Before the digital age, the world of strength training was based on in-the-trenches experience. While many coaches and bodybuilders were spot-on with the training principles they developed, others pushed dogmatic beliefs that, somehow, still exist. Today their ideas are often treated like training mandates – as if they're based on scientific fact.
But ideas don't become factual just because they're peddled by a lot of people. Words don't become truths just because they're repeated over and over again. So let's take a look at some common myths and set the record straight.
- Myth: Compound lifts, like squats and deadlifts, provide all the core training you need.
- Fact: Building a midsection that's strong and aesthetic requires dedicated core/ab training.
It's a tough pill to swallow for many lifelong meatheads, but the reality is the compound lifts aren't "all the core training you'll ever need."
The fact is, most (if not all) lifters need dedicated core work to address weaknesses, imbalances, and postural issues to stay healthy and build strength over the long haul. Plus, carving out a set of abs that double as a cheese grater requires specific training that, like any other muscle group, aligns with the foundational principles of hypertrophy.
There are two primary reasons why the compound lifts fall short:
1 – For Function
The core should be trained to resist unwanted movement at the spine. A strong core creates a stable base that allows you to produce more force and, as a result, lift more weight.
Likewise, core strength is crucial for training longevity. It plays a lead role in preventing the spine from folding up like an accordion. For these reasons, performing "anti-movement" exercises is pivotal for a strong and resilient core.
- Anti-extension exercises (planks, ab wheel rollouts) train the core to resist lumbar extension.
- Anti-rotation exercises (Pallof presses, chops/lifts) prevent unwanted rotation at the spine.
- Anti-lateral flexion exercises (suitcase carries) force the body to resist side-bending at the trunk.
2 – For Aesthetics
The core should be trained with hypertrophy as the goal. Many lifters squat, deadlift, and press their hearts out, only to remain stuck with a midsection as soft as a stack of double-stuffed pancakes. The problem is, developing abs requires dedicated training that stimulates hypertrophy via mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. This calls for three things:
- Exercises that can be progressively loaded over time
- Exercises that facilitate a strong mind-muscle connection
- Slow reps within a controlled range of motion to emphasize time under tension
- Myth: Don't train for more than 60 minutes.
- Fact: Train as long as you need to attain the right results, regardless of time.
Many old-school lifters used to train for 2-3 hours, venture off to do 6-8 hours of intense manual labor, and then top the night off with a ribeye and a couple of beers – all while maintaining impressive physiques.
Somewhere down the line, though, a theory arose that the body releases a fatal amount of cortisol as soon as a workout exceeds 60 minutes, at which point the muscles disintegrate into an atrophied pile of dust.
Even though research and anecdotal evidence show there's no merit behind these claims, most lifters remain wary of staying in the gym for more than an hour, lest they start sweating out buckets of estrogen.
Can you make progress if you only have 30-45 minutes to train? Definitely. Is it optimal? Probably not, especially if you're a stronger lifter with more years of training under your belt. The reality is that you need more time to train.
For example, let's say there are two lifters who want to work up to a 3-RM. Lifter A has been training for a year and can deadlift 225 pounds, whereas Lifter B has been training for 20 years and can deadlift 600 pounds.
Example ramp-up sets for Lifter A:
- 95x8, 135x5, 165x3, 185x1, top-end set at 205x3
Example ramp-up sets for Lifter B:
- 135x8, 225x5, 275x3, 315x1, 365x1, 405x1, 455x1, 495x1, 525x1, top-end set at 545x3
Lifter A can get to his top-end set after four ramp-up sets, whereas Lifter B needs nine ramp-up sets to accomplish the same task. Lifter B will also need longer rest periods between sets, additional ramp-up sets for accessory work, and will spend more time loading and unloading plates. Add in the fact that Lifter B (who's likely older and more injury-prone) will need a more thorough warm-up, and that's 30-40 minutes gone.
Don't waste time in the gym, but don't race against the clock, either. Time is a guide – not a be-all and end-all. Doing quality work and eliciting a powerful training effect trumps all else.
- Myth: Do the compound lifts first, accessory work second, and isolation exercises last.
- Fact: Determine exercise order based on individual needs and goals.
The compound lifts are the best bang-for-your-buck exercises, so doing them when you're fresh makes sense, but it's not so black and white. Since no two lifters are the same, exercise order should be based on individual needs and goals. Sticking to this one-size-fits-all approach can be a major hindrance for progress.
Here's why you should take a different approach. Beginning with isolation exercises can be advantageous for hypertrophy. Isolation exercises might not be as "functional" as compound lifts, but there's no denying that they're better at placing a laser-like focus on the target muscle.
When bench pressing, for example, most lifters end up doing the majority of the work with their shoulders and triceps. That's fine if the goal is to move as much weight as possible, but it's less than optimal for pec size.
Instead of placing isolation exercises at the tail-end of a workout (at which point the muscle is already fatigued), beginning with an exercise like the cable flye will place more stress on the muscle – thus stimulating growth – while establishing a stronger mind-muscle connection prior to pressing. Going heavy on accessory work is beneficial for strength, hypertrophy, and overall function.
The downside to starting a workout with a compound lift? It's physically and mentally taxing, which inevitably puts accessory exercises on the back burner. Prioritizing strength on accessory movements is arguably the best way to get bigger and stronger while improving overall function.
And why can't exercises like chin-ups, rear-foot elevated split squats, and/or push-ups be loaded like primary strength lifts? There are a lot of "accessory" exercises that may be superior for building strength and size since they provide a larger range of motion, allow for increased time under tension, demand more stability, and expose imbalances more effectively than standard barbell exercises.
Starting with isolation exercises and accessory work can also remedy pain and dysfunction in banged-up lifters. Despite the fact that their joints are screaming for mercy, many lifters will walk into the gym, down a handful of ibuprofen, and slap on some Tiger Balm before diving headfirst into a heavily-loaded barbell lift.
But instead of exacerbating pre-existing issues, one strategy would be to place the compound lifts at the end of a training session to spare the joints and improve overall function.
Sounds like a radical approach, but if you do it for a lower body workout, for instance, here's what you'd get out of it:
- Priming the posterior chain is an effective way to relieve pain and improve mechanics prior to heavy barbell work. It's not uncommon for individuals with chronic hip and knee issues to squat pain-free after doing multiple sets of hip thrusts, leg curls, and calf raises.
- Accessory work can be the key to improving overall function. Getting brutally strong on rear-foot elevated split squats, for example, can be a game changer in terms of eliminating imbalances, strengthening weak links, and optimizing lower-body mechanics.
- Since it's much more difficult to suffer from an injury while doing isolation exercises and accessory work, placing them at the beginning of a workout is a safe and effective way to warm up the joints and prime the CNS prior to heavy barbell work.
- Myth: Always use perfect technique.
- Fact: Use technique that keeps you safe, passes the eye test, and aligns with your goals.
Form matters, period. That said, the functional gurus who force-feed PVC pipe squats until "perfect" form is attained are just as bad as the gym bros who can't differentiate between a bicep curl and a backwards hang clean.
Do quality reps matter? Absolutely. But there's more to it.
The truth is, perfect form doesn't exist. When your mom told you that you were a special snowflake, she was (partially) right – everyone has unique anthropometrics, body types, movement skills, goals, and genetic predispositions. Would you tell Yao Ming (who's 7-foot 6-inches with ostrich-esque femurs) to squat like a 5-foot 6-inch powerlifter? Probably not.
Given our individual differences, defining "perfect" form is practically impossible. How then do you assess technique and ensure that you're performing exercises in a safe and effective manner? Ask these three questions:
1 – Is it safe?
Exercises need to be done with technique that minimizes the risk of injury along with chronic wear and tear. To do a solid squat, you don't need to be able to sit on the ground like an elite weightlifter at the bottom of a snatch. All that's required from a movement standpoint is "enough" – you need enough hip and ankle mobility to squat through a full range of motion, move with good mechanics, and minimize joint stress.
2 – Does it pass the eye test?
Mike Boyle said it best: if it doesn't look athletic, it probably isn't. Take the standard push-up, for example. Is the spine straight, or is the lower back dumping towards the ground? Are the upper arms between 30-45 degrees in relation to the torso, or are they flared out to the side?
The eye test isn't rocket science; if the targeted muscles appear to be doing the bulk of the work, and the exercise is done with fluidity and coordination, it checks the box.
3 – Does it align with your goals?
If Uncle Bob wants to put on 5 pounds of muscle, there's no need for him to bench press with an arched lower back after sniffing ammonia and head-butting a wall. Instead, he should chill out and perform each rep with a slow eccentric/negative tempo, emphasize time under tension, and focus on maintaining a strong mind-muscle connection.
A powerlifter, on the other hand, should do whatever it takes (within reason) to move more weight (e.g., arched lower back, shorter eccentric). Neither individual has inherently "good" or "bad" form. Since they're lifting with technique that supports their goals, their form is as perfect as it needs to be.
- Myth: Focus on one specific goal and adjust your training accordingly.
- Fact: In the gym, focus on strength. Bias your goals by adjusting your diet – not your training.
Newbies aside, it's difficult for any lifter to gain muscle, lose fat, and build strength simultaneously. For that reason, common advice says to pick a specific goal and adjust your training accordingly.
In terms of diet, the rationale is spot on. If you're eating everything in sight to build muscle, for example, it's going to be tough to lose an appreciable amount of fat. Likewise, starving yourself in hopes of losing your jelly belly makes it impossible to gain any muscle.
But in the gym, the factor that trumps all else is strength. It doesn't matter if you want to lose fat, build muscle, or improve performance; when you get stronger, the rest takes care of itself.
If you want to lose fat while maintaining as much muscle as possible, train to get stronger across the board. As Tony Gentilcore has said, fat loss plans should alternatively be referred to as "muscle maintenance" plans. What makes muscle, keeps muscle.
Can you expedite the fat loss process by adding in some HIIT and/or metabolic finishers? Sure. Still, pairing a caloric deficit with excess volume is playing with fire.
If your goal is to get bigger, train to get stronger in the 4-8 rep range. John Berardi has said that when clients come to him with muscle-building goals, the first thing he asks is how strong they think they'll need to be to achieve that goal. A 5-foot 9-inch, 160-pound guy, for example, will be hard-pressed to reach 200 pounds until he can bench three plates and squat/deadlift north of five plates.
Likewise, Charles Poliquin had a simple muscle-building philosophy: to build one pound of lean muscle, you need to increase your 6-RM in a major lift by 10 pounds. Boost your 6-RM squat by 50 pounds, for example, and voila – you just put on five pounds of muscle.
Can you manipulate different variables to bias fat loss or hypertrophy? Sure, but the premise remains the same: in the gym, focus on strength. Adjust your diet to bias your goals – not your training.
- Myth: Machines are worthless for functional strength – all you need are free weights.
- Fact: Machines provide unique, unparalleled benefits that free weights can't match.
Sure, free weights reign supreme for strength, size, and performance. But machines provide a number of unmatched benefits that can accelerate gains in strength, stimulate hypertrophy, and improve overall function.
- Machines provide more constant tension than free weights. Muscles don't respond to any piece of equipment in particular; they respond to tension.
Since free weights are deadweight, up to two-thirds of any given exercise are performed with less-than-maximal tension (like the dumbbell flye).
But well-designed machines employ varying levels of resistance to maximize tension through a path's full range of motion (like the pec deck), which forces the target muscle to contract throughout the duration of each rep.
- Machines promote strength gains by taking balance and stability out of the equation. Although machines are often demonized for their inability to challenge balance and stability, this is advantageous when the goal is overall load.
It's the sole reason why lifters can leg press 3-4 times more than they can squat. Is it as "functional" as a squat? Probably not. Can it boost strength numbers and stimulate growth? Definitely.
- Machines promote hypertrophy while maximizing safety and minimizing fatigue. Machines have a pre-determined path of motion, which makes it much more difficult to compensate.
At the same time, machine work is significantly less fatiguing from a neurological standpoint, as it lessens the demands on the forearms, core, and low back. For these two reasons, machines can be a powerful tool to accumulate additional volume and promote growth, while maximizing safety and minimizing fatigue.
- Machines allow you to train around an injury while eliciting a powerful training effect. Often times, rehab is as simple as training around an injury – not through it. With free weights, it's almost impossible to elicit a powerful training effect in the presence of pain.
If you have chronic low back pain and cranky knees, force-feeding back squats is on par with headbutting a wall to get rid of a migraine. Conversely, machines are an effective alternative to train a muscle or muscle group without exacerbating pre-existing issues.
For the banged-up lifter with back pain and bad knees, an exercise like the leg press can produce a powerful training effect without taxing the low back, while the wide variety of angles (flat, decline, etc.) can make it easier to find a knee-friendly position.
- Machines make it easier to isolate muscles and eliminate weak links. Most exercises involving free weights recruit multiple muscle groups simultaneously, which is beneficial in many cases. If the goal is to bring up a lagging body part or eliminate weak links, however, machines can be superior.
Lying leg curls, for example, isolate the hamstrings much more effectively than a barbell RDL, which involves the forearms, glutes, core, and lower back. At the same time, lying leg curls are far less demanding on the CNS, which allows for more quality volume without taxing the rest of the body.