I've learned a lot since I started actually recording my workouts and trying to learn as much as possible about lifting three months ago. Looking back, it's almost comical how little I knew when I started. I'm sure that, 3 months from now, it'll be comical to look back on how little I know right now. But here are a few of the highlights of what I've learned:
1 - Lifting weights doesn't build muscle. Recovery builds muscle.
That's the biggest mistake I made when starting out in September -- I took a 3-day a week program, looked at my schedule and said "4 days a week works better for me," and proceeded to transform a well-organized program into something that almost ran me into the ground on a couple of occasions.
Working out tears up your muscle and makes you weaker than you were before. Your body then repairs the damage and adds a little more muscle and strength on top (supercompensation). It is this rebuilding process makes you stronger, and if you don't give it enough time to occur between workouts, you'll end up overtraining to some degree.
Maximize your recovery between workouts by spacing your workouts 24-72 hours apart, eating right (pay special attention to getting enough protein -- roughly 1g per pound of bodyweight per day) and getting plenty of sleep.
2 - For strength in non-elite athletes, isolation is basically useless.
Want to get strong? Stop the bicep curls. Now. Seriously. Put those 30-lb dumbbells down and do some pullups. If you want to get stronger, you have to use compound exercises that work multiple joints and muscle groups, because that's the way your body is designed. In the real world, bicep strength isn't important -- pulling strength is. Tricep strength isn't important -- pushing strength is.
Isolation exercises work muscles in a way that you'll never actually use them -- alone and without regard to strengthening the rest of the musculature that would contribute to pushing, pulling, lifting, dragging or carrying heavy stuff. Compound movements work all muscles involved in a certain motion in the proportion to which those muscles contribute to that motion. That leads to a high level of balanced, functional strength.
3 - You are what you eat.
We exercise buffs rarely admit this publicly, but what you eat is possibly more important than how you exercise when it comes to how you look. If you want to look like a fat slob, eat like a fat slob: twinkies, doritos, cheesburgers, etc. If you want to look like you're fit, eat like you're fit: veggies, fruit, lean meat, whole grains.
Diet also has a big impact on performance. If you want to be as "strong" as Kate Moss, eat like Kate Moss: celery, water, water, celery and water. If you want to be as strong as a powerlifter, eat like a powerlifter: meat, eggs, milk, and veggies.
Yes, it's important to train hard in order to get stronger or look better. But if you don't give your body the right "raw materials" to use in recovery (see #1), then your results will be less than optimal.
4 - A training partner is essential.
I don't have a regular, every-day training partner. And I don't mind it -- I like being able to do my own thing in the gym and not worry about keeping someone else happy. But I do have a roommate who trains with me once or twice a week, and having him there has been invaluable to my progress. He keeps an eye on my form, helps keep me motivated, and keeps me honest when I'm tired and start trying to cheat a little bit on the last few reps.
If you can't get somebody to work out with you at least some of the time, invest in a video camera. Video a few of your workouts so that you can see what you're doing and spot any weaknesses or technique flaws. Post the videos online and ask for tips or advice. It'll act as both motivation and a chance to learn.
5 - I love this crap.
I thought I liked working out before, when I did so with no real plan and with no real attention to what I was doing. But now that I'm learning as much as I can, keeping track of what I'm doing and trying to make educated, practical decisions about what I need to do in order to improve, I'm having twice as much fun as I was before. Seeing my progress (or lack thereof) and finding ways to improve or fix problems is an incredibly satisfying experience for me.
Based on what I've learned over the past months, I'll be starting a new and improved program next week. I'll be lifting 3x a week instead of 4, so I'll have adequate recovery time between sessions. I'll be refining my exercise selection in order to meet specific goals and hopefully facilitate slightly shorter, more intense workouts. I'll be adding some general conditioning twice a week in the form of Crossfit.
Early this week, I'll test some maxes and goof around. I'll do whatever I can figure out for workouts while traveling for Thanksgiving. Then next week the fun starts! Here's hoping that I've got a better grip on what I'm doing this time than I did last time!