Are You Doing Stupid Stuff in the Gym?
by Eric Cressey
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I'm typing this article on Opening Day, 2007. That's opening day for the Boston Red Sox, mind you, because none of the other teams matter!
I've been a Sox fan for as long as I can remember. I'm pretty sure I dropped my first F-Bomb (at age 5) when Bill Buckner got five-holed in the 1986 World Series. And I certainly dropped some of my loudest ones during Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series thanks to Aaron Boone, Grady Little, and a merciless God.
Back in the spring of 2000 — my freshman year at Babson, a business school just outside of Boston — I bought a new Sox hat. This morning, seven years and six opening days later, as I left the house to head in to train my first client at 7:30AM, I tossed that same hat on. Granted, I haven't worn it every day, but it has stuck with me through all the frustrations and successes of my professional career and personal life, not to mention the emotional roller coaster that is the life of a Red Sox fan.
Sure, I could have very easily purchased a new hat whenever I wanted one. They've introduced Red Sox hats in pink, green, and every color in between. There have been Red Sox beanies and doo-rags. You can even buy camouflage Sox hats; apparently, it's wise to cover up your team allegiance when in the jungle. My point is, would buying into any, or worse, ALL of the bells and whistles have made me any better or more dedicated a Red Sox fan?
In case you can't see where I'm going with this, for the sake of time, I'll be nice and blunt for you:
Most people are doing a lot of stupid stuff in the gym.
The Internet has been a tremendous resource for billions of people in a wide variety of realms, but as I've come to realize, it's allowed the "curse of knowledge" to rear its ugly head far too easily in the resistance-training world.
I'm all for training smart, but the problem is that far too many people spend so much time on the "smart" part that they don't actually remember how to train hard. So they wind up unknowingly abandoning simple principles that pack major results.
In his book, Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance, Dr. John Eliot debunks ten myths of high-performance as examples. Two of my favorites are "use your head" and "learn from your mistakes." With respect to these "myths," Eliot writes (respectively):
"Using your head is stupid. In high-stakes performance, the real genius is someone like Yogi Berra. On his way to ten World Series rings and a place in the baseball Hall of Fame, Yogi was thinking about nothing."
"Legends never say they're sorry. Having a long or frequent memory for mistakes and a short or infrequent memory for successes is a guaranteed way to develop fear of failure. High achievers dwell on what they do well and spend very little time evaluating themselves and their performances."
With these two "myths" in mind, I want you to stop thinking, and start doing while following these five simple principles that have clearly been lost in many Internet warriors, thanks to the curse of knowledge.
Reminder #1: Compound lifts should comprise at least 80% of your exercise selection — regardless of your training age.
According to the 80/20 Rule, 20% of what you do accounts for 80%. In the context of resistance training, that 20% consists of squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, various presses, rows, and lunging variations. Now, theoretically, if you were to quadruple your "20% activities," you'd get four times the results.
Instead, thanks to the "wisdom" imparted to us by traditional bodybuilding magazines, we opted for inefficiency and stuck to our leg extensions and concentration curls. Unless these exercises are supersetted with glute injections, they aren't going to get the Average Joe any bigger.
But what about variety? Don't bodybuilders need to hit muscles from a variety of different angles to succeed? My response is multi-faceted:
1. You aren't a bodybuilder unless you've competed in a bodybuilding show. Until you do, you're just a guy (or girl) who lifts weights. I lifted heavy stuff for years before I became a powerlifter. I jumped over a puddle this morning, but that didn't make me a long-jumper.
2. Generally, the people asking these questions are the ones who need to heed the "Using your head is stupid" warning. There is absolutely no reason for beginners to be following programs from advanced, drug-aided bodybuilders who are doing loads of isolation exercises. You aren't as advanced as you think. As Dave Tate has written, "You can't flex bone."
3. Variety is certainly important, but inserting variety should not be synonymous with switching to isolation exercises. As an example, here are just a few variations you have with a regular ol' barbell bench press:
1. Barbell Bench Press
2. 1-Board Press
3. 2-Board Press
4. 3-Board Press
5. 4-Board Press
6. 5-Board Press
7. Barbell Floor Press
8. Barbell Incline Press (various angles)
9. Barbell Decline Press (various angles)
Now, that's just nine exercises you can rotate for an entire training career. However, here's what you can do to take it a step further:
a. Use a close-grip or ultra-wide grip
b. Modify the lowering portion or pause at the bottom.
c. Attach bands, chains, or weight-releasers to the bar.
d. Use the pins in a power rack or a softer object as your "pause" instead of boards.
e. Pick up two pairs of Lynx grips and automatically turn your barbell into a thick bar (this is a personal favorite of mine; we use these a ton in our facility, for everything from presses, to pull-ups, to grip-specific exercises). www.LynxPT.com
Yep, having a thick bar has spoiled us a little...
Now, the more advanced you are, the more you can incorporate some isolation exercises here and there. Why? Well, squatting 600 pounds is a lot more taxing than squatting 200 pounds!
Beginners' non-compound stuff should consist of prehab exercises (scapular stability, "core" stability, hip abduction work, etc). More advanced lifters can throw in some curls and pressdowns to keep their elbows healthy and get a little volume in without beating themselves up too much.
Reminder #2: Get stronger.
Somewhere along the line, people forgot that lifting weights can actually make you bigger andstronger. All too often, lifters get so caught up in the pump and checking out their guns in the mirror that they overlook the fact that the dumbbell in their hand is pathetically light. I'm going to let you in on a little secret of mine: if you focus on getting stronger and just eat, you will get bigger. Need an example?
Pete was my college roommate during my freshman year of undergrad, and we've kept in touch ever since. That year, each time I left the room to go to the gym, I'd jokingly ask if he was finally going to come with me to get a lift in. He never came along — and that's why he was still 6-1, 160 pounds when I moved back to Boston last August (6.5 years later).
Last November, out of the blue one day, Pete asked me if he could come by the facility, as he was tired of getting pushed around on the soccer field (he was offered a spot in the Major League Soccer Developmental League after a scout accidentally discovered him in a summer league game). And, more importantly, his girlfriend had called him skinny. Ouch!
On Pete's first day, I simply told him to follow the program I outlined for him, lifting in good form and making sure to get stronger each week. We made sure he was lifting around strong people, but at the same time attending to the less "intense" things like dynamic flexibility and foam rolling. And, we placed an order for a bunch of Metabolic Drive, Surge, Flameout, and Metabolic Drive bars. Simplicity at its finest.
Four months later, Pete is now 190 pounds. His bench is up about 100 pounds, and his squat and deadlift even more than that. His chronic quad pain is gone, and he actually looks like he lifts weights. Perhaps most importantly, he's absolutely addicted to the gym. Correlation? Causation? Who cares?
If you aren't getting stronger, you need to reevaluate your program. If you aren't trying to get stronger, you need to get your head examined.
Reminder #3: Get a frame of reference.
This is a feature that was "accidentally" included in Pete's experience.
A word that gets thrown around quite a bit on Internet forums is "inspirational."
Your lift inspired me!
Your progress is truly inspirational!
You've been an inspiration to us all!
I'm all for inspirational, but the problem is that most people have no frame of reference for what is mediocre at best, and what is truly inspirational. I recently saw someone call a 315 deadlift "inspirational."
Sorry, folks, but I'm here to burst your bubble. A 315 deadlift is not inspirational — at least not unless you're a 110-pound female. 315 is speed weight — or something you do for 87 reps on a whim after a dare from John Sullivan (not that I'd know anything about stupid challenges like that).
315 is less than 50% of 635
I've said it before and I'll say it again: any healthy male under the age of 50 can deadlift 400 within two years of proper training — and most can do it even faster than that.
T-Nation is, for the most part, a male audience. While women traditionally do better competing against themselves, males respond well to competition and comparisons to others. Get around strong people, and you'll get stronger. It's like osmosis or something.*
*It's safe to assume that someone will reply to this article with: "Technically, osmosis only refers to the diffusion of water across a cell membrane; you're ALL wrong, Cressey." It's best for us to ignore this individual, who clearly lives in his parents' basement, doesn't lift, and has never gotten laid. He should reread this article several times over in order to fully appreciate how hopelessly useless he really is.
Reminder #4: Find a good training environment and lifting partners.
Last week, a very highly ranked high school basketball recruit I train had a weekend tournament, so we had to push one of his lifts back to a different day. To accommodate his schedule, he jumped in to train with some older football guys and I. Here's one of the things he witnessed:
Consider this image, and combine it with some loud music and the fact that George (the athlete pictured) has a tendency to get "psycho eyes" during almost every exercise, and it should come as no surprise that my basketball kid was pretty much in awe of the experience. He made a point of mentioning how "wild" this guy was. Now, just a week later, he's got more motivation to train — and train hard — than ever before. Being around strong people motivated him to take his own training to the next level.
Now what happens when you take an athlete with a good coach and training program, and then add a solid lifting environment and training partners? You get 15-year old, 188-pound shortstops front squatting 300 pounds like air.
Reminder #5: Attitude matters!
I've got a beast on my hands right now. Antwan Harris has got legs like tree trunks, a 655 deep free squat (at right about 200 pounds), almost no body fat on him, and traps that practically touch his ears. His bench is up from 290 to 390 in only 4.5 months of training — and he's still getting better.
Sure, you can attribute a lot of Antwan's feats to genetics, and more recently, proper training and a generous Biotest hook-up thanks to TC and Tim. However, what you can't appreciate is the contribution of attitude to his success. Here is a guy who can get an entire gym fired up; he's got more gym attitude than any athlete I've ever coached — professional, Olympic, or collegiate. People say that Larry Bird made players around him better; it might be through different means, but Antwan does that to guys in the weight room — and he fires himself up in the process.
Perhaps the most impressive part about Antwan is that I've never heard him curse. He's a great role model and motivator for all my high school athletes, and he can joke with any one of my adult personal training clients and chat on their level. In short, he knows how to turn it on and turn it off; you can't be "Go, go, go!" all the time, as you'll desensitize yourself and those around you to the attempted pick-me-ups.
The take-home lesson is to know when to take the intense attitude, and when to relax a bit. We'll joke around a bit in the warm-up and post-training when we're doing flexibility work, but when the time comes to move some big weights and get after it, the music gets turned up and we're all business.
I absolutely love the way by which the internet has facilitated information exchange in our industry, but the truth of the matter is that the curse of knowledge has become as serious a problem as ever. Aim to get stronger on the compound lifts and surround yourself with strong people in a good environment with the right amount of attitude, and you'll be more than happy with the results.
Now, stop overanalyzing this article and go lift some heavy stuff.
About the Author
Eric Cressey, M.A., C.S.C.S., is a highly sought-after coach for healthy and injured athletes alike at Excel Sport and Fitness in Boston, MA (www.ExcelStrength.com). Feel free to contact him and sign up for his free newsletter at www.EricCressey.com.
Along with Mike Robertson, Eric co-produced Magnificent Mobility and the Building the Efficient Athlete 8-DVD set. He is also the author of The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual. All three are available through the T-Nation store.
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