Following instincts – good or bad? If all of us that do this iron thing truly followed our instincts as human beings, we would not lift weights in the first place. One of our most very basic instincts, and keep in mind that humans are born with far fewer of them than most animals are, is to avoid pain. The entire training aspect of training involves not only willingly enduring pain, but in fact seeking it out on a regular basis. Feel the burn as you pump your biceps up to bursting with a drop set of barbell curls! Push past the pain barrier and get two more reps with that 300-pound bar on your back while your lungs threaten to burst, and your lower back and quads feel like someone injected them with battery acid! Clearly, avoiding pain is not an instinct we heed in this game. Our other basic instinct as humans is to seek pleasure. The pride and satisfaction that come with owning an exceptional physique, along with the respect and attention it also commands, could easily fit into this mold. But when we talk about instinctive training, we are referring to a phrase Joe Weider coined decades ago as one of his “Weider Principles.” The bare essence of instinctive training is knowing what works best for you and doing it. Great, you say, but how the heck am I supposed to know what’s best for me?
Information versus experience. When it comes down to it, nothing beats trial and error. You need to learn as much as you can about various exercises and training techniques and then give them all an honest try. Simply reading won’t ever allow you to gauge what works best for you, just as you can’t try new methods or exercises if you aren’t aware of them. Learn, apply, and decide whether to keep said exercise or technique in your arsenal or send it to the trash heap.
Different strokes for different folks. One of the worst things a lifter can do is to simply follow the routine of a celebrity of physique competitor blindly and expect to gain the same results. What works for one person often may not do much for you. Not putting on as much muscle as you would like? You might start growing for the first time in months if you give your body what it needs – less exercise and more recovery. On the opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps you are not training enough for your particular body. If you’ve hit a plateau and are not growing anymore, you might benefit from adding more exercises and more sets – and discover that the extra volume is exactly your body needs.
Even among top physique athletes, who are all genetically gifted to say the least, some will get better results with shorter, less frequent workouts while others will thrive on training virtually every day, sometimes even twice a day. Some champion physique athletes will insist that squats and deadlifts are absolutely mandatory for leg and back mass, while others consider both exercises too potentially dangerous to perform, and managed to build impressive quads and lats without them. One guy might do only a few intense sets of biceps and triceps exercises for impressive arms, while someone else never does less than 20 and often closer to 30 for his massive 22-inch guns. As one bodybuilder put it: “If you never tried both low and high volume, there is no way you can be sure which would work best for you. Don’t just do something because someone else tells you to. Think for yourself.”
Finding your inner guide: listen to the signals! Some of you are probably more confused now than before, but you needn’t be. All you really need to do is become a master at listening to your body and the signals it always sends you. Let’s say you take up a routine that has you training six days a week and follow it for a month. If at the end of the month you are bigger and stronger and still looking forward to each and every workout with unbridled zeal, this high frequency of training is perfect for you. If instead you are run-down, have lost weight and are weaker, and have lingering colds and headaches and would rather see your dentist than train, your body is clearly sending you signs that you are doing far too much and need more rest. The same type of evaluation process can be used to determine which exercises are most effective for you. Take chest training, as an example. Some people seem to get nothing out of the barbell bench press except a little bit of shoulder and triceps stimulation, while others swear up and down it’s the Holy Grail for thick pecs. Others prefer the feel of dumbbells. As you try many different exercises, some will always feel more natural to you and your particular structure. For instance, very short men will typically reap amazing results from squats, while very tall men seem to get little out of them and usually see better thigh gains with the leg press. But you could be one of the few tall men that can build enormous quads with squats. How would you know unless you tried? Pay close attention to the way your muscles feel, and also how your general energy and enthusiasm play out. There comes a point in the workout where you can sense you’ve done all you can for that day and anything further would be like beating the proverbial dead horse, whether it’s 30 minutes or two hours. We are all individuals, which is why there will never be a “best workout” or “best exercise” for everybody. When it comes to lifting weights, we must learn as much as we can from others, but in the end, we must also become our own teacher and student at the same time. Once you truly learn to harness the power of your instincts and customize every aspect of your training and nutrition program to suit your own individual needs, you will be well on your way to your perfect physique.
When Instincts Don’t Apply:
The 7 Commandments That Can’t Be Broken
1. Extremely low or high reps will not build muscle mass. While training with very low (1-4) or very high (over 15 for upper body, over 25 for lower) can be a sound strategy to occasionally shock muscles, neither will contribute to muscle gain if used regularly. Generally speaking, most people will see the best stimulation from training with 6-12 reps for the upper body and 10-20 for the lower. You may very well find that you respond optimally somewhere on the lower or higher ends of those ranges, in which case you should definitely keep most of your sets there.
2. There is a diminishing point of returns for training volume. We all have varying degrees of tolerance for exercise, with some being able to thrive on more and others requiring less. But even so, there will always be a point where you exceed the body’s ability to recover. For instance, training for an hour to 90 minutes with weights three to five times a week may be perfect for you and most people, but no human being would be able to grow by training for 12 hours every single day. There comes a point where doing too much inevitably leads to losses in both size and strength, and injuries and illnesses aren’t far behind.
3. A certain amount of training frequency and volume is needed. By the same token, doing one set of an exercise, once a month will not produce any results. A muscle needs to be stimulated, allowed to recover and rebuild, then stimulated again. If the training is insufficient to stimulate the muscle, or if too much time elapses between workouts, the muscle cannot become progressively bigger and stronger. You wouldn’t expect to build the amazing level of endurance necessary to become a marathon runner by only running once a week or twice a month, would you?
4. Training must be supported by nutrition. Even though you may only feel like eating once a day, or eating nothing but potato chips and candy, these “instincts” will not allow you to experience meaningful results from your training. Muscles need a continual supply of protein and healthy fats to support recovery and the synthesis of new muscle tissue, so eating nutritious meals every 2-4 hours (depending on your metabolism) is a must. It’s simply biology. Muscles can’t be built out of thin air – raw building blocks in the form of nutrients are needed.
5. Effort is required to gain muscle mass. Debates will always rage about exactly what level of intensity is required to stimulate the maximum degree of muscle gain. That’s because various people get the best results by stopping sets short of failure, others take sets to failure, and others go beyond failure with techniques such as drop sets, forced reps, and static holds and partials. But nonetheless, if weight training is quite easy and one works well within one’s limits with very little effort, no gains will be seen. That’s why every gym and health club is full of hundreds of members who look exactly the same month and month and year after year thanks to their “sleepwalking,” low-intensity workouts. They don’t want to try too hard or feel any pain at all, so their bodies never change. Well, they might get fatter, I suppose.
6. Free weights must be used. Though we now have many excellent machines to choose from in the gym, and cables can also nicely complement many of your workouts, no great physique in history has ever been built without at least some free-weight exercises. The truth is, most great physiques were built primarily with barbells and dumbbells. So even if your “instincts” draw you continually to use mainly machines and cables, keep in mind that fighting your real instincts, which are avoiding the difficulty and discomfort of free-weight classics like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, barbell rows, weighted dips and military presses, will certainly limit the amount of muscle mass you ultimately build.
7. If a supplement works for you, it works – period. There are some supplements on the market that become hits due to word-of-mouth endorsements from one lifter to another, which can be vastly magnified on the Internet forums. But there will always be people that don’t respond well even to something like creatine, while others may see excellent results from less popular products like HMB. You need to try products, one at a time, and appraise whether or not they have delivered the results they promise for you. If they work for you, continue using them. If not, kick them to the curb and try something else.