In Mythbusters Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3, our team of coaches put the smack down on some of the most pervasive gym myths that cloud our consciousness and keep us from building lean, muscular, powerful bodies.
It’s more of the same in Volume 4, with Tony Gentilcore, Eric Cressey, Chad Waterbury, and Christian Thibaudeau debunking, denuding, debilitating, and defibrillating all the conventional wisdom that’s overstated, oversimplified, overwrought, or just plain over.
Myth: You should only perform 1 to 5 reps for strength and 6 to 12 reps for size.
Mythbuster: Tony Gentilcore
Those parameters are decent starting points for the strength-endurance continuum. It’s good for new lifters to understand why they’re told to do things the way people like me tell them to do it.
The problems begin when lifters become convinced that X amount of reps only elicits one specific result. It’s not that simple.
Let’s say you take a friend to the gym with you one day. And let’s say the two of you used to train together back in high school, but that was 10 years ago, and he hasn’t trained since then. You’ve gotten stronger; he’s gotten weaker. You get to the bench press station, and you’re warming up with 185, but for him that’s a one-rep max. And that’s being generous — that one rep is with his butt off the bench and veins popping out so far on his forehead you’re afraid he’s going to end up with facial hemorrhoids.
What’s the best thing for him to do in future workouts, assuming you’ve inspired him to get back in shape? Low reps until he gets his strength back? No, he needs to do high reps to improve his form and develop a base of strength and muscular endurance.
Now, if you look at the strength-endurance continuum and nothing else, you might tell him to stay away from sets with more than 12 reps — you can’t get stronger on those. But you’d be wrong.
A beginner — which is what your friend has become after 10 years — can gain strength with as little as 40% of his one-rep max. That means he could train with as little as 75 pounds and still increase his strength with sets of 15 to 20 reps. That won’t work for long, and chances are he won’t be happy about using less weight than the adolescent soccer player over on the next bench. But, in theory, it wouldn’t be useless for him to train with such a humbling load.
If you could get him to start with 95 pounds — just over half his 1RM — with sets of 12 to 15 reps, he’d probably see rapid gains in strength, along with some visible muscle gains and the expected improvement in muscle endurance.
Now let’s fast-forward a year. Your friend has been training consistently, and made great progress. But now he tells you he’s stuck. Hasn’t gotten bigger or stronger for a couple of months. He describes his workout, and it turns out that he’s been training in that “hypertrophy zone” all the time, on every exercise. Three sets of 10. Four sets of eight.
What do you think will happen if you put him on a program that uses, say, five sets of five reps? My bet is that he’ll grow like a weed in a matter of weeks.
A few months later, you put him on a program where he’s sometimes training with near-max weights, just two or three per set. The continuum says that’s the “pure strength” zone, but if he hasn’t lifted like that since high school, and he’s recruiting his high-threshold motor units for the first time in his adult life, don’t you think he’ll pack on some additional muscle mass? (Chad Waterbury just gave me a virtual high-five.)
So the traditional parameters are useful guidelines, and they certainly offer a sense of structure to inexperienced lifters. But we all need to remember that the continuum is where the conversation begins, not the final word. All of us make our best gains when we step out of the most familiar part of the range and experiment with something else.
Myth: Want to add sprints to your routine? Just get on the track and have at it!
Mythbuster: Eric Cressey
It’s not as simple as heading out to the track and lacing up your old pair of Nikes. Even lean, strong, flexible, well-coordinated athletes can get hurt if they don’t have good mechanics for sprinting.
If you train regularly but rarely run, you have no business going full-throttle right from the start. That’s a recipe for pulled hamstrings, hip flexors, and adductors. It also beats the hell out of your joints. Every time you land, you’re pummeling your knees, hips, and lower back with ground-reaction forces of up to four times your body weight.
Just about any of us who haven’t sprinted in a while need some prep work. You might need to drop some fat, or address some flexibility deficits, or just take a few weeks to build up to full-speed running.
Once you’ve done your prep work, though, the benefits are enormous.
First, we all know how useful it is for high-intensity interval training, a great tool for fat loss as well as athletic conditioning.
Second, sprinting can help resolve a common but rarely discussed imbalance within the hip-flexor muscles. If do most of your cardio on a stairclimber or elliptical machine, chances are your psoas muscles are underused and underdeveloped. Two other hip flexors — the rectus femoris (the quadriceps muscle on the top of your thigh) and tensor fascia latae (on your hip, next to your glute medius) — tend to be overrecruited.
The psoas are the only hip-flexor muscles that continue to work above 90 degrees of hip flexion, which is why sprints can fix the problem, or help you avoid it in the first place. We see this a lot with distance runners who tend to get past a lot of common lower-extremity issues simply by running faster.
Third, sprinting is probably the single-best form of plyometric training you’ll find. This is the flip side of the stress to your joints from the ground-reaction forces. It has tremendous value in the way it helps athletes make better use of the stretch-shortening cycle.
Of course, all these benefits assume that you know how to sprint correctly. Teaching good sprint mechanics isn’t part of our elementary-school curricula, so chances are that most T Nation readers could use some one-on-one coaching. If that’s not an option, try videotaping yourself for an online critique.
Myth: Want a six-pack like a bodybuilder? Train your abs!
Mythbuster: Chad Waterbury
What do you do when you want to make a muscle bigger? You train it, right?
Everyone knows the way to build bigger muscles is to work those muscles heavy, hard, and often. The particulars might vary, but that’s the underlying theme when the goal is protruding pecs, bulbous biceps, thunderous thighs, or miscellaneous massiveness. If you want it to grow, you train it.
But what do you do when you want to make your waist smaller?
Most of us would say you should train it — heavy, hard, and often. That’s the only way we know to make an otherwise shy six-pack stand up and call attention to itself.
But therein lies the problem. You’re looking for two completely different results from the same formula.
Your midsection is made up of muscle tissue, just like your hamstrings and lats. Do enough direct abdominal work, especially with some form of added resistance, and you will make those muscles bigger. Put another way, you will give yourself a bigger waist.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that direct ab work will make you look pregnant, or even seriously constipated. And I’m not saying a strong core isn’t important — you need one if you’re going to lift heavy enough, hard enough, and often enough to develop the rest of your body. So you shouldn’t stop training it completely.
But if your goal is to develop the six-pack of a bodybuilder, with a narrow waist that makes your upper body look proportionally bigger, you might need to reduce the amount of direct core training in your workouts.
Start by eliminating crunches and side bends, or at least keep the volume low on those exercises. Spinal flexion can weaken the discs in your spine and make them more susceptible to injury. And lateral flexion gives you thicker obliques without offering any functional benefit.
The best strategy is to use exercises that resist movement at the spine. Variations of the plank and side plank are the best place to start, since they don’t induce any hypertrophy. From there, move to exercises such as the Turkish get-up, Pallof press, and one-arm plank. (For some new and innovative approaches to core training, check out this article.)
Myth: Leg presses and chest flyes are inferior exercises.
Mythbuster: Christian Thibaudeau
There’s no such thing as universally mandatory or useless exercises. Everything is relative to one’s biomechanics and muscle dominance.
Someone with long legs — especially if the upper portion of the leg is proportionally longer than the lower — might not get optimal hypertrophy stimulation in his lower body from doing regular squats. But he may respond well to leg presses.
Then you have guys with short legs and a proportionally long torso who’ll grow huge quads from doing squats and only squats. In fact, when I competed in Olympic weightlifting, that’s the only lower-body exercise I did.
Finally, you have long-legged guys with proportional upper and lower portions who have short torsos. They’ll get amazing glute and hamstring stimulation from squats, but will barely hit their quads.
So saying one exercise is “inferior” to another is pretty stupid. It’s all about your leverages.
Interestingly, when it comes to building muscle in the arms and legs, I’ve also found that individuals with longer limbs generally require more isolation movements to train their extremities. Those with shorter limbs don’t need much, if any. However, the short-limbed people often need more isolation exercises for their chest, back, and shoulders.
Finally, muscle dominance will naturally influence the relative efficacy of an exercise for a specific individual. For example, someone with a very strong posterior chain — lower back, glutes, and hamstrings — will tend to get very little quadriceps development from squats. The posterior chain will tend to take over much of the workload, and thus receive more stimulation. This guy needs to do exercises where the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings can’t take over the exercise and perform a greater proportion of the work.
Leg presses are such an exercise, especially when they’re performed with a close stance and the feet in the middle or bottom part of the pad. Believe it or not, leg extensions would also be a good choice in that situation, assuming the only goal is to build quadriceps size.
The same can be said for bench presses, rows, and pulls-ups and chin-ups. If your triceps or biceps are dominant, they’ll take over on nearly every chest or back exercise. Isolation exercises for the chest and back thus become a necessity — again assuming the goal is maximum muscle development.
Isolation exercises can also be used as a learning tool when it comes to muscle recruitment. If you have trouble making your chest grow, for example, it could be due to an inability to recruit the high-threshold motor units within that muscle group, the ones with the greatest growth potential. You probably have a hard time feeling your pecs work when you’re bench pressing.
There’s a quick and easy solution and that’s using the pre-fatigue method. Do an isolation exercise for your chest — a chest flye — immediately before the bench press. You’ll get a better sense of your pecs working on the latter exercise. This improves your mind-muscle connection, and you’ll eventually become better at recruiting your pecs.
So, really, there are no such things as inferior exercises. It all depends on what’s most useful for your particular circumstances.
Have any myths that need to be busted? Click on the “discuss” button and let us know.