Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 08/21/2013

Letter to a Young Musclehead

There’s this young guy in my gym who bugs the living shit out of me. It started with an incident I wrote about for menshealth.com:

My gym has one dual-cable machine, with high-low settings on each pulley. And one young guy tied up both sides of the cable for the entire time I was in the gym. He did one exercise, cable crossovers, for at least a half-hour.

At one point he walked off, and I went over to the machine to set up one side of it for my exercise. A trainer, working with a client, went to the other side. The kid ran back across the gym to tell us that he was still using the machine. “I have two more sets,” he said.

So I watched. At the end of his second set I went over and asked if I could use the machine now. “No,” he said. “I still have more sets.”

“You said you were going to do two more sets. I counted your sets. One, followed by two. So you understand my confusion. I thought ‘two sets’ meant two sets.”

He insisted he was still using the machine. Both sides.

There’s a bit more to the story, but that’s the part that set me off. Since then, I’ve seen him in the gym almost every time I train. He’s the fitness equivalent of Tolstoy’s opening line in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Every good training program is based on bedrock principles like progressive overload. You give your body a stimulus. You repeat the stimulus an optimal number of times. And then you give your body the opportunity to recover from it. Every good lifter eventually learns how to apply the principles in a way that works for him or her, but it always starts with the basics: learn the movements, apply the movements, build on the movements.

Every bad training program ignores these fundamentals, but it ignores them in a unique way. Too much stimulus with too little recovery. Too little stimulus with too much recovery. Poor exercise selection for the individual’s abilities and goals.

There are only a few ways to get it right, especially for someone new to training. But there are thousands of ways to get it wrong. Maybe millions.

Back to the kid: From the minute he walks into the gym, every single thing he does is absurd. It’s the opposite of what any knowledgeable person would advise him to do. It’s like he looked at all the YouTube videos that people make fun of and didn’t realize that’s not the way you’re supposed to lift.

We’ve all heard you can’t fix stupid, but I’m going to try anyway. Here’s what I would say to the kid — let’s call him Zeke — if I gave unsolicited advice, and if I thought there was any chance he’d listen.

1. Get rid of your goddam iPod

This applies to almost everyone under 30, but it’s especially problematic for people who have no idea what they’re doing. Zeke spends three-fourths of his time in the gym adjusting his iPod.

This boils my blood if I’m waiting to use a piece of equipment and the person monopolizing it is focused on his music instead of his workout. But the fact I’m inconvenienced is only part of it. The real problem: If you’re thinking about your music, you aren’t thinking about your training. Which is the only reason you’re in the gym. No focus, no results.

Music is, at best, a tool to help you apply more effort to the task. If it keeps you from applying effort, it’s not a tool. It’s an impediment, and it makes you a tool.

2. Understand the difference between primary and accessory exercises

A primary exercise is based on a fundamental human movement. Our bodies are meant to run, jump, push, pull, climb, throw. You can work almost all the muscles involved in those movements with just four exercises: squat, deadlift, pushup, row. There are countless variations on those exercises, and any number of ways to use them in programs to achieve a range of goals. But any good training program will be built around those basic movement patterns.

Everything else is an accessory exercise.

Not an hour in the gym goes by without somebody — usually a guy in his teens or 20s — walking into the weight room and starting his workout with an accessory exercise. Zeke takes this to an extreme; I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen him do anything else. His heavy lifts are curls and chest flies for low reps. He follows those with more curls and flies. Sometimes the other lifters move on to basic strength exercises (bench presses, typically), but Zeke doesn’t, at least not when I’m in the gym.

Building a workout program around exercises that should be an afterthought is like beginning a diet by deciding which supplements you’ll use.

3. Learn what makes muscles grow

I don’t know Zeke. But I’m reasonably sure I understand his goal: bigger muscles. I’m absolutely sure he has no idea how to do it.

This T-nation article by my friend Bret Contreras sums it up:

There are two primary mechanisms to gaining muscle:

1. Mechanical tension

2. Metabolic stress

To get all the advantages of both, Bret says, you have to get stronger in a variety of exercises in all rep ranges — low, medium, high. If you’re only using heavy weights for low reps, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re only using light weights for high reps, you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s how Zeke started two recent workouts:

Workout 1: Heavy dumbbell front raises for low reps

Workout 2: Heavy dumbbell hammer curls for low reps

Both exercises were done with terrible form, bouncing on his toes to fling the weights up on the curls and generating momentum with his lower body on the raises.

As I watched, I found myself having this imaginary conversation with him:

“Zeke, do you have any idea how mechanical tension works? No? Okay, let’s suppose that you wanted to break a branch on a tree. Would you pull on it really hard, and then immediately let it go? Or would you grab the branch, hold it, and apply increasing pressure until it finally snapped?

“So imagine the branch is your torso. You obviously don’t want to break it. You want to do the opposite: make it thicker and stronger and harder to break. So we know two things you don’t want to do: You don’t want to tug on it and let it go. That just makes you tired and sore. And you don’t want to hold it in an increasingly stressful position for a long time. That will cripple you.

“What does that leave? That’s right: You pull hard and then let it go, but you do it in a repetitive, systematic, controlled way. That way you give it a stimulus, a reason to get stronger, but you stop short of breaking or permanently deforming it.

“I’ll be honest, Zeke: I don’t know if my arboreal metaphor makes any sense. I’ve never tried to make tree branches stronger. But I’ve broken hundreds of them. And I know that human tissues need a certain threshold level of stress — one that stops short of inflicting injury — to trigger a growth response.

“There’s a finite amount of time you can devote to the imposition of this stimulus without it backfiring. Your body needs the rest of your time to recover from and adapt to the stress. That’s why every successful lifter eventually learns to devote the majority of his time in the weight room to basic exercises with relatively heavy weights. The next priority is variations on those basic movements with lighter weights for higher reps. If there’s any time left, sure, throw in some accessory exercises.

“But when you do, slow the fuck down! Use lighter weights and a full range of motion. Feel each repetition right in the belly of the muscles you’re trying to build. Once you start a set, don’t finish until the muscles are completely exhausted. Now you’ve added some metabolic stress to the mechanical tension you imposed on your muscles in the primary exercises.

“Let’s end this on a helpful note. You’re willing to work hard. That’s admirable. Now stop wasting your time and inconveniencing everyone else in the gym.”

Would he listen? We’ll never know, because I’d never actually say this to a complete stranger who didn’t ask. I guess I’ll just have to write another book, and hope he reads it.


  • Dave

    The iPod comment is interesting and I basically agree with the point that if you’re focused on your music you aren’t focused on the training.

    I am not a runner but in preparing for a mudder I came across some material about associative and dis-associative runners. Basically, it comes down to whether someone runs better if they are distracted by music (or TV on a treadmill).

    Maybe Zeke needs his death-metal to do those heavy cable flies? Maybe the gym plays a lot of top 40 and he’s more of a Patsy Cline kinda guy.

    I know that a lot of the powerlifters and high school athletes in my old gym thought their music choices motivated them to a better workout. I have no idea if this is a real phenomenon though.

    There are a lot of Zeke’s in the world. Switching to an LA Fitness has had its ups and downs culture-wise. And there are a lot of Zeke’s.

    • Dave, I’m pretty sure there have been studies showing a benefit to listening to music. It just seems to me, from the outside, that some kids are more focused on their music than their workouts. But as Sam notes below, it’s possible they’re using apps and logging their sets and reps.

      • Sean G. Thorne

        THere have been studies showing a positive result from children listening to music during their PE classes (Avery Faganbaum). Music removes the tedium of movement drills (it is supposed) which gives test classes a slight benefit to work done. BUT, that’s qualitatively different than interacting with their own device: which is the point Lou is making. So, the iPod is the ‘device de la journee’. The cell phone is distracting, hell, even friends can be distracting. I make sure that my training is my priority when I spend my time at the gym. it’s my time. i’m selfish about it. that’s the key to getting results. and my friends understand that.
        well written article.

        • Beechnut13

          As a professor of young meatheads, I can say that cell phones and other similar media devices are always a distraction if they’re out. If he keeps it stuck on his arm and stops screwing with it, then great. But if he has to play with it the whole time, he is distracted and his workouts will suffer. Well, more than they already do.

    • David Johnson

      I used to listen to my ipod in the gym. Once I started lifting seriously I found it too distracting. Maybe it just takes all of my concentration and then some to just move the weight.

  • Nia Simone

    Love the arboreal metaphor, Lou! Appreciate the explanation of the basic moves, too. I’m so glad I was given one of your books. I’m resting between stages 2 & 3 of NROLW right now (my second time through, only made it partway through 3 last time then hurt my arm and lazed about so long I decided to start over.) I don’t look like a goddess (yet) but I’m a lot more useful around the house. I moved eight 70 pound boxes of granite tile out of the pickup for my husband and carried a couple upstairs, at altitude. (Huffing and puffing, but still.) Helped hubby carry a heavy tile saw upstairs, too. He’s amazed by what I can now do with ease. Thanks for your work. Applying your techniques (and Allwyn and Cassandra’s) has finally made my time working out actually do something. Oh yeah, another result, without doing any cardio on my off days (and hence freeing up time for my writing) and just doing the required intervals of the NROLW program but mostly just the strength training, my pulse was 56 beats a minute at the doctor’s office. It’s never been that low even from all the cardio I used to waste time on. At 51, I am getting stronger muscles and bones while improving cardiovascular health. So… there are some people out here listening to you!

    • Very cool! Congratulations on your success with the program!

  • Ambrose WB

    This was awesome! I might just print out a few copies + bring them to the gym w/ me. Thanks! LOL.

  • Spencer Cuckney

    HA thats great Lou…..the gym i work out in now i used to be a trainer in! So it is kind of difficult to ignore the numpties – However i must if i am to get my workout in 🙂 We only have one squat rack and there is always someone doing bicep curls! Cheers

  • Tony Pecus

    Awesome article. Zeke’s twins brother goes to my gym too.

  • Sam

    I agree with all but one point:

    I somewhat disagree with the iPod note. I use my phone to track my workouts with an app, I also have a spread sheet downloaded to see what my numbers for the day are, aside from listening to music.
    Keep in mind, in this day and age many people are dropping the notebooks and pencils for smartphone apps.

    However, I do agree with you, I have seen a couple people who just text or fiddle around picking specific songs every 2 seconds. Just remember, that not all of us are doing those two things when we look down at our phones in-between a set.

    • Fair point Sam! So are there apps that don’t require any keystrokes? The guy in question looks like he’s scrolling through songs, but obviously I’m not standing over his shoulder looking at his screen.

      • Jack Petty

        Yes. I use Fitocracy which lets me scroll through lifts, weights, and reps. It’s interesting you bring up the point since it’s been in the back of my mind whether other folks at the gym think I’m constantly texting or shuffling music. I don’t want to be Zeke.

  • Cyph

    If you’re watching him so much in the gym, are you really “focused on working out”? He’s in the way, fine. But analyzing him is as “distracted” as a kid on an iPod. If he’s in your way, ask him to work through. Other than that, go to the gym and mind your own. Not everyone that goes to the gym has the same goals as you, or the same reason to be there even. Seriously, the pompous “you don’t do it right” attitude is stupid. Do your sh*t and get off everyone else. Period. If he wanted a trainer, he’d pay one. If he wanted your opinion, he’d ask you.

  • It’s even worse when they try to involve you in their nonsense.

    “Hey bro, can you help my pound out a set of assisted curls? Really want to grind on those last 4 or 5. Burnout, ya know.”

  • Steve

    Wow, the horror of clicking an ipod between sets and not thinking about your training every waking second. I hear lean mass flies off the body exponentially with each new song click.

    What a bunch of blowhard nonsense.

    • Jim Doire

      Steve – Do you want to blow on something hard?

  • Colin

    Have you thought about relating your thoughts to the instructor on duty ? This may work. Unless the guy is a casual user he would be on a program given or at least checked off by the staff of the establishment. Wouldn’t their insurance policy mandate this? Finally where are the Vince Girondas of today? Vince would have given him a refund and kicked his ass outta there!!!!

    Colin McFerran

  • Dave “G”

    Lou, Would you be my trainer. I love it! Especially the part about the iPod the youths constant cerebral stimulus takes away form muscle stimulus. Someone in our high school gym printed out one of the kitschy eye balls you could print from wing ding and below it is said: Focus.

    I don’t actually enjoy spending hours lifting. My goal is to get out as fast as I can. Of course with proper technique and form ; ) Love ya Lou. Keep up the good work and blog here

  • Nick

    Sounds like roid rage

  • Mike

    Great post Lou! We’ve all seen (and still do see) so many Zeke’s, and had these kinds of conversations in our heads, albeit not so well put!

  • Tanya

    Lou, you have such a way with words LOL! I’m three weeks into stage 1 of NROLFW. I overdid it on my first day doing squats, could barely walk the next day…that’s from being overly ambitious. But after I’d recovered I got back into it and I’m loving it! I may be new to lifting, but it’s quite easy to spot a Zeke and there are quite a few strutting around my gym. I do understand your frustration; apart from myself, there’s only one woman lifting at my gym and that’s just sad! A young woman spotted NROLFW sticking out of my gym bag and asked me about it, and I was really excited to tell her about it but after hearing what I had to say, she resolutely dismissed the idea of lifting and stated that lifting most definitely causes you to bulk up. I felt really deflated after that conversation and at that point resolved never to try to change anyone’s mind about their choice of workout ever again.
    But Lou, thanks for educating me on lifting through NROLFW, it’s given me the confidence to walk into the weight room. Very much appreciated!

  • Great article. It’s definitely frustrating to watch people exhibit a complete lack of understanding of weightlifting principles. I’ll be admiring a gal doing deadlifts and squats, then immediately lose respect as she walks over and uses the hip adductor machine, obviously unaware she just trained those muscles. I personally didn’t see the best results until I became educated as a fitness trainer, although I do listen to my iPod :).

  • Jxrobi Robix

    Dang! You know you’re in trouble when someone like Lou Schuler pulls out some Tolstoy on your behind! I’m quite sure Zeke exhibits this type of behavior in most every setting, not just the gym, and “I pity the fool” – some guy with the same haircut as B Contreras

  • Bret Contreras

    As a young lifter, I never exhibited this sort of behavior. Now it’s commonplace in every gym. Crappy programming aside, the youngsters don’t know gym etiquette and they don’t have common courtesy or respect for their elders (or for big strong dudes who could teach them a thing or two). It’s depressing.

    • You seem to be generalizing, I’m young and listen to my ipod in the gym because its more motivating and I prefer my own music to the music played in my gym, I guess it helps me get in the ‘zone’.

      I will work in with people, have a recommended LP program and re-rack and leave weights/bars in the place they belong.
      Sure the few that don’t follow gym etiquette shine brighter than the ones that do nothing wrong to be noticed for.

  • Shane McLean

    Love this Article Lou! Can relate to it has I see something similar in the gym I work at everyday.

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  • miketnelson

    Great article Lou! I loved it! Kudos to you for using the phrase “arboreal metaphor” —awesome! Mike T Nelson

  • great enjoyed looking through..

  • Ray

    Trees actually do adapt to mechanical tension. The top of a branch will be stronger than the bottom side of a branch (which is not holding any load). Wind also makes trees adapt to be stronger.

    • Thanks Ray! How do the trees adapt? Are there more cells where the pressure is greatest? Or do the existing cells get stronger and thicker? Or some combination?

      I guess the higher branches can’t add too much mass because it would compromise the tree’s stability.

      • Ray

        I’m not sure. I did a report in grade 11 biology on the effect of wind on trees. That was over 10 years ago now so the detail has been long forgotten.

  • sam

    If I don’t have my headphones on, and focus on my iPod between sets, dudes won’t leave me alone! Sometimes I don’t even have music playing, I just need the quiet.

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  • Muscle Building Resorce Site

    I enjoyed it. I like my ipod. One word: playlist. Thanks for sharing.


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  • Adam Trainor

    Like it or not, one thing the gyms teaches us over time, is tolerance. I think every visit to the gym generates a blog in my head about “things you shouldn’t do at the gym because they annoy me.” I think you covered enough of them here. I suppose what should happen is I should, as the more veteran lifter, slow down and help Zeke out, but to your point I doubt he would be receptive, and what a colossal waste of my time. These guys force me to stay on my game in the gym. I simply cannot be stopped by someone in my way. I think you handled better than most people would. Funny. Absolutely true.

  • Some time ago I purchased a really good Olympic barbell, several pairs of standard-sized 45 pound plates, sets of small plates to vary the weight in one pound increments, a decent rack, and 4×8 plywood sheets for a platform.

    This all lives in a corner of my garage for my exclusive use. Zeke is never there. It remains one of the better investments I’ve made.