I’ll cut right to the chase with this post.
- You’re eating the wrong foods
- You’re eating too much
- You’re giving your body the option to stay fat
- You’re doing too much cardio
I’ll cut right to the chase with this post.
A few months back, I started my own little investigation of the most effective training modalities for hypertrophy. But instead of my usual poring over sport science journals, I went about it from a different, more common-sense angle. I decided to develop a list of truly natural bodybuilders and physique athletes (not on roids), then watch how they train on YouTube. What was pretty obvious was that there were commonalities between all of them: 1) they trained with heavy loads generally between 70% and 90% of their one-rep maxes, and 2) their training sessions looked really dense (meaning that they were doing a lot of work in a short time) and intense (meaning that they were creating significant fatigue in the target muscles).
But how were they creating that intensity, that deep, acute fatigue? After watching way too many videos of sweaty, sometimes shirtless men, I found that many of them weren’t strictly adhering to the standard straight sets and reps prescriptions we’re so familiar with, e.g. “four sets of eight reps”, or “five sets of five reps.” Instead, they were oftentimes conducting some form of rest-pause training. You might be familiar with some well-known set strategies like drop sets, giant sets and cluster sets, which I’d classify as species of the genus that is rest-pause. Anyway, a couple of months ago after some experimentation and trial and error, I began rest-pause training in earnest and it’s literally changed my entire approach to lifting.
It’s just what it sounds like: pausing for a short time between reps or groups of reps and then continuing with more reps. In my definition, rest-pause (RP) refers to a family of lifting methods, each of which can vastly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of any training session. It’s a philosophy that recognizes that no human is a lifting machine and acknowledges the natural variations in performance levels from day to day. At the same time, RP enables a person to lift more total weight in the same period of time with the same, or even less fatigue than would be experienced under a more standard set/ rep routine. RP enables you to lift to your maximum capacity at any given moment in time. RP training is dynamic, flexible, fun, challenging and really, really effective for developing size, which has a direct effect on total strength potential.
My specific take on rest-pause training is that it’s comprised of four distinct methods, which lend themselves well to various types of periodization schemes. They can all be used in the same session, in different sessions in the same week, each for a week or several weeks at a time.
Perform a predetermined number of sets and complete as many reps per set as possible just short of form failure.
What this might look like in practice:
Complete as many reps as possible in six sets using 80% of 1-rep max:
7 reps, rest 30 seconds
6 reps, rest 30 seconds
6 reps, rest 30 seconds
5 reps, rest 30 seconds
4 reps, rest 30 seconds
3 reps, stop
How to progress: aim for more reps with the same load in the same number of sets next time, or increase the load by 5% and aim to complete the same number of reps.
A great variation on this is to perform, say, the first three sets with 30-second rests, then rest for 90 seconds, then perform the second set of three sets.
Perform a predetermined number of reps without regard for sets. The rep method can be further broken into static rest periods and autoregulated rest periods.
Static rest periods:
Perform as many reps as possible just short of form failure, then rest for a predetermined period of time. Do another set and rest for the same amount of time. Continue until all reps are complete.
Target reps = 50
75% of 1-rep max:
10 reps, rest 20 seconds
9 reps, rest 20 seconds
8 reps, rest 20 seconds
6 reps, rest 20 seconds
5 reps, rest 20 seconds
4 reps, rest 20 seconds
4 reps, rest 20 seconds
4 reps, rest 20 seconds
2 reps, stop
Auto-regulated rest periods:
Perform as many reps as possible just short of form failure and rest until you feel ready to complete more reps. Continue this way until you hit your target reps.
What this might look like in practice:
Target reps = 40
75% of 1 rep max:
10 reps, rest 15 seconds
8 reps, rest 17 seconds
7 reps, rest 20 seconds
5 reps, rest 10 seconds
2 reps, rest 10 seconds
2 reps, rest 18 seconds
3 reps, rest 22 seconds
This one comes in a couple of flavors.
The first is the classic cluster set, which I’ve found is exceptionally effective for getting more volume out of very heavy loads with a bias toward strength rather than hypertrophy (equal to or greater than 85% of 1RM) in the same amount of time as straight sets would allow. Like straight sets, each set in a cluster set is comprised of a certain number of reps. But instead of performing, say, five straight reps at a given weight and then resting for two or three minutes before beginning the next set, cluster sets enable more reps to be performed in the same set under the same load by breaking the set up into mini sets with short breaks in between.
What this might look like in practice:
6 cluster sets of 6 reps:
Set 1: 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 90 seconds
Set 2: 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 90 seconds
The weight is re-racked for every rest period to allow the muscles to recover some. This is so effective for strength training because unlike hypertrophy-specific training that seeks to fatigue all fibers over the course of several sets, strength training is used to improve the body’s ability to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible at the same time. To train this response, as many fibers as possible need to be kept fresh to improve the potential to activate all of them simultaneously. You end up extracting
The other flavor requires performing a predefined number of reps within a predefined number of sets.
What this might look like in practice:
Complete 50 reps within eight sets.
How to progress: When you can complete 50 reps in less than eight sets, increase the next session’s load. If you can’t complete 50 reps in eight sets, repeat same weight next session.
Complete as many quality reps as possible in a predefined time period. Rest is autoregulated. Basically rest when you need to.
What this might look like in practice:
10 reps, rest 15 seconds
7 reps, rest 10 seconds
3 reps, rest 10 seconds
2 reps, rest 45 seconds
6 reps, rest 15 seconds
5 reps, rest 60 seconds
6 reps, rest 30 seconds
4 reps, rest 15 seconds
1 rep, rest 10 seconds
1 rep, rest 10 seconds
How to progress: in the next session, complete more reps with the same load or the same number of reps with 5% more weight.
Rest-pause is probably best used by intermediate and advanced lifters who clearly understand their bodies, the difference between good and bad form, and the difference between form failure and prime mover failure.
Rest-pause is taxing. Because it increases work density, it’s easy for overtraining to become a problem if specific limits aren’t set. Using rest-pause, my workouts last 45 minutes and I’m out of the gym. As most frequent lifters know, the hardest part isn’t getting to the gym–it’s having the mental resolve to LEAVE the gym and have faith that your body will respond. Even though rest-pause is acutely demanding, just like any other workout, you shouldn’t be dragging and chronically fatigued after completing an RP workout.
Progressive overload is still (and always) critical for making gains. For RP, progressive overload can take on many forms, including decreasing the time in which a given number of reps are performed, increasing the load, or increasing the number of reps performed under the same load. But only one of these forms of overload should be applied to any given lift on any given training session.
In the coming days, I’ll post my current rest-pause routine, which has allowed me to pack on around five pounds of muscle in only two months. I’m now a full 10 lbs heavier than I was in that shot in the sidebar.
This morning at the gym a nice guy came over, unsolicited, to spot my back squat today. I like this guy, but he actually grasped my lats and assisted me through the lift. I didn’t ask for it, and I definitely didn’t want it. I kept grunting “NO SPOT” and “NO HELP” because those were the only words I could squeeze out as I was fighting the weight. He kept “helping” even though I was asking him not to. I was so frustrated after the lift. With a spotter, you never know how much you’ve lifted. And when you’re operating on the razor’s edge of your limits, and when you have very specific goals with small tolerances, even an assist that reduces the weight by a mere one percent can nullify the lift from a progress perspective.
There’s a difference between a lifting partner who’s there to help motivate you, and one who’s there to spot you. Motivating relationship? Good. Spotting relationship? Bad. Spotting is the worst thing that’s happened to personal relationships in the gym. Spotting is like crack: once you get a taste, you’re hooked. Maybe it’s more like meth. If you can’t get through the movement on your own, either the weight is too damn heavy or you’ve gone one rep too far. “But my spotter helps me through my sticking point.” Every single lift has a sticking point i.e. where the muscle is at the greatest mechanical disadvantage relative to the weight. If you can’t get through it by yourself, you’ll stay weak there. “But my spotter helps stabilize my arms while I grind through an incline dumbbell press.” Come on. That’s caca. If the lifter can’t stabilize the dumbbells, it’s too much weight. The whole purpose of using dumbbells is to hammer all those stabilizers. “But my spotter is there for safety.” That’s the only potentially logical use of a spotter, but only for certain lifts. You definitely don’t want to get caught under a heavy bench/ incline/ decline barbell press. But even then, your spotter shouldn’t be altering the load whatsoever. The spotter is there to save your rib cage and/ or trachea should you have to bail. Other than that, there are virtually no lifts that a spotter can add safety to.
Moral of the story: do you, (but without a spotter).
Disclaimer: I am [was] a certified personal trainer, have been lifting on and off for more than 20 years, and consider exercise physiology and nutrition my favorite hobbies. I am not a doctor or a physical therapist. Take this advice at your own risk. Shoulder injuries are NOT to be taken lightly.
I’ve sustained several shoulder injuries since the age of 16. Some were the result of physical contact in sport, others were sustained during weight training. The most serious injury was to my right shoulder when I separated it while sparring in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu eight years ago. It was a grade II separation, with a noticeable displacement of my right clavicle that persists today (and forever). It took six months to get back into the weight room. Over the course of recovering from each injury, I learned new things about the types of work that helped and hurt progress (hint: improving shoulder stability is key). I’m currently working around a mild AC joint sprain in my left shoulder.
A common misconception exists that the shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint like the hip, but it’s far from it. In the hip, the socket that the femur sits in is much deeper than the socket in which the humerus sits, which is really more like a golf tee. So the shoulder is less a joint than it is a gruesome junction of connective tissue and muscle that works in a complex balancing act to “strap” the humerus, scapula and clavicle together. The trade-off for the tremendous range of motion in the shoulder is the lack of stability relative to other “real” joints like the knee and elbow. There are many types of shoulder injuries–some involve tendons, others involve ligaments, still others involve muscle. An injury can potentially involve a combination of all three.
My first rule of safe lifting is this: if the lift hurts, stop immediately. It might be on the first rep of the first set, it might be in the third set. Whenever it is, put the weight down and assess. Run-of-the-mill muscle soreness is very different than joint pain or muscle strain. To get a better sense of where the problem lies, I deload the lift and slowly perform the same movement until I feel the pain again. I mentally note where in the plane of motion the pain begins and where it ends. That is the danger zone. I then either: 1) temporarily select lifts that don’t operate in the danger zone, or 2) continue to operate in the danger zone if deloading the offending lift(s), increasing the rep range, and focusing like a laser on maintaining form and tension is an option. I’ll speak specifically to my current injury to explain these two options more completely.
1) Temporarily select lifts that don’t operate in the danger zone
I originally strained my left shoulder several months ago. Overhead motion–both pressing and pulling–in addition to abduction along the frontal plane (raising arms to the side) causes discomfort. Does this sound like you? Even at a lighter weight and higher rep range, the fixed lat pull causes discomfort, so I’m avoiding it altogether until my shoulder tells me it’s ok. But since I still need to hit the lats and rhomboids, I’ve switched to performing other lifts [and more of them] that incorporate low and flat rowing (dumbbell and cable varieties).
2) Continue to operate in the danger zone if deloading the offending lift(s), increasing the rep range, and focusing like a laser on maintaining form and tension is an option
The majority of lifting-induced shoulder injury (as opposed to impact-related) is the result of a weakness in one or more of the many small muscles that stabilize the shoulder through its range of motion. They’re not as strong as they should be in relation to the big prime movers involved in the exercise. The prime mover engaged in the incline bench press (i.e. the target of the exercise) is the clavicular head of the pectoral muscle (a.k.a. the upper pec), while other big muscles and muscle groups, including the triceps, anterior deltoids, lats and traps are also heavily engaged for both movement and stabilization. At the same time, the little stabilizers that keep the shoulder together are also firing away.
But what tends to happen as the weights get heavier and the small stabilizers fatigue is that the large stabilizers begin to take on more of the small stabilizers’ burden, leading to a reduction in overall stability at the joint. A symptom of this is that proper form begins to break down as the lifter starts to “muscle through” the motion, subconsciously trying to shift work off of those small muscles. That shift puts the small stabilizers at risk of strain.
While pressing motions, like the incline bench (bar and dumbbell versions) currently disturb my shoulder at higher loads, at a lighter load they don’t. Accordingly, the lighter load can be used to more specifically train those weaker muscles while still effectively stimulating the prime mover. An important thing to note here is that by lighter load I don’t mean a light weight. I mean something along the lines of 60% of a one-rep max, or, alternatively, around 75% of the weight used for an eight-rep set taken to near failure. But since I also want the same quality of prime mover activation and stimulation as the heavier weight would have provided, I have to do two more [really important] things: increase the rep range and move more slowly. Until my shoulder is healed, my target range is 10-12 reps. Under normal circumstances, you establish your target range first and then set the weight so that failure or near-failure is occurring in that range. But since my shoulder injury is limiting the weight I feel comfortable with, the weight is already established. I also know I don’t want to get above 12 reps. But since I can pretty easily push out more than a dozen reps at this weight at my normal tempo (even with the injury), I have to reduce the tempo and alter the range of motion so that I’m approaching failure in the 10-12 rep range. This means keeping as much tension on the muscle as possible through all phases of the motion while maintaining perfect, totally rigid form by: not locking out at the top of the press, lowering slowly (as long as a three-count), pausing just before the bottom of the motion (not resting or bouncing the bar and the bottom of it), and contracting forcefully on the way back up.
Again, shoulder injuries are nothing to screw with, and will chow down on a big ego in the blink of an eye if you don’t give them complete respect. If your shoulder injury is agreeable to the course of action I describe above, take it slow and easy. You can still hammer your muscles this way. When confident, you can slightly bump up the weight while continuing to maintain perfect form. But remember, if you experience pain at any time, you have to stop. It’s not worth prolonging the healing process. Of course, the best idea is to go see a doctor if you don’t notice improvement over time.
In case you’ve never heard of it, Tabata is a form of HIIT that requires 20 seconds of ultra high intensity exercise to be followed by 10 seconds of rest and repeated eight times. Tabata was created to condition the most elite of elite athletes. But in my estimation, the vast majority of non-elite individuals who think they’re following the Tabata protocol are not. In fact, they’re not even close. Why do I think this? Because I can virtually guarantee that nobody, including myself, has ever been able to get anywhere near 170% of their V02 max. That’s what Tabata really is. V02 max is basically a measure of the amount of oxygen your body can use per minute, normalized to body weight. So at 100% of your V02 max, your body is using all the oxygen it can possibly use. 170% of V02 max means that your body’s oxygen processing capacity is being outstripped by 70%. Any idea what that feels like? Searing pain. Absolute agony. Three years ago in my cardiovascular prime (I was in the top 1% of the population for my age), I could complete only two rounds of real Tabata before collapsing. It is extreme, severe, virtually impossible. This is why most recreational fitness enthusiasts partaking in Tabata aren’t really doing it. They might be getting up to 90% or [less likely] 100% of V02 max, but nowhere remotely near 170%, I promise.
All that said, even it its unadulterated form, Tabata is inefficient for fat loss and strength development. It can be more effective than steady state cardio because it does create a modest anabolic stimulus, but it doesn’t hold a candle to heavy lifting. Let’s first look at why Tabata isn’t nearly as efficient for fat loss as heavy lifting.
I’ve mentioned in several other posts that if you want to lose fat, like if you really want to lose fat and stop believing what you see on TV, heavy lifting is the only way to go. Fat loss is almost blindly attributed to burning more calories than you eat. Yeah, you might lose fat if you eat less than you burn, but that’s usually not the case. You will DEFINITELY lose WEIGHT if you eat less than you burn, but generally that weight is comprised of a lot of muscle. Your body is efficient; when it’s in a chronic caloric deficit, it will preferentially use muscle over fat for fuel if there is no reason for it to hold it. Since muscle is metabolically active and requires energy to maintain, your body wants none of it when faced with the choice. This results in skinny-fat syndrome i.e. when someone who does lots of cardio and eats at a deficit is slim, but flabby.
If you’re really serious about losing fat, your job is to not give your body the choice between using fat or muscle as fuel. Your job is to force it to burn fat to the greatest degree possible. How do you do that? Lift very heavy weights. This simple thing creates a powerful anabolic signal that tells your body that the muscle is critically needed for something, meaning that you must metabolize more fat and less muscle to meet energy demands. There’s far too much fat-loss misinformation that treats fat loss as something acute, i.e. that you must burn lots of energy exercising to lose fat. It’s just flat out wrong and counterproductive. Weight lifting doesn’t acutely burn many calories–maybe like 250 in an hour for the average sized male. What it DOES do is to create the conditions necessary for your body to prioritize fat metabolism when you are in a caloric deficit.
Tabata (the real version of Tabata) is meant to develop superior cardiovascular capacity. That’s it. It’s not a tool for fat loss and it’s not a tool for muscular development (well, maybe smooth cardiac muscle, but that’s not what we’re talking about here). It is one of several exercise modalities that professional athletes use to endure longer in their sports. The cardiovascular fatigue Tabata or even a more moderate HIIT routine creates competes with your ability to create the type of anabolic stimulus necessary to force your body into fat-burning mode.
Take-away: just stay away from HIIT, lift heavy, and reduce your calories if you want to lose fat.
Clearly, this means you.
Top 11 mistakes that limit strength gains:
Curls and bench all the time. Awesome, right? No. Not right. The most fruitful, productive work that can be undertaken in a gym is applying barbells and, on occasion, dumbbells to full-body compound motions. But.. but… but nothing. That’s it. I say it all over this blog–that means all types of barbell squats, all types of deadlifts, row variations and press variations (like bench and overhead). A little assistance work is ok (like biceps curls and triceps extensions), but that’s all. The compound lifts recruit more muscle fiber and hammer the central nervous system like nothing else.
I heard Terry Crews say something very silly on the Ellen show a couple of days ago (he’s the large, very well-muscled guy on Brooklyn 99 and in some Old Spice commercials). He said that just getting to the gym is more important than what you do at the gym. I laughed heartily at that one. If he actually practiced and/ or believed that, I guarantee you he’d have arms and legs like hairs and an eight pack of snowballs. Effort is one of the most important factors that separates the gainers from non-gainers. Man or woman, you need to summon the will of the ox when you’re pulling or pushing the bar. Total focus. Every rep is a mountain. Every set is a mountain range. The goal is to climb it all. You’ve got to hit the muscles hard to grow, to get ripped and stay ripped. But remember, that works out to literally 20 or 25 minutes of focused work during the session and you’re done; you can rest for the remaining 1,400-odd minutes of the day.
If you don’t know what you lifted the last time you performed a Bulgarian split squat, you won’t know what you’re supposed to lift this time. If you don’t know how many reps you completed last time, you’ve got nothing to shoot for this time. A lifting journal is one of the few physical things that can drastically increase the success potential of a weight training program. Want to get even more out of your journal? Take a few seconds to note how you feel after completing an exercise. It’s totally subjective, but over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge.
This is so important and so outrageously overlooked at both the intra and inter-session scales. Let’s first look at the intra-workout sequence (the lifts you do during a single training session).
Intra-session lift sequencing
I pay attention to the habits/ routines of the strongest people in the gym (men and women) as well as the weakest. The weakest almost always focus on small muscle groups from the start of their workouts to the end. Performing biceps curls, leg extensions, triceps kickbacks, crunches, shoulder raises, calf raises, shrugs, wrist rolls, pec flyes etc etc etc is virtually never a good idea, ever (ever ever) period, but it’s an even worse idea to do them at the beginning of a training session. Even if you’re sticking to mainly the correct handful of compound lifts referred to in point #1 above and just do a little bit of assistance work, if you do the assistance work first (i.e. hit a small muscle group like just the deltoids or biceps or triceps or whatever), you’re gonna screw yourself. Say you hit your biceps hard with barbell curls as your first lift. Then you move on to bent over supine barbell rows (that’s where your palms face away from you). Although it’s a ridiculously efficient back-building lift, how the heck are you going to hit all those muscles as hard as you can (rhomboids, lats, traps, posterior deltoids and erectors to name a few) if your biceps are fatigued? You’ve sabotaged the lift because the biceps also play a major role in pulling the bar. And if you can’t pull the bar… well… duh.
Inter-session lift sequencing
This is another big one. Let’s say you lift Mon, Tues, Wed. Monday is an upper body pulling day, Tuesday is a lower body day, and Wednesday is an upper body pushing day. Let’s also say you’re using all the right compound barbell lifts (Refer to #1. Yes, again.). Let’s say on Monday you do some heavy-ass barbell rows. Even better–Pendlay rows (that’s where your upper body is near parallel with the ground as you’re executing the lift). Not only does this lift hit the upper back nice and juicily, but it’s also heavily engaging the erectors (lower back), glutes and hamstrings, which are all contracting hard isometrically to stabilize and balance your body. Great. The next day is lower body day and you’ve got a whole melange of delicious squats to eat (like maybe front, back, and hack squats). Oooh baby! Just typing that gets me hot. But uh oh. Something’s wrong. You feel like the 250 lbs on your back is 500 pounds. You can’t move the damn weight. What’s going on? A messed up inter-session sequence is what’s wrong. All the prime movers required for those huge squats are tired from your rows the day before. Solution? Flip your push day and pull day so that you’re pulling the day after lower body, rather than before. Now it’s true that your Pendlay rows might suffer a little because you smashed your lower back, glutes and hams the day before with your squat salad, but not all pulling exercises require those muscles the same way squats do. Get what I’m saying? If not, please ask in the comments.
Poor form can either be the result of the weight being too heavy for your current state of development/ restedness, or it can be the result of laziness. Either way, poor form means that the target muscle groups are not being optimally positioned for the lift to create the appropriate fatigue.
This point will be the subject of a more detailed post in the near future, but main idea is that focus should be placed on moving the weight the right way and not just moving weight because you can move it. I can move a bar loaded with 350 lbs, but the quality of the movement would suck. If it’s too heavy, form suffers and the crap described in #5 above happens.
This one goes back to the point (#2) about tracking progress and keeping a journal. Efficiency in the gym boils down to knowing exactly which lifts you will perform, how they will be sequenced, how many sets and reps you’re aiming for, and the loads you’ll be using. This should all be determined before you set foot in the gym for the session.
How do professionals — professionals in anything — become professional? For one, they’ve repeated the thing they’re professionals in a sh*tload of times until it becomes second nature. If your goal is to get strong, and keep getting stronger, you have to get better and better at lifting weights. The only way to do that is to lift weights. If you want to develop huge overall full-body strength, you do the deadlift over and over and over adding weight over time. You do front squats. Back squats. Hack squats. Bench presses. Rows. Chinups. Dips. There’s no secret. There’s no glamour. There’s no TreadClimber, P90X, Insanity, CrossFit, Bowflex or whatever other flavor of the month might come along. Get under the damn bar. Move it well. Repeat. It’s the same exact recipe for men and women.
There are many levels of rest. Without proper rest between sets, you limit your capacity to lift as much as possible and more completely fatigue the muscle. Without adequately resting muscle groups between sessions, you limit your body’s capacity to repair the damage you did, and its ability to adapt to the additional stress with additional muscle (a.k.a. hypertrophy).
Carb fear kills strength. I literally need to focus on eating carbohydrates to maintain what I have, let alone to continue to make gains. Think what you want, but I’m telling you that white potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava (yucca), plantains, parsnips and winter squash (all kinds) are the best natural, unrefined sources of carbs. I will not argue with anyone. It’s just the way it is. Refined carbs, including grains are suboptimal. Natural foods are absolutely the best because they’re full of the micronutrients your body craves in a form that is simple for your body to understand. The vitamin B6 added to your Lucky Charms doesn’t count.
Big, big, big one here. Is your goal to run a marathon, or to get strong and ripped? Is it to do some disastrous bullsh*t CrossFit metabolic training, or is it to keep getting stronger and stronger methodically?
Before I begin this semi-tirade, I’d like to first explain that I’m not completely opposed to CrossFit. The program has make physical fitness more appealing to the masses, and that’s great. Moving is better than not moving. But that’s also like saying not doing drugs is better than doing drugs. Not doing drugs means no cocaine or heroin, but you can still smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, drink soda and regularly get three hours of sleep a night. The four people I know who joined CrossFit gyms decided to do it because they wanted to get fit, and that seems to be one of the primary reasons people do it. But what does “fit” mean? I asked a couple of colleagues at work what it means to them; their answers were all pretty much the same. One said, “To lose fat and put on some muscle.” Another said, “To be able to do things without getting tired and to have more energy.” Another said, “To have a chiseled stomach and just get strong.” I agree with all them–that’s my definition of getting fit. But using CrossFit to accomplish these things is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to turn on a light.
Just like boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and baseball and American Ninja Warrior are sports, so too is CrossFit. Don’t get it twisted. CrossFit is a sport. It is the sport of exercising excessively and randomly. It is NOT bodybuilding. It is NOT powerlifting. It’s not Olympic lifting. It is NOT sprinting. It is not marathoning. It’s not gymnastics. It’s a twitchy, bizzare Frankensteinian extreme workout hybrid of all of those. Those other sports I named will all get you fit (except maybe baseball), but more importantly, they all have a purpose, a goal. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the goal is to become better at submitting your opponent. In baseball, it’s to become more accurate hitting and catching a ball and running the bases. In American Ninja Warrior, it’s to exercise as much coordination, speed, strength and balance as possible to overcome an obstacle course. In weightlifting, it’s to develop larger, stronger, more explosive muscles. CrossFit’s goal is to endure excessively random, excessively intense exercise. Any highly experienced strength coach will tell you that the systematic, repetitive level of fatigue CrossFit creates limits peak strength development itself, as well as the efficiency with which strength can be developed. CrossFit, quite literally, makes you good at nothing. To many people new to sport/ strength training, CrossFit looks awesome, but it really, truly is not. It is simply obnoxious activity for activity’s sake.
Just like those other sports, CrossFit can certainly get a person fit, but if being healthy and creating a hard, powerful, explosive, ripped body are the goals, CrossFit is completely pointless and a massive waste of energy. I wince at the thought of needlessly ripping through all those calories. There are WAAAAAY better ways to get fit/ strong/ jacked/ ripped/ powerful/ fast. CrossFit analogy: you have to go grocery shopping for the week and you’ve got one hour to do it. The store is five miles from your house. You walk into your garage, get into your car and drive to the store, buy six bags of food, and drive them home. But why did you use the car when you could have used your skateboard? It’s the same reason why you don’t use CrossFit to get strong and a ripped/ jacked/ excellent physique. Getting strong and ripped is much easier than blowing your body out with CrossFit, the frantic, yapping, directionless Jack Russel Terrier of exercise routines.
You can develop a fantastic body and get really, really effing fit by slowly lifting heavy weights (moving slowly at the gym, in general), resting a lot, walking, stretching, and eating foods that go bad if left unrefrigerated or if you don’t eat them within a few days of purchase.
1. Hard on the joints and connective tissue
CrossFit employs exercises that put enormous strain on joints. There’s lots of jerking of heavy weights, putting the shoulders in compromised positions, yanking, jumping, swinging, flailing and other stuff.
2. Too many reps of complicated, unnecessary motions
CrossFit uses lots of Olympic lifts regularly performed in sets of 20 or more reps or for time intervals. I feel really strongly about this: I think it’s absolutely stupid. One of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen, actually. I usually don’t write using such a scathing tone, but CrossFit really brings it out of me. Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk, the snatch and the power clean are very technical and require immense full body coordination. Olympic lifters practice these for years using low reps over many sets with plenty of rest in between. Maxing out until cardiovascular or muscular failure on these types of lifts is the pinnacle of dumbness. That’s what a lot of CrossFit gyms promote.
3. Practitioner of everything, master of nothing
Practice CrossFit, become a master of, well, nothing. Crossfit actually unabashedly prides itself on this concept–that it’s broad and general. It doesn’t develop peak strength because the cardio stress competes with the muscular stress, so you get ok at both but great at neither. That’s cool if that’s your goal, but I want full, hard muscles and low body fat, and I want it the easy way. There’s a sport for that. It’s called old- school, heavy-ass weightlifting with lots of rest between sets. Additionally, lifting heavy weights improves the force and speed with which a muscle can contract force a.k.a. explosivity.
4. Immune fatigue
This is a big, big negative. CrossFit workouts are known for their preternatural ability to create total body fatigue. A once a week, excessively-intense CrossFit style workout might be a useful part of a well-balanced training program for, say, an elite MMA fighter who requires endurance under physically stressful conditions, but this is not how CrossFit boxes look at their workouts. It’s all-out, all the time. Most people train like this several days per week. The immune system functions optimally when balanced training program with plenty of rest is employed. I used to get colds 4-5 times per year when I exercised like this. I haven’t had a single cold since I stopped exercising like this. True, my system might respond differently than others’, but people aren’t really all that unique when it comes to stuff like this.
5. More potential for injury
Dozens of reps of compound barbell exercises until you can’t do any more? This is so wrong I’m crying thinking of all the poor people who involve themselves in this stuff. Weights + high-level fatigue = stupidity beyond description. Here’s one of many great examples of the horribly misguided movements CrossFit not only endorses, but pushes like crack on people who love… crack. Take the upright barbell rows a bodybuilding exercise typically used to build the deltoids. It puts the shoulders in a compromised position because they’re internally rotated while under a significant load. This impinges upon relatively weak tendons that are part of the shoulder girdle. Over time, this creates undue wear on the tendons. Kinesthetically, it’s just plain bad. Know what? Any barbell compound lift that requires a clean (to move the bar from the floor or from hanging above your knees in one swift motion up to your collarbone) is requiring you to do exactly just a fast upright row. That’s what a clean is. And CrossFit has you performing that motion over and over and over and over and over until your heart and or muscles say uncle.
6. More potential for barfing
It’s almost encouraged by CrossFit, and certainly not frowned upon. I’ve never vomited from exercise in my life and have never seen any individual who knows what they’re doing in the gym vomit either. If vomiting = making progress and getting strong, then I’m the only exception to the rule. And I know I’m not.
7. Not sustainable into older age
These workouts are too physically intense and riddled with so many complex, jerky movements it’s just not possible to carry on with into old age. I see many strong, fit old timers lifting the right (old school) way at my gym, and I just want to hug them because they make me confident that I will be able to continue doing what I’m doing for the next 40 years.
8. Stupidly expensive
Where I live in NYC, you can easily pay in the upper $200 range per month to work out with basic equipment in a box. Know what? I can do the exact same thing for $35 per month at my cheap gym full of barbells and power racks. That’s about 90% less than a full CrossFit membership costs. And if I wanted to join a cult, I could do it for free.
9. Better ways to develop full body strength
Like the classic compound lifts executed with control and precision. Back squat. Front squat. Deadlift. Bench variations. Overhead press (and why the heck would anyone ever do handstand pushups a la CrossFit when an overhead press is far superior and overloadable?). Good mornings. Barbell row variations. Struggling at 5-8 reps. 3-5 sets. Sufficient rest between sets. Walking throughout the day. This develops ridiculous strength, stability, and, providing your diet is right, a ripped as hell body.
10. Unnecessarily grueling workouts
There’s just no reason why you should ever leave the gym feeling blown out. In my opinion, it means you’re doing something wrong. Almost every day I leave the gym feeling more energized that when I arrive there. CrossFit aims to kill you, to fatigue you, to make you want to rest for the rest of the day.
11. Momentum is used like it’s a good thing
Tell me something: why am I personally able to do 25 kipping pullups with perfect CrossFit form (picture a monkey having series of full-body spasms), but only 12 “normal” pullups under strict control, with one second up, a second static contraction, and two second concentric lowering phase? Why when I’m done with a set of kipping pullups do I have no idea which muscles I’ve worked? Why when I do strict, momentumless weighted pullups do I feel like my lats, rhomboids and deltoids are going to burst? Because kipping pullups are done for the sake of doing kipping pullups, while classic, strict pullups are done with the specific goal of developing muscle and progressively building strength. Momentum factors into virtually every single exercise CrossFit peddles. When did classic lifting stop being the most effective tool for developing an amazing physique and healthy body?
12. CrossFit trainer certifications are more about money than knowledge
It takes a couple of days to get a basic CrossFit coach certification, which means you can run your own gym. No previous experience required. That scares the crap out of me. A novice coach teaching incredibly complex, unnecessarily frantic movements to other novices. If you’re gonna do CrossFit, make sure your coach has years of CrossFit coaching under his or her belt. But then again, maybe you should just avoid the problem and not do CrossFit.
13. Performing advanced compound lifts in a fatigued state
Notice a theme here? I would never, ever, ever suggest to anyone that they should perform heavy squats after just having done 30 kipping pullups, or, even worse, sets of 20 deadlifts. There are some seriously wrong things happening in CrossFit gyms.
14. Really, really bad idea for novices
Hell, I’m a fairly advanced lifter myself, have been training for over 20 years, have participated in/ tried virtually every exercise fad out there, have participated in CrossFit workouts, and would never suggest a CrossFit workout to even my fittest friends. There’s just too much potential to lose focus, lose control, break form doing herky-jerky reps of whatever very technical is being pushed and damage a rotator cuff, compress a disc, sprain an elbow, etc.
15. Everything is max effort performed to near exhaustion
There is no virtue in blowing yourself out during any workout. The only exception might be for the mental challenge every once in a while–like running a marathon. Otherwise, what the heck is the point? Any regular fitness program that stresses AMRAP i.e. “As Many Reps As Possible” as a core lifting modality is absolutely, positively asinine in my opinion. I exercised this way for years. CrossFit is an overtrainer’s paradise.
16. No long-term plan for progress
Take two untrained individuals. One begins a classic, heavy compound lifting program, while the other starts CrossFit. They both experience rapid muscle gains in the beginning. They both lose body fat (because they’re also eating properly). As time passes, the lifter steadily continues to make strength, power and size gains, while the CrossFitter’s progress slows considerably. Eventually, the CrossFitter is making no progress and is essentially just doing exercises for the sake of it. One of the many problems with using CrossFit to get ripped and steadily build power and strength over the long term is that its workouts are completely random without a central focus on the concept of progressive overload. The workout of the day can be anything. Randomness = confusion = no gains. I’ve never heard of a CrossFitter saying, “In two years time I want to be able to do 75 hang cleans without stopping.” There are no real, solid, long-term goals that can exist in CrossFit because progressive overload is a foreign concept. The workouts are all about going balls-to-the-wall all the time, which is the exact technique to use if you don’t want to make progress. This is not training. This is just hard exercise. Classic, proven, unglamarous, “boring”, slow, heavy lifting enables the practitioner to set goals with a clear plan for getting there, like, “Within two years, I want to increase my five-rep back squat by 70 pounds. I will get there by adding weight to the bar according to [whatever the progression method is]. I will record every rep I perform, every set I complete, and take notes on how I feel doing it.”
17. Counterproductive for muscle development
Sure, you might see some jacked CrossFit practitioners on TV if you watch the CrossFit games. But that development is in spite of CrossFit. You’d better believe they’re doing lots of stuff (like classic heavy lifting) that’s not part of any CrossFit WOD to be able to compete in the games.
18. Herd-think, herd-exercise, little individualization
You either do the workout of the day, or you don’t do CrossFit. Maybe today my shoulders and traps are really fatigued and I want to focus on the prime movers in my lower body. Nope. Sorry, you’re doing those snatches and handstand pushups and ring dips and kettle bell swings. And you’re gonna kip. Oh yeah, you’re gonna kip. That’s what’s on the menu today. I’d rather take a Krav Maga class–at least I can learn some truly useful self-defense techniques with the herd.
19. No time for centering and focusing
One of the most important aspects of a solid strength program is the time between sets and even the seconds between reps used to recenter the mind and focus on the coming task. That time engenders self-correction and a mental environment more conducive to autoregulation. That’s where you’re constantly monitoring how you feel and the quality of your form and adjusting accordingly. Because CrossFit promotes so much non-stop, frenetic movement performed under significantly sub-maximal loads, there’s a lot less time to autoregulate and take stock of the feedback your body is providing.
20. Kneeling at the muscle confusion alter
Muscle confusion is the theory that strength gains will slow and/ or stop if you keep doing the same stuff because your body adapts to everything. You have to “keep your muscles guessing” if you want to get strong. The idea is complete bullsh*t, at least in the way it’s typically applied by fad workouts like P90X and Insanity… and CrossFit. And I’ve done them all, people (throughout my less “thinkingful” early and mid 20s). The fact that the body adapts to everything cannot be disputed. But these obnoxious workout routines have taken that truth and bastardized it for their own marketing and ca$h benefit. They’re like, “Do these three exercises really fast and light, then do this one slow and heavy, then don’t repeat them again for like 15 days, but make sure you sprint in between and throw medicine balls at the wall a lot and then do 10 sets of five pushups in between the in-betweens and climb a rope really fast and do as many hang cleans as you can in two minutes then do one really heavy rep of a deadlift. Don’t let your muscles catch on because your muscles have brains, see, and they need to be confused to do their best.” This isn’t even a hyperbolized version of CrossFit. It’s what goes on in those gyms. The best, most unfailingly simple, time-tested approach to building a massive-strength-to-bodyweight-ratio is to do the same major big compound lifts over and over and over, adding a little more weight each time. Ever hear the saying “practice makes perfect”? 10,000 back squats performed over the course of years with the goal of adding a little weight or adding one more rep to just one set during each session will make you a fit beast, man or woman. There’s always some flexibility around set, repetition and loading schemes, exercise order and perhaps modest alterations around exercise selection (like maybe heavy good mornings this week instead of heavy Romanian deadlifts to shift a little emphasis off my lower back), but this in no way, shape or form resembles the insanity of Insanity, and CrossFit WODs.
21. Marketing itself as the end, rather than the means to it
After everything I’ve just ranted, I think the real shame of CrossFit is that it can actually fit into a well-rounded strength and conditioning program for enhancing athletic performance when applied judiciously. Sure it’s very general, but it can build mental stamina and overall endurance. But these things shouldn’t be viewed as ends in themselves. They are lower-level components–building blocks–that can help bolster general performance in sports and pursuits with specific, well-defined goals and reasons for existence. It doesn’t make any sense to treat an activity that can be a tool to help bolster general sports performance into a sport itself.
Lots of people think that getting ripped means doing lots of reps for lots of sets of lots of exercises. High reps for definition, right? That line of thinking seems common sense, but is totally wrong. Definition is the result of low body fat and a base of solid muscle. During a cut, the goal is to force the body to retain muscle and burn fat. I explained in yesterday’s post in this series that heavy weightlifting forces the body to switch its fuel source from muscle to fat when in a caloric deficit; it’s a new stimulus telling it to spare muscle because it’s critically needed for something. The most effective way to stimulate a muscle is to fully fatigue its fast twitch fibers, which are heavily recruited during acutely intense activities (like sprinting and heavy weight lifting), as opposed to slow-twitch fibers, which are recruited more heavily during endurance activities (marathon running, biking, tennis, walking, brushing teeth, etc). To make it simple, the heavier the weight, the more quickly all fibers of the muscle become fatigued assuming that proper form and loading is used. The general guideline for the big compound lifts is that the weight should be heavy enough that you can push out between five and eight repetitions per set with proper rest intervals (anywhere between 90 seconds and five minutes between sets depending on the lift). Generally, I find that lifting elicits the best gains when I’m struggling on my last repetition of each set somewhere in that range. But in a caloric deficit you have less energy to lift and your body’s capacity to heal itself is reduced, so something has to give. The smartest thing to do is to reduce lifting volume. When I’m cutting, I reduce sets down to just three per exercise for a total of only 12-15 sets. To some people, that might sound like not much, but it’s absolutely plenty for retaining muscle. Novices/ untrained individuals/ people coming off a layoff will usually even gain muscle while while cutting using very heavy weights and fewer sets. There is, of course, a caveat: every single set really has to count toward creating as much fatigue (trauma) in the muscle as possible. This means lifting hard and smart. Hard means that near maximum effort is put into every rep with great form. Smart means that you only use the big compound lifts (all types of barbell squats, all types of deadlifts, all types of barbell presses-bench and overhead, all types of barbell and cable pulls, but no bullsh*t isolation moves) and you stop the exercise after three sets even if you’re feeling like you can go for more. The problem with going for more is that you can end up creating more trauma to the muscle–normally a good thing when in an energy surplus–than the body can handle and repair when in a caloric deficit. So you end up breaking your muscles down at a greater rate than that at which they’re being repaired, and that means muscle loss. Clearly, that’s antithetical to our goals.
To summarize yesterday’s Part I post and this current post, to get ripped, eliminate structured cardio from your exercise diet and perform a limited number of sets (like three) of a limited number of COMPOUND lifts (like five max) using a weight you cant push for more than eight reps with great form. Part III coming soon (it has something to do with carbs).
It’s absolutely amazing to me how the gates of the Ripped Palace opened wide when I began doing literally the exact opposite of what I (and I think most people) think is the way to get it done. In the following three-part series, I’ll detail what I consider the top three actions that defy logic on the surface, but make complete sense when explored more deeply.
Take a pair of twins. Same body type, same age, weight, height, bodyfat %, metabolism, caloric requirements, etc. They both want to drop fat, so they both create a daily caloric deficit of 500 calories. Twin #1 creates the deficit by engaging in vigorous cardio for an hour. Twin #2 does no cardio, lifts very heavy weights for 40 minutes (let’s say that burns around 200 calories), and cuts caloric intake by 300 calories. Twin #2 loses fat much more quickly than twin #1 and develops a more muscular physique in the process. What gives?
I’ll get straight to it: cardio creates hunger and and diverts precious resources from muscle retention and development processes. I’ve said in many past posts that I was a chronic cardio addict until only a couple of years ago. During that time, I struggled to hold muscle. Cardio was why. When you put your body into a chronic energy deficit, it wants to do whatever it can to reduce its energy needs to accomodate the deficit. Analogy: your body is a cargo plane. You’re half way across the Pacific Ocean, full of cargo when you realize that one of the fuel tanks is punctured. The puncture is your energy deficit and the more cardio you do, the bigger the hole. You can do one of two things: dump your cargo or dump your fuel. Simple choice, right? Dump the cargo to preserve the fuel you have so you don’t splash into the ocean, which is exactly what your body does when you engage in chronic cardio, but the cargo is your muscle. MUSCLE. Your body requires energy to hold muscle, but requires virtually nothing to hold fat. Fat = fuel. So in an effort to reduce energy demand, your body happily scarfs down muscle before it burns fat (it’s not all-or-nothing, but the majority of what’s metabolized will be muscle). Fat is precious to your body because it’s pure energy, and very energy dense, so–get ready to have your mind blown–your body will attempt to retain fat at all costs. This explains “skinny fat” syndrome, i.e. when an individual looks slim but carries less muscle and more fat as a result of putting his or her body into a caloric deficit and either lifting no weights, or not lifting the right way. Accordingly, the body has no reason to retain muscle, so it dumps as much as it can and retains fat for what it’s treating as an emergency (the energy deficit). Since there’s a lower limit to muscle loss because muscle is used for everyday activities (like walking and washing your hair), the body will have to spare a base amount of muscle. But the bodies of people who engage in chronic cardio without hitting the heavy weights will shed mainly muscle until the next best option becomes fat (think of Gumby. Gumby is slim, but, well… gumby.). But even if a person who performs heavy cardio also lifts heavy weights, the body will still burn more muscle than it will when lifting heavy in the absence of heavy cardio. I think it’s clear now why Twin #1 is having a problem losing fat and shaping up.
So if you’re truly interested in dropping fat, try your best to ignore “common sense” and forget the structured cardio. Don’t get me wrong–activity is still really important for general health (lymph movement, overall mobility, sanity) which is why walking throughout your day is more beneficial, easier, less stressful and more productive overall than banging out an hour of hard cardio out in the gym. Just get your 10,000 steps.
My friend asked me an interesting question the other day: “What do you think is the most useless exercise, and what is the most useful?”
The second part of the question is tough to answer, but I told him that if I could do only one exercise, it would be the front squat deadlift. Sure, there’s no such thing as a front squat deadlift, but cheated on the answer because I think they’re the two most effective strength exercises a human can perform. But the answer to the first part was a no-brainer: any exercise that targets the abdominal region directly–like sit-ups, crunches, leg raises/ lifts, and certainly torso twists–is the most useless. Blech.
Look at the two photos below. In the one on the left (July 2014) my abs are a little more defined than in the right (Jan 2015). Is it because I stopped doing direct abdominal work? Definitely not, because I haven’t done any–I repeat ANY–direct ab work in years. My abs are slightly more blurry now because I’m purposely carrying more fat. On the left I’m sub-7%; on the right, I’m just over 8%, which on my body equates to a couple of pounds. My strong core is purely the product of heavy front squats, heavy back squats, and heavy deadlifts. I truly believe that direct abdominal work is a waste of life, except of course for the pros who are interested in carving out fine details (which is only worthwhile at the sub 5% bodyfat level.
None of this is to say that you can’t develop abs with crunches and other stuff [crap], but why bother? Isolation exercises do nothing for intermuscular coordination and development of proportional strength i.e. the right ratio of strength between muscle groups for optimum functional balance. So if you’re doing tons of direct ab work, you’ll also have to do tons of lower back isolation work, and if you do that, you’ll have to make sure you’re getting the right amount of hamstring stimulation, which means you’ll also need to make sure you hit the muscles of your hip complex and the three heads of your quads. There’s just no way to know if you’re developing strength in all those areas in proper proportion to one another. Seems complicated, right? It is. But it’s not if you just stick to the basic giant compound lifts and forget about hitting individual muscles.