T Nation

"5 Bodybuilding Lies...?"

** LONG POST AHEAD! Only read if you’re really wanting to nerd out and discuss serious training issues!!!

Admitedly I don’t always read every article on here. Sure I’ve learned plenty over the years, but that also includes which authors I like and speak highly of, and which ones leave me scratching my head wondering why they’re chiming in on the subject they’ve chosen.

So today, I’ve got as bit of time on my hands, and so I click over from my usual window left open to the forums to the main TN page. There, I see “5 Bodybuilding Lies you probably believe”, which obviously catches my eye. The author, is unknown to me, so of course I google him to get a bit of background before delving into what “lies” I might have spent years believing. Well, I know that not everyone agrees on everything, and while there are often different ways to skin a chicken breast, there are also usually a good amount of agrement on the real nuts and bolts of what works and what is … not great.

I figured I’d give my thoughts and see who has opinions etc on this little piece.

1- Free weights beat machines at building mass.

Okay, we all know (or read about) the great machine debate of the 80’s. The notion that because machines somehow made everything safer, with less shuffling about and clanging plates that they were a lesser method in terms of being hardcore and getting huge. If we simply look at the fact that they do often times eliminate the secondary, auxilliary muscle groups that come into play during most movements, the argument can indeed hold a ton of water. On the other hand, with certain machines allowing for a better focus, limiting ROM, even just simple issues balance, you are still able to apply direct stress to your target muscles, which at the most basic of levels, shouldn’t be any lesser of an approach than if you were doing so with a dumbell or barbell.

I didn’t really understand the whole example given of a DB lateral starting in the horizontal plane though, as you never really move the weight in any side to side fashion at all. Sure it begins at a dead hang, but the benefits of overcoming a dead stopped resistance is an excellent tool for growth, as is the method I always personally ascribed to of never truly letting the weight rest at your sides. Of course both of these methods can be applied to machines I would think, so if the only real difference is indeed secondary muscles coming into play (and more experienced trainers are usually very good at controlling this to not be a negative concern), then I must disagree with this being a lie. (chime in and disagree with me if you’d like!)

2- Calves are stubborn, They’ll never grow

I used to think that too,… until of course I eventually found what worked for me. The problem is that most people give up pretty easily when not everything improves as quickly as they would like. Still, I do agree with the premise that the human body is designed with a purpose, and if our main means of locomotion (walking, running etc) involve a serious amount of volume, and of course the constant and repetitive strain of our bodyweight pounding and pounding day in and day out,… well, I would figure that they would be able to handle a pretty serious workload without so much as breaking a sweat. Yeah yeah, I know all about fast twitch and slow twitch, and hearing about muscle biopsies to determine the breakdown of muscles groups in different individuals, but having worked with athletes, I’ve seen that design for performance can trump aesthetics. What I mean by that is that I’ve read pieces about how athletes can have trouble losing weight in terms of fat loss and changing their visual appearance. The notion goes against what works well for their actual performance, how they look in the mirror be damned. So by that bit of thinking, if your genetics dictate that you’ll be able to handle serious locomotion each day (and I know nurture can come into play as well), well then your calves be indeed be stubborn, no matter how much you want them to match your arms and be in “perfect proportion” like Steve Reeves -lol.

Not to say they won’t grow, they just won’t cooperate as much as your biceps might.

3- Incline bench is ther best Upper Chest exercise

I totally agree that this “Lie” seems to abound in every gym across the country. There are much much better approaches, and anyone who understands the concept of “line of pull” (any of my clients know what I like to recommend!), angle of your bench be damned, isn’t falling for this nonsense.

Still, I will argue that slight inclines or slight declines are much, MUCH, better for mid chest development than flat work. The angle, the stretch, the fiber recruitment,. hell, flat chest work does very little for most trainees than risk shoulder issues IMO. I know, Big Ronnie Coleman lived on heavy flat BB work and he was 8x Mr. Olympia. Yup! I love Big Ron, and yes he had those crazy one in a zillion genetics… Its a hard pill to swallow that you can’t do his workout and look just like him though. Feel free to try though, I wont.

4- Toe direction targets VM / VL

Definitely on the money. Think of your knee as a simple hinge like in a doorway. You think it’s smart to put stress (hundreds of pounds) on a hinge from the side while making it open and close? That’s just asking for a trip to the PT, or even a surgeon if you’re unlucky. Close stance work vs wide stance work provides SOME shifting of stress because of the angle of your legs,not because you twisted your toes upside down -lol.

5- Compound exercises first, isolation exercises last

Unless you’re at the point of develoopment where you are truly focused on crafting a “Physique”, or you’ve realized imbalances and “weak points”, I still believe this is the right advice in most cases. Sure I’m a big proponent of utilizing pre-exhaust to take strong links out of the chain, but I would never advise someone whose goal is to build a decent musculature to employ a regimen that I would use myself. In hindsight, I realize that one of the reasons my delts and triceps were so good after just a few years of training was all the heavy pressing work I did for my chest. s. Darn those heavy compound movements! -lol

(This is by no means me supporting full body training mind you, merely a sequencing of exercises.)




As someone who likes to workout (definitely not a bodybuilder) I was intrigued by the article.

Thanks for the breakdown, it’s always interesting to get an opinion from someone you know knows what they are talking about!

I couldn’t imagine that incline bench (slight or regular) would be more beneficial for building muscle on a machine than with dbs, seems weird. If the argument was that machines don’t suck and can benefit people in ways dbs can’t, that might make more sense.

The last point is, as you mention, somewhat dependent on what level you might be at, which I think is where this article loses some of its validity. Is the author addressing people who are stepping on stage at high levels of leanness or is he addressing gym goers who like the bodybuilding lifting style but never intend to step on stage. Too vague, imo.

I liked the article for the most part.

  1. I think for modern-day bodybuilding standards, most people need free weights and machines, whereas in the past I thought all you need were dumbbells and barbells. Some examples are those people who need isolation exercises for their quads and hamstrings (sorry, I don’t think you can do an effective leg extension or leg curl with dumbbells squeezed in between your ankles) or those who can’t do pullups or chin-ups (yes, sure you can do some progressions to get you to doing them, but I don’t think that’s as effective as doing lat pulldowns–sorry).

  2. I think they are very stubborn, but I’ve gotten some growth after training them seriously–seriously in that I do more than one exercise for multiple sets and actually focus on every rep, pause at the beginning and end of every rep and stretch in between sets.

  3. I believe barbell benching being so awesome for chest development IS a myth, and I’m glad I shit-canned barbell benching of any sort about two years ago, in addition to shit-canning regular deadlifts, and doing safety bar or buffalo bar squats when those types of bars are available rather than sticking with standard squats blindly.

Now that I only use dumbbell presses, machine presses, flies, and dips, I actually look like I gave an OK chest–not great, but OK.

I think barbell benching is best for those rare individuals with wide clavicles and enormous torsos. I say if someone is arms-dominant they should just shit-can barbell bench pressing.

  1. I never heard this myth, but it is a myth considering simple logic.

  2. Of course a rank beginner should stick with basics first, and perhaps only basics in the very beginning–yeah, on a full-body or upper-lower split-just to use their time wisely on such programs and learn how to lift weights and get some coordination. As we’ve said over and over, what’s problematic is when intermediates continue to bang away only or predominantly on basics because of the “add weight to the bar and everything will just add up” THEORY in regards to bodybuilding.

And also as I’ve said over and over again, I think pre-exhaust is a simple yet huge game changer for lagging muscle groups.

Lie: Chicken is superior with skin on.[quote=“The_Mighty_Stu, post:1, topic:223419”]
I love Big Ron, and yes he had those crazy one in a zillion genetics… Its a hard pill to swallow that you can’t do his workout and look just like him though. Feel free to try though, I wont.

Lie: I just went to the gym and yelled “LIGHT WEIGHT!” and now look like the man himself.[quote=“The_Mighty_Stu, post:1, topic:223419”]
and anyone who understands the concept of “line of pull”

True: I’ve definitely pulled my line a few times

Did I do it right?


Hey Stu and Brick,

  • How would you guys go about setting a routine or some workouts for a guy who works out in his garage, only free weights. No machines, just a barbell and a set of DB’s, a bench and a rack(assume this hypothetical lifter is also very well endowed). Asking for a friend, obviously.

  • How do you guys like to implement pre-exhaust? Every session? Once in a while add-on?

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I would go about it in the same way as I do for a guy in a gym, just without machines. I know I said somewhere that machines really do make a difference for a complete physique for some (eg, need for leg curls, face pulls, simply perhaps a better respond so cable machines, such as a cable fly versus dumbbells, lat pulldowns, etc), but of course one can just do a normal bodybuilding or general fitness routine with dumbbells and barbells.

Is this guy a general fitness dude who wants a beach body, or a bodybuilder? Because for the former, dumbbells and barbells are all one needs. An upper body routine can be as basic as barbell or dumbbell bench press, overhead dumbbell or barbell bench press, chin-ups, dumbbells rows, a curl, and a tricep extension.

A lower body routine can be as simple as squats, stiff legged deadlifts, a one-legged exercise, such as lunges or one-legged squats, and some calf and/or ab exercises.

For bodybuilding, well, there are enough exercise variations for no machines being needed. I just think machines make a difference in the examples I gave.

As I’ve said many times, pre-exhaust has helped me a lot! I use it every chest, hamstring, and shoulder workout. I guess we can go further and say it’s used for all my body parts to a degree considering my exercise sequence for all body parts does not have me doing compound exercises all before isolation exercises.

For example, although my back workout starts with barbell rows, it goes like this:
Underhand barbell rows
Decline dumbbell pullovers (I know one moves at only the shoulder for this exercise, but I consider this a basic exercise as it is damn taxing)
Neutral grip pulldowns (to chin only)
Neutral grip pullups (to chin only)
Face pulls
Scapular retractions

Now, perhaps we can say pre-exhaust is used considering I am doing dumbbell pullovers before pulldowns and pulldowns before pull-ups or at least not doing exercises in a conventional order.

Some of the pre-exhaust I use is also just to feel better, such as leg curls and lunges before squats. I don’t give a shit what anyone says about their or anyone else’s outrageous strength levels, but I got to a point in which I could high bar back squat 315 for 20 reps. By performing lunges before squats, the weight is reduced and I get just as good results, without having to ever increase my back squat and thereby have increasing strain on my neck, back, and shoulders, with the same results!

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Lol, thanks Lonnie. Best response I’ve read in a while.


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PLenty of people have built excellent physiques without any machines whatsoever. The human body is a pretty cool thing, and simply being able to add resistance to it as it goes through movement in different planes can take you pretty far.

My personal approach, has always been to try and get a bang from a “big” movement (compound?), as well as implement some type of pre-exhaust to really get the most out of a session.

For example, I would always begin my chest work with heavy inclines. This was not because they targeted my upper chest, but because they really targeted the mid-portion better than anything else (add in non-locking out repetitions, full stretch, slow negatives and explosives concentrics - see CAT training by Hatfield). After my big opener, I would then begin sequencing my other movements in a manner that would allow a bit of isolation before compound work. This allowed me to get much more out of a movement (ie. Flat DB presses) that never yielded much for me despite being able to move stupidly heavy weights in my younger days.

People need to realize that despite some coaches advising a silly number of “intensifiers” for every set of every exercise in every training session, that its not really necessary if your body is getting what it needs out of basic, hard training, straight sets of exercises performed in an order that accomodates natural strengths and weaknesses.



Do you guys use pre-exhaust to work the muscle being used, get some blood in there and establish a MMC, and work harder with less weight, or the secondary movers to take them out of a compound movement, thus forcing the main muscle to work harder?

for Example:

A - Triceps movement

B - Bench press (now with fatigued triceps, so hopefully the chest comes in to play more)

or like this:

A - Chest fly

B - Bench press (with a fatigued chest, so the chest has to “work harder” to move the weight, and you have established a MMC and warmed up the chest/shoulder area for safety)

I’ve actually heard both definitions of pre-exhaust

I have used some pre-exhaust work if I have a reason to go lighter on a barbell movement. Exhausting chest with cable flies before benching or shoulders with front and side raises before pressing have felt pretty damn good. That way I don’t have to worry about joints but can do barbell pressing more often.

I’ve also heard of both definitions of pre-exhaust, in my opinion it ultimately comes down to what people perceive works for them. Personally I do not like pre-exhausting for the most part, but other folks do, and there’s isn’t a “right” or “wrong”, it’s just about what helps the individual. Another example could be deadlifting, some bodybuilders will say, “the only way to build a big back is to deadlift, if you’re not deadlifting you’re not a bodybuilder.” But there’s also great bodybuilders who will say, “I’m concerned with building a back, not deadlifting, and I don’t need to deadlift to build a great back.” Neither one is wrong.

Personally, I would never to a tricep movement before benching. (I haven’t benched with a barbell in years, all dumbbells, plate loaded presses and cables), but even still, I cannot imagine my chest feeling more engaged after triceps. For me, it’s infinitely easier to focus on a good MMC in my chest if my triceps are not fatigued. I tried that before, and I couldn’t get any MMC in my chest, all I could think about was I can’t press optimally right because my triceps are toasted. Again that’s just me though, some people might feel they benefit more from benching after triceps, and if so they should continue doing it.

This is more along the lines of what I think of as pre-exhaust, to “warm up” or establish MMC in the desired muscle with a secondary movement, then hit it with a compound movement. Sometimes I’ve alternated, and sometimes I’ve stuck with pre-exhaust for a while. For example, during my last prep Stu had me doing seated DB shoulder presses at the end of my workout, where I usually did them at the beginning. I think it offered some good growth at the time as it was different from what I was doing, forcing me to really move some weight at the end of the shoulder workout. Ultimately, now I do them at the beginning, because I feel like I can give more, go heavier and still get a great pump, as long as I take my time with warm up sets. I’ll typically have 4-5 warm up sets before the first working set. Doesn’t take long but ensures my joints feel good and I can avoid injury.

I think one of the reasons a lot of people have so much trouble establishing MMC in compound movement is they don’t warm up properly, if at all. More often than not when I see someone come in to bench, or squat, they toss at least 135 on the bar for their first set, and go right to working. OR, they go right to working. Warm up, or feeler sets, are essential to establish a good MMC, as well as make sure there’s enough blood in the muscle when the working sets begin. So, sometimes when people “pre-exhaust” they feel more of an MMC in the compound movement because they’ve actually warmed up the muscle. Now obviously guys like Stu and Brick know how to warm up, I’m just talking about the “general public.”

I think changing the order of exercises or pre-exhausting is a good tool, and anything different will provide good results. The majority of my quad workouts I’ll squat first, then go to leg press then leg extensions. I feel fresh when I squat first and that I can go heavy while still be controlled with good form, and get the best bang for my buck with squatting first. But, sometimes I’ll start with extensions because I feel I can squeeze the hell out of my quad if I start with leg extensions, more so than if I did them last, but then I typically won’t be able to squat as much weight as I could if I started with squats first. Two different benefits, both good. Or, sometimes the squat rack just isn’t available so I’d rather keep it moving along than wait for a rack.

Agreed 100%, emphasizing that it’s up to the individual to learn their strengths and weakness enough to find the exercise sequencing that works for them.

I enjoyed the article for the most part…when taken from a beginner’s point of view. There’s a lot of bullshit on the internet, and some of it needs to be dispelled before it has somebody forming poor habits and getting injured. My thoughts on the individual points though:

I believe that @BrickHead was correct in his assertion that a combination of free weights and machines is optimal. Concerning the article, I generally disagree with the stance presented. The aritcle presents the argument this way:

  1. The goal in going to the gym is to create as much torque and tension as possible on a given muscle.
  2. Machines give the ability to create a greater amount of torque and tension over a greater range of motion when compared to free weights.
  3. Therefore, machines are better at building muscle.

Now I don’t have any scientific data to back up my (forthcoming) argument, but I don’t believe this is the end-all-be-all. Muscles respond to torque and tension, yes. However, the body adapts. If the body is subjected only to machines, the machines begin (over time) to become less of a stimulus. If an individual reaches that point, free weights would, most typically, provide a greater degree of stimulation to set off hypertrophy processes. Hence, if you do BOTH machines and free weights AND vary the order of their use, it’s harder for the body to adapt.

In concurrence with Stu, I believe in the use of free weights (for the beginning lifter especially) because of the recruitment of multiple muscle groups and stabilizer muscles. If those stabilizers are not trained and built, the body is being primed for an injury at some point.

I believe that the article is a little too black and white concerning its presentation on this subject.

I agree with the article for the most part. I don’t believe you need to do 20-30 reps in a set for calf work, though. The calves get used all the time (walking, standing up, reaching for something high-up, etc). It takes more stimulation (effort) to train calves, I’ve found, and most people don’t put that effort in while at the gym.

Heavy weight and blunt force trauma training (6-8) for upright calf raises, 12-15 rep range for seated calf raises. Full ROM is key for both styles. For anybody struggling with ROM for upright calf raises, I’ve found that using the hack squat machine works well, and allows you to handle a lot of weight safely.

I agree with everything Stu said. In my opinion, dumbbells and smith machine are the best for the incline work, slight angles are king and much better for your shoulders.

I believed this one for a long time until I began squatting heavy enough that my knees didn’t appreciate it. I will say that angling the toes SLIGHTLY outward is fantastic for those who struggle with balance during squats, but it doesn’t help target your leg muscles. If you’re in doubt about this, I ask you to get on a hack squat machine, have a fairly narrow stance and point your toes inward to target your quad sweep. Tell me how much you enjoyed doing those sets…after you leave the ER.

I agree.

As another point, I have people at my gym/in my life ask me for advice regarding periodization. I get questions from people that know how to lift and have fairly decent physiques, they know what exercises work for them and which don’t. Thus, these individuals are wary of changing their exercise selection for the sake of periodization, yet want to make progress and bust plateaus.

My answer: “Do exactly what you’re doing right now, but switch around the order of your exercises.”

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I only ever heard the first approach on this site a few years back, but to be honest, I 100% truly believed that the person putting it out there as a valiud approach was doing so just to appear more knowledgeable by presenting some little known approach that only they knew of.

While I CAN, IN ABSOLUTE THEORY understand how someone might assume that some type of pre-fatigued triceps (the secondary movers in a typical bench press) will in turn allow for more stress to be shifted to the larger pectoral muscles, the fact that your arms cannot be removed from the movement will always kill this reasoning. Consider; some tricep work will ALWAYS come into play for compound chest work, meaning that if your chest is at 95-100% strength, and your already naturally smaller and weaker triceps have now been weakened further to say 50-60%, just how many reps on the bench do you think you’re gonna get until the triceps completely give way, and you haven’t even begun to make the pecs strain from the imposed load?



It wasn’t til the advent of the internutz that this ridiculous PROPOSED definition of pre-exhaust came about. Before it, everyone who had half a brain involved in bodybuilding knew what is actually pre-exhaust. Pre-exhaust aside, it only makes sense to train prioritize what needs growing the most! So if my pecs need to catch up with the rest of my body, then I am training it in the most direct manner first: with flies or a machine press, and then move onto presses and dips.

There are people who say this doesn’t work. I guess Mike Mentzer, Dorian Yates, and John Meadows never got the memo.


While this would be perhaps an effective way to train the triceps harder, I agree with Stu–it’s very difficult to see how pre-fatiguing the triceps would lead to more effective pec stimulation during a pressing movement.

I think the reasoning is that if your body will naturally attempt to shift the load to the part of the body best able to handle it. fatigued triceps might cause the body to attempt to shift the load away from them and onto the pecs.

Whereas if your triceps are nice and fresh, but already have a “pre-exhausted” pec, your body will attempt to shift the load to the part of the body that is best able to handle the load, which in this case might be the triceps (obviously not 100%, but I see the reasoning)

Not saying one or the other is wrong, because I honestly havent used the method all that much, but just writing out the reasoning.

Your triceps will fail and you will stop lifting before your pecs are to failure. You increase strain on a specific part of a load barring beam by structurally weakening that part not some other part.

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While the load can be re-distributed among muscles to a certain degree by changes in form (eg, elbows tucked vs flared), I don’t think the body has the ability to recalibrate/modify innervation patterns based on perceived fatigue. (Could be wrong, of course.)

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Personally, I’ve used both methods for pre-exhaust. I think if you’re smart about it, it works.


  1. If I want to hit my lower back with RDLs, I’ll do them after squats. My hamstrings are fatigued, so my lower back takes over, when normally it’d be hamstring dominant.

  2. if I want to hit my chest, I’ll begin with several sets of high rep cable flies. Then once I have a good pump, I’ll do incline guillotine press. Whereas, normally any pressing I do, my shoulders take over.

I think scenario 1 is more likely to occur In general, but for some reason it doesn’t with guillotine press.

Wasn’t there a long hostile thread about this at one point? Hopefully this doesn’t take that spin, as I think both 1 & 2 can occur, if the right exercises are used.

Yes, a hostile thread with someone who defected to Burger King.