T Nation

Teaching Intensity?


So I'm introducing a friend to the weight room. He's a 29 year old who has never lifted a weight in his life, although he has done things like distance running in the past. He's very skinny fat. It's been about a month or so now.

The thing is, though, there are two things that I don't really feel like I can "teach" him: i) to put himself under a heavy bar and ii) to train with intensity.

He's a dedicated guy, and I'm not concerned with his consistency. But when he sees me, say, bench press and struggle against a weight, his reaction is "that looks like it hurts." I try to explain that it's not the case, but he just seems to have a real fear of challenging himself with free weights. Sometimes, he'll beat me to the gym and I'll come in and see him doing just machines with lighter weights (in the way that I see guys who look the exact same as they did two years ago lift).

Nothing wrong with that necessarily, but he just doesn't seem to feel comfortable with the struggle that is necessary to make progress. And his goals, especially at this stage, are to make progress and to become a better athlete.

At this early stage, of course, I'm not hugely concerned. But it seems like there has to be some point at which he'll need to "flip the switch," and I'm wondering whether there's something I can do to help him along in that process.

Any thoughts?


Have him set goals for himself in writing - like benching so many pounds in 3 months. Make the goals reasonable but challenging, and make the time frame manageable. Make him keep a training log.



Either dude has balls and will show it once he is more comfortable, which takes time. Or his sack is empty...

So, no you can't teach someone to bust ass. They either will or won't. But he might just be uncomfortable and nervous, which, to be honest, is understandable for a newb.


I remember having more enthusiasm when I first started than I do now... as far as constantly going to failure and just trying to punish the muscles lol.

So, I don't think it's something that develops in time. He probably either doesn't know what he needs to do yet (honestly thinks it's better to use lighter weights or believes it is sufficient), or doesn't care enough to do it (doesn't want this that badly, or has very modest goals).


Get him to the Gym one day when some 100lb chick is busting ass on the bench or something,

Nothing drives a man like sexism.

Seriously though kids, I Just started as well, and spent a month dicking around on the machines (until I came here, read some articles, had everyone tell me I was a pussy, and decided to use free weights instead), so it's not the end of the world.


Maybe you just make ridiculously ugly faces when you lift =/

If he just started lifting though, he shouldn't be worried about taking shit to failure...just perfecting form and the quality of his reps for now. Have him keep a training log, so he can see the weights used in each session and then he has no choice but to go up a little in weight each week.

Power of suggestion also goes a long way. When he's pushing a new weight for say 5 reps, just give him some encouraging cues..."That looks easy! You've got 3 more...etc...etc..."

It doesn't sound like the whole machismo "grow a pair" is going to work with this one, especially at his age. He's probably a bit insecure. Help him learn for himself that struggling with weight can be very rewarding.


Nice avi. Great progress...and still so young...bastard!


This, to a certain extent.

Isn't intensity just attitude (aggression/seriousness) and concentration on the exercise your performing?

Maybe teach him MMC by getting to to flex his muscles successfully, don't chat at all during the workouts and just be about business, and get him to think of a recent thing that really pissed him off, to utilise his rage on the weights?


Have him develop confidence under moderate loads and low rep sets, then gradually progress.

Phrase it in terms he can relate to. The "pain" of the 26th mile of a marathon is basically compressed into the last rep or two of a hard set. If he knows/knew how to push hard on long distance runs, he does know how to ignore when his brain and body say "No mas."


I appreciate your advice, but do you seriously believe this? Having run a marathon, I can tell you that nothing in weightlifting even remotely compares to the last few miles of a marathon. Remotely. Not that one is less intense than the other--it's just apples and oranges. The marathon "stop" factor is much more powerful because of the timing component, but they're just fundamentally different in other ways as well.

Thanks to other comments also. I'm getting him started on a log, which I do think will help a lot. I think that the notion of "progressive overload" is not necessarily intuitive, so perhaps the log will, as jsk says, help him to internalize the moving up in weight to a geometric progression (whether that ends up being how he progresses in the immediate term or not).


Have him deadlift - it will get him moving heavier weights quicker and there's less fear since the bar isn't on top of you.


I needed to learn this.

In part it took time because I needed to develop confidence in my body. I needed to learn about it. What would happen to it as the weights got heavy and as it failed. I remember being really scared of pushing things hard on the shoulder press (machine version) because I was afraid that all of a sudden my muscles would just give out and the weight would come crashing down on top of me. It took some time of playing around before I got to learn that my grip won't give out first (or my arms won't raise what my grip can't secure) and that failure involves the muscles not being able to make the weight move up anymore - but they are still good to static hold it for a few seconds and they are still good to lower it slowly and safely.

With pushing myself... What really worked for me was having a program where I recorded what I did each and every time I trained.

I was supposed to start (according to my program) with a weight I could lift for 3 sets of 10 reps. It took me several sessions to figure out what weight was suitable for that. I adapted it to 8-12 reps. If I couldn't do 8 on the last set then the weight was too heavy. If I could do 10 thinking I had another rep left / if I could do 12 reps then the weight went up for all sets next time.

Putting the weight up was important to me. It meant progress. It meant I got stronger / could do more than I could do before. When I moved to free weights it took me a while to get that same sense of satisfaction (which drove me to bloody well try and get it so the weight could go up). Mostly because I worried about my form. Seemed that minor differences in the way I held myself made things easier or harder and I felt like I wasn't sure whether I was doing it properly (so deserved the increase) or whether I was cheating (so did not).

I'd tell him that the momentary pain does kinda suck.... But that it is followed by one of the best feelings in the world once you have either accomplished something really worthwhile and / or once you get to say 'I really gave that my all!'

I really do think that people can learn this in time. It does take some time, though. Having good role models is most important, I think.

It really does surprise me how many people aren't interested in increasing the weight. I've had a few friends express great surprise that training (for me) was about getting to put the weight up! They didn't seem to realize that the body adapts so then you gotta ask more of it which gets it to adapt and so on... And that that is what progress is about.

I do think that a lot of people who go to the gym really do just think that they want to maintain things. They don't want to see their bodies slide into decrepitude... But they don't seem to understand that they are capable (if they work hard) of being so very much stronger and better looking than they are at present!

I didn't go to the gym for the longest time because I thought it was a place where all the fit and healthy people stood around admiring themselves and flirting with each other. Most of the people do indeed seem to be doing that... But there are a few who get that it is about individual progress. Learning about that has been totally life changing for me. I didn't know I had it in me. Maybe he doesn't either.


when you see him working the lighter weights...

does he seem to be concentrating... does he seem to be feeling out the muscular control... or is he just mindlessly doing reps??

it might be that he needs some time to get to know his body with the lighter weights. getting the hang of the mind-body connection thing.

don't under-estimate the base in weight training that is required in order for one to safely go all out for a max / near max effort...

i mean sure, a lot of 18 year old guys go gung ho when they probably shouldn't... but there is some kind of (actually sensible) self preservation mechanism that kicks in when people aren't 18 anymore. might be that he does need some more time to feel comfortable with the movements.


I just don't think this is as complex of an issue as it's being made out to be.

If you're lifting intensely he will automatically start filing suit.

He might need a little bit of time to learn his body better, but if you're getting the feeling it's not going to get any better after a couple months... ditch him.

Someone who's going to train intensely is likely to do so from the get-go, no matter how weak they are.

My .02


It's not really a matter of "dump him"--he's a buddy of mine, lol.

Learning his body better is important, and it'll just take time I guess. Here are a few things I've tried to introduce:

  1. As noted above, the lifting log

  2. The idea that you're trying to force your body to adapt.

  3. Not to think of "pain threshold" when it comes to taxing your muscles as being the same as "pain threshold" when you're having a knife cutting into your or something. That it's a "good" kind of pain.

Again, thanks for all the responses. I think things will improve.


The most important thing is to make sure he wants to be there.


I haven't run a marathon, but like I said, it's about getting the basic point across by relating lifting to something already understands. It might be "apples and oranges", but when you're teaching a beginner, you have to speak in terms they understand. At the most basic, it's about doing hard work.

If he knows how to put one foot in front of the other when his instincts says to stop moving, he should be able to get the idea of pushing a bar when his instincts say to stop the set.

Another comparison: I used to train in martial arts. When you get caught in a lock or choke, there's a nanosecond where you're thinking "Oh shit, this is gonna hurt. Why am I putting myself through this? What's the easy way out?" You can either tap immediately (the easy way out) or you can work for an escape.

In lifting, when you get to, say, the third rep of a 5-rep max, that voice in your head kicks in. "Oh shit. The DOMS tomorrow is gonna hurt. If you drop it, you're really gonna get hurt. Why are you putting yourself through this? What's the easy way out? Just rack the bar, you did enough already." But you do another two reps anyway.