Most people quit lifting weights in their 20s, but a few become lifelong lifters. What’s their secret? What keeps them going? We ask the experts.
Most people go through a period in their lives where they prioritize lifting weights and being fit. For some, it’s when they’re competing in high school sports. For others, it’s during their 20s when they have more time to work out, fewer responsibilities, and a strong desire to look good naked in front of a variety of partners.
But then, something happens. They get busy and overwhelmed with work and family life. Soon, fitness gets put on the backburner. Then it falls off the stove entirely.
So what do we do to fight this, stay consistent, and stay strong for life? That’s what we asked our experts.
What’s the secret to lifting for life? What really keeps people going? What keeps YOU going?
Oh, I know. You ain’t scared of nothing, and you still have that “No Fear” shirt from the 1990’s to prove it. But I also know that every successful person, in any field, has a ghost or two that haunts them.
A “ghost” is something that follows you around your whole life, nudging you. While you may not exactly be afraid of it, it does worry and weigh on you:
- The fear of being broke ghost.
- The fear of disappointing those you love ghost.
- The fear of becoming your father (or mother, or that bad coach you had once) ghost.
- The fear of not accomplishing what you KNOW you’re capable of accomplishing ghost.
- The fear that your haters are right ghost.
On our field of play, maybe these ghosts look different:
- The fear of getting fat (again) ghost.
- The fear of being weak ghost.
- The fear of not being able to take care of yourself when you get old ghost.
- The fear of getting naked in front of someone new ghost.
- The fear of swimsuit season ghost.
- The fear of getting an easily preventable disease ghost.
- The fear of getting gassed when walking up a flight of stairs ghost.
- The fear of having toddler arms ghost.
- The fear of coming in last place ghost.
- The fear of getting an old-man ass ghost.
These ghosts get us out of bed for a morning workout when we’d rather sleep in. They make us work a little harder, be a little more disciplined with our diets, and take a LOT more responsibility in our lives. They “scare” us in the right direction.
It’s true, some people probably don’t have ghosts. And they’re probably f*cking losers. – Chris Shugart
I’ve trained hundreds of clients who didn’t inherently love working out like me, and who dealt with loss of motivation, injuries, and life getting in the way. So here are my best tips for training longevity:
A lot of people lose motivation once they stop hitting the gym. The great bodybuilder Milos Sarcev was once asked why he trained 7 days a week (something I don’t recommend by the way) and he answered, “If I take a day off, I won’t get back to the gym.”
I’m not saying that you should train every day. But a lot of people, when they begin to have a drop in motivation, take a week off. And from that point on motivation continues to drop even more. So if you start to lose motivation, keep training. You can change the type of training you do, go easy, use less intensity, less volume, whatever, but keep going to the gym.
That’s the big one! When you become a real adult with a full-time job, family, mortgage, and a lot more stress, you find that you have much less time to devote to training.
But you know what? Hitting the gym hard for 20 minutes is a million times better than not doing anything. And in 20 minutes there’s plenty of productive things you can do to improve yourself. Heck, you “only” have 10 minutes? You can still reap some benefits.
Thinking you have to train for 60-90 minutes is one of the main reasons people stop training. When my kid was born I trained only 30 minutes four days a week for the first 6 weeks. I still made some progress and when things settled I was able to ramp up my training a bit. But more importantly, my motivation stayed high.
Okay, that sounds cliche but it’s true, and not many do it. If you make training one of your priorities, you’ll find a way to get it done. I’ve trained pro athletes, Olympians, pro bodybuilders, and CrossFit competitors. But my favorite client was an average 45 year-old Joe with six kids.
He was a business owner working 60 hours a week and traveling across the continent almost weekly. He always found a way to get his 3-5 weekly workouts in. When we started working together he benched 125 pounds. After 6 months he was pressing 315.
This makes things so much easier for people with a busy schedule. For most people the problem is not only the time spent training, but the 20-30 minute commute to the gym. It adds up.
If you have a home gym it’ll be easy to fit a quick daily workout in. And you don’t need much to start with. If you have a power rack, barbell/weights and adjustable bench you can get solid results. Think of all you can do:
- Bench Press
- Incline Bench
- Close-Grip Bench
- Floor Press
- Military Press
- Behind The Neck Press
- Savickas Press
- Push Press
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Zercher Squat
- Box Squat
- Lumberjack Squat
- Split Squat
- Sumo Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlift
- Snatch-Grip Deadlift
- Deficit Deadlift
- Bentover Row
- Pendlay Row
- T-Bar Row
- Seal Row
- Barbell Curl
- Reverse Curl
- JM Press
- Lying Triceps Extension
- French Press
- Power Clean
- Power Snatch
No way you can’t build the physique you want!
Reading about training will keep you wanting to train. It’ll give you ideas to try out and will keep the fire lit. Visit T Nation daily. Visit the forums to talk shop. Buy some training books. – Christian Thibaudeau
I was lucky, in a way. As a teenager I had a vision of maintaining my training my whole life. It was the influence of Strength and Health Magazine and my coach, Dick Notmeyer. Dick remains my Mentor (with a capital M) to this day. At age 87, he told me some sad news:
“Well, Danny, I can either lift OR ride my bike every day. I can’t seem to do both anymore.” So, Dick lifts three days a week, drinks his protein after the workout, and rides his bike the other four days. At 87, he’s allowed to cut back.
For me, I understood the importance of health, fitness, longevity, and performance at an early age. I try to pass along what was passed along to me.
I ask silly questions like, “Did you floss today? If not, it doesn’t matter if you bench press.” I’m not against benching, but I want people to connect the dots between this workout and the sixty-plus years of living that comes after today’s session.
There are several other things you can do to maintain the training life:
You may already have one and don’t know it. An ab wheel and a doorway pull-up bar can probably do wonders for your physique. Toss in a dumbbell or kettlebell and you can train any time you want.
Oddly, having a home gym seems to be the one thing that long-term trainees all seem to own. Yes, I have a gym membership, but I also have two Olympic bars, 26 kettlebells, a hip thrust machine, a dip/chin rack, and a rower. I’d also include bands, chains, pads and a variety of things to carry and pull. So, if I want to train, I go into my garage and work out. Sometimes, I just do a few pull-ups when I pass the bar.
I can count on Mike Brown pulling up to train with me every day. With an assortment of other people drifting in and out due to work commitments, we might work out with anywhere from two to fourteen people. Then, we eat breakfast. We’re here to train, but we also laugh, help, and discuss.
These workouts are the best of my life. If someone needs help on this or that, the whole workout may pivot and we’re all working on kettlebell snatching, RDLs, or mastering the Turkish get-up. You might think it’s arm day, but you end up with something far more amazing.
My goal, and it’s printed on my computer, is to dance at my granddaughter’s wedding. My grandparents died before I was born, my parents died before my children were born, and pattern is going to stop with me. Josephine is four. That means that I need to not do anything too stupid; just watch the diet, keep strong, and stay mobile.
That’s good advice for anybody. But what do you want to be like at 60? I’m 61 and still competing and having fun with sports. Many of my friends are dead already from bad life choices and bad luck. I can’t do much about luck, but I can make good life choices.
Every goal should come with a warning though: Be careful what you want… you might get it. As a kid, I wanted to be a college athlete on a full scholarship. Got it. I wanted to have a career with lots of travel and life flexibility. Got it. I want to dance at Jo’s wedding.
Being a Division One athlete was glorious but difficult. Traveling now is awesome but I get exhausted from the flights to Europe which I often do twice a month. I’m sure something will come up on my next goal.
What I wanted as a kid was a lifetime of fitness. I was vague about what that meant and I’m now thankful for that vagueness. Make big glorious goals for life and keep walking toward the finish line. – Dan John
When you get stronger, more skilled, or better at pushing your limits, you feel good about yourself. Maybe this is the feeling of confidence when it’s earned.
What’s interesting is that we’re told (women mostly) that we must constantly praise ourselves, incessantly talk about how much we love our bodies, and relentlessly wallow in touchy feely self-affirmations – even when we’re not doing anything worthy of all that.
And I know that’s the trend right now, but if I actually felt the way that I’m told to as a woman, I’d probably never go to the gym or do anything related to self development. The incentive would be gone because “I’m already amazing just the way I am without any effort,” right?
Nope, sorry. Barf.
If that mentality works for you, have at it! But I can’t even pretend to be able to relate to it. I feel like a piece of shit unless I’m working to overcome something or trying to achieve something. And making progress at the gym is what makes going there so addictive. Incidentally, this progress is a great way to build confidence… without the cloying self-glorification.
Sure, aesthetics can be a piece of that progress/achievement puzzle, too. But after you reach a certain point, it gets old. How far are you wanting to take it? Do you really want to spend the rest of your life chasing the current body trend?
That idea is disturbing, especially since the most sought-after bodies are often Photoshopped, lipo’d, or using an assortment of banned substances. Why not just try to build as much muscle as genetics will allow, or be as healthy as you can, and call it good there?
The real satisfaction happens when you achieve things or make progress on them… like learning how to snatch with impeccable form, or picking up a barbell with more weight than ever before, or completing a challenge faster than you thought possible. Those are just examples – even smaller achievements are satisfying.
All those personal wins and the work it takes to reach them are a rush, and they’ll keep you in the gym for life. – Dani Shugart
The first type includes those people who truly love lifting and have developed a passion for it.
The second type includes those who are able to connect the benefits of lifting to what they truly care about most. For them, lifting supports deeper values. The reason other people stop lifting is that they don’t connect their goals to what really matters.
Ask the average gym bro about his goals and you hear words like, “jacked,” “ripped” or “strong.” Those are fine, but in the grand scheme of life they don’t mean much after all is said and done. No one is lying on his deathbed regretting his slightly smaller biceps.
You need to go much deeper and ask the bigger question: “Why do I want to build muscle, burn fat, or gain strength?”
Maybe deep down, what you really want is self-confidence and the ability to attract a mate. And maybe you see strength training as a means for those. When these real reasons become your focus, you won’t become another New Year’s resolution drop-out stat. Training will feel like more of a responsibility.
Then as life goes on, continue to add reasons for lifting based on your new phases of life. As an example, here a few of my personal reasons for lifting to get you thinking:
- To build inner strength
- To look good for my wife
- To be respected by my kids
- To have the energy to a play with my kids
- To be physically able to defend my family
- To look the part of a trainer so I can put food on the table
- To set an example for clients and students
- To care for the body God has given me
- To increase productivity
- To have a healthy outlet in today’s soft world
- To defy the traditional expectations of aging
Maybe these aren’t things that matter in the context of YOUR life. So find what does. When you connect lifting to what you want and value, the reasons for doing it keep adding up.
Your motivation can actually increase with age as these values accumulate. And you’ll find that over time, you’ll become someone who loves lifting (the first type of lifter) and this will make it even easier to be a life-long lifter. – Andrew Heming
I’m probably particularly well-qualified to answer this question, as I’ve been lifting consistently since the mid-80’s. Today, at age 59, I’m still excited about lifting and (knock on wood) have no significant injuries after nearly 35 years of it.
So, what’s the “secret” to a long, rewarding lifting career? The answer is contained in the question itself: Learn to cultivate and embrace a long-term perspective. Meaning, sure, have short-term goals and savor those immediate victories, but weigh them against the context of your long-term goals. If you’re currently in your 20’s or 30’s, think about where you’d like to be when you’re 60.
Yes, I know, 60 seems like a long way off, but trust me, you’ll be there in the blink of an eye. If you manage your training smartly, you can be very close to your lifetime best condition, without the types injuries you often see in a lot of older lifters. (Check out “The King” on Netflex chronicling the life of 8-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman if you’d like a wake-up call about the potential hazards of years of heavy lifting.)
And if you don’t think it’s possible to be a stud late in life, check out recent pics of guys like Stan Efferding, Dolph Lundgren, or Sly Stallone. There are literally thousands of guys age 60 or over who look (and function) better than you do now.
So next time you feel a twinge in your back on the second rep of a planned max triple while deadlifting, or when your long-suffering shoulder hurts on your first warm-up set of benches, do your future self a favor and put that bar down. It’s better to live to fight another day. – Charles Staley
The secret to long-term lifting is finding a style you enjoy and will do consistently, even when life gets hectic.
Let me share an example of a client of mine. Nate is a former college football player who’s now a regional sales manager with two kids and a hectic schedule.
He wants to stay jacked and athletic, but after years of pounding his body into oblivion, he’d rather walk on scalding hot tar than max out on deadlifts, cleans, and the bench press five days per week.
If I tried to force-feed him the “perfect program” composed of heavy lifting, he wouldn’t be motivated. When he travels ten days out of the month, his equipment is varied, meaning he must be able to adapt on the fly.
Instead of searching for the perfect option in the ideal scenario, he worked to find a 3-4 days a week program focused on compound movements without beating up his joints. We use a variety of tempos, pauses, and timed sets rather than a blitzkrieg of heavy lifting on an impractical schedule.
The big takeaway? First, find a style of training you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy something, you’ll have one hell of a time being consistent.
Second, your workout routine must improve your life, not consume it. Find the training split you’ll be able to stick to on your average days, not the perfect program from your glory days. – Eric Bach
Think of lifting as an investment. Put in the work, then use it as a coping mechanism or a tool to achieve goals. And learn to love it in the process.
I’m about to turn 44. I started lifting when I was 14. At that time, my home life was a disaster and my best friend had just died in a motorcycle accident. My self esteem was shot. I dropped out of school a year later and never went back until college.
I could have dove into drugs and alcohol during those years. But what lifting did for my self esteem was unparalleled. All I dreamed about everyday was getting bigger and stronger. I read every article and book I could get my hands on. As a young man struggling with what felt like an infinite amount of loss at that time, lifting was a healthy coping mechanism and an outlet to pour myself into every day.
Lifting has so many parallels to life. And just like there are seasons in life that we go through, lifting is no different. During my years of competitive powerlifting I didn’t care about being shredded or even being healthy. I cared about weight on the bar. That was all that mattered.
Eventually I “retired” from powerlifting. I stopped caring about weight on the bar and began to loathe the huge role it played in my training. It sucked out all the joy. If I wasn’t getting stronger or setting PR’s then I wasn’t happy. In addition, I found myself constantly comparing my lifts to others. And as the saying goes, “comparison is the thief of joy.” That was true.
That season ended as planned. And I made a promise that when I turned 40 I’d focus on prioritizing health, conditioning, and overall sexiness.
The next season led me into doing a bodybuilding show, which I’d always wanted to do. And I found that show prep was very time consuming and tends to rule every minute of every day. My focus afterward remained overall health, conditioning, and sexiness.
So what’s the underlying thing that kept me in the gym for almost 30 years now? The idea of investment. Lifting isn’t always fun. You have to commit to it and put in a lot of effort knowing that you’ll get paid back for it later.
There are plenty of days that I dread it, or even skip it. But there are more days where I don’t. It’s become so ingrained in me that NOT going to the gym just feels weird.
But that’s the thing about life, lifting, relationships, whatever you’re committed to – in order for you to continue to invest in them, they must add meaning and purpose to your life. I once had an expert tell me “someone doesn’t walk away from a relationship so long as they’re still getting SOMETHING out of it.”
I still get a lot out of my gym time. But the purpose related to that time has changed. I’m no longer obsessed with growing more muscle. I’m no longer ruled by how much weight is on the bar. But I still love pitting myself against the iron on the daily. I still find a lot of meaning involved in the effort there.
People often quit lifting because eventually, for them, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. The effort they’re putting in isn’t worth what they feel it should be getting back.
I’d love to give some poignant advice about how one could find such meaning with the iron. That would keep them motivated to stay in the gym, but I honestly don’t have any. I believe that motivation, as a source to draw from, is very fragile and mostly bullshit.
But if I had to give some advice, it would be this: somehow you have to learn to fall in love with the process and stop worrying about the destination. The happiness that arrives at achieving something is fleeting. It’s that area in between where you are now and where you’d like to be that you’ll spend the most time in.
You have to fall in love with the effort required for you to get from that metaphorical A to B. That’s where the magic in longevity lies. – Paul Carter