A no-nonsense guide to designing your workouts

In my recently rewritten article “A no-nonsense guide to design your workouts“, which is a three-part series, I offer no BS ways for beginners and veterans alike to keep their workouts fresh while consistently making gains.

Everywhere you turn these days, weight training seems to be the focus. And why shouldn’t it be? A proper weight training program produces many positive effects, including: increased muscle mass; reduced body fat; increased bone density; improved insulin sensitivity; improved self-esteem; and overall well-being. The list goes on. Yet with all the information available, why is it so hard for people to make progress? Because most of what is out there is BULLSHIT!!

Helping people is what being a trainer and a coach is all about. Most publishers and editors are so hell-bent on selling magazines, they print things like this: “Put 2 inches on your arms in 21 days;” “Have a chest like Arnold’s in just 6 weeks.” People, just like you, purchase this type of trash in the hopes that it might work. These writers and editors rely on your ignorance.

Having the knowledge and ability to help somebody achieve their goals goes far beyond writing an article about workouts. Writing workouts is actually a pretty easy thing to do. Just about anyone with a little bit of knowledge can do it, and many ? unfortunately — do. The barriers to entry to become a personal trainer are so low, most certificates aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. In contrast, look at the barriers to entry to become a nurse. Several years of school filled with prerequisites, in which you need a 78 percent just to pass, coupled with many hours of hands-on clinicals. What education does a trainer need? Send away for some study guides, take a test, and “Bam!” you’re a certified trainer.


Best exercise for building big lats

Over the years it has been well established that performing exercises behind the neck, like lat pull downs, is detrimental to the shoulder joint. The unnatural movement pattern of bringing the bar behind ones head causes external rotation combined with horizontal abduction, which places the shoulder at a great risk of injury. However, when the lat pull down is performed to the front of the head, there is a lower stress on the shoulder joint because of a higher degree of stabilization by the rotator cuff muscles.

Not only is the front of the neck lat pull down (FNL) a safer exercise, but it allows for a great range of motion. Despite the amount of empirical and anecdotal evidence illuminating the possible negative effects of behind the neck pull downs (BNL), proponents tout is greater efficacy for building bigger lats. But Is there a difference in the activity of the primary movers during different lat pull down exercises?

A recent study analyzed the electromyographical (EMG) activity of 3 different lat exercises. The exercises used where the BNL, FNL, and V-bar behind the neck lat pull (V-bar). Twenty four experienced weight lifters participated in the study performing 5 reps with each exercise, with electrodes positioned over 4 muscle bellies (pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid, and biceps brichii). Although a previous study (J Strength Cond Res 16:539-546) showed a greater activity of the latissimus dorsi muscle using FNL when compared to the BNL, this was not the case with the present study. (J Strength Cond Res 2009:23(7);2054-2060)

If your objective is to build bigger lats, than any of the 3 exercises in this study can be used with equal activation. However, with no advantage being found in this or any other study to date performing the BNL, one should question it’s use. There is no movement in sport or daily activity that the BNL mimics. Conversely, the FNL mimics movement patters in sports and daily activities helping to reduce injury and improve function.

There are a few concerns I have with this and previous studies analyzing prime mover activation in lat exercises. The distance between the hands, which were the same for this and other studies, has a huge impact on the range of motion, the load used, and EMG activation. The closer the grip one uses performing a lat pull down, the greater the range of motion and load, which consequently yields a greater activation of the prime movers.

Changing exercises alters movement patterns and muscle recruitment, which can increase or decrease the load used. A greater load, which elicits a greater EMG activation, can always be achieved with movements to the front of the neck as opposed to the back of the neck. For this reason, using the same load for all 3 exercises doesn’t show the true ability of an exercise to activate target muscles. The correct load used would be such that each exercise was performed with maximum intensity. Only then can there be an apples to apples comparison.


People are befuddled

The question, “What’s best workout for building strength and muscle?” has been the subject of heated debates for years. My answer is always the same. There is no one workout that is the best. There is no one workout that works for all. However, there are training principles that do apply to everybody.

Anatomically and physiologically we are identical. A bicep is a bicep and has the exact same function from person to person. An aorta is an aorta. Our anatomical structures may have different shapes and sizes, but they all function the same. This holds true for all tissues in our bodies from blood to hormones. If this weren’t true medicine could not exist. How could an anesthesiologist do his job if everybody were different?

Therefore, in order to get bigger, stronger muscles the same stimulus is needed. That stimulus is short, intense training sessions. Why short? Because we have known for centuries the body can either train long or train hard. A perfect example is to compare distance runners to sprinters. Because of the types of training, one is emaciated looking and one is muscular. Remember you can not sprint a mile. Is it difficult to run a mile, yes? But it is essentially impossible to run a mile with 100% intensity.

The other factor one needs to take into consideration for building bigger, stronger muscles is recovery. How much or how often can you train? Or better yet, how much “should” you train? Here is where the differences in genetics lie. Our muscles need the exact same stimulus in order to cause a chain of events that forces them to adapt by making bigger stronger muscles. However, the rate at which we are able to recover from these intense bouts is as different as the shapes and sizes of our bodies.

So what are you to do? If you’re training using the typical muscle building routine, which is 3 or more working sets per exercise and 4 or more sessions a week, and not getting anywhere, change it. First, reduce your sets per exercise by half and only train each body part once a week. If you still don’t make gains or you plateau after a short while, reduce your sets again. Remember, if you’re training with 100% intensity and you’re not making gains, you’re not recovering.

More is only better when it comes to sex and money.


Duration of exercise.

In the case of weight training, the duration of exercise is the volume or number of sets performed. Intensity and duration have an inverse relationship. Meaning, the harder you train, the less time can be spent training. This is because we have a finite amount of fuel available to carry that level of stress. This is not a choice or an opinion; it?s fact.

This brings us to the most common way people train too much; too many sets. Although training hard is the best way to move forward, some people are under the impression that doing more is training harder. Performing anything more than what is optimum, will hinder your progress. Yet, most perform more sets with reduced weight or reduced intensity because of the more is better mentality. Do not get caught in this no win cycle.

Training all out, poses extreme demands on the body’s resources, which are governed by genetics and in limited supply. Because of this finite supply, the body will not allow you to train ?too hard? for too long, and gives clues you are reaching your limits. Once you reach failure performing a set, or run out of gas during a workout, you?re simply not able to train any harder. And because training intensity is the number one stimulus for building srength and muscle does it make sense to do more with less.


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