Bodybuilding and strength training have hundreds of rules you need to follow to make progress. Trouble is, many of them suck. Break them.
Here's what you need to know...
- You don't need to beat the crap out of yourself every day. All strong lifters realize that you can't go balls to the wall all the time or your progress will stall.
- You do not have to master body weight squats before you progress to loaded squats. Nor do you need to do heavy overhead squats or band-assisted pull-ups.
- Doing more work in less time is great, but if you let your form slip to beat the clock you didn't improve anything.
- "Never train to failure" only implies to certain lifts for people with certain goals. It's not a rule that must be followed all the time.
- The best recovery workout is eating and napping.
- If you feel great, train. No matter what your overly complex periodization scheme tells you.
Good in Theory, Bad in Practice
Some ideas sound good on paper but just don't pan out in the real world. This happens all the time in training. Someone shares a training methodology that sounds smart and people don't even bother to test it out. They immediately begin to regurgitate it as truth. Before long, you've got all kinds of ridiculous notions flying around the internet.
As someone who spends his whole day in the gym training people and experimenting with new ideas, I'm much more of a practice guy than a theory guy. As such, here are nine commonly espoused mantras or methodologies that don't hold up under real-world scrutiny.
1. You must first master body weight squats before adding load.
Of course you shouldn't be loading up a heavy bar if you can't even do a good body weight squat, but lightly loaded goblet squats and lightly loaded lumberjack squats with the landmine are two of the best ways to teach the squat pattern for those who struggle to do it correctly.
Load usually exacerbates faults in form, but the squat is one instance where a light anterior load seems to clean the form up. Just don't get overzealous on the loading and make sure to get your technique right before venturing into heavy weights.
2. Band-assisted chin-ups will help you with full-range body weight chin-ups.
Band-assisted chin-ups with a band around the knee or the foot are often used as a way for people to build towards doing full bodyweight chin-ups. Trouble is, it rarely works.
Why? Because the band helps you with the bottom portion of the rep where most people don't need the assistance instead of helping you at the top where people need the most help. So what you end up seeing is the band propelling people out of the bottom position until they come to a halt almost immediately once the band is no longer providing any help. They then hang there like one of those cats in those "Hang in There" motivational posters.
Instead, try using isometric holds where you hold yourself above the bar, or slow eccentrics where you jump up to the top and then lower yourself down slowly. You could even use one of those assisted chin-up machines that applies a consistent assist from bottom to top and strive to decrease the amount of assistance you use over time.
3. You should crush yourself every workout.
The idea that "if some is good, more must be better" pervades the meathead community and a lot of lifters feel the need to beat the shit out of themselves day in and day out. In fact, most strong people go through a phase in their first few years of training where they treat every workout like it's their last and they refuse to take time off out of fear that they'll lose all their progress.
I've been there myself and I actually think that "overwork" phase of a lifter's career is invaluable for instilling a good work ethic. But sooner and later, all strong lifters realize – either due to injury, burnout, or just listening to the advice of more experienced lifters – that you can't go balls to the wall all the time or your progress will stall. Worse, you'll get hurt.
Sometimes when life gets busy and stress is high, taking a break or at least a step back is the best choice you can make to keep the gains coming.
4. When you leave the gym you should feel better than when you came in.
This sentiment probably arose to combat the idea of people judging the efficacy of their workout based on how close they come to death. I get that, and again, like many of the things on this list, the idea is well intentioned, but it's going to the opposite extreme.
Unless you're just doing some stretching and foam rolling, you're not actually going to leave the gym feeling better than when you came in. If you do, then you need to be training harder. After all, it's a gym, not a spa where they heap hot stones on your tush.
I understand the backlash against workout maniacs who habitually try to kill themselves, but you still have to train hard and push yourself... unless of course you're cool with being mediocre. A good workout should leave you temporarily gassed but it shouldn't leave you crippled or crushed for days. Like most things in life, the answer lies somewhere between the extremes.
5. Recovery workouts are essential.
Recovery workouts are a great idea in theory and can be very useful for the right person. If you're training hard 3-4 days a week, then adding in an easy recovery workout might be wise, but more often than not, the people who inquire about doing recovery workouts are the obsessive/compulsive types that refuse to take any time off. And that's the same type of person that only knows one speed in the gym: full steam ahead.
What ends up happening is that they go into the gym with the goal of recovery but just end up running their body further into the ground. You know the type, dude says he's going in to do some light cardio to "flush out his legs" and ends up doing intervals until he damn near pukes.
If you're already training 5-6 days a week, then "recovery workout" is really an oxymoron. Just rest. I always chuckle when people ask what they should do on off days. Do nothing! As in nada, zilch. If that's just too much for you to handle and you insist on doing something, here's a tried-and-true recovery workout for you to try:
A1. Eat – 3 sets of AMPAP (as much protein as possible)
A2. Take a nap – 3 sets of AMMAP (as many minutes as possible)
Perform all three supersets in a row with no rest in between. Pee breaks are acceptable, but you must sit down.
I call this WOD Jack, which is short for jack shit.
6. Overhead squats are great for mobility and building strength and muscle.
While heavy overhead squats look impressive and light overhead squats with a dowel or a light barbell may have merit as a mobility exercise that you do as part of your warm-up, they completely suck for building strength and muscle.
A lot of the decisions about which exercises to employ comes down to assessing the risk versus the reward. Heavy overhead squats are needlessly risky with very little return, making them a poor choice in my book.
Most people don't have anywhere near the mobility required to do them safely and when you combine that with heavy load, you're just asking for trouble. I cringe when I see someone trying to grind a heavy set because the margin for error is so small. I honestly think the main reason people do them is to show off because they're hard and look cool.
Even if you have the requisite mobility to do a nice overhead squat, there are much better options for building strength and muscle with less risk. Front squats, back squats, and single leg squats are all fair game. Hell, I'm not a big leg press guy but I'd even say the leg press is a better option than heavy overhead squats.
If you can't do a proper overhead squat due to mobility restrictions, then it's worth using them to work on your mobility, but do yourself a favor and pick another exercise for your heavy work.
7. Don't ever train to failure.
Like many of the concepts here, the idea of avoiding training to failure has merit in certain situations, but the problem arises when people try to apply a piece of advice to all exercises and scenarios. This is an instance where a small dose of common sense can go a long way. Taking a set of heavy-ass deadlifts to failure is a hell of a lot different than taking a set of push-ups to failure.
I wouldn't advise doing heavy deadlifts, squats, free-weight rowing variations, explosive movements, good mornings, or single-leg work to failure. Basically, steer clear of failure on any exercise where you can get hurt when your form breaks down.
But for things like push-ups, chin-ups, inverted rows, leg curls, dumbbell press variations, and other exercises where there's not as much risk to your body, training to failure can actually provide a great growth stimulus and teach you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone.
It's also pretty safe to say that doing a few sets of push-ups or chin-ups to failure doesn't "fry the central nervous system."
You want to be judicious when training to failure, but with the right exercises and good programming, going balls-out certainly has its time and place.
8. Do as much work as you can in a given timeframe.
Timed workouts have risen in popularity as of late where the goal becomes to complete a given workout as fast as possible. The load usually remains constant and time thus becomes the mode of progressive overload.
This idea has merit... to a point. I like the idea of trying to decrease rest intervals and get more work done in less time. Cool. But once you can complete a given task in continuous fashion without taking excessive breaks while using good technique, the only way to better your time at that point is to use shittier form and rush the reps. That's not improvement.
It's fine to establish a time goal for a given workout, but that timeframe must require that you keep good form the entire time. Once you're able to complete the task at hand in that timeframe, increase the weight and try to match your time, but don't allow yourself to comprise your technique in the name of going faster.
9. Detailed periodization schemes are the epitome of lifting programs.
Talking about fancy periodization schemes will make you sound smart amongst your lifting brethren, and these schemes have merit for competitive lifters whose lives revolve around their workout schedule. But for most lifters they're unnecessary and overly complicated.
When you have a busy job, a family, and a social life, things come up all the time that can interfere with your scheduled workouts. That's fine. Your workout program doesn't need to define your life.
By the same token, let's say you feel great on a particular week but your program calls for a preplanned deload week. There's no sense in not taking advantage of the times you feel great just because the program calls for you to take it easy. For the average person, life provides a built-in periodization scheme so try not to overthink it too much.
A simple progressive overload system that follows the natural ebbs and flows of your life will allow for great long term progress as well as great life balance.