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Training Myths That Won't Die #1. “Locking out is a bad idea.

1.) Why? No, seriously. The next time someone tells you locking out is bad, ask them why they
think that. Prepare to be bombarded with a spectrum of retorts ranging from "it's obvious" to
"(insert misunderstandings of biomechanics here)."

2.) Of the joints that lock out, every single one was designed by evolution to do so. "You're not
supposed to lock out your knees at the top." No, that's actually EXACTLY what they are designed
to do.

3.) From the pure biomechanics side, it is by no means clear that joint forces are higher during
lockout than during any other loaded joint position. Joint forces highly depend on a variety of
factors, of which "locked out or not" is just one. And, to refer back to point #2, it's not even clear
that high forces are to be avoided in the first place.

4.) Certain portions of your muscles (motor units) activate more when you lock out than when
you don't, which leads to a more complete stimulus and growth. Skipping the lockout could be
interfering with maximal development.

5.) Many of the bodybuilders you see avoiding lockouts on video:

- Have been training for decades and are too beat up to lock out on certain moves... many would
do it if they still could.

- Are days or weeks away from their shows, and are excessively dry, which makes locking out
more difficult than under normal circumstances.

- Are on drugs that further dry out their bodies and their joints, and make locking out that much
more problematic.

If you don't fall into any of those categories... you should not be religiously avoiding lockouts.

6.) In strength sports like weightlifting and powerlifting, locking out is part of a complete lift and
simply must be trained. If not trained, that part of the lift will not improve as much and will begin
to hold you back.

7.) It is by no means clear what "constant tension on the muscles" accomplishes. Does it
accumulate more metabolites? No, taking a short break at lockout and squeezing out more reps
does that. Does it let you do more work per set? Again, it actually keeps you from doing more
work. Does it increase the number of "effective reps" (see Børge André Fagerli's discussions of
MyoReps for details on that concept)? Nope, again, quite the opposite.

8.) There may very well be good arguments, times, places, and situations for avoiding lockouts.
But they are not universals that apply at face value. It's not right to religiously LOCK OUT
EVERYTHING NO MATTER WHAT, but avoiding lockouts religiously is bad just the same.

Alright, I'm off to watch people at the gym do their sets only to shake my head in disapproval as
they lock out their reps and tell them that their joints are headed for certain destruction. More
myths to come later and please feel free to comment with questions, disagreements, and personal
insults!

Training Myths That Won't Die #2. “Finishers”

What's a finisher? It's the exercise you do at the very end of a bodybuilding training session. And
of course since it's a real thing, it can't actually be a myth. But the myth here is that the last
movement is somehow very special or powerful in its effects on hypertrophy, and thus more
important than other exercises done during a typical session. Let's give this idea some thought:

1.) To be sure, there IS some research and theory to suggest that what you do last in a training
session may be of importance as it sends the last signals to your adaptive systems... signals that,
since you just rest afterwards, have no chance of being overridden by further signals and thus
have a higher chance of affecting the outcomes of training.

That being said, it's by no means clear that this implies the last exercise is THE MOST
IMPORTANT or even close... it probably just means it's not almost wholly unimportant like we'd
assume. Why would we assume that?

2.) Because you have the least energy at the end of the workout, whatever you do then will likely
have the least effect on disrupting systems and pushing them toward adaptation. How often do
you hear people say "yeah, I really wanna prioritize biceps this training cycle, so I put them dead
last every time I train them." Huh? That's nonsense, but for some reason the very same ideas with
finishers are accepted at face value. If you really want a super-important part of your workout to
focus on; the first couple of movements when you're fresh and able to lift the hardest are top
candidates.

3.) Not only do you have the least energy for finishers, but the majority of anabolic signaling has
already been done by... drum roll... THE WHOLE WORKOUT UP TO THAT POINT. It's highly
unlikely that the many heavy sets you do for the majority of your workout are just primers and
the last couple sets are what really stimulate the gains.

4.) Why do people focus on finishers SO MUCH out of their likely proportion of effects? I think
it's a couple of reasons:

a.) You're the most pumped by then, and you're much more apt to post videos of you doing a
finisher cause that's when you're most likely to want to show off your physique in action. Yep, I
really think this is a big explanatory factor, kind of like why people buy NO and other "pump"
products... if they make you look your most jacked, there's no shortage of make-belief reasons
why they work great to make you bigger.
b.) There is something cathartic about the last movement in a session. You don't have to save you
energy for any more moves, so you can give it your all (which also looks cool for the camera), and
you get the relief of being done right after. So if the rest of your workout is "meh" but you
convince yourself the finisher is EXTRA important, you can give it your all and feel damn good
about how great of a job you did. It's like the "short and sweet" practices in wrestling... the guys
that liked those the most were the guys that hated long practices but liked to feel accomplished.

In summary, finishers are cool and please by all means keep doing them. Just don't focus on
them at the expense of ignoring the details of the rest of your workout, especially the stuff that
likely matters most: progressing slowly but surely in volumes and intensities on the big main lifts
that occur early in each of your sessions (or damn well should if you program correctly).

Training Myths That Won’t Die #3: “Works the Stabilizers”

Free weight movements and intentionally unstable movements do in fact require more
recruitment from synergistic, antagonistic, and core muscles to keep the movement on track. This
is GREAT for populations that want to:

- Develop strength that translates into sport performance (wrestling, football)

- Develop strength that translates into enhanced independent living (special populations, the
elderly)

- Burns more calories for adult fitness when used in circuits/complexes

- Develops better functional athletic base for children

HOWEVER, when applied to pure hypertrophy training, problems may result:

1.) “The stabilizers” are not a distinct muscle group, and are different for each exercise. Hard to
program in “always hit the stabilizers” logically.

2.) Most stabilizer activation is below the volume, intensity, and relative intensity thresholds that
promote hypertrophy in advanced lifters. What you’re really getting is extra fatigue in those
stabilizer muscles.

3) Stabilizers for something are prime movers for something else. You want them fresh for their
own training, not taxed from other body part training. Side delts are stabilizers in bosu ball
pushups, but you need them fresh for laterals and upright rows!

4.) Some instability might be desirable, but not if it trades off too much force production. This
means:

a.) Heavy (10 reps or less) dumbbell work is largely wasteful because you’re not stable enough to
produce the max forces you’re shooting for… choose barbells instead for such heavy loads.
b.) Don’t do anything on a bosu ball or other unstable surfaces… forces barely high enough to
cause any growth within a reasonable rep/set scheme or in long term.

5.) Some of the same people that advocate wearing belts to prevent excess ab growth also push
stabilizer moves… ???

Focus on using barbells and machines for most moves, with dumbbells great for the lighter
moves, and don’t get carried away with the promise of “stabilizer” work somehow having magical
effects. Make sure your prime movers are hit and hit HARD, and growth will result.

Training Myths That Won’t Die #4: “Twists and Tweaks”

When we watch videos of high level lifters (especially bodybuilders) training or read articles
written by them, there is often mention of the modifications they make to conventional exercises
to enhance their effects somehow. These twists and tweaks of regular moves are intended to
make the move emphasize a certain small muscle or part of a muscle. Some examples:

- Using the hack squat sideways. This has been described as a way to enhance quad sweep.

- Leading with the pinkies on cable flyes, which has been described as emphasizing the inner
chest more.

- Facing away from the stack on lat pulldowns, which has been described as a way to target the
lower lats more than other parts of the lats.

Twists and tweaks (when they in fact execute their intended actions) can be effective in helping to
grow very small muscles or grow particular small areas of larger muscles a bit more than the
whole. This can come in handy for bringing up weak points in an already-strong physique and
thus creating a more balanced and symmetrical look. That’s the upside.

The downside is that such tweaks almost always limit the amount of weight, reps, or effort
(proximity to failure with good technique) that can be put into the exercise. Thus, the amount of
overload that can be supplied is lowered, and the amount of OVERALL gains is limited. If you’re
already super jacked and just looking to fine-tune your physique, this is no problem at all. But if
you’re busy trying to grow the foundation of your muscularity, this kind of training can be a very
poor use of time.

In sculpting, you slap the clay on first and shape it later. In much the same way, muscle growth is
about putting on a foundation of size before going in and trying to balance things out a lot. If you
try to balance too much instead of focusing on general growth, you’ll get a balanced physique
that’s too small to compete or be noticed in clothes. And if you want to get big from there, you
still have to do the heavy work and you’ll throw that balance off again and have to focus on it
AGAIN later… kind of a waste of the first balance run!

An important feature of career-length muscle growth is that your younger years are much better
suited for building your core muscularity. You have fewer injuries (just due to less time spent
training heavy up to that point), and the injuries you do get can recover more quickly than they
do in older lifters. But once you’re older, “chiseling” training is ideal because it’s not overly taxing
or injury-causing, but as long as you have your base of muscularity already, this kind of training
is exactly what you need at that point. Almost the quintessential example of such an approach is
John Meadows. If you look at his earlier training (back when he wasn’t famous), it was chock-full
of heavy compounds to give him most of his muscle. In the last several years (and now that he’s
well into his 40s), John has been focusing on perfecting his physique with much more targeted
training, and in fact inventing many excellent exercises that do just that.

The thing is, you’re not John Meadows, and neither am I. For younger folks looking to get their
best possible results, the heavy basics should be the best focus. But what are too many younger
lifters doing? Looking to copy what the older pros are doing verbatim. Not a good idea, because
what the pros are doing now is good for them NOW. And unless you’re already a lean 250lbs, it
might be a better idea for you to focus on the heavy basics more and on the twists and tweaks less
until you’re older, bigger, and actually have something to shape.

PS, I have a video on just this same topic as well. I’ll post it in the next post.
Training Myths That Won’t Die #5: “Infinite Mobility and the Importance of Activation”
Ever since the late 2000s, mobility has been the IT concept. For many people, seemingly the only
problem that caused any lifting plateaus or injuries was a lack of mobility, which was some
magical property of the body that could never be excessive, and there were people lined up
around the block that could help you. Most of those people lacked any degree or credential
related to biomechanics and physiology, but boy did they spout off the fancy terms to make up for
it. One of the fanciest of those terms was and is “activation.” Now it might be mobility that was
limiting you, but it could also be that you were unable to activate various parts of your body that
you didn’t even know were problematic, like the glutes, which apparently nearly everyone had
problems activating. The tip of the spear in this line of reasoning was that… drumroll… your
inability to activate was CAUSING YOUR MOBILITY PROBLEMS. Now that’s the one-two punch
that, the newfound experts proclaimed, could only be solved with some mystical combination of
foam rolling, extreme stretching, face-rubbing (not a joke), and 1-hour-long mobilizing and
activation drills before every workout. Millions bought in, and while many have since been
soured by the majority of the movement and egressed considerably from most of its practices,
countless others are still in the thick of things.

Alright, so let’s shed some light on the major problems with mobility/activation claims and sort
through to the valid approaches.

1.) Half the time solutions are proposed, the folks proposing them don’t even have their terms
straight. Much of that time, they are using the term “mobility” when they should be using the
term “flexibility.” Ugh but flexibility is a term from like the 80s and brings up memories of the
sit-and-reach test in middle school… that’s not modern and cool!

To get things straight, flexibility is the ability to produce a certain range of motion about a joint
or series of joints. It can be active (you put yourself in that position using the muscles around
those joints) or passive (you or someone else puts you in that position using gravity or other
muscles not around that joint). Mobility is very related, and just adds one detail. Mobility adds
“strength through the range of motion” to flexibility. So that mobility isn’t just “how flexible are
you?” It’s “can you move your own body through those positions, including the extreme ones?”
An illustration of this difference can compare a typical 8-year-old girl vs. an adult gymnast. Many
young girls have CRAZY flexibility… they can pretzel themselves into super extreme positions.
But most of them struggle to generate much force in those positions. Gymnasts, on the other
hand, can produce meaningfully high forces through their whole flexible ROM, and thus can
move in very cool ways. The mobility of gymnasts makes way for abilities in many other sports,
while the passive flexibility of children stops short at something like a parlor trick.

This distinction between flexibility and mobility is important, because many “coaches” use the
terms mistakenly. For example, when powerlifters can’t hit depth with heavy weights without
their backs rounding, it’s rarely a mobility issue… your back isn’t weak when it can lift hundreds
of pounds. It’s almost always a flexibility issue, and addressing that is a different problem than
one of addressing mobility. On the other hand, working with untrained but flexible people IS a
mobility problem, because they already have the flexibility and just need the strength. And for
them, end-range or full-range strength training is the most effective remedy, not fancy drills or
foam rolling techniques. TLDR: know what’s actually going on before addressing it.

2.) On the topic of knowing what’s going on before addressing it, “more mobility work” has for
some people become a panacea in strength training. If you go to nearly any social media forum or
post where someone is asking about why they are stalling in the squat or their technique breaks
down in the deadlift, something like half of all comments will be “you need to work on your
mobility.” Again, because mobility is combination of strength and flexibility, that advice alone
isn’t even instructive… does the person need more flexibility, more strength, or both?

Another common piece of advice is “it seems like you aren’t activating your _____ muscles. You
should do _____ fancy drills to help.”

Here’s the breakdown of the problems with such advice:

a.) Lift execution is limited in most cases by some combination of:

- Strength deficit (you just need to get fucking stronger)

- Flexibility problems (you’re tight as fuck and need to get more flexible to hit the positions)

- Technique problems (nothing’s “misfiring,” you just aren’t moving correctly because you don’t
know how… you need a coach’s eye and lots of reps to actually improve your technique)

b.) In some MUCH RARER cases, you have some kind of medical condition where some muscles
are not being activated properly. First of all, this is very rare and should never be a first guess.
Second of all, if you don’t see a doctor and he doesn’t measure muscle activation directly in that
area, you can’t tell for sure that’s the problem. And that diagnosis sure as hell can’t be done via
online video by someone you’ve never met.

c.) Some drills can make you more aware of and more in control of some muscles and
movements. But those drills are rarely very long and they are usually just a part of a 15 minute or
shorter warmup you do before you actually lift. To quote Dr. Quinn Henoch and Dr. James
Hoffmann, if your general warmup takes longer than 30 minutes, either most of it is time wasted
or something much more serious than drills can solve is amiss with your body.
d.) Which drills you do are doing should be SPECIFIC TO YOUR NEEDS. Ideally, they should be
prescribed to you by a competent physical therapist or other medical sports expert. Just doing a
bunch of “must do” mobility work is a great way to waste your time.

3.) Mobility is ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE SPORT-SPECIFIC.

When someone asks you if your mobility is good, a great response is “good for what?” Unless you
work in the Chinese Circus, infinite mobility is a goal that will distract your efforts (and compete
with them on a time, recovery, and adaptive direction front) from your ACTUAL SPORT. If you’re
a powerlifter and you have 10 hours a week to train, any amount of that time spent becoming
MORE MOBILE THAN THE SPORT DEMANDS is time you could have spent actually training
for powerlifting and getting bigger, stronger, and/or more competent with limit weights. How
much mobility is enough for powerlifting? If you can squat with your preferred stance and hit all
the positions to depth without rounding your back or caving your knees or lifting your heels,
that’s as much lower body mobility as you need. Any more is cool for its own sake, but won’t
transfer to the lifts. Same idea goes for the bench and deadlift. If you’re trying to get mobile
enough to be able to overhead squat, and you’re a powerlifter, you’re likely wasting your time. If
you’re a weightlifter, overhead squatting is important and mobility work for it should be
prioritized, as should being able to hit all the other more extreme positions, and the same applies
to every other sport; train for the mobility you NEED, not just “as much as I can get.”

4.) Foam rolling and other tissue compression techniques might mask pain or work through
other neural mechanisms, but they almost certainly don’t literally break down the tissue and
make it more flexible directly. If you feel way better foam rolling certain areas before you begin to
train, go to town. But if you’re foam rolling your entire body and you have no idea why short of
“that one guy on YouTube said so,” you might want to back off and put your training time
towards things like getting stronger or faster or having better technique for your sport.

5.) How do you find professionals (online and in-person) that aren’t likely to fuck you over and
take your money in exchange for BS mobility panaceas? Here’s a good start for a checklist:

a.) The individual should be credentialed by some formal institution of medicine or sport… not
mandatory but helpful.

b.) The individual should NOT think that every problem has a mobility or activation solution. If
they do… run.

c.) The individual should be VERY wary of making fast diagnoses and offering fast solutions on
minimal evidence. Most of the best folks in this industry will need to chat with you at length and
likely do at least a video consult where you move around for them and describe your issues in
depth. If you’re getting diagnosed via a 30s clip you posted to IG, be very wary. Even the very best
can’t do that with confidence.

d.) If someone is offering you shotgun diagnoses without you asking them (they just comment on
your videos or posts), they are less likely to know what they’re doing. Qualified professionals do
their work for money in a personal setting, not for free in public.
e.) If someone seems to diagnose damn near everyone with the same problem, be skeptical. Real
professionals go through a long checklist of ruling out various causes and eventually zoom in on
what’s likely going on in your case. Often, it will not be what you expect (that’s why they are the
expert and you and I aren’t), and it won’t be something you’ve heard 1000 times online like
“inactive glutes.”

f.) Their solutions will most often be very specialized and directed drills designed for YOU, with
objective prescriptions and goals to hit. Most often, such work will not take you longer than 15
minutes at a time, 3-6 times per week. If your professional has you doing 1 hour of drills 6 times a
week, he’s either full of shit, you’re really fucked up, or you’re actually trying to join the Chinese
Circus.

Give that some thought and share if you like it. Don’t fall for the hype and navigate this landscape
skeptically! There’s great stuff and great people in the mobility sphere, but there’s a lot of
nonsense too to steer clear of.

Training Myths That Won’t Die #6: “Timing Cardio in Relation to Lifting”

Not really just one myth here but rather a whole lot of misunderstood ideas about timing cardio
in relation to lifting when lifting (be it size, strength, or power) is your number one priority and
you’re using cardio to get some secondary goal accomplished (fat loss, general health, recovery,
etc.).

Some insights into how cardio should be timed in relation to your lifting:

1.) General Timing Physiology

When you lift, a couple of different kinds of adaptations are set into motion. The nervous system
begins to recover from the effort and upgrade its abilities, and the muscular system begins to
arrange itself at the cellular and organelle level to engage in growth over the next several days. To
be clear, muscle doesn’t actually grow much in the 3-6 hours after training, but the activity of
certain molecular machinery (for example, the mTOR pathway) leads to a rise in muscle growth
processes that tops out a day or so after training and falls back to baseline over the next few days
after.

When you do cardio, you are more likely to not be sending the anabolic signals of muscle growth,
but rather the signals of fuel availability and muscle endurance enhancement that are engaged by
the activity of such pathways as AMPk. Not only is muscle breakdown an additional and direct
effect of the AMPk pathway, it also suppresses anabolic pathways such as mTOR and reduces
their activity.

So if we do weight training to at least in part stimulate muscle growth, we need to try to keep
anti-growth stimuli (such as those created by cardio) from the sensitive window of several hours
that follows training. Additionally, cardio burns many of the nutrients that would normally be
used to recover the post-training muscles. Availability of nutrients (especially glucose and
glycogen) can reduce the potential growth signaling as well, which is another consideration that
doesn’t favor cardio post-training.

On the other hand, cardio pre-training can deplete the same glucose and glycogen levels that turn
down adaptation directly. And in addition, being tired from cardio during your weight training
can significantly reduce your performance in the session and thus limit the degree of the
overloading stimulus you’re trying to provide.

Lastly, cardio adaptations (conversion of muscle fibers to act more slow twitch, for example)
directly counteract adaptations to produce high power levels (strength AND speed), which
includes different nervous system adaptations as well. Doing cardio if your sport has an
important power component can be a very tricky enterprise. We’ll get to some implications of
these basic facts in the next point.

2.) General Timing Recommendations

a.) If you’re an athlete with a high power component and low endurance component to your sport
(weightlifting or gymnastics, for example), consider not doing cardio at all. The fiber transitions
and neural changes are likely to impact your performance in a significantly net-negative way. If
you’re in these sports and trying to lose weight or fat, altering your training volume and diet is
likely the best approach as opposed to including cardio.

b.) If you have the choice or can make the arrangement, when you do actually do cardio, try to
finish it 3 hours or longer before starting your weight training and not start it until 6 hours or
later after your weight training. Of course, the further apart training and cardio can be, the better,
and doing your best to spread them apart is a good idea even if you can’t quite hit the 3 and
6-hour marks. In the time that separates weights and cardio, eating plenty of protein and
especially carbs and staying away from physical exertion as much as you can will lead to higher
glycogen repletion, recovery, and better results for your lifting.

c.) If you’re training for strength, and you have to combine lifting and cardio into the same
session, doing your cardio after your lifting is likely a good idea. This is because doing cardio
before training can sap you of so much energy that your lifting performance will suffer too much
and you won’t be able to create the high forces needed to best adapt and get stronger.

d.) If you’re training for hypertrophy, you should consider doing your cardio before your lifting
for two main reasons. First, you want to limit interference with the post-lifting anabolic pathways
and second, you can probably still put in the volume needed to grow even if you’re a bit tired from
cardio, since intensity is not nearly as much a factor with hypertrophy training as it is with
strength training.
3.) Change Recommendations Based on Observations

If you try some cardio before your strength work and it doesn’t make you much or any less
strong, you may very well be able to put cardio before strength training. This is especially true if
that cardio is like a 20-30min incline walk on the treadmill; unlikely to reduce performance and
might even enhance it.

On the other hand, if your cardio smashes you so hard that you can’t generate the kinds of
volumes you need to for your hypertrophy training or if you’re using like half of your usual
weights, perhaps you might have to put cardio after lifting. Obviously, the best solution here is to
put the cardio in its own window some time far away from training, so don’t lose sight of that goal
if and when your schedule allows. But insofar as you have to put them together, observe your
responses and use the recommendations in point #2 above just as general guides, not as dogma
for every circumstance.

4.) Glycogen and Fat Burning

You might have heard before that it’s good to burn your glycogen off first by lifting to then burn
more fat when you do cardio right after. And thus, the implication is that you should do cardio
right after weight training for best fat loss results.

In reality, the overwhelming majority of research has yet to find a “better” time to do cardio, be it
after weights, on an empty stomach, or after a balanced meal. As long as you get the calories
burned that you planned and performed cardio at the volumes and intensities that you wanted,
the results for fat loss and weight loss seem not to matter much.

These research findings make plenty of sense, because repleting glycogen takes carbs away from
later meals and doesn’t let them store as fat. This means that if you burn the glycogen first to rely
on fat burning in post-weights cardio or use the eaten carbs later for replenishing glycogen lost to
anytime cardio, it matters little. You still lose very close to the same amount of daily calories and
fat stores.

As long as you don’t drain your workout of energy by doing too much cardio right before or drain
the anabolic signaling by doing too much cardio after training, just do your cardio when it’s
convenient for you and you’ll get great results without having to do it right after training
religiously.

5.) Different Cardio Types

What’s the best kind of cardio? It depends on your goals and limitations!

If you’re doing cardio for max weight loss and general health and you’ve got the time, MISS is a
top choice. Moderate Intensity Steady State cardio, akin to running 5 miles at a time at a roughly
even pace has the advantage of burning the most total calories of all the modalities and thus
powering the most weight and fat loss. Yeah, it risks muscle loss to a good degree in the highly
trained especially and it does take quite some time to do, but for those who have the time and
want the most health and weight loss results; it’s the likely best choice.
If you’re doing cardio for health and fat loss but you’re short on time in your average week, HIIT
is your ticket. High Intensity Interval Training cardio is characterized by alternating sprints (or
close) with walking or jogging-level exertions in between, and can be done outside, on a
treadmill, on a bike, or even in the pool. It’s incredibly effective in burning a whole bunch of
calories in very short timespans, but its downside is that it causes quite a bit of fatigue. Thus you
can’t do it much, and many more than about 4 hard sessions of HIIT a week are not
recommended for most. But if you’re short on time and want to lose fat, lose weight, and be
healthier, HIIT is a great choice.

LISS is not recommended as a top choice for most folks. Low Intensity Steady State cardio is just
like it sounds; incline walking on a treadmill, doing the stepmill very slowly, or any other
modality that keeps your heart rate under 140bpm in most cases. The bad news about this
modality is that to lose a lot of weight or fat with it, you have to do A LOT of it, as its low intensity
just doesn’t burn calories very quickly. On the other hand, it hardly generates any fatigue,
converts any muscle fiber types, or risks any injury, so it’s great for people looking to maximally
conserve muscle while leaning out, including bodybuilders and powerlifters. If you’re hurt and
can’t exert yourself at a high intensity or you’re too beat up from other MISS and HIIT sessions in
the past week, you can also use LISS in those cases to get some cardio in.

6.) Alternate Phylogeny

Snakes generally tend to do best with High Intensity Steady State cardio. I’ll let you figure out the
implications of that fact to your own training.

Training Myths That Won’t Die #7: “Variation is Super Important to Keep Your Body Growing”

In this post, I’ll focus on variation as it relates to the use of different exercises to try to stimulate
muscle growth. There are other kinds of variation, particularly rep range variation, tempo
variation, and many others about which a whole series of other posts could be dedicated to.
Exercise variation is by far the most commonly used form, and bodybuilders the world over rave
about it. “You’ve gotta keep the body guessing, brah!” To what extent is that true? Is variation
really THAT important?

1.) No, it’s not.

Switching exercises is very UNIMPORTANT to the grand scheme of the training process. Before
we get to variation, specificity, overload, fatigue management and in some schemes even SRA
(frequency and order of workouts within the week) are more important. That is, making sure that
you’re training in a way that stimulates the actual systems you want to improve, progressively
challenging those systems over the long term, making sure to give the body strategic rest so that
fatigue can be kept in check and possibly even the order in which you train bodyparts (and how
much rest you give them between training days) are more important than variation.

You can get HUGE, perhaps 90% as big as you ever would have by using the same exact set of
exercises your whole training career. By using just a little bit of variation, you can get bigger still,
and you only need the optimal amount of variation to get to your peak level of development.

So when bodybuilders say “it’s super important to alternate your exercises for each bodypart
often,” they might mean “as long as you have the basics of specificity, overload etc. in place first,”
but they can’t mean as a standalone feature, as that would be inaccurate.

2.) What’s excessive variation and what are its downsides?

Variation applied properly can help training (point #3 below will address that), but overusing
variation can be a downside. There are two ways in which variation can be too high:

a.) Too many exercises for the same bodypart in one workout.

b.) Switching exercises too often between workouts.

In general, more than 3 exercises per muscle group per workout is probably too much, and
switching exercises more often than once every mesocycle (4-8 weeks) is probably too often for
most lifters.

Why is this excess of variation a bad thing?

- By committing error a.), you actually get lower quality workouts because you have to re-warm
up each time for each new exercise. For example, once you get warmed up to squat and really in
the groove, not only are you taking care of the basics of being potentiated to squat with the most
effort, but you’re also getting a better mind-muscle connection (for what that’s worth) each set
you do. But if you switch exercises (like say to lunges), your groove has to take at least a couple of
sets to really set in, and thus your highest forces will elude you, and perhaps just as bad, your
mind-muscle connection has to be re-established. And guess what, just as you find your groove
and mind-muscle connection… you’ve gotta switch exercises again! Because there are advantages
(see point #3 below) to doing at least 2 different movements for the same bodypart in one
session, some of these problems are a given. But if you’re doing 5 movements for the same muscle
group, nearly your whole workout is one big experiment in getting used to exercises just before
abandoning them for others.

The second problem with error a.) is that by using a ton of exercises per session, you can risk
running low on variants over the long (months) term. If “shocking the system” has advantages
(and it does to some extent), then how can you shock the system if you have used all the good
variants in just one or two mesocycles of training? What will your second quad meso look like if
you did squats, lunges, leg presses, hacks, and leg extensions in your first meso? By using too
many variants in each session, you can quickly run out of effective variants and then
EVERYTHING is stale! Very shortsighted.

For the most part, the problems with option a.) apply to option b.), and still others apply to
option b.) as well.

First, if you’re switching exercises and their orders every workout, how do you make sure you’re
overloading? How can you directly compare leg presses to hack squats and thus adjust the
volumes and intensities to make sure that next week’s leg press session is fundamentally more
overloading than this week’s hack squat session? Well, you kind of can’t! Thus every workout has
to be “kind of hard” and it’s really tough to both arrange to overload intentionally and to track
your progress. If you did leg presses at 405 for 4x15 three weeks ago and this week you did 365
for 4x15 but after two more quad exercises than usual, did you get better? Who knows?!

Second, by always introducing your body to new variants, you’re always risking creating too
much muscle damage. An intermediate amount is usually a good thing for growth, but too much
damage leaves you simply recovering from the disruption and not using those resources to
improve. On the other hand, if you are so used to all of the variants that you never get very sore or
create much damage anymore, then you’re probably not growing all that well either!

Next, we have potential problems with directed adaptation. It’s very likely that muscles grow best
when stimulated in progressively greater fashions in similar ways. For example, by bench
pressing, your pecs grow more in some fibers than others, and by being exposed to benching over
and over, those growing fibers are more likely to stick around with their new size when you
switch to prioritizing other chest fibers through the incline press, for example. But if you switch
the focus every workout, no momentum is built and there’s not much directed adaptation. This
might result in less growth than if you took a more planned and stable approach to your training.
This point is a bit more speculative than the others, but it does carry considerable theoretical
likelihood. In addition, the too-frequent changing of exercises doesn’t let you build as much
strength and volume tolerance (and thus provide as much overload for growth) as you could have
had with more stable training.

Super variation-hungry trainers will often seek out any and all exercises to “keep the body
guessing.” This often leads them to select exercises that rank very poorly on other training
principles, such as overload. For example, bosu ball cable flyes may very well be different from
your usual chest movements, but they are so unstable and so underloaded that they pale in effect
to the other moves and are largely a waste of time. Variation for its own sake is ok, but not when
the variants barely do anything. If you need to “change things up” so often that you end up
changing them up with crappy exercises, you’re probably overdoing variation.
3.) What are the benefits of variation and what’s too little of it?

By reading #2 above you might be convinced that variation is just a terrible and useless training
principle and that it should be kept to zero. But that’s not true either. Variation is excellent when
applied appropriately and in moderation. Properly applied variation usually means keeping
exercises in the mix for between one and 3 mesocycles and then switching them out for others.
There are exceptions to this that are covered below, but these basic guidelines apply to most
lifters.

One of the main benefits of variation is the ability to use it to focus on specific areas that need to
be brought up. If your quads need work but your glutes and hams and adductors are already
huge, squats might not be the right choice for you (as painful as it is for me to write that in print
lol). Instead, you might want to use leg extensions, leg presses, and hack squats for some time to
bring up your quads to the rest of your legs. Same idea with upper chest and incline press, etc.

A simple derivative benefit of the one above is that if you want full development, you’ll have to hit
each muscle from multiple angles and thus with different exercises. Whether this happens within
one workout or within one week is still not certain, but it’s probably not a good idea to go a whole
meso without hitting the upper chest, for example, or at least one rowing and one vertical pulling
move.

Another (and perhaps the biggest) benefit of variation is as a tool to combat training staleness.
After doing the same exercises for a long time (months), even adding more weight and sets and
reps on those movements become less effective at growing muscle. Your physiology is so used to
the forces coming from the same exact angles and hitting the same exact motor units that you no
longer grow as much muscle as you once did. Your routine benefitted greatly by getting you used
to the same movements to present the most overload, but after months and months, that stability
is a negative because of the downside of staleness. Yes, there seems to be a middle ground in
muscle growth between switching exercises too often and not often enough. One lacks
momentum, the other promotes too much staleness.

An oft-forgotten benefit of exercise variation is the management of fatigue, especially in such a


way that still allows you to train hard every single session of your training week. By using
alternate exercises that stress different parts of your muscle more than others, you can let the
fatigued parts heal up while hitting the alternate parts hard, and vice versa. For example, if you
train your chest with mostly flat and decline movements Monday and mostly incline movements
Thursday, the fibers that are hit hard Monday basically get a light workout on Thursday while the
fibers that are hit Thursday get a light workout Monday. Instead of doing both incline and flat
moves hard Monday and taking all-around easy Thursday, this alternate method of variation
allows every day to be a hard day for some part of your muscles but still lets the overloaded parts
recover well for next time.

Because different exercises hit muscle groups from different angles, they also hit the rest of your
connective tissues (such as tendons, ligaments and bones) differently. By changing up the
exercises every several mesocycles, you let the chronically stressed parts of the connective tissues
hit by the last arrangement of movements to heal before they are exposed to those movements
again. For example, if you only do high bar squats for quads, an aggravated knee from high bar
squats will stop you in your tracks and make you have to stop training quads or go much easier to
heal up. But if you alternate months of high bar squatting with months of mostly leg pressing, you
can let the part of your knee irritated by squats to heal while still getting great growth from leg
presses, and then come back to squats later and repeat in that fashion.

4.) How does variation application change with training age?

In general, beginners to training are very unlikely to develop staleness to growth because
EVERYTHING is so new. In addition, one of their top priorities needs to be to learn the technique
fundamentals on the basic movements (squats, pullups, rows, presses, deadlifts, etc.) so they can
safely and effectively use those moves for the rest of their training careers. Switching exercises
often is thus both needless and negative for beginners, and they can go between 6-12 of their first
months of training without deviating from their core moves much or at all. On the other end of
the scale, super advanced bodybuilders may be so resistant to adaptation in general that they
need a high degree of variation to keep gains coming. In such cases, switching exercises every 2-4
weeks might be beneficial on the net balance.

For most of the rest of us, alternating moves every 1-3 mesocycles is probably best, which means
that you can use an exercise for between 4 and 24 weeks before replacing it with another one for
the same muscle group. For most intermediate and advanced lifters, I recommend 8-16 week
rotations.

Lastly, if you’re a STRENGTH athlete (weightlifter, powerlifter, strongman), you need to get as
much neural efficiency out of your muscles as possible and must always stay pretty sharp on the
competition moves. Thus, you will use variation MUCH LESS than someone training for
hypertrophy for its own sake would. For example, in a 6 month prep for a PL meet, 2 months of
that prep might stay completely away from the PL moves (the first 2 months), and the rest of the
time the competition moves will be trained in some way every week.
Training Myths That Won’t Die #8: “The Best Bodypart Training Split”

Never in the history of social media did a single post about someone’s training split, or even a
conversation about how to train a bodypart go without at least one comment to the tune of “so,
what’s the best training split?” And that’s a perfectly valid question to ask… of course if there was
such a thing, we’d want to know about it! Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a “best”
training split, even if you zoom in to a specific sport or outcome, like just bodybuilding, just
powerlifting, or just general fitness. In Point #1 below, I’ll discuss the many (though not all)
reasons why a “perfect” split for everyone doesn’t exist, but the good news comes in Point #2 in
which I’ll share some guidelines as to how to design the right split for you. If you follow them, you
won’t be guaranteed the optimal split. But you will sure as hell have a split that does two things;
works for you and doesn’t totally suck by committing grandiose errors in program design!

1.) Reasons that there is no such thing as a “best split.”

a.) Number of training days

Some of the most effective training splits for hypertrophy, such as those pro bodybuilder Jared
Feather designs and runs, have you training 6 days a week and most of those are double split
sessions. Jesus, I don’t think most people have that possible answer in mind when they ask
“what’s the best split for hypertrophy” on an Instagram post! Because people can commit only so
much time to training and have some days in their schedules that simply don’t allow for training,
not everyone can do the 6 day double split. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great ways of
arranging training to grow tons of muscle from anywhere between 3 and 6 days a week of
training, with of course quite a few changes to the arrangements of the programs depending on
how many sessions there are per week. Another very related concern to session number is session
position. You’re going to have a very big difference in splits between two individuals who can
both train 4x a week, but one of whom can pick any day they need for a session and the other of
which cannot train AT ALL every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

b.) Amount of time one can commit per session

Not only is there a big difference between planning a split for someone who can do two hours of
training each time for 4 days every week vs. 45 min each time, but there are asymmetrical
concerns as well. For example, two individuals may both be available for 4 hours of training per
week over 4 sessions, but one might have two of those days limited to 30 minutes each while the
other can do a whole hour each time. The kinds of splits best for all of these scenarios will be
vastly different based on the particulars of each scenario.

c.) Muscle Growth Priorities

Some people want bigger upper bodies, some want bigger legs, some want bigger everything, and
some want to maintain size while getting super lean. Some have biceps that grow super fast from
everything but chests that need the kitchen sink to grow and some have chests that grow from
simply being around weights but calves that grow a millimeter a year with the weight of the world
on them. How can a one-best-split be possible with so many differences in desires and genetic
variants? Easy answer; it’s not!

d.) Frequency Options

The research so far (and there’s getting to be plenty of it) on frequency essentially says that
within a pretty broad range of training frequencies, there’s scarcely a difference in outcome. Put
another way, you can train each muscle literally every day or train it only once a week, and the
net difference in growth will almost never exceed 10% if you equate weekly volume. In fact, it’s
often less than that or even undetectable. If we delimit more realistic frequencies, something like
training each muscle 2,3, or 4 times a week, the difference in results becomes close to nominal.
How can there be a best split if training can be done with such different frequencies for such
similar outcomes? Again, there probably can’t.

e.) Recovery and Decay Differences

Due to muscle size, strength, technique, leverage, or just molecular-level genetic differences,
different individuals recover from the same kinds of training in vastly different ways. While one
person may be able to deadlift 3x a week with 4 sets each time just fine, another individual might
only be able to do 1 heavy set per session if it’s 3 sessions per week, or better yet only 3 sets once a
week. On the decay front, some individuals need to squat multiple times a week for their
technique to stay crisp, but others can squat every 2 weeks and feel completely comfortable. With
such major differences quite commonplace, one split for everyone is just not realistic.

So if one split is ruled out, is the answer to “how do I make a good split” something morbidly
banal and barely informative such as “it depends” or “do what works for you.” Nah. The good
news is that while there is not one magic split to rule them all, there are some very dependable
guidelines for effective split design. Let’s look at a few of them next.

2.) Guidelines for Effective Split Designs

a.) Choose the right number of training days for your schedule

Sounds like a no-brainer but I’ve made this mistake super often, and seen many others make it as
well. Should you do the Jared Feather 6 day super split? Only if you can recover from it AND
COMMIT to it RELIABLY. The best 5 day split is highly thrown off if you can only make it 4 days
per week on the regular and only sometimes manage to squeeze in 5. Because doing a split only
partially throws off so much of its effect, it’s a good idea to take whatever number of days a week
you “think you might be able to train,” reduce that by one day, and try that. Or put another way,
only choose a split that you KNOW you can commit to churning out, even on your super busy
weeks.

b.) Choosing Your Training Frequency

Muscle respond pretty close to optimally to between 2 and 4 sessions of training (per muscle
group) per week. When you build your split, make sure that every muscle is hit at least twice per
week and you’re fundamentally good! Even if it’s not hit DIRECTLY in all of those sessions, that’s
totally ok. For example, if you have one day on which you do curls and another on which you do a
bunch of pulldowns and rows, biceps still basically get hit in some capacity twice and you’re good
on that end.

c.) SRA Symmetry

The SRA Principle of training (Stimulus-Recovery-Adaptation) essentially says that your muscles
grow in between training sessions, so that if you want the most growth, you should probably
spread your sessions out pretty evenly. Instead of training arms Monday and then again Tuesday,
training them Monday and again on Thursday would be much better. Once you’ve made your
plan, reviewing it for any major SRA violations is likely a good idea.

d.) Priority Emphasis

Whatever muscles or movements you want to improve most should be trained early. That means
both early in the training session and even early in the training week when you have the most
energy to commit to the task. If you tell people that your split emphasizes chest but you train
chest on Friday after Shoulders on Wednesday and Triceps on Thursday, and Friday’s session has
a whole back workout before you even get to chest… you’re not actually prioritizing chest no
matter what you tell people. On the flipside of priority; if some muscles are being deemphasized
that session or that mesocycle, they should be placed towards the end of the session or hard
training week where even the minimal energy you have left is good enough to cover their needs

e.) Hard/Easy Structure

When training muscle groups multiple times a week, there should be at least a smidge of
hard/easy biasing to the sessions. This means that while maybe half to ¾ of the sessions can and
should be hard and very taxing, the other sessions should be easier to allow for SOME recovery to
occur for the next week. For example, if you’ve got biceps training every Monday, Tuesday,
Wednesday, and Friday, you might want to smash biceps on every day but Tuesday with 5 sets of
legit work, but on Tuesday maybe just do 2-3 sets of some cable stuff. That Tuesday session still
ads some volume and some stimulus, but also lets you recover a bit better and not overwhelm the
system.

f.) Avoid Limiting Factor Mistakes

Some split designs are less effective because one of your training days impinges heavily on
another, or one of your bodyparts in a session impinges heavily on another bodypart. For
example, if you plan to deadlift Wednesday, don’t do tight-arch benching or lots of bent-rows on
Tuesday, as that will fatigue your back so much it’s gonna make providing a safe and overloading
stimulus on Wednesday a super uphill battle. On the intra-session front, don’t train your grip
hard before heavy back work or your triceps before heavy chest work. Try training grip before
lighter back work that isn’t limited by grip or training triceps a couple of days before your big
chest session instead.

g.) Choose Economy of Effort vs. Economy of Time


If you do antagonist compound supersets (like bent rows with bench press or pullups with
pushups) your workout will be super-efficient from a time perspective but will require a huge
pain in your ass to set up and take some stimulus away for efficiency’s sake. On the other hand,
straight sets of the same bodypart, exercise after exercise with normal rest is super stimulative to
the bodypart, but takes a long time to pull off. If your goal is to get a certain amount of
time-efficiency out of training vs. max hypertrophy effect, make sure your split reflects your
priorities.

h.) Competing Activity Workarounds

If you work 14 hours of manual labor every Thursday but work an office job most other days,
don’t put your heavy squat day on Thursday. And if you play another sport and practices are on
Wednesdays and weekends, make sure you plan your split intelligently around those days instead
of just assuming that your Monday leg workout will go fine even though you ran 10 miles total in
a soccer game on Sunday.

That’s about it for the big chunks. If you make a split and it meets all of the above guidelines, the
rest comes to programming (choosing your exercises, their volumes, intensities, and progressions
from week to week) and periodization (how you structure your mesocycles together). And so long
as you do that stuff well, your program will work great! Because of the diverse reasons described
in Point #1, your split might not look like that of someone else or even the splits your ran before,
and it’s not likely to be OPTIMAL, but, it will work very well!
Training Myths That Won’t Die #9: “The Best Exercise”

Just like with the “best bodypart split” question, you can’t throw a digital rock on any online
muscle building discussion forum without hitting some version of “what’s the best exercise for
(insert bodypart)?” Bad news folks, there is no best exercise for any bodypart. But there are
useful criteria by which you can pick the exercise you need for your specific goals. In part 1 of this
post, I’ll outline some reasons why “one best exercise” is a myth and in part 2 I’ll share some
guidelines for how to pick the exercise that’s right for the circumstance.

1.) Why there’s not such thing as “the best exercise to grow X body part.”

a.) Specificity Needs

If you’re growing muscle to get better at some sport, you need to consider how a certain exercise
affects the transfer of training. For example, weightlifters should mostly prefer SLDLs for
hamstring hypertrophy to good mornings because the SLDL position (and thus the particular
fibers stressed most) more closely replicates the function of the hamstrings and the position of
the body in the actual weightlifting movements themselves. Even in bodybuilding, specificity
concerns can be valid. If you’re interested in growing your inner back and working on back
thickness, some moves might be better at that than others that might be better at promoting back
width, even though you’re training “back” and maybe even doing some kind of row for both goals.

b.) Variation Needs

Even if there was a “best” exercise, within several months or sooner, it would cease to be the best
due to staleness alone. As you train a movement longer and longer, it yields less and less effect on
muscle growth, and eventually, it should be deleted for a while from the program and replaced
with another, related movement. How often should this be done? For muscle growth purposes,
beginners can delete and replace every 6 months or so while highly advanced should do this
maybe every month, and with the rest somewhere in between.

c.) Body Design

If you’re really lanky, you might get the fullest of the full ranges of motion from something like
regular barbell rows. But if you’re short-limbed, you might prefer cambered bar rows that let you
get the same relative ROM that the lankier person can get with a regular bar. In addition, some
muscle insertion and origin differences and even fiber angle and architecture differences mean
that some folks will just get better results from some exercises than others.

d.) Program Context

When you do an exercise in relationship to the other exercises in your program can be a factor. If
you’re looking for the best quad blaster, maybe squats are it. But if you’ve done deadlifts already
in that workout or in a workout earlier in the week, your back might now be a limiting factor in
squats (instead of your quads) and your quads are better worked with leg pressing. The other way
around, upright rows might be awesome for side delts but if you’ve gotta work biceps hard later
or the next day, doing lateral raises and thus sparing the forearm flexors might be a better call.

e.) Mind-Muscle Connection

Some exercises just plain old feel better, and you can better contract the muscles you’re actually
trying to train. The thing is, every individual has their preferred exercises on this criterion. While
I actually get a crazy connection to my quads by squatting and hardly at all with leg extensions,
many people are quite the other way around.

f.) Axial and Systemic Disruption vs. Peripheral and Local Disruption

All exercises for a certain bodypart can be ranked on a scale of how much they tax the axial
(spinal support) muscles and joints vs. the peripheral (targeted) muscles and joints, and how
much they create systemic fatigue (that feeling you have the day after a heavy deadlift workout
where you seem to have ½ normal energy levels) vs. local fatigue (soreness and depletion in the
actual trained muscles). In general, the average exercise will tend to have a pretty even balance of
both. For example, while squats hit the quads generally harder than leg presses, they also hit the
back and posterior chain harder and leave more systemic fatigue. On the other hand, leg presses
don’t quite hit the quads as hard, but do contribute to axial and systemic disruption much less.

If you can spare the disruption and have plenty of axial and systemic MRV to burn, the more
taxing exercises are generally better. But if you’re short on recovery resources, perhaps the more
peripheral exercises are best. What you should want to avoid most times are exercises that have
disproportionate fatigue effects or disproportionately low stimulus effects. Partial low bar squats
or one-leg extensions for quads probably err too far in their respective directions and should
largely be avoided if quad hypertrophy is the goal.
g.) Limiting Factor Problems

Sometimes an otherwise good exercise ends up doing a poor job of stimulating the targeted
muscle because a supporting muscle is the actual limiting factor for that person. For example, if
your back tends to cramp up on the high rep squat and prevents your quads from even feeling
remotely taxed, as good as squats are, they won’t compare in your case to hack squats or some
other movement that actually allows the quads to be the limiting factor and thus get pushed the
most.

h.) Injury History and Risk

If you’ve got an injury history and a certain movement aggravates that injury (or if it always
aggravated the bodypart or the joint no matter what), it’s not a candidate for a viable exercise. In
addition, there are some time and places in which “great” exercises are no longer the best due to
altered safety concerns. For example, heavy benching while very lean and dry in the weeks before
a bodybuilding show is probably not a great idea, and while squatting is usually great, if the gym
you’re visiting has a squishy, padded floor (you know what I mean and how frustrating that can
be), then squatting is unwise.

2.) Guidelines for Choosing an Exercise for Growth

a.) Must Use Good Technique Fundamentals on All Exercises

No matter what exercises you do choose to use, ALL of them must be performed with the
fundamentals of good technique for muscle growth. Full ROM should be used unless a
compelling case is made for an alternative ROM. The weight should be controlled all of the time,
especially on the eccentric and when reversing direction. Posture should be good, and a tight back
should be set with few exceptions, and the exercise should be performed in such a way as to both
check off its proper technique and target the muscles being trained. For example, you might do
all of the basics right on the close grip bench, but if you want your triceps to get the most out of
this exercise, keeping your elbows in and touching a bit higher on the chest is a good practice.

b.) Must Use Progressive Overload on All Exercises

In order to be most effective, all hypertrophy exercises need to be overloaded. This firstly means
that they should be done within 4 reps of failure in most cases. Secondly, the exercise should be
somehow made harder with most sessions, and whether or not that’s by adding weight, adding
reps, adding sets, or shortening rest intervals while maintaining the aforementioned variables is
both a more complex but also much less important question. The more important thing is that
you DO overload, and HOW is very secondary for muscle growth. Just don’t get suckered in to
“this exercise is just for feel and we don’t count reps” BS in most cases.

c.) Barbells Better but…

Barbell and free weight movements are both generally very disruptive and have a good
central/peripheral fatigue/stimulus ratio. However, when central fatigue is on the premium, like
if you are training back today but have legs tomorrow, staying away from barbells might be wiser.
Also, and as mentioned before, if you’re not healthy to use barbells or if they are not safe to use in
your given context, they’re definitely out.

d.) Machines and Dumbbells Guide

You can really use machines and dumbbells any time, but they are best for a couple of specific
circumstances:

- If/when done after main barbell and bodyweight work has been completed.

- When used for muscles that barbells have trouble with (calves, side delts, rear delts).

- When you need to be able to do higher reps than you can with barbells or bodyweight (like lat
pulldowns).

- When you need more isolation than free weights can provide (like leg curls for hamstrings).

- When you’re hurt and need to super-isolate the injury to stay safe.

- When you need isolation to remove a limiting factor, such as your posterior chain in
chest-supported rows vs. barbell rows.

Reminder: Don’t get dogmatic and stick to the principles…

Training Myths That Won’t Die #10: “Fixing All Imbalances”

Is your body in balance? Are all of your muscle groups in balance? Or are you walking around
with hidden asymmetries, obvious to all intelligent trainers but yourself? Subverting your every
attempt to get stronger, healthier, and more aesthetic?

The truth is that you’re probably fine, and here are some reasons why as well as some
information to help you avoid going down fruitless roads of attempted self-improvement.

1.) Defining “Imbalance”

Define “imbalance.” What does it mean to have a muscle imbalance? Does that mean the same
muscles on opposite sides of your body must be the same size? The same strength? What about
the front vs. back of your body? Chest vs. back, front delt vs. rear delt, ham vs. quad?

Before you let your imagination take you to a world in which your body is a hideous
Frankenstein-esque mess or, worse yet, let an Instagram coach talk you into that perception,
please ask.

Ask yourself or the person who’s suggesting it EXACTLY WHAT CONSTITUTES IMBALANCE.
In most cases you might be surprised to learn that it’s actually quite difficult to ascertain this
information. With as many accusations of imbalance as are flying around these days, you’d think
the definition would be set in stone, but it’s not. It turns out that “muscle imbalance” can come
with any or no symptoms at all, be based on a variety of performance measures or none at all, be
easily perceptible on a physique or in movement patterns or… not at all.

Turns out there ARE actual criteria for muscle imbalances and ways in which to improve them IF
they exist and if improvement is needed. Let’s take a look at the major categories below.

2.) Clinical Relevancy in Wellness

In the health professions, muscle imbalances are diagnosed and treated IF and ONLY IF they are
CLINICALLY RELEVANT. This means, for one thing, that they have to be large enough to be
detectable, and, large enough to negatively affect health. It turns out that ALL muscles in ALL
people are to some extent asymmetrically developed. Yep, your quads are gonna be different sizes
if we measure closely enough. But when does that matter in medicine? It matters when the
imbalances are so great that your joints and other tissues begin to experience pain or are moving
in such an awkward way as to cause pain with high likelihood eventually.

The reality here is that such imbalances are usually MASSIVE, and here’s why. Because no one
has bones and joints that are identical in shape between the two sides of their body, daily
movement such as walking is going to tax one side of the body more than the other. The body’s
response to this is to hypertrophy muscles on the more used areas more, and thus the bigger and
stronger muscles account for the imbalance and all is well.

The problems almost always arise when your imbalance is SO big that, either the muscles can’t
fully compensate or their compensation has to be so extreme that it itself irritates still other
structures. The good news is that such imbalances are both rare and usually quite obvious,
especially to a medical professional. So if you are not experiencing pain but you think one quad is
stronger than the other… you’re probably fine. If you are experiencing pain, have a sport doctor
check you out, and hell, even get a second opinion. If both folks say that imbalances are not the
cause, it’s very likely they are right.

Too often, a quest to try and overcome pain turns into a quest to “bring everything into balance,”
which is a fine analogy from emotional psychology (and thus tempting), but is no more than an
analogy. Just like being a good person doesn’t mean being the PERFECT blend of assertive yet
caring (just don’t be an asshole), being medically sound in the realm of muscle imbalances
doesn’t mean being perfectly symmetrical.

TLDR: if you’re experiencing pain and it’s not obvious to your doctor that muscle imbalance is
the cause… it’s probably not and you had best look for other reasons, such, perhaps “you’re just
weak all over and need to get stronger” or “your technique sucks.” You know, boring shit most of
us would rather avoid addressing.

3.) Sport Performance Relevance

Ok, so if your imbalance is clinically relevant, go see the doctor. But if it’s short of that, can’t it
still be impeding your sport performance? Probably not, actually. It has been shown in direct
examination that good athletes are actually not superbly symmetrical in force production,
especially right limb vs. left limb. Turns out that the leg athletes jump from or kick from IS
GOING TO BE STRONGER and that’s exactly what it needs to be! If the other leg was arbitrarily
just as strong, it would be needlessly so… strength that could be better used elsewhere, perhaps.

So if you’re a baseball pitcher and you’re worried about your pitching arm being stronger than
your non-throwing arm… don’t be. Wasting time trying to perfectly balance your arms in strength
could be time better spent training for baseball in general, getting stronger legs, or even resting
more so you can recover better.

Another important point is that for both sport and health, different muscles across the same joint
are NOT SUPPOSED to be symmetrical. Your hams will never be as strong as your quads, your
rear delts as strong as your front, and if your biceps and triceps are the same strength, there’s
something wrong!

Now, if your imbalance IS directly relevant to sport, then for sure it must be fixed. Like, if your
grip always gives out on your left hand way before your right and it’s costing you deadlifts in
competition, that should for sure be fixed. But it MUST be performance-relevant! If your calves
look tiny compared to your quads and you’re a powerlifter, who gives a shit… you don’t need your
calves in powerlifting!

4.) Physique Competition Relevance

If you’re reading this and you’re not as jacked a you want to be, you very likely shouldn’t be
worried about balance. FIRST put on the raw size, and THEN fix the little things. Putting on
major size is a lot easier to do when you’re younger and healthier, and balancing your physique is
something you can always do later. In fact, trying to balance too much before putting on the
majority of your size is like sculpting a statue before you’ve put half the clay on. Slab clay first,
sculpt later.

Another issue is that just because YOU might notice your asymmetries, it doesn’t mean that
anyone else (including the judges) can. Jay Cutler won multiple Olympias with very differently
shaped…. everything, so it’s unlikely you have to be perfectly balanced to have a great physique.
Objectively, if your legs or arms are less than ½ inch different in size, it’s probably not worth
pursuing until maybe you’re close to your career peak, if at all.

5.) Brining Up Lagging Bodyparts Guide

If you do decide to bring up a lagging bodypart, be it to improve balance or just get a weaker part
stronger relative to others, there has to be a 3-step process to doing so. It’s NOT as simple as
“train the lagging bodypart more.” If you do that, you might be doing TOO MUCH and making
things WORSE!

1.) The first thing you have to figure out is what your volume landmarks are for that bodypart.
Find your MEV and your MRV (minimum effective volume and maximum recoverable volume).

2.) Take your “bigger” or stronger bodyparts that you want to deemphasize and bring their
training DOWN to either MEV or MV (maintenance volume).

3.) Train the bodyparts you want to bring up by cycling slowly from their MEV to their MRV,
deloading, and repeating until they are brought up to your liking, and then go back to training all
other bodyparts like that as well.

6.) Informed Practice vs. Hypochondria

When thinking about imbalances (like everything else), make sure to approach the issue logically,
define your terms, define your desired outcomes, figure out if your outcomes are a favorable
combination of worthy and realistic, and then execute the plan. Don’t mistake hypochondriac
tendencies (we all have them) for a sport-related plan.
Training Myths That Won’t Die #11: “Isolation Extremism”

It seems that nearly every time you scroll the comments of a training video on YouTube (your
first mistake), you’ll catch the “target muscle gurus.” Mostly teenagers that have only been
training for a few years, these folks offer free advice on how ANY and EVERY exercise can be
modified to “hit the target muscle more.”

Often, they make great points! But the answer to the question of “when to isolate” is NOT
“always,” and here are some reasons why:

First, let’s clear up WHY we want to isolate a muscle more. The obvious primary reason is that we
want to overload the target muscle well. But a potential consideration is that we might also be
isolating to keep other muscles out of a movement for several reasons, some of which include
keeping total fatigue down, and some even more specific, like trying to keep your lats out of
benching for chest today so you can be fresh for your big back session tomorrow.

Isolating definitely has benefits, and we’ll get to the much more detailed list of them in a bit, but
before we do, it is worth mentioning that isolation likely has downsides as well. The big downside
of isolation moves is that they are not compound moves. What’s so good about compound moves?
A couple of things:

a.) Compound moves are likely more disruptive.

To get as sore from leg extensions as you do from leg presses, you’d have to do some ungodly
higher proportion of extensions. Compound moves just create more damage and disruption than
isolation moves do, which also means they probably help you grow more. Now, damage isn’t the
only factor in growth, but it’s likely an important one.

b.) Compound moves are safer at heavier loads.

What about tension? That’s important to growth probably more than damage, right? Yep, and
compounds usually put more tension through the muscle. Because compounds don’t rely too
much on any one muscle, your body can shift around to prevent the forces on any one element of
connective tissue from being too high. You can squat for sets of 6, but doing curls for sets of 6
might not be very wise. Compound moves also offer more load at the stretch, which is yet another
mechanism for growth. Metabolite summation, the last likely growth mechanism yet to be
mentioned, is probably not best done by either compounds or isolation. For example, you can get
a hell of a burn in your triceps doing cable extensions for high reps and short rests, but have you
ever done a drop set on the assisted dip machine? On metabolites, I’d say the two approaches are
tied.

b.) Compound moves are likely more effective on average.

Because compounds probably cause more damage, more tension, and more stretching under
load, they are probably on average more effective at muscle growth than isolations. Sure, there
are exceptions like the biceps, but if you had to pick ONLY compounds or ONLY isolations to
train with for six months, would you really just do flyes for chest and leg extensions for quads vs.
incline benches and high bar squats? And what the hell would you do for back training if you
could only do isolations?!?

c.) Compound moves are highly efficient.

Because they hit multiple muscles at the same time, compound moves are way more efficient.
Doing a row hits pretty much every muscle in the back, and even hits the rear delts and biceps
some. How many isolation exercises would it take you to replicate the stimulus of JUST bent
rows? It baffles the mind.

And the important note here is that efficiency impacts recovery. Even if you say “I want the best
stimulus and I don’t care how long I’m at the gym,” the very act of being at the gym for hours
longer than you need to is itself fatiguing and will interfere with gains.

In summary, we shouldn’t always be looking to change every exercise into more of an isolation
move. In fact, it could be said that, ideally, we SHOULD be prioritizing compounds UNLESS
there is a reason to choose isolations. So, what are those reasons?

When to consider altering an exercise for more isolation (or switching to another movement that
isolates more):

1.) Systemic fatigue is high but you still have local work to do

Compound moves create a lot of systemic fatigue, mostly because they are just fucking hard!
Sometimes, you are getting close to going overboard on fatigue but you still need to hit some
muscles. In that case, you might choose more isolation moves that fatigue less.

For example, when powerlifters train for hypertrophy, they will base most of their chest work
around presses. But there are only so many presses you can do, especially in the context of
squats, deadlits, and the other compounds used to improve them over the training week. In fact,
sometimes the fatigue can even be pretty local to just the shoulder joints from all those presses.

But when you need more chest work even after hitting your limit on presses, some dumbbell or
cable flyes might come in very handy!

2.) Axial loading MRV restricting from doing more compounds


Axial loading is the special kind of fatigue that results from compressing the spine and taxing the
muscles used to keep it erect. Yes, erect. Happy Friday. Axial loading fatigue is a special case of
systemic fatigue preventing further axially-loading training. However, some muscles still might
need more work, and at this point, more isolation-style work can be very helpful.

For example, Westside-style training often emphasized pulling work for the bench press (for
pulling the bar down into a shirt), but almost always recommended something like cable face
pulls for that purpose. Face pulls are nice, but wouldn’t rows be better? They would, had the
people training Westside not been doing countless deadlift variations, squats, and
good-mornings which were indispensable to their progress. To quote Boromir from Lord of the
Rings, “one does not simply add bent-over rows to an already axially-taxing program.” At least
that’s how I remember his quote.

So are facepulls less compound than bent rows by taking the spinal erectors away from the
movement? Yes. Was using facepulls a better idea than using bent rows in the context of the
Westside program? Almost certainly.

3.) You can’t feel the target muscle/it doesn’t get hit during compounds

One of the most common uses of isolation work is that you really don’t get shit out of compounds
for a particular muscle. If you’re skeptical, think of some bicep, calf, or side-delt -blasting
exercises that are compound moves. Generally, you’re not fighting with your best weapons on
those muscles if you avoid isolations like curls, standing calf raises, and lateral raises on
principle. So if you ARE DOING COMPOUND MOVES CORRECTLY (which often means
tailoring them to your unique body structure) and you can’t feel them with certain muscle groups,
isolations are great.

4.) Assisting muscles are limiting factors

If you’re trying to use closer grip benches for triceps but your chest gives out before your triceps
do, you’re really just training chest again for the most part. If your grip gives out on underhand
pullups before your biceps feel anything, you’ve got a problem. In general, if an assistance
(synergist) muscle prevents the target muscle from being hit well from a compound move, either
modify that compound to make it more isolated (turning the close grip bench press into a JM
press, for example), or switch to an isolation move altogether.

Oftentimes, you can do compounds either as supersets to or at the end of programs for target
muscles to still get effects out of them. Sure, your chest gives out before triceps on close grip
bench when you're fresh, but if you do 6 sets of high rep cable pushdowns beforehand, the close
grip bench is now a tricep move for you!

5.) You’re hurt in the assisting muscles

A no-brainer. This is where leg extensions come in handy for me personally. If I hurt my adductor
(thanks, BJJ), I can still hit the quads while letting my injury heal. I also like to troll my friends
when I see them doing extensions by asking them if they are hurt or sick, lol.
6.) Just for variation to mix in with compounds

Not the strongest argument for isolations, but isolating puts forces through different parts of
muscles than compounds do, and may activate and grow parts of the muscle different from the
usual ones compounds cover. Just every now and again, you might want to try isolation moves to
get a different stimulus, like doing leg curls instead of GHRs for a couple of blocks.

7.) Assisting muscles are too big relative to target ones

If you have HUGE glutes and tiny quads, squats might just make this asymmetry worse. If you’re
working for a more balanced look, be it for the stage or just IG, perhaps some isolation work for
the target muscles can help bring them up while keeping the responder muscles from becoming
obscene. Not that obscenely large glutes are bad. In fact, many would say bigger glutes are always
better.

So all that being said, when someone tells you that you need more isolation work or that you need
to change an exercise you’re doing to make it isolate a target muscle more, just go through each of
the 7 points above and if you hit a “yes,” then their advice might be good! If you hit a “no” on all
of them, get violent with them quick so they know not to fuck with you again.

For example, I do a little bitty shrug at the top of my lateral raises. It makes my shoulders feel
better and is just a side effect of trying to produce high forces during the movement. I could fight
it off and stop doing it, but, let’s see the checklist:

Does the little shrug:

1.) Overdo my systemic fatigue? No.

2.) Overwhelm my axial loading? Nope.

3.) Prevent me from feeling the move in my lateral delts? No way.

4.) Limit me from using lateral delts more? Nuh uh.

5.) I’m not hurt. Nor does that shrug hurt me.

6.) I have eliminated the shrug in other variations of lateral raises I sometimes do. (They usually
don’t work that well for me.)

7.) My side delts are, by ratio, bigger than probably any other muscle on my body, with my traps
lagging far behind.

Hey! Looks like I can keep my current technique! Take that, IG technique trolls!

In the end, remember to always ask WHY you are doing something and when someone tells you
to switch something, they had better have good reasons. Think shit through, work hard, and
you’ll be getting more jacked!