Junk Training

A Roundtable Discussion featuring Lonnie Lowery, PhD, John Davies and Mike Robertson


When I attend seminars, I always sit in the front row. I'm a "front row ho." Sitting in the front row keeps me riveted to the presentation and ready to suck up info. A couple of months ago I was sitting on the front row of a seminar when the speaker said something that really resonated with me. Dr. Lonnie Lowery told the audience to eliminate "junk reps" from their training.

Everyone these days is pressed for time. We're the busiest people in history. So why do so many gym goers waste their time with junk workouts, junk sets, junk reps and junk exercise choices? What defines "junk" anyway? It was time to look into this further.

I got in touch with Dr. Lowery, rounded up a couple of strength coaches, Mike Robertson and John Davies, then I threw the discussion topic out on the table: junk gym practices. Here's what went down.

T-Nation: Dr. Lowery, your comments lead to this roundtable, so I'll start with you. What did you mean exactly by "avoid junk reps?"

Dr. Lonnie Lowery: I was basically referring to sets of more than ten reps or so (for hypertrophy), too many foo-foo movements (lighter cable work, machines, etc.) and umpteen sets, even for small body parts.

Many guys do this kind of "work hard but not smart" thing almost daily. Even I did, once upon a time. Then I went to school and got exposed to guys like Digby Sale, Keigo, Hakkinen and other heavy hitters. Now I weigh 200 pounds instead of 150 pounds.

"Hard but not smart" scenarios, which are ironically promulgated by so many muscle magazines in their "Training Secrets of the Pros" sections, are time wasting at best. So much of the effort is pointless. Intensity falls, weights grow lighter as the workout progresses and even injury risk increases. One can only hope that muscle mag reading beginners eventually come full circle, back to heavy basic movements, which don't necessarily exclude a few relative isolation movements like standing barbell curls.

T-Nation: Gotcha. Let's get Robertson and Davies in on this. What do you guys think?

Mike Robertson: When I think of "junk reps," I think specifically of reps that either you aren't really performing yourself or are performing in sloppy-ass form. There's a time and a place to need a good spot, but at the same time if you're struggling on your second rep and you have eight to go, the rest of those are "junk reps!"

Along those same lines, if your technique is sloppy you aren't getting what you should out of performing the lift. Either do it right or don't do it at all!

John Davies: The idea of "junk reps" is a pretty big topic and should be considered on a number of points. On first review you can look at the notion and merely recognize most people perform exercises with poor form, without ever considering the adverse effect of poor technique on their long term development.

Why this occurs is a debatable point, possibly because of the ignorance of training objectives, the lack of quality information within this so-called profession, or in the manifestation of the fragile modern male ego within the gym that constantly primps in the mirror to satisfy its forlorn identity.

Whatever the reason, far too much training is done with poor quality of reps and bad form. Usually the trainee is simply using too heavy of a load and unable to perform the movement correctly. And let's keep in mind that it isn't merely "junk reps," but "junk workouts" that are a by-product of training without sensible goals. Blaming junk reps on the athlete is a joke because the blame should be firmly placed on the present-day pathetic exercise community that pimps this "junk."

T-Nation: One word, John: decaf. Okay, let's talk junk exercises. Any examples come to mind immediately?

Robertson: Anything that's "new." Now, I don't mean new to you as a trainee. Just because you've never squatted doesn't mean squats are "new!" Rather, I'm talking about "new" in the sense of you're only the second person to ever see the exercise.

No matter how sexy we try to make training, the basics are what almost every trainee reading this needs to be doing. Squats, deads, benches, rows, chins: those things aren't sexy, but they sure as hell work! If someone is promoting this and that "new" exercise, chances are it sucks. Even if it doesn't suck, it probably shouldn't be the focal point of your program.

Beyond new exercises, a lot of isolation exercises that don't allow you to move some real weight are junk. Why spend your time chasing the "pump" on triceps kickbacks (the red-headed stepchild of all triceps exercises), concentration curls, etc., when you could be performing heavy skull crushers and barbell curls?

Most of the people reading T-Nation want one of three things: 1) to get bigger, 2) to get stronger, and/or 3) to look good nekkid! Single-joint, puny weight exercises really don't help you achieve any of these three goals.

Lowery: Let me make it simple. Regarding hypertrophy, I've never been a big fan of most machines or movements that quickly result in localized burning sensations. Imagine how a leg extension feels. They can burn so bad that a training partner could roast marshmallows over the blaze emanating from your lap! Compare that to the heavy squat, which doesn't kick-up local muscle acidity nearly as bad. But which one leaves you desperately leaning on a handrail for two days hence? Which movement packs on the size and strength?

T-Nation: Interesting observation. What do you think, Coach Davies?

Davies: Exercise selection is a debatable topic and in some regards dependent upon the individual's level of expertise, access to quality coaching, and his long term goals and objectives. Simply, one man's gem is another's junk.

Few outsiders can see within complex training mechanisms that involve more dynamic environments. However, the mainstream public (that I hope is using their training to enhance there quality of life and aren't just stuck in some narcissistic downward spiral of body image) shouldn't simply look at "junk exercises" but "junk exercise regimes and mediums." The day your training imprisons you within the four walls of a corporate gym as opposed to, say, going for a bike ride in the mountains or snowboarding with friends, is the day your training has lost true value.

You know, the other day I was about to film a training DVD with Grant Hansen back in Jersey. We had some time to spare and decided to load up our ride with skatedecks and BMX's and head down to one of the illest bowls in the area. So here I am, it's like 7:30 in the morning, coffee in one hand, deck in the other, getting ready to rip while Grant is torturing a twelve-foot wall with a sick ass carve.

Now, of course it didn't make a lot of sense ripping old-school in concrete, laying down some blood and guts before a shoot, but fuck it, you die once and there's a lot of livin' to do. So we went out, tore it up, ate some shit, but after we got on with the training DVD and had an amazing day. Training enhances life, pure and simple.

When it comes to specific exercises, I do think most waste their time on useless machinery and tend to spend far less time than they should on movements that carry over to many real life events.

Additionally, one major issue is that exercises are rarely performed to "perfection." People have long since forgotten the adage, "If you're going to do something, do it with all your might," and technique is rarely zeroed in on.

T-Nation: Here's my take on junk exercises. Junk movements are easier so that's why people do them. It's as simple as that. Sitting on a padded rear delt isolation machine is popular because it's easier to perform than a rack pull with a head-bursting load. Junk is easy and humans gravitate toward easy. Something to think about maybe.

The rack pull or half deadlift.

Okay, we've talked junk reps and junk exercises. Any opinion on junk sets?

Lowery: I've historically limited back work to around eight sets, chest and legs to about six sets each, and biceps and triceps to four sets of direct work each. I gravitate toward heavier, lower-rep training, so I just can't do much more than that.

Of course, lately I've cut back to one or two fairly heavy sets per muscle group in a four to five-day per week free weight circuit. It's very different and approaches training from a more functional perspective than my former "tissue assassin" mentality. You can actually find research suggesting that a single set is enough for growth, but I believe this is still experimental and calls for greater training frequency.

T-Nation: "Tissue assassin." That's hilarious. Mike, any opinion on junk sets?

Robertson: You bet. Just let me digest that "tissue assassin" comment for a moment. It's a classic!

Okay, I can think of three kinds of junk sets. The first is "down sets." For example, after you do some heavy sets of five, you perform a set of ten with a lighter weight to flush the muscle. This might be okay for some people, but if you want to flush, why don't you just perform some low intensity walking or weight work a couple hours after your workout or even the next day? Or get a deep-tissue massage? If your goal is training efficiency, I just don't see a purpose in doing "flushing" sets. Beyond that, you're still imposing some fatigue when this could be time better used to bring up a lagging body part or weakness.

A second example would be sets with 13 or more reps per set. Most people employing these rep ranges state they're training for "endurance." If you want endurance, take your ass outside and run! Weights are there to help you get stronger and/or bigger!

The only reasons I can think of doing reps in this range are if you're doing heavy breathing squats or performing very light weight work for active recovery. Chances are if you aren't doing one of these things, you also don't have enough weight in your hands to promote any significant growth or strength gains. I'm not saying this rep range is totally useless, just that most people don't utilize it correctly or for the right purposes.

Lastly, and this is powerlifting specific, I don't like performing any work on the core exercise following a gear (suit, wraps etc.) workout. Once you take the gear off, you aren't used to the "loose" feeling you have and you're at an increased risk of injury. Not to mention the fact that the gear has had an effect on your nervous system, timing, posture and overall execution of the lift.

Davies: Again, I tend to think this rolls into the area that your training is done to elicit a certain response and often people "train to train." The duration of training can vary extensively from system to system as well as particular phases of training, yet it most always adds value to the individual's entire scope of training.

T-Nation: I see many wannabe coaches and training gurus beat the hell out of their athletes and clients, but that doesn't always equate to physique or athletic progress. How do you tell if something is "junk" or a worthy practice?

Lowery: Well, there's always that local burning sensation. There's also personal experience. If you're not progressing (as noted by measurements in your training log), maybe it's time to get back to heavier, more basic and compound movements. But I may be too old school in my thinking here. I'll defer to the strength coaches for better indicators of junk.

Davies: When form breaks down, the question is raised if the athlete is beyond a point of failure where the training effect will be negative or if he's merely succumbing to challenge and allowing his mind to defeat him. Unfortunately, in today's athletic circle, the defining point of success and failure is typically the will to succeed.

Sadly, we live in a weak-ass culture in which defeat is right around the corner and honor is something long ago and far away. People have been trained to meet challenges with any excuse they can find. Where did the dignity of giving it "all you have" go? Honestly, I'm too old and curmudgeonly to give a crap about excuses anymore, and the only whining I hear nowadays comes from the iron-crew who consistently find things "too tough."

Funny, this "tough" thing is a well-marketed term but few understand drive, will and actually having the balls to get the tough job done. I've got this one female, 5-foot BMX'er who's a world champ, tough as nails, and I'd put her against anyone. The crew I ride and board with don't know what quit is and you'll never see someone on a board or a bike complain about something being too hard, but you find it all day long in today's iron game.

My teams and my athletes just win. They get the tough job done when everyone else fails, and the only detractors we have are those who we've walked over. Being "tough" isn't a black T-shirt and a slogan; it's the simple dedication to persevere through the challenge of your work on the way to your goals.

Robertson: I think Lonnie is dead-on here. Just because something "hurts" or is "hard," doesn't mean it's going to help you achieve your goals. Joe DeFranco said in one of his articles, "Any coach can make someone tired." If you think about that, it's really true.

Just because you can kick someone's ass with conditioning or high-rep weight training doesn't make you a good coach. A good coach will strive to develop a functional, well-rounded athlete and/or strive to help his clients achieve and exceed their goals. Killing your clients or athletes on a daily basis doesn't make you a good trainer, just one that athletes will stick with for a week or two and then move on.

T-Nation: Interesting observations. Now, many of these junk practices eat into the body's recuperative abilities. Most lifters work hard in the gym, but don't work very hard at recovery. I believe a lot of them think recuperative practices aren't worth the time. What do you think? And what recovery modalities do you consider the most, um, non-junkie?

Robertson: I look at recovery as a hierarchy, with the bottom level being the basics like good nutrition, supplementation and sleep. If you aren't eating well, supplementing properly (especially post-workout) and getting a good deal of restful sleep on a nightly basis, you really shouldn't even worry about some of the more advanced recovery strategies out there.

But let's say everyone reading this is already doing those basic things; what would be the next step? In my eyes, it's taking care of your soft tissue with old-fashioned static stretching and massage. If you're training hard and don't make stretching a significant part of your training program, you aren't doing all you can to recover well and keep yourself healthy.

Massage is a little more on the fringe due to the fact that you can't do it all by yourself (although you can do some), but it'll take you a step further in promoting healthy length and tension in the soft tissue.

Lowery: Recovery is a big thing with me. Although massage, stretching and hot-cold contrast showers have limited research support when looking at traditional recovery markers, there's some benefit to these, I believe. They sure feel good!

I think meditation has value in lowering stress hormones and perhaps improving nerve function like reaction time. Of course, peri-workout nutrition and hydration are at least half of the overall recovery picture. I've yet to see hard data on anything consistently shortening the recovery period (acute phase response) to a standardized eccentric workout, so avoidance of any additional stressful, non-hypertrophic stimuli is best.

But yeah, time and food are the most "non-junkie" regarding optimizing compensatory hypertrophy and reducing fatigue for the next session.

Davies: Wait. Let's clear up a few things. Chris, you said that most lifters work hard in the gym. Are you kidding me or are you just wanting me to laugh non-stop? Most training I see today is barely what I call "work" and I'm mystified how it even raises a bead of sweat, much less be considered challenging.

People have evolved into being soft and lazy. They hunt for any excuse they can find to explain why they can't attain their goals. Here's my idea of "recovery." First start working hard, a lot harder, then do more. Ask more of yourself and find someone who cares about how sore you are, 'cause I really don't!

Secondly, make sure your training is well-balanced. It needs to include areas that will enhance recovery such as GPP and mobility work. I hear a lot of chest beating bravado about moving weight, but I rarely hear the same people talk about crushing themselves in tough range-of-motion work because it's just a lot "tougher."

Additionally, commit yourself to eat right with a simple balanced diet of quality whole foods and not the crap that most people eat, which isn't fit for a dog. Train hard, train right. If you do, recovery is easy.

T-Nation: Well, coach, when I said most people train hard I meant the more dedicated readers of T-Nation. But hey, we enjoyed your rant anyway.

Next question: The 80/20 rule states that twenty percent of your actions are responsible for eighty percent of your results. The rest is mostly junk. Concerning weight training, what kinds of things make up that powerful 20%?

Robertson: Flat out, the compound lifts. I know, I know, I'm an old-school meathead at heart, but this is the stuff that'll make you grow. If you're concerned with any of the three goals I stated above, you need to start virtually every workout with a major lift.

Think about it: squats can make you bigger, stronger and look good nekkid (cause chicks really don't dig the light-bulb effect!) But it's not just squats. Benches, rows, chins, deads, close-grips, military presses... all these exercises help you achieve these goals. If someone did a program that focused solely on these "staple" lifts, they could attain any of the three major goals I discussed before.

Lowery: I've got to think that the amount of weight used regularly is a big driver of that 20%. That's consistent intensity, bro. This tends to automatically adjust for workout frequency because weights fall if it's too high. Of course, another part of that magic 20% is purposeful nutrition and recovery as we've discussed.

Davies: I think that 20% involves determination. That's what's really missing. Few people have focus now – getting the tough job done no matter what. Commit yourself to your goals, accept no compromises, and make the impossible a reality.

T-Nation: Cardio: See any needless junk in that category?

Lowery: Cardio is junk depending on a person's goals. Certainly long duration, relatively intense cardio of any kind goes against the specificity principle for bodybuilders and powerlifters.

For bodybuilders, "cardio" is one issue where my opinions are likely to clash with the others, though I respect their approaches, too. HIIT (high intensity interval training) is very in vogue. There's certainly more than one way to skin a cat. I, for one, consider non-panting cardio (e.g. mostly fasted, early morning) to be under the neuro-endocrine radar and thus not junk. It drains calories in a directly fat oxidizing way, but just isn't enough to be considered in your "training load" per se. When added to later-day intense lifting, light morning cardio is quite the tissue-selective, body composition and partitioning trick.

If a person weighs enough (or uses an X-vest), even brisk morning walks after just a half-scoop of protein like Low-Carb Grow! in water or coffee can help those like me who lose mass from intense cardio. Not to mention those who overtrain easily and are already pounding the weights hard for 45 to 60 minutes most days.

I've seen powerlifters do this light morning cardio thing with good effect, validating the biochemistry of it all. The tortoise approach to cardio has little value to cardio-pulmonary endurance for an athlete, though. It's purely bodybuilding.

Davies: Fitness training is a peculiar topic for myself because I believe in establishing a high volume of work threshold in the early stages of training that'll lead to a super-compensatory effect to an athlete's long-term development. However, within the mainstream public, what I see as "cardio" training is completely different than what I use.

The best way to express it is this: for the most part, the exercise enthusiast drives to the gym to walk on a treadmill. This crap just doesn't make any sense at all anymore except to the equipment manufacturer's accounting department.

T-Nation: What's your take, Mike?

Robertson: I'm not going to say that any cardio is inherently good or bad. The problem I see with most trainees, however, is that their cardio goals and strength training goals are in serious disagreement.

I know that Lonnie was on his own before when he espoused the benefits of low-intensity cardio training, but I think it really has some merit, especially to the strength/power athletes out there. Carl Valle and myself are going to take it a step farther with an article we're collaborating on. We're going to try and convince you that low intensity cardio performed before your workout can actually produce some pretty cool changes in body composition and training performance, but I don't want to rock the boat too much here!

In a nutshell, I'm not putting down the benefits of HIIT or calling it junk; I'm just saying that there's a time and place for everything. Proper application is critical.

T-Nation: Interesting stuff, Mike. Thanks to you, Lonnie and John for weighing in on this topic. Maybe our readers will look a little more closely at their training habits and start cleaning out the junk!

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram