“Alright let’s GOOO…oh”
I walked into the gym energized and ready to work out, but that didn’t last for long. True, I was over my first day at the gym jitters, but I still didn’t really know what I was doing.
Today was supposed to be the first day of my new program. But when I looked down at the piece of paper I had printed off 15 minutes ago, I realized I had a problem.
I had no idea what any of these exercises were.
According to the program, I was supposed to do something called a “renegade push-up.” How was that different from a regular push-up? What makes it a “renegade?” Am I supposed to somehow become a “renegade” by doing it?
(Side note: As you might have guessed, I think a lot of exercises have dumb names)
I had conquered the problem of how to go to the gym, at least for now. But now I had a new problem. How do I learn new exercises?
Table of Contents
- How to Learn New Exercises: Where Most People Go Wrong
- To Learn How to Work Out—Practice
- How to Learn New Exercises with Training Days
- How to Improve Form with Training Days
- Forget Laundry List Workouts
How to Learn New Exercises: Where Most People Go Wrong
Most people do exactly what I did on the first day of a full body workout routine. They go through the exercises, one at a time, at light weight until they finish.
It makes sense, right? If you want to learn new exercises at the gym, of course you need to actually go through all of the exercises.
But the fact that this is the natural way to learn new exercises doesn’t make it the best way. And in fact, I don’t think it how to learn new exercises, for two reasons.
1. Learning a new exercise routine at the gym makes your workout suck
Now that I’ve been lifting for a long time, the idea of trying out a new exercise is actually pretty exciting. I remember the first time my ProStretch came—a device you literally only use to stretch your calves. I was practically jumping for joy.
The problem is, no one is that excited to learn new exercises on the first day of a new exercise routine.
When I went to the gym that day, I was excited to work out. But when I looked at the list of exercises I needed to learn, most of which were unfamiliar and confusing, my motivation seeped away.
Sure, I went through the motions of each exercise. I Googled the videos and read a couple articles, and I eventually did learn what a “renegade” push-up is, even if I didn’t become a renegade by doing it.
But when I left the gym that day, I wasn’t excited about working out anymore. I was tired, but a lot of that tiredness was because of all the new stuff I’d just shoved into my brain.
Cramming a bunch of stuff into your head all at once isn’t a great way to learn how to work out. You wind up tired and confused, not sure if you’re doing everything right. If you’re wondering how to learn new exercises, that isn’t it.
Since most programs have a totally different set of exercises on day two, you probably aren’t looking forward to the next day of your full body workout routine.
That’s a huge problem.
As I’ve written before, echoing Fitocracy founder Dick Talens, the key to learning how to exercise early on is positive feedback.
If you can stick with exercise long enough, I promise it will become something you enjoy. The phenomenon of getting super into exercise is so common that we have phrases like “fitness junkies” and “gym rats” to describe those people. Exercise is enormously beneficial to your body, and I’ve written before on how it affects your brain as well.
But it won’t unless you can get to that point. If you can’t forge the association between exercise and Goooooood Feeling in your mind early on, you’ll never get to the point where you actually enjoy it.
So. Running through a laundry list to learn how to do new exercises isn’t a great way to keep yourself motivated to work out. You need to know how to learn new exercises a different way.
There’s another reason it’s a problem.
2. It’s a terrible way to learn how to do new exercises
Say you go in for day one of a program. You weren’t exactly prepared for all the new exercises, but you whip out your phone, Google them, and get to work.
Day two you’re a little more prepared. You learned six exercises on day one on the spot, and this time you’ve got six more exercises to learn—but you’re prepared. You Google them in advance and watch the videos and everything.
Day three you show up again! Nice work. You’re prepared, and you do your six new exercises.
Next week you come back for day one. And…what?
Because you barely did the exercises last time, you aren’t quite sure you remember the proper form on all of them. After all, you’ve only done them once, and you had 18 exercises to learn last week.
At this point you start feeling a little bit discouraged. You keep thinking: “wait, how do I do this again?” It’s getting harder to show up to the gym, and you’re feeling less motivated. Wasn’t exercise supposed to get less confusing?
And this is only for a three day program. Programs can range anywhere from 2-6 days per week, and many will have more than six exercises.
Will you really remember all of the exercises you just learned?
If you do remember them, will you remember how to do them with good form? Will you work out without hurting yourself? Will you be able to add weight to get stronger, or will you need to relearn how to work out over and over?
Most people don’t put a lot of thought into how to learn new exercises; they just show up to the gym and try to figure it out.
Don’t get me wrong, showing up to the gym is the most important first step. Consistency is key. But you need something to do while you’re at the gym, and spending a little time thinking about how to learn new exercises can be super beneficial.
To Learn How to Work Out—Practice
The piece of the equation that’s missing from so many beginner routines is practice.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to bench press. I didn’t learn quickly, either—on my first day at the gym I nearly dropped a barbell on my face.
Why do we expect to know how to bench press on the first day?
Really, it doesn’t make sense. If you go in for your first piano lesson, you wouldn’t expect to come out knowing Moonlight Sonata.
And yet so many people expect to learn how to squat, bench, and deadlift, complicated exercises with a lot of things to think about, on day one.
By looking through and finishing a few laundry list programs, I concluded this was a pretty big problem. If you’re trying to learn Moonlight Sonata, you do a little practice every day. But if you’re learning to squat or bench press, you only do it 1-2 times per week?
There are even popular beginner lifting programs that have you deadlift just once a week—for less than 10 reps. It’s totally unreasonable to expect someone to learn great deadlift form in TEN REPS A WEEK.
The first time I realized this I thought I was an idiot. There must be some reason that this actually makes sense, right? There must be some reason I can’t see.
And if there isn’t, why the hell did it take me so long to come up with!
I’ve concluded that there actually isn’t a good reason to learn new exercises like that. Want to know how to learn new exercises?
- Learn good form
Those two principles are so incredibly simple. But once we redefine exercise as something we can practice, it gets a lot easier to learn new workouts and stick to them.
How can you apply these principles to learn new exercises? With Training Days.
How to Learn New Exercises with Training Days
When I say Training Day, I don’t mean the 2001 movie starring Denzel (although let’s be real, most of the man’s movies are worth a watch).
A Training Day is a day in the gym where you give yourself permission to practice.
Instead of going through a laundry list of exercises you’ll forget, a Training Day is a day where you choose to focus on one or two exercises—a day where you focus on learning the form of an exercise inside and out.
On a Training Day, you acknowledge that your workout might not be especially intense. You might work up a sweat or feel sore, but you also might not. And that’s ok, because the purpose of a Training Day isn’t actually to work out. It’s to learn how to work out.
But isn’t it a waste of time to spend an entire day focusing on one exercise? How would you even spend an entire gym session on one exercise?
First of all, no. It isn’t a waste of time. It’s a waste of time to relearn every exercise in your program three times and still wind up with questionable form. Spending time up front saves you time later on.
And to the second point, you don’t spend the entire gym session on one exercise. But you do spent the entire gym session focusing on getting better at one exercise.
Let me explain.
Imagine you want to learn how to deadlift. On your training day, you could:
- Start reading Greg Nuckols’ incredibly detailed guide on form
- Watch Layne Norton’s video on how to deadlift
- Have a few laughs by watching BroScience’s video on how to deadlift
- Learn more about hip hinging from Dan John
- Go to the gym and run through a series of hip hinge and deadlifting exercises for practice
- Basic no-weight hip hinge (to practice the hinge)
- Romanian deadlift (to practice bracing the core)
- Practice setting up a conventional deadlift
- Actually deadlift (conventional or sumo)
See how this is actually about more than just going in and deadlifting?
First, you focus on learning more about how to deadlift by reading and watching.
Then you go through a series of exercises that help you deadlift better—eventually getting to the deadlift at the end.
You’re actually doing three exercises here—hip hinge, Romanian deadlift, and actual deadlift—to practice the different parts of a deadlift. You could conceivably do other exercises in your warm-up too, maybe some glute bridges to make sure you get your butt firing for the big lift.
At the end of a Training Day on how to deadlift, you’ll be much more comfortable actually deadlifting. You’ll certainly be more comfortable than if you just deadlifted 10 reps a week.
Practicing the set up for a deadlift. Practicing the hip hinge (to avoid squat deadlifting, which a lot of beginners fall into). Practice bracing your core to protect your back.
And then deadlift.
How can you use training days for other common exercises?
Training Day Example: How to Squat
If you’re learning how to squat, your training day might look like this:
- Start reading Greg Nuckols’ incredibly detailed guide on form (I like this guy, in case that was unclear)
- Watch Layne Norton’s video on how to squat
- Go to the gym and run through a series of squatting exercises
- Squats with an elevated heel (to practice the movement with forgiving range of motion)
- Goblet squats (to practice getting deep into the squat with an upright torso)
- Practice setting up and unracking the squat
- Actually squatting (front or back squat)
Similar to the deadlift Training Day, a Training Day focused on how to squat works you up to the main movement. By the end of the session, you’ll have quite a few reps under your belt, and you’ll have worked up to a deeper squat with better form.
Again, of course, there are other exercises you could add. You might try doing box squats or paused squats to work on your depth. You might do some ankle or hip mobility warm-ups if those areas are causing problems.
Your specific Training Days can be customized, but at the end of the day, you’ll know what you’re doing.
Training Day Example: How to Bench Press
If you’re learning how to bench press, your training day might look like this:
- Start reading Greg Nuckols’ incredibly detailed guide on form (I like this guy, in case that was unclear)
- Watch Layne Norton’s video on how to bench press
- Go to the gym and run through a series of benching exercises
- Start with a floor press, using dumbbells (to get very basic familiarity with the movement in a safe environment)
- Practice setting up the bench press with a strong core and good shoulder position for the lift-off (hugely underrated, very worth your time)
- Actually bench press
Again, we can see the theme of working up to the main movement, and the idea of practicing the components of a movement.
And again, you could add other exercises. If you’re struggling with form at the bottom of the bench press, try doing some paused reps (lower the weight, pause for a count of three, lift the weight).
You’ll notice that the bench day has fewer exercises, and that’s because so much of learning how to bench press focuses on the technique of the main lift.
Learning how to set up with a braced core, use leg drive, and screw your shoulders into place takes practice, and I’d spend most of your time practicing those things for the main lift.
What About Other Exercises?
Ok, but you’re not going to spend an entire day learning the hammer curl, right? What about smaller, less technical exercises? How can those be incorporated into a Training Day?
I think Training Days are most useful in teaching you big exercises, but they can still be helpful in teaching you how to do smaller ones. Instead of learning hammer curls by hastily doing them once at the end of a workout, why not spend an entire day learning about curling?
Yeah, I wouldn’t normally say “you should curl for a whole workout.” But think of how many curl variations there are:
- Reverse curl
- Barbell curl
- Dumbbell curl
- Preacher curl
- Reverse preacher curl
- Hammer curl
- Alternating curl
- Standing curl
- Seated curl
- Zottman curl
- Incline curl
- Concentration curl
- EZ bar curl
- Cable curl
You get the idea. The list goes on.
Spending a day learning five curling variations could be a really solid use of your time. How does a hammer curl feel different from a barbell curl? How does a dumbbell curl feel different from a cable curl?
Doing the variations back to back can help you get a better feel—and better memory—for them. The same applies to lots of other exercises.
Regardless of the specific exercise, Training Days can help you learn.
How to Improve Form with Training Days
This less section is important. There’s something missing from training days so far. Something that’s an essential part of practice and improvement.
I grew up playing the piano, and living in music circles I often heard a variation on the popular saying “practice makes perfect.”
Practice does not make perfect. “Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
If you want to learn good exercise form and really learn how to work out, the fastest way is to use some form of feedback.
There are a few different ways to get feedback on your lifts:
- “Feel it out”
- Stand in front of a mirror
- Ask someone at the gym to take a video of you going through the exercises
- Have a coach or experienced lifter watch you lift
You may have guessed, these are in ascending order of effectiveness.
It is possible to get better at lifting just by watching yourself lift in the mirror, and I’ve always found mirrors helpful in lifting.
But the better the feedback is, the better and faster you can learn new exercises. And the faster you can get fit.
If you don’t want to or can’t hire a coach you trust, I think taking video is a great middle ground. Ask someone at the gym to use your phone to record you, then watch the footage and compare your video to videos of good form.
Note: this isn’t weird. It doesn’t come up all that often, but any time I’ve seen someone ask for a recording at the gym the person they asked was happy to oblige.
Forget Laundry List Workouts
Learning a new program can be exhausting. But if you learn the lifts well, it doesn’t have to be.
Learning new exercises thoroughly and in a way you’ll never forget means that you can bring that knowledge to every new program you pick up later. And every new program you start will be easier.
So next time you start a new program and find the number of exercises daunting, consider using Training Days to get started—and stay consistent.
If you need help staying consistent with your workouts, I put together a free guide to give you a hand. Just let me know where to send it.
(You’ll also get the free eBook 51 Motivation Tips, for when you need an extra boost)