I was talking with a Pilates instructor some time ago – I might have mentioned this once before – she was doing some gym training, three sets of eight to twelve reps. I asked her why, and she just kindof shrugged and said something to the effect of – well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?
I wondered, because I figure she knows about developing strength. The thing is, the ubiquitous three sets of eight to twelve is an old bodybuilder protocol. Steve Reeves used to do it, he talks about it in his book. If you’re not a bodybuilder, why are you using a bodybuilding protocol?
Lots of mainstream fitness info has filtered down from bodybuilding culture over the years. But if you take one or two things here and there – a body-parts-based training approach, a given sets and reps scheme, or a lifting tempo – and you don’t also eat a lot or you don’t train frequently enough, or whatever – in short, if you take some bits but not others, you get a really disjointed and ineffective training routine. And when you stop to think about it – how crazy is it to employ watered-down bodybuilding methods if you’re not actually looking to get big and muscular? If you want toning, fat loss, or any of that other stuff we so frequently go to modern gyms for – why use methods that were intended to make people big?
In other words – why three sets of ten reps, rotating through various body parts, only three times a week? Why use bodybuilder methods if you aren’t a bodybuilder?
The conflict between bodybuilders and weightlifters seems to come back to some sort of superiority-kick, which really reveals an inferiority complex, and the whole thing can be a bit tiresome. Weightlifters often accuse bodybuilders of having pretty-boy arms that aren’t really strong, but that’s just disrespectful, and weightlifters aren’t as ripped, so they’re often accused of being fat, and none of that shit is on my agenda. When it comes to your training, you know what I’m about – play around, have fun, get creative, think and experiment outside or inside of whatever box you like and see what works for you. Take what works, discard what does not. A bodybuilding approach will often have you isolate a muscle, where as a weightlifter seeks out muscle harmony – clearly both of these approaches have merit and usefulness.
I don’t train body-parts any more – not really. The mentality has shifted. I’ll train weak areas directly when I have identified weak areas, in an attempt to bring them up, and this might come down to training specific muscles or it might come down to training certain movements or movement patterns.
It hardly needs to be said, but weightlifting is about developing and building your strength. I know a number of people at my gym who don’t really squat at all, because it’s too hard. But they’ll do a whole lot of arm work or abs or whatever, and they generally think of themselves as people who like to train... I find it odd, because I never found direct arm work very satisfying, but a heavy set of squats, deadlifts, presses or chin-ups on the other hand... but I suppose guys who want big arms don’t prioritize squats, in the same way that few of us prioritize stretching or mobility work. We want to spend all our time at the gym changing our shape, apparently, not having an aware experience of human movement.
The thing is, if you go to the gym and you think in terms of chest, back and legs, in terms of training different parts, we usually think of squats as a legs exercise. But it’s really not. If you’ve been through three sets of bench press, shoulder press, pull-downs and rows, some arm work or crunches or whatever, and you still plan on doing squats and lunges – you’re probably not going to achieve all that much when you get to them. They require a lot from you.
When I go to the gym to squat, I’m training squats. That’s the focus. I don’t employ some vague body-part isolating framework, because that doesn’t seem to help me get strong. I warm up in a way that prepares me appropriately for the work-out I’m about to do, I’ll squat, and afterwards, depending on how I feel, I’ll work on weak points, or something that supports my development. When I started squatting, my back was the weak point. To squat is to train the back as much as any other body part. I’d have to stop before I was satisfied I’d trained my legs enough, so then I’d do more legs-specific training. And these days I pay attention and try to bring up different aspects of my back, depending on how my squat feels and whether or not I seem to be progressing over time.
As a little aside, if you’ve never seen the series So You Think You Can Squat and So You Think You Can Bench, and you’re interested in weightlifting or strength training – go check them out, and if you never read another word on the subject anywhere, ever again, you’ll already be doing far better than the average gym-going populace. If all you ever did was focus on building up your squat and bench, you could build a powerful, functional and balanced body on that alone. There would be a hell of a lot of other support work when it came to day-to-day training, but you don’t need much else for pure strength and functionality.
But back on track – if you think of squats as a legs exercise, you’ll never really get strong. If you think of the bench press merely as a chest exercise, you might work your chest really hard and build your pecs, but you’ll never understand leverage and power, and how does that contribute to improved athleticism? You’ll never lift as much as you could, you'll never learn how to draw upon full body strength reserves, you’ll never learn how to apply your complete focus and attention to completing the task. Both of these are full-body exercises, simply with a different emphasis. Anyone can lift weights, but how many people really use their training as an opportunity to learn about their body? To learn about and develop their capacity? To learn how to apply momentum, leverage and efficient movement?
When the focus is lifting heavy shit, you must investigate leverage and efficiency, which is both more rewarding and less boring. You cannot zone out and blah your way through it – but it’s not like you need to force yourself to focus - it’s heavy shit - it commands your attention. Just don’t allow yourself to be distracted when you’ve got a hundred pounds balanced on your traps. If someone calls your name, they can damn well wait twelve seconds, there’s no need to turn your head or say anything, and no need to explain why you didn’t drop the weight and run to answer their call. They were the one interrupting.
But when people focus on weight-loss or toning, there’s a tendency to just go through the motions and zone out. I fail to see how this aids anyone’s progression, but still people talk as if that approach is good for you, because of some vague ‘calorie burning’ fantasy. Never mind the damage it does to our relationship with exercise in general, and the brain-deadening side effects of random thoughtless obedience... Maybe that’s just my agenda.
Speaking of agenda, and to ease up on the seriousness of it all - when I start to take myself and my training too seriously I start to squeeze the joy out of it. Then I need to remind myself to just go and play, and mess around with whatever takes my fancy. You gotta take it easy too, especially when it comes to the pressure of your own expectations. I keep reminding myself of that, and that’s where the real hard work lies. It’s easy to believe you’re not good enough and you need to be improved. What’s really challenging is accepting that you’re totally awesome just as you are. It goes against everything we are told, and that requires confidence and strength of character, but it also builds confidence and character.
Whether you’re focusing on coordination, leverage, efficiency or developing power, the thing with strength training is this – if you’re getting stronger, it’s working. If you’re not, it’s not. It doesn’t matter about duration. And intensity is a funny point too – if you’re convinced you need to hit it hard, and you don’t have the right personality type for that mentality, it’ll only make you inhibited. But if you relax and don’t worry about it all too much, if you don’t make it serious, then you’re free to play, and when you’re free to play, you’ll naturally feel like challenging yourself, because it’s fun. Sometimes we need less pressure to be able to excel, not more.
Anyway, to exemplify my points - when you squat, here’s a bit of what’s going on:
First, there’s a barbell on your back. You can’t ignore that. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, that bunches up your trapezius, and provides a platform of flesh on which the barbell rests. If you use a barbell pad, or a towel, you’ll relax, and your lift will suffer for it. If you relax the traps, you lose upper-back strength and integrity and if the bar is padded, you’re more likely to let it press into your neck and pull you forward. In other words: your form deteriorates.
Breathe in deeply, and brace the abs. Squeeze your guts against themselves as if you’re compressing all your organs. This will also give you support.
You’ll be holding onto the bar, so your chest is extended, stretched, but you want to pull your hands in relatively close if you can - this will depend on your mobility - and is harder than you would expect. You’ll be pulling the bar in towards you, so you’re training both internal and external rotation of the shoulders as you stabilise the bar. Your spinal erectors are clearly working, and as you start to lower, you tilt and sit the hips backwards – you should feel a strong arch in the back – a lot of the back muscles are working against each other to maintain tension which supports the lift.
And you need to arch the back to protect your spine, but you don’t just collapse your back. Imagine your chest and butt are moving away from each other, and your spine is lengthening as it curves. It’s good, before you squat, to do some happy-cat-angry-cat stretches and some sort of twisting and use these warm-ups not to stretch really far, but to check in with your back and see how it’s all feeling. Muscles, joints, check if your body awareness and attention is good today, the whole lot. See what comes up for you. See if it’s a good idea to squat today, of if you’d rather change your plans.
Now we’re getting to the legs. You want your weight on the heels and outside edges of your feet, and you squat between the legs. The squat happens in a hips-forwards-backwards action as much as an up-and-down one. This can be strange and uncomfortable for women, who have always been taught that if you’re squatting, you know, if you have to pick something up from the ground – nothing should stick out. You can’t stick your butt out, it’s un-ladylike, and there’s a subtle self-consciousness that can be quite challenging to overcome if you don’t think of it.
Pressing your weight to your heels and the outside edges of your feet will keep the knees out and ensures that the glutes - the butt muscles - are working. All your body’s power comes from your butt. It’s the best part of your body to train, but bodybuilders often neglect it. If you don’t stick your ass out, you don’t make the most of your glutes and hamstrings and again, your squat will be less powerful for it. If you can, try to be aware of a feeling that you’re lifting the arches of your feet as all this is happening - that also comes from the butt, and I have new crackpot theory forming that flat arches are caused by weak glutes. There are other causes too I’m sure, but if the glutes are weak (not in an absolute sense, but relative to your thighs), the thigh bone internally rotates, which means the knees collapse inwards, and that presses the instep down into the ground. You notice when people are jogging if their glutes are weak because their knees fall inwards every step - it becomes exaggerated. People talk about flat feet being a structural problem, and that is true, but what is structure? Without muscles (or dark magic) a skeleton would fall in a heap - your muscles keep your skeleton aligned, for good or ill.
Back to technique. Don’t look down. Or in the mirror. Look a little up, that will help you to stay vertical, without tipping forward, and it will keep your traps engaged and the bar well-supported.
You go exactly as low as is comfortable – this is determined by loading and flexibility. Lower as deep as you can (this will emphasise gluteal work too) without losing the arch in your lower back and without your body weight shifting forward or your heel lifting away from the ground. When the lower back flattens and starts to round out, you have gone too far. When your back is arched, the stress is carried where it should be - on the muscles, but when it rounds out, the stress moves to the spine. But if you’re not squatting with a barbell, it probably doesn’t matter. If you’re a martial artist, the opposite technique might be appropriate – tucking your hips forward makes you more springy and buoyant, but is not necessarily safe if you’re trying to move a whole bunch of weight. Pelvis alignment can make for some heated debates. Do what feels safe and correct for you, depending on leverage and personal circumstances.
For my money, what you really need to look for is the feeling that the muscles are working not only to move the weight, but to support and protect the joints. Especially when you’re lifting heavy – pay close attention to your feeling and if you feel joint strain, see what you can do to alleviate it. Tension should be felt in the muscles, not the joints. Whether you’re training ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, if you feel pain in your joints, something needs to be adjusted, for you.
And I think some people simply shouldn’t squat with a weight on their back – or at least they might need to do a lot of work before they can get to the point where it would be of benefit. And what is of benefit should be our guide.
One last thing - it’s best not to squat in runners. When the weights go up, the gel caps can burst, and if they do so under load, it can really throw you. Not only that, with soft squishy shoes, you lose sensory feedback with the ground, big-time. Unfortunately, many gyms will not allow you to train bare-foot, but they will allow Converse Chuck Taylors or an old pair of wooden-soled business shoes. The extra couple of centimeters on the heel will give you a bit more leverage and allow you to squat a bit deeper.
Anyway, this wasn’t intended to be a post on squats – it’s about weightlifting in general. Hopefully, it’s becoming obvious how much of a full-body exercise the squat is. And yes, it’s a long post - thanks for bearing with me - this might be a good time to take a break, get a cup of tea and a cookie.
And we’re back! As it is with the squat, so it is with the bench or chest press (pictured to the left - the bench press usually refers to the barbell exercise, whereas the chest press is the same thing, but holding two dumbbells instead - this can be better if you have funky shoulder joints, particularly if you practice the exercise with your palms facing towards each other, rather than towards your feet).
When you learn to arch the back, how to position the feet behind and underneath you and apply tension through the entire front of the body too – the bench press becomes a thoroughly full-body exercise. If you’re struggling to lift the weight off your chest, you squeeze the buttocks, and apply leverage through the legs – you can’t see what’s going on, it’s not even necessarily intuitive (that depends on you and how you understand leverage), but it’ll help you finish the lift.
But we’re used to the body-parts approach, and we’re told we need to train for at least 30, 60, 90, or sometimes 120 minutes, and if we go to the gym to practice and develop the skill of only one lift for a mere 15 – 25 minutes, we fear that it’s not enough. Heck, we aren’t even used to thinking of training as practice – there’s nothing wrong with just practicing one exercise and trying to develop the technique of lifting – whether you’re going heavy or not. And developing coordination requires repetition, so sometimes going too heavy is counterproductive. There are so many reasons to choose a particular reps range, but toning is not one of them. Toning is not something that actually exists.
If you want to get strong, you absolutely need to progress with awareness. You need to investigate leverage and efficiency. It’s natural to try to conserve energy – I’m training my legs, so I won’t bother engaging my back – but engaging enough to support the lift and not so much that you’re needlessly tense or working against your own mobility – this can be a really difficult thing to get the hang of. Learning how to squeeze the shoulder blades and spinal erectors for support, how to engage the lats for shoulder alignment and stability – learning how to engage the hip flexors to pull yourself down into the squat and stop your lower back from rounding out – and then learning to release the hip flexors when you come back to the top and squeeze the glutes to open the hips all the way – all this requires awareness and patience, much more than discipline or toughness.
If you’ve been reading my blog a bit, you’ll know I’m not a big fan of doing what you’re told. What have you been told to do? Are you doing it? Why? What is it going to achieve? Are you training a bit like a bodybuilder, without actually wanting to be a bodybuilder? Are you taking on board what is helpful, and discarding what does not apply? Are you bringing your intelligence and wisdom to your training, or are you suspending critical thought and simply buying into the same old mindless shit? Is your training satisfying, or frustratingly boring? Is it fun, or is it distressing? What can you change? Is it the program and approach, your attention and awareness, or – well – what else is going on? Are you hanging out with jerks?
Another problem I have with the obsession we seem to have over what we weigh is this – if you want to get strong, you need to come to terms with the idea that it might increase your weight. And there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. Your weight is not what’s important. A body-weight-obsessed approach gets in the way of training and progression. And if you want to get strong, you’ve gotta eat a lot. This is less for muscle growth and more for systemic recovery. We need protein and fat for hormonal and nervous system function, and carbohydrates are important for more than just ‘energy’.
Weightlifting – along with eating food and many other things that are good for you – is still something that the beauty standard would have women avoid. It breaks my heart and infuriates me all at the same time.
I don’t know if you’ve seen any of these e-posters going around, with this self-righteous caption “strong is the new skinny” and that’d be fine (I suppose, or maybe fine-ish, actually it wouldn’t be fine, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now) if the models they used weren’t also skinny. Where are the strong, fat women? Hiding under the banner of feminism and liberation and stuff, what they’re actually saying is that skinny isn’t enough anymore – you gotta be muscular too. But not too strong, we wouldn’t want that. Not strong enough to disagree. Not strong enough to challenge the body-hating status-quo.
Apparently it takes about five weeks of consistent training before positive adaptations start to take place in terms of increased bone density. That increased bone mass is going to weigh something too. If you’re worried about Osteoporosis, if you want increased strength and bone density, it’s not going to weigh nothing. Even if you don’t visibly build muscle mass, strength training – lifting heavier for fewer reps, say 3 to 5 – can increase your muscle density too, and again, that’s going to weigh something even if the muscles aren’t visibly larger. And it’s still going to be good for you.
I actually found it quite confronting – some time ago when I started putting on some decent upper-body muscle mass which was what I wanted – I then had to deal with the emotional ramifications of weighing more, in a world where I was always told, since age eight, that I was too heavy.
Something I’ve always found very strange is – in this culture – how remarkably few dedicated weightlifting facilities seem to exist. But mainstream gyms, where you’re pretty limited in your opportunity to train with traditional weightlifting methods – they’re all over the place. But the moment you drop a dumbbell, bam! Get lost!
Anyway. Bodybuilders tend to focus on body parts, training and fatiguing a muscle, and they manipulate variables to encourage fatigue and stimulate growth. And they’re pretty damn strong, but when you’re focused on strength development and improved functionality, the focus changes from body parts to movement patterns, from fatiguing and isolating muscles to engaging for structural support, movement efficiency and muscle harmony. And when your focus is on lifting, rather than building, if you are focusing on a particular body part, it’s to improve function and support your lifting. Tension exists to serve you, it is not meant to get in the way, and notions of sticking to a particular lifting tempo give way to the idea of moving the damn weight effectively. Why pause? Why move slowly or quickly? Anyway, it’s been a long one and these might be questions best left for another time.