Six Strength Training Falsehoods

I suppose every sport has its own supply of useless lore and half-truths that get passed on to newcomers. But I’d put bodybuilding up against any of them in a contest for what has the most time wasting and even dangerous mythology. The fact is, there’s a ton of free advice dispensed in gyms that, if taken as gospel, can really set back your progress. That can lead to the kind of frustration that makes guys think they are “hard gainers” or need to resort to the needle to get the physique they desire. Not true.

I’ve already shown you in previous articles that simple, fundamental principles apply to generating all muscle gain. (High intensity, progressive overload and variable frequency.) Now lets take a look at some of the falsehoods to avoid while you train rationally.

Myth #1 “Big muscles slow you down.”

Muscles are responsible for every movement your body can make. From the wink of an eyelid to a thousand pound leg press, it’s muscles that create motion. This “muscles slow you down” myth is a carryover from the days when people used the term “muscle-bound” to describe bodybuilders.

But in one sport after another, from baseball to kayaking, athletes are discovering that a stronger athlete is a better athlete. If you want to swing a bat faster you need more horsepower. If you want to paddle faster you need more horsepower. That power comes from your muscles.

I conducted a study on middle-aged golfers who had been golfing an average of about 20 years. We made them stronger over a six week period and guess what? They all hit their drives farther. No change in technique. No change in equipment. When they were stronger they played better golf. Bigger muscles make you faster and more powerful. What else could?

Myth #2 “Muscle just turns to fat later.”

Muscle tissue and fat tissue are two different things. It is impossible for one to “turn into” the other. Here’s where this myth comes from. Muscle is called “active tissue” because it requires a lot of energy from the body in order to be maintained. A pound of muscle burns about 60 calories per day. If you train well and add ten pounds of muscle to your frame, your body will require an extra 600 calories per day in order to maintain your new bodyweight. (Incidentally, this is why adding muscle is a great way to lose bodyfat.)

With more muscle on your body you’ll tend to have a bigger appetite and consequently you’ll eat more. Fine. But if you stop training, that new muscle can begin to atrophy, or shrink, and you’ll no longer need those extra calories you’ve gotten used to eating. And sure enough, if the 10 pounds of muscle disappears and you keep eating as if you’re still training hard, you’ll soon have extra fat on you.

So this is a pitfall you can easily avoid. Build all the muscle you want. Then go to the gym often enough to make sure you maintain it. That keeps you looking great and the extra “active tissue” wards off the accumulation of fat.

Myth #3 “You need to shock your muscles by doing things they don’t expect.”

This one really hands me a laugh. The idea behind this myth is that you need to change your training routine and exercises as a way to surprise your muscles and get a fresh reaction out of them. Yeah right.

Think of your biceps muscle; like your other muscles, it attaches between two points and contracts in a straight-line direction. When it contracts, your elbow bends. Your elbow always bends in the same direction. There is no variation whatsoever. So you can lift bricks or you can lift the bar on a $5,000 exercise machine and the action of your biceps is the same. So where is the shock? Why would your biceps say, “Whoa, today we’re suddenly lifting a dumbbell instead of a barbell! Better pack on some more size!”

Here’s another variation. The gym lore goes like this: “Train, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Then your body ‘expects’ a workout on Sunday…but you ‘shock’ it by waiting until Monday.” Apart from the false premise that your body will “expect” a workout when your brain knows it isn’t going to happen, is the presupposition that your body never figures out this is a repeating cycle with the Sunday workout always missing. Week after week your body is “shocked” that the Sunday workout is skipped. Please!

Muscles are not shocked by variation in exercise. They are designed to tolerate it. Similarly, your stomach is not shocked you ate spaghetti on Tuesday after not eating it for a month. Rational, productive strength training is easy. What’s difficult is seeing past all the bad advice that is freely dispensed in the gym.

Myth #4 “You need high reps for definition and low reps for mass.” A muscle can only do one of three things. It can get bigger, it can get smaller, or it can stay the same size.

The way to make a muscle bigger is to subject it to a progressive intensity of overload. That is, the intensity of today’s workout needs to be a little higher than your last workout for that muscle. If you want to keep a muscle the same size you can just perform the same workout every time. And making a muscle smaller is easy…just don’t exercise it.

However, the idea that one type of exercise “defines” muscle and another type of exercise makes it bigger has no basis in reality. Muscle definition is a function of two characteristics in the body: muscle size and the absence of bodyfat. So if you want better definition you need to increase the size of your muscles through the aforementioned progressive intensity and you need to reduce your bodyfat.

So I can hear someone asking, “But don’t high reps burn off bodyfat the way running or cycling would?” Well, yes, any long duration activity will burn more calories. But if you use light weights and high reps to burn calories how will you make your muscles bigger? You won’t. It makes much more sense to burn calories and reduce bodyfat through jogging or cycling or some other repetitive activity and to simultaneously build more muscle mass through heavier, lower rep weight training. As a bonus, your new muscle mass will also burn more calories and contribute to fat loss.

So next time you hear this myth, correct it by thinking: “Low, heavy reps for mass, lower bodyfat for definition.”

Myth #5 “New muscle gains diminish after 48 hours.”

Here’s a myth that has led to more wasted man-hours than the search for perpetual motion. The idea is that you need to go to the gym and lift weights every two days because after 48 hours your body starts to lose whatever muscle you build recently.

I’m amazed this myth hangs on because anybody can test this for himself and find out it’s pure BS. Back in 1992 I was doing Power Factor Training and working my way up to a milestone of a one million pound workout. Around the point where I was hoisting about 400,000 pounds per workout (calculated by multiplying weight x reps x sets for five exercises) I decided I’d try a lift I’d never done before.

I saw a guy doing a clean and press, which involves lifting a barbell from the floor to your chest and then pressing it overhead. I tried it for the first time with 250 pounds and as I held it overhead my balance shifted and I felt something go “click” in my low back. Well, that put me out of the gym for six weeks. When I came back for my first workout after that long layoff it was my intention to only try to approximate my last workout. Instead, I set personal records in all five exercises!

After a six-week layoff I’d returned to the gym much stronger. That’s 1008 hours off and my body hadn’t lost a scrap of muscle. Nowadays I work with advanced trainees who only train half their body every six weeks. That means it takes them twelve weeks between training each muscle group…and these trainees show progress on every exercise, every workout.

Myth #6 “For best results, you need to train ‘instinctively’.”

“Dr. Freud, can you please tell us about man’s bodybuilding ‘instinct’?” Yeah, right.

As myths go, this one is fairly new and likely sprang out of the New Age movement. It is sometimes more generally expressed as “Listen to your body.”

Admittedly, listening to your body does work when some part of it is screaming in agonizing pain. But the notion that an “instinct” will tell you whether the intensity of 13 reps with 125 pounds in 45 seconds is more intense than 9 reps with 155 pound in 60 seconds is just too much to hope for.

As I have said one hundred thousands times before, you make muscle-building progress by progressively increasing the intensity of your workouts. When the tools of reason and math are right in front of us and deliver very exact answers regarding this progression, why would we rely on a vaguely defined “instinct” to guide us?

Would competitive runners and swimmers throw away their stopwatches and do all their training by instinct? Would a pole-vaulter or long-jumper stop measuring his progress with feet and inches? Of course not. So why should a bodybuilder throw away the proven, effective tools of reason and math in favor of a bodybuilding instinct that has never been proven to exist?

Now you know six myths and pitfalls to avoid in the gym. I hope the exercise of understanding how these ideas are flawed will help you spot other time wasting, freely dispensed gym lore.