The 7 Fundamental Tools
When it comes to getting bigger and stronger, we've pretty much known what to do for decades now. Sure, there are occasional advances in training science, recovery methods, and nutritional tactics, but the vast majority of what we'll ever learn is already known.
A lack of progress is much more likely due to a poor grasp of fundamentals than missing the boat on some new periodization approach. What you need is better critical thinking. Here are 7 tools for better decision-making and decisive action in the gym.
The best way to keep your eye on the target and avoid getting sidetracked by the minutia is to focus on principles rather than methods that derive from those principles. Remember, "Methods are many, but principles are few." Fortunately, there are only a few principles you need to apply:
The stimulus that you provide via training must match the adaptation you hope to develop.
If you're a powerlifter or have primarily strength goals, most of your training should be heavy, low-rep (1-5) work on the squat, bench, and deadlift, and perhaps some additional extra work on close variations of the exercises you hope to get stronger in.
If you're a physique athlete, you need to focus mostly on lower intensity weights for higher (8-15) reps on a wide variety of exercises, at least most of the time. If you're interested in both strength and muscle, alternate between these two methods in successive 4-6 week phases.
If how you're training varies significantly from these parameters, it isn't optimal for your goals.
The adaptive challenges you present to your body in the form of workouts must be continuously increased, or your adaptations will stop. No one ever got big or strong by accident. You must continuously force the issue. Whenever possible, gradually add weight, reps, and/or sets. Any of those three approaches is valid.
If your training numbers cease to improve, it's either because you're training too hard or not hard enough. Ask your coach or training partner(s) which scenario is most likely in your case, and then make the appropriate adjustments.
Keep in mind that human similarities greatly outweigh the differences between individuals. In other words, think twice before you conclude that you're a special snowflake who needs some sort of exotic approach in order to succeed. You probably don't, and even if you do, that's not the most logical starting point anyway.
No single program, method, or exercise is definitively "good" or "bad," in much the same way that there are no good or bad foods without respect to dose or total dietary content.
Think of everything as a tool, and the utility of that tool depends entirely on context. For example, if you can squat with a super-upright position with lots of knee flexion, squats are a good quad-training tool for you. If you can't, hack squats are a better option.
If pushdowns don't cause pain, they're a good triceps builder. If they hurt, they're not. If you're planning to compete in the sport of weightlifting, snatches and clean & jerks are "good" exercises. If you're an MMA fighter looking to build strength and muscle, there are better choices. And so on and so forth.
The goal dictates the tool, never the other way around.
I once attended a lecture by multi-Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. As the crowd anxiously anticipated learning Dorian's secrets, he began his talk:
"Well, for my first exercise, let's say it's squats, I usually start with the bar for maybe 12-15 reps. Then I go to 135 for 10-12. Then 225 for 8-10 reps. Then 315 for another 8-10. Then I'll move to my working weight of 405, where I'll do 3-4 really hard sets of 8-10 reps. Then I move on to my second exercise."
I'm paraphrasing Dorian's comments here, but suffice it to say that his talk was completely devoid of the secret tricks the audience really wanted. Instead, the man with arguably the best physique of all time "let the audience down" by truthfully sharing what he really did to build his body.
The desire for novel information is perhaps the biggest cause of confusion (and hence, lack of progress) for most lifters. This phenomenon is present in all fields of human endeavor, not just training. That's because truth is often less palatable than "secrets."
There are two distinct phases that people go through. First is the "inspiration" phase where you're using a new training program or diet, and you've got confidence in this new approach because the article you read about it is by a guy who has a Ph.D. and/or is totally yoked.
And, frankly you're bored with what you've been doing, and the thought of doing anything new strikes you as much more appealing than the same old grind. So you're re-energized by that "new car smell," until that is, you do that new program long enough.
Now you're in the "perspiration" phase. The novelty has worn off and you're back to the same old routine. This desire for novelty, combined with an inability to stick with the same approach long enough to see a result, is why many people never get anywhere.
If you have a specific goal, seek out others who were successful in reaching that goal. Next, isolate the behaviors and/or methods that these people have in common, rather than what they did differently.
A great example of this is fat loss. If you look at 100 people who lost a significant amount of weight, perhaps some of them used Weight Watchers, others had bariatric surgery, some went low carb, while still others focused on eating "clean" foods.
At first glance this seems confusing, but if you dig a little deeper you realize that all these people found a way to consistently eat fewer calories long enough to achieve their weight loss.
In this example, there are various methods, but only a single mechanism. If you need to drop some fat and you're debating whether or not to go vegan or use intermittent fasting, for example, do some serious thinking about which method you're more likely to do consistently.
Does that mean that all weight-loss methods are equally effective? Certainly not, but a "less effective" method that you'll do is preferable to a more effective method that you won't (or can't) do.
Same with training goals. You might notice that some successful bodybuilders use bro-splits while others use a push/pull split. Some use lower reps, others high reps. Some use mostly free weights, others focus on machines. Some use forced reps, others don't.
If you focus on these various methods, however, you'll be blinded by the fog that prevents you from seeing the underlying mechanisms of success: brutally hard work for long periods of time.
Whenever you put your hands on a bar, there will always be a cost. Whether or not there's a benefit is an entirely different matter. So think like an accountant -- look at the benefits, but also consider the costs.
Case in point, T Nation contributor Dr. Brad Schoenfeld recently conducted a study where he compared the results of lifters who performed 3x10 (three sets of 10 reps) against another group who lifted 7x3 (seven sets of three reps). Both groups trained for 8 weeks.
Interestingly, both groups achieved roughly the same amount of muscular hypertrophy. Many took this to mean that they could start doing heavy triples for the purpose of muscle development. However, it must be considered that doing sets of 3 leads to a much longer, more psychologically (and orthopedically) taxing workout to get the same results than a faster, less daunting workout would generate.
In fact, Schoenfeld said that the 7x3 participants were basically running on fumes by the end of the study, and he speculates that if they were required to go another few weeks, they'd probably start dropping out.
Similarly, all techniques and methods have unique cost/benefit profiles that should be considered when making decisions about training.
In the late 1800's Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto speculated that in nearly all systems, 80 percent of the outputs (results) come from 20 percent of the inputs. Weight training follows that equation. For example, in a workout where you perform 5 heavy sets of squats, the first 2 sets deliver roughly 80% of the benefit of doing all 5 sets.
So if you're deliberating about whether or not to hit the gym because you're short on time or energy, you now know how to make the best decision.
The 80/20 rule can be applied to any type of training decision, but it becomes especially handy when thinking about efficiency versus effectiveness. If you want a "100% result," you'll need to do much more (and harder) work than someone who's fine with an 80% result.
Most mornings I walk to my local Starbucks. For the past several weeks, I've noticed a woman sitting at the same table every morning at 6 AM, and it's clear that she's working on a writing project of some type.
Is her secret the type of computer she uses? The venue? The time of day she writes? The specific drink she orders? While these factors might play a minor role, the real "secret" to any success she likely enjoys is the willingness to do focused work consistently every day, rain or shine.
I know very little about this woman, but I strongly suspect that she's successful, because I've seen her do what few are willing to do, which is put in the work, day after day, no matter what.
The cold hard truth about training success is that as long as your methods aren't totally asinine, consistent hard work is pretty much all you need to focus on.
Many successful strength and physique athletes do a lot of things that sports scientists would consider "wrong," but all of these guys work their asses off on a consistent basis. So if your goals revolve around some combination of getting bigger and stronger, there are only a small handful of things worth paying attention to:
- Get to the gym 3-5 days per week. Don't miss workouts. Even if it's a shitty day, show up anyway, and do the best you can. (Unless you already know better, assume you're lazy and need to work harder.)
- Select training methods and techniques that are widely used among lifters who have achieved the goals you're working toward. Then do those things.
- Work as hard as you can. Constantly strive to exceed previous best performances.
- Sleep, eat, and manage stress as needed to support the above points.
- Enlist social support to help ensure compliance.