Shakespeare reckoned there were seven Ages of Man. I’ve limited my stages of progress to five.
The complete beginner (the “baby” stage)
This is an exciting time for both lifter and coach. You go from knowing absolutely nothing, to being able to lift an actual weight. You’re like a baby, developing fast; every day is a new miracle. You can get a personal best practically every session.
Physically, your body is adapting quickly. The neuromuscular system is waking up and starting to use all your dormant strength. Your body is learning how to move in a different way. The learning process is conscious – you have to think about everything and sometimes it can get overwhelming. If you think too much about your legs, something goes wrong with your arms. But it is absorbing and fascinating.
It’s also a great time for the proud parent (your coach), who sees regular progress to justify their awesome coaching, and a slew of PBs to publish on social media showing everyone how brilliant they are. (hashtag proudcoach)
The novice (the “adorable child” stage)
It’s still exciting, but things are settling down. With any luck, you are in a rhythm with your training, going to the gym every week. You’ve got a handful of big exercises in your arsenal and you are focussing on getting better at those.
Progress still comes, more like every week than every session. Physically, you are still developing the neural system but now you may also start to see changes in your muscle size and shape.
You enjoy the feeling of lifting weights and getting stronger week by week. You are no longer the ‘new one’ so you can also help others, which is a nice feeling. The environment of the weight room doesn’t feel so alien and intimidating any more. You may even be starting to try some of your new skills out in the gym on your own.
This can also be the point where the more magpie-minded lifter can drop out of the process, distracted by something newer and shinier. Ooo aerial silks! Cool, rock climbing! Look, primal movementy stuff!
The intermediate (the “difficult teenager” years)
So when does the novice stage stop and the intermediate stage begin? Personally, I would say that once a lifter reaches their first major plateau, where progresses tails off and is no longer evident on a weekly basis, then this moves them into the intermediate stage.
All those gains you made when you first start lifting come to a grinding halt at some point. The system has done all the easy stuff, picked the low hanging fruit. Now you are going to have to work a bit harder and be more patient in order to make progress.
The upside of this stage is that you should by now be and feel fairly competent in your movements. You are still refining technique, but you have the basics nailed.
The downside is that your expectations have changed. You’ve got used to making regular process, getting those PBs. Lifting a PB is basically a hit of dopamine – it makes us feel really good. Now the tap has been turned off, or turned down.
At this point, some people decide that they are comfortable where they are. They feel they have reached their ‘level’ and don’t want to work any harder to try something new. So they bimble along and enjoy their hobby.
Some people go the other way; they start to get quite frustrated. They miss the regular improvement and believe that they are failing. This is the point at which people can fall into a number of ego traps
- “more is better” – I am not making progress like I used to, therefore I must do more. This doesn’t always work, and is often the cause of injury and overtraining. It is a failure to realise that the tempo of development has changed. Progress is still possible but you need to be patient and understand that you may not see the fruits of your labour immediately. Failing to succeed
- “compare and despair” – looking at other people who are further down the line than you are and comparing your own progress unfavourably with theirs. This is when people start thinking things like “I should be lifting X kg by now”. Lifters start making up arbitrary targets and timescales based on where they think they should be in the hierarchy. It’s a path that can make you unhappy and should be avoided.
- “grass is greener” – casting about for ways to speed up progress. This is a dangerous time, when people spend too much time on the internet trawling for ideas, (oo, maybe I should do Smolov), copying their lifting heroes and bouncing from program to program, based on random feedback and whichever ‘method’ is trendy at the moment. For a coach, this is like your teenager coming home with a nose ring and blue hair. Many people try new programs (not necessarily suitable ones) but don’t stick with them long enough to see the true results, because they are still stuck in the beginner mindset of weekly progress.
- “excuses” – you hear a lot of excuses at the complete beginner stage because people are afraid of getting started. These die away as people start making progress. However, the excuses come back to bite as soon as progress slows down again. I’m too old, I’m too inflexible, I’m too busy, my coach doesn’t understand me… you know what they are. When people make excuses like this, the one thing they are not doing is trying to do anything about it. Because then they wouldn’t have an excuse to fall back on and cushion the ego.
This intermediate stage can last for a long time – usually years. A surefire way to get stuck in this stage is to remain frustrated and focussed on the achievements of others, not your own.
For the coach, this can also be a tough time. Lifters get defensive, don’t always handle feedback and critique well. They may want to try other things, go off in a new direction, listen to other voices. Coaches should not take this personally, it happens to everyone. Be confident in your own approach, let people go with new influences if that’s what they want. At the end of the day, it’s their journey.
The advanced (the “thirtysomething” years)
Emerging from your troubled youth, you reach a point where you understand yourself better: your strengths and weaknesses, what you are like as an athlete.
If you really want to make serious progress, you have sought out the advice of an expert, and – what’s more – you are actually following their advice. You are no longer following the fads or bouncing from program to program. You’ve set yourself goals and you are tracking your progress. Furthermore, you are truly learning from each experience and taking your lessons forward. Not throwing your toys out of the pram when things don’t go your own way.
This is the stage where you can make good progress over a number of years, and become a well-rounded athlete.
It’s also a time when complacency could set in, and you can feel like you are losing your edge. You see newer athletes coming up behind you, and you worry about your place in the hierarchy. If you are not careful, you can get quite defensive. Keep your eyes on the prize.
The Zen Master
Ah, the light at the end of the tunnel! At this stage, you understand the ebb and flow of progress and you are ok with it. You know that there is no point getting frustrated with yourself or beating yourself up over training. Instead you enjoy your training and take the positives wherever you find them. You focus on yourself and your own journey; you don’t mind where anyone else is.
You look for subtle ways to make progress, and build your house brick by brick. You work on the areas where you are weak, you ask for help. To others, you seem highly competent and experienced – and you are. Somehow, years have gone by and you realise you actually do know quite a lot now. You have started to ‘give back’ by helping others. You still have your goals, and you still have the hunger to improve. Your self-efficacy is high and you are also patient. You are in this for the long haul.
So what do you think? Do you recognise any of these? Have I left out a vital stage?