Paradigm Shift-Train in Vain

Cue the smash-hit from The Clash.

Training for vanity has been poo-pooed in recent years by the fitness industry. Most of this is probably due to the emergence of ‘functional training’ by certain “fitness luminaries”. Somewhere along the line it became unacceptable to train with a mind towards aesthetics and only chasing performance was encouraged.

Performance is cool and all...

What I’ve continually seen in recent years are more and more people getting involved in barbell training, high intensity conditioning, and strength programs. This makes me happy. However, I often find that the training methods used do not coincide with the person’s goals if they even have them.

 *here is great article from Dan John about goal setting 

While I’ll never disuade someone from getting on a legitimate strength and conditioning program (because it’s almost universally better than what they were doing before), I will state the claim that it’s important to know where you want to be in 3 months, 6 months, a year, etc- physically. Certain fitness organizations claim that form follows function, or that aesthetics merely happen once you achieve a certain level of strength, performance, etc. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It depends on the metric- of course. The idea that achieving a certain strength benchmark, like squatting 135 x 5 for a female or 315 for a male, or bodyweight exercise benchmark, like 3 consecutive dead hang chin ups for a female or 10 for a male, will necessarily result in a certain form or physique is illogical. While it is true that progressing towards these goals will likely improve someone’s physique, strength, coordination, capacity, etc they are not mutually inclusive properties. It all depends on the goals of the individual. If you are a female and tell me that you can do 3 dead hang chin ups consecutively and squat 135 x 5 (rock bottom) then I can assume you’re probably “rockstar hot” and somewhere in the 17-21% body fat range- which is GREAT! Unless you happen to want to be leaner OR that body fat level isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as you want OR you’re not as genetically blessed as we’d hoped and your overall look isn’t quite where you want it. Here is where we come full circle and need to start manipulating the training methods to achieve the desired results. Enter Vanity Training.

lose weight

 You see, there is a disconnect between what you’re training for and your goals. This is not because there is a deficit of information (there are TONS of promising training methods available), but because there is a lack of understanding of how training affects your physique in conjunction with diet. I commonly see trainees doing all the right movements (squat, deadlift, powerclean, presses, chin ups, swings, etc) but in the wrong rep range for their goals. I also see an absence of isolation work in trainees’ programs because they’ve been told it’s not necessary. Well whether it’s necessary or not depends on how you respond to the exercises in your program and your current nutrition. Let’s take the biceps curl as an example.


 Many fitness organizations shy away from incorporating curls into their programming (Read CrossFit) because they claim that doing chin-ups, rows, and other compound movements will build the biceps brachii muscle just fine. What these “general” programs don’t take into account is the individual variable that is you-the person. You may very well benefit from incorporating curls into your program, especially if your biceps are akin to a noodle. Muscles respond to a stressor on them by breaking down. Specifically when you tax a muscle, its constituents (muscle proteins or myofibrils) become damaged and during the recovery period (time between exercise bouts) they rebuild, reassimilate, and grow. Now the amount of damage is determined by the load, eccentric component of the movement, volume (reps x sets), and metabolic byproduct accumulation which all play a role in the amount of growth factors the muscle releases into the local enviroment of the body. More growth factors= more growth, which has been linked to increased metabolic byproduct accumulation, increased volume, and increased eccentric range of motion as described in my article on the subject here (login, and search for “All about hypertrophy”). I know this is all starting to get very technical so for the sake of brevity here is a summary: 

“Certain muscles in individuals respond to different movements DIFFERENTLY. The amount of muscular damage incurred by a certain volume, certain weight, certain movement, and certain rest period is NOT standardized across the board. Therefore, if muscle growth is desired in specific body parts a more individualized approach may be warranted. Similarly, if muscle growth in a certain body part is not desired a more individualized apprach is also necessary.”

 The take away from this is that depending on your actual goals- YOUR GOALS, not your trainer’s goals, not your fitness organization’s goals- determine your training methods. I would be remiss if I did not stipulate that this is only applicable AFTER you’ve developed a sound base of strength and conditioning. As a beginner you do not need to specialize or individualize your program as you are so detrained that a general strength and conditioning program will provide the maximum amount of benefit with the smallest imput IN THE FASTEST TIME! Once you’ve trained long enough and consistently enough to no longer be a beginner- i.e you have good form on all the big movements, you have developed some respectable strength levels, and your conditioning level allows you to actually train without gasping for breath every 20 seconds- then you can move on towards a specially designed program. For many, this happens to be a more aesthetically-geared program. It just so happens that many people who train simply want to look better naked and in this regard they require some specific hypertrophy work. Hypertrophy simply means increased size or volume, whereas atrophy means decreased size or volume. Certain rep ranges have been shown to work better than others for this application and this is covered in my article on the Dynamic Fitness Coach website. Ultimately I’d like to break down the walls of the current training dogma. It is okay to train for purely cosmetic reasons, just like it’s okay to train for strength, endurance, power, etc. It all depends on your goals and where you are right now. Like Robb Wolf continues to say with regards to diet- Framework Matters! So what are your goals and where are you right now?

 TL;DR?- If you want to bring up a lagging body part or grow muscle- add volume to your program by increasing the reps to the 6-12/15 range and think about re-tooling your program to allow for progress in these rep ranges.


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About thefitcoach

An aspiring physician, I've been involved in the strength and conditioning world for over 5 years now in a professional sense. I started this blog with some like-minded individuals to share our thoughts on training, nutrition, lifestyle, medicine, health, and everything in between.

One thought on “Paradigm Shift-Train in Vain

  1. I like this. I have to admit though, I was a little concerned, until you mentioned these aesthetic goals that most people have need to take a back seat, until you have developed a sound strength and conditioning base. Many people (clients included) come to me in the gym with these specific aesthetic goals in mind. But I tell them they are getting ahead of themselves. For example, I cannot make your arms look good by exercise if you maintain 2 inches of fat on top of your muscle. First, let’s get ahold of this nutrition thing everyone is talking about, lose a little fat and expose that muscle that has been hiding under there for all of these years. During this process we will get your mechanics in check and get you moving properly. Maybe we can move some respectable amount of weight. Then if you STILL don’t like how you look naked, let’s knock this out one muscle at a time. The hard part is getting to this point in your fitness. But it CAN be done. And it WILL be rewarding. Great post!

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