The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

Mythbusters Volume 1


Let me be clear about one thing: with the possible exception of anything that comes out of Larry King's mouth, there are no unimportant interview questions. Every question or comment serves a purpose, whether it's to get the interviewee to open up, show emotion, unleash new information, or just get back on track. Everything matters.

But I recently learned that sometimes I should just let the guy ramble. If he wants to rant, my job is to shut up and make sure the tape recorder keeps rolling.

Most of the guys I interview are great at going off on tangents. And while the resulting transcript is often a jumbled mess of opinion, applied research, and hard-earned experience, occasionally I get something unexpected: an idea for a completely different article based on the unrelated information or opinion. To paraphrase Rod Stewart, every tangent tells a story.

This is a collection of those tangents and tidbits from Dave Tate, Chris Bathke, Matt McGorry, Eric Cressey, and Craig Weller.

Whether they're debunking long-held myths by citing specific research, drawing from personal experience, or just making an educated guess, their comments are sure to make you put on your thinking cap.


Myth: You shouldn't work a muscle you've just hurt.
Mythbuster: Dave Tate

If you hurt a muscle and then neglect it, you're not addressing the problem. It's like fighting with your girlfriend over sex. The problem isn't the sex; it's the fact you can't communicate well. So the problem isn't necessarily the hurt muscle, it's that you fucked up somewhere else.

Take the beginning of a pec strain. Obviously, it's going to start with tightness. First things first, you have to get your mobility back. You want the range of motion to be equal on both sides.

You should obviously avoid doing shit that aggravates the injury, unless you're training for a meet and have to take that risk. But if you avoid any exercise for the affected muscles, you're making a big mistake.

I'd start with some loaded stretching, like lat pulldowns with a wide grip. Just put a little bit of weight on the stack, grab the bar, hold the stretch at the top for 10 seconds, and do four reps. You can also do some very light machine flies to pump as much blood as possible in there. I like machines for this type of training because you can't fall out of the groove. With free-weight exercises, there's more of a stability challenge, and more risk of damaging the muscles you're trying to heal.

After the loaded stretching, I'd do something like a reverse band bench press with the bar weight equal to whatever the tension of the band is. So if you've got a green band, you'd want to load the bar with 95 pounds so it just floats on your chest. From there, you'll do partial presses, trying not to flex your triceps and lock out the reps. At the top of each of these partial reps, it'll feel like 65 pounds or so.

You want to do 100 consecutive reps, trying to put as much blood as possible into your pecs, triceps, and shoulders.

If you're trying to rehab a muscle, the movement that's going to help the most is the same one that probably hurt it. That's because the blood knows exactly where to go. Just don't be an idiot and push yourself too hard, because then you have a good chance of hurting it worse.


Myth: Back squats are better than front squats for gaining mass.
Mythbuster: Chris Bathke

Unless you're training for powerlifting, front squats are a better choice in terms of lower-body muscle recruitment and back health. In fact, I rarely have clients do back squats anymore.

The latest issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has a University of Florida study with this conclusion: "The front squat was as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces and extensor moments."

The study also found that back squats had "significantly higher" spinal-compressive forces and greater torque on the knees. Another point for front squats is improved hip mobility. Since they force you to keep an upright position, you're allowed to achieve a greater range of motion. This means your glutes, hams, and quads are working harder.

So if getting jacked and staying jacked for a long time is your goal, front squats are the only squats you need.

Best Exercises for Size and Strength

It's the right exercise.


Myth: A "comfortable" deadlift setup is best.
Mythbuster: Matt McGorry

Chances are, with a few weeks of focused training, you could improve your deadlift PR by a whopping 30 to 50 pounds. How? By changing your stance, which is often the limiting factor for novice and intermediate lifters.

A shoulder-width stance is too wide for most people, yet it's where many settle. If your knees are buckling in even slightly on your near-max lifts, that's a sign that you need to narrow your stance.

Hip-width is ideal for most lifters, as it allows you to get your hips lower, keep your chest up, and maintain a better arch in your lower back. It may feel awkward at first, but it'll improve your leverage, an extremely important factor in moving heavy weight.

I came to this realization thanks to a digital camera. After years of watching my form in a mirror, I thought it was pretty tight. I changed my mind after I saw myself on video. (Eric Cressey helped me out as well.) Once I narrowed my stance, I improved my PR by 40 pounds in eight weeks.

Best Exercises for Size and Strength
Best Exercises for Size and Strength

Narrow stance, big results.

That said, some people do better by going the other direction and pulling sumo. You can figure out if you're one of them by matching your squat and deadlift numbers to the following chart:

  Squat PR Deadlift PR
Level 1 1xBW 1.5xBW
Level 2 1.5xBW 2xBW
Level 3 2xBW 2.5xBW
Level 4 2.5xBW 3xBW

As you can see, your deadlift max should be greater than your squat max by about half your body weight at each level.

But let's say you're a 200-pound lifter who squats 300 (1.5 times your body weight) and deadlifts 350 (1.75 times your weight). Your squat is at Level 2, but your deadlift is in between levels 1 and 2.

Assuming you've been training the two lifts more or less equally, the fact your squat is stronger could mean you'd be better off deadlifting sumo-style, allowing you to take advantage of your thigh strength.

Obviously, that's a general guideline, and there could be other reasons why your deadlift isn't as strong as it should be, relative to your squat. Chances are, though, your stance is at least part of the problem.


Myth: Unstable-surface training doesn't serve a purpose.
Mythbuster: Eric Cressey

Yeah, go ahead and laugh about Bosu balls and balance discs. The reality is that they work for those of us who've suffered ankle sprains.

The most common type is a lateral/inversion sprain (shown below), in which your foot twists to the inside, stretching or tearing the ligaments on your outer shin. The telltale signs of an inversion sprain are pain, swelling, and eventually discoloration on the outside of the ankle.

Best Exercises for Size and Strength

Your peroneals — muscles on the outside of your shin — are in charge of preventing inversion. If they're working properly, they'll contract fast enough and powerfully enough to straighten the foot before the ankle rolls and your ligaments stretch or tear.

Once you've suffered an ankle sprain, you're going to have functional ankle instability unless you follow a good rehabilitation program. In this area, the research has shown over and over again that training on unstable surfaces — wobble boards, Bosu balls, balance discs — can correct this proprioceptive delay and get rid of functional ankle instability.

That's why unstable surface training (UST) is a great rehabilitation tool.


Myth: Unstable-surface training works for everybody.
Mythbuster: Eric Cressey

While UST works for people in the rehab setting, a lot of trainers assume they can apply the same techniques to healthy athletes and prevent ankle sprains, improve balance, and enhance performance. 

This makes perfect sense. We talk about "prehab" all the time when it comes to back and shoulder joints, so why wouldn't preemptive ankle training help you avoid sprains?

But then I dug into the research for my master's thesis, and what I found there surprised me: There's no evidence that UST reduces injury risk or improves performance in healthy, trained athletes.

When I conducted a study of my own, I had the good fortune to use one of the country's best Division I men's soccer teams as my subjects. Our results were published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in August 2007.

My study showed that replacing 2 to 3 percent of overall training volume with UST didn't improve performance. But I also discovered something even more important: UST minimized improvements in jumping, sprinting, and agility tests. Put another way, the subjects who weren't doing UST made bigger gains in power, speed, and agility.

So just because something works in rehab doesn't mean it's useful for healthy athletes. In fact, if it takes the place of something else in their training, the opportunity cost seems to make things worse.

Once the study was finished, I invested a lot of time creating a framework for this type of training. One goal was to show the appropriate uses for UST, and there are some. But I also wanted to show an overall progression model for true instability training in healthy athletes.

A lot of people choose the binary route — either "it sucks" or "it's awesome" — but by the time I finished the 100-plus-page report (which you can purchase here), the answer turned out to be a lot more interesting and complex than those two extremes.


Myth: You know how much stress your body can take.
Mythbuster: Craig Weller

During Special Operations selection training, you're subjected to a brutal series of physical and mental tests. Depending on the program and the time of year, between 60 and 90 percent of candidates won't finish. Fun stuff.

But it taught me something important: Pain does not stop the body. There's nothing that hurts so badly that you can't keep going just a little longer.

Extreme and continuous stress teaches you to break daily life down into short, measurable goals. You make it to breakfast, and then you focus on making it to lunch. Sometimes your mind refuses to project beyond the immediate future: running one more step, swimming one more stroke, grinding out just one more push-up.

Everybody hits bottom at some point. You get to a place where you'd do anything to make the pain stop. If your mind breaks first and you stop running, or wave for a support boat on a swim, or raise your hand during a beat-down to say that you're done, you're officially "weeded out." You've quit. You're part of the majority, but you still feel like a loser.

Fortunately, there's a loophole: If your body breaks first, they won't hold it against you. Every guy in my squad had the same perverse thought at some point: "If I can just push myself hard enough to black out, I'll crash in the sand, take a nap, and wait for the medics to revive me. I'll get a nice little break, and then rejoin the pack."

So we ran harder. We pushed. But we hardly ever got those naps. (I was one of the "lucky" few, an experience I described in this article.)

I remember being on a run, soaking wet and covered with sand. We'd just gotten back to our feet after calisthenics in the surf and a series of sprints up and down a sand dune. Then the instructors took off sprinting again.

I didn't think I could make it any farther, but I knew I could never live with myself if I stopped running. So I put my head down and sprinted as hard as I could through the soft sand. Pain surged through my body, and the only conscious thought I can remember was that the air I was gasping into my lungs had turned to fire.

I focused my eyes on the heels of the instructor. The pain was getting worse, but I kept going. I could hear another member of my class behind me, struggling to keep up with the pack while puking between strides.

Guys who went through the training with me had similar experiences. They'd hit bottom one day, and think they could finally reach their breaking point if only they pushed a little bit harder. But it never worked. The agony would only increase. But so would their capacity to keep going. Pain, in other words, never actually broke our bodies.

Best Exercises for Size and Strength

Special Forces training: not nearly as much fun as it looks.

Which isn't to say we weren't incapacitated from time to time by hypothermia, hypoxic blackout, hypoglycemic shock, or some other things you find in the dictionary a few pages past "hell." But passing out was acceptable. Quitting wasn't.

I'm a civilian now, running a facility and training people. Every now and then, I hear someone say, "I can't."

Frankly, that's bullshit. Next time you're tempted to say you "can't," remember that what you're really saying is, "I don't want to."


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