The (Updated) 10 Rules of Strength Training at the Gym

The almighty didn’t etch these ten unofficial commandments in stone and send them down through the clouds to me. So, naturally, they’ll always be open for debate.

But having been in gyms for over 30 years and coaching clients in the beauty of strength training for the past 13 years, I’ve picked up a thing or two about lifting weights like this pearl of wisdom from the great Dan John.

“If you want to get stronger, lift weights.”

That one is free of charge because sometimes we overlook the obvious. Anyhow there are a ton of options when it comes to getting stronger. A quick google search on the term strength training generates 1,140,000,000 results. But this is a case of information overload, so IMO, you need to view strength training from 10,000 feet to not major in the minors.

Think of these strength training rules as a guide to best navigate your way around the dumbbells and barbells. Hopefully, you and the man upstairs—and your gym owner—approve.

Dr. Squat's Muscle Building Lessons

1. You Shall Engage in Progressive Overload


Sweaty muscular man resting after a HIIT workout

This little thing called homeostasis means the body is always trying to find balance. If you’re doing the same sets, reps, and weight, the body says, “this is easy. I know this; no need to stress.” And it doesn’t. This is not to say it doesn’t have health benefits because it does.

But you will not get stronger, and this is the name of the game when it comes to strength training. To get stronger, you need to overload the body, let the body recover, and hey presto, you’re stronger. Otherwise known as progressive load. The best form of progressive overload is putting more weight on the bar, but this isn’t the only way. You can

  • Do more reps with the same weight.
  • Perform more sets
  • Finish your workouts sooner
  • Increase the frequency of your workouts
  • Add more time under tension by adding pauses, adding half a rep, or tempo lifting

Perform one or two of these methods per session, and you are sure to get stronger.


2. You Shall Warm Up Before Each Workout

You’ve all seen that guy who walks in off the street slap some weight on the bar and gets right into it. That guy might think that’s a warmup, but it is not. Do you know what it is? A surefire way to get hurt. Maybe not on this day, but it’s coming.

A proper warmup gets the blood from your internal organs to your working limbs and prepares your body for action. A warm-up will also:

  • Increase your body temperature to get your body ready to move
  • Delivers valuable blood flow and oxygen to muscles
  • Helps get you mentally prepared to train
  • Promotes the release of synovial fluid in your joints to get them ready to lift
  • And seeing your muscles are warm, you’re less likely to get injured.

That’s worth five minutes of your time.


3. You Shall Not Train Through Pain

Young male working out in the gym with a shoulder injury and recovering with the muscle flossing technique due to muscle soreness

When you’re pushing the limits and going hard and heavy, there will be times when the body says enough is enough. This may take the form of joint pain, back pain, excessively sore muscles, and reduced performance. Or you might get these things because of this little thing called life.

Then you have a choice to make. You can ignore it and train through it because it’s no pain, no gain, right? Or you can choose another exercise or method of exercise to train around the pain and not through it. Say a goblet squat instead of a back squat. You’re training the same movement without putting your body through the wringer.

There’s no need to be a hero when you’re strength training. Back off and live to fight another day again.


4. You Shall Never Miss a Monday Workout

Besides, who wants to miss international chest day?

Getting in a weight, bodyweight, or even—heaven forbid—a cardio workout sets the tone for the rest of the week. Granted, this doesn’t mean hellfire and brimstone will rain down on you if you miss a Monday—life does happen. What lies at the heart of this commandment is consistency. Good things will happen if you train three times a week for 52 weeks of the year.

Trust me—I’m a trainer.


5. You Shall Not Demonize Cardio

Many lifters will claim anything above five reps is cardio and long-duration cardio will eat your gains. The cardio will eat your gains theory has long been debunked by various studies, but many lifters still believe it. The trick with concurrent training (strength and cardio) is finding your sweet spot.

If your goal is fat loss or hypertrophy, mixing in a few cardio sessions will burn a few calories and helps improve your recovery through a more efficient aerobic system. A bigger aerobic engine will enhance your recovery between sets and training sessions when your goal is absolute strength.

And there’s this thing called heart disease which is the world’s biggest killer. And performing regular cardio can help reduce your risk of dying. Remember, training is not always about muscles—it’s about your health too.


6. You Shall Share—and Take Care—of the Equipment

Bodybuilders in a bodybuilding competition lifting dumbbells in front of a mirro
Erica Shultz

This is all part of being a good gym citizen because no one likes that guy who sits on the bench playing on their phone while other lifters line up behind waiting. Or when a lifter uses the lat pulldown machine, sits on it for 3 minutes between sets, and says no when asked if you can work in. Nobody likes that guy.

The answer should always be yes; of course, you can work in. Just set it on the weight it was on before. And let’s not get started on the people who don’t wipe their sweat from the machine or bench after use. That’s just rude, and while you’re at it, refer to commandment 8 because there is no excuse for being lazy and inconsiderate.


7. You Shall Use The Squat Rack As Intended

Lifters’ performing curls in the squat rack has been mimed many times, and there have been many social media posts, including from yours truly. Now, no matter where you side on in the curling in the squat rack debate, there is one thing most lifters agree on. You can do biceps curls anywhere. Barbell squats, rack pulls, and overhead presses, not so much.

So, if you’re getting a dirty look from the dude behind you while curling in the rack, finish up your set, rerack the barbell, and walk away.

And while we’re at it: To the guy who sets up his deadlifts in front of the squat rack so NO ONE can actually use it—please find a new gym.


8. You Shall Pick Up After Yourself

In my early morning opening the gym days, I spent a lot of time picking up weight plates and dumbbells from the floor and unloading plates from machines and barbells. These lifters were lazy, didn’t care about others, or were too weak to put themselves away. Many curse words were said under my breath and out loud.

Not only is it a health hazard leaving your weights on the floor, but it only takes a moment to do, and you’ll be lifting and burning extra calories too. Plus, it’s the right thing to do because didn’t your mum teach you to pick up after yourself?

Some beginners are not yet strong enough to lift heavy dumbbells from the floor or 45-pound plates from the barbell to re-rack them. Being considerate of all people who grace the gym is paramount.


9. You Shall Not Limit Yourself To Free Weights

tool2530 / Shutterstock

Barbells and dumbbells are the best tools to burn fat and build strength and muscle, but they are not the only tools in the toolbox. Your body doesn’t know the difference between a dumbbell and a sandbag, as resistance is resistance no matter what form it takes.

As great as free weights are, there are times when you cannot face the barbell, or your joints are flipping you the bird. If that’s the case, weight machines with a fixed range of motion and increased stability could be what the doctor ordered.

  • Lifters often vilify weight machines as a waste of time, but they are great for building muscle because the increased stability allows you to focus on the working muscle more and do more reps.
  • Resistance bands are also easier on your joints because when they are not stretched, apply less stress on them. Their ascending resistance (gets more challenging as the band stretches) improves your lockout strength and gets you strong where you are weakest, on the periphery.
  • Kettlebells, sandbags, medicine, and stability balls are all beneficial. Limiting yourself to free weights will limit your gains and increase your boredom.


10. You Shall Not Shame Others

There’s a reason why shows like The Biggest Loser aren’t a thing. The yelling, the screaming, and this go-hard-or-go-home mentality that tore these overweight people down to build them back up again are out of step with today’s society.

Instead of shaming overweight people in the gym with stares, ridicule, and talking behind their backs, offer them encouragement, advice, and support with their weight loss journey. You never know what it took for them to step into the gym, so please don’t scare them off.

Plus, before you hit record on your camera phone of someone doing something idiotic because they don’t know better, please stop. There is already enough workout fail videos on YouTube and social media for you to watch in a lifetime. No need to add to it.

So, before that person is about to hurt themselves, be polite, stop them, and offer them advice on how it is done. And think about how you would feel if someone taped you doing something stupid. Thank God there weren’t camera phones in my gym heydays. Geez.


Are these good enough to be etched in stone? Maybe not, but if you follow these ten commandments, you’ll lift longer and stronger and be a good gym citizen. Now only if those people would stop filling up the gallon water jug at the water fountain.

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Originally posted 2022-11-01 15:59:03.