Half of you clicked on this because you thought I finally sold out, and started writing click bait articles for the sake of page views.
The other half wanted to learn the super secret (probably Russian) exercises and programs that’ll take your performance to the next level.
On both counts, sorry to disappoint.
We’re starting today with an old article from Dr. Bryan Chung. Go ahead, check it out and read it (it’s short) before forging ahead with this post.
The point he’s making gives context that’s hugely important for basically any fitness or nutrition information you come across: an anecdote may occasionally be instructive or present a novel idea, but you almost always can’t generalize it to a broader population.
For example, let’s say someone starts doing good mornings and their squat jumps 50 pounds in 8 weeks. Good mornings are the key to a huge squat, obviously. And he’s probably going to post on social media or write a blog post or make a youtube video recounting his experiences and asserting that doing good mornings is the key to a bigger squat.
Except, if you have weak quads instead of a weak back or weak hamstrings, good mornings probably won’t do much for your squat at all. Without broader context (the dude probably had a weak posterior chain, or had poor awareness and bracing pattern in the hinge position), his advice isn’t worth much.
Conversely, the guy who tries an exercise and sees no benefit from it does not then have license to decry it as utterly worthless.
The same applies to the old Westside articles claiming strong triceps were the key to a big bench, not strong pecs. If that advice was explicitly placed in the context of geared powerlifting, it would be unambiguous and spot-on. When you’re benching with a bench shirt that assists massively at the bottom of a lift but not at lockout, then yes – prioritizing triceps work instead of chest work is probably going to give you a better return on investment. But if you just say “hammer the triceps and you’ll bench more,” to someone who is benching raw and whose triceps aren’t the limiting factor in their bench press, that’s probably pretty bad advice.
Ditto for an explosive athlete finding that bodybuilding-style work pays huge dividends (already neurally efficient, but lacking mass with which to produce force) or a slower athlete benefitting from dedicated explosive training.
Very very few exercises are either indiscriminately good or irredeemably bad. It’s all relative to context. What may be key to one person will be utterly useless to another.
The same applies for programs. There is no “best” program. People have gotten stupidly strong doing a ton of different things. Westside and Sheiko are diametrically opposed systems, but both have produced absurdly strong powerlifters.
You ran Starting Strength or the Texas Method or 5/3/1 and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread? Cool. I tried and absolutely loathed all three.
Most of the time, my personal programming revolves around constantly setting 3-10 rep max PRs on bunches of variations of each lift, followed by completely spontaneous accessory exercises based on what I think I need and what sounds like a good time. Some people think that sounds like a lot of fun, but others go insane without being able to gauge progress and improvements week to week. But honestly, if I started with a program that was the same week to week except for the fact that the bar was 5 pounds heavier, I’d have been bored to tears and probably would have never fallen in love with the sport of powerlifting.
But, the thing is, neither approach is inherently better or worse than the other. It’s about finding what you enjoy doing and what you can stick with long-term. Physiologically there’s a lot of wiggle room for most of us – until you’re approaching your genetic ceiling, you can make progress doing something that’s not “optimal” (also, “optimal” doesn’t really exist in the real world, but that’s another rant). The key is to find something you can stick with for years and be consistent doing. An added bonus is that if someone enjoys the program they’re on, they’ll probably give it more effort and see better results. A “meh” program you give 100% to will typically give you better results than a great program you half ass.
So will I recommend some of the more vanilla programs to someone who likes predictability and being able to gauge progress week to week? Sure thing. They’d go crazy trying to train the way I do.
Have I written programs with crazy amounts of variety for people who have a long history of program hopping because they (like me) get bored from doing the same thing for too long? You betcha. A lot of the self-proclaimed “hardgainers” I’ve worked with turned out to have quite an easy time gaining size and strength… just not with sets of 5 at 80-85% of their max – a level of volume and intensity that works well for most and (wrongly, in my opinion) consequently gets preached as the single “best” thing to do, especially for beginners.
One approach may be better or worse for an individual, but will typically not be better or worse in any sort of general sense. A lot of what I do as a coach is simply listening to feedback from athletes, hearing what they’ve tried and liked or tried and hated, and zeroing in on what style of training they most enjoy. If someone’s on a program they enjoy and the overall level of volume is appropriate, the results almost always come naturally. Trying to put everyone on the same program is an exercise in futility. 20% of the people will be round pegs that fit perfectly into the round hole of your cookie-cutter routine. 60% will be round-ish, sort of enjoy the program, and see decent results. Another 20% will be square pegs, hate every minute of it, and probably get terrible results.
So, if there’s anything to take away from this, realize that anecdotes are not evidence, and may be useful, but only if placed in the required context. If someone’s making broad statements about exercises or programs being “good” and “bad” or necessarily “better” or “worse” without any broader context, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about, or (to bring this full circle), they’re just trolling for page views or trying to sell something.