Don't think, feeeel

I’m not surprised people don’t get great results when it comes to their strength training, fitness training, triathlon training or any other kind of training. I mean, I’m a professional at this, and have honestly never really done anything else, other than spend my entire life learning about exercise and even I get confused about what the hell i should be doing from time to time.

The fitness magazines are filled with all kinds of dumb advice, but the really confusing part is that much of it comes out of a lab. You know “exercise science”. Exercise science is the thing that goes against what jokingly gets called “bro-science”, or what body builders have been saying for years. As it turns out, body builders may well turn out to the be the old wives of the fitness world, and just like your mother’s chicken soup has been shown to be helpful in killing colds, we may well find ourselves more and more heading back to some of the fitness worlds early roots and doing some body building.

I know this seems like a radical departure for me from my normal talk about functional strength training but the reality is that anyone who has been around the iron game for a while will have the same answers for you. Sometimes some selected hypertrophy work is in order and will help you achieve your goals faster.

A good example of this is women and pull ups. Depending on the woman there are two likely weak spots – either at the start when arms are dead straight, or trying to finish and get the chest to the bar. The first problem, believe it or not can be solved simply by adding in some curls. That may sound like functional strength heresy but the reality is that these will solve the problem. The other issue can be solved with any manner of rows – face pulls, bat wings, bent over rows, cable rows – anything that teaches and strengthens the pull of the elbow behind the line of the torso as that is the finish position for the pull up.

The functional strength training world, that of exercise dependent on research, will tell you to squeeze the bar harder, to clench the glutes, or to tighten the abs. You know, those things are fine tips – if you’re really close to the pull up. But if you can’t even go from a dead hang to even a slight bend at the elbow it won’t matter if you tighten your butt cheeks like a Columbian going through customs because it won’t do diddly for you.

This, incidentally, is in my opinion one of the biggest issues with many trainers who label themselves as “functional strength” trainers. They know some tips, tricks and activation drills, but can’t write programs worth a darn. Seriously, if you can’t get a normal female from zero to unassisted pull ups within twelve weeks, quit now and go find a new job you hack, but I digress.

As far back as Arnold there were body builders talking about specific hypertrophy and prioritising muscle groups or even attachments within muscle groups to change the shape of a muscle. But then along came exercise science and said something like, “you can’t change the way the muscles of the pectorals fire no mater what angle you train at. There’s one nerve and muscles activate wholly or not at all, therefore there is no difference between incline pressing and flat pressing”. Funny, because every top body builder has said something different for decades. And you know what? Finally research is starting to back it up. In 2000 Dr, Jose Antonio showed you could target specific areas of muscles via EMG analysis. Moe lately that has been taken up by Bret Contreras who has said, “It is now readily apparent in the literature that muscle groups….contain functional subdivisions which are preferentially activated during different movements…recent research has shown that altering body position such as foot placement…can target different areas of muscles. Bodybuilders were right all along; it just took research some time to catch up to their wisdom”.

Let’s ignore that he just called bodybuilders wise for a second and focus on the important bit – the meatheads in the gym, that the science only crowd have been laughing at for years, were right. They didn’t bother worrying about what research was saying, because they could tell from all the hours they were putting in that they were right.

And that leads me to the real point of all this – if you’ve been training for a while you inherently know when something is right for you versus wrong for you. Like me trying to do full squat snatches. Those just mess me up so fast it’s ridiculous. But power snatch off blocks, or double kettlebell snatch are great variations of that theme for me. The same goes for front squats. I’ve never gotten along with them and it turns out there’s a reason why, that is linked to my snatch issue too – my hips are just not designed to do them. That deep squat action only does one thing for me – destroys my hip joint. But back squats I can do all day long. The change in torso angle, the fact you can never get as low – all those things combine to make the back squat work much better for as an individual. I spent years trying to get along with front squats because a bunch of clever people all said they were vital. Well, a vital exercise doesn’t lead to surgery in my opinion, but front squats will sooner or later.

If you’re a beginner this is a difficult path because you probably lac both mobility as well as body awareness. I’ve had a client swear they had torn a muscle after an initial session. What they were trying to tell me is that their life had been so pampered beforehand that they had never experienced muscle soreness before. But the opposite can happen too – I’ve had a client suffer on silently for months with pain that needed treatment because he thought he was supposed to hurt from training. (Thanks Crossfit).

The moral of the story is you need to think for yourself. Research is good, but if I don’t have to wait for a paper to come out that tells me that getting eight hours of sleep a night, drinking lots of water, stretching often, lifting heavy and walking is good for me because I already know that.