First off, an apology is in order. Many of the training myths I will be debunking were passed on to readers of fitness and weight training magazines in the thousands of training articles I’ve written over the course of almost 30 years. As time went on, I eventually figured out that I was merely parroting advice that had been handed down by generations, often taken as gospel truth and its accuracy rarely questioned. Through extensive research, discussions with multitudes of experts and veteran coaches and physique athletes, I arrived at the conclusion that much of what we accepted as truth was nothing more than dogma. Not only that, but putting 100 percent faith in the veracity of some of these myths would most likely prevent lifters from reaching their full physique potential. In order to redeem myself somewhat, here are some of the most popular training beliefs that are in fact based on nothing more than hearsay, poorly drawn conclusions, and incorrect information and assumptions.
You Can Only Train a Body Part Once a Week
The crazy thing about this belief is that it’s fairly recent. As far back as the early 1970s, Nautilus pioneer Arthur Jones preached about the neglected factor of recovery. He prescribed brief, infrequent workouts in which each muscle group was given a full seven days to recover before being trained again. Later his motives came into question. He had licensed hundreds of Nautilus gyms and fitness centers across the USA and worldwide, many exclusively featuring his Nautilus equipment. Was the workout system he advocated merely a way to keep members out of the facilities most of the time, so more memberships could be sold without fear of overcrowding? Mr. Universe Mike Mentzer was heavily influenced by Jones, and his Heavy Duty training system was a massive departure from the standard training style of the 1970s, in which body parts were hit twice a week. Heavy Duty had you training muscle groups just once a week, and Mentzer even claimed that some with extremely poor “recovery ability” might require 10 to 14 days!
Though Heavy Duty certainly had its fair share of disciples, it wasn’t until legendary Dorian Yates began his six-year run as Mr. Olympia in 1992 that once-weekly body part training caught on in a major way; as millions of meatheads around the world hoped to stack on slabs of muscle like The Shadow. That turned out to be more than a fleeting trend, as many embraced the concept of utterly destroying a body part and then leaving it alone for a full week. Soon, it became the generally accepted way to train, and those working their muscles more frequently were sneered at for “overtraining.” The inherent problem with this argument for once-weekly training of a muscle group is that a lot of people do better with higher frequency. And I truly believe that for many of us, we start to lose some of the gains we have made from a workout if we wait a full seven days before working that muscle group again. Since you wouldn’t know which style worked better for you unless you try, a whole generation has been missing out on potentially superior gains because they never gave training a muscle group twice a week a chance. I urge all of you to at least give it a try for a couple of months if you never have. You might find out it’s what your body would have been thriving on all along.
The More You Train a Body Part, the Bigger It Gets
On the flip side of that, we are often told the solution to bringing up a lagging body part is to work it more frequently. The inherent problem with this concept is that it doesn’t quantify how often we should train the area. If you take the advice literally, that would mean that working a muscle group several times a day, every day, is the key to maximum development. Once you dismiss that as overkill, you’re left to try and figure it out on your own. Should we train it twice a week, three times, every other day? Recovery must be respected regardless, because it has been established that muscles do need some amount of time to repair and rebuild with thicker fibers. There is no consensus on how much time is required. There are some general guidelines that have been determined through anecdotal evidence as gathered by millions of meatheads over many decades. It’s very safe to say that large muscle groups such as the back and legs would need a minimum of two to three days between workouts. Smaller muscle groups like the shoulders and arms recover faster, but care must be taken as both are involved in exercises for the chest and back. The only muscle groups anyone seems to have had any success with when training them daily are calves and abs, likely because these are denser muscles that are already accustomed to being “worked” all the time in daily life. While working a stubborn muscle group more often for a limited time period of four to six weeks has helped many guys see new gains, the principle should not be taken to extremes. If it was true, training every waking hour of every day would result in the biggest muscles possible.
Machines Suck, Only Free Weights Are Effective
Free weights work very well, and they will never become obsolete. That doesn’t mean that machines can’t also help you grow. There are even some machines that I consider more or less essential for anyone seeking complete development in all the muscle groups: leg curls, pec deck/flyes, leg extension and lat pulldown are a few that come to mind. For me, pec flyes are vastly superior to dumbbell flyes, which don’t give any resistance in the final third of the rep. And if you have certain injuries such as in the lower back, leg presses can help you keep your thigh mass when you can’t squat. Those with shoulder injuries or arthritis, and that’s a lot of us, are often able to press heavy for chest and shoulders even when free weights with moderate resistance are sheer agony. Free weights aren’t the best training tools, and neither are machines. The very best “toolbox” to build your masterpiece would be both.
Wide-Grip Chins and Lat Pulldowns Make Your Back Wider
This one sure sounds like it makes sense, until you truly master mind-muscle connection and investigate further through your own experimentation. At that point you will realize that wide-grip pulling movements cause greater scapular retraction, and you wind up feeling them more in the mid-back and lower traps. Ponder this for a moment if you will: Dorian Yates, owner of one of the widest backs in human history, never did anything with a wide grip. He preferred close-grip underhand lat pulldowns and shoulder-width underhand barbell rows as both provided the greatest range of motion for the lats, and also put the biceps in their strongest anatomical pulling position. The bigger your back gets, the wider it will become, period. Stop wasting your time with grips that go anywhere past your own shoulder width.
You ‘Have To’ Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift
The short answer to this is, no you don’t, unless you are a powerlifter. Don’t get me wrong. These three basic lifts have contributed to many millions of pounds of muscle gained for the better part of a century now. They work very well for a lot of people. They also work terribly for a lot of people. Personally, I bench pressed from age 13 to 20 because that was the exercise everyone else did for chest and we all wanted to have a big maximum bench press number to brag about. But I never felt them as well in my pecs as I was supposed to. I found that dumbbells gave me a better feeling, as well as Hammer Strength and Smith machines. I wound up building pecs that were thicker than a lot of pros, and certainly far more impressive than nearly all the guys at any gym I was at who were bench-pressing big weights (yes, there were some huge dudes at times who showed me up, of course!).
As much as I preach the value of squats and concede they always worked well for me in building my thighs, I also saw many guys, particularly taller men, who were just not mechanically built to squat. They were always better off doing leg presses and hack squats. Deadlifts are also great, but again, some of you aren’t structurally suited to do them well. When you hear anyone say, “You can’t get a great back without deadlifts,” know that this is also bullshit. I have seen more than a few guys who busted their asses on all types of free weight and machine rows who managed to build very impressive backs without deadlifting. I say that if you do those movements and they work well for you, keep on keepin’ on. If not, stop banging your head against a brick wall and focus on other movements for the chest, thighs and back that you can work hard and heavy on. Again, it’s nice to be able to say you can bench press, squat and deadlift X amount of weight, but that’s powerlifting, not building muscle.
You Need to Get Stronger to Get Bigger
Relax and let me explain what I mean before some of you blow a gasket. When you start training, size and strength gains are both steady, and they go hand in hand. You start off struggling to squat the 45-pound bar with chicken legs, and by the time you can bury 315 for 15, your legs will be twice that size. Some people will try and tell you that you can increase your strength forever. This is complete bullshit. If it wasn’t, we would have some of these top powerlifters bench-pressing 2,000 pounds and deadlifting twice that much. It might take you three, five, 10, or 20 years, but there will come a day for all of you when you simply will not be able to get any stronger; unless you specialize on some odd exercise for a while that you never tried to get super strong on. I maintain that nearly all of you will be able to continue to add muscle mass long after your strength has topped out. By using techniques such as less rest time between sets, higher reps, supersets, giant sets, forced reps, and drop sets you can put extreme stress on muscles without having to go any heavier. Food and supplements will also play an increasingly important role in gains once your strength is maxed out, though of course I am not advocating the abuse of steroids, GH, and insulin – merely pointing out that they have helped many competitive athletes grow without getting any stronger. I need to emphasize that I fully believe in getting stronger to get bigger for as long as that process works for you. Dante Trudel of DC Training based his entire program on progressive resistance as the key factor in growing larger muscles, and many have experienced excellent results. All I’m saying is that you can keep growing even after you’ve stopped getting any stronger, which is good to know.
You Have to Use Perfect Form
I used to believe that nothing short of textbook form was either acceptable or effective, having been brainwashed into this mainly by the writings of the aforementioned Nautilus inventor/owner Arthur Jones. Then over the years, I made a significant observation. The biggest guys in the gym rarely used perfect form, while it seemed that a large percentage of those who did were far from impressive in their development. Huh! It made no sense to me until I came to the realization that adhering to absolutely perfect form drastically limited the amount of weight you could use on most exercises. That’s not to say you sling weights around with sheer momentum, either. There is a balance that needs to be found between that textbook form and cheating form. Once you find it, you will be able to still put the muscle under tension, but with heavier loads. The key is to always be able to feel the muscle working. Your form might look questionable to the observer, but you will know if you feel the target muscle contracting and stretching or not. Four-time Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler said on various occasions that even though his form appeared “sloppy” at times, he was always working the muscle. With the three power lifts, i.e., the bench press, squat and deadlift, you probably do still want to employ better form, as the risk of injury when veering too far from it is substantial and not worth the trade-off for heavier loads. In the end, you shouldn’t always use either perfect or bad form. There is a time and place for both, and knowing when to apply both will lead to your best results.