Lifting Philosophy

29 Mar

When one is talking or writing about lifting there are three levels that you can focus on.  The most granular level is execution, how should you perform the movement?  Stuff like hand positioning and back arch in the bench press, initiating a turkish get up with a hip roll, or keeping your knees out during a squat are all at the execution level.  The next level above that is programming, which exercises should you do, how often should you do them, and at what intensity?  A huge proportion of fitness writing is focused on these sorts of questions, dumbell vs barbell bench, 5 sets of 5 vs 3 sets of 8 vs 8 sets of 3,  supinated vs pronated grip pullups.  Questions such as these are all important to consider, and I will write extensively about my opinions on them in the future.  Today however I wanted to discuss the third, most general, level that I like to refer to as the strategic or philosophical level.  This basically boils down to, given a goal or set of goals, what is the most effective style of training to achieve that goal or goals.

In my case I have 3 general goals.  First, achieve and maintain a high level of absolute strength, second, remain explosive and flexible enough to perform basic to intermediate gymnastics and bodyweight movements, and third, maintain body fat and symmetry at a level where I can be “stage-ready” with a maximum of three months notice.  I don’t think anyone would argue that these aren’t fairly common goals amongst the gym-going population.  Pretty much everybody wants to be stronger, more athletic, and leaner/more muscular.  Thus, even though the particulars of my training may be excessive for many people, largely due to the outlier nature of my specific goals, the principles that I consider when I make my programming decisions should be applicable to a wide range of trainees.

There are the three principles that form the basis of my personal lifting philosophy.

  1. Big, compound movements should be the focus of your programming, and the majority of your energy should be spent performing them.
    For the natural, i.e. not drug enhanced, lifter there is a plethora of research to support the assertion the the most effective way to gain strength and add muscle tissue is by moving heavy weights over a relatively large distance.  Say you take two genetically identical trainees, have trainee A do nothing but bench presses and weighted pullups, and have trainee B do nothing but dumbell bicep curls and tricep extenstions over a 6 month timespan.  After those 6 months their arm sizes will be very similar, but trainee will have also developed a more muscular chest,  a thicker back, and wider shoulders.  I’m not advocating completely ignoring bicep curls, because I do bicep curls and calf raises and other exercises that are considered useless by the “functional” exercise crowd.  However, you can be damn sure that by the time I bust out my Fat Gripz and start getting my glory swole on I’ve already spent some serious quality time with the pull-up bar.
  2. To progress beyond a certain level, you must perform exercises in the sub-5 rep range with maximal effort.

    After a trainee has been lifting seriously for 6-12 months they will have exhausted most, if not all, of their “newbie gains”.   At this point if you want to get bigger and stronger you’ll need to increase your maximal strength, and the only reliable way to do that is by lifting at or near your strength limits.  This is, at best, an acquired taste.  Doing a 1 or 3 rep set to (technical) failure hurts, the first few times you do go that hard it’ll hurt in a variety of new and exciting ways.  But it’s the only way to force your body to adapt to higher loads.  Lifting this heavy every time is not advised, even the most powerlifting focused templates, particularly Westside and 5/3/1, incorporate significant lifting at higher rep ranges.

  3. Supplements will never, ever, be an effective substitute for a high protein, whole food, diet.

    This isn’t truly a lifting principle, but proper nutrition and recovery are absolutely essential to get the most out of your time in the gym.  As the saying goes, you can’t out-train a shitty diet, and no amount of creatine and BCAAs will turn a shitty diet into a good one.  I’m not saying that you should avoid everything that comes in pill bottles and plastic tubs.  I am an evangelical user of vitamin D and fish oil, appreciate the convenience of whey protein powder, and have even begun to dabble in pre-workout.  But if you asked me to choose between those, and my egg, chicken, and steak habit I would take the more conventional food without hesitation.  Supplements, when used appropriately, enhance a good diet.

Barring a major shift in goals, these are the principles that the fitness focused posts on this blog will reflect.


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