Principles vs. Adult Cheerleading
People use motivational quotes either to feel hardcore or to have a mantra that reminds them to be driven when they're not feeling it. And in certain contexts, they might sound right. But none of them should be used as training principles.
While most adults understand that these sayings are half-truths thought up by adult cheerleaders, there will always be people who believe that they're unquestionable training facts. So let's take them apart.
This idea refers to pushing a set to the point where it's almost impossible to complete another rep – hitting failure.
As a general concept, yes, pushing yourself hard can be useful. Most people don't push their moderate or high-rep sets far enough to stimulate hypertrophy. And the quote does emphasize the importance of reaching a certain threshold of effort to trigger growth.
But if you take it literally, this quote would mean that all the reps done prior to those last two have no value in helping you get stronger or bigger. What's worse, it also implies that if you don't reach failure, you're wasting your time.
Does it hold water? Well, there's no doubt that hitting failure is a strong trigger for muscle growth. You'll create a lot of muscle fiber fatigue and accumulate metabolites (lactic acid, hydrogen ions) that are connected to a release in local growth factors.
So the quote is partially right. Those last two reps can be the most important in that hitting failure ensures a more thorough fiber fatigue and growth factor accumulation. It might be reasonable when doing bodybuilding-style work on exercises that have a lower neurological demand. But...
Here's Where It Falls Short
First, the reps preceding the last few painful ones can be just as important. They increase neural activation and are fatiguing to the muscle fibers. Both of these lead to greater fiber recruitment in the last part of the set. Without the earlier reps you can't reach the fatigued state. It's the bulk of the set that puts you in the physical state to make those last two reps so hard.
Second, the earlier reps are better for motor learning. It'll be easier to maintain perfect technique or focus on maximally contracting the target muscle. Once lactic acid has set in and it becomes painful to do a rep, you'll be more focused on surviving and tolerating the pain than on the intensity of the muscle contraction or technical efficiency.
The easier reps are a great tool to practice contracting and recruiting your target muscle. The better you become at doing that, the more growth you'll be able to stimulate.
And finally, on big compound lifts, going to failure often isn't a good investment. When you hit failure on a squat for example, not all of the muscles involved have hit failure. You just can't produce enough force from the combined muscles to lift the weight.
Plus, going to failure on those lifts can create an amazingly high neural stress which can negatively impact the rest of your workout or even the subsequent workouts. I've known lifters who've experienced a decrease in performance for a week after going to failure on deadlifts.
Then there's the technical element. On those big lifts, especially those with a postural component like squats and deadlifts, your form will likely start to break down before you hit failure. This both increases the risk of injury and can lead to bad motor learning.
And remember, hitting failure isn't the only stimulus for growth. People have built awesome physiques without going to failure regularly. You can trigger muscle growth via mTor activation without hitting failure by emphasizing the eccentric (negative) or the stretch position. You can create muscle microtrauma without going to failure. You can even stimulate local growth factors by building up lactic acid without hitting the point where you can't complete a rep.
You can also create enough fiber fatigue to stimulate growth without having to reach that last impossible rep. Going to failure ensures that you did all you could to fatigue a muscle, but it's not a requirement.
If strength is your main goal, hitting failure is likely going to do more harm than good (on the big strength lifts). It can lead to faulty technique and decrease the amount of work you can do in your workout and training week.
Strength is a motor skill, not just a physical capacity. The more you practice it, the better you become at it. If training for strength, the neurological cost that comes from going to failure will limit how much you can train and will diminish your strength gains.
This quote can allude to any of the following:
- The burn: Feeling the accumulation of lactic acid/hydrogen ions in the muscle.
- The effort: The feeling of exertion from moving monster weights.
- The self-destruction: The feeling of being incapacitated afterward.
The accumulation of lactic acid CAN contribute to muscle growth. It stimulates the release of local growth factors. And the type of work that leads to it is conducive to hypertrophy – sets lasting 40-60 seconds using fairly decent weights. This approach causes a lot of muscle fiber fatigue, which is a stimulus for adaptation and growth. So there's some value in this mindset.
Likewise, progressive overload (gradually trying to increase the demand of a workout) works when it comes to building size and strength. Fighting to add weight to the bar is the most common progressive overload method and has stood the test of time.
And it's true that constantly trying to move more weight will not be physically pleasant. It's hard and it can even hurt sometimes. So it would appear that this would confirm the "no pain, no gain" expression. But...
Here's Where It Falls Short
Feeling like crap after a workout isn't something to take pride in. The natural body has a limited capacity to adapt. If you feel like hell after a workout (nauseated for example), are shaking (indicating CNS overload), or can barely walk because your legs lock up, it's normally indicative of doing too much for your own capacity to recover.
The cortisol release will be huge, and as a natural lifter this won't lead to gains, at least not gains proportionate to the effort you put in.
The problem could also be nutritional. Being nauseated is more often an indication of eating solid foods too close to a workout. When you train you divert blood flow toward the muscles and digestion is much less efficient and can leave you nauseated.
Having your legs lock up is often a symptom of dehydration or electrolyte deficiency/imbalance, and shaking or cramping could come from the abuse of stimulants which can wreck your adrenal glands over time.
And what about soreness so intense that you can hardly function? First of all, soreness isn't necessary to stimulate growth. And excessive soreness could actually mean you went too far and you won't be able to recover fast enough for your next workout.
I'll use an extreme example to illustrate what I mean. A few years back I wanted to push my Olympic lifts up. I knew I needed more leg strength to be able to snatch and clean heavy again. So I did a high-volume workout that emphasized heavy weight, accentuated eccentrics, time under tension, and extensive plyo. I felt physically crushed but ecstatic about my work ethic. Surely it would make my squat skyrocket!
Yeah, it didn't work out that way. For 14 days I couldn't squat down lower than a quarter squat. I couldn't do any Olympic lifting either. It took 21 days to get back up to a good squat weight. Was that workout a good investment? No! It ruined three weeks of training.
You can trigger growth, even maximal growth, without being sore. And as a natural lifter, you can't push all your sets past the point of failure if you do a high volume of work.
This mantra is all about keeping things simple, downplaying the role of science and advanced methods. Those who say it are normally traditionalists who are referring to training innovations.
Some people do take the innovation too far and do too much thinking and not enough lifting. That mantra sends a few good messages:
- Training, nutrition, and recovery are all important for maximum progression.
- Consistency and patience are key for achieving your goals.
- Effort is at least as important as the program itself.
So the saying isn't ALL bad since it promotes consistency. But it also comes from a negative, condescending place. And it's directed towards those who aren't satisfied with the "good old basics" and want to push their knowledge further.
Here's Where It Falls Short
Those with this mentality seem to put everyone into two categories: you're either a hardcore big-basics guy or a sissy thinker who doesn't know how to push it. But it's not like that at all.
Would anybody say that the Westside guys aren't hardcore? These guys train like maniacs, but I don't know of anybody who's more innovative than Louie Simmons and his crew. Does that make them wimps because they're 180 degrees away from the "train, eat, sleep, repeat" crowd? Nope.
And what about John Meadows who trains like a man possessed and looks like a block of granite, yet constantly experiments with new exercises and methods as well as supplementation strategies to grow faster? Is he not hardcore?
Those who take the expression too seriously are usually closed minded. Many won't even entertain training ideas that are even remotely outside of the traditional way of doing things.
Effort is paramount, consistency is a prerequisite, but thinking outside the box will definitely help you make progress and make the time you spend getting there more interesting.
Sure, throwing up means that you pushed yourself hard. But it mostly just means that your nutritional timing was bad or that your training strategy is too lofty for your body's capacity to clear lactic acid.
Here's Where It Falls Short
It's easy to make someone throw up from training: have them eat a solid meal close to the workout, then have them do a workout that sends lactic acid through the roof. I'm talking about high reps (sets lasting 60 seconds) with very short rest intervals on exercises where a lot of muscle is involved.
Throwing up is either a digestive issue or an excess of systemic/blood lactic acid. When you eat a big meal, around 70% of your blood flow is directed to the digestive system. When you're training, blood is diverted mostly to the working muscle and only around 20-30% makes it to the digestive system. Not to mention that the cortisol released from the workout can also inhibit digestion. If the training is demanding enough this can lead to nausea, gas, bloating and vomiting. Excess lactic acid (systemic, not concentrated in one muscle) can have the same effect.
This hyper-machismo statement basically just means you need to lift heavy. On the surface it might seem correct. If you lift heavier and heavier weights you'll grow bigger and bigger muscles.
And to some extent that's true. Progressive overload is effective at stimulating gains. If your main goal is to get stronger, then you don't have a choice: to be able to lift big weights you must lift big weights! But...
Here's Where It Falls Short
If you're going to take it literally, then realize that different bars have different flex. Some bars (Olympic lifting bars) will bend with as little as 265 pounds; others will require 500 pounds to have a noticeable bend. If you're bench pressing with an elite powerlifting bar you could press 400 pounds and not see a bend. Does that mean you're pretending?
And if you're NOT taking it literally, it still falls short. Because what about gaining muscle? Does hypertrophy require the use of heavy weights? The answer is no.
A study done by Cameron et al. found that if you go to failure you can stimulate the same amount of muscle growth with a light weight as you can with a heavy weight (30% vs. 80% of 1RM). The lighter group didn't have the same strength gains, but they had the same muscle mass gain. Several studies on occlusion training also found similar results.
I've experienced this myself. Because of shoulder issues I haven't been able to press heavy weights for four years now. I used to bench press 405 to 445 pretty much every workout. Now I'm forced to use lighter weights, more isolation work, longer time under tension, go to failure and beyond, etc.
But my upper body is just as good as it was. You might say that I simply maintained the muscle I'd built from the heavy lifting. That's not 100% correct because at one point I lost a ton of muscle because of kidney issues. I stopped training for months and lost 30 pounds of muscle. I've regained it all.
Sure, you can claim it's because of muscle memory. Maybe. But you still have to put in the work to regain the muscle tissue. Ineffective training would not allow you to regain all the muscle.
Maximal weights can actually be an inferior method for building muscle mass. I'm talking about using weights that you can lift for 1 to 3 reps per set. Look at Olympic lifters. Even those who can hoist 400-500 pounds overhead don't look really muscular (except for a few exceptions). A lot of powerlifters (those who don't use higher rep assistance work) also look a lot less muscular than they should considering their strength levels.
There's no doubt that heavy weights can build muscle. And progressive overload works. But to be effective at building muscle we're talking about becoming progressively stronger with 4-6 reps, not 1, 2 or 3.
But of course if your main goal is to get strong, than yeah, you'll need to lift big weights. When the muscle is gained through lighter methods, the strength gains aren't immediate because there will be few neurological improvements. Both muscle mass and neurological efficiency are important for strength gains. Remember this:
- Muscle mass = your strength potential
- Neurological efficiency = how well you can use that potential
Having a lot of muscle is like having a factory with lots of employees. On paper it should make the factory more productive. But if the employees are lazy, or if they don't work together well, the factory won't live up to its potential and a smaller, better run factory will out-produce them. It's the foreman's job to make sure the employees work to their full potential.
Same thing with strength. If you have lots of muscle but you aren't good at making it work (muscle fiber recruitment), do quality and productive work (fiber firing rate) and work together (inter and intramuscular coordination), you won't be able to produce a lot of strength. That's the job of the nervous system to make the best use of your muscles.
To improve your nervous system's capacity to direct your muscles to produce a lot of strength you must practice lifting heavy weights. That's why adding muscle via lighter training can make you stronger, but you first must learn to use that muscle by doing a phase of heavy lifting.
You can definitely build a muscular physique without moving monster poundages. But if your main goal is to be strong you'll need to include a decent amount of heavy work. Getting progressively stronger in the 4-6 rep range will work well to get you both strong and muscular.
It can work if you use performance enhancing drugs. A natural lifter might not be so lucky.
Training insane, to me, means doing tons of volume using the most demanding intensity methods (drop sets, rest/pause, added partials, supersets, etc.). Basically you do everything to the extreme degree. It sounds appealing, and instinctively a lot of us will believe it's true. After all, we're programmed to believe that more is better. More work equals more money, more studying equals higher grades, more alcohol equals more drunk.
I can't count how many people have approached me and asked, "How many hours do you train each week?" Because in the average person's mind the only thing that could explain my results is that I must be training a lot more than they are.
Here's Where It Falls Short
Doing too much work will hurt the natural lifter's growth due to the excessively high cortisol release. Some people can handle more volume than others, but only the genetically gifted or the drugged lifters can get maximum growth from training insane.
Doing crazy stuff in the gym might be good for social media, but it's not the best way to grow at the fastest rate. In reality, you'll just burn out.