Here's what you need to know...
- Too often, we adopt practices like stretching, elaborate warm-ups and corrective work reflexively rather than strategically.
- The Friction Principle states that whenever we dislike doing something, we're less likely to do it. If we dislike various "extra" work in the gym, like pre-hab, we may begin to dislike training itself.
- The Suitcase Principle states that we only have so much room – time and resources – available. Don't spend all your gym resources on things you most likely don't need.
- How flexible do you really need to be? How much endurance do you really need? We must ask these questions to better be able to plan our workouts and focus on the things that have the biggest impact.
I have a confession to make. Before I do, I'd just like to remind some of you that I've been coaching professional and Olympic athletes, teaching seminars around the world, and writing about fitness and strength training for over 30 years. In addition, I've been a competitive athlete the whole time, from martial arts and Olympic weightlifting to powerlifting. I've also been fortunate enough to pick the brains of many of the world's top coaches and athletes. So while what I'm about to share with you might strike you as unorthodox, I want you to know this isn't my first rodeo.
Now about that confession: I don't really warm-up. I don't stretch either. I don't do dynamic activation drills. I don't foam roll. I don't do corrective exercise or "pre-hab." I don't do conditioning work. Pretty much all I do is lift.
I'd like to make it clear that every item on that list can definitely be worthwhile for specific people in specific contexts. I just think that all these things are too often done reflexively rather than strategically. So I'd like to give you some insight on my decision making about what training activities I do, and don't do, and how and why I make these decisions. Then, you can think about these decisions and apply them – or not – to your own training.
There are two core principles that guide my decision making when it comes to my gym time:
1 – The Friction Principle
I remember watching an old episode of Seinfeld where Jerry wonders aloud why people keep their cereal bowls in the cupboard and their spoons in a drawer. After all, every time you use a bowl, you also use a spoon, so why not keep them together to make it easier? What Jerry was alluding to is that in life, when things are hard to do, you have a lesser likelihood of doing them.
For me, doing general warm-ups and stretching drills are total drudgery – to the point where if I have to do them I'll start hating my workouts. And if I hate my workouts, I'm less likely to do them. Not good.
Now, we all sometimes need to do things we don't particularly like – I get it. But often, perfect is the enemy of good. Meaning, an overly-zealous determination to make everything "perfect" might lead to you becoming overwhelmed, which in turn negatively affects your ability to be consistent.
2 – The Suitcase Principle
In his excellent text, The Weightlifting Encyclopedia, Artie Dreschler likens periodization to the process of packing a suitcase for a trip. Sure, you'd love to take six pairs of shoes just in case, but you only have so much room in that suitcase, and decisions must be made.
Another way to think of this is that your resources – time and energy in particular – are not unlimited. There's an 80/20 rule in play here: do you want to obtain "perfect" results with 100 units of resources, or perhaps "great results" with 75 units of resources? There's no single correct answer here; it's a personal judgment call. But for me, I'd rather buy a slightly used car for 75% of the price of a brand new car, if you understand my meaning.
So How Am I Doing?
Fair question to ask. Here's how I assess the effectiveness of my current training strategy:
- By looking at how I'm doing compared to my contemporaries.
- By looking at my current level of success, doing what I'm doing now, compared to my previous level of success.
Now, we never know how objective we are when it comes to making these types of assessments, but on point #1, when I compare myself against other 55 year old guys, there are certainly stronger, leaner and healthier guys out there at my age, so I'm not claiming any superiority here. That said, I rarely encounter men my age who are in better shape than me.
At 6'1" and 200 pounds, I'm pulling over 500, squatting about 400, benching in the 270 range, doing sets of 18 strict chins, and my body fat is low. I have no orthopedic issues, I don't hurt anywhere, and I almost never pull a muscle or incur other injuries. So when I look at other 55 year old guys, I think I'm probably in the top 1-2% based on these criteria.
As to point #2, I'm currently in my best shape ever, despite the fact that I'm in my mid-fifties. Interestingly, when I look back about six years ago to a period where my training was much more varied – I was doing Olympic lifts, conditioning work, some foam rolling, etc. – it's clear that I was weaker, fatter, and more injury-prone then as compared to now. In the interests of complete transparency, my nutrition is a lot better now than it was then. But all in all, I'm convinced that my current approach is paying off more than previous approaches.
Now, ask yourself those two questions. How are you doing compared to your peers? Doing what you're doing right now, are you better than you once were when you doing other things?
Flexibility, Endurance and Warm-Ups
Just how flexible do you really need to be?
Whenever I'm asked why I don't stretch, I try to remember the last time I encountered a situation where I didn't have sufficient flexibility to do whatever I needed to do at the time. Honestly, nothing comes to mind.
Oh wait, back in the early 80's, during a karate tournament, I was fighting a 6'5" guy and I didn't have enough flexibility to kick him in the head. Aside from that, I can't really think of anything. Given that, and added to the fact that I despise stretching, I've decided that it's not an important activity for me, and least for the present time.
But think about this: many of the resistance-training drills most of us do, including squats, hip thrusts, and deadlifts, are an effective way to improve muscle length in and of themselves. So, just because you "don't stretch" doesn't necessarily mean that your mobility is going to hell.
So, do all those movement screens really matter? Should you be concerned if you don't pass them? The last time I checked a few years back, I scored a 7 out of a possible 21 points on the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). Yet I haven't had any injury issues in many years, despite lifting consistently, training hard, and competing in powerlifting.
When was the last time, as a generally fit lifter, did you not have enough endurance to do what you wanted to do in life?
Whenever I'm asked why I don't do any type of endurance training, I try to remember the last time I encountered a situation where I didn't have sufficient endurance to do whatever I needed to do at the time, and honestly, nothing comes to mind.
Actually, I do warm-up, but I prefer specific warm-ups over general.
Rather than riding a bike for 10 minutes before taking my first warm-up sets on squats, I'd rather spend those 10 minutes on the warm-up sets themselves. In this way, not only do I achieve the same benefits as a general warm-up, I also get more practice time for the lift itself. In the past I've occasionally experimented with general warm-ups, but I always keep coming back to my present practice.
Which would better improve your squat? Ten extra minutes on bike, or 10 extra minutes under the bar?
Injuries And Corrective Exercise
- An often-quoted statistic about low-back pain is that in 80% of all cases it resolves within 30 days, regardless of what you do or don't do about it. Is it totally crazy to assume that other orthopedic issues respond in much the same way? In other words, is PT/corrective exercise overrated, and is rest underrated? I'm not sure, but I suspect some will criticize me for even bringing up the question.
- I've heard some coaches say that (for example) if you can't do a Turkish get-up without pain you're "dysfunctional." But perhaps there's another possibility: maybe you should just avoid doing get-ups. Is that not an acceptable option? Aren't we even allowed to talk about this?
- According to several coaches I trust, adding conditioning work to your program greatly increases the necessity of foam rolling, stretching, etc. And I agree. But for me, I chalk that up as another reason for at least limiting, if not outright eliminating, conditioning work.
Have An Open Mind, But Not a Gaping One
Individual differences factor heavily into the discussion, and I'm by no means saying that you should avoid any of the previously-listed activities. Just as one example, Chris Beardsley recently reviewed the available research on foam rolling and concluded that it can indeed improve flexibility, performance, and recovery. This leads me to reconsider re-implementing it into my training.
Also, many people claim that stretching, conditioning, and foam rolling makes them feel better. I would never argue this, and if I felt that way, I'd be doing them too.
In the End, You've Gotta Pick Your Battles
Make no mistake, there are certainly times when I admire and perhaps even envy people who can do things that I can't, such as walking on their hands, snatching a 53-pound kettlebell 100 times in five minutes, or doing a human flag. In a perfect world with unlimited resources, we'd be crazy not to pursue all of these abilities and capacities.
But the cold hard truth is, our resources are limited, and sometimes they're better spent on other things. For me, being strong, lean, and healthy, along with enjoying my training choices, are where I've chosen to allot my resources. None of us know with absolute certainty that we're making the best possible choices, but if nothing else, I hope I've managed to stimulate your own thinking on this topic. Let the debate begin.