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THERE IS NO LACK OF PEOPLE IN GYMS TODAY WHO ACTUALLY WANT TO GET BETTER.
Who know that maybe whatever someone else is doing may not actually be the best for them. Who feel as if there could actually be a better way. But when they attempt to follow that thought, to experiment, to perhaps make something fit them or feel better, it’s only a matter of time until being confronted with the stereotypical gym bro who lets them know they are overcomplicating or overthinking it. And some version of the following conversation occurs:
“Just stick with the basics, bro. That machine won’t grow your back.”
“But I don’t feel barbell rows in my back. They hurt my elbows, wrists, and lower back.”
“You can’t argue with results. They work. Look at Ronnie Coleman. Look at Dorian Yates. You think you can grow a back better than them?”
And then our “thinker” will generally sulk back to the rack, thinking, “Well, that is true,” and continue to row. (If only he could fast-forward 10 years to see the result of “sticking with the basics”— potentially jacked-up elbows but still no lats.) We’ve all been there!
It’s not that “it works” isn’t good logic or a bad reason to choose an activity or exercise. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t produce results, I would agree— why would you do it? I mean, would you follow the training routine of the best marathon runner in the world if your goal was to be Mr. Olympia one day? Of course not. Why? I don’t need science or studies to validate the decision, I just know that training that way has never worked— never produced an Olympia- caliber physique. So it does make a lot of sense to start by following a Mr. Olympia routine if you want to look like Mr. Olympia. So what’s the problem?
“It works” isn’t the problem. How we define “works” is the problem. So let’s examine a few things I think are important to consider, as we better define this word. Works? For whom? Compared with what? As fast as possible? Injury-free? As efficient as possible?
WORKS FOR WHOM?
When you choose “it works” as a justification for how you train, this requires defining the specific population it worked for. Most of the time, the industry will point at the best in the world. If you want a great back, you might as well model your training after the way the best back in the world trained. Makes sense, right?
Unfortunately, this focuses only on external influences. Bars, barbells, and equipment—it’s the same for everyone. This completely neglects internal response to the external stimulus. All of which can be best summed up with the word genetics.
But what does that really mean?
While two people can hold the same barbell and perform the same exercise roughly the same way, what’s on the other side of that barbell drastically influences the outcome. Think bone/joint structure, lever or limb lengths, and muscle bellies, shape, and insertions. All those create a real, quantifiable internal response to external stimulus. And after your body determines how that external load is expressed internally, that does not even take into consideration your body’s physiological and chemical responses to that stimulus.
Based on those factors alone, it is impossible to assume that external plus internal equals result (or “it works”) when it is clear the “internal” part of the equation varies drastically from person to person.
Even more, possible attribution error has to be a consideration when your sample population is the genetic elite.
You cannot train like the elite athletes of your sport. You must learn to make intelligent adjustments to fit the execution and the program to your body and needs.
Such is the inside joke among strength coaches at the professional level—that the coaches who produce the best results with their athletes are the ones who don’t injure them. Implying that it doesn’t really matter how you train them because they will continue to perform at the highest level if they stay injury- free. It’s the same with Olympic sprinters and marathon runners. Often bad habits and misinformation are perpetuated by the elite without any proof of the benefit—for example, parachutes for sprinters, or the idea that lifting weights is bad for endurance athletes.
COMPARED WITH WHAT?
The sport of bodybuilding is young, habits and practices are even more easily perpetuated because our population is small, and training history is so brief. Ronnie Coleman walked into a gym one day that was known for being hardcore, so he started using hardcore exercises, and they worked for him. So why try anything else? What if instead of barbell rows on back day he chose dumbbell rows or a machine row instead as his main rowing exercise? Who’s to say his back would not be as impressive—or even more impressive—with less effort and fewer spinal surgeries? Unfortunately, that study or comparison isn’t exactly practical or realistic.
WAS IT AS FAST AS POSSIBLE?
Could these individuals have put on muscle faster? It’s a question we’ll never really know the answer to. They got big fast—relative to what we consider fast. Is it realistic to assume they could not have possibly put on muscle any faster? The only reasonable answer is “of course not.” I don’t think anything, in any realm, at this point in human history, has reached its pinnacle—medicine, tech, or bodybuilding.
Luckily, we have a definitive answer to this. Of course it wasn’t really lucky at all—there are many famous injuries that occurred along the way to Mr. O titles. Were these necessary? Are a torn biceps or vertebral/ disk issues a requirement to growing a big back? Of course not. And what about all the less famous injuries bodybuilders accept as the norm? As if some form of “-itis” is required to grow muscle. If this were true, every bodybuilder with a large, evenly developed physique would have pain in every bit of connective tissue, in every joint attached to their large muscles. The fact that it occurs only in some connective tissue, with some muscles, proves it’s not required to grow muscle. Not to mention most likely symptomatic of an underlying cause.
So what causes injuries? Overuse? Load (lifting heavy)? I do not believe there is a set usage limit (volume) or load at which things just break. That would be fairly arbitrary, at best—these factors are things that can just accelerate the underlying cause. Misdirected tension. Our bodies and joints have an intended design or use—for example, the hinge joint is designed to handle load in specific planes of motion, the planes the attached limbs move through. While our bodies are resilient, misapplied load over time (accelerated by the load and volume associated with bodybuilding, a truly extreme amount relative to the norm) can result in wear and inflammation.
The fix: Avoid or modify the arbitrary. Your body, structure, and joints are unique. Applying the same exercises, the same way, to everybody makes no sense. Instead, understanding training goals and finding appropriate ways to apply load to your body, adhering to your structure and joints, can theoretically help you completely avoid injuries. Or at least drastically reduce the occurrence.
AS EFFICIENT AS POSSIBLE?
Efficiency is really the combination of the above two: Are we putting muscle on as fast as possible and injury-free? Definitely not. The fact that bodybuilders are still getting bigger and bigger implies that we can always grow and develop faster. The fact that injuries are still prevalent in some but not all also implies we can still apply the loads more efficiently.
WHERE FROM HERE?
The point is to think, not to have your workouts guided by emotions or tradition. Analyze your actions in the gym and ask yourself, “Does this truly work for me?” The physical differences from individual to individual are vast, and I would argue the adjustments and “modifications” applied to exercises should be just as vast (even as simple as an adjustment in grip, stance, or range of motion). The truth is, achieving your best physique is not about specifics. It will never be a specific exercise or workout. Rather, it’s about having the right thought process. You can always be better, and your exercises, form, and effort can always improve.