Donald Trump jokes notwithstanding, the internet likes argument and controversy—especially when the topic revolves around fitness and health.
A prime example is gluten. On one side are those who are adamantly against eating anything containing gluten, despite 1) not having celiac disease or a gluten intolerance (which is a real thing, albeit rare), or 2) being unable to explain what, exactly, gluten is. They were just told it’s bad for them and that you’re the spawn of Satan if you ingest it. The reality is gluten is a type of protein (specifically gliadin & glutenin) found in foods processed from specific types of grains (most commonly wheat, barley, rye).
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Another great example is the debate over which is the best training protocol to follow. People argue about ideal reps, sets, exercise selection, exercise order, rest periods, tempo and even which Pandora station to listen to.
None of it matters if you don’t adhere to the program and remain consistent with it. I’d make the case that it’s better to follow a poorly designed program, train with intent and purpose, and stick with it for an extended period of time than to haphazardly follow a so-called “perfect” program intermittently.
“Perfect” doesn’t matter if the program isn’t realistic and doesn’t match your goals, needs and expectations.
That said, when it comes to writing programs, I operate under the mindset that everything works and that, for beginners (especially those interested in performance/athletics), a couple of themes can serve as the foundation for making progress and sustaining it long-term.
1. Prioritize Compound Movements
I don’t mean there’s no time and place for isolation work. But when was the last time you heard an athlete brag about how Bicep Curls or Tricep Kickbacks helped him or her catch the winning touchdown, kick the winning goal, hit the game-winning home run or earn an athletic scholarship?
If your goal is to run faster, jump higher, get stronger and/or be more athletic, it’s crucial to prioritize movements that will improve/enhance those qualities.
There’s a reason why Squats, Deadlifts, Cleans, Chin-Ups, Single-Leg work, Rows, Push-Ups, Farmer’s Walks, Kettlebell Swings, Sprints and Barbell Glute Bridges are staples in many (if not all) athletic/performance-based training programs.
Because they work!
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And contrary to popular belief, most trainees (even elite ones) don’t need as much variety as they think. The whole notion of “muscle confusion,” or that you need to change up your routine every so often to keep your body guessing, is a ploy used to sell e-books by many “trainers” who don’t actually train people.
Most programs worth a damn are boring on paper. There’s generally little deviation from the above list, and when a new exercise or drill is introduced, it’s usually justified as complementing or enhancing performance in those exercises.
Furthermore, the concept of “muscle confusion,” well, confuses things. When a program is constantly being changed or new exercises are being introduced, the trainee has very little time to master or gain proficiency in what he or she is doing. This impedes progress.
Think of how many variables we can tweak with the Squat alone: bar position (Back Squat vs. Front Squat); type of bar used (straight bar, cambered bar, safety squat bar); bar position (high or low bar); and even foot position (wide stance vs. narrow stance)—and none of this speaks to sets/reps, bar speed, tempo, rest periods or Pandora stations.
I recommend not Taylor Swift.
In the end, is muscle confusion really necessary?
2. Battle Your Inner Bodybuilder
Make no mistake: We all have to battle our inner bodybuilder. As someone who grew up watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, I can attest that part of the reason I began lifting weights was to have big biceps and to look like I could deadlift a bulldozer.
Having aesthetic or body image goals is not a bad thing, and implementing a bit of vanity-based training does have its place—even if athleticism and performance are the priorities.
Science backs up these claims: larger muscles with more cross-sectional area will produce more force. And the more force you can generate into the ground, the higher you’ll jump, the faster you’ll run, and the sooner you’ll leave your opponent in the dust.
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I still feel that if you spend 80 percent of your training time focusing on compound movements and devote most of your effort to performing them well, you’ll be better off in the long run.
However, as I mentioned above, this doesn’t mean you should avoid high(er)-repetition, vanity-based exercises entirely. This is otherwise known as accessory work. High-repetition accessory work is important for a few reasons: 1) it can enhance performance in a variety of compound movements; 2) increasing muscular cross-sectional area can help produce force; and 3) there’s less wear and tear on the joints.
To point 1): Let’s assume for example that a trainee is weak or slow off the floor with the Deadlift. He or she can use specific accessory exercises to “fix” or address this issue. One option would be to simply be honest and perform a true Deadlift. Most trainees who have this issue perform a “tap-n-go deadlift,” where they bounce the plates off the ground. Keeping these people honest and ensuring a pause/DEAD-stop on the floor with every repetition (upward of 8-10 reps) will undoubtedly help.
Sometimes the problem is weak quadriceps. The reason some trainees are slow off the ground is because they’re unable to generate power from their thighs. To address that issue, high-rep Front Squats (sets of 8-12) would be a nice adjunct.
To point 2): It bears repeating that larger muscles have the potential to produce more force. Name an athlete who wouldn’t want that.
To point 3): When someone trains with high(er) repetitions, they’re generally using smaller loads. This puts less wear and tear on the joints, assuming of course proper technique is being used.
Truth be told, adding a little vanity work—even if it’s direct arm work—at the end of a training session can have positive effects in boosting self-esteem and confidence. In many ways, we can take the position that compound movements should be trained like a powerlifter (1-5 reps) and accessory movements should be trained like a bodybuilder (8-12 reps). You get the best of both worlds! Plus, it demonstrates a little give and take between coach and athlete. The coach recognizes both low-rep and high-rep training has its advantages, and the athlete stays motivated and satisfies his inner Arnold.