There is a saying popular in the small world outside the gym, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. That if one approach does not work, try another.
Inside the gym, what works is what brings you somewhere. How to get there is much less important than showing up.
So what is the relationship between process and results in lifting? At first blush, the sport feels like a hunt. We work to achieve the goals: to become strong, to look good. So much of what we focus on and measure – heavy pounds in a weightlifting competition, body fat percentage, the size of your quads – are numbers we strive to reach.
But while the pursuit of results may be what makes us start lifting, the sport is about the process. More specifically, it’s about repetition.
For all the different programs people take to achieve their different goals, we all generally follow the same rough path – progressive overload through selected exercises, performed over time – to achieve it. It’s not like the real world: the repetitive process should not just be rejected if things do not work out. Instead, it needs to be examined.
The few rules about repetitive lifting cycles are so general that they can be adopted by all programs and approaches. Lifters should train their entire body, get plenty of sleep and eat well. Cardio and recovery should be monitored. Exercises should be hard enough to be challenging, should be a little harder each time – more weight, more intensity – and should be repeated. Sometimes breaks are needed and there is always something to tinker with.
That’s pretty much it.
And although the hows above vary greatly, the framework they operate under is pretty much total. There really is only one way to get anywhere: to do the same thing – a hard workout – over and over again, over time. And then it does something more over and over again.
Get stronger through repetition
It is best to repeat yourself with a program that is well thought out ways to repeat yourself optimally. Powerlifting programs train pretty much every muscle and get people incredibly strong without having to pump out 1,000 repetitions a week. Kettlebell work is functional and drills down daily movement patterns. Bodyweight training builds both muscle mass and cardio, feels very holistic and can be performed anywhere.
Their exercises are different, but the programs are largely the same. They take all the time and effort. They do not build muscle right away, but eventually. They must be followed strictly – form, not to miss training, eat right, recovery. Every program repeats things, it’s just what they repeat that it is different.
Of course, it would not make sense to stay too long with a program that does not work and does not progress. The difficult thing is that progress often stalls less because of the exercises themselves than from how poorly matched a lifter can be to a particular set of exercises. Finds the PEBCAK error – the problem exists between the chair and the computer; in this case muscle imbalances, weaknesses, not eating or sleeping enough – is how coaches earn their paychecks.
Put another way: There are hundreds of ways to get strong, but a much wider range of body types and health stories among the people who use these programs. People start weight training the way they are. As they adapt to new exercises and areas of movement on the go, the lifts are not yet smooth and natural. And until then, and until the lifters actually get strong, there are endless places where the promises – and the repetition – can stall.
The complexity of the big lifts is one of the reasons why strength training does not work for some lifters right out of the gate and why many lifters change program or stop early and look for the perfect pill. But it does not really exist. Good trainers can elevate clients to barbell work with programs that build general physical readiness and proprioception.
This development of children’s gloves is, for some people, necessary because of the extent to which desk work and sitting position have ruined people’s positions and posterior chains. Serious barbell work was, until a few decades ago, mostly done by high school football players like offseason training and muscle heads who spent most of their waking hours getting strong. We forget that for incredibly inactive people, it can be quite difficult to repeat these precise lifts correctly.
Even at low weights, performing the squat involves properly internalizing dozens of signals, firing each muscle in unison, and breathing properly. A squat can fail at almost any time: bad glutes will sink a lifter into the hole; a weak upper back will cause the bar to shake on the shoulders; weak quads can prevent a lifter from standing up completely.
Solving one problem often creates another. It is natural for beginners, who may not see progress anyway, to throw it all out and find another way to become strong.
But going deeper usually works better than going somewhere else. Analyzing the weak points of your lifts will improve them. Tape your reps, find out where you are going wrong, and build up the lame body part. Blow up your failing glutes with good morning, or improve your quad strength with front squats. The problems that keep popping up are annoying, but they can be solved.
Pulls in lifting can also be overcome through the repetition itself. Enough repetitions of an exercise lubricate the neuromuscular pathways, so to speak, take the brain out of the equation and make the movements smooth and automatic.
Think about backing your car into a driveway: it’s hard to keep every step right at the start. Then it is not. How do you get better at squatting? You are squatting.
Exercises worth repeating
Pavel Tsatsouline, the kettlebell guy, recommends lifting below the limit, performed over and over again, to lubricate the groove. The premise – you get better at chin-ups by doing chin-ups so you should do them as often as you can without tiring yourself – is that sub-limit work builds capacity over time.
Do a few kettlebell squats as you go into the kitchen and leave room in the tank to do more later in the day. Do five chin-ups as you pass through the doorway. And since these repetitive exercises build strength, it is not just a theoretical concept. Adding sub-limit work on top of a program improves how you move and makes you stronger. It’s an actual boost: it’s good to do more.
Formally, these sub-limit reps are expressed in many programs as volume components – where lifters do a lot of high-rep sets after a workout. This is also the reason why athletes can spell intensity periods – high weights, lower reps – with volume blocks. You do not want your squat to fail because the movement is new or foreign. Repetition is how you learn what you do and you can not cheat.
“When things go wrong in real life, we stop what we’re doing and do something else. But lifting is much simpler than that.”
It is also an abstract concept to understand, at least while training. Because no program works very fast, and since no people get strong right away, a lifter can at best put on a pound of muscle a week. This can be harder to see than a crack in a squat. We know that if we stick to repeating ourselves properly, we will become quite strong after a year, and incredibly strong after a decade. And we know that personal records pop up in the gym every now and then – old max lifts turn into work weights. But we do not exactly feel it.
Day to day, strength is mostly theoretical. Weights slowly spring up and the success of a program must be taken for granted. We believe that if we keep training and doing the right things, we will achieve the results we want.
All this effort to put on 2.5 pounds on a lift can be frustrating. But there is another way to look at it: People have done it before for a long time, and it has always taken time. Since it takes so long to get where we want, there is no point in rushing results. We have a surplus of time to repeat ourselves. We might as well enjoy it while holding down and focusing. Everyone before us who did things the right way has arrived.
Lifting thus reveals the process as the ultimate goal. It’s a liberating idea. When things go wrong in real life, we stop what we are doing and do something else. But lifting is much simpler than that. There really is only one way to do things. Success is not about reaching a goal, but figuring out how to go down the path that has gotten everyone there.
BENDAG OBSERVATOR is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column and a home for everything Leg Day is all about. Due to the complex nature of the human body, these columns are intended to be construed as introductory requests for further research and not as directives. Read previous editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.