I’m reading Marty Gallagher’s Purposeful Primitive right now and it’s fascinating. If you’re a fitness professional or someone who’s dedicated to exercise, then I suggest you check it out. It’s all real-life stories of Marty’s time in the trenches of big-time weightlifting. He profiles various elite strong men such as Paul Anderson and Ed Coan, bodybuilders such as Bill Pearl and Dorian Yates, and other freakishly strong individuals. Most interesting to me are their methods to getting stronger–and it’s all fairly simple: Lift Heavy & Use Perfect Technique. Barbells and dumbbells are the tools for the job. Lifting more is the task, not exhausting the muscle with 10-15 reps.
Similar to Pavel Tsatsouline’s advice, lifting heavy for a very few reps–five and under–is the ideal way to get genuinely strong. There should be one very high quality “top set.” That is, there should be a few warm-up sets performed on the way to one all-out maximal effort set. Stop a rep or two before failure. The technique must be perfect. Lifting heavy can be dangerous. Going to out-and-out exhaustion is a good way to get injured.
This concept is in contrast to many of the popular gym classes in which participants lift very light weights for an endless number of reps. This won’t make anyone stronger. It may not necessarily be bad but it’s probably not the best use of your time if your goal is a) getting stronger or b) looking stronger. Now, this strategy can turn bad if you lift to the point of utter fatigue and your technique fails. From what I’ve seen of some of the “sculpting” classes and such, technique is not a prime concern of many instructors. “A few more reps!” does seem to be the primary concern though. But guess what, “a few more reps” won’t work any miracles for your physique, but if you’ve hit the failure point then those extra reps may well push you to the point of pain and possible injury. That may mean no exercise for you for a while.
Very few exercises are needed to create more strength. Squats, bench press, deadlift, overhead pressing, and various rows are essential. Complicated pulley machines are useless except to sell gym memberships. Plastic inflatable objects like BOSUs and Dyna Disks are junk that have more in common with kids pool toys than strength and muscle building implements.
Typical Gym Mindset
Whether we admit it or not, the main reason we’re in the gym is to look good–to look strong. Physique building developed from the old-fashioned strongmen–those guys with the funny bathing suits, handlebar mustaches, and who could hoist hundreds of pounds overhead with one hand. These guys were strong number one. The impressive physiques were a nice byproduct of their ability to perform. But most gym goers aren’t actually interested in being strong. The cart has become far more important than the horse it seems.
It’s quite funny to observe our modern fitness center environment. I often see people working really hard doing easy exercises! Popular ineffective waste-of-time exercises include partial range pec deck flyes, hunched over triceps extensions, and the always famous 50 reps of 1/4 inch wiggle cruncheson an odd, overly technical crunch machine.
These complex machines actually make exercise easier. Balance and precise control is eliminated from the process. Most of these popular machine exercises are done while seated or lying down. Sounds comfy right? But why come to the gym for easy exercise?? These machines allow for half-hearted effort disguised as hard work. Further, machine exercises tend to promote poor posture: forward head, hunched shoulders, tight hip flexors. This is the opposite of tall and strong. This is no way to achieve a strong physique!
Getting Strong is Fun.
My reading has caused me to rethink not only how I train myself but also how I train my clients. For a while now I’ve scaled back on the number of exercises I’m using and I’m focusing on training in that strength zone of 3-5 reps–maybe up to 8 reps–and avoiding failure at the end. Turns out lifting heavy objects does some cool stuff. First, it’s quite safe. Using perfect technique and working only to exertion but not exhaustion is the ideal way to avoid pain. Ending the workout just when fatigue begins to set in means we avoid aggravating the nervous system. Plus, knowing that you could’ve done just a few more reps means you’ll be raring to go at the next workout.
Further, picking up heavy objects does good things for our brain. Again, whether we really want to admit it out loud, some part of what drives us into the gym is self-image and/or self-esteem. We want to like ourselves more. Be it through physique change or performance goals, we exercise to make ourselves proud. So lifting heavy is a great way to feel a sense of accomplishment. As the weeks go by and the poundage goes up, you can’t help but get excited! And somewhere along the line you might accidentally create a better looking you. What more can you ask for?