This is part one in a three-part series on the journey of being a regular gym rat to being a top-ranked athlete. My journey was in powerlifting but while most of the journey is the same for most strength sports, everyone’s journey is unique to them and there’s no set time frame. Some people go from Amateur to Pro in just a few years while others take a lifetime, but the steps are always the same.
First, you must become an amateur, then a competitor, then a pro. Why does this matter? Because your time is valuable and the issues a pro addresses in their training are usually different from what an amateur will need to work on. Failing to program your training to your level is why there is always that group of skinny guys in every gym doing hours of arm exercises wondering why they aren’t jacked.
Becoming an Amateur
Being an amateur is the most fun part of any new sport. The gains come quickly and steadily; it’s time to establish some good habits in the gym so you don’t have to waste time fixing stuff later.
This is a time to focus on basic movements, the strength builders and not the ego builders. Squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, row, and for the love of pizza, don’t go near the machines. It’s time to lay a foundation for everything to come. If a group of people did nothing but basic compound movements; another group did cable and machine movements only, which group would be stronger after 2 years?
So, how do you know what to do? The best thing an amateur can do is to find the most successful group in their area and train with them. Do whatever it is that they do. Even if you think it is wrong and even if it’s not what is popular. It’s better to do a basic program really well then fail at a more advanced program. Be the first one there and the last to leave. Load plates, help at meets, and they’ll show you the way. I didn’t say the most convenient group, I didn’t say the nicest or most popular, I said the most successful. Groups don’t get successful for no reason. For the last ten years, I’ve driven 45 minutes each way 4 times a week to train with my team. All while teaching full-time, doing night classes, and doing a 20 hour a week internship all at the same time. If you want it bad enough you will make it happen. A team offers the added benefit of a support group at meets and wisdom to offer that’s only gained through time.
If that’s not an option I wouldn’t suggest trying to program for yourself at this point. You don’t need to pay a coach but I would suggest following a training program that’s written out for you. Try as many as you want but give them all a fair chance and be 100% true to them. Basics, basics, basics.
The biggest one, the most important part of being an amateur, is to go compete. Compete as often as you can. Don’t wait until you’re hitting some magical number in the gym, go get all the meet experience you can before you start hunting for bigger numbers. This is a time to check your ego at the door and look for experience instead of glory. Everyone is different so it takes some time to figure out how you need to peak for the meet, how to eat the day of competition, how to pace your warm ups etc. The way to set true benchmarks of your progress and learn how to compete is to go out and actually compete. Go enjoy competing before you put the added stress of trying to win onto yourself. On top of that, competitions are a great place to meet other lifters. You will find that most lifters and teams will go out of their way to help another competitor if you ask nicely.
The best way to become a top ranked pro is to first be an amateur. Go build a foundation, get some experience, and enjoy being an amateur before you start trying to be a competitor. You’ll go farther, faster, and have a lot more fun if you do.