I really did suck mud at the start of my lifting “career.” When I look back on the first few years of my training (more like five years…), it’s impossible to not end up with my face hole open and hands on my head. Among the many hundreds of things that I have been doing incorrectly, six, in particular, stand out.
So here are six things I wish I knew earlier about resistance training that might save you a few years of dicking around in the gym.
1. Abs are NOT made in the kitchen
“Abs are made in the kitchen” is probably the most brainless thing I had ever heard (for the most part). What is not a brainless thing to say is this: Abs are made in the gym; Revealed in the kitchen.
Don’t get me wrong — no amount of silly 8-minute ab workouts is going to make up for the fact that you are too fat. Because spot reduction isn’t a thing. If you cannot see your abs, you need to get leaner than you are now. Which entails a calorie deficit.
But if you want your abs to pop out a bit more noticeably and appear more blocky, you need to train your abdominal muscles the same way you would train any other muscle:
Step 1: Pick a loadable ab exercise that you can track long-term for improvements and in which rectus abdominis, this bad boy…
…is lengthening and shortening against resistance. Any cable crunch, leg raise, or reverse crunch variation will do.
Step 2: Get within a few reps of failure.
Step 3: Take a proper rest period between the sets.
Step 4: Apply progressive overload over time by using more plates when doing cable crunches, more weight and/or a fuller range of motion when doing leg raises, or a higher incline when doing reverse crunches.
Step 5: Employ the power of calorie deficit and reveal the abs you have built.
A side note: Some people are lucky and they have blocky abs just by getting lean enough. Genetics, you know. If that’s not you, train your abs with progressive overload.
2. Unilateral exercises are a missing piece in most people’s back training
For the first four or five years of my training, I engaged in a desperate session of “any lat pulldown variation will train my lats.” But it didn’t. Eventually, I said ah shit this is bullshit and learned that back is pretty damn big and it’s not that easy to bias lats, rhomboids, traps, traps, and rear delts.
After lat pulldown doing fuck all for my lats, I found out that lats can be divided into three separate divisions:
So I started playing around with different arm paths:
- To hit the iliac division, I set an arm path to begin somewhere around forehead level.
- To hit the lumbar division, I set an arm path to begin somewhere at the chin height.
- To hit the thoracic division, I used more of the horizontal arm path.
And unilateral exercises (single-arm exercises) allowed me to easily adjust the arm path and thus, gave the best lat pump.
Yes, it takes twice as long to complete the exercise but hey, what wouldn’t you do for a wider back? Actually, I wouldn’t do many things for a wider back (such as start keto diet) but for the sake of this article let’s say I would (I wouldn’t).
3. There’s no need to avoid machines
Machines help you train in positions that you can’t train as effectively with free weights. Not only that but they also allow you to stay more stable during the exercise which means lower chances of form breakdown. Better form = better chances of hitting the targeted muscle.
Both free weights and machines are equally effective for increasing muscle and strength. Pitting free weights against machines is like pitting fruits against vegetables—eating both will make your diet healthier. So use a mix of both free-weight and machine exercises.
Heck, you might even learn (like I learned) that the pendulum squat or leg press when done with a full range of motion hit your quads a lot better than the barbell back squat.
So don’t avoid machines. Choose exercises that best fit your structure and improve the efficacy of execution.
4. Deadlift, bench press, and squat are not must-do exercises
Unless you are a competitive powerlifter, there are no special exercises that you must do. Exercise effectiveness operates on a spectrum — the same exercise can be a better or worse option for a given muscle at a given point in your training.
A squat, bench press and conventional deadlift are all popular lifts. They are good lifts too. But you don’t have to always have them in your program. If you feel leg press in your quads better than you do with a barbell back squat, leg press is a better exercise for you and your goal (to target quads).
Sean Nalewanyj, a fitness trainer, once said:
The bottom line is that exercises that you “must do” to gain muscle are ones that allow you to safely train the targeted muscle a few reps shy of failure with progressive overload.
5. Training splits are just an organizational tool
For reasons that I have never understood, when I do the Q&A day on Instagram, there is always one question that goes hey, Egis, what’s the best training split for muscle growth. I could literally write down five different training splits and do a session of eenie meenie minie mo and end up picking a split that is as effective as the other four.
When it comes to designing a program, there is no single best training split. Training splits are just an organizational tool to accommodate weekly volume (hard sets/muscle group/week) you need to do in a way that fits your training experience, goals, and lifestyle.
Personally, I prefer training splits that allow me to train the same muscle group at least twice per week because this leads to more quality work to be performed a.k.a less junk volume as opposed to cramming all of the training volume into one day (e.g. a chest day). Full-body or half-body training splits are probably going to work best for most people.
6. Interpreting intensity accurately is crucial
Remember the article “You’re Not Training Hard Enough To Build Muscle?” Yeah, that. The reality is that most people significantly underestimate their true proximity to failure and think they are much closer than they actually are. They confuse discomfort with failure.
I have done my share of training with sub-optimal intensity too. Learning to push yourself hard is a skill. One which takes practice. But it’s a necessity for stimulating muscle growth. This is why you need to go back and read the “You’re Not Training Hard Enough To Build Muscle” article because it explains how to get better at judging repetitions in reserve.
Alternatively, the next time you are in the gym, don’t stop leg pressing until you end up with a grotesquely distended ugly-looking red face and protruding forehead veins.
Thanks for bingeing the shit out of my rambling article.
If you would like me to walk you through the process of setting up a fat loss plan that is sustainable long-term, check out my 1×1 Coaching Program. Cheers, Egis.
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Originally published by me on Medium on October 8, 2022