DISCLAIMER: This article is aimed towards the advanced and experienced intermediate lifters. I would be remiss if there wasn’t some pretty good evidence out there to support specific training protocols for novice trainees. If you are a novice, understand that this article is not for you.
I’m going to come right out and say something that’s not entirely novel but still resonates with me everytime I hear it:
“People spend 90% of their [training] time worrying about 10% of their program.”
Just look at any of the internet strength and conditioning forums and you’ll see questions on the best assistance exercises for the deadlift, squat, press, and bench press. There will also be inquiries onto how many sets of lateral raises are optimal for shoulder growth. How often should you squat for optimal strength gains, what kind of rep-scheme is best for both strength and growth, high bar or low bar, clean grip or mixed grip, three sets of five or five sets of three, and just all sorts of heinous questions people have about their training. Interestingly enough, most of these questions are being asked by people who have no business asking them. The people that these questions actually apply to aren’t asking them, they’re too busy training, being awesome, and using high quality coaches who don’t read those forums anyway.
Let me give you an example, do you think it REALLY matters if you squat high bar low bar? Provided you’re actually making progress on whichever style you choose to use (adding weight, volume, etc) do you think that utilizing one style over the other is going to make or break your program? Additionally, do you think that doing 3 sets of curls vs. 2 sets of curls really makes any difference in the size of your biceps? A better question would be are you REALLY bringing the intensity and focus to your workouts to get the maximum benefit out of your training? Another question would be are you keeping track of your lifts to chart progress (or lack thereof), are you committed to your program, do you even believe it will help you get the results you want? Maybe you- maybe we- are just majoring in minors.
While it’s definitely important to evaluate one’s training and diet I believe that most people (especially educated trainers/coaches) get too wrapped up in all the confounding information out there. The internet is a great resource- unless you let it cripple you. [Jim] Wendler calls this “paralysis by analysis” and I agree 100%. Every time a new article, study, editorial comes out talking about the greatest exercise you’re not doing, nutritional protocol you’re not following, or piece of equipment you don’t have access to (figure 1), you get “buyer’s remorse.” You start thinking “Wow, I’ve got to add this and this and this in, modify this, tweak that, supplement this” until you’ve bastardized what you were doing into something completely unrecognizable and ultimately, ineffective.
Figure 1-The New Hipster Pro promises to turn you into a hipster in only 5 minutes a day, once a month!
The truth is that none of this stuff matters, REALLY. If you’re not at the top of your sport then this kind of constant vigilance over your training and nutrition is just a waste of time. The only reason there’s all this conjecture and questioning about what works the best is because people don’t actually believe in what they’re doing- they’re questioning it. This applies to diet, training, and LIFE.
So I charge you to stop sweating all the details and focus on the following five parameters of your lifestyle and training that actually matter for your results:
1) Big Money Movements- you should definitely be working with squats, deadlifts, presses, cleans, rows, chins, and similar. Notice I didn’t specify a specific variation. Pick big exercises and quit worrying about if it’s optimal or not. Make progress and it is optimal!
2) Rep Scheme- There’s nothing magical about sets of 5’s, 3’s, 7’s or any other arbitrary number. The magic is when you are making progress- getting stronger in the rep range you are choosing. This is also why I like rep ranges versus hard rep counts. A rep range allows for a bigger window in each workout that accounts for good days and bad days. A rep range of 4-6 or 8-12 makes it so a strong day allows for you to take that extra rep or to get 4 and call it good. No need to worry about the best rep range- just pick something sensible for your goals (4-6 for general strength, 1-3 for strength/power, 6-8/8-12/12-15 for hypertrophy, 15-20 for widow makers) and push the heck out of that rep range with your big money movements. Don’t fret about what everyone else thinks is the best rep range, stronger is stronger and people who get results don’t worry about this petty nonsense.
3) Intensity- It’s funny, in a sense, that there is all this conjecture and discussion about optimal training philosophies/dogmas but most people aren’t ready to “show up” for a training session. I don’t mean simply be present, but I mean being ready to train- to fight for reps, bring the intensity (Figure 2), and OWN YOUR WORKOUT. Basically at every training session you need to really focus your efforts on being on point. This is perhaps the most valuable- and most often lacking- ingredient in people’s training.
Figure 2- Dorian Yates and moustached training partner. Facial hair (if dude) and/or a Rambo-style headband brings the intensity up to Old Spice Commerical levels.
4) Relaxation- There is no reason to constantly be scouring for new training techniques and methods that will “unlock” your true potential. A better use of your time would probably be to take a nap, prepare your food, do mobility work, read a book, or cultivate important relationships. The reality is, unless you are an elite strength athlete, there’s no reason that training should dominate your life. Training should be complementary to a life worth living. Train to live, not live to train.
5) Keep Track- Use a composition book or smart phone app to track your rep records, strength metrics, mood, nutritional status and whatever else you think matters. After taking some time to simply commit to a training program and train with intensity you can see the trends and patterns in your own training. Now is the time to change a variable like an exercise, the rep scheme, rest periods, strength curve (bands/chains/etc), or anything else and then start the whole process over again. Training is a lifelong learning experience in your own physiology. Figure out what does and doesn’t work for you and continue to strive for progress.
This whole article could be summed up by the following statement:
“There is no perfect program, diet, or protocol. There is only the perfect mindset. The belief that you will make progress makes the program, diet,or protocol perfect, everytime.”
So let’s stop the nonsense. Focus on actually training- not the hypothetical. Don’t fall into the hypochondriac trap of overtraining, overthinking, and under-working. This should get you pumped up to go hard tomorrow!