What are we working? Everything!

What are we working? Everything!

Earlier today someone I was chatting to (who was not a gym goer themselves) learnt I was a coach and asked: do you do “push, pull, legs” or “bro splits”? My training philosophy is so far removed from that paradigm I barely knew where to start replying. Hence putting my thoughts down in a blog post. This question highlights an interesting mindset that is highly pervasive among casual trainees: most people in most gyms are performing a routine that most closely resembles bodybuilding. The reason this is interesting is because most people using gyms are not trying to be bodybuilders. Most people are going to the gym to get a bit healthier, and indeed look better in the process. It is also my belief that the majority of people would rather look like an athlete, than a bodybuilder. But no one is training like an athlete, and even when people see athletic training, the separation from the bodybuilding norm acts as a major barrier to the engagement.

What does this exercise work?

When the uninitiated see examples of my training (outside of powerlifting), a common question is: what are you working? What they mean is: what muscle are you working? And beyond that: what muscle are you making bigger. Just like the opening question, there isn’t an easy way to answer this because the question is flawed in its presumption of goal. I don’t train just to make muscles bigger. I train to make them stronger, more connected, more efficient, more elastic, or even more relaxed. My training goals are multifactorial and as a priority: health based. I would argue that any significant pursuit of bodybuilding is unhealthy (as addressed in other posts about repetitive compression patterns, and disintegration of coordination) and as such, my training content is very different from bodybuilding.

So my obtuse answer to the question above is that I am working EVERYTHING. Most of the exercises I perform use essentially every muscle (to different extents). I’ve taken many sceptics through many iterations of these exercises, and I can see the doubt in their faces as they go through the process. And it all comes back to the fact that they cannot feel the heavy compressive forces typically associated with resistance training. They cannot feel the local fatigue generated by isolated training protocols and as such, they report that they do not feel the exercise “working”. As a culture we are comfortable with the idea of wanting to train biceps and doing bicep curls until your biceps cannot curl any more. We feel this in the biceps and that tells us we have done what we came for. But without the extremely recent history of training in gyms, and the advent of competitive bodybuilding, training this way is actually a really strange concept.

Training to failure

Here is a question that may help the leap in mindset required to be receptive to this style of training: When was the last time you ran until local muscular failure of, let’s say the lats. The lats are an extremely important muscle in sprinting contributing to torso rotation, side bending, and arm extension. They are largely designed to be influential upon running as a primary function, and yet by performing this movement, you cannot train them failure. No one has ever been running and had to stop because their lats were so pumped, they were at failure. No animal has ever played until a point of local muscular fatigue. Systemic fatigue is common in nature, even to the point of coordinative muscular breakdown, but not one or two isolated muscle groups. It’s actually a really unnatural and novel thing to do.

With my approach to training, coaching, and rehab, every exercise becomes a full body exercise. I can set them up to target a particular group more intensely, but everything is contributing and coordinating. By using many muscles and joints to leverage movements, I don’t need to take any one muscle to failure. In fact, by training that way I can even make myself worse at understanding leverage. Think about how strong farmers become. They would never think of using just their biceps to pick up a bail, they would use everything in coordination. Interestingly they can even become very muscular in this way, without approaching local muscular failure.

Are you a bodybuilder?

Some would say here that real world tasks can be supplemented by unusual gym activities which to an extent is true. But there is a price tag involved, a limited scope of benefit, and eventually diminishing returns. Think how common connective tissue injuries are in gyms. Tendon, ligament, and muscle strains are a constant for any regular trainee, and it is isolation that is to blame. Think about how poorly the average gym goer or bodybuilder moves. Often far worse that people who don’t work out. The distribution of physical stress that occurs through natural movements is taken away and instead stress is focussed on specific regions that were not designed to tolerate it. Some would then say that injuries and niggles are part and parcel of training, but this simply isn’t true for the average trainee. If you want to win the Olympia then maybe it is unavoidable but for the average gym goer who just wants to get leaner, stronger, more muscular, they should not be having to deal with chronic tendon and joint pain. The good news is that they don’t have to if they take on the concept of training movements rather than muscles and learn to leverage motions and distribute stress throughout their system. This sounds complicated, but it really isn’t provided you can make the necessary cognitive changes to be able to engage in the first place.

If it is your goal to be a bodybuilder then by all means take isolated muscles to and beyond failure. That is going to be an irreplaceable training method to get the results you’re looking for. My goal in this post and in my coaching in general, is to promote the idea that there are other approaches to training that may be more beneficial for common goals of health, athletic development, and physique improvements. The first step is education about what movements your body is designed to do, and allowing people to break away from the indoctrinated mindset of all training being a derivative of bodybuilding.