Here are some surprising training do’s and don’ts from a leading exercise physiologist and strength coach.
This story was originally published on DeanSomerset.com, the website of Dean Somerset, a personal trainer and exercise physiologist from Edmonton, Alberta Canada. His clientele ranges from joint replacement surgical clients to Olympic gold medalists and everyone in between.
I’m about to turn 34 … I think. The years have all started to blur together. Most of the time, I really don’t feel any older than 17 (in terms of maturity, that is). But the calendar says it’s 2015, and I was born in 1981, so I guess it’s true.
1. Strength workouts require an investment in focus.
Working in a commercial facility, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone reading the paper or a book or talking on their cell phone while using a machine with an incredibly low amount of weight. Others might read a chapter in between their sets of flailing chest presses, losing pretty much any kind of cardiopulmonary or vascular benefit to their workout.
While these activities could be done while doing some low-intensity steady-state cardio, it’s not really beneficial to anyone to have this little focus when strength training. There has to be an investment in caring enough about what you’re doing. Nothing else can take precedent.
One thing a lot of people who I train say to me: They get mentally tired in initial sessions because they’re working so hard on doing exercises without compensating or cheating on their form. They really have to focus.
And I’m not asking those people to do anything too severe or mentally challenging—we’re usually just focusing on doing the basics right. So if you’re able to brain out with your weights, you’re either not getting the benefits you’re after or you’re just going through the motions. There’s a time and place for that, and it’s called the cardio area.
2. Training to (and past) fatigue may not be that beneficial.
When I started out, I got a good deal of my information from magazines that focused on bodybuilding. A lot of them talked about training a muscle to fatigue or past fatigue with things like drop sets, forced eccentrics, and other stuff like that.
So I tried the techniques and it worked to help gain some muscle. But I’d always feel as if I couldn’t use those body parts for about 3 or 4 days afterwards. There’s a fine line between feeling your arms are kind of toasty and looking like a damn T-Rex until Sunday.
Research seems to be divided on whether fatigue training is actually necessary to see hypertrophy or not. It seems to work well with beginners. Then again, beginners just need to look in a weight room and they seem to gain a pound or two of muscle.
It also may be beneficial in people who have consistent training under their belt. They do a large frequency of training (like 5 or 6 days per week) and need a bit more of a stimulus for a short period of time to see further growth.
The downside to this kind of training is not only soreness, but also general wear and tear on your connective tissue. Your joints will flare up and you’ll feel more general achivness. This may be possibly due to the inflammatory cascade from the muscle breakdown, which can lead to some excessive tenderness and potential injuries to connective tissue like tendinitis if used consistently without a deloading period.
Generally speaking, most people tend to see solid benefits from training to about 80-to-90 percent of their capacity before failure. They’ll see improvements in their physique, weight loss, movement quality, strength, and any other department they want to shop in. It may take a little longer, but it comes with considerably fewer side effects.
3. Warmups are always important—but importanter as you get older.
Yes, “importanter” is a word. Look it up.
With age, connective tissue develops less elastin and more collagen, and becomes notably stiff and somewhat more brittle than younger connective tissue. Hydration is a major component of this, and a lot of movement quality issues can be mitigated with enough water consumption.
But that doesn’t fix everything. You still need to mechanically pump the fluid into the target tissues, which is one of the benefits of a warmup. The spinal discs only adjust hydration with mechanical action, so just thinking blood flow will get more water into the discs isn’t entirely accurate unless you’re actively moving the disc through some small rotation, compression, and distraction movements.
From here, people who tend to stay in certain immobile postures for a long time—think sitting in a chair—need to foam roll. Contrary to popular thoughts, foam rolling does nothing to stretch tissues since thecompression doesn’t alter length very much. In reality, rolling alters neural tone in a tissue, allowing that cranked up receptor causing your quad and hamstring to be “on fleek” (sorry kids, I don’t even know if that’s the right definition), which helps you move better for your workout to follow.
(Check out The Truth about Foam Rolling for a deep dive into how it works.)
Next, you need to do some active preparation for the movements in your upcoming workout. This will your mind and body connected and focused on the work to come. For instance, training some body weight or goblet squats prior to hitting up some barbell squats can be massively beneficial to your tissue health during and after the work, and your performance during the workout.
4. Fitness shouldn’t have a time limit.
I see a lot of people doing 30-day challenges or 6-week boot camps. I guess that’s cool to get some different perspectives—but after those timelines are complete, what comes next?
Too often, people go hard on a concept or in a class and then do nothing to recover from it for a couple of weeks. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s rarely ever as productive as people would like. (Learn more great nuggets that can transform your fitness routine and life in Top Trainers’ Best Advice Ever.)
In many ways, fitness should be viewed as a long-term concept, much like saving for retirement. Going hard and putting all of your money into retirement savings for a few weeks or months, and then stopping, will only be mildly productive. Plus, it’ll leave your current bank account empty.
Instead, consistent effort to invest time in the gym over the span of years will yield the best results. Ask anyone who has a body that looks like they’ve put a lot of work into it and they’ll rarely say “Oh, I got this way after I did a 30-day challenge last month. It really works!!” They’ll likely tell you it’s been something they’ve worked at consistently for years, sometimes decades.
You could also say the same thing about nutrition. Instead of looking for a 10-day detox or cleanse, just eat right for about 90 percent of your meals for the next week or two. You’ll be at or ahead of any point that a cleanse would get you to, and you won’t get all hypoglycemic and wear out your toilet in the process.
5. Neural efficiency is the first quality to be detrained during a layoff.
When you don’t work out for a little while and then come back to it, your strength and work capacity will be a little lower. This isn’t because you’re in worse shape—it just means that your nervous system saw a short-term down regulation to accommodate to your new altered activity levels.
The good news: You still have the same muscle and aerobic environments as before. Once you get one or two workouts in, you’ll be back up to where you were before. (Get back into a routine with The ‘One Exercise Workout’ for Anytime You Don’t Feel Like Working Out.)
A lot of people hesitate to take time off during their training calendar, worried they’ll “lose fitness.” This is rarely the case … unless you’re completely incapacitated in a full-body cast and eating a Thanksgiving dinner each night.
Taking 2-to-4 weeks off from a workout program rarely causes any actual effects of detraining as determined from things like body composition analysis, VO2 max testing, or specific task completion. There will be a decrease of about 10 percent due to neural efficiency, but, as previously mentioned, this is transient and comes back quickly. You won’t lose muscle gainz or need a heart transplant by taking a vacation. If anything, it’s probably a good idea to take time off on a regular basis, much like the training calendar of a professional athlete involves off seasons each year.
6. You need less variety than you think.
One of the worst concepts brought into the fitness lexicon is “muscle confusion”—the premise being that your muscles will adapt to a workout and then hit a plateau so you won’t see any further improvements after a few weeks of doing a specific exercise.
Let’s get one thing straight: Muscles are incredibly dumb. They do what the brain tells them to do, and for as long as the brain tells them to do it. You could take a muscle and hook it up to a car battery and have it contract until well beyond the point it starts to rip itself apart, and it will just keep contracting as long as there’s electrical currents running through it. People who work in hospitals will tell you tales of dead bodies that have involuntary twitches or movements that makes them seem alive, essentially soiling the pants of everyone in the room when it happens.
The concept that you stop seeing benefits from a movement is confounded by strength athletes who do 90 percent of their training with only a very small number of movements. Olympic lifters will do cleans, presses, snatches, and variations of these movements in every single session they train. Sometimes their warmup sequence will look exactlythe same for years on end. Similarly, powerlifters will spend years—even decades!—doing the big three lifts as they would on the competition platform, only doing variations as deloads or on non-max days.
Variation in exercise comes with a couple of benefits. First, it makes you think about an exercise differently, which makes you more mentally engaged. Secondly, it gives a chance for new neural pathways to be laid down in your brain. These pathways can help to strengthen and complete the ones that currently exist for a specific movement. (Throwing in some new movements every now and then can be fun, too. Check out 14 Awesome Chinup and Pullup Variations.)
However, focusing on perfecting challenging movements can take a very long time. This is no different than individuals who work on a specific skill set in any sport or martial arts discipline. They may go through the same patterns countless times in different speeds and needs, working on making sure that the last time and the next time are the absolute best reps they can possibly do. It’s not a matter of how many free throws a basketball player has made previously, but whether the next one goes in. Rehearsing and practicing a skill can go a long way to development of all of the components of strength. I’ve been squatting for 20 years, and I’m still finding ways to make myself better.
Actually, maybe muscle confusion is more like this …
7. Symmetry is myth.
Everyone is built differently. In fact, most people are asymmetrical. Some people will have one hip more anteverted or retroverted than the other, one scapula could be broader in the posterior glenoid than in the anterior, or vice versa, and they could be developmental asymmetries depending on what sports or activities they’re involved in.
So trying to maintain the appearance of symmetry while beginning an exercise could actually be causing issues and imbalances that the pursuit of symmetry is meant to fix or reduce. (Here’s How to Pick the Right Exercises for YOUR Body.)
You’d actually be better off having a mildly asymmetric set up on a lot of exercises. I have a lot of clients find success with their squats and deadlifts by turning out one foot to a slightly more externally rotated position versus going with their feet either parallel or with a symmetrical turn out. Similar things happen with pressing and pulling movements, too.
8. Training through pain rarely produces benefits of any kind.
It’s a common story: You know someone who is training for something, but he developed pain or a mild injury. He trains through it. One of two things happens: He completes the event, but has a poor performance. Or he gets a worse injury while training because he didn’t let himself heal.
There have only been three times in my career where I have advised someone to continue training while in pain. And each time was an extreme case. They had a major championship coming up in a very short period of time that they had worked their asses off to get ready for. They likely wouldn’t have another opportunity to do it again. Two were world championships in different sports, and the other was the Olympics. In each case, they managed to make it through, but then had to take a few months to do some rehab on the injury to help them recover. Since their championships were over, they were more than happy to do this.
This is different from a weekend warrior or age-group athlete who has a job that isn’t their sport of choice. They choose to push through and wind up hobbled while chasing their goal of being the MVP on their rec league hockey team, running a sub 4-hour marathon, or surviving their first triathlon.
If your job is to play your sport, you’ll likely have to push through the odd bit of discomfort here and there to get the job done. If your sport is just a hobby or passion, pushing through pain will never be worth it. Sure, maybe you could win your event. Enjoy your $50 check. But you won’t enjoy the 3-times weekly physiotherapy appointments at $80 a pop for the next three months.
9. Don’t go to celebrities for fitness advice.
If your fitness knowledge comes from the same person who brought you corsets, toning shoes, and a sex tape with Ray Jay, then you deserve the results you get. (That’s right: Corsets. The Kardashian-Jenner clan is touting the trend on social media. And it turns out there are new male versions. Learn The Truth about Waist Training.)
Instead of listening to an “celebrity” who quite possibly didn’t finish high school, there are tons of free websites out there with quality information from people who actually know what they’re talking about, have successfully trained other people, and aren’t about selling you on outdated concepts from Victorian era fashion that were proven to be as useless as a mechanical bull in a retirement village.
Similarly, if a social media personality is only known for one body part, but he can’t give any specifics of how that body part actually works or he can’t exhibit good posture during exercises or poses, he may not be the best source of info. You can still look all you want, but I’d be cautious accepting “50 booty-building exercises” from someone who likely doesn’t know the names of the muscles they’re working. This isn’t to sound elitist, but if you want to fix your car, don’t bring it to the model at a car show to fix it. While she may surprise you and be a whiz with the wrench, the odds are not in your favor.
(Get a plan that’s proven to work. Try The Anarchy Workout—one guy lost 18 pounds of fat in just 6 weeks!)
10. There’s a definite ceiling to the benefits of balance training.
Once you can stand on one foot on solid ground, the ability to control positioning and balance on unstable surfaces tends to be maximized. And sure, you can spend time mastering movements on shifting, changing, or fluid surfaces. But once you master it, you won’t get any more benefits from it. You won’t get any better by adding more instability or fluctuations. Instead, you just increase the risk of falling.
Just do this: Stand on one foot and don’t let the other touch the floor. You can do squats and deadlifts and presses and rows like this if you want. But that should be the extent of balance training.
Outside of this, work on the specific surface you’re looking to master. For most of the population, this will be solid ground—unless you’re a swimmer, beach volleyball player, or competing in the Bosu Olympics.
11. Body part isolation workouts rarely feel good.
I saw a post a short time ago where someone wrote out their chest workout. It went something like this :
1 Incline bench press
2 Flat bench press
3 Decline bench press
4 Dumbbell chest press
5 Pec deck flys
Essentially, everything involved approximating the humerus (the bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow) towards the acromion (the point of the shoulder blade) in different angles and positions. That’s fine if your goal is to get the pecs to work—but not so fine if you want the shoulders to stay healthy for the long term.
Not surprisingly, the individual was complaining of “shoulders on fire” shortly after this workout was posted. I get that hypertrophy is all about overload and stimulus, but the structure has to be considered as well. During the workout, the scapulae are being pulled into protraction, elevation, and anterior tilt every rep—especially as he gets fatigued throughout the workout. With all of this, the margin of error before the shoulder starts to go through some impingement becomes less and less, and eventually leads to some subacromial irritation.
Related: The 15 Best Chest Exercises
So what’s a better way to approach this? Have every third or fourth exercise focus on antagonistic muscles, like the rhomboids, lats, and lower traps. Switching in a set of seated rows, Y raises, or lat pulldowns with some solid thoracic extension could help reduce the pressure under the shoulder for the rest of the workout and make it easier to get through the day. Considering the entire shoulder instead of a single muscle attached to it will help keep those joints healthier longterm, meaning a lifetime of healthy lifting.
For example, using the schematic presented for the chest workout above, it could go something like this:
1 Incline chest press
2 Flat bench press
3 Seated rows
4 Decline press
5 Dumbbell chest press
6 Dumbbell rows
7 Pec deck flys
Source : http://www.menshealth.com/fitness/lifting-lessons?cid=soc_Men%27s%20Health%20-%20MensHealth_FBPAGE_Men%27s%20Health__