5 Knocks to the Weightlifting Head
I might not always be the brightest bulb under the lampshade, but I do try to light it up once in a while. I've managed to whip up a few articles about different topics and hopefully they've been useful to a few people, so I figured I'd try a different approach with this one.
Here are a handful of thoughts about lifting, food, and even life (don't puke until you read them) that have been percolating around my brainstem.
1. Don't Need to Train
Recently, when Hurricane Sandy kicked New York and New Jersey in the balls with unimaginable destruction, widespread power outages, and general daily chaos, "getting a workout in" was the last thing on my mind for a straight week. I was focused on the health and safety of friends and family, not worrying about how I'll find time to hit a deadlift PR.
My neighborhood's power was completely out for five days and the only "exercise" I got was one set of farmer's walks to and from the gas station three blocks away while carrying two five-gallon containers.
In all, I went eight days without training. No lifting, no Wii Fit yoga, no push-ups by candlelight, nothing. And when I did get back to my routine, I wasn't atrophied, hardly lost noticeable strength, and was generally no worse for wear, all things considered.
Perspective-wise, training dropped way down on the list, really fast. It just wasn't that big a deal. If I was prepping for a competition, things might've been different, but for someone who's just trying to build a bit of muscle, drop a little fat, and maintain some credibility when offering advice, ditching the gym for a week was the easy decision.
Dan John wrote a great article that discussed a similar idea. While some might consider training their "play" time, it really isn't. It's "work" because even if lifting seems like an hour of relief from your usual daily grind, frequent, hard training can have the same cumulative mental, physical, (and, yes, emotional) stresses as putting in a 50-hour week at the office.
I'm not saying that training can't be therapeutic and relaxing (it sure can be, to an extent), but if you dig a layer deeper and find that getting into the gym for an hour or two most days of the week is the focal point of your life, then, as Dan might say, "that's a yellow light." You shouldn't start getting twitchy if you go 48 hours without seeing a 45-pound plate.
Keep an eye on the bigger picture and understand that, like it or not, there are more important things in life than building muscle or seeing some abs. Not to tell you what your priorities should be, but for the majority of people, working out is still "just" a recreational activity several notches more important than leveling up in World of Warcraft, but not quite as important as frisky business with a pretty lady.
Unless you make a career with your body, it's important to remember that training should be something you get to do – a privilege, or something that adds to your life. It shouldn't become something you have to do – a demand or requirement that pushes other priorities aside. "Seven days without training makes one weak" might sound hardcore, but as a philosophy and general outlook on life, it's lame and a little sad.
2. A Little Experimentation Never Hurt Anyone
When's the last time you did a standing shoulder press? Or the last time you tried the Hammer Strength wide bench press instead of the standard Hammer Strength bench? Or even the last time you went plus or minus 5 reps from your average set?
There's something to be said for maintaining a training routine (emphasis on routine, as in regular, recurring, and consistent), but some people have a tendency to fall into training ruts without realizing it, which is the quickest way to hit a plateau.
Being aware of how often you introduce new exercises, new rep ranges, or new training techniques can be the difference between year-long progress or month after month of wondering why nothing's clicking.
Consider switching things up either temporarily, for just a few workouts, or more long-term for several months. At the very least, being open to the idea of doing something new will help you not freak out when the gym is overcrowded and you can't get to one of the only two squat racks, or when all the pulldown cables are being re-installed just as you show up for back day.
A short-term change could be as simple as swapping a pair of dumbbells for a barbell exercise, deliberately slowing down your tempos, or adding 2 or 3 reps per set. That would be different but close enough to cover an unexpected change of plans at the gym or break a stale funk that was developing in your program.
To push things out longer, you might consider a 10 or 12-week block entirely focused on an aspect of training you've been neglecting, whether it's a chunk of time solely dedicated to improving your posture and shoulder/upper back health, or spending a few months learning a new exercise.
For example, if you can't power clean, learn it ASAP – it's probably the number one least used/most effective exercises out there and is a great tool to have in your arsenal pretty much regardless of your current goals.
However, don't get caught up in experimenting or changing things too often. "Consistent inconsistency" sounds kinda dumb, and that's what you'll end up being if you regularly change things just for the sake of change and forget about returning to, or at least incorporating, the basics. Don't be the dude who can do weighted one-arm push-ups on an inverted BOSU ball, but can't bench press half his bodyweight.
3. "Functional" Training is Context-Specific
Wanna know a secret? Pro bodybuilders are incredibly functional. Wanna know another secret? I can't think of a single bodybuilder I'd want on my summer softball team, because then he wouldn't have any functional strength. Before you get all confused like the first time you heard tomatoes were a fruit, let me explain.
Functional training, or functional strength, is a term that's become warped, misused, and inappropriately applied over the years, kinda like how soda with organic cane sugar is a "health food" or how Snooki is a "celebrity."
The whole concept of functional training used to refer to any type of training that allowed one to adequately and safely meet the demands of daily life. Whose daily life? Yours, mine, his, hers, whoever we're referring to.
"Functional training" depends entirely on who's being trained and what they're training for. There's no one-size-fits-all plan whether we're talking about improving lat size, squat strength, or functional performance.
If I'm talking to a 60 year-old lady who plays tennis twice a week, "functional training" will make sure she's healthy enough to return a serve, shuffle cross-court, and hit a backhand. If I'm talking to a 17-year old figure skater, functional training will involve whatever it takes to handle the demands of being agile and explosive on the ice.
And if I'm talking to a bodybuilder, then methods that allow them to increase muscle mass and reduce bodyfat will fall under the "functional training" umbrella. That's not to say that bodybuilders couldn't benefit from things like foam rolling or hip mobility drills (most everyone can), but if a guy is dumbbell curling nearly half-bodyweight for reps, you're the one who ends up looking like a dufus when you say, "Yeah, well, he's not really strong."
Want to see a bodybuilder's functional strength at work? Let's look at what happened in 1993 when Tom Platz and his epic quads had a friendly test of strength against Fred "Dr. Squat" Hatfield.
Platz was well-known for his phenomenal leg development built by heavy squats, high-rep squats, and heavy squats for high reps. Hatfield, who earned the nickname "Dr. Squat" by successfully squatting well-over 1,000 pounds in several competitions, was clearly no slouch in lower body strength.
Yet, when the two legends had a "squat off" and each squatted 505 for max reps, Platz came out the clear winner, racking up 23 reps to Hatfield's 12. That, my friends, is why you don't challenge a bodybuilder to a weighted "max reps" contest. It's where their functional strength shines – performing multiple repetitions with a moderate to heavy load – and it's no coincidence that it also happens to be an ideal way to build muscle.
However, earlier that day, when the two men compared their max squat for a single rep, guess what happened? Hatfield dominated by lifting 865 to Platz's 775 (supposedly with a spotter giving him more-than-a-little help out of the hole). Again, challenging a powerlifter to a one-rep max contest is not a good idea. Functional strength, fully demonstrated.
4. Hardgainers are Bigfoot
You hear stories about them, you might know someone who knows someone who met one once, and sometimes you hear about sightings in the wild, or in the mirror. The trouble is, neither one really exists.
A while back, I noticed Dan John mention a gobsmackingly-simple question he asks anyone who comes to him trying to gain bodyweight. "What did you eat yesterday?" Simple, direct, and yet the answer (or lack thereof) reveals a world of information.
If you've seen my posts in the some of the forums, it's almost become a running gag how often I ask that same straightforward question (and I do give credit to Dan whenever I can). I try to only bring it up when someone claims to have trouble adding size and I'm not really trying to be funny.
When I shine a spotlight onto how much/little is actually going into the mouth of someone who calls themselves a "hardgainer," we realize that sadly, 80% of the time they're simply undereating – their daily calories are consistently insufficient for their training demands and certainly less than the surplus required for muscle growth.
When pressed for details, the excuses fly faster than granny panties at a Tom Jones concert. "I woke up late, so I had to skip breakfast." "I worked overtime, stayed at my desk right through dinner, and fell asleep as soon as I got home." "I was making out with Stacy McSweetface during study hall and then we went to my car so I didn't have time for lunch." All lame excuses. Except maybe the last one.
Bottom-line: If you're trying to grow but aren't seeing the scale move in the right direction, your number one instinct should be to look at your calorie intake for several days in a row.
Whether that means just being conscious of each meal or actually writing notes in a food journal (I'm sure there's an app for that), do it.
When you realize that you're not eating three or four big meals, seven days a week, and you're skipping your workout nutrition, and you're eating less protein than a vegan ballerina, then I hope you feel silly for wanting to raise the hardgainer flag so quickly.
5. Get in the Gym and Lift
I'm not unaware of the irony of what I'm about to write in this online article, being read on a website dedicated to giving you tons of kickass information on a daily basis, but – you really need to turn off the computer and go to the gym.
Look, I get it. I just barely lucked out myself. I got into training in the mid-to-late '90s when AOL trial discs flooded mailboxes like the Spice Girls flooded radio airwaves. Chat rooms were the in-thing and I probably could've found my way into "The Lifter's Lounge" to talk training with people. But I didn't. I was too busy being a time-traveling vampire hunter hanging out in "Algar's Ale House." Hey, don't judge.
Anyway, if I wanted to learn about training I had to walk into an actual store to buy a book or magazine about the subject, and in the moments as I was reaching for that info, I might accidentally bump into someone who had more muscle than a junior high soccer player.
If I'm Facebook friends with a former Mr. Olympia, is that going to help me get bigger? No. If I read every article put out by some 17 year-old telling me how I should eat to build muscle, will it help? Not really. If I sign up for a discussion forum and rack up 386 posts in my first month, did I learn anything useful? Probably not.
But what if I decided to go all "Amish bodybuilder" for two or three months? I could just show up at the gym four or five days a week, squatting, pressing, rowing, and curling without finding new articles and starting a new program every nine days, without bragging about my killer pump on Facebook, and without posting videos of my lateral raises asking for form critiques.
After those few months, presuming I didn't spend the entire time just alternating leg curls, crunches, and pressdowns, odds are I learned a thing or two about my own training. I would've nailed down the best squat stance and bench press grip width for my gangly limbs.
I would've figured out how to really feel my back working on seated rows and feel my rear delts on bent-over flyes. I would've learned that my gym is a lot less crowded around 3:30 on Saturday afternoons, so if I get there by then, I can use the good leg press instead of the one that wobbles. This is stuff that can, maybe, be read about in articles but is worthless unless you put it into practice.
Even a few sessions with a real-world knucklehead who got his online certification 48 hours ago is more useful and more productive than committing a dozen online articles to memory because you re-read them so often rather than trying them.
Keep your obvious-bullshit detector activated and don't let the trainer do anything supremely stupid or dangerous, but simply having someone telling you "do this, then do this, now do this" can give you some insight about what should work, what does work, and what doesn't work.
Ever heard the expression, "Knowledge is not power, only applied knowledge is power?" Well that goes for training, too. Read, learn, question, and absorb, but also do.
That's All, So Take Five
That's some of the stuff that's been on my mind lately. To roll it all into one: Just get out there and train. Be sure to try some new stuff once in a while and know what you're training for, but if you have to miss a workout because something bigger comes up, it's okay. Also, eat a frickin' sandwich already.
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When he's not studying early physical culture, experimenting with new training and nutrition theories, or editing articles, Chris can often be found in the T Nation forums where he uses his 10+ years of teaching and coaching experience to help guide beginners towards the best path for their goals.