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.