Wastes of Time in the Gym

Like many people, in the past I have dicked around with weight training without the understanding that there was a tremendous amount of knowledge that I did not know that I did not know. Hell, none of it really seems to be rocket science, what could there possibly be about picking up and setting down heavy weights which is not obvious. Pick up the weight, and set it down numerous times until you know you are going to be sore the next day, right? This is wrong on many levels yet far too many people assume weight training is really just that basic. Hell, if that dumbass meathead jock can get big and strong, surely I can too.

In my years of experience training under the iron, there are a few things I have learned. Most people who fail at weight training, those who begin really hard and then fade away when their process becomes a grind, do so because of their lack of knowledge, their complete lack of understanding anything about progressive overload, nutrition and rest. You can get away for a short period of time jacking around with different lifts and no set programming where there is measurable progress, and actually get stronger than you were the day you began. Yet, those newbie gains will not last long if you do not understand programming in the realm of strength training. In full transparency, I am included in this group of people who did not have the slightest clue. I have learned many lessons with the iron the hard way until the day I decided several years ago that I was going to be truly serious about my training. I knew that if I were to be serious about making gains under the barbell, I had better recognize that I was actually ignorant of the best approach. And this was despite many years of experience in military physical fitness programs. I had no clue and what I needed was to begin studying those who were noted professionals in strength training. I would no longer listen to my fellow gym rats or believe everything I read in the muscle magazines where you are almost always guaranteed 20 pounds of muscle growth if only you do their programs to the letter, by the way, this never happens for anyone. I did my due diligence in searching out professionals I could learn from and soon found Coach Mark Rippetoe, owner of Wichita Falls Athletic Club, and who is one of the leading powerlifting coaches in the USA. Through Coach Rippetoe I learned about programming, physiology and the important role of rest and nutrition for serious lifters. I also study many other coaches such as Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell, Glen Pendlay, Steve Shaw, Jeff Cavalier and others including Bill Starr. The good thing about each of these coaches is in that they all still use old school methods for increasing the strength of their trainees. Always remember that no matter the bright shiny new machines in your gym, the best laid programs for building muscle and strength all go back to the old school ways of progressive overload in a linear progression.

I had a muse to write an article on wastes of time in the gym and as always, when researching to ensure I am correct in what I write, I came across this article by Coach Rippetoe and felt I would share his words to others. The article was similar to my muse, but Coach lays it out better than I can.

Coach Mark Rippetoe

Time is money. Money is scarce these days, everywhere but DC. You want to be stronger, so you go to the gym. The best use of your time there is the simple progressive barbell training program we have discussed before, one that drives an upward strength adaptation with a programmed increase in load over a full range of motion using as much of your muscle mass as possible. This approach allows you to lift a gradually increasing amount of weight, thus making you stronger. Stronger means only one thing: you can apply more force with your muscles. The process of getting stronger improves the capacity of every aspect of your physical existence. So, getting stronger in the gym is the best reason to go there.

But it is incredibly easy to waste precious time once you’re inside. Here are the top three:

Stretching

Long regarded as the first thing you should always do inside the gym, stretching – for most people, and by “most” I mean you, probably – is not only unnecessary, it may be counterproductive.

What a way to start an essay, eh? The most fashionable aspect of modern fitness is the newly-rechristened “mobility.” Same thing as “flexibility,” except that it sounds more Californian. And here I go again, pooping on the most popular thing in the gym. It is a part of every trendy approach to fitness in existence, from CrossFit and “functional training” to Pilates and yoga. In fact, Pilates and yoga are mobility/flexibility/stretching, and that’s about all.

It has been assumed by almost everybody for the past 40 years that every workout should begin with the physical preparation known as “stretching.” Stretching is an attempt to increase the range of motion (ROM) around a joint, like the knee, hip, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or around a group of joints like the spinal column. The common method is to force the joint into a position of tolerable discomfort and hold it there for a while, thus hopefully increasing the ROM.

More recent approaches to increased flexibility have used techniques that affect the muscles themselves, which actually control the ROM around the joints. Massage, Active Release Therapy, “foam rolling,” and other techniques applied to the muscle bellies themselves are much more effective for increasing a tight ROM than stretching. The Hip Bone’s Connected to the … Thigh Bone, the Thigh Bone’s Connected to the … Knee Bone, etc. So stretching is really all about the muscles anyway. Every operating room professional knows the truth here: perfect “mobility” is obtained only under general anesthesia.

The assumption is always that your current ROM needs to be increased. Here are some Facts, cheerfully provided without citations, so that you can look them up if you want to:

1. Hypermobility is a medical condition – a “Pathology,” in fact – that often involves defects in the proteins that form the ligaments, the connective tissues that connect the bones to each other at the joints. The problem with being too flexible is that it results in unstable joints, which can assume positions they are not anatomically designed to occupy. A subsequently injured joint is not healthy: it is injured. This is not good. And here you are, trying to become hypermobile.

2. Tendons and ligaments do not “stretch out.”You cannot make them longer, and it would not improve their function if you could. Their function is to transmit force, like a chain or a cable; in the case of tendons, which connect muscles to bones, the force of muscular contraction is transmitted to the bone it’s attached to, thus moving the bone. Tendons are indeed elastic, in that a sudden dynamic load causes a very small temporary change in length and a subsequent rebound, seen typically in the Achilles tendon complex. But during normal muscle contraction, if the tendon changed its length not all of the force would move the bone – some would be lost as the tendon stretched. Just like a short piece of chain, a tendon pulls the bone with all the force of the contracting muscle because it does not stretch during the contraction.

Ligaments behave likewise. They anchor the joint as it moves, so that the bones which articulate at the joint change their relationship only with respect to their angle. This allows the joint to serve as a fulcrum in a system of levers. When ligaments move enough to allow the joint to change from its normal inter-articular arrangement, it is said to be “dislocated.” You’ve heard of that, right? When tendons and ligaments are stretched excessively, they rupture.

Most importantly, you cannot change the length of either a tendon or a ligament with stretching of any type, massage of any type, or therapy of any type. And why would you want to? Tendons and ligaments are force transmission components. They are very verytough, and they cannot be permanently lengthened by non-invasive means. The only connective tissues that you can affect with stretching are the fascias, the thin “silverskin” that covers the muscle bellies. If they become a problem, usually caused by tiny scars called “adhesions” that form between them and their underlying muscle or between adjacent fascias, they can be stretched with the previously-mentioned forms of therapy.

3. Since neither ligaments or tendons are designed to stretch, an increase in flexibility primarily involves the muscles that control the position of the skeletal components they operate. Sometimes, but not that often, the muscles behave in a way that requires you to teach them to lengthen more readily. And the best way to do this is with the aforementioned Full Range of Motion Barbell Exercise. Since full ROM is, by definition, all you need to do, anything beyond that is either a simple waste of time, or a counterproductive waste of time.

4. Stretching does nothing to a.) prevent soreness, b.) alleviate soreness, c.) or improve strength or any other measure of fitness. In fact, the vast majority of the studies done on stretching not only support this summary, but also indicate that stretching prior to either training or performance produces a significant decrease in power production. That’s right: tighter muscles can contract harder and faster, and this has an obvious application in performance athletics.

The upshot is this: if you are already flexible (okay, “mobile”) enough to operate efficiently within the ROM of your required training and performance movements, you are flexible enough (your “mobility” is sufficient). And you don’t need to stretch. If you want to, go ahead and enjoy yourself, but you are not using your time wisely.

Warmup

After you stretch, you’re supposed to “warm up,” right? Warmup is an important part of the preparation for a workout, if its function is properly understood and its role in the process is correctly facilitated. But for most people, unless it’s cold – and I mean cold, where the temperature is low where you’re training – your warmup is probably excessive, and you’re wasting time doing it.

The pre-workout warmup serves two purposes. First, it prepares the tissues for the work. “Warm” is a specific term: it refers to the temperature of something, a measure of the thermal energy in a system. In this case, it’s you. If it’s cold where you’re training, then you’re probably cold too, and you will need to devote enough time to some general movement to elevate the temperature of the tissues – the muscles and joints you’re going to use in the workout. A stationary bike, rower, treadmill, or a short run around the building or the block can do the trick.

This is not always necessary, because sometimes you’re already warm. If your workout is being done in August in North Texas in an un-air-conditioned building, or anywhere in Houston ten months of the year (it is effectively impossible to air-condition a building in Houston), you’re already warm. If you’re already warm, this aspect of the warmup has been conveniently taken care of already.

If not, the question becomes, how long do I need to spend getting warm? The answer is, probably not as long as you think. Most people can spend 2-3 minutes on a rower or stationary bike and get warm enough to train. If you’re spending 20 minutes doing any repetitive movement before you get under the bar, you’re spending about 2 minutes warming up and 18 minutes wasting time, as well as energy that could be more productively used to lift weights and get stronger. Strength training and conditioning are two completely separate activities, and they must be kept separate if either is to improve effectively.

The second function of warmup is to prepare the movement pattern you are about to perform. Barbell training is movement pattern training – it is not about the constituent muscle groups that cause the movement to occur, it is about the movement pattern itself. When we squat, we don’t “do quads,” we just squat, and quads get done, along with everything else below the bar on the shoulders. The emphasis in the squat is the correct execution of the movement pattern with an increasingly heavy weight, and this requires that the movement pattern be practiced before it is loaded to a heavier-than-the-last-workout weight.

Warmup is this practice, and it is obviously best done as the weight increases. Start with the empty bar, do a few sets with it, add weight gradually, doing fewer reps as you approach your new heavier weight, taking as much time as you need between sets to rest from the previous set, and you have effectively prepared the movement pattern. You have prepared the muscles – they are now “warmer” – as well as the nervous system that controls the muscles, for the movement you are about to execute with the new heavier weight.

Most importantly, the preparation has incorporated everything it needs to include for an effective execution of the work to be done without getting fatigued. The purpose of warmup is to prepare, and it is valuable because it gets you ready to improve. But the warmup itself does not produce improvement. If it also produces fatigue, then its purpose has been compromised. If the warmup is excessive, you are not only wasting time, you are subtracting from your work capacity.

Failure to Progress

Throughout my career in the fitness industry, I have heard the following phrase repeated ad infinitum, ad nauseum: “I think I’ll just stop here at 90 pounds until it gets easier, and then go up.” This excuse – and that’s precisely what it is, a lame-ass excuse to not do something perceived as harder – has wasted more time after stretching and warmup than any other single lame-ass excuse ever uttered in the gym.

People: 90 will be easy when 135 is hard, and not before then. The way you get from 90 to 135 is to do 95, 100, 105, 110, 115, 120, 125, 130, and 135, adding 5 pounds per workout. The process of going from 90 to 135 is training, and staying at 90 is not training. It is merely fooling around in the gym. You have to understand that if you cannot make yourself load 95 next time and move it in the required manner, you are not going to get stronger. And if you don’t get stronger than 90, 90 won’t ever be easier. Ever. Why would it be? How would it get that way? Why should it?

Stronger is simple: stronger means you’re moving heavier weight. When your training has taken you to 135, 90 will be perceived as easy, and this process requires that you gradually make the adaptation occur. Five pounds is pretty gradual, but in your particular circumstances 1 or 2 pounds might be necessary. Whatever the increments you find necessary, they must be added on a regular basis, and for 99% of you this means every single workout. If you don’t go up, you won’t get stronger. And on a strength program, if you’re not getting stronger you’re wasting time.

So, let’s stop being less-than-productive and learn to embrace efficiency and brevity. If you don’t need to stretch, don’t stretch. It doesn’t accomplish anything and it wastes time. If you don’t need to get warmer than you already are, just do the part of the warmup that actually accomplishes something – the part that you were going to do anyway, under the bar, the part that makes the heavier weight you’re using today possible. The heavier weight is the part you want anyway, the aspect of the workout that makes it training, and all the stretching and warmup in the whole entire Universe cannot accomplish what that 5 extra pounds can do over time.

A version of this article appeared in PJ Media October 30, 2014.

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14 thoughts on “Wastes of Time in the Gym

  1. This is such a useful, informative article. You have used these tenets to train me, they have proven to be absolutely true and people who know me are impressed by my continuing progress with the Iron. Thank you, David!

  2. Very informative.
    I’ll be honest, I would like to do a strength training program, but I’m sorry to say I’m afraid I don’t think I have the commitment to do it. I don’t live near a gym and getting a lot of weights is expensive. I know these are just excuses. Right now I have a small set of dumbbells.

    1. Deb, yes strength training takes a lot of commitment, but you might surprise yourself with the amount of commitment you may actually have. And yes, gym memberships and or equipment can run into a good amount of money, but the good news is there is a lot of exercise you can do that cost little to no money and is great for your body. In fact, one of the most beneficial exercises there is, is walking at a brisk pace. You can do a lot of good for your body just getting out and walking. If you have a hard time even with this, you can take it slow and buid yourself up to longer distance and a quicker pace over time. You can also do body weight exercises at home for no cost at all. I have a couple articles posted on these subjects already. May I ask your age and physical condition?

      1. Thank you for your reply.
        I just turned 65. I feel I’m in fair condition. Yesterday I was moving and positioning logs for my husband to cut with the chainsaw for some firewood, and don’t seem to feel any ill effects from it today. I’m a little stiff, but no more than usual. I credit that to a medication I’m on. Tomorrow I’ll see if I’m sore. I used to walk regularly, but haven’t gotten back to it. No good excuse not to.
        I’m back at lifetime with WW. I’m at the high goal weight. I think I’d like to lose another 10-20 pounds. As I do that I need to see how I look and I feel to determine when to stop.

      2. Good Sunday morning Deb! This comment is of a positive tone, 65, fair condition, life time weight and the mind set to possibl lose a little more. One of your first hurdles are already surpassed with this. If you have not exercised much over the last few to several years, please consult your doctor before beginning any exercise regimen, even if you feel good. Even if you decide to not lose anymore weight, you will still benefit from a half hour of exercise at least 3 times per week. Walking is great, but you said you had a pai of light dumbbells which can also be put to use. You could go online to Google Play, search out and download any of a number of apps which have light dumbbell exercises you can do without going through the expense of buying more weight or signing up for a gym membership. As we age, resistance exercise is the best way to retain lean muscle mass which helps us not only in our basic daily functions, but it also helps to raise our metabolisms which of course makes it easier to keep out body fat at a healthy level.
        Thank you for reading and commenting, and I am glad to read that after helping with the firewood you are not feeling ill effects. That is fantastic. have a blessed day.

  3. Thank you for your suggestions. I’ll have to revisit some of your posts. I did reply to one of Brenda’s post that I wrote down some goals and have been working them to a degree. Now I need to sit down and refocus and not only write the goals, but the steps to get there.
    I have no restrictions on activity from my doctor, and have been doing a little strength with my barbells since March off and on. I need to make it a dedicated commitment.
    I’m like some of the people you talk about. I know what to do, but not willing to do what I need to to get there.
    As my husband says, when I get sick and tired of being sick and tired about something, I’ll do something about it. Haha. That’s how I came back to WW just before Last Christmas and got back to lifetime.
    I think I’m at the point where I’m sick and tired of not being at the activity level I want to be.
    Peace be to you.

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