“Take a step back and look at the big picture,” Alan Thrall, Ten Tips for Novice Lifters

I went down an Alan Thrall Youtube wormhole this weekend. It started with someone I know sharing this video on how to respond to pain in the gym. I found it nuanced and informative, and off I went to chase other video titles!

The video I want to talk about today is from 2018, and it’s Alan’s somewhat unconventional advice to novice lifters. There’s a lot of gold here that I agree with, but there’s one tip I want to dig deeper into. In Tip #6, “Don’t Get Hung Up on a Program,” he says something along the lines of “you’re a novice when you first start lifting, and after that the labels don’t mean anything.” If you’ve been around evidence-based strength for a while, you’ve heard these labels get thrown around a lot–novice, intermediate, advanced–and it’s always bugged me. I get why we have the labels, training age matters, but it’s a continuum, not distinct groups. When we’re new at lifting, we have more room to grow our muscle tissue and strength, less skill at the movement patterns, less ability to maximize our efforts, inefficient neural firing, etc. And the more experienced we get, the more we move to the other end of these spectra–we experience reduced abilities to continue to grow our muscles and strength (those asymptotes Eric Helms talked about last week), we become more efficient and more able to maximize our efforts.

Alan points out that we all have different strength levels when we start out. We also have different rates of growth. We can’t tell what “level” of lifter we are by our strength. When I was newer to lifting, I used to dig into those tables with strength comparisons to see how I measured up.(1) I wanted something to work towards, but I also was looking for validation. I’ve been working really hard, how do I compare to other people in similar shoes? But the problem with this was, of course, the comparisons aren’t meaningful. Similar shoes in what way? I began lifting in my thirties after a history of obesity and no history of organized athletic pursuits, does that change my potential? What about my extensive health and surgical histories? How do I factor in those challenges to my growth potential? The charts simply don’t. If our personal levels of strength fall within a normal curve, chances are good most of us are in 1 standard deviation of the mean, and maybe the ranges on those scales give us that information? I’d be interested to see an analysis to help give us that context. Sounds like a good homework project for Greg Nuckols over at Stronger by Science. (I did find this article which might help if you’re new.)

Alan really gets to the heart of the problem with these labels when he says, “stop comparing yourself to others.” Later, he says something like, “is it your intent to keep lifting the rest of your life? Then it doesn’t matter how you compare, just focus on what you’re doing.” Comparison is a kill-joy. It can take discipline to ignore the messages that we ought to be a certain level of strength or look a certain way because we’ve been at it for a certain amount of time. You can’t tell how long someone has been lifting by how strong they are or what they look like. Really accepting this can take some unlearning and deprogramming–we’ve all been trained by years of transformation photos, weight loss charts, supplement advertisements, fitness articles, and other propaganda to believe that we can accurately predict our results. At best, these predictions are estimates, and at worst, they’re truly irrelevant.

The solution to the challenges of labeling ourselves and others’ strength levels is to let go of the labels and focus on individual progress. I like to have numbers to work towards like anyone, but these labels can lead to false expectations. I would like to deadlift 300 pounds, but I can’t just put it on my calendar and make it happen. All I can do is smart programming, collect data on my progress, and use that individual information to keep working towards the outcome I want.

Do you find yourself using labels like novice, intermediate or advanced lifter? What advantages or limitations do you find with them? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below or find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook.

(1) Like this one or this one.

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