Posted September 15, 2015

34 Things Learned from 20 Years of Lifting – Part 1

I turn 34 years old on Thursday, I think. They’ve all started to blur together, and I really don’t feel any older than 17 most of the time (at least 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.

It’s also been roughly 20 years since I started lifting weights. It all started off with just trying to rehab an ankle sprain from basketball, and then lead to me trying to pick up girls by looking somewhat hot and not making a complete fool of myself, to realizing I was getting pretty strong and wanted to pursue it as a potential career.

Along the way I’ve come to realize a lot of different things about weight lifting, conditioning, movement in general, and how to use it effectively to get the specific goals you’re looking for, and I wanted to share a few of those in this weeks celebration.


#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 the workouts entirely.

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 that nothing else can take it’s precedent.

One thing a lot of people who train with me consistently say is that they really have to focus and get mentally tired in the initial sessions because they’re working so hard on doing the exercises well without compensating or cheating. I’m not having people do anything too severe or mentally challenging, usually just focusing on the basics done very well. If you’re able to brain out with your weights, you’re either not getting the benefits you’re after or 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 lot of my information from magazines focusing on bodybuilding. A lot of them talked about training a muscle to fatigue or past fatigue with things like drop sets, forced eccentrics, that kind of stuff. I tried it and it worked to help gain some muscle, but I’d always feel like I couldn’t use those parts of my body 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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 9.41.20 AM

Research seems to be divided on whether fatigue training is actually necessary to see hypertrophy or not. It seems to work well with beginners, but then again walking past the weight room and looking in seems to make beginners gain a pound or two, so that’s not saying much. It could also be very beneficial in people who have a lot of consistent training under their belt, with a large frequency of training (like 5-6 days per week) and need a bit more of a stimulus to see further growth for a short period of time.

The downside to this kind of training is both the soreness someone might feel, but also the general wear and tear they will feel on their connective tissue. Joints tend to get flared up more and general achiness is more pronounced, possibly due to the inflammatory cascade from the muscle breakdown, but it can lead to some excessive tenderness and potential injuries to connective tissue (tendinitis, etc), especially if used consistently without a deloading period.

Generally speaking, most people tend to see solid benefits from training to 80-90% 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, but not as fast and with considerably fewer side effects.

#3: Warm ups are always important, but importanter as you get older

Yes, “importanter” is a word. Look it up.

With age, connective tissue develops less elastin, 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 warm up. The spinal discs only adjust hydration with mechanical action, so just thinking blood flow will get more water into the discs won’t be 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 set postures for a long time (think sitting in an office or chair) tend to have their nervous system kicked up to high for the entire time they’re trying to stay upright, so foam rolling becomes important. Contrary to popular thoughts, foam rolling does nothing to stretch tissues as the compression doesn’t alter length very much. It alters neural tone in a tissue, allowing that cranked up receptor causing your quad and hamstring to be “on fleek” as the kids would say (I don’t even know if that’s the right definition), and help you move better for your workout to follow.

Then doing some active preparation of the movements you’re looking to train for that day can help get your mind and body connected and focused on the work to come. Training some body weight or goblet squats prior to hitting up some barbell squats can be massively beneficial to both your tissue health during and after the work, but also your performance during the workout.

#4: Fitness shouldn’t have a time limit

I see a lot of people look to do 30 day challenges, or 6 week boot camps, and I guess that’s cool to get some different perspectives, but after those timelines are complete, what comes next? Often people will 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.

In many ways, fitness should be viewed as a long-term concept, much like saving for retirement. Going hard and putting as much into retirement savings for a short period while leaving you broke during that timeframe may be mildly productive, but is a benefit you likely won’t reap for a long time. Instead, consistent effort to invest time in the gym over the span of years, not weeks or days, will tend to 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% of your meals for the next week or two, and 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 likely be a little lower. This isn’t because you’re in worse shape, just that the nervous system saw a short-term down regulation to accommodate to your new altered activity levels. The good news is you still have the same muscle and aerobic environments as before, and once you get one or two workouts in you’ll be back up to where you were before.

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 2-4 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% due to neural efficiency, but as mentioned this is transient and comes back quickly. You won’t lose muscle gainz or need a heart transplant by taking a vacation, and if anything it would probably be a good idea to have time off on a regular basis, much like the training calendar of a professional athlete involves off seasons each year.

#6: You likely need less variety than you think you do

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 hit a plateau, meaning 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% 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 warm up sequence will look exactly the same for years on end. Similarly, powerlifters will spend years, if not decades, doing the big three lifts as they would on the competition platform, with variation in lifts as their deloads or on non-max days.

Variation in exercise does a couple of good things. First, it makes you think about an exercise differently, meaning you’re mentally more engaged, but second it gives a chance for new neural pathways to be laid down in your brain that can help to strengthen and round out the ones that currently exist for a specific movement.

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 a myth

Everyone is built differently, and in most cases, asymmetrically. 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 with.

All of this means setting up for an exercise while trying to maintain the appearance of symmetry could actually be causing issues and imbalances that the pursuit of symmetry is meant to fix or reduce.

With a lot of people, they would do best to have a mildly asymmetric set up on a lot of their exercises. I have a lot of clients find more 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. So-and-so is training for something, but develops pain or a mild injury. They say they just have to train through the pain, and wind up either getting through the event they were training for (with a poor showing), or wind up getting injured before the event. While injured, they try to modify their training to still be able to “do something” but either wind up spinning their wheels doing nothing of benefit, or wind up with a worse injury because of the limited healing and constant strain.

There have only been 3 times where I have advised someone to continue training while in pain: each of which was when 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, and they likely wouldn’t have another opportunity to do it again. 2 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, choosing 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 cheque. As well, enjoy the 3-times weekly physiotherapy appointments at $80 a pop for the next 3 months.

#9: Don’t go to celebrities for fitness advice

This can’t be stated enough. If your idea of a fitness knowledge database is the same person who brought you corsets, toning shoes and a sex tape with Ray Jay, you deserve the results you get.

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 and can’t give any information on some of the specifics of how that body part actually works, or exhibit at least somewhat good posture during their exercises or poses, they may not be the best sources 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 seriously if you want to fix your car, don’t bring it to the model who stands next to the car at the car show to have her work on it. While she may surprise you and be a whiz with the wrench, the odds are not in that favour.

#10: There’s a definite ceiling to the benefits of balance training

For most people, once they master standing on one foot on solid ground, the ability to control positioning and balance on relatively unstable surfaces tends to be maximized. With very labile or fluid structures, specific time needs to be spent to master the movement of the surface they’re on, but again once they figure that out, the benefits are maximized. You don’t get any better with more instability and fluctuations. You just increase the risk of falling with no noticeable improvements in any quantifiable outcome.

So to summarize: 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. That’s the extent of most balance training that should be done in the gym. Outside of this, work on the specific surface you’re looking to master. If your goal is to compete in the Bosu Olympics, by all means. If you have a different goal in mind, go for that kind of surface.

#11: Body part isolation workouts rarely feel good

I saw a post a while back 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 flyes

Essentially, everything involved approximating the humerus towards the acromion in different angles and positions. That’s fine if the 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, shortly after this workout was posted, the individual was complaining of “shoulders on fire” and couldn’t figure it out. I get that hypertrophy is all about overload and stimulus, but the structure has to be considered as well. With each rep the scapulae are being pulled into protraction, elevation and anterior tilt, especially as he gets fatigued through the normal course of 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.

A better way to approach this would be to have every third or fourth exercise focus on antagonistic muscles, like the rhomboids, lats, and lower traps. Switching in a set of seated rows or Y raises, even lat pulldowns with some solid thoracic extension could help to 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 flyes

Well, that’s it for today. Next day we’ll have points 12-22, and culminating in the remainder over the weekend. I hope you enjoyed these.



3 Responses to 34 Things Learned from 20 Years of Lifting – Part 1