Your results have less to do with finding the perfect program and more with your overall behavior. Try out these things.
Lifting weights is a highly specific form of behavior modification. To be successful, you must repeatedly take on what most people want to avoid – discipline, exhaustion, discomfort, and sometimes even fear.
Think about it: You’ll injure yourself if you expose your body to a resistance greater than you can handle, but successful training requires regularly exposing yourself to forces just slightly less than what would cause an injury. Heck, if you never intentionally take this risk, you’re not a sissy; you’re sane!
Almost everyone thinks of training as a purely physiological process optimized by choosing the perfect combo of exercises, split, sets, reps, weight, range of motion, and tempo. But that’s short-sighted. These variables are important, but the weakest link is getting yourself to consistently do these things in the first place. It’s a behavioral process that involves physiology (not vice versa).
So, here are four practical and effective ways to maximize your behavior and, therefore, your results.
What weekly training split allows you to put in the most high-quality work? It depends on your goals, experience, and shifting circumstances from week to week.
For any individual, the best split may sometimes be a three-day/whole-body split. But at other times, a four-day push/pull split is better. Most lifters assume that once they’ve started a certain training split, they must maintain it for at least a full mesoycle (4 to 6 weeks).
A better approach? Modify your weekly split whenever necessary based on your fluctuating responsibilities, stress levels, sleep quality, etc. There’s no need to change exercises when you switch splits. Simply reorganize your current exercises into the week.
For example, start off with a push-pull-legs split, and if unexpected circumstances make this difficult, simply combine the push and pull exercises into a single upper-body session, instantly transforming the six-day push-pull-legs split into a four-day upper/lower split.
This doesn’t mean every workout needs to feel like a WOD or boot camp session. It just refers to the organization of your exercises. Try lifting circuit style rather than station style.
Most lifters train “station” style – you complete all sets of an exercise before moving on to the next. Sure, with station-style training, you can do your favorite exercise first so it gets the lion’s share of your energy. The problem is, since you always do your favorite exercises first, you become more prone to muscular imbalances and overuse injuries, eventually limiting or completely ending your ability to do those exercises (without pain, at least).
With circuits, it doesn’t matter which exercise you do first because each exercise in the workout is equally affected by accumulating fatigue. This protects you from your ego-driven instincts. As a result, it leads to more balanced development and less injury potential.
This is otherwise known as the 80/20 rule: the majority of outcomes always result from a minority of inputs. The universality of this principle is staggering:
- 20% of cities contain 80% of a state’s population (generally)
- 20% of people commit 80% of crime
- 20% of salespeople make 80% of the sales
- 20% of drivers cause 80% of accidents
- We wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time
The 80/20 rule has fitness applications here too:
- 20% of your exercises lead to 80% of your muscle gain.
- 20% of your work sets cause most of your total gains. That 20% comprises the first 1-2 sets of a given exercise. When you do six sets, the first work set probably results in about half of the total adaptation.
- 20% of your reps lead to 80% of the stimulus experienced from the entire set. In a set of 10, the last 2-3 reps are probably responsible for 50% of the simulation of the entire set.
That means a brief workout is nearly as effective as a full session when your time or energy is limited. This should inspire you to drag yourself to the gym even when you’re running on fumes, knowing that even a half-ass workout is better than skipping it.
My new love for machines is one of the most significant changes in my training philosophy. Earlier in my career, I viewed them as secondary tools (at best) and was quite skilled at defending my position. In my mind, machines were the domain of lazy and uneducated lifters. More evolved lifters lived and died by free weights. Later, I realized that my disdain for machines was based on ideology rather than evidence.
While many less experienced lifters prefer machines, this fact has nothing to do with whether or not machines are effective. Despite their potential for misuse, many machines have an impressive list of unique benefits, including:
- Low sympathetic nervous system response. Certain free-weight exercises (think heavy squats and deadlifts) trigger a “fight or flight” response, which can negatively affect your willingness to attack a set with intensity. This also negatively impacts long-term adherence.
- Machine versions of these exercises promote a willingness to work hard, knowing that there’s minimal potential for adverse outcomes. People dying in the gym isn’t as rare as you might think. While these tragedies are totally preventable, the fact remains that some of the “best” free-weight exercises are like the best medicines – they come with a certain amount of risk.
- Training on machines takes less time since you’re not spending so much time “amping up” and talking yourself into climbing under a heavy barbell. Compare the squat and leg press. The squat is hard and “scary,” whereas the leg press is simply hard. While lifting intimidating loads is impressive, your muscles don’t require such heroics to grow; they simply need high tension levels.
- Machine exercises are usually more stable than their free-weight counterparts. This allows you to apply higher tension to the working muscles. Remember, tension is the premier requirement for muscular strength and growth.
- Most machine exercises require less set-up than free-weight movements for the same muscles. Often, it’s as simple as selecting your desired weight on the stack, jumping on, and starting. This significantly reduces workout duration – a big plus.
- Finally, many of the “best” free-weight exercises don’t work as advertised for everyone. A great example is the barbell squat for quad development. While the squat can lead to crazy quad development for some lifters, for others, not so much.
This is usually due to proportions (a long femur length compared to total height or poor ankle mobility) as well as other factors. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t squat; it just means you should consider exercises that get you the best results.
This last point might not even seem like a behavioral issue. But if you won’t even consider this advice because you think the squat, bench, overhead press, or any other specific lift is a “must-do” for serious lifters, I’ll remind you that most successful lifters focus on results, not the ideological implications of the methods required to get those results.
If any of these strategies seem counterintuitive, try giving each one an honest run. As experienced lifters know, these things are much different in the gym than how they look on paper. If you have thoughts about this topic, meet me in the comments below and we’ll bat them around together.