Men's Life Today: Muscle
7 Lessons Learned As a Trainer
By Ethan Boldt
I like to think I know it all when it comes to training. After all, I’ve been a workout fanatic for 25 years and was certified as a trainer (NSCA-CPT) in 2004. My clients depend on me to know what the best program is for them and what their results will be. But the truth is, my recommendations have evolved over time, as I’ve experimented with my own workout routines and noticed certain things in the field (and in the gyms).
I can’t guarantee my advice won’t keep evolving, but for right now, these are the seven most significant lessons I’ve learned over the years. Incorporating them into my own workouts has made a world of difference. I hope they can do the same for you.
Abandon the straight set.
Life is too short to do a set of exercises, rest for 30 seconds to a minute, repeat the set, rest, repeat. You’re much better off coupling that exercise with one or two more exercises for different muscle groups. This allows you to: 1) use your time more efficiently; 2) burn more calories; 3) stimulate more muscle fibers in the body; and 4) have a more interesting workout.
This is the favored approach of NBA athletes because it keeps their muscles in top gear during the season and saves time. A “combination set” might involve using a squat rack to do 10 pull-ups, then 10 squats, then 10 chest presses, then 10 stiff-leg deadlifts, with nary any rest in between -- then resting 30 seconds before repeating two to three times.
Lose the old-school training routine.
In related news, the standard old “chest/shoulder/triceps” and “back/biceps” workouts should be dead and buried. Both your shoulders and triceps are already too pre-exhausted from blasting your chest to get an effective workout. The same goes for the “back/biceps” routine. Instead, go with a routine that works your agonist and antagonist muscles -- for example, chest/back on Day 1, quads/hams on Day 2 and biceps/triceps and shoulders on Day 3.
Cheap dumbbells beat any machine.
If you value your wrist, elbow and shoulder joints, and want to access the deepest fibers in your muscles, use dumbbells instead of machines. The average exercise machine locks your joints into a prescribed motion pattern that might not be natural for your body. It also removes the requirement to balance the weight and thus takes away one of the beneficial aspects of weightlifting.
For even more total body benefit, switch out that bench for a Swiss ball -- for DB bench presses, for example, and even the DB back row.
Do abs early and often.
Abs used to get worked like all other muscles, two or three times a week. The problem is that they’re not like other muscles: They’re mostly fast-twitch and thus, recover very quickly, so you can work them practically every day. And if you’re like most men and it’s the muscle group you care about most, you should do them at the beginning of your workout to make sure you train them effectively.
5. Stop isolating your abs.
If you’re still doing crunches and sit-ups for your abs, it’s time for an upgrade. First, start calling it your “core” routine and invite other muscles into the mix. Your goal now is to: 1) develop the entire midsection, including all parts of your abs as well as the lower back; and 2) create the powerhouse that will both improve performance in any sport and keep you from injury.
Do moves like burpees, mountain climbers and supermans that hit a lot of muscles, with the core at the center of it all.
6. More is not better.7.
Bodyweight moves can be enough -- for more muscle and less
We’re still in the age of “no pain, no gain,” but as this recent compressed NBA season demonstrated, too much exertion too often can result in injury. Plenty of guys still think they have to live in the gym for two hours a day and do an insane number of sets and reps in order to grow muscle. Those kinds of workouts are really only appropriate for steroid users, to be honest. For strength training, your workout should never go beyond 45 minutes to an hour.
Common wisdom used to be that weights were essential to build a muscular physique. That has changed big time. The guys in the popular exercise DVD series “Insanity” prove that bodyweight moves can be all you need to both build muscle and get lean. In other words, gym memberships that give you access to all that expensive equipment aren’t necessary for muscle, and intensive cardio isn’t crucial for fat-burning. A workout composed of pull-ups, push-ups, jumping exercises, core moves, speed maneuvers and a big mixture of all that can give you a seriously athletic body.
Ethan Boldt writes regularly on fitness for Men’s Health, SELF, Maximum Fitness and Men's Life Today. The co-author (along with celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak) of 5-Factor Fitness, he is currently writing a book with Derrick Rose’s trainer, Rob McClanaghan.