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There’s a reason skinny punks call lifters “meatheads” and why some of the dumbest guys in your gym are also the biggest: building muscle ain’t that complicated. Sure, there’s a science to it, but hard work and consistency will take you further than any one program, diet, or exercise can. In an effort to sell more products, the fitness industry has tried to convince you that you need to follow certain rules in order to get big and strong and lean, making the process of transforming your body far more complex, arduous (and, consequently, much less fun) than it has to be.
Here are the three rules you must be prepared to break if you want see better gains:
I’ve never been a fan of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Of course, I’ve done it many times because the fitness industry convinced me I had to if I wanted to see my abs, but with a little more sense, I would have realized sooner that all I had to do was eat less.
A good diet does all the fat-burning you’ll ever need. Interval training, while useful for conditioning, just isn’t necessary if fat loss is your goal. So if you hate running sprints on a treadmill or doing kettlebell circuits like you see on The Biggest Loser, stop!
The big argument we hear again and again that’s supposed to justify HIIT is that it increases your metabolic rate for days after the workout. This is true — it’s a phenomenon known as EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) — but unless you’re a well-trained anaerobic athlete, it still won’t put a dent in your fat stores.
A 2006 paper in the Journal of Sports Sciences stated that “research optimism regarding an important role for the EPOC in weight loss is generally unfounded … the exercise stimuli required to promote a prolonged EPOC are unlikely to be tolerated by non-athletic individuals.”
In other words, if you’re an experienced sprinter, your workouts may allow you to burn a little more fat in the days afterward. But for significant and prolonged fat loss, you’ll have to focus on your diet.
My clients are often relieved that I don’t force them to do any kind of cardio, yet they still lose weight in short periods of time. To be clear, I’m not dead-set against cardio — I fully recognize that it’s good for the heart and important for athletic conditioning — but HIIT, as you see done in your average gym, is something you can take off your to-do list.
If you read about workout programs as much as I do, you can get sucked into the hype. There’s always something new coming out that promises better and faster results, and the sales pitch for it usually tries to blind you with science, making you feel like the training you’ve been doing isn’t good enough anymore.
Having some plan for how you’ll get stronger and bigger or leaner is essential, but the simplest ones usually work just as well or better than the fancier, more complex options. Constantly comparing programs in search of the “best” one is a surefire way to spend years in deadlock and confusion when you could be making gains.
Check this out: a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research earlier this year compared the effects of block periodization (let’s call it BP) to a linear model.
Now BP is a fancy, high-level concept in the strength and conditioning world, born from methods used in the former Soviet Union. Some coaches think it’s the Holy Grail of programming. Linear periodization is much simpler, and something you’ve probably used before: start out doing higher reps and more sets and work your way down to low reps and fewer sets over time to increase strength.
Between the two types of programming, the researchers observed no difference in terms of body composition or lower-body strength among their athletes. However, the BP group did have greater improvements in the bench press.
So what does this mean? Is BP better or not?
All we can really say is that it’s just another thing to try—it may work better for you, or it may not. No program is perfect. But one thing is clear: this supposedly more scientifically advanced workout plan isn’t necessarily superior to an old-fashioned one.
Unless you’re a high-level athlete (as the subjects in this study were), you don’t need to pull your hair out about which periodization path to follow. The workouts in my Truth About Strength Training book are old-school, easy to understand, and work for everybody. You can milk gains from them for years on end.
Relax, I’m not going to bash intermittent fasting (IF). I’ve used it myself and can vouch for its effectiveness. But while it’s become one of the hottest trends in nutrition, some people just don’t like to skip breakfast.
And they don’t have to. Research in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that meal frequency didn’t matter as long as subjects ate the appropriate amount of calories to lose weight. While there are some hormonal benefits to fasting, nothing affects your ability to lose fat as dramatically as simply cutting your calories and being consistent with your diet. Whatever frequency allows you to do that best, be it two meals per day or six, is your business. Find the schedule that suits your lifestyle.
All I ask of my clients is that they hit certain macronutrient numbers and make healthy food choices. The timing of the meals is unimportant. My book discusses this at length, and lists many other rules that are meant to be broken.
The Truth About Strength Training — available now — includes a 12-week workout and diet program by Muscle & Fitness training director Sean Hyson. Pick it up here.