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Don't let Overly-Strict Training Advice Take the Joy Out of Your Time in the Gym

As I've written before, my friend Laszlo Bencze travels the world taking wonderful photos [www.lbencze.com] commissioned by national and international companies, you'd recognize most of them by name.  He also takes unique and often breathtaking wedding photos: www.laszlophoto.com (weddings). In the course of pursuing his profession, he trains in gyms everywhere, and has occasion to observe many people training by themselves, with friends and under the supervision of personal trainers. He sees things that often puzzle and disturb him. "I'm coming to the conclusion that one reason people drop out of weight training is that they are coached to perform the movements very strictly--way too strict," he wrote in a recent email exchange. "Goodness, it is mentally taxing because it is so unsatisfying to the soul." I asked him to share his observations and thoughts with our visitors. He has done so as only he can. (For more about Laszlo's background see article # 52 in our Psychology and Motivation category.)

Wiggle and Sway

by Laszlo Bencze

Doing it the Ultra Correct Way

I see a woman doing curls with what appear to be 3 lb. dumbbells. The low weight is just fine. Where you start never matters. It’s where you’re headed that counts. But she’s leaning her back against a squat rack and doing them in super slow, strict style. Oh, oh. Her personal trainer must have read an article on the “correct” way to do curls and now she’s burdened with the stifling effects of this knowledge.

If you’re having an arm curling contest and want to eliminate as many variables as possible, well then it might make sense to lean against a post, no hip thrust, no body sway. While you’re at it, you might as well strap your shoulders to the rack to eliminate that last vestige of squirming. Then you and your training buddy can figure out once and for all whose biceps are stronger.

But it’s downright depressing to see a raw beginner train in this unpleasant, ultra-strict style. The body craves the freedom of a bit of wiggle and sway. It’s natural. It allows the movement to flow smoothly and satisfyingly. If we eliminate these little satisfactions and turn training into grim, mechanical movements, we eliminate joy. Without joy, there’s no incentive. Without incentive, there’s no training.

So loosen up. Grab a barbell and stand with it. Don’t worry about a bit of body motion. It’s natural and it will help you feel good about your training.

Update: I have never tried doing arm curls in the way I describe above...until today. I wanted to see what ultra strict form felt like. So I picked up a barbell and leaned back against a squat cage with my feet out in front so I couldn't move my torso at all. I started out light with 70 lbs then moved up to 95 which was a lot harder. A jump to 105 was hugely more difficult and I topped out at 110 for a set of six. (I regularly work with 135 and have handled as much as 155 for reps in the arm curl.)

What I learned from this first workout is that training in this style is exactly what I said it was: unpleasant and unsatisfying. It felt more like I was part of a medical experiment than doing bodybuilding. Each rep begins from a dead stop which alone is uncomfortable. Then the movement upwards is jerky and irregular because your arms are very weak in some positions, much stronger in others. There's no torso movement to even things out. Frankly it feels awkward and unathletic to train this way.
I'm going to stick with the ultra strict style for a few more workouts just to see what happens. However, I can say right now, with certainty, that this is an exercise only for advanced trainers with extreme levels of commitment. I would never in a million years recommend it to a beginner.

Working out on Beach Balls

OK. OK. I know they’re called “balance balls” and they’re supposed to do wonderful things for you, like develop balance. But what sort of balance are you developing when you lie on a big ball and wave dumbbells around? In real life, only auto mechanics ever need to lie on their backs to do anything useful; but even they are not likely to be lifting anything heavier than a wrench and oil filter in that position and they’re certainly not going to be lying on a ball when they do it. I can’t think of any sport (other than power lifting) that emphasizes lying down.

Yet lately it seems that every beginner is asked to do exercises while wobbling on balance balls. This certainly makes the exercise harder but does it make it better? Lifting weights correctly is tough enough when lying on a stable surface. The point is to lift more weight and get strong. Balance balls make it tough to lift anything heavy. But unless you lift heavy, you won’t get strong. So dump the balance ball lifting—please! Tell your personal trainer your religion doesn’t permit close contact with balls. Just use a sturdy bench and  focus on using good form and a decent amount of weight.

I suspect that balance balls will soon go the way of leg warmers: just another fad.

The College Workout

The classic mistake made by older men who take up weight training is the “back when I was in college” syndrome. Yeah, back when you were in college your coach forced you through some insane workouts founded on ignorance, misunderstanding, and stupidity. You did them because you were young and you could. So you walk in the gym and figure you’ll cut back to half the weight you used to do. But you’re still trying to squeeze in three sets of twelve different exercises during a two and a half hour workout. Well, that’s still a stupid workout. Over-training in this way results in intense soreness, possibly injury, and discouragement. Plus it’s boring. It’s tough to keep it up for more than a week or two. Typically, the “back when I was in college” trainer quits because “it didn’t work.” But trying to teach an eight-year old calculus won’t work either.

Be reasonable. Dump those tiresome old ideas of what a workout is supposed to be. Start from scratch. Use time, not sets and reps, as your guide. Keep your initial workouts brief. Half an hour is fine. If that means you can only do three exercises per workout, that, too, is fine. In this case less truly is more. Do a few basic exercises with focus and passion and the gains will come. Then slowly build up to a one hour workout, which should be the maximum time you spend in the gym for any single workout.

Seated Exercises

Everyone is exercising sitting down. Why? Is it the influence of exercise machines that have made us all so used to the notion of sitting while exercising? Is it fear of “throwing my back out?”  Whatever it is, forget about it. Try doing those pressing movements while standing up. Sure, if you get sloppy you might strain your lower back. But the point is to not get sloppy! That’s one of the things you learn in your weight training and you become a better person because of it. So stand up straight, tighten those spinal erectors, and push the weight over your head. You’ll notice a bit of wiggle and sway (not too much) and that’s fine. You’re involving your whole body and the exercise is better for it. Besides, you’ll be able to lift more weight and that will result in faster gains. Faster gains mean more satisfaction. More satisfaction means not quitting.

Dumbbells vs. Barbells

There’s no question that dumbbells allow for some great workouts. But any experienced trainer also knows they are much harder to lift than barbells. If you can just press a hundred pound barbell ten times, trust me, you won’t be able to lift two fifty pound dumbbells ten times. You’d be lucky to get eight reps but more likely, you’d conk out at five or six. It takes greater effort to control the independent movement of dumbbells.

By the same token, if you can press two fifty pounders ten times lifting a hundred pound barbell would be a breeze. You could probably handle a hundred and twenty for the same reps. And this brings me to my point: for a raw beginner, dumbbell lifting is just too hard. Yet most beginners, especially women, head right for the dumbbell rack when it comes to free weight exercises. The net result is they have to choose weights that are pathetically light in order to get them up at all. And the result of that is frustration and slow gains.

Beginners should train exclusively with barbells.  Save the dumbbell exercises for a challenging change of pace a few months down the road. Put your effort into building a solid foundation of strength and mass rather than trying to corral wayward dumbbells.

Feet-up Bench Presses

These seem to have become de rigueur in most chain gyms. You see someone lie down on a bench, then they put their feet up onto the end of the bench and with knees pressed together, they do a few light reps. Well of course they’re going to be light reps. No one wants to fall off a bench with 225 on the bar!

So what’s the point? Gaining balance? Nah. The issue is the same as working out on balance balls. Or does it protect your back? Yes, I’ve heard this claim. Putting your feet up causes the the spine to relax into a flat position. Supposedly this is safer than having the back in the curved power position. But that’s absurd: the curvature of the spine with contracted erectors is the safest possible position for the spine and the only position that allows heavy weights to be lifted.

My advice is to dump this silly variant. If you want to do bench presses, put your feet flat on the floor, keep your butt down, tighten the lower back, and with this stable base, lift the weight. Put your effort into developing your chest and anterior delts with a decent amount of weight rather than focusing on not falling off the bench.

Twisty-Wristy Exercises

Just the other day I was at a gym in Dallas watching a fellow seated on a bench, his elbow resting on his thigh, while he whipped a ten pound dumbbell back and forth like a cheerleader twirling a baton. Whew! As bold as I am, I was scared to talk to him. I’ve learned that people who do exercises this foolish often have a tenuous grasp on reality. You don’t want to walk directly into their sights or one of their personalities might dump on you. But clearly, his “exercise” was pure ballistics. He had no hope of improving strength but plenty of opportunity for injuring himself.

This wrist twisting habit just gets in the way of having a good workout. It’s most often encountered in dumbbell bench pressing. The trainer starts off with one grip at the bottom of the move and twists as he lifts into another grip at the top. The gain in terms of strength? Nothing. It’s a pointless interference with being able to expend maximum effort.

So please dump these silly twisty moves. Decide what grip you’re going to use for an exercise and stick with it all the way through. By so doing, you’ll be able to focus on what’s really important: lifting the weight. If you’ve been exercising the twisty-wristy way, odds are you will instantly be able to lift more weight with a fixed grip. And, as I’ve said so many times, lifting more weight is the point.

Standing Firm

Here's one I'm encountering more and more often in my travels from gym to gym. I see someone set to do an overhead lift, typically dumbbell presses. So far so good. It's satisfying to see this classic exercise making a come back. But then I look at the person's feet. They're split fore and aft instead being side by side. Often the rear foot is on pointe like a ballet dancer's. Moreover I see a personal trainer standing nearby encouraging the lifter. Obviously the stance has his approval. But it's a terrible, unstable, awkward stance to use! No strong man will ever lift anything overhead unless his feet are in the normal strength position, side by side, shoulder width apart. The fore and aft stance makes lateral control very difficult. Ask any Olympic lifter how stable he feels in a deep split position when he recovers from a jerk. The answer is he'd like to get out of that position as quickly as possible so he can have his feet side by side and be in control.

So please dump this odd, ineffective stance when you lift things overhead. Just use the good old reliable side by side stance and lift more weight.

 Barely There Squats

As an old Olympic style lifter, this one really sticks in my craw. I’ll see some trussed up fellow in tight jeans, heavy knee wraps, and a thick leather belt wobble out of the squat rack with a heavy laden bar. Expecting to see a magnificent set, I pause and watch. Slowly his knees begin to bend and then they immediately straighten. Wait a minute. They barely bent at all. That’s no squat. That’s more like a curtsey in front of the Queen. A few more curtsies and he’s back in the rack soaking up accolades from his spotters.

Beyond its meager entertainment value the exercise was unproductive. A squat is not a squat unless you go deep enough that your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. And going deeper into a full squat is not harmful but beneficial to both strength and flexibility. If you can, go all the way down. This applies to both men and women, beginners and advanced trainees. It’s going deep that fully engages the hips which are the body’s wellspring of strength. Anyone who can squat strong is strong.

The keys to good squatting form are:

1. Keeping a tight back with the spine in its natural power curve

2. Placing the bar slightly below the base of the neck so it’s supported by the trapezius and upper back

3. Going down in a slow controlled movement with no bounce at the bottom

4. Coming up without changing the angle of the back at all (i.e., without raising the butt and tipping forward)

If you’ve been squatting in the style I mock, the most important thing you can do when you switch to good squatting form is to take a huge reduction in weight. If you’ve been squatting 315, drop to 185. If you’re squatting 200, drop to 135. If you’re squatting 135, drop to the bare bar. Then do your squats with concentration and care. You will find your gains will be not only rapid but solid. By the time you get back to squatting deeply with the weight you used to curtsey with, you will be a different person, a truly strong person who is confident and capable when it comes to any weight training whatsoever.

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