We’re way overcomplicating gaining muscle and getting stronger

Posted on November 26, 2018

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(Last Updated On: November 26, 2018)

Fitness is always going through trends. It’s like fashion. A recent one is make-your-eyes-bleed dives into hypertrophy and strength research.

Reminder: Arnold was a big deal fifty (!) years ago.

Do people have better physiques now than then? Do you truly think next month is going to provide some profound insight into gaining muscle from a peer reviewed journal or blog post?

The rub with gaining muscle is, on a broad conceptual level, it’s easy.

  • Lift weights
    • Gaining muscle?
      • Keep doing what you’re doing
    • Not gaining muscle?
      • Lift more
        • weight, reps, sets, days per week
      • Eat more
      • Take drugs

That’s it. We call them meatheads for a reason.

 

Warning: rambling-ranting-beating of a dead horse

Whether you do 10, 15 or 20 reps? 80% or 82.5%? Morning or night? Rest 2 or 2.5 minutes? Breathe in or out?

If you press a person to tell you how to gain muscle, what are they going to say? “I’d workout really hard, mainly lifting weights, and eat a lot of protein.” Which is what Arnold did (plus drugs).

Worrying about pushing the bar (external cue) or squeezing your chest (internal cue) to make your bench pressing more effective is, for nearly all of us, worrying about nonsense.

The people coming out with 300 page books to deduce what Ronnie Coleman said in a sentence:

“Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder but nobody wanna lift no heavy ass weight.”

These lectures you’re seeing are for researchers; not for those wanting to gain muscle. They’re for people to have presentations at conferences to other presenters so they can all feel very proud of themselves at the hotel bar, soothing their insecurities over their IQ while they sip Mai Tais.

It’s portrayed as if there is some holy grail of hypertrophy. That ONE exercise. That ONE magic number of sets. ONE optimal frequency. Never was one; still isn’t one; never will be one.

 

What very strong people actually do

I played division 1 football. It was a small school, but we had some strong dudes:

-> None took drugs. They were all about 5’10”.

  • 190 lb running back, deadlifted 600 lbs at 19 years old
  • 190 lb strong safety, bench pressed 415 lbs at 20 years old

-> These are lifts at actual bodyweight. Not cutting for a weigh in, then lifting a day later at a bodyweight 20lbs heavier.

After I saw the safety bench that weight, I talked to him at dinner.

Me “Holy shit Tre. How did you get that strong?”

Him “Yeah, I don’t know. I benched a lot in high school.”

I barely saw the 600 lb deadlifter read more than a text message, never mind a research paper.

My roommate squatted 475 lbs, benched 345 lbs, deadlifted 550 lbs at 185 lbs. I went to high school and college with him. Dude fucking ate pop tarts and Oreos in the middle of the night. He slept with them in between his bed and the wall. I can still hear him opening the wrappers.

Recovery? A sophisticated routine of video games, beer, women, sleep, repeat.

What did the really big dudes do for post-workout meals? 10 cent wing night for two hours.

The thinking during a big lift?

  • Blasted Eminem “Til I collapse” so they couldn’t think
  • Then the spotter would go “Let’s go [one or two expletives]!”

You think there is some magical cue that if they thought about they would have lifted more? What’s the matter with you?

People going 50 comments deep debating whether we should lift fast or slow? Have you not seen someone lift a lot of weight? Ain’t nobody got time for purposely trying to lift slowly! (You automatically start lifting as fast as you can when the weight gets heavy. In other words, you don’t need to worry about it IF you’re lifting hard enough.)

 

Here come the pedants- “But those are high level athletes”

First, genetics matters way more than any fancy training you’ll ever conjure up. Trying to outthink your way to being stronger than someone endowed for heavy lifting? Enjoy being frustrated at life. “You can’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred.”

Second, many football players are not built to lift. Height and long limbs are common in football, which don’t help in the weight room.

Third, it’s not like these were a bunch of NFL players. Very good athletes, yes, but there is another level out there. And don’t forget, even for these guys, good ole linear programming -try to lift more on a regular basis- is all they did. And, let’s be real, the average person does not care whether they deadlift 400 or 600 lbs. Either is good enough.

Because, wait a second. We’re talking about everyday people? While,

  • Deloading
  • Non-linear programming
  • The fact external cueing does produce superior performance

have merit, if you’re going there, you need to also mention 99% of us have no need to concern ourselves with any of this.

The average person shouldn’t try to lift as fast as possible because they aren’t going to be able to maintain good technique.

Most never have to worry about deloading because life will take care of that for them. Vacation, holidays, slept weird on their neck, long work day, someone’s sick, wonderments of why they ever had kids, slept five hours because new episode of [insert Netflix show] grabbed their attention. Society is trying like crazy to get people to go for a god forsaken walk, yet you’re telling me an essay on deloading is relevant for everyday people?

 

“But Greg Nuckols says”

I follow Greg and am often sent his articles. He has great stuff. I’m not sure anybody does a better job at what he does. From a theory standpoint, there’s little to question. The research world is lucky to have him.

But my clients and readers sending me his articles aren’t researchers…

From a practical standpoint, his writing is basically irrelevant. Even for him!

-> One reason for the discrepancy -great for research; not great for everyday people- is, while I disagree with this, many researchers do not believe their job is to have practical ramifications. Some think their job is to find more about how nature works / pursue their esoteric interests, utility be damned. This is the basis for why academics do not live in the real world. Corporate America, i.e. the majority, does not work this way.

Go read Greg’s instagram account of trying to keep up with lifting once starting graduate school. Here:

“Now that I don’t realistically have the time to train the way I’d need to in order to improve my total”

And here:

“Theoretically, the lab schedule will start calming down a bit in the next few weeks so I can start being more consistent with my training again. Fingers crossed.”

Or how at the beginning of grad school he had to adjust his training because his lower back was bothering him. In fact, Greg’s had chronic lower back pain for a decade. He can’t deadlift without pain.

The guy everyone is reading, likely the most popular strength writer we have right now, can’t even follow the kind of training he’s researching. Yet all of us NON-STUDENTS, with jobs (not classes), on the other side of 30 (Greg is in his 20s), are going to?

Listen to Greg at the 23 minute mark talk about how hard it is to recruit trained participants for a study. How rare a person who has seriously lifted for single digit years is. Yet there are so many of them in gyms and reading our internet posts!? (And he acknowledges his interests aren’t exactly applicable to mainstream society.)

Greg wouldn’t be able to qualify for much of the research he writes about either. A common filter for these studies is musculoskeletal problems.

This is not to pick on his situation. Trouble keeping up with serious powerlifter training and has a history of low back pain? We call that population “most people.” (I’ve had many of these clients and I’m happy to help them.)

Nor is this uncommon with strength coaches. Off the top of my head I can think of prominent ones who can’t overhead press, squat, two who needed shoulder surgery from following their own branded squat / bench / deadlift programs, one who gave himself frozen shoulder from his own program, another who had both hips replaced. Many can’t do the programs they write. Once they have kids? Practically all of them write an article about how they’ve drastically changed how they train. They’re more average than their readers think.

 

Let’s…Get…Granular!

(the average client)

Routinely glossed over is how much of this research is carried out on college males. As if translating a 21 year old male to the average person is inconsequential.

Newsflash: the average American is 38 years old.

So, any talk of what hypertrophy range / sets / exercise / nonsense without the context for the median person having,

  • a 9-5 job
  • nearly an hour daily commute
    • aka an hour of daily rage
  • no college degree
    • 70% don’t have a bachelor’s
  • kid(s)
  • a spouse
    • or divorced and all that brings
  • a lower back history
  • at least one other kind of injury history
  • prediabetic or diabetic
  • overweight or obese
  • has or will have high blood pressure
  • sedentary for 15 hours a day
  • 40% can’t afford a $400 emergency; most can’t afford a $1,000 one
    • squeezed financials => stressed => impaired ability to exercise
  • taking medication
    • If you’re on high blood pressure medication, it will negatively impact your ability to pursue intense training
      • People on high blood pressure meds are more likely to feel light headed exercising; disproportionately while going from leaned over to upright. You sure about having them deadlift?
    • Nearly 40%(!!!) of Americans consumed opiates in 2015
    • Some research shows 55% of Americans consume ibuprofen on a multiple times per week basis, which, besides the obvious of if you’re in pain your workouts aren’t as effective, the drug may have consequences for muscle growth
  • bimonthly considerations of where their life all went wrong

is meaningless. I don’t mean that flippantly. It’s literally meaningless.

-> Something nobody with a degree of any kind in exercise science wants to acknowledge is the degree involves ZERO practice training actual clients. No matter the academic credentials, be extremely leery of anybody talking about anything training related if they don’t spend a lot of their time training regular people themselves.

No, training yourself is not sufficient.

No, doing seminars once a month doesn’t count.

No, talking to people on internet forums doesn’t qualify.

No, training athletes or powerlifters can’t be easily translated to regular people.

No, or few client testimonials? Watch out.

-> Training people online largely doesn’t count either, because most doing so are not working with the average person. If you don’t write for the average person, you don’t get the average client.

You can’t say

  • deadlifting is a great hypertrophy exercise while ignoring 80% of people have a lower back pain history
    • I have plenty of clients who deadlift. (I have plenty of clients who deload, etc. too.) I’m saying our default should be most should not start with deadlifting, opposed to the conventional view most should. That our time being spent talking about deadlifting is not proportional to people’s ability to do it.
  • [name any routine] is optimal for hypertrophy without considering how much time that will take relative to how much time the average person is 1. willing to be in the gym 2. can recover from doing that much
    • Not to mention the average person needs time to do other exercise, like something cardiovascularly demanding

 

Perhaps most importantly,

  • EXTREMELY few people care about doing what’s optimal

The average person does not care about,

  • having the perfect protein intake
    • The average person has like 35 lbs to lose, but sure, they’re going to be diligent about consuming their post-workout shake precisely 27.5 minutes after they workout
  • maximizing their genetic potential
  • living forever
  • stepping on a bodybuilding stage

Do you know how rare it is to have a client who gets 8 hours of sleep a night?? The average person gets less than 7 hours; nearly half of people get less than 6 hours. Do you know how healthy sleep is? DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH BETTER SLEEPING FEELS THAN LIFTING WEIGHTS?!?!

Nor do most of us at all care why something works. I mean, do you actually care or have any clue how your smartphone operates? Like the actual flow of electrons, electromagnetic waves, proportion of lithium in the battery? Is this what you were concerned with when you decided to buy your last phone? No. Was it the fact Instagram looked prettier? Yes.

Well, most don’t care about the inner details of 5 vs 4 sets. (They do care, a lot, 5 sets takes more time than 4 sets.) Any sentence to a regular gym member starting with “Studies show” => [eyes in the back of their head].

The average person just wants to,

  • look like they take care of themselves
  • not be in chronic pain
  • be able to play with their kids
  • live long enough to see their grandchildren
  • have a rough idea why they’re doing what they’re doing exercise wise

Grasping the mechanisms of hypertrophy is not challenging. Implementing strength training with the average person is extraordinarily challenging. It’s where personal trainers spend most of their time, it’s where society needs our help most, yet nobody wants to address this. We all want to live in this fairytale of everyday people showing up to the gym four days a week, flush with cash, pushing themselves to failure most sessions, with no injury or health history. What the hell are we doing? Besides intellectually masturbating?

 

$$$$

(most trainers don’t train anybody)

Nor do the economics of training younger (healthy) people work, thus, most of us have to train average / older (less healthy) people.

If you are in the minority and do work with young people, you’re training athletes. 21 year olds don’t have the money to hire personal trainers. And, if you’re training athletes, you’re often having to train 50+ kids. Meaning you are extremely unlikely to be able to put together individualized programming. Putting that many people on the same program guarantees a good deal of them are not doing what’s optimal.

In all my time in this field I have seen one single gym pull off semi-individualized training, with young people, on a large scale. It was 10 years ago, and their rate for a 4x a week client was over $700 a month. Inflation adjusted, it’d be $850 these days. Still, while for the gym it was large scale, societally, very, very few, can do that.

After all, out of a country of 350 million, there are only 460,000 NCAA student athletes.

 

When I was at one of the biggest commercial gyms, 2% of members paid for personal training.

According to Statista, there are 60 million in the US with a gym membership.

-> Note how many don’t go to the gym.

That means half a percent of all adults pay for personal training (1.2 million).

That’s how many are willing to take their training seriously enough to pay for it. Most of them will still NOT be able to do, or be concerned with doing, the optimal routine. After all, a lot of people pay for it in the hopes it’ll force them to do it.

How many people in America are even seriously training then??? Even if we include all these people (haha) and all the NCAA student athletes -which is another joke of generosity because most athletes do NOT like the weight-room- then we’re not even at 2 million in the country seriously training. Even add another million bodybuilding / powerlifting bros to the mix and we’re at 3 million. No matter how you slice it, this is a dominant minority.

-> Reddit’s fitness community has 6.6 million subscribers. That’s worldwide. It’s Advanced community? Only fifty thousand.

There are way too many trainers in America. The BLS says we have 300,000 in 2016.

That’s like 4 available paying clients per trainer. Not good. We have not been able to convince enough people to pay for our services.

-> In part because all our best trainers go off into corners of society. Baseball players, powerlifters, professional bodybuilders.

And why so many people writing articles barely train anybody and end up writing about populations that barely exist. When you have minimal experience you can only write about theory.

-> I also believe all this kind of writing drastically distorts new personal trainers expectations of getting into the field. “I love working out and reading about training” is the rationale most have for becoming a trainer.

Only to find their 40 year old, divorced, half their body hurts, teenage daughter hates them, works 60 hours a week (the clients who work more have more money to pay you), client doesn’t exactly love the gym like you do.

It is a big reason why gyms have turnover comparable to a McDonald’s drive-thru (not hyperbole), from the trainers, clients, and members.

 

Even the elite aren’t paying attention- Revenge Of The Bro

(we’re overvaluing academia)

Andy Bolton’s -a thousand pound deadlifter- advice to improve your deadlift:

  1. Deadlift heavy, often
  2. Experiment with accessory movements to see what helps you most
  3. Have great training partners

Nuckols’ rationale for when he was his strongest:

“Train consistently, identify weaknesses, and avoid injury. Yes, that was entirety of the revolutionary strategy that helped me get to the top.”

Don’t confuse the writer with the lifter.

-> That should be Greg’s most well received article, yet I bet it’s one of his least. (It barely has any comments compared to his other work.) Read it. He’s outright telling you how much of what he writes will not get you to elite level strength.

Suffice to say, Ronnie Coleman wasn’t reading the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. You know what you don’t see many jacked dudes doing? Pulling out their Excel spreadsheet for mid-workout calculations.

If one of my teammates missed a lift we didn’t try to assess the RPE of the lift and pull out a calculator to figure out what we should lift next. No, we put on Linkin Park, turned the volume up higher, and had more people telling the lifter “LET’S GO [EIGHT OR NINE EXPLETIVES]!!!”

 

This issue of academia is not unique to strength training / hypertrophy.

Charlie Francis, who is responsible for the majority of the fastest sprinters to ever live, sold insurance before training athletes. He considered his lack of formal background advantageous.

Bill Belichick isn’t a big fan of all the statisticians infiltrating the NFL…and the Patriots keep doing better than teams relying on them.

““Look, I’ve done things all the way the back to the Giants and before that, doing them by hand. Look, if you’re out there coaching every day and to me, if you can’t see an 80 percent tendency, then what are you looking at? Now, is it 51-49, 49-51? I don’t know. What are you going to do with that? You want to bet on 51, you want to bet on 49 or bet on 55 or 45? At that point, what’s the difference?”

Source.

Cardi B didn’t go to rap college.

Steve Jobs loathed focus groups. He didn’t believe in customer research.

Elon Musk dropped out of his Stanford applied physics PhD because,

“I wasn’t sure success was one of the possible outcomes […] I think success on an academic level would have been quite likely, you could publish some useless paper, and, uh, most papers are pretty useless, [laughs], I mean, how many PhD papers are actually used, by someone, ever? I mean, percentage wise, it’s not good.”

Source.

-> Here is Elon on the debate on do scientists drive engineering, or does engineering drive science? He heavily favors engineering.

Think about that with exercise science. The researchers are always trying to catch up to the athletes.

There are hundreds of years of economics research. Ray Dalio, the biggest hedge fund manager, had to make his own models.

There are at least 50 years of extensive academic research into finance / stock markets. Warren Buffett, the greatest investor ever, thinks it’s all pointless / misguided / ridiculous. To the point he won’t donate money to schools who heavily teach the common doctrine.

-> If you were to build an investor from the academic point of view, you might want, say, the father of behavioral economics, right? Basically a combined PhD in behavior and economics. That father, Daniel Kahnemann, made the worst mistake you could make during the 2008 financial crisis. Meanwhile Buffett made billions.

Buffett doesn’t ascribe to any hard formulas. Never used a calculator. He only uses a computer to surf the internet for information. He eschews any math beyond basic arithmetic. (Sound like Belichick?) As he says,

“The Wall Street analysts are brilliant people; they are better at math, but we know more about human nature.”

His point being you can’t separate a human endeavor from the human being. Namely, the psychological aspect. You ignore it at your peril.

Hypertrophy research ALWAYS ignores the psychological aspect. It tells you right in the methods how they screen subjects. Anybody with any injury history? Anybody who gets hurt during the study? Anybody who can’t show up to all the sessions? Anybody who preemptively said “I don’t want to do this routine”? You’re conveniently not included. Oh, and let us give you an A in class for participating too. Research is so rarely applied to the real world -nor can it be- because it’s not done in the real world.

  • Consistency
  • Desire to work hard physically
    • Not the desire to work hard reading about esoteric techniques
  • Ability to stay healthy

THAT’S where we need more research / articles / brain power, because barely anybody out there has a clue how to get people better with one of the above, never mind all three.

Get out of the lab. Get off training sites where only diehards hang out. Leave your Twitter account where all your followers also dream about deadlifting.

Go to a big commercial gym. The kind that makes you cringe because people are curling in the squat rack, or if they’re squatting, it’s above 90 with a pad on their back. Just sit there and look around. That’s most of who we work with.

-> In fact, many in our community belittle the everyday population. Working in a commercial gym is looked down upon. Many purposely will not refer to themselves as a personal trainer because they’re embarrassed. They instead call themselves “strength coach.” You will find very few noteworthy coaches online who have much, if any, experience in a big gym. They all run off to “performance” facilities.

 

Media matters

One of the main points of all this is I fear we’re turning exercise into what we’ve done with nutrition: the average person has absolutely no clue what they should be eating. I remember in college there being a year where people were arguing over whether we should recommend our clients eat fruit or not. Like what the fuck are we doing that an apple is a questionable recommendation?

Also, many fall into the flawed thinking of “it’s more complicated / precise, so it’ll work better.” Again, this has failed with dieting. The more complicated it is, often the worse the results. The more complicated eating / working out is, the less likely people do it.

-> Engineers try to make machines with as few moving parts as possible.

See When Genius Failed for a fantastic look at actual IQ geniuses in finance going broke, and Five Crashes for example after example of academic models causing financial chaos, because nobody really understood their complexity.

Buffett’s view on complicated and hard businesses? Avoid them.

It’s a double whammy too. What’s the best way to feel disappointed? Have high expectations.

-> We haven’t even touched on the fact that, while we try to digest the labyrinth of academia, most published research findings are false!

Some of the better trainers I’ve seen have never opened a single journal article. Some of them disdain reading research. Tony Gentilcore has openly said it’s not his thing, and I promise you few are doing a better job than he is.

Tony can make his clients laugh. I guarantee you this skill produces better results than any speech about the mechanisms of hypertrophy you give.

Finally, I’ve fallen into this too much myself. (Hence all the “we” above.) This post provides a go-to I can provide anyone for why in future posts I’m going to try and be more accessible. Nuance is important, but too much drowns an article to the point it’s too arduous to read. At least for the foreseeable future, I’ll be attempting to have more practical articles.

 

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If you want a sensible path to get and stay in shape, not some approach that’ll leave you burnt out and injured every three months, check this out.

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