For many years it has been thought that to build muscle, we must demolish our muscles in a very isolated manner through hundreds of repetitions and then let them rest for a week.
But what we’ve found is that despite the ‘science’ supporting this approach, newer science has shown something much different.
In fact, all of the data points in the opposite direction. Increased frequency (versus massive volume just once per week) is actually the key to muscle growth.
This is because exercise is much more of a signal than a structural influencer. As an example of this, common knowledge tells us that lifting weights is good because it ‘breaks down’ our muscle. Then our body compensates by putting more protein in there, right?
Sort of, but not really. See exercise changes our bodies’ metabolic preferences by signaling to different tissue systems that we need to get stronger to handle the stress of our current activities. (Your brain tells your muscles to get bigger in order to be better at lifting things.) This is why higher frequency demands quicker muscle growth – muscles love frequent signals.
Imagine you stopped moving altogether. You’d probably lose muscle, right? But that’s not because you’re tearing down muscle without replacing it. It’s because you aren’t using it. So your nervous system sends everyone a signal that says, “Stop building & maintaining this muscle. We don’t really use it all that much and it’s metabolically expensive to maintain.”
So let’s play this same game with fat loss.
Common knowledge states that as we exercise, the fat from fat cells is extradited and sent to some fat-furnace in the middle of your body where it goes to be incinerated.
But this isn’t entirely true either. In a way, all movement helps to signal fat loss because extra fat doesn’t make sense in the presence of extra movement. Holding onto excess fat would be detrimental because it would make movement more difficult.
And all of this signaling is performed by … drum roll, please … hormones. Your body’s hormones are the gatekeepers to health.
But we can help control them by our actions. We can strength train, move a lot during the day, sleep plenty (during the night, preferably), keep our stress levels low, and manage our hunger cues. And when we take care of ourselves, our hormones in turn take care of us back.
So there are two main take-home points here:
Movement & exercise (and all of the other things that I mentioned above) are far less about the actual, physical, structural implications of the exercise and much more about the signals that all movement produces in our body. To think about things only in terms of calories in versus calories out or breaking down muscles is sort of silly when you consider the larger impact that movement has on our bodies’ internal functions.
Hormones truly control our health – everything from our brain function to weight to energy levels to sleep quality to sexual & reproductive health relies on hormones to function optimally. But you can’t depend on hormones to always just regulate themselves and keep you healthy in the absence of self-care. Health is a two-way street. To optimize your results, you need to think about optimizing hormone production. This means managing stress levels, going to bed at a consistent time every night, moving a lot during the day, strength training a little, and eating unrefined foods that are actually good for your body.
Folks love standards, mostly because we love to compare ourselves to other people and see where we lie on the continuum. It validates us. It gives our ego this little tiny boost that makes us feel good for a minute.
And usually, I’d write a post telling you to forget about standards. Forget what other people are doing. Get off of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Stop watching other people live life and giving yourself massive FOMO while you sit on your couch with re-runs of The Office in the background.
But I think standards can be helpful now and then. They give us metrics to compare ourselves to ourselves, to see how we’re doing. We can pit our strengths against our weaknesses and uncover the areas of our health & fitness that we need to work on.
If you quickly Google the word “toning,” the first page of search results is a mishmash of both pro-toning and anti-toning blog posts. The fitness world loves the word toning. It’s schismatic (how’s that for SAT vocab?) and makes for good blog content. Heck, isn’t that why you clicked on this post in the first place?
And I have a confession: for a while, I was a fitness purist.
I believed that, whenever somebody came to me looking to “tone up,” it was my job to correct them. I needed to explain to them that toning is a myth and that muscles only get bigger or smaller and that bodyfat is what really matters. Then I’d dive into a quick soliloquy (I’m crushing the SAT words today) about rep ranges, percentages, and how we were going to program so that they got exactly where they wanted to be.
But at the end of the day, they just didn’t want the “stuff” on the underside of their arm to jiggle as much.
I read something good on Instagram the other day, it was from a fellow gym-owner, “How might you feel if you say ‘It’s not a priority’ instead of ‘I don’t have time?'” When it comes to programming, it’s important to remember that exercise isn’t always or top priority. But we can still achieve an amazing level of fitness by making a few small adjustments.
Making our own health and wellness a priority can be difficult. I’m not sure if it’s the natural human instinct to care for others first, but between work, marriage, kids, and weekend trips to Home Depot, finding time for exercise is tough.
So it’s crucial to make the most of your hours at the gym. It doesn’t matter if you have 2 hours or 20 hours, making the right choices when it comes to programming can be the difference between progress and stagnation.
Rules make things clear. For instance, the NFL’s Catch vs. No-catch Rule has made it super quick and easy to figure out whether a receiver legitimately caught the football (note the subtle sarcastic undertones).
Rules prevent society from breaking out into anarchy. They prevent people from just walking into convenience stores at their leisure and taking whatever items they want. (I’m looking at you, Philadelphia.)
And when it comes to training, rules help guide us in our decision-making.
So without further adieu, I’d like to introduce you to the Three P’s of Exercise Selection.
These rules help guide us in choosing exercises for both ourselves and our members. They help us prioritize what is important during a workout as we make adjustments. Most importantly, they help create consistency in our process.
To be honest, I don’t get this question very often. I think that, for the most part, crunches have found their way out of current “mainstream” fitness. This is probably because modern fitness is dominated by extreme classes, Instagram experts, and multi-level protein shake marketing. There’s just too much other noise out there.
But I did get this question today, so let’s dive in.
Crunches and sit-ups are both exercise variations used to strengthen the abdominals. Specifically, we’re talking mostly about the “six-pack” abs, the ones that you can see on the outside. (This layer of muscle is called your rectus abdominis.)
These exercises are great when it comes to strengthening the six-pack abs through contraction and hypertrophying the abdominals so that they “pop” when your bodyfat is low enough. Additionally, they can be performed in a variety of positions and on an assortment of machines. They’re even used by popular competitive fitness outlets as parts of workouts.
So why have we chosen to disregard such popular exercises in favor of planks and deadbugs? Let me explain.
Okay, so there isn’t one secret. But there sort of is.
This article will be a like a two-piece answer that funnels into a single solution. As in, there is one thing you can do to take your squat from cheap to deep and I will tell you what is it … at the end.
Let’s clear the air first and clarify that if you’re someone with a true mobility limitation in your ankles, knees, hips, or thoracic spine, this article isn’t for you. Some of it might help, but most of it won’t. A true bony or otherwise somewhat-uncorrectable limitation won’t be fixed by the solutions that I recommend at the end of this article.
So here’s the deal: if you’ve performed a deep squat test akin to that of the Functional Movement Screen and you cannot achieve full squat depth despite having a full passive range-of-motion throughout your ankles, knees, hips, and thoracic spine, you don’t have a mobility problem, you have a strength problem.
Let me repeat that just in case you skimmed over it the first time: if you cannot perform a FMS-esque deep squat despite having no structural limitations, you don’t have a mobility problem. You have a strength problem.
In hindsight, I think we probably could have come up with a better name than “butt-wink,” but I digress.
Butt-wink (a.k.a. butt-tuck a.k.a. posterior tilt a.k.a. pelvic tilt) occurs near the bottom of a squat where the pelvic tilts itself posteriorly to create space and achieve greater depth. It’s a frequent occurrence in gyms all over the country and there have been countless articles devoted to the source of butt-winking and what you can do about it.
When many people think of “tightness” within a muscle, they might imagine a muscle that is physically short and unable to elongate itself to the proper length. Thus, we stretch that muscle in hopes of making some sort of mechanical alteration.
But think of it this way for a minute: instead of using the word tight or tightness, use the word tension. The feeling of tension within a muscle, similar to the sensation of pain, has a large neurological component.
It’s also important to remember that tension can arise in muscles for a number of reasons. There are psychosocial factors to tension and “tightness” within a muscle. For instance, prior injury can induce tension in a muscle or nearby muscle group in order to protect again future injury. As an example, someone with a history of back injury might feel tension throughout the lower back as a protective mechanism. As another example, someone performing an exercise or activity that previously induced pain into a certain area might feel pain or tension even without any structural harm being done.