Many novice trainees practice conventional training principles. When I first started training I did what all the other guys in the gym were doing. It seems that everyone is filled with folk training wisdom but no one really knows where this knowledge came from or what scientific foundation its based on. The purpose of this article is to examine commonly held beliefs about working out and common practices, to evaluate whether these are actually effective and yield good results, and to suggest smarter and more effective ways of training.
I would say that the biggest commonly held belief is that a workout session should be an hour long. I dont know where this belief came from but it seems that its been with us since the dawn of time. Some reasons why many people spend 1 hour in the gym are they incorporate too many exercises (especially superfluous isolation exercises), they rest 1 minute or longer between sets and they spend more than 5 minutes stretching either before or after the workout or spend too much time warming up.
With anything in life focus and concentration are required to yield a desired result. In order to split a piece of wood quickly and effortlessly the axe has to be sharp, it has to have the right weight and it has to be applied at the proper angle. In this way the force is applied directly in one spot- it is focused and it is concentrated. If you have a dull axe that doesnt weigh enough it will take several attempts before you split the piece of wood. A one hour workout that incorporates all the elements I described above is like trying to split a piece of wood with a dull axe: a lot of energy is wasted because it is not focused and concentrated.
In order to get stronger and build muscle the exercise selection has to be limited so that the effort can be concentrated on those particular exercises. For example there is no reason why someone should incorporate a flat, incline and decline bench press and then do dumbbell flies for a chest workout. Instead a flat bench press should be done at a higher weight for fewer reps for no more than 5 sets. This ties in to the principle of specificity. In order for the body to adapt to the training stimulus that stimulus has to be constant and the effort must be repeated. So if you want to get better at bench pressing then ok brace yourself because this is going to be hard to believefocus more on bench pressing. If done properly, 3-5 sets of a flat barbell bench press are enough to increase your pushing strength in the upper body and to build muscle in the chest, triceps and shoulders. Unless youre a professional body builder there is no need to do isolation exercises like chest flies and tricep extensions. Of course there are times such as when you hit a plateau that you may want to incorporate more isolation work to strengthen weaker muscles, which act as limiting factors, but overall isolation work is a waste of time and energy that should be focused on compound exercises.
The rule of thumb is that in order to make progress pick one compound exercise like the flat barbell bench press, focus on it, and repeat the effort (do it a maximum of 3x per week). Furthermore to keep making progress there must be progressive overload. Quite simply the exercise intensity, which may depend on weight, range of motion, speed, or rest periods must increase over time so that the body has a new stimulus to adapt to. It is important to note that the main training stimulus hasnt changed (we are still working the bench press) but certain characteristics of that stimulus like weight, ROM, etc., have changed.
A common fitness fad is muscle confusion. There is no way the body can adapt to a stimulus if that stimulus keeps changing because youre not giving the body enough time to adapt to anything- its common sense. Doing a bench press for one month, then changing to a dumbbell bench press, then a machine bench press will not yield any results.
Rest periods should be kept to a minimum. There is no reason why someone should rest longer than 2 mins between sets of any exercise done at a 10 rep max intensity. Keeping the rest periods to a minimum also keeps the heart rate up allowing you to reap cardiovascular benefits while doing a resistance training workout. Supersets are a great way to get the most out of your session because you are continuously working, never resting.
There are many benefits of stretching that are beyond the scope of this article. The only time I stretch is when my muscles are sore (usually the day after a training session). Stretching comes naturally and automatically like yawning. The body knows when to stretch and its hard to resist the urge. When it comes to stretching just listen to your body and do enough stretching so that it feels satisfied. There is no need to spend more than 10mins stretching after every workout. Static stretching should never be done before a workout as part of a warm up. Stretching cold muscles will dispose them to injury during resistance training.
A warm up should accomplish several things: increase heart rate to around 120 BPM, increase blood flow, increase muscle temperature and lubricate the joints. All of this can be accomplished in 5mins or less. A good warm up routine should incorporate activities that increase heart rate and move many limbs at the same time causing movement in multiple joints, like jumping jacks, as well as activities that work many muscles at the same time, like dumbbell squat presses or zercher squats.
Overall a productive workout should be no more than 45mins in length. An intense 30 minute workout that focuses on no more than 4 different compound exercises to yield a full body workout is best for overall size, strength and conditioning. For my workouts I use the flat barbell bench press, barbell back squat or zercher squat, hanging leg raises, and an inverted row. Rest periods should be eliminated by doing a combination of 2 exercises in supersets or doing all 4 exercises in circuit format. Stretching should be done only when your muscles tell you they need to be stretched. A warm up shouldnt take longer than 5 minutes and should focus on mass movement of the limbs and muscles.
Phil Jelinowski is an Osteopath, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a Medical Exercise Specialist. He had been operating a small personal training business Elite Strength & Conditioning in Mississauga, Ontario since 2007 that provides a range of health and fitness services.