When I was little, I never had big dreams about the kind of job I would have as an adult. Really, the only thing I can remember wanting to be when I grew up was jacked.
Not including the time spent in my early childhood blasting my arms with curls while watching Commando and T2, I’ve been studying bodybuilding for the last 12 years, in and out of gyms for the last 10 years, and consistently training since 2008. I’m not a doctor, a dietician, or a celebrity trainer. But after more than a decade of scouring books, magazines, online resources, and innumerable forums, training in various gyms, and getting my B.S. in Fitness Management, I want to at least be able to share my hard-won knowledge and experience with others.
Below I’m going to lay out some simple guidelines to help clear up all of the bullshit advertisement and sensationalism found on the internet and in magazines. Following most of these principles will get you 90% of the way to achieving your body composition goals.
Weightlifting > Cardio
Most people dream of looking like a sprinter, weightlifter, or basketball player. Then they head to the treadmill and train like an endurance athlete. Next time you’re in the gym, take a look around and find the people with the admirable physiques. Where are they? Hint: check the weight room.
Who’s strapped to the cardio equipment for their entire workout? The overly skinny and the overly fat. Cardio can be great in addition to weight training, but don’t rely on it solely to transform your physique.
Compound Lifts > Isolation Exercises
The body likes to grow as a whole unit. If it didn’t, every gym would be packed full of guys with the chest and bicep development of pro-bodybuilders and average muscle mass everywhere else.
It would be very convenient to think “I need some biceps” and proceed to do curls until you sprout grapefruits above the elbow. In reality, getting bigger arms would be better accomplished by heavy pressing and rowing. You’ll simply have to accept the common side effects of these activities, which include a bulging chest and wide back.
Big compound movements improve neurological efficiency, promote anabolic hormone production, increase bone density, and stimulate a larger amount of muscle mass than little isolation exercises. This is just fancy speak for being strong and jacked. They’re also more efficient in terms of time and energy.
Freeweights > Machines
The majority of resistance machines are silly at best, dangerous at worst. Why in hell would you break down a basic human movement, the squat for example, into a series of exercises in which the sum of those activities is less than the exercise it is supposed to replace?
Leg extensions + leg curls + back extensions does not equal a squat. It’s true that you can stimulate the same muscles, but you lose much of the neurological and hormonal response. Which is, by the way, what causes the muscle increase over the entire body.
Full Body Development > Target Training
Target training should be mostly reserved for advanced athletes, like bodybuilders needing more upper chest development or a competitive lifter needing to improve a weak point on a certain lift.
If you’re just starting out, everything is a weak point. It only makes sense to use the exercises that target as much of the body as possible to overcome these weaknesses as fast as possible. You could take the long road, of course. In that case, continue to hammer the concentration curls and chest flys.
Long Term Progress > One Ass-Kicking Workout
The body adapts to a stress to which it’s consistently exposed. If you want to run a marathon, you would train everyday, or every other day, and gradually increase your mileage. As a result of that stimulation, the body becomes a little bit better at running after each training session.
If you were to attempt a 20-mile run on Day One, you’d be sore, exhausted, and injured (possibly missing a toenail or two). By the time you were physically able to run again, any improvements your body made would have returned to baseline. Thrashing your body with weights every 10 days would produce the same lackluster results.
OR you could add 2 pounds a week to your bench press for a total of 104 lbs added by the end of the year, at which time you would most certainly look more muscular. This conservative approach produces much better results than the scenario in which someone is impatient, goes for an ambitious max attempt, and gets injured.
I’m not universally bashing these forms of exercise. Some machines have their place, sometimes you need a kick-ass workout, I like pumping up with isolation exercises, and a little cardio never hurt anyone.
The idea I’m trying to drive home is that the majority of your effort should be spent focusing on the things that will produce the greatest results. If you would rather spend most of your time working on the things that don’t really matter, don’t be surprised when you’re not seeing the changes you want. This is my experience and from endless reading, it’s also the experience of almost every successful coach, trainer, and athlete.
There you have it, the entire internet summarized in 900 words. Now go kick some ass!