You're doing it wrong
by Michael Mejia, from Peakhealth.com
Your inability to make progress in the gym is no one's fault but your own.
You've got all the excuses down pat. "I'm a hardgainer". "I've got a really fast metabolism". "My genetics suck!" Yep, life sure is unfair; or at least that's what you keep telling yourself. After all, something's got to explain your failure to make any gains, while those around you seem to get bigger and stronger with every workout. I mean, it couldn't possibly be anything you're doing wrong, could it? If you have more trouble putting on muscle than Puff Daddy trying to beat a weapons charge, take a look and see if you're falling prey to any of these common misconceptions.
Myth #1: You don't have to train heavy.
No one's saying you have to train like a power lifter, but going heavy every so often does have its purposes. When I say heavy, I'm talking about anywhere from 85 to 100% of your 1 Rep Max (1 RM), or a weight that will allow approximately 1 to 6 repetitions per set. Working with heavier loads such as these is the only way to improve your maximal strength. Now I realize that to some of you, this may not be that big a deal. Let's be honest, the majority of you are far more concerned with how you look at the beach, than how much you can bench. But, let's look at the big picture for a minute. Say that you can normally press the 60 lb. dumbbells for 10 reps. However, after a good 4 weeks of strength work, you find that you can now press the 65 lb. dumbbells for those same 10 reps. That means your muscles would be under tension for the same amount of time with a weight that is 8% heavier. Hmmmm, do you suppose that might lead to some increased growth?
In addition to improving strength levels, working with heavier loads also provides you with an excellent way to monitor your progress. Think about it, how are you supposed to know whether or not you've actually gotten stronger unless you periodically test your 1 RM in your major lifts. It's one thing to feel like you've gotten stronger, but to actually see more weight going up on the bar can be very gratifying. Plus, knowing exactly what your max is helps take all the guesswork out of your training. No more wasting time trying to decide how much weight to use. If size is your primary goal, select a weight that's anywhere from 65 to 80% of your 1 RM. If you want to get stronger, stay more within 85 to 100% range.
And finally, for all you narcissists out there, brief cycles of heavy training can also induce some growth of its own. Unlike the increased growth of non-contractile elements of skeletal muscle (i.e. collagen) associated with training at more moderate loads, any gains in mass made while working with heavier loads will likely be due to hypertrophy of the actual contractile protein content of the muscles being trained (2). The reason being, is that lifting maximal or near maximal loads is the only way to recruit the type II b muscle fibers that go underutilized in most bodybuilding style training programs. Stimulation of these fibers can also make a significant contribution to increases in muscle hypertrophy (1).
Myth#2: Leg Presses, pull-downs and pec decks are just as effective as squats, pull-ups and bench presses.
Sure, and Godfather III was just as good as the first two. C'mon, get real! You can't possibly expect to put on any size when these movements serve as the basis of your entire program. For starters, they simply don't activate enough muscle mass. Despite the fact that these exercises all target large muscle groups, they do so in a very isolated manner. For example, in comparing squats to leg presses, even though they're working more or less the same muscles, the squat places much more demand on your core and stabilizing musculature. Besides having greater carry over to sport and recreational activities, by stimulating more muscle mass, the squat and exercise like it, cause a greater release of anabolic hormones into your bloodstream, leading to increased growth (5).
I know what you're going to say "but what if I can't do these exercises"? Ask yourself though, is it that you can't, or you won't? Now, I realize that some of you have legitimate injury concerns and as a result, have been advised by your doctor, or personal trainer to stay away from certain lifts. This is not directed towards you. I'm specifically addressing the wussies who steer clear of squats for fear of injuring their knees, or lower back. Listen up, improper technique and/ or using too much weight is what makes squatting dangerous. When done properly with a load you can handle, squats are one of the best exercises you can do! And, as for those of you who can't do pull-ups, or are "too weak" on the bench press; there's a reason: BECAUSE YOU DON'T DO THEM! How on earth are you supposed to get better at an exercise if you don't do it? Who cares if you can only do 1 pull-up, or have trouble even benching your body weight, you've got to start somewhere. The only way you're ever going to make any progress is to do these lifts regularly and gradually increase the amount of weight you can handle.
Myth #3: You should always train to failure.
Says who? A bunch of self-absorbed extremists who are only interested in perpetuating their own half-baked training ideology. I can't stand it when I see people beating the crap out of themselves because they've been brainwashed into believing this "High Intensity" garbage. Not that you shouldn't train hard, but there's a big difference between fatigue and failure. Training to the point of muscular fatigue presents a potent stimulus for hypertrophy (7). Pushing to failure on the other hand, while OK for short time periods, is not something you should do on a regular basis.
First and foremost, it doesn't work over the long haul. Oh, you might make some initial gains; if for no other reason but the simple fact that you're pushing above and beyond what your body is used to doing. Only trouble is, as soon as your body adapts to the stimulus, which will happen rather quickly, your gains will cease. What are you supposed to do then, when failure is no longer enough? Train 'til you pass out, or worse, 'til you drop dead?
Secondly, contrary to what many of these zealots will tell you, there is little if any evidence to support the notion that training to failure results in superior muscle fiber stimulation as opposed to other methods. As a matter of fact, as the duration of a sustained maximal contraction increases; such as the last rep of a set to failure, the firing frequency of your motor units decreases, resulting in less force output (3). Your motor units actually go into a state of inhibition, sending a slower, weaker signal for your muscles to contract. So much for the increased fiber stimulation theory.
Need more? Training to failure can also have a negative impact on a number of other major bodily systems. It swings your hormonal balance towards catabolism, depresses immune function by inhibiting the release of glutamine into your bloodstream (4), and can even suppress your ability to recruit high threshold motor units for prolonged periods of time (6). Last but not least, it's also worth mentioning that pushing to such extremes can drastically increase your chances of getting injured. Yep, sounds like a winning program to me all right.
Myth #4: Supplements are the key to your ability to build muscle.
By definition, a supplement is "that which fills up, completes, or makes an addition to, something already organized, arranged or set apart". It is not some magic potion that will miraculously transform your physique overnight, or enable you to hit tape measure home runs into the upper deck at Busch stadium in St. Louis; now, steroids might, but I digress. The point is, too many of you view supplements as the "be all and end all" of your program. I can't stand it when I do consultations and ask people about their training, only to have them run down a laundry list of supplements they're taking. Its as if they feel that their workouts have no bearing on their results whatsoever.
I don't care what you're "on", if your program sucks and you eat like a Billy goat, you're just not going to make any gains. You can take all the creatine and andro you want, but if your program centers around Smith machine squats and cable curls you can forget about putting on any serious muscle. By the same token, chasing down that Big Mac extra value meal you had at lunch with a handful of xenadrine, ain't gonna do much good either. The bottom line is, when used appropriately in conjunction with sound training and proper nutrition, supplements can give you that little something extra you need to help take your results to the next level. On their own however, they're of limited value.
Myth #6: Everyone bigger than you is on steroids.
Talk about the ultimate cop out! Does the term sour grapes mean anything to you? Don't get me wrong; I'm fully aware of the widespread steroid abuse that goes on in this country. Steroids have become such a problem in our society that soon DEA agents will be staking out gyms, instead of low-income apartment complexes, or NBA locker rooms. However, just because steroid usage is at an al-time high doesn't necessarily mean that anyone who has a muscular, well-defined physique uses them. Many individuals have attained impressive physical development through years of hard training and diligently watching every bite they put in their mouths. Just because you lack the training acumen or discipline to do the same, doesn't give you the right to degrade their accomplishments with false accusations.
So, whatdaya think? Any of these sound familiar to you? Come on, admit it; chances are you've either said, or at least thought, one of these things somewhere along the line. Don't feel bad, though, its human nature. It's much easier to make excuses for our shortcomings, than it is to accept responsibility for them. The question is, do you remain in denial, or instead decide to take matters into your own hands? Simply making a couple of changes to your current approach to training might be all you need to attain the type of results you're looking for. So, stop all the bellyaching and self-pity and get to work. Because, if you want a body like a Greek God, its going to take more than divine intervention.
About the Author:
Michael Mejia MS, CSCS is a private conditioning specialist based out of Long Island New York. He is a specialist in the design and implementation of sports specific training programs as well as a freelance writer and lecturer. Mike can be contacted via e-mail at Michael Mejia
1. Antonio, J. Nonuniform response of skeletal muscle to heavy resistance training: can bodybuilders induce regional muscle hypertrophy? J. Sports Cond. Res. 14(1):102-113. 2000.
2. Bloomer, R.J. and Jeffrey C. Ives Varying Neural and Hypertrophic Influences in a Strength Program. Strength and Cond. 22(2):30-35 2000.
3. Bompa, T.O. Periodization of Strength. Veritas Publishing Inc. Toronto, Canada. 1996.
4. Keast, D., Cameron, K., and A.R. Morton Exercise and the Immune Response. Sports Medicine 5:248-267 1988.
5. Kraemer, William J., Louis Marchitelli, Scott E. Gordon, Everett Harman, Joseph E. Dziados, Robert Mello, Peter Frykman, Dini McCurry and Steven J. Fleck. Hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance training protocols. J. Appl. Physiol. 69(4): 1442-1450, 1990.
6. Hakkinen, K., Neuromuscular fatigue in males and females during strenuous heavy resistance loading. Electromyogr. Clin. Neurophys. 1994 June: 34(4) 205-14.
7. Rooney, K.J., R.D. Herbert and R.J. Balnave. Fatigue contributes to the strength training stimulus. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 26, No. 9, pp.1160-1164, 1994.
I really enjoyed this article. There is a whole bunch in there to learn from if you are just starting out, mor have been in the game a while and are frustrated with progress. Add a paragraph or two about the time it takes to make progress and it's awesome!
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