In fitness, as with any skill, you won't stay a beginner forever. I've seen many people graduate from beginner territory in fitness without knowing, and this leads to problems. Let's look at how to recognise when you're no longer a beginner and what to do next.
Image by HuHu
There Are Benefits To Being A Beginner
Nobody likes to be called a "beginner", because it means you're in the stage where -- essentially -- you suck. Training, which is a form of practice, also sucks. You don't know if you're performing a lift correctly or your running stride is correct, you're not sure if you should be concerned about minutiae such as where to place your hands on the barbell. Training is monotonous and you can't do anything cool, like run a marathon or lift heavy stuff above your head.
But there are benefits, too. If you are training correctly, your performance will skyrocket faster than in any other stage of your fitness life. If you are just starting to lift weights, for example, your muscles rapidly increase as their capacity to hold glycogen -- stored carbohydrates -- goes up. Simultaneously, your central nervous system becomes accustomed to weights and movement patterns, leading to a burst in strength improvements.
With any skill, fitness or otherwise, the first few times you practise are going to yield the highest improvements of your life -- as long as you do a few things correctly:
- You are learning as much as possible about the skill that you're trying to improve. For example, /r/fitness is an excellent resource for beginners (caveat: I would only recommend it to beginners, as it contains many pitfalls that I'll point out later in the article). Approach everything with an open mind, because much of what you think you know is probably wrong.
- You are following a program to the T, such as Starting Strength for lifting weights or Couch to 5k for running. Do not put your own spin on the program because you think you know what's better. You don't. That's why you're a beginner. Follow the program exactly how it's intended and don't do a single thing differently unless you're receiving advice from someone experienced.
- With everything you do, you should be focusing on the why and how. At this stage, treat fitness a bit more like a science. For example, many trusted experts say that when it comes to weight loss, it's important to increase your protein intake. Make sure you know why this is being recommended and how you can go about accomplishing this.
As you improve your skills, each training session will yield less improvement due to a phenomenon that economists call diminishing marginal returns.
If you're new to something, try to reframe the word "beginner". Yeah, you suck at what you're doing, but so do most people when they start out. Instead, embrace this as a magic period of rapid growth. You aren't likely to see this again.
How To Identify When You're No Longer A Beginner
There are two ways to establish whether or not you're still a beginner. The first way is to find objective stands that are dependent on the skill that you're trying to improve. For example, ExRx has a chart that categorizes you into beginner, intermediate, expert, or elite based on your various lifts.
But this definition can be a bit problematic. Being "intermediate" is subjective and there is a wide range of starting points. For example, two males of the same height and weight might squat 350 lbs. However, perhaps one started out at 225 and this only took him a year, while his counterpart started with just the bar and this took him four years and lots of crying himself to sleep.
It's harder to identify when someone is an intermediate through absolute metrics alone, so here's a much better definition: you are no longer a beginner when you stop seeing linear progress.
Beginners should see exponential, or at least linear, progress. That means that the amount that you can bench press, your mile time, the number of kilos that you're able to lose with ease, and so on, all improve on a weekly basis. At some point, performance will start to stagnate or even decrease from week-to-week.
Now it's possible that this is due to external circumstances, such as lack of sleep or stress from work. If you start to see a lack of predictable weekly progress, however, you're likely no longer a beginner.
What To Do When You're No Longer A Beginner
OK, here's why this part is really important. I have literally seen people who have been trying to improve in fitness for a decade, and despite knowing all of the fundamentals, that are exactly the same in every aspect year after year -- they're still the same size, same weight, same strength. Sure, their consistency is admirable, but their lack of mindfulness -- wondering if they should be doing something different -- is not so much. (This of course doesn't apply to those who don't care about making progress and are just trying to maintain.)
By far, the most overwhelmingly common reason for their stagnancy is that they kept training like a beginner. Ironically, the very guidelines that I listed above for beginners are what prevents people from crossing the chasm: they focused too much on facts and fundamentals, spent too much time on Reddit, and treated fitness too much like a science.
At this stage, fitness becomes more of a hybrid between art and science. You'll find that in order to get past plateaus, you'll need to find what works for you -- and often that's not what works for everyone, nor what you'll hear from "experts". For example, you might find that instead of the volume of squats that Mark Rippetoe recommends in Starting Strength, you'll do much better with low volume and high intensity, or perhaps even squatting every day.
This is where being mindful becomes paramount. Regular mindfulness practice can help you understand yourself more, in particular how your body reacts to various stimuli (whether from training or life in general). Such an understanding can be more valuable to your progress than facts and strict directions. For example, perhaps rather than a set number of sets and reps, you use autoregulation to determine how much volume and intensity you should be doing on a given day. There are some days you'll be able to do less and some you'll be able to do more.
Knowledge isn't only less important at this stage; it can actually be a hindrance. Stop going on Reddit and listening to arguments about whether or not blended or whole oats have superior glycemic indexes for muscle protein synthesis. Use that time to go mindfully lift some weights, prepare your meals for the next day, or sleep. All of those things would be a far better use of time for an intermediate trainee.
The only knowledge that you should be listening to are from one or two experts that you choose to trust at this time. Of course, there are many experts out there, but they have competing ideologies all of which are correct in their own right. If you follow them all, you'll just go into analysis paralysis. When I reached my intermediate stage, I started following Martin Berkhan and Lyle McDonald's philosophies exclusively. As I progressed from there, I then began to listen to Ben Tormey and Matt Perryman.
Use all of these things to shift your questions more from the "what" to "what if" in order to create a mental model around how fitness works for you. Instead of asking "what's the number of meals a day that's optimum for fat loss and muscle growth," you should be asking "what happens if I only eat two meals a day, which is easier on my work schedule and social life."
Try to see what works -- both from a physiological and adherence perspective -- through experimentation and try to have fun doing it. If you find something works -- that causes your mile time, strength, or weight loss starts seeing linear progress again in the short term -- and you can see yourself doing it long term, stick to it and don't change a damn thing until it stops working. You'll be able to add this to your mental model.
There's one thing that everyone who crosses the beginner's chasm has in common. They know that the journey isn't about becoming an expert at fitness. Rather, it's about becoming an expert at their fitness.
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.