Blasting some dumbbell curls and getting a sick arm pump is great. Lateral squats and other frontal plane work is crucial to stay strong and keep your hips, knees, ankles, and back healthy. There’s probably even a place for doing a few sets of calf raises if you have the time and give a damn about the aesthetics.
But none of these things give you as much bang for your buck as presses, rows, chin ups, squats, and hip hinging variations. When you think about the amount of musculature used to do a heavy set of 5 split squats and compare it to the stress you accrue in a set of EZ bar curls, it’s not even close.
So why do so many people do 3 sets of 10 of every damn exercise in their program?
Because it’s the way they’ve always done it.
I remember hearing a story once, and whether or not it’s true doesn’t matter-let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good tale. The story says that in World War 2, the Germans had a gun that could fire 4 times as fast as the American’s standard issue rifle, so the Army Corp of Engineers was called in to redesign the weapon so that it could fire rounds faster.
I mean, this was a pretty serious situation, and the fate of the planet was literally up in the air. No pressure, guys.
Well, they looked at the plans of all of the previous models, and they all said fire once, then wait 10 seconds before firing again, but they couldn’t understand what the wait was for. They kept going back further and further until they got to the earliest manual.
Well the earliest manual the engineers found was for a cannon, and it said to wait 10 seconds after each fire to let the horses settle down.
So for the next 100 years or whatever, they just kept repeating it, even though it made no sense given the current situation!
People just do things the way they’ve always done it.
Potentially fake story aside, the point is we need to do things differently than most people if we want to keep getting better, considering the majority of the population is over fat and under muscled. This means that there needs to be more focus placed on the compound movements that get you stronger, with just a sprinkle of the isolation stuff mixed in. Maybe that means some days there is a little pump work, but it also means that at the end of your training week, you didn’t do an equal number of sets for biceps and your entire lower body.
And while we’re talking about how to allot our training time, let’s talk volume a bit. Most of your work should be done for 5-8 reps or so. If you did nothing but that for the rest of your life and just got stronger at front squats, dumbbell overhead presses, chin ups, rows, and single leg squats in that range, you’d be pretty damn strong and well rounded for whatever activities float your boat.
This is why thinking about training in terms of movements is so crucial. If we can accept that the fundamental movement patterns are:
and we hammer those, then no muscles are forgotten about. On the flip side, if we think about training hamstrings or lats, then we are leaving a lot of meat on the bone, so to speak.
Think about structuring your training blocks like this to make sure you spend your energy and time where it needs to:
1A. Lower Body Squat, Deadlift, or Lunge Variation 3-5×5-8
1B. Chin Up Variation 3-5×5-8
1C. Core-Anti Extension 2×8
2A. Single Leg Work 3-5×5-8
2B. Row Variation 3-5×5-8
2C. Mobility Drill or Core Work
Isolation work: Calves, biceps, triceps, etc. 2-3 x8-20
The first block is the stuff that you need to do. If you just do that consistently, you’ll make progress. That’s your “green light” stuff. Don’t miss it. Ever.
The second block is the nice to do block. It’s important, and will certainly play a big role in your gaining muscle and getting stronger, but if you’re in a time crunch on occasion and need to bail after getting just the first block in, then you’ll be ok. Just don’t miss the first block. Ever.
The last block is the if I have time, energy, and give a damn block. Basically, it contributes such a small bit to your training that I don’t even think it’s worth programming and just toss it in here and there. Or never. It doesn’t matter. Just don’t miss the first block. Ever. And don’t miss the 2nd block often.
The problem is, most of the stuff I see in the gym is that these blocks get totally flip flopped, and the majority of time and effort is spent on 8 different types of cable crossovers and 17 different angles of tricep pressdowns, that there’s no time or energy left for anything that matters.
If you change your verbiage from “working out” to “getting strong,” you’ll start to train accordingly. I don’t think you have to exclude all isolation work, but use it like the sprinkles while the ice cream consists of the multi joint strength exercises that cover you major movement patterns.
And if you are looking for a program where this is actually put in practice, sign up for my weekly newsletter and you’ll receive a code in your email for access to my eBook “6 Week Strength Camp,” which has both beginner and advanced training programs included. I’ll never spam you, and just shoot you a weekly email with my recent articles and some training/nutrition/life stuff that I find on the internet that I think will make your existence better.