Experience and education are both important for lifting. But if you're a stubborn asshole, neither will make a big enough difference to help you progress. Ego and personal biases are man's biggest enemies when it comes to training. It's possible to overcome them, but a lot of guys would rather stagnate than admit that what they've been doing isn't working.
Are you one of those guys? This is important because it's what will determine whether you grow mentally and physically, or just stay kinda small, angry, and unimpressive. Here's exactly what most guys tend to do, and why it holds them back.
There's no doubt that progressive overload has merit. Becoming proficient in the big lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, and usually overhead press) with big weights has tremendous value across the board: bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, sports, etc. Everyone who enters the gym and intends to make it a fixture in their life should spend a significant amount of time focusing on the big basic lifts, and adding more reps or weight to the bar.
But the basics and progressive overload can be vastly overrated in terms of productiveness. And some people see it as the ONLY solution to training plateaus. Any training problem or plateau, according to them, can all be solved by adding more weight to the bar. In fact, if you listen closely enough, any problem in life can be solved through progressive overload according to this camp. Just do more of what you were doing and a solution will present itself.
- Lifter 1: "I need bigger legs."
- Lifter 2: "Progressive overload on squats."
- Lifter 1: "I need bigger legs AND butt."
- Lifter 2: "Progressive overload on squats AND deadlifts."
- Lifter 1: "I need more money in the bank."
- Lifter 2: "Progressive overload at work. Work more hours or get a second job."
- Lifter 1: "I haven't been laid in a year."
- Lifter 2: "Progressive overload on dating. Someone will have sex with you eventually."
If you're a novice and haven't built the foundation, then it's probably your most viable training modality. The first three to five years, progressive overload has the greatest degree of payoff. You're nowhere near close to your overall strength potential and the amount of strength gained will usually be congruent with the amount of muscle that can be accumulated from fulfilling that potential.
Like most things, however, there's a point of diminishing returns, especially if adding more muscle mass is your primary goal. And being so obsessed with nothing but adding weight on the basic lifts is an indication that your training toolbox is tiny and you're scared to broaden your horizons.
But if you look at the science and examine your own results, you'll know that just adding more weight to the barbell on three lifts isn't the final answer when it comes to pushing past growth plateaus, especially for those who've already gotten past the noob stage.
This is an area where men might benefit from learning from the ladies who've built impressive backsides. For them, developing a better mind-muscle connection was the thing that really got their trunk packed with junk. Not heavier squats and deadlifts.
And research has shown that training with different loading protocols produces similar results when volume is accounted for. So if you're looking to pack on size and are a "progressive overload, heavy weights on the basics!" dude, then you're short-changing your efforts in the gym and have become your own worst enemy through this faux-macho dogma.
Think about it: How many competitive bodybuilders only squat, deadlift and bench press for low reps? Yeah, none of them. If that's what worked best for muscle growth, then that's what they'd do.
Yes, progressive overload is a good way to build mass for a while, but not forever. You may need to approach progressive overload from an entirely different angle. Here's some different approaches:
- The guy that needs bigger legs, who can already squat 5-hundo for five, should try squatting 315 for multiple sets of 20.
- The dude with a melting grandpa ass ought to try some isometric work and develop a better mind-muscle connection, or adopt some of those "girl exercises" like hip thrusts. You know, those girls who have a bigger, stronger ass than he does.
- The guy that has the bank account problem may just need to spend less.
- The person that can't get laid may just need to take a shower.
Being innovative in the gym is great, but there's a point where it goes off the deep end. And if you're putting it up on social media, just admit that you're an attention whore.
It's true that some women do silly combination movements, like lateral raises and lunges at the same time. But that's not nearly as bad as the stuntmen who like to show off with insanely stupid exercises. Really, they're not even exercises; they're circus tricks.
The average gym bro who does weird shit knows it. Do you see anyone jacked hanging upside down from the leg press swinging a kettlebell around? I don't either. So why are you? What muscle group is it that you're working exactly? If you've got bands, chains, kettlebells, milk jugs, and the dwarf from Game of Thrones all attached to a barbell then you either don't know what you're doing or you're attention seeking.
The functional strength cult has really cornered the market on this. Even worse, I've seen coaches talk about how beneficial some movements can be if done on an unstable surface.
I don't know the specific numbers here, but a high percentage of our life is spent on a stable surface. And athletes play most sports on a stable surface. Not to mention, if you want to actually help a lifter improve with what he or she is doing in the weight room, then get them leaner, stronger, and more mobile. None of these accomplishments require an unstable surface.
I suspect that a lot of coaches invent weird shit to make their training techniques look edgy and far too elite for the general public. But no matter how "advanced" it may seem, if it doesn't make you stronger, hotter, or more athletic, then it's a total waste of time.
Not to mention the risks associated with weird inventions. If you break your foot doing a nonsense lift, then you'll end up having to miss workouts. And if you're promoting nonsense lifts to the general public, then you're just asking for a following of injured fans... or a following of people laughing at you and pretending to be your fans.
No one is a bigger example of this nonsense than a coach of former NFL player, Adam Archuleta. The guy who trained him had him do stuff like drop from ceiling height into a push-up position. Achuleta put on quite the show at the NFL combine, then proceeded to be a bust on the NFL field. Maybe if there was a part of an NFL game where being dropped from the goal post had a point value for the game his training would've had merit.
Innovation within reason can break up training monotony and inject some fun into training. This can be extremely motivating. Just don't become a total ass-clown about it.
Most women are either in favor of it or indifferent to it. And many top male bodybuilders love it. Even some strong-as-hell powerlifters use for certain accessory lifts.
But there are a ton of guys who are outraged that the Smith machine even takes up space in the gym. And the arguments against it usually come back to, "It removes the stabilizing muscles involved in the barbell equivalent movement."
But what if that's the whole point? What if you need to train around an injury that you're rehabbing and the Smith machine allows you to get in a position you can't get in with a barbell? With a Smith machine, you could still train pain-free and stimulate muscle growth.
But if your ego is so huge that you can't be seen in a Smith machine, then you're only hurting yourself. And that degree of insecurity is what makes you a little bitch.
Oh look, here's powerlifting master coach Dave Tate using a Smith machine, but you're more hardcore than him, right?
What if you have levers that make certain barbell movements inefficient at building certain musculature, and the Smith machine enables you to hypertrophy that area? Dorian Yates was a thinking-man's bodybuilder, and he found that Smith machine squats were superior than barbell squats for his body type. He did okay as a bodybuilder.
Need another example? Zydrunas Savickas has done well as a strongman competitor and routinely uses the Smith machine to build his overhead press.
Labeling the Smith machine "worthless" is like labeling all of Canada worthless because they gave us Nickelback and Justin Bieber. Okay, those are pretty good reasons, but you get the idea.
Now, if you're ONLY using the Smith machine, then yes, your stabilizers won't get the same degree of work that they'd get with a barbell. But most people don't just do Smith machine work, either. Most people who approach training with even an ounce of intelligence use a variety of movements – with and without machines.
The Smith machine, like almost everything in the gym, is neither good nor bad. It's how you apply it for your goals that ultimately makes it a good or bad choice in your training.
Here comes Benching Bob. It's Monday, so it's chest day of course. He's about to do a bunch of bench presses. But first, he needs to stretch. Because he learned that from Jane Fonda, or something.
Bob adds weight to the bar, and as it gets heavier he asks someone for a spot. Bob proceeds to do about two good reps, then needs the guy to upright row his barbell for another 8 reps while his feet do some kind of tap dancing routine all over the floor.
But Bob doesn't stop there. He adds more weight, and then asks YOU to spot him because the other guy's shoulders were destroyed after that last set. You reluctantly agree.
Bob gets about half a rep before you too have to begin an upright row workout. Bob then eeks out another 10 "reps" with your help. Bob is feeling strong today, so more weight to the bar must be added. After all, he just did that weight for 10 reps. Eventually Bob works up to a "max" and asks if it was "all him" or not, then tells you he normally does that weight pretty easily and isn't quiet sure why it was so heavy today.
There are lots of Bobs in the gyms these days. They come in and max out every week, or even just on the days they feel strong. Why are men more obsessed with this than women? I'll admit to doing this in my earlier years too. Then one day I woke up and realized what an idiot I was and knocked that shit off and my training became more productive.
Doing maxes in the gym, and I mean TRUE one rep maxes, have no purpose in terms of creating training productivity. It's a demonstration of your strength, but not an actual strengthener. Believe it or not, it doesn't build strength, nor can you base training cycles around it. So I can't figure out what real purpose it serves, especially for all those one-rep max fanatics who don't even compete in powerlifting.
I once did an interview where I said something to the effect of "just because you go into the gym and you're having an amazing day and you squat 650, it doesn't make you a 650 squatter." This was taken completely out of context and everyone missed the point, which is this: If you're setting up training cycles using some sort of periodization, you never take your true one rep max and factor that in. You use a number for your training cycles based off something you can do even on a bad day, or something that would be a very modest PR.
If you're using the former method, I call this an everyday max or EDM. And if you're going to max, this is how you do a "max" in a manner that's productive, and has purpose.
The reason to do this is because you're going to have bad days, and it's important to stack up weeks of productive training that don't cause deep inroads into your recovery. If you factor in your TRUE one rep max, and you're looking at a training cycle of eight to twelve weeks, then there's going to be a point where you start missing the reps you're supposed to hit. Then the upcoming weeks aren't going to be doable and you'll have to reassess your training cycle completely. Does this seem productive?
Truly productive strength training cycles are about building momentum. That means stacking up one productive training cycle after another, and not overreaching until the very end of the training cycle where rest and recovery will allow supercompensation to happen in preparation for competition.
The other problem with maxing is that guys often do it after they're into a few weeks of a productive training cycle, are feeling strong, then decide that somehow it's a good idea to deviate from what's making them strong and max out. What often follows is a strength regression for a few weeks before strength returns to baseline levels. So you basically give yourself a voluntary setback just to brag about your single rep.
Here's a clue for guys that keep doing this: The reason you were feeling strong weeks into a training cycle is because you were training with enough volume, intensity, and frequency, that made strength adaption happen without impeding recovery.
Now you've subjugated yourself to your ego and have thrown the recovery curve straight into the shitter. This is why the dip in strength usually happens before your strength "set point" is reestablished a few weeks later.
Next time you're in the gym and you decide it's a good idea to do a stunt, max out, or poo-poo the Smith machine even though you could probably use it, ask yourself, "Is what I'm about to do going to make me better, or am I just doing it because I want to feel superior to other lifters?"
It might be a good idea to stop putting on a show and start building strength each week.