You don’t have to go through every body part in a session to get a good, well balanced and satisfying strength workout. You really don’t. In fact, in my experience – to do so achieves very little except mediocrity and boredom. Two or three lifts are enough. A workout like that, you can sink your teeth into.
Disclaimer: what this post is about is doing what you find helpful, in a way that feels good, in amounts that satisfy you. Not in a way that makes you feel bad. It’s my usual agenda - nothing new there. I’m just talking about how I like to train, about what I feel is rewarding. And not in some vague future sense of the term, but in a very immediate sense – if your training itself is rewarding, you don’t need to reward yourself for training. That’s key to my approach to all things exercisey.
Sometimes people say the exercise you hate the most is the one you are most in need of doing. I get it – if you have weak glutes and hamstrings you might hate doing supine hip lifts or step ups, but it might be important to correct muscle imbalances. But the thing is – if you hate an exercise, if it’s just a chore – you’re probably trying something too advanced. Or too easy and it’s boring. Or you’re not used to actually paying attention to your body and experiencing it with a curious and open mind. Or maybe you hate your body, and you don’t like being reminded of its existence. We are not short on options.
But when something’s too hard, it’s just unpleasant. It’s like that with running. If you don’t run at all, going for a jog is tortuous, but there are methods you can use to progress at a pace that suits you. It’s also like that with push-ups. People who can’t do them hate them, but a lot of strong guys who love their manly pecs will happily belt out multiple sets on their recovery days.
Each to their own.
Isolation exercises like biceps curls, leg extensions, triceps pulldowns, lateral and front raises, crunches, these things – to me – usually feel uncomfortable in my joints, and leave me feeling unsatisfied – possibly bored or frustrated.
Big compound lifts, however – squats and deadlifts, overhead squats (I’ve been getting into these a lot lately), handstands, bench press, pull-ups – these I enjoy immensely. When I dedicate my full body to a lift, my attention naturally sharpens, my focus intensifies, and – I’ve written about this before – a Zen-like state of mind comes over me.
Something I, and many of my clients, relish is the feeling that training is time for and by ourselves. When I’m training, I don’t have to think about anything or anyone else, I’m not doing it for someone else, I no longer train to please anyone else, so everything is on my terms. It’s all for me. And it’s so precious. Other worries, they fall to the side. But for some people, when they train is when they worry the most - about efficiency, results, the shape of their bodies, how they look while training, and if they’re getting it all wrong. If they’re wasting their time. That’s not for me. If it’s fun, you’re never wasting your time.
It’s not that it makes me healthier, or that I hope it’ll change the way I look, or even that it makes me stronger. Goals are irrelevant when you’re confronted with what you’re doing right now. The reason I enjoy training is for the immediate benefit it gives, right now, not the imagined benefit it might bring two years or even two months down the track.
People I know who hate training – it’s for any one of a few reasons:
1. They feel trapped and constrained by the feeling of what they should be doing
2. They’re attempting something too advanced and it’s just distressing rather than enjoyable
3. They feel unworthy and are trying to purify themselves through hardship
4. They are dieting and depleted and have no energy, and believe that to eat plentifully while training negates the reason for training in the first place
5. They believe they should be training certain things for a certain period of time, but they do nothing that they actually enjoy
6. They’re not pursuing their desire; they’re living life to someone else’s plan
7. Oh, the list goes on, but it’s really just variations on a theme...
If you feel inadequate as a human being, you can’t expect ‘getting in shape’ to change that.
It’s just one of the lies we’re told every day.
The more you feed your insecurities, the more they grow. The more you diet, the worse you feel (sure it feels good at first - but wait a few years). The more you pander to other people’s demands, the more you will feel subject to their demands.
I will generally start a lifting session with some sort of warm up. This will be whatever I feel prepares me appropriately for the work at hand. It’s your warm up, your preparation for your training.
Then the workout itself will usually be one or two big lifts, that I work up over time, and a little mobility work or stretching or skipping or something to cool down.
I will almost never go through your standard 3 sets of pulldowns, 3 sets of bench press, 3 sets of curls, 3 sets of shoulder press, etc. type workout. It feels like a total waste of time. I never commit to anything when I’m doing that sort of training, because I’m spread too thin and it’s unfocused, and so of course it’s never satisfying. Because nothing ever happens. It’s what you bring to it.
So - to take a look at what I did last night:
Some shoulder and spine warm up stuff – circles, twists, mostly going through light movements and consciously checking in with myself, seeing how my joints and muscles feel. Seeing what my energy’s like.
Disclaimer: some jargon follows:
Horizontal pulling: one set of light barbell rows. A set of pull-ups, laying under my back under a low bar. Three more sets of barbell rows, with increasingly heavier weights. One set on the chest-supported machine row. The repetitions varied between five and ten.
Most of the sets I train are in a reps range of five to eight, because it’s heavy enough to feel like it’s doing something, but not so heavy that it feels unachievable. Once I start doing sets of ten to fifteen, my attention wanders, so that’s a whole different process. And I only go heavier if I’m feeling focused and confident.
Then I moved on to some lateral raises, because an old shoulder injury seems to respond well to them (the one and only isolation exercise of the night – and only because it feels right), and then four sets of shoulder presses with a barbell. The third set was the heaviest.
That was pretty much it. There was some light stretching at the end. It took a little while, only because I was chatting with one of the other trainers in between sets. I really don’t care how long I rest in between sets. I go again when I want to.
Often I will only really perform one or two lifts in a session – and of them – maybe four to six sets of each exercise. It’s very little variety, and only one or two sets will be real ‘work sets’ – the others are working up to the heavy lift, or working down from it – so they all feel different. They all serve a slightly different purpose. And I always feel like I’m working on something a little different, something unique to how I feel that day, and also to what I want to achieve in the long run. Which is pretty much just to get stronger, in general or at specific things. If I wanted to add up the actual time spent working at intensity over the week, it would probably only come to a minute or two in total. And that’s still enough for notable athletic development.
I’m sorry if you don’t have any idea what exercises I just described. Basically, there were only two lifts. I varied the way I was lifting, but it was horizontal pulling, and then vertical pressing (I don’t know who the people are in the links, but that’s the idea). And that was my workout. There’s no reason to overcomplicate – you can use as much or as little variety as you like. There’s no reason to train for twenty minutes over forty-five, or vice-versa. You train for as long as you want – as long as it takes to get the work done. The work that you are in control of setting for yourself in the first place.
And finally – to the point of the post – how do you lift the things?
In whatever way is comfortable for your joints. Your joints must feel good. All the time. If they don’t, something’s wrong. What are you really achieving if your joints are hurting? And how will that serve your longevity? I do not keep my elbows narrow on dips, because it feels forced when I try to press them in, and it’s just uncomfortable. I keep them in a position of good alignment, from which I can apply leverage, and they feel good. Usually, my elbows and wrists are stacked in a relatively straight line, because that’s what feels comfortable, but I don’t force them.
Of course, learning how to lift efficiently usually requires some process of training or education, because we don’t necessarily know - intuitively - what position to get into or what movements are best for leverage. We automatically know how to use the strong muscles and how to spare the weak ones, but if that’s all your training is based on, you’re not going to progress very far before injury starts to hold you back.
So that does kindof bring us back to square one. Kindof.
The problem I notice is too much adherence to a certain form or method, at the cost of one’s own opinion, autonomy, and genuine experience of their body in motion. That’s dangerous ground, dear readers.
If you can’t maintain an alignment that feels comfortable, stop training. That’s it, you’re done. Either you’re attempting an exercise you’re not ready for, or you’re fatigued and the musle’s stopped working. And you can’t simply will a fatigued muscle to not be fatigued.
If in doubt, do what feels good.
And eat more.
And try not to worry about what other people think. Work for your own good opinion, not someone else’s. Play your game, by your rules.