In the coaching world, there are a lot of assumptions that have hardened into unassailable facts. These can involve the type of exercises athletes should be doing, rep and set ranges, and how to help people get bigger, stronger, or faster.
Yet over time, theory and practice in every area of life must evolve, or we just end up with stagnation.
In nutrition, for example, fat used to be the enemy. But now we’ve come to realize that the low-fat craze was just that: crazy. Or take endurance training, in which the go-to approach for decades was lots of long, slow miles. In recent years, trailblazers like my Unplugged co-author Brian Mackenzie have shown that intensity is just as much of an important consideration as volume, and that you should hit the gym as well as pound the pavement to become a better long-distance competitor.
For all these progressions, strength training is one area that seems to be still stuck in mythology and half-truths that few people question because these myths have been viewed as accepted “wisdom” for so long.
Whether it’s hypertrophy (“lift big to get big”), developing absolute strength (5x5), or so-called functional training (compound movements in; isolated variations out), it’s all too easy to get stuck in restrictive ways of thinking. Or to throw the baby out with the bathwater because an older training philosophy has been replaced by a newer one that has gained traction but is built on shaky reasoning.
As a result, our programming can get bogged down and our athletes can either plateau or get left behind by those participating in more forward-thinking practices.
In the course of this article, we’ll take a look at some enduring strength training myths and do our best to debunk them.
Myth #1: Exercises Determine Adaptation
If someone comes to you saying they want a bigger or stronger chest, what do you have them do? Probably go right to a bench, lie down, and start pressing a barbell, right? Of course most coaches have their “big rocks” – a group of foundational exercises that form the core of a program.
But exercises don’t determine adaptation: application does.
So just because you get an athlete bench pressing, doesn’t mean it’s going to allow them to reach their goals.
Technique, load, volume, and density are all important considerations. We also need to acknowledge anatomical differences. If you take two individuals and have them do the same bench press program, they’ll likely get different results - in part because there will be differences in arm length, sternum angle, shoulder dexterity, and so on.
Bodybuilder Ben Pakulski suggests that if you’re trying to have an athlete develop a certain muscle or group of muscles, you should ask them if they can feel it working. Some might dismiss this as being too subjective, but he’s right: if it doesn’t feel like it’s working, it’s probably not.
You can also correlate this with outcomes. If you’re having an athlete do something that’s supposed to get them stronger but it’s not, then something is amiss. If this is the case, you should tinker with load, sets and reps, and different variations of the exercise (e.g. incline and decline bench, using kettlebells and dumbbells, etc.) to change the stimulus.
Myth #2: Isolation Movements Are Useless
Speaking of bodybuilding, if you watch the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron or read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, you’ll see plenty of isolation exercises. Yes, in a certain era of bodybuilding, pharmacology had quite a bit to do with the superhero-like physiques of The Governator and his peers, but there was also plenty of grunt work involved.
We should also remember that strength training wouldn’t exist as it does today without Arnold and the rest making a dent in popular consciousness. Yet isolation has become a dirty word and doing curls or any other kind of single-joint movement has been cast aside in favor of a functional training philosophy.
It’s true that compound exercises involving large muscle groups and multiple joints going through full ranges of motion can be very effective. Yet this doesn’t mean that the bodybuilders were barking up the wrong training tree.
Isolation exercises do still have their place.
This isn’t to say that we should discard the current approach. Rather, we should consider adding some single muscle/joint accessory work back in when the context suggests it might be helpful.
Going back to the bench press example, you might have an athlete who has plateaued. Perhaps you’ve tried shaking up some programming variables to no avail. The issue could be that their lower pecs aren’t firing. So you could use an exercise on – gulp! – a machine (yeah, I said it) to isolate that muscle and force it to activate.
Just because a hacksaw isn’t as effective as a chainsaw in chopping down a tree, doesn’t mean that you should remove it from your toolbox. It still does a certain job very well, and the same can be true of isolation exercises. Even those involving machines.
Myth #3: Muscle Fiber Type Can’t Change
With advances in genetics has come an explosion of interest in this area, fueled by an ever-growing cottage industry claiming to use genetic testing to determine everything from your heredity to how well you process certain foods to the types of training you respond best to.
While tapping into the information previously “hidden” in your DNA seems exciting, the reality is that this field is still in its infancy. So we shouldn’t buy into the notion that when it comes to physical performance, we’re prisoners of our genetic destiny.
One example concerns muscle fiber type.
For the longest time (see: forever), we’ve been led to believe that muscle fiber type can’t change. So if some company tests you and finds that you’ve got an abundance of Type I fibers, they’ll probably steer you toward endurance training. Or if you’ve got more Type IIa fibers, then strength training’s the way ahead because you’re stuck with what you have, right? Wrong.
Our research suggests that there is no genetic fatalism where muscle fibers are concerned and that you can indeed change their type. In fact, someone that is untrained can see changes in as little as four to six weeks. It can take longer in specialized athletes, but alterations still occur. The main point here is that everything you do matters. This makes the role of long-term planning from a coaching perspective even more important.
We need to stop pigeonholing our athletes.
Myth #4: Strength Adaptations Are All Neurological
As we’ve recognized that body and brain are indivisible, the coaching community has begun to move away from thinking that every aspect of training and performance is merely physical. Having a more balanced perspective that takes into account the role of the brain and each branch of the nervous system can be positive. But not if we go too far and end up at the assumption that all strength adaptations are purely neurological.
This can be twinned with a belief that the only muscular adaptation is hypertrophy – an athlete got bigger so they’re stronger. While muscle size can certainly indicate increased strength, this is not the only way that muscles change and adapt to training stimuli.
Another way that is often dismissed because it’s invisible to the naked eye becomes apparent in our work in the lab: muscle contractility. When subjected to an adequate stimulus paired with adequate recovery, individual muscle fibers can begin producing more force and contract more quickly. This is independent of changes in the size of these fibers and/or the overall muscle. Changes in muscle fiber type (see above) can also lead to increased strength and power that, once again, does not show up in bigger muscles.
So don’t assume that just because an athlete isn’t packing on extra muscle that he or she isn’t getting stronger, or that your programming isn’t working.
Myth #5: You’ve Got to Stick to Certain Rep + Set Prescriptions to Get Stronger
In the weight room, most of us are comfortable sticking with time-tested prescriptions we believe will help our athletes reach certain goals.
- If someone wants to increase maximum strength, we have them do a lot of singles, doubles, and triples, with nothing more than six reps
- To target hypertrophy, we’re usually sticking with five to 10 rep sets
- And if strength endurance is the goal, then 10 to 15 reps seems to be the norm
- The lower the rep range, the more sets we usually do
Most of these ranges are based on years of evidence-based practice (what the science says) and, conversely, practice-based evidence (what we observe as outcomes). And yet they’re not infallible.
As every single person’s physiology is slightly different, you might do five sets of five reps of a certain exercise and obtain the desired results, whereas I follow the same method and don’t. This means we cannot be so rigid.
Yes, we can and should have principles and be aware of best practices. But one of the hallmarks of effective coaching is adaptability. If an athlete is failing to respond to your usual prescription, change it up, observe the new outcomes (or lack thereof), and then tweak the new approach as needed.
Myth #6: There Are “Good” and “Bad” Exercises
As a coach and athlete, you likely have some exercises that you enjoy doing and teaching that provide solid results for you and many of your clients. So you stick with these “good” exercises most of the time. Some common examples are the squat and deadlift.
In reverse, you probably have some other exercises that you don’t like doing and aren’t confident in instructing, or that haven’t delivered the kind of adaptations you’re looking for in your athletes. So you steer clear of them. The same can be true for those moves that have fallen out of favor, such as the curls we mentioned earlier and crunches.
We often fail to recognize our bias and prejudice in such good/bad labeling.
One of the pitfalls is that in doing so, we’re assuming that just because we like an exercise or athletes have generally responded well with it, that it’s going to work for everyone all the time. This simply isn’t the case. Sure, most people might be able to master a barbell deadlift and benefit from it. But not all athletes will. Reasons can include injury, limited mobility and motor control, and asymmetry.
Rather than pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach founded on dogmatism, try to pay more attention to such factors and how each athlete is doing with the exercises you have them perform. If somebody is struggling with the barbell deadlift, for example, you could have them try a kettlebell variation. No luck? Then maybe they don’t understand the hip hinge, and you need to scale back to doing good mornings with a barbell or PVC pipe for a while.
We should try to be similarly open-minded when it comes to “bad” exercises. Crunches and curls, for example, can be quite effective if applied correctly. Of course, if someone is rocking backwards to move more weight than they can handle in a curl or yanking on their neck while performing a crunch, then they’re going to have problems.
How well we execute an exercise and where it fits with other elements of your programming are the keys, not the activities themselves. Anything done poorly can be “bad.” To build strength or any other physical quality, we need to train movement patterns, not specific exercises.