Strength Training Nonsense

A reader recently told me that he was following this weight-training routine: The Best Damn Workout Plan For Natural Lifters. The routine, while it gets some things right, is all but unsupported by scientific evidence, can lead to overtraining, and is an example of strength training nonsense. The plan’s summary is this:

  1. The number one mistake by natural lifters is doing too much volume. You need to trigger protein synthesis and then stop training.
  2. Frequency is also super important. Hitting a muscle three times per week is the optimal frequency for natties.
  3. The key to growth is to have a big disparity between protein synthesis and protein breakdown. The more volume you use, the more you break down protein.
  4. The best split for the natural is the push/pull split. It’s both physically and psychologically beneficial.

No evidence is offered for any of these points.

Too much volume: While I agree that many lifters do too much volume (too many sets per exercise or muscle group), whether it’s the “number one mistake” is open to question. Other mistakes that come to mind are bad form, using momentum, not lifting to failure, doing isolation instead of compound exercises, and spending gym time looking at your phone.

Frequency: It’s allegedly “super important”. No evidence is offered. This program has you in the gym 6 days a week, which is far too much and not even necessary.

Protein synthesis and breakdown: Allegedly the “key to growth”. Sounds reasonable, but doesn’t take into account genetics, nutrition, or recovery time.

Push/pull split: Allegedly the “best split”. Why?

Unfortunately, most strength training advice is much like this: little evidence to back it up and complicated, and they often contradict each other.

Asking a trainer if you need to work out more is like asking a barber if you need a haircut

Trainers exist to make money by, hopefully, helping people get better results, but they have a conflict of interest.

You want to get in shape; they want to make money.

This goes for anyone or anything connected to weight training, such as magazines, gyms, and websites. If strength training were simple and required only short, infrequent workouts, then there would be no need for the endless stream of articles and advice on the topic. So they make it complicated and tell you that you need to be in the gym a lot. Supplement companies tell you that you need their “Pre-workout Blast” or whatever.

Not only does their advice make things more complicated and confusing, but it stops lots of people from training with weights. If I have to be in the gym 6 days a week, learn complicated exercises and routines, then I’m just not going to try, is what many people think.

Advanced routines are unnecessary

Strength training is simple. You lift a weight or place other resistance against a muscle, then repeat until you can’t do it any more.

Making this complicated does little to nothing more. The American College of Sports Medicine wants to make it as complicated as possible — otherwise, why would you need their advice?

The ACSM claims that the programmed manipulation of resistance-training protocols such as the training modality, repetition duration, range of repetitions, number of sets, and frequency of training will differentially affect specific physiological adaptations such as muscular strength, hypertrophy, power, and endurance. The ACSM also asserts that for progression in healthy adults, the programs for intermediate, advanced, and elite trainees must be different from those prescribed for novices. An objective evaluation of the resistance-training studies shows that these claims are primarily unsubstantiated.

The ASCM thus claims you need the help of their coaches, that you must be in the gym a lot, that their complicated advice makes a difference.

In fact, the preponderance of resistance-training studies suggest that simple, low-volume, time-efficient, resistance training is just as effective for increasing muscular strength, hypertrophy, power, and endurance—regardless of training experience—as are the complex, high-volume, time-consuming protocols that are recommended in the Position Stand.

Keep it simple.

Breakdown sets, or drop sets, do not result in greater muscular adaptations than a simple, full-body workout. “The present study supports previous research that the use of advanced training techniques stimulates no greater muscular adaptations when compared with performing more simplified RT [resistance training] protocols to momentary muscular failure.”

In reality, progression in resistance training is simply adding enough resistance, which is a consequence of getting stronger—not a requisite—to stay within the desired range of repetitions and maintain a specific degree of effort. This is achieved while maintaining the precise exercise form for each aspect of the chosen protocol. Complex manipulation of any or all of the previously discussed resistance-training variables in an attempt to enhance gains in muscular strength, hypertrophy, power, or endurance in novice, intermediate or advanced trainees is primarily based on unsubstantiated opinions, and lacks sufficient scientific evidence – empirical or theoretical – for support.

Hard work required

The dichotomy between aerobic exercise and weight lifting, which has been standard dogma for decades, may not even exist. The fact is, weight training increases aerobic capacity. Depending on how you lift can make a big difference in how it affects cardiovascular health. In general, short rests between sets and the big, compound exercises are better for cardiovascular conditioning.

I wonder whether the superiority of strength training over aerobics for metabolic health isn’t largely due to the amount of effort.

Aerobic exercise, at least the way many people do it, doesn’t require nearly as much effort as lifting weights. Too many people go to the gym, get on a treadmill or stair-step machine, and treat the whole thing almost like a walk in the park. Then they wonder why they don’t see results.

Lifting weights, while simple, is hard. To maintain progression, you must always be pushing muscles to their limits.

While I doubt that’s the whole story behind the difference between aerobics and lifting, it’s likely a big part of it. Many physiological adaptations of exercise are determined not by type of exercise, but by effort.

Genes and bodybuilding

One reason why trainers and others can get away with making weight training much more complicated than it needs to be is that so many people — mainly men — want to get a bodybuilder’s physique. They feel that if they can only get the right routine, the secret methods, the right supplements, etc., then they could look like a bodybuilder. When they fail to attain a bodybuilder’s physique, they think they’re doing something wrong.

If you don’t have the right genes, that may be difficult no matter what routine you adopt. Men with “solid” builds evidently put on muscle much more readily than those with slender builds.

The genes you’re born with may be much more important to the amount of muscle you can put on than any particular lifting routine.

As far as I can tell, to look like any bodybuilder from the past several decades, steroids are required. (And I don’t recommend them.)

Making strength training complicated is a real disservice

Strength training is a superior form of exercise, and many more people than currently should do it. It increases insulin sensitivity and lowers glucose in diabetics, and increases metabolic rate, lowers blood pressure, and heart disease and cancer risk.

Research also indicates that virtually all the benefits of resistance training are likely to be obtained in two 15- to 20-min training sessions a week. Sensible resistance training involves precise controlled movements for each major muscle group and does not require the use of very heavy resistance.

When trainers and others advocate complicated routines, or high frequency of workouts, most people just tune out, and refuse to consider taking up strength training.

Strength training need not be complicated.

Most of the complication arises from those who sell products or services, and is unsupported by scientific evidence.

See also my article on science-based weight training.

PS: For more on strength training and its importance, see my book Muscle Up.

PPS: You can support this site by purchasing through my Supplements Buying Guide for Men. No extra cost to you.

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20 comments
Strength Training Nonsense says December 18, 2016

[…] Original Article: Strength Training Nonsense […]

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Richard Wolff says December 18, 2016

Thanks for sharing much needed advice about strength training and the truth of simplicity.

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Erik fernandez says December 18, 2016

You contradicted yourself in every single paragraph… Your suggestions arent even backed by science, so how can you call out others. And to top it off at the end of your bs suggestions you asked people to purchase a product… your doing the same thing that the people you are accusing of doing. Your sales pitch sucks bro sorry

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    P. D. Mangan says December 18, 2016

    Yup, every single paragraph. No citations either!

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Jes Pivens says December 18, 2016

This may have been the worst article about strength training ever. If he actually did his research, T Nation gives hundreds of tips from various authors. Many of them mention that weight training is not a one size fits all program and the vast majority of the articles do contain citations. Personally I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the citations, they do look legitimate.

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    P. D. Mangan says December 19, 2016

    The author of that piece says it’s the best program for natural lifters, but provides no support for it. I’m sure there are many good articles at T-Nation, as I’ve read a few. My point is that people make lifting over-complicated, when the same few training principles apply to nearly everyone (doing a bodybuilding style workout). I believe that “one size fits all” is actually a fairly accurate description of lifting: pretty much everyone should do the same compound exercises, the main difference being increasing load as you progress.

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Robert says December 18, 2016

Hi Dennis,

I recently survived a scary road accident with minor injuries, and I’m wondering how much of my good fortune comes down to increased muscle mass.

I’ve been traveling with my girlfriend for the past 3 months, and during this time we were involved in a tuktuk crash. We walked away with no major head trauma or broken bones despite being tossed out of our vehicle into the open road, and being run over and dragged by a motorcycle.

I have a hunch that increased muscle mass and density helped lessen my injuries. While most of the incident is a blur, based on the severity of my bruises, and from what my girlfriend could see, I believe I was struck by the motorcycle in my thigh, and my body was thrown and twisted throughout the event.

I’ve been doing heavy compound lifts for close to a decade now, and as a result I have large leg and glute muscles, and strong core muscles. If not for that, I wonder if my chances of having a broken bone or torn spinal ligament would have been much higher during the crash.

I’m not sure if there is much research on how muscle development affects injury rate and severity, but I’d appreciate your take on this. If research supports it, increased survival rates from muscle building would be a great motivator for some of my friends and family on the fence about exercise.

Thanks for your continued efforts at bringing useful health information to people of all ages.

All the best,

Rob

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    P. D. Mangan says December 19, 2016

    Hi Rob, glad to hear you’re alright. I don’t know whether there’s any research that increased muscle mass helps survive accidents. I did find one that says obesity means greater injury rates in accidents. Also, this: “Physical conditioning appears to increase ones tolerance both to abrupt and sustained acceleration, probably due to increases in muscle mass and strength. Physical conditioning is also considered to be a factor in recovery from injuries.” Another thing that occurs to me is that your bones arew also strong from lifting, and that could be another reason you didn’t break any bones.

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Aatu says December 20, 2016

First time commenting so let me begin by thanking you for the all the information you’ve put out there in highly accessible form, it is much appreciated.

On strength training, while I basically agree on simplicity and “demystifying” it, I think you are overdoing the minimalist approach somewhat. Speaking anecdotally and from personal experience, I believe cultivating technical proficiency to ensure longevity to be essential and therefore higher frequency/volume than “1 set to failure once a week” is likely beneficial for this reason alone, especially for beginners (I have also found it to be true for myself in terms of maximizing strength/muscle but I accept there are likely.no absolute guidelines). Going to failure or near-failure is probably key but knowing how to do this safely and with control (i.e. gauging/preventing form breakdown) takes a fair amount of proprioception that is usually only learned through practice with appropriately challenging weights.

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    P. D. Mangan says December 20, 2016

    Hi Aatu, thanks for commenting. I don’t necessarily disagree with you at all. The main problem I have with strength training programs is what I noted in the critique of the ACSM position. In some cases, they want athletes working out twice a day, 5 or 6 days a week. Further, they state that there are all kinds of different training methods that have different effects on growth, muscle endurance, etc. Kind of like the old “more reps for being ripped, more weight for growth”. None of that matters much at all. If you want to get bigger, compound exercises and adding weight as you get stronger is the way to go. Nothing fancy needed. I genuinely try to stay open minded about all of this, because I want the best program for myself. As far as I can see, nothing much beats high-intensity training a couple of times a week.

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      Aatu says December 23, 2016

      Agreed. I respect that. Ultimately you have to experiment to find out what works for you to keep progressing. Basically I just meant that sensibly added frequency and volume and shouldn’t really be seen as “complex manipulation”. At the moment in my 30s (and for the past 6-8mos or so) I am the leanest, strongest and most muscular I have ever been. With 7 yrs lifting experience and currently working out 4-5 times a week, I feel like everything has come together and I attribute a lot of this confluence to the extra-training “revelations” I have had from your blog (IF, iron, supplements, etc). So thanks!

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Rob H says December 21, 2016

Hi Dennis,

Excellent post, I agree with everything you are saying here – particularly sticking your neck out to say that one size DOES more or less fit all. By following what you say here, anyone would achieve 95% of their potential, the rest is just relatively minor tweaking..

One thing that did intrigue me though was the following point from the article:
“The key to growth is to have a big disparity between protein synthesis and protein breakdown.” Whilst I am not sure what published studies there are here, it does make a lot of sense to me: in fact Doug McGuff talks about this a lot (I think in the Body by Science question & answer book – which is a fantastic read by the way). He states that in order to get maximum effect, you need to drain all the glycogen from the muscles: which is helped by working out fasted – I have always tagged my twice weekly workouts on the end of my 16 hour fasts. With a little BCAA/leucine before the workout of course.. I then rapidly replenish straight after the workout by having a 30g whey protein isolate shake with a banana to spike insulin and get the nutrients to the muscles quickly. My understanding is that this acute insulin spike caused by the whey + banana fruit sugar will quickly flatten out – and that it actually improves insulin response after eating your next full meal. I’d love to see some studies on this area, as to me this point makes a lot of intuitive sense! The contrast is important! What do you think?

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    P. D. Mangan says December 21, 2016

    Hi Rob – I think what the T-Nation article is getting at is not recovery time but that when you are actually lifting weights, muscle is breaking down. Therefore, high volume can be counterproductive because that’s a lot of time in the gym breaking down muscle. The key is hit the muscle hard (i.e. cause breakdown) then get out of the gym and eat. That’s when growth begins. As for draining muscles of glycogen, that is indeed beneficial, but not for muscle growth. When muscles are empty of glycogen, GLUT4 receptors increase greatly to take up glucose from the bloodstream; insulin sensitivity increases, blood glucose declines. Very beneficial for the overweight or those with diabetes. But for muscle growth, you need the BCAAs and EAAs after a workout. Insulin increases with food and that spurs muscle growth, which is an action of amino acids coupled with exercise, but not glycogen or glucose.

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      Rob H says December 22, 2016

      Thanks for confirming back on that, whilst I agree with everything you wrote above, I have a slightly different take on the GLUT4 receptors: my understanding was that when these increase you ARE positively affecting muscular growth: in that the more you have on the surface of the muscle, the more the muscle will pull in any available nutrients (which may otherwise be destined for adipose storage). Once the increased number of GLUT 4 receptors have pulled more nutrients into the muscle cells, these must be used on site, ie to contribute to hypertrophy – unless I am missing something? I guess my point is that something must happen to the additional nutrients pulled into the muscle cells via the increased presence of GLUT4 receptors on the muscle cell?

      I use this logic by performing 30-50 reps of quick air squats and wall tricep extensions (as per Tim Ferriss’s ‘4 Hour Body’ book) at the end of a 16 hour fast (if not doing a fasted workout that day) before consuming a whey protein shake to break the fast: just to ensure the protein goes straight to the muscles as quickly as possible. Also, before indulging in ‘cheat meals’ at the weekend. The air squats and wall extensions are chosen because they are not intense enough to impede recovery from workout days: but are apparently sufficient (according to Ferriss) to increase GLUT4 receptors on muscle cells to divert nutrients to muscle as opposed to adipose tissue. It seems to work for me – what are your views on this theory?

      Reply
        P. D. Mangan says December 23, 2016

        Hi Rob” Ferriss indeed correct about GLUT4 receptors and how to increase them. However, they are for transporting glucose only, not amino acids. The essential amino acids are responsible for muscle growth; BCAAs signal muscle growth; but AFAIK, glucose does nothing for growth. It’s pure fuel only. So increasing GLUT4 may increase recovery in the sense of more glycogen, but recovery as we mean it here isn’t about that.

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Pieter says December 31, 2016

Nice article! I’ve been training less than 1 hour a week since about a year and a half and it was a great change. I do 2x30min a week of Mentzer style training (with a bit more volume than he explains in his book), made some modest gains and I don’t spend 5 hours a week in the gym anymore.

The most important thing is that my small injuries are gone. Things like a little elbow pain and knee pain were intensifiying due to training so much. For anti-aging this is key… You don’t want to have these cronic pains that can become serious injuries.

After doing this for a year my mental state is much better because I don’t get anxious when I’m out of the gym for 4 days straight.

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    P. D. Mangan says December 31, 2016

    Thanks, Pieter! Means a lot coming from you. I’m finding very similar things for my new high intensity routine. Fewer nagging injuries, much better recovery. I used to spend a couple days a week unable to do much of anything, I was so tired. No longer. Another thing is that I really like getting in and out of the gym in 30 minutes; I don’t have to block out a huge part of my day to get my workout in; I just go whenever I’m ready.

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Sérgio says January 13, 2017

This is really fantastic, thank you.

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Bill says February 22, 2017

Dennis I have just found & read this post and the comments. I try to get to the gym 2-3 times a week for 1-2 hours..In the past lots of time on the cross trainer with some HIIT periods. After reading your book & posts that has lessoned and I do more weight training.

RE weight training, I’m really pleased to read your comments about the need for compound weight training. One of my gyms local heros has always been keen to emphasise doing weights so as to stress just one set of museles at a time. Now i know that as an anti-aging routine that’s bunkum. Compound weight training is what I need !

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Rodrigo Barros says March 5, 2017

Very good this article. People want to gain muscle fast without having the notion of how to do it. This can lead to chronic health problems. You should align training and feeding in a balanced way.

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