There's a saying that goes something like this: "We are swimming in a sea of information, yet drowning in ignorance."
The main issue? Many people know lots of "things," but they aren't very good at contextualizing those things for practical purposes.
This phenomenon is absolutely rampant in the field of resistance training. Comment sections are perpetually buzzing with heated debates about things that don't really matter a whole lot in the big scheme of things. That, or things that are pretty much impossible to quantify in the first place.
Here are some common "non-issues" lifters love to argue about anyway:
1 – The "Best" Exercises
There aren't any. Granted, for any given individual, there are a handful of "best" exercises for each muscle group. There are at least two problems with the "best" classification, however:
What's "best" varies tremendously for each individual lifter.
Some people get a crazy lat pump from various types of rows. Me? I only feel my lats with vertical pulling exercises (pull-ups, etc.).
If you have a pronounced forward lean when you squat (the "king of exercises"), squatting isn't going to be an effective quad-builder for you. However, if you're willing to overcome your prejudices and opt for hack squats or even Smith machine squats, you'll finally light up those quads. You can still squat of course, but it's probably just a good posterior chain drill for you.
What's "best" is a constantly moving target.
Due to a phenomenon known as adaptive resistance, the more familiar you are with a specific exercise, the less your body will grow from it, because it's long-since figured out that particular problem. So, in a very real sense, the best exercises are the ones you're not doing.
Bottom line: Progress does not hinge upon "magic" exercises, because there are none. So let's not continue to flog this moribund horse, okay?
2 – Cardio and Gains
Sure, cardio can be detrimental to lifting, but in some cases it can actually be beneficial – better work capacity allows you to do more sets during your workouts after all.
As I wrote in The Jogging Delusion, cardio only becomes an issue if you do shit-tons of it (and especially if that means jogging) and/or you're descended from Woody Allen's gene pool.
So if you like cardio and your lifting seems to be going well, enjoy! But if building muscle is an important goal for you, and those gains don't seem to come easy for you, then keep the cardio to a low roar, at least for the time being.
While we're at it, here are a few additional thoughts about cardio:
- Cardio isn't mandatory for good cardiovascular health, especially if you're generally active. Sure, it can be beneficial, but lots of people live long, healthy, and happy lives without ever doing cardio.
- There are cardiovascular benefits to lifting itself, especially if you do high reps and/or limit rest durations between sets.
- People tend to over-value MISS (Medium Intensity Steady State) cardio and undervalue both HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and LISS (Low Intensity Steady State) cardio. In English, that means that sprints and long walks are great, but the middle ground (jogging) is where you'll want to spend the least of your time.
3 – Machines and Isolation Exercises
Compound, multi-joint free weight staples tend to be most effective for the majority of us, but there's definitely a place for machines and isolation work. Emphasize the former, but don't feel you need to eliminate the latter.
Remember, not everyone benefits equally from a given exercise. Few people can do all exercises safely and properly due to anatomical individuality and other constraints, just for starters.
As a quick aside, no one needs to "choose" between machines or free weights or between compound and isolation exercises, right? So why do people even argue about these things?
4 – The "Perfect" Training Frequency
Lifting 3-4 days a week (and training each muscle 2-3 times per week) works best for the vast majority of lifters. If time and energy are super-tight, 2 days a week is almost as good. If you can afford to live at the gym and don't have any type of a real life, 5-6 days might be slightly better than 3 or 4 days.
Think about training frequency as a means to an end. Specifically, frequency should be used as a tool to facilitate volume because volume is the training factor most closely associated with muscle growth.
So if you're lifting somewhere between 2-4 days a week, thus training each muscle group between 2-4 times a week, you're good to go. But then, you probably already knew (or at least suspected) that, so why the hell are you arguing about it?
5 – The Magic Number Of Sets Per Exercise Per Workout
I have a stock, sarcastic answer to the question of "How much/many (fill in the blank) should I do?"
That snarky answer is, "More than you're doing now."
Dr. Mike Israetel coined the term "Maximal Recoverable Volume" or MRV. It refers to the most amount of work (measured in hard work sets) that you can do and still benefit from. MRVs vary from person to person and from muscle to muscle. They also vary according to your training experience and other factors.
As important as it is to know your personal MRV, it's equally important to understand that you can't train at MRV all the time. If you trained at MRV for a full week, for example, you'd need to deload the next week. This means that you'd spend half your training time deloading, which obviously isn't optimal.
Instead, using a 4-week mesocycle for this example, you might train at MEV (Minimal Effective Volume) for one week. Think of MEV as the least amount of work required to grow.
Then, on week two, you'd throttle things up to Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV). That's the amount of work required to make your best gains. Next, on week three, you'd shift to MRV, and then finally, deload on week four.
Now let's cut out all the dorky acronyms. Here's what that would look like in real life:
- Week 1: Do 3-4 work sets per muscle per workout.
- Week 2: Do 4-5 work sets per muscle per workout.
- Week 3: Do 5-6 work sets per muscle per workout.
- Week 4: Deload. Keep the weights heavy but do only half the work sets you did on week 3.
And that's why I usually just say, "More than you're doing now."
6 – The "Best" Training Split
Although keyboard jockeys endlessly argue over the relative merits of bro splits, upper-lower splits, and whole-body plans, the distinctions between the various ways to structure your training week aren't anything to lose sleep over.
Just pick one that seems to work with your instincts and schedule then get to work. A few months later, maybe pick a different structure, and so on and so on.
In the same way that you should use frequency as a means to increase volume, you should choose a training split based on its ability to help you optimize frequency.
7 – The "Right" Number of Reps
If strength is your thing, most of your training should be at 5 reps and below because you'll need to expose the muscles to high tensions in order to recruit fast-twitch motor units.
But for body composition goals, reps per set doesn't matter all that much. Studies show that muscle growth is most closely associated with the number of hard sets you do per session, regardless of how many reps per set you do.
The reason that most people usually stay between about 8-15 reps is because there are orthopedic issues involved with low-rep training, and many people simply dislike high (20-plus) reps. So focus on how many hard sets you do, and use whatever rep bracket you prefer.
Think if it this way: If I gave you a program that required you to do 10 sets of squats but you could pick any rep range you wanted, would you do sets of 2? Probably not. Sets of 20? Unlikely. Instead you'd probably do between 8-12 reps per set. This range tends to be the sweet spot for volume accumulation.