A Quick Introduction
In the book The Millionaire Mindset, T. Harv Eker makes the salient point that while learning is essential in any undertaking, who you learn from is just as important.
I've been training champions in bodybuilding for over twenty years now. And I believe the internet is a breeding ground for faulty information, disinformation, misinformation, and a general disregard for truth at the expense of profit. Not much different than the magazine industry really, just a different form of media.
However, there are exceptions. I've been aware for some time that the best writers and practitioners in the field of strength, conditioning, and diet all seem to be involved with Testosterone Nation in some form or another. That made me want to take part and share my ideas about bodybuilding training. True experts abide here, and I'm happy to contribute.
Be Careful Who You Learn From
Real expertise has been sadly lacking in the bodybuilding industry for a number of years. I think the real experts just abandoned bodybuilders because of the escalating necessity to become modern chemists. The "lunatic fringe" seemed to take over.
This left a huge void in the industry. It left trainees and trainers adapting to tradition for no other reason than it being traditional. It created training and dieting "trends" that still go on and on today. Most of these trends (and their gurus) have little science background to back up any training and diet practice. And anecdotal evidence of some genetic marvel on a dozen chemical enhancements does little to give solid credence to a methodology that's good for "the rest of us."
Way back at Musclecamp in 1989, Tom Platz told me, "Scott, people just don't get it. They keep asking me what I do for my legs. I could run up a hill and my legs would grow. That doesn't mean they could run up a hill and their legs would grow."
The point is well made. We all read about the training programs of the genetic elite and think that there's some kind of lesson in it for us. Other than the legacy of intensity most of these athletes have left for us by getting the most from their genetic gifts, nothing could be further from the truth.
With elite genetics and a lack of fear of polypharmacy, what these champions do for physique enhancement will have little meaning in a real world environment. Who you learn from becomes of the utmost importance. There are sound general scientific guidelines to follow for proper training. The problem is the "credential factor" vs. "celebrity factor."
The principles of exercise science are fairly solid. This means that 2 + 2 = 4, no matter who's saying it. The problem is that this gets confusing. If I tell you that 2 + 2 = 4, you believe me. But if Arnold or Ronnie Coleman come by and tell you that 2 + 2 = 5, then most bodybuilders will more than likely adapt that stance.
That's the main problem with a traditional approach and the lack of know-how on the part of the consumer of knowledge. People are confused about what constitutes real expertise. Bodybuilding champions aren't immune to this either. It's not that they're trying to misguide anyone, but the fact is any given champion may see his own training success through the veiled perceptive lens of superior genetics.
There are better ways. And learning from real experts is but one.
Many people confuse talent with knowledge. Because someone has won a national title makes them more than likely talented but not necessarily knowledgeable. The two don't need to go hand in hand. Yet I constantly see trainees taking advice from other trainees simply because "they won such and such a contest."
True expertise has to do with a combination of formal education (not certification, education; certified doesn't necessarily mean qualified), experience, and an ability to think critically. Information is pretty easy to acquire; knowledge is a little more difficult. The ability to apply knowledge is more difficult still, and wisdom is at the furthest end of that spectrum.
The Wave of the Future
The bodybuilding industry is still more or less caught in a time warp of "traditional" thinking. New and improved hybrid forms of training are here, but bodybuilders haven't seemed to embrace them on any serious level. But that time is coming, and for some of the wisest that time is already here.
It's entirely possible to integrate other forms of training within the traditional body part context and still get fantastic results. In fact, I suggest that this is indeed the wave of the future for bodybuilding training.
But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Body part training has taken huge hits from experts recently in terms of program design, time allotment, and efficient use of training time. There are some relevant points to this argument. However, this doesn't mean that traditional training protocols are useless. Hybrid forms of training just make better sense.
The other problem with a traditional-only approach is it fails to really understand science. Training for hypertrophy, size, thickness, density, and shape is not the same as strength training. This whole low volume, high volume, how-much-you-lift approach fails to truly understand training science.
Let's address a few of these elements here.
The functional training paradigm is actually based on some very old ideas. It came about in a multi-variable paradox of training that existed around the new millennium. Athletes were beginning to train like bodybuilders, and the result was disastrous in terms of athletic prowess and power expression.
Around the same time, the whole idea of the "aerobic conditioning base" was also yielding terrible results. Athletes over-engaging in the aerobic component were losing strength and power, "making joggers out of jumpers."
This lack of results was getting strength and conditioning coaches to take a new look at training by following some very old and viable principles, as well as some very old and reliable references (such as Logan and Mckinney, Devries, Lamb, and others.)
One of the clues to why such training was less than successful came from the field of rehabilitation. Rehab research is quite emphatic that lack of neuromuscular coordination results in faulty recruitment patterns. Strength coaches were seeing the same thing by training in the bodybuilding model of single plane, single joint, mostly sagital dominated exercises.
So let's do a little reverse engineering of these concepts to make a point. I think we'd all agree that fiber recruitment, activation potential, and rate of force production within a working muscle or movement is of paramount importance to anyone in the iron game, not just athletics. So if chronic single plane, single joint training can disrupt neuromuscular coordination and therefore result in faulty recruitment patterns, then bodybuilders are just as susceptible over time to a lack of results from such a training protocol.
My 20 year study of the adaptations of the nervous system to training (see especially David Behm, Digbe Sale, Patton and Brown, and Komi ) make this abundantly clear.
Moreover and most importantly, as I watched seasoned bodybuilders age, I noticed a breakdown of ability and strength... and of course results. As a result of traditional training, most have suffered severe muscle imbalances, chronic arthritic joints, and narrower range of motion functionality. This is a nail in the coffin to performance enhancement if maximum fiber recruitment is a goal for training (and it is for bodybuilders and strength athletes).
If you can't stretch a muscle fiber with resistance, you can't induce maximum overload, and therefore results diminish or cease entirely. Imagine muscle fibers to be like an elastic band. Put an elastic band in your hand and pull it back to maximum tension. What happens when you let it go? It springs instantly and travels far as an indication of the amount of tension created within it.
Now pull the elastic band a third of the way back. What happens? It barely goes anywhere. This is what happens when muscles can no longer be put in a stretched position with resistance. Imbalances caused by traditional training occur over time, thus limiting range of motion.
There's also a build up of scar tissue, adhesions, inflammation, and other byproducts of single joint training that lead to diminishing or zero returns on training investment. Functional training can be used as a hybrid approach to correcting these problems or preventing them in the first place. But just as with traditional training, much of the functional approach is misunderstood.
Movements, Not Muscles?
The whole premise of functional training is to train movements and not muscles. However, what's meant by that is training in the "human movement model."
This means basically pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging, bending, twisting, and extending, often with a single limb emphasis. The goal is to train multiple joints, and in multiple planes. This gives back a more functional flow to the body and enhances neuromuscular coordination. What that means is more efficient fiber recruitment – crucial to growing bigger and better muscles.
What's missed is a target emphasis aimed at muscle hypertrophy. Most people reading this see functional training as standing on one foot on a Bosu ball and trying to do a one-arm press. No. Functional training, like any other training modality, need not be mutually exclusive to building muscle.
The important thing to understand here is proper progressions of functional movements, or making traditional bodybuilding movements more functional by making them multi-joint and multi-planar. If exercises can't be made multi-planar then they can be made to have more proprioceptive demand, rather than be stabilized by a machine or axis point. We all know a Smith machine squat is much easier than a barbell squat.
The important thing to know is that for hypertrophy, functional movements are progressed not necessarily by added resistance, but first with speed and with increased range of motion whenever possible.
Next, most functional experts would tell you to progress to an unstable surface. This is okay, but not efficient for hypertrophy.
Instead, add motion to a traditional bodybuilding training exercise. For example, next time you're doing delt work, instead of doing a dumbbell lateral raise, try doing alternate dumbbell laterals with a contralateral front stride with each rep per side. This increased proprioceptive demand also increases overload to the working plane of motion, without negating training loads.
Most functional progressions don't see this option. When standing on one leg on a Bosu for instance, much is lost in terms of load capacity and therefore hypertrophy is thwarted. So, add movement to traditional exercises.
Again with the delts as an example, next time you do front alternate raises, try doing a contralateral side step or stride with each alternate leg. Now you're moving in multiple planes and forcing more proprioceptive demand on the working plane of motion and the joints and muscles involved, but still engaging optimum loading conditions.
In order to judge how well this works, just address your oxygen debt post-set vs. doing these exercises with traditional execution. The payoff is tremendous. It's also very important to note that movement training of multiple joints burns many more calories than does single plane, single joint exercises – regardless of load.
Functional training within the human movement model is only one of many ways to create a hybrid form of training for bodybuilders from other training modalities. All a trainee has to do is have an open mind and he can step into the future right now.
Hybrid Training and Weak Body Parts
Proprioceptive demand can indeed increase neuromuscular coordination, and that can increase muscle demand and fiber recruitment. My guess is it can even increase rate of force production if done according to proper training protocol. But what about bringing up weak body parts? Isn't this the age-old problem in bodybuilding?
I've always said that a weak body part is usually a problem of innervation. In the past, bodybuilders have been advised to train weak body parts with more weight or more frequency, or less weight and more sets and all kinds of combinations therein. The results have been dismal.
The reason? Because the prescription came from within the perception of traditional training. Isolating a weak body part and hitting it with more traditional exercises has done little to nothing for real world results.
The solution is built around a different mindset. Yes, bodybuilders need to get out of the bodybuilding mindset in order to become even better bodybuilders. The solution to weak body parts isn't isolation but the exact opposite.
If we train a muscle and now make it part of a "movement chain" then it must adapt to the strength demands of the whole movement. A chain is as strong as its weakest link. If you make a weaker body-part part of a more fully functioning movement chain, it'll be forced to adapt. And it'll respond with more efficient fiber recruitment and force production over time when called upon for isolation work.
The movements mentioned above or, for instance, medicine ball crossover push-ups or plyo push-ups on different training days than chest, will allow for ample recovery since the demand is spread over several muscle systems, yet still create more neural demand for the chest overall. Getting out of sagittal plane dominant movements can also have the same effect, since muscle innervation will be effected differently in different planes of motion.
The Key is Speed
But the King Kong effect of hybrid training (that will soon become a regular part of bodybuilding training) will be training with speed. With or without implements or resistance, maximum speed training of "muscles" will produce a whole new demand on fiber recruitment and rate of force production. Most powerlifters already know this.
Try this. Do a flat dumbbell press for two sets of 6-8 reps with as much weight as you can handle with proper form. Now for the next two sets, drop to about 40% of that weight. So if you were using 100 pound dumbbells, go to 40's.
Now for the next two sets do alternating flat dumbbell presses but with as much speed as you can until failure. Notice how fast you reach total failure and what that feels like. Once again, note the difference in oxygen debt.
Two points here. One is that there's always an inverse relationship between speed and force velocity. The heavier a weight is, the slower it'll move regardless of intention.
The next point to ponder is the power equation itself. Power is an expression of speed and force together (or strength times velocity), however you wish to express it. The point is that up until now bodybuilding traditionalists have addressed adding mass as a simple equation of "lifting more weight."
Well, there's a ceiling to that. I'm here to tell you there's a greater payoff to mass over time by including true speed reps with low weight in your training protocol for exercises that will allow for safe execution. This is the truest expression of power, and the kind of power that'll result in greater muscle mass.
One of my hybrid routines has about eight weeks of this kind of training combination, and then at the end of eight weeks, two to three weeks of testing strength by eliminating the speed and functional motions. The results have been amazing, with almost everyone reporting incredible strength gains, increased recuperation, and a "sense of ease" going back to normal training cadence and comfort zones.
Successful Training Leaves Clues
Remember how earlier I rambled on about "be careful who you learn from?" I learned a long time ago that learning from the most genetically gifted pros was a losing proposition for me. I was already doing everything they were doing. So instead I looked outside the bodybuilding arena.
I started looking at other sports whose athletic training created great physiques. I kept coming up with the same people and the same sports. Gymnasts and sprinters have amazing physiques, as a group. Success leaves clues. Training success leaves even more clues.
I looked at various sports and their training protocols where the majority of athletes partaking in the sport have well-developed physiques. I started asking myself obvious questions.
Why is it on a basketball court players can have a 36 inch vertical leap, but there isn't a set of calves anywhere to be seen? It's not just strength and power expressions, but a specific type of strength and power expressions that create physique enhancement. Yet gymnasts all seem to have really well-developed calves, not to mention capped delts, tight abs, and round hard glutes. What is it about gymnastics training that induces such a physique response?
Answer: high speed movement training with resistance.
Resistance in this case is bodyweight in multiple planes of motion and using multiple joints. They have well-developed calves because of the nature of their sport of "adding motion" to the resistance that creates more proprioceptive demand. This results in more effective fiber recruitment and overload response.
Bodybuilders, Wake Up!
Such small reference points can be added to traditional bodybuilding training and tweaked even more to create an adaptive response more conducive to hypertrophy. This is what hybrid training is all about. Training modalities don't have to be mutually exclusive. Indeed, if you understand training science, this is a wonderful time to be involved in the training industry.
Bodybuilders should now wake up to a whole new world of training possibilities to procure results. Training doesn't need to be mundane or stagnant. Paying attention to other modalities can go a long way to helping you achieve your bodybuilding goals.
So you can keep traditional range and plane of motion training and add speed or movement, and/or you can add functional movements as well for muscle gains. There are countless options.
Also, most bodybuilders pay lip service to the "core" but don't truly understand its importance in expressing real strength, especially in compound movements. Many experts have already discussed this, so I'll save my argument for bodybuilding based core training for another time.
But for me, hypertrophy after a number of years of traditional bodybuilding training can only be reached by acknowledging that strength is expressed from the ground and through the core. I'll address this at another time in more detail, but it's an important acknowledgement.
Wrap-Up... For Now
In follow-up articles I'd like to go into more depth about hybrid training. Also, one of my training programs has as one of its main tenets "to train muscles and not movements." This seems like a contradiction to the functional model, but for hypertrophy training it isn't.
I'd like to discuss this interplay in future articles, as well as what Gambetta calls "the alphabet of training." I've found this quite useful in categorizing where and how most trainees make mistakes in program design, training technique, and implementation.
I look forward to completing this argument is subsequent T-Nation articles!