Photography by Michael Neveux
If you’ve been involved in weight training for any length of time, you have undoubtedly been subjected to all sorts of training advice. It commonly comes from well-intentioned older lifters reminiscing on how things use to be. It could be an uncle who used to “play a little college ball” or a friend’s older brother who did “a little lifting” in the basement with a concrete weight set from Sears.
Such advice is given freely to anyone who will listen. Those with the open ears are generally beginners getting involved in weight training for the first time. They don’t know too much about lifting weights and quickly gravitate to any perceived expert.
This so-called gym wisdom then gets passed from lifter to lifter. Eventually, the ideas are repeated so often and spread so widely that they’re considered fact. It’s kind of like the old saying in politics: If you say something often enough for long enough, people will start to believe it. That saying certainly applies to weigh training.
Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the advice can be questionable. There are some strongly held beliefs about weight training that need serious reexamination.
Myth 1: Isolation exercises don’t build mass and should only be used for shaping or toning.
Reality: Any exercise has the potential to build mass as long as you perform enough sets and reps and the weight is challenging. Along with a proper set-and-rep scheme, you can use advanced techniques, such as drop sets and X Reps—partials at the max-force point—at the end of a set, to increase the intensity of the set, activate more fibers and further fatigue a muscle. The result is that you trigger the body’s adaptation processes and force hypertrophy to occur.
A good example is concentration curls. The popular way to use them is for defining and shaping the biceps after a set of standing curls. Try performing concentration curls first in your biceps program for eight sets of three reps. You won’t get a pump the way you would from a conventional rep scheme like three sets of eight, but you’ll notice a major increase in biceps strength and thickness. Who says concentration curls can’t build mass?
Here is another good example. At your next leg workout, in place of the usual mass-building exercise such as leg presses or squats, try performing 10 sets of eight reps on leg extensions. Your legs will be smoking, and your quads will grow. Is it extreme? Yes, so don’t do it at every workout. It’s for shock value.
The point isn’t whether you should perform 10 sets of eight reps on the leg extension machine. It’s that you can turn an isolation exercise into a mass builder by structuring the workout correctly. It’s not just the exercise by itself that dictates the training effect but also the reps, sets and rest period you use.
Myth 2: Once you find a workout that works for you, stick with it and never change.
Reality: Workouts should be cycled regularly to stimulate muscle growth. The body is a highly adaptive organism and quickly adjusts to any workout you throw at it. Staleness occurs, plateaus develop, and if you stubbornly keep following the same path, injury is very likely. We all have that one favorite workout or exercise we love to perform. It’s human nature to enjoy consistency and get into a regular way of doing things. The problem is that in the context of a mass-building routine, you shouldn’t do the same thing for a long period of time.
There’s a science behind that principle of designing programs. It’s known as periodization; what it really means is planned variation. Even if a routine is working well for you now, you need to start thinking about what your next phase is going to be. At some point the gains will end. Then—or preferably right before you feel a slowdown in progress—you want to switch up your routine. That keeps the body fresh and in a state where it’s constantly adapting to new training stimuli, thus getting bigger and stronger.
A quick note of caution: Even though it’s essential to adjust your workout on a regular basis, it’s just as important to avoid changing things too quickly or on a whim.
Myth 3: The back squat is the king of all exercises.
I know many of you gasp at my listing this. It’s one of the oldest maxims of weight training. Before you throw a fit, read what I have to say carefully and make sure you understand it. While the back squat is undoubtedly one of the top producers of strength and mass, there are several other very good alternatives, one of which is the deadlift. In fact, many experts agree that the deadlift is fast becoming the alternative king of all exercises. Why? The deadlift works everything from your forearms to the middle-traps-to-lower-back area, the entire torso and all the leg muscles—while being much safer to perform with heavy weights.
Unfortunately, not everyone is biomechanically suited to performing the squat. Those with long torsos and long femurs—the main upper-leg bone—tend to lean forward quite a bit, transferring excessive and potentially dangerous loads to the lower back. I commonly hear people argue in favor of performing a powerlifting-style squat to counteract that. That method keeps the load over the hips and reduces the stress on the lower back. Although that is true if the weight on the bar is the same as it would be if you were doing regular squats, most people end up using heavier poundages when they perform powerlifting-style squats because of better leverages. That in turn can offset safety factors that were the original reason for making the switch. Additionally, it takes the trained eye of a good coach to get the technique down. It’s not something you can just walk into a gym and start doing. You need time to learn proper form.
ALLAnyone involved in competitive powerlifting needs to use that approach to squats. Everyone else, however, should use the squat as a means to an end, the end being the development of a muscular physique, not an increase in squat poundage just for the sake of increasing squat poundage.
Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. The squat is an incredible exercise, and heavy squatting is a great goal. Just understand what you’re trying to accomplish and use the best exercise for your body type to achieve that objective. For some people it’s the squat; for most it’s the deadlift.
Myth 4: Short workouts are ineffective.
Reality: One of the best ways to break through a training plateau is by doing several short workouts throughout the day instead of the traditional single long workout. Most of us cannot easily rearrange our days to fit in multiple training sessions. Despite the difficulty, the effectiveness of the technique is unmatched.
For bodybuilding purposes, the best way to use multiple training sessions in a day is to focus on a specific set of muscle groups you want to overload. You would do it only occasionally, say, once every few months.
This type of routine takes careful planning because it is very easy to overtrain. Proper nutrition and supplementation and adequate rest are absolutely essential! Pre- and postworkout nutrition need special attention.
The details of using such a program are a topic for a future article. For now let’s go over some basic principles. Initially, try to perform two sessions of no longer than 40 minutes each. The goal is to do two or three 30-to-40-minute sessions during the day. Ninety percent of you will find that Saturday is the best day to do this. Take off Friday before, and you will definitely need Sunday and probably Monday off also.
Myth 5: Overtraining is just undereating.
Reality: This myth is really not as prevalent as it used to be, but I still hear it from time to time. I think now more people would say that overtraining is just undersupplementation. Nutrition and supplementation are vital to training, but it’s wrong to say that not enough of either is the reason for overtraining. Certainly, you can train harder and/or longer if you use proper supplementation, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. That’s the point when any additional sets you perform no longer add to the workout but only increase the time it will take you to recover.
A good analogy is when you’re up late cramming for an exam the next day. Sure, you can take in quite a bit of information while cramming—up to a point. Once you’ve hit that point, you start to get confused, nervous and tired, and the mind just won’t retain any more material. That’s the point of diminishing returns. There is no way around the fact that the body needsrest and sleep.
Essentially, training is the process of breaking down the body with weights and giving it time to build back up to a stronger state. Training and supplementation can help the process of repair, but they will never take the place of rest, period.
Remember, never take advice at face value. Think about it, experiment with variations and opposing recommendations—and you may just grow bigger than you thought possible. IM