that wouldn’t even last as long as Snatched does, solely because I didn’t want my lifts, which weren’t that great anyways, to take a hit.

Unless you’re competing, be willing to experiment and try new things. Self-experimentation is vitally important to finding what works for you over the long run. We’re all in this for life, so don’t find yourself beholden to a short-term moment of fear.

8. Strength matters. Always.

Don’t be afraid to chase strength for a few months out of the year. Nothing compares to rush you get when you lock out a new max on the deadlift or set a new pr on the squat.

Chasing strength teaches you a ton about yourself. You learn what you’re capable of, where your weak points are, and how to overcome those. You also learn that you usually have to dial your volume way down in order to progress, and this might be the most valuable lesson of all.
Sometimes dialing down the overall work leads to better progress.

Strength matters. No matter if you’re looking to look great, have bigger arms or a bigger ass, or just feel better. For a few months out of the year, focus on strength.

9. You’re never too good for basic movements.

Push, pull, hinge, squat, and carry. You can build an entire program around those five movements and get results for years. I’m pretty sure Harold hasn’t done a bicep curl since 2013 and he’s the sexiest husband I know of.

All you have to do is alternate the focus, reps, and intensity. Sure, doing drop sets of incline bicep curls is sexy to grow big arms. If you really want big arms you should probably just do a lot more pushing and pulling with heavy weight.

Get great at squatting. It doesn’t have to be the back squat either. You can goblet squat, front squat, or split squat.

Hip hinge all the time. Deadlift, kettlebell swing, Romanian deadlift, and hip thrust. Do them all. Your butt and your lower back will be better because of it.

Focusing on the new sexy thing is fun, but nothing will beat ruthlessly executing the basics.

10. All diets are more or less the same, and supplements don’t make much of a difference.

Combining two points in one, because they go hand in hand. I got my first exposure to diet books by reading Sugar Nation and then Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. I fell hook, line, and sinker for the sugar fear-mongering, and was convinced that sugar was killing us all.

I’m a bit wiser nowadays, at least I like to think so. I still think we all eat way too much poor quality food and sugar. I also don’t think that books that promote fear about things like sugar do any good to help people. So here’s what you need to know when it comes to food, diet programs, and diet books. In essence, all diets argue the same things:

  • Eat lots of colors
  • Eat lean proteins
  • Don’t eat fats made in a lab
  • Remove most cheap forms of carbs

Some diets find sexier ways to package this message than others, but they’re all the same.
As far as supplements go, I’ve got an interesting story about them. Most of my initial health and fitness education I got from peddling pills at a GNC. I thought supplements could solve people’s problems.

Now that I’ve worked in this field for longer, read more, and exposed myself to more info, I realize that supplements at most make up maybe 3% of a program and the subsequent results. More often than not, it’s not even 2%.

Focus on eating whole and minimally processed foods, get your protein, eat lots of colors, supplement with creatine and call it a day.

11. Little changes go a long way if you practice them daily.

When I was a freshman in high school I started eating grilled chicken sandwiches at every restaurant and stopped drinking dark soft drinks. It was a minor change that had zero rationale behind it except it seemed like a common-sense choice to get healthier.

For the majority of the time, I stuck to this rule, and my performance improved. That little change allowed me to get more quality carbs and protein, drink more water, and fuel my body. I got leaner, stronger, and felt better.

Don’t overcomplicate nutrition. Make small changes, and stick with them. Once you’ve mastered them, find new ones.

12. Everything’s a skill.

Everything you do is a skill. Fitness, nutrition, work, studying, writing. It’s all a skill. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

Stop thinking of your goals as goals. Your goals are skills, and to get better at them you need to practice them.

If you want to become a better deadlifter, deadlift. If you want to eat better, then start practicing the skill of food prepping.

Constantly practice the skill that is your goal, every single day. Work to improve on that skill every day. With more practice, you’ll see more progress, which leads to more motivation.

Here’s an interesting fact on motivation: motivation doesn’t beget action, action begets motivation. Find yourself a skill, and work at it.

Take this with you

Ultimately, if you have any takeaway, let it be this: Moving your body in a way that is manageable and sustainable for you is how you should move your body. I’m clearly a fan of lifting weights, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve also become a fan of new and different ways to take care of my body, picking up hobbies like stand-up paddleboarding and hiking. It’s entirely too easy to get caught up in what other people tell us we should be doing when in reality, we all get into this thing to take care of us — so take care of you and your needs and do what is manageable for you.

Hankering to explore a fitness community that honors all of these values? Schedule a Health & Hotness Strategy Session at Mark Fisher Fitness.


Tanner Baze watches entirely too much of The Office, is the Director of Content at Stronger U Nutrition, a former Trainer-In-Residence at Mark Fisher Fitness, and eternal lover of Sean Carney.


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