In Mythbusters Volume 1 and Volume 2, we let our panel of fitness experts identify, rant about, and quash some common and not-so-common exercise myths that hold most guys back from building a strong, muscular, injury-resistant physique.
In Volume 3, Chad Waterbury, Christian Thibaudeau, Tim Ziegenfuss, Mike Robertson, and Nick Tumminello ask you to pull up a chair and join the debunking process.
But as any self-respecting GI Joe fan understands, knowing is half the battle. The other half? Well, it’s up to you to put their advice into practice.
Even Arnold worked the forearms
Myth: ”Hard gainers” will always be stuck with skinny calves and forearms.
Mythbuster: Chad Waterbury
The calves and forearms are notoriously tough to build, but they’re also the easiest to build. Why the dichotomy? Genetics.
If you’re born with great calves or forearms (or any easily developed muscle group, for that matter), it takes little work to get that body part to look good. That’s common sense. Congratulate yourself for choosing the right parents.
But the calves and forearms are often singled out. Why? Unless you live in a frigid climate or belong to a religious tradition that doesn’t allow you to expose your arms and ankles, those are the parts people see and notice. And because you know people can see those exposed parts, if you’re a skinny dude you’re probably more sensitive to their relative puniness.
So, here’s the million-dollar question: Can your puny calves and forearms get big?
I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that any muscle group can get bigger. I’ve never worked with anyone who couldn’t build impressive forearms, no matter how laughable the initial girth. The calves, on the other hand, are a wee bit trickier. If they’re small, no problem, they can get bigger. But if those calves have a very high insertion point (long tendon, short muscle belly), you’re relegated to building calves that will, at best, look like half a grapefruit on a Popsicle stick. There’s no way around it.
However, that’s really not a bad look, considering the alternative: a strawberry on a Popsicle stick.
The key training element is frequency. I recommend training those muscle groups as much as six times per week. Every fourth week, cut back to training them just once, to allow supercompensation to occur.
Follow these guidelines, and you should see significant growth in your forearms, and as much growth as your tendon length will allow in your calves.
Myth: Drop sets and “feeling the burn” are the best ways to stimulate muscle fibers.
Mythbuster: Christian Thibaudeau
No training technique is totally ineffective, provided it’s used in a smart way. Drop sets are no exception, as long as you understand the downsides of using them – and they have a lot of downsides.
For starters, they’re extremely hard on the CNS (central nervous system). This is because an increase in intramuscular acidity, along with the accumulation of several different metabolites (such as hydrogen ions), makes the contraction process much harder.
Any time you have the ”burn” sensation, the nervous system must work harder to recruit the muscle fibers necessary to perform the action required. This doesn’t mean we should avoid any training technique that leads to a great pump or that takes us to failure. The CNS needs to be challenged, same as your heart, your lungs, your skeletal muscles, or any other system that’s linked to your goals in the gym. But too much stimulation can lead to central fatigue, which we don’t want.
That brings me to the second downside. To add that CNS-challenging volume, you have to cut the load in a major way. And I fail to see where such a drastic reduction in training weight would stimulate more fibers to grow. Unless you’re a beginner, you should train with at least 70 percent of your one-rep max to stimulate growth. You can’t do that with traditional drop sets.
Let’s say your max in the lift you’re drop setting is 150 pounds, and you start out with 125 pounds – 80 percent of your max. You go to failure, then drop the weight by 30 pounds. You’re now using 95 pounds, or 63 percent of your max. If you go to failure again, and drop by another 30 pounds, you’re now at 65 pounds, or 43 percent of your max.
So, even though you just worked your ass off, you were using an insufficient load for two-thirds of the set. The external load wasn’t heavy enough to maximize motor-unit recruitment, and the fast-twitch fibers – those that are the most primed for growth – were shot after you went to failure with 80 percent of your max. After that, you were relying mostly on intermediate and slow-twitch fibers.
The increase in acidity within your muscles will lead to an increase in growth hormone and IGF-1 levels, which is certainly a benefit. But I don’t think that it comes close to compensating for the decrease in loading.
What’s the alternative? Instead of traditional drop sets, I recommend extended sets, in which you continue to work even after you’ve hit momentary muscular failure. They work well as long as you use a load heavy enough to maximize motor-unit recruitment.
- Rest/Pause: Do your regular set. When you’ve completed your reps (close to failure), rest for 10 to 12 seconds. Then, with the same weight, get as many additional reps as you can.
- Short Drops: This is just like a traditional drop set, except you start with a relatively heavy load, and make small drops. You should never go below 70 percent of your max during the set. So you might start with 90 percent, perform three reps, drop down to 80 percent, perform a few more, then finally drop down to 70 percent and do as many reps as you can.
- Mechanical Drop Sets: In a mechanical drop set, you still focus on performing more reps once you hit failure. But instead of reducing the weight, you make a small change to the execution of the movement that allows you to get more reps with the original weight. You can change your grip, stance, or angle of movement – whatever makes the exercise slightly easier without changing it to a completely different exercise.
If you’re ever in doubt, just remember this: The more fibers you recruit and exhaust, the more growth you get.
Myth: Glutamine is a great supplement for weight lifters.
Mythbuster: Tim Ziegenfuss
First, let me point out that I don’t expect my take on glutamine to resonate with those who’re convinced it’s a worthwhile supplement.
I’ll concede that glutamine is the most abundant free amino acid in the body, and has important roles in muscle tissue (as a nitrogen shuttle), the brain (as a component of cerebrospinal fluid), and the intestinal mucosa/immune cells (as an energy substrate). It’s also cheap and pretty much tasteless, and supplement companies have worked hard to convince consumers that glutamine has anti-catabolic properties in humans.
But when you get right down to it, the most important role of glutamine for athletes is gut health. If you’re an athlete competing in endurance-based sports, glutamine may help prevent upper-respiratory infections. If you simply slam the iron, a few grams of glutamine isn’t going to do squat.
Put simply, I don’t know of a single study in humans that shows glutamine has anabolic or anti-catabolic properties that increase training adaptations during resistance exercise. That includes a terrific study from Canada in which subjects were given 45 grams of glutamine per day during a six-week training program. Compared to the placebo group, subjects consuming glutamine had no greater increases in strength (measured via squat, bench press, and knee-extension torque), body composition (lean mass determined via DEXA), or muscle-protein breakdown (determined via urinary 3-methylhistidine excretion).
So ultimately, my take on glutamine and weight training is this: If you’re into micromanaging things, glutamine probably won’t hurt your efforts in the gym. But it almost certainly won’t help.
Myth: You should go ass to grass on squats.
Mythbuster: Mike Robertson
If you have the mobility and stability of an Olympic weightlifter, and can go to full depth on the squat without rounding your lower back and tucking your pelvis, by all means go as deep as want. A tucked pelvis stretches the hell out of the ligaments in your lower back, and puts your spinal discs under more pressure.
If you’re part of the 99 percent of lifters who can’t squat that deep without distorting your spinal alignment, you have no business doing so.
Not at first, anyway.
Your body should have 3-D stability: in the back from spinal erectors, in the front from the rectus abdominis and external obliques, and on the sides from the obliques and quadratus lumborum. This will create a nice “weight belt” of support. Your anterior core has to be just as strong as your posterior core, or you’ll always put your lower back in jeopardy.
The only way you’re going to know how your squat stacks up is to film yourself. Head to the gym with a friend, set up a camera, and watch where your pelvis tucks under. For many, it’ll be right around the point at which your thighs are parallel to the floor.
Now that you’ve identified the problem, you need to tear down your foundation and re-groove your squat pattern. You need to learn how to move through your hips, load your hips, and limit motion in your lower back. I’ve found the best way to do this is to limit your squat depth and get into your “functional range.”
Look again at your video, and see exactly where your pelvis tucks. Set up a box that’s slightly above that level. At first you may not feel like you’re getting low enough, but this is an important time to keep your ego in check and focus on having perfect squat form within that range.
You should also start aggressively foam rolling, focusing on your glutes, tensor fasciae latae (a strip of muscle on the front of your hip, in between your hip flexors and your gluteus medius), IT band (the sheath of connective tissue on the outside of your thigh), and quads. You also want to do some serious core work, including dead bugs and the other exercises I described in Core Training for Smart Folks, along with ab-wheel rollouts and variations described in Mike Boyle’s Anterior Core Training.
Once you’re taking care of all of the above, start lowering the box over the next few weeks or months. But don’t rush it. Go for the smallest increments your gym equipment will allow, even if it’s just an inch or two at a time. Keep going until you can get as deep as you want without tucking your pelvis. It takes a while to get used to, but when you finish the process, your squat will be a lot stronger.
And if you still want to continue to load your legs while you’re re-grooving your squat pattern, make sure to do some single leg work like lunges and split squats, along with a few exercises that allow you to go heavy and require less hip mobility, like trap-bar deadlifts and rack pulls.
Myth: Performing Olympic lifts is the best way to build power
Mythbuster: Nick Tumminello
Olympic weightlifting is a sport, but it’s not a sport like basketball, in which you can get away with learning and practicing the parts you enjoy without incurring any risks to your health. It’s more akin to skiing, in which you have to learn the entire sport before you can develop basic competence and enjoy some of the benefits. That requires some serious time and effort.
But what are the benefits to the Olympic lifts? Certainly, they help you develop good rhythm and timing, and teach you to transfer energy from the ground through your entire body. And of course they help you build power.
Unfortunately, the power you build is specific to the movements you perform. Just because you’re powerful with a hang clean doesn’t mean you’ll be powerful punching somebody, or throwing a football, or sprinting downfield.
All those movements – along with just about everything else in sports – involves some sort of rotation. And there’s absolutely no rotary component to the Olympic lifts.
I prefer to do heavy and light medicine-ball work, including slams, scoops, and throws. You’re generating power with no real learning curve. You just pick up a ball and go.
Another problem is that very few gyms are set up for Olympic exercises, which by necessity are single-rep movements with no negative component. An Olympic lifter sets up, lifts the bar, catches it, holds it, and then tosses it back down on the platform. Then he settles the bar, sets up for another rep, and does it all over again.
But most guys train in regular gyms, where there are no platforms and you’ll rarely find rubber weights. Dropping weights on the floor is against the rules, and dropping a bar down from overhead would get you kicked out. So you’re stuck doing multiple reps, with at most a tap on the floor in between.
Think about how much work it takes, and how many additional muscles have to be activated, to put that weight down gently. Gravity adds a lot of force to the eccentric phase. You end up putting repetitive stress on your shoulders, elbows, and wrists, but with no real payoff in motor-unit recruitment. All pain, no gain.
So, in my view, if you aren’t an Olympic weightlifter who trains in a facility set up for Olympic weightlifting, you have no business doing Olympic lifts.
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