11 Mental Models of Weightlifting

Thankfully, I’ve gotten into the habit of weightlifting in the past two years. It has been transformative for me in a few different ways, and I’ve tried to lay out the lessons I’ve learned here.

(There are many subcultures within weightlifting (Powerlifting, Crossfit, Bodybuilding, etc), and I’m not particularly an adherent to any of them. I think these points are general enough to belong to them all.)


1) Load-bearing Habits

Weightlifting is only 15% about weightlifting. The other 85% is about diet, sleep, and other habits.

You can work your ass off in the gym, but if you don’t have the right diet and sleep habits, your work will be completely wasted. Building muscle happens with the proper nutrition and recovery practices. Workouts are only a catalyst to the process that every other habit has to support.

This is super obvious in weightlifting, though I’m sure the same foundational habits are key to any other area of progress.

2) Benefits of precision

Since making progress in weightlifting is 80% about nutrition, I’ve learned a lot about diet. Serious weightlifters are probably the smartest amateurs about diet (at least in short-term, fitness related areas.)

An optimal diet is planned, calculated, and followed precisely. You buy a food scale. You weigh out 40g of oats. You eat 16 almonds. Precise. This might seem insane, but the benefits of this kind of precision are incredible.

What are you doing that should be more precise? Where is growth slipping through your hands because of vague estimates where you should have exact numbers?

3) Measure, Record, and Track

On long-term projects, incremental progress can be hard to visualize. You can’t necessarily see every pound you lose, or every rep you add… unless you are measuring and tracking carefully.

It is incredibly rewarding to have a record of that progress. If you’re feeling discouraged, having an easy way to see that ‘the system is working’ can go a long way.

Weigh in every day, record every set. It keeps you honest, and it helps you ensure that you are pushing yourself and improving. Lots of people do the same workout with the same weight, month after month. This is not how you build strength.

To move forward in your career, your fitness, or your relationships it is not enough to do the same thing week after week. You have to do more. When you set today’s bar above last week’s and hold yourself to it… now you’re getting somewhere.

4) Progressive overload

The key to progress is progressive overload. Lifting more than you have previously. Your body will rebuild to adjust to this new task you’ve asked of it. Then, you increase the weight, and your body rebuilds stronger.

Progressive overload is the practice of constantly finding your limit, so that your limit moves a little. Then pushing it again.

Whether you’re running, reading, stacking cups or lifting weights… progressive overload is the path to progress. And to reach “overload” you have to be willing to fail…

5) Train to failure, on purpose.

Failure is the threshold of growth. If you’re not failing sometimes, you are not growing as fast as you could be. Push yourself to failure to find your maximum output. It’s more than you think.

Growth goes to those operating closest to their limit. It isn’t about who can lift the most, but who is pushing themselves the hardest.

The salesperson who endures the most “No”s will hear the most “Yes”s. The filmmaker who creates the most shitty early films refines technique the most. Fail to fail, and you will fail to improve.

6) Variation is key to growth

Your body gets efficient at what it practices. This is a good thing. But it also means that to build muscle, increase stamina, and prevent injury you need to vary your routine.

In weightlifting, variation can mean varying strength/hypertrophy workouts, breaking down lifts, or changing range-of-motion (deficits, negatives, etc.)

For other goals, variety builds slightly different strengths. It makes you creative, adaptable, and robust. If you want to learn to paint, sketch. If you want to fight, dance. Find ways to dissect your skill, find tangents to bring a new strength to your main purpose.

7) Patience

Predictable inclusion? Yep. Don’t care. He’s the man.
“It takes 10+ years to build a world-class body”
— Arnold Schwarzenegger

Do you think building a business, a career, or a mind are built any faster? It takes years and years to do anything worthwhile. Having a fitness practice that is building something has been a great reminder for me to have patience for other things I’m building in my life. Like raising a tortoise, it creates a longer-term mindset.

You have to be patient. You have to grow slowly. If you try to move too fast, you injure yourself. Be patient.

Just do your work each day, and get on with the rest of your life. You can’t do more than a day’s work today. Do your workout, cross it off, and smile.

8) “Training is the opposite of hoping”

This thought gives me so much peace. A perfect segue from patience, this reminds me that if I am training, I don’t need to be hoping. I can be patient.

I spend less time wanting, and more time getting. For many years I had fitness-related goals that I was hoping to achieve. Now, I don’t hope. I train.

Whatever you are hoping for… start training for. It doesn’t matter where you start, or what you do.

Feel anxious when hoping. Feel peaceful when training.

“Stress comes from unaddressed problems — ignoring something that you should be working on. Stress doesn’t come from the work itself.”
— Jeff Bezos

9) Normal is… not ok.

Hold yourself to standard above the default “normal”. It isn’t normal to workout every day. It isn’t normal to weigh out your food as you prepare it to be sure you’re not accidentally eating double the calories of pesto you intended.

It is normal to be sedentary, weak, and overweight. It is normal to eat yourself into sickness, malnutrition, and obesity. It is normal to hope for fitness, without training for it.

It is not hard to be better than normal. It just requires doing something different. Even good-natured people who love you will experience strange subconscious urges to subtly convince you not to try so hard, to be more like them, to be normal. (We all do this.)

To do anything abnormal, you will experience ‘social drag’ from people around you. Learn to ignore them, politely point out their unsupportive behavior, or tell them to “Eat Shit” and march on your merry way.

Normal.

10) Choose (or create) a peer group that supports your goals

Workouts are an easier habit when you have a fixed time with a close friend. This makes your reward for going to the gym not just intrinsic or biological, but also social. It’s fun to workout with friends, to gently compete, to support each other, and to bullshit at the gym.

Whatever you want to do — find good people you enjoy to do it with, and you will all be richer for it. Their expectations and their habits enable your goals.

11) “Programming” Yourself

Your prescription of workouts and diet is called your ‘Program.’ Just like you program a computer, you program yourself. Inputs yield outputs. Do these workouts, eat these things, you will lose fat and add strength.

Review. Rewrite the program. Execute.

I now believe you can ‘program’ for nearly everything. The Navy knows and executes the ‘SEAL’ program. Stanford executes the ‘Neurosurgeon’ program.

It doesn’t take much research to learn the programs to become an author, a comedian, or a millionaire.

Create your programs like you’re playing ’The Sims’ with yourself — prescribe the activities as though someone else is executing them.

Then, execute the program.

Once you see a program ‘run’ and you embody the result as a changed person, it is incredibly addicting.

Before you start, you expect execution to be the hard part. Once you see the feedback loop, the execution becomes the fun part. Programming, precision, and patience become the hard parts.

Discipline becomes fun.

Closing

I under-estimated how much fitness is a foundation. When I make weightlifting my first priority, my diet and sleep fall perfectly in line. I’m more productive at work. I have more willpower. More calm. More energy.

I used to think I was sacrificing health for the sake of work or fun or time to relax. The beautiful paradox is that when I put my workout first… every one of those is better than ever before.

This idea connects right back into #1, because positive habits enable other positive habits. Whatever your foundation is, find it and put it first.

Obligatory.
On Twitter: @EricJorgenson
I'm working on a book about Wealth & Happiness, The Almanack of Naval Ravikant. It is coming soon.
I also write other less meathead-y things like The Evergreen Library, for building a better business brain. And random posts like this one about How Building Startup Teams Above 20 is really hard.

Thanks to my gym buddies Zach Anderson Pettet and JK for reading drafts.