I got a little reflective on a blog comment recently. I'm going to parlay my comment into a blog post in hopes that some others might find this helpful. I've seen this path in myself and others, so potentially I can shave many months or years off for someone else who might be heading down this route. If it's not applicable to you, that's fine.
When I first started this process in 2009, I was exclusively cardio. By 2010, I was so skinny that people worried about me. I was misinformed about how to get a favorable body composition. I figured with enough running, my abs would eventually poke through and then I could look like those ripped dudes on TV. Well, they didn't and I looked emaciated.
I slowly incorporated strength training trying to learn routines/exercises that could be effective. I spent (wasted) a lot of time. I would take a routine and modify it to what I thought was best and made it largely ineffective. I'm not sure why I thought I was such an expert that I could take something that someone built and many executed and then at a glance, make it "better". Hubris, perhaps.
It wasn't until I followed Starting Strength that the progression truly happened. It is very important to learn proper form. The author of this book (and plan) Mark Rippetoe, does a great job of explaining it, sometimes in mind numbing detail. I found myself reading a few pages of the book and then practicing. Each time I read (and reread) portions of the book, I'd pick up something new or latch on to a visual cue that I didn't pick up on before. Once I became reasonably comfortable with the lifts, I began executing the program and good things started to happen.
Reflecting back on all of the wasted time, I drew up some lessons learned the hard way.
1) Progression is key. If you're doing the same thing over and over again and you're not increasing either weights or reps over time, you're wasting time. You cannot always progress, but it should always be your goal. If you're not progressing, you should be trying to figure out why and taking steps to push progress. Switching routines IS NOT PROGRESS. The marketing speak of "muscle confusion" or "switching it up" is rubbish. You may need to switch the way in which you progress, but building strength with compound lifts should always be the goal. You're not progressing (for long) with rubber coated dumbbells. Doing rep ranges that exceed 20 is not progress (I'm looking at you, BodyPump!)
2) Strength (muscle) is hard and very slow to build. I've been truly lifting (i.e. on a real plan, not a Bill plan) for almost 2 years now and it's still tough (thanks to progressive overload). Conversely, aerobic capacity is easy to build and reclaim. While I've largely neglected steady state aerobics over the last year, with a couple of weeks of focus on it, I can get it back. Last month I ran a 5K in better time than I had in years with barely any time spent on running. The carryover from weight lifting is tremendous. Long story short, put strength first! The bang for buck is phenomenal.
3) JDTFP (just do the f-ing program!). Like I said, "switching it up" and changing the program to my liking was to my detriment. Also, a huge part of doing the program is DOING IT CONSISTENTLY. Life got in the way or priorities might have changed for the short term and I'd let my consistency suffer. I absolutely had to make it a priority to progress. No half assing it.
4) Stop doing isolation moves! Especially if you're a beginner, bicep curls, tricep extensions, shrugs, crunches … time wasters. Compound, full body moves (squats, deadlifts, press, bench, chinups, pullups, pushups, etc) are the ticket to muscle gain or preservation. They're also the ticket to long term progress. There is room in this world for isolation moves. When you get stuck on a major lift, there is usually a "stuck point". For example, perhaps your bench press is stuck at the bottom. Incorporating tricep isolation work to get the bar off of your chest may be a good idea. But doing mostly isolation work is a time waster.
5) Ya gotta eat! Muscle doesn't come from thin air. I'm up over 30 pounds from my emaciated weight. I still wear the exact same pants size and shirt size with room to spare. Hell, I'm still on the same belt loop. I don't look like some huge ass bodybuilder either. As far as I'm concerned, these 30 pounds went in all the right places. I'm considering gaining 20 more over the next couple of years. I don't give a crap about the scale. Waist measurement, body fat percentage, how your clothes fit, how many pounds are on the barbell are the only numbers to focus on. Most people hate the scale because they define their success or failure by the number it represents, I hate the scale because I think it's a poor measurement of progress. Probably the worst. (note: if you're significantly overweight, the scale is still pretty decent because your body composition is terrible and you're likely losing mostly fat, so the scale represents fat lost). Bottom line, if you're lifting HARD and progressing, do not be afraid to eat!
Finally, this isn't a 30 day shred or a P90X or some other gimmicky video, this is a program that will likely take years and build real strength. TV ads have given us a terrible sense of what it takes to truly build a strong body. I did Starting Strength for almost 2 years before I switched to a more intermediate program (which still incorporates squats, deads, bench and press), but since I had stalled on SS, I had to change the way I disrupted homeostasis. Then and only then did I "switch it up". But I've switched it to a program that is also tested and proven for someone in the category of intermediate.
Anyway, I hope this helps someone walking down a similar path. Maybe you can relate to some of this. Maybe (hopefully) you're not as thick as me.