Back when I first started training, things were easy. We read bodybuilding magazines because they were the only thing available, and followed all the routines in them. That usually meant picking a big exercise like squats, bench, or rows for the big muscle groups, followed by lighter accessory exercises.
Then functional training happened, and with it came Instagram. With the advent of what I call Insecuregram (because everyone on it seems to be stronger, leaner, and faster than me), suddenly we all want to do everything. No longer are handstands and levers just part of a gymnast’s training, and no longer do bumper plates only exist in a few dusty old weightlifting clubs. Now, everything is everywhere.
This increased access is not necessarily bad. There are a great host of benefits to be had from following programs like Gymnastic Bodies Foundation series or 5/3/1. Both have produced many people who have gained strength and power.
But how do you know whether it’s in your best interest to sling heavy weights around or do bodyweight exercises instead? Some will say both, particularly if you compete in CrossFit-style competitions, as you will have to perform complex skills like muscle ups and handstand walks. But what if you competes in something else?
If your sport involves moving an external load, like wrestling or football, then you will need to lift some heavy weights. If your sport involves moving your own mass, then just use bodyweight training.
If you are in a sport where you needs to move an opponent around – like wrestling, BJJ, Judo, or rugby – then you’ll need maximal strength. This means you need to focus on exercises based on moving an external load. He also needs what you might call a strength reserve. While you can manipulate leverage in bodyweight exercises to make them harder, he will still only ever get good at moving his own mass. If he develops some horsepower in the gym and gets used to moving loads far greater than his own mass, then when it comes to taking someone down he will have enough juice to do so.
If your client is a runner, cyclist, triathlete, or stand-up martial artist like a kickboxer, the situation is different. You need to focus on exercises based on moving their own mass. If your client spends a lot of time lifting heavy things, he is going to gain weight. And every kilogram he gains means being slower. Your client will still benefit from a little bit of strength work, but he will probably be able to gain all the benefit he needs for maximal strength from a single exercise per session. The rest of his gains will come from sport-specific strength drills like hill running, sprints, and jumping rather than chasing big numbers in the weight room.
There is another group that straddles these two – the masters athlete. Masters will always benefit from the addition of strength work to help avoid any age-related loss of muscle and bone density. I am always amazed at the sheer lack of strength training by older athletes. The loss of speed and power associated with ageing are well documented and even more prolific amongst endurance athletes.
The problem is that if you have been a lifelong athlete and have a body riddled with aches and pains (like me), a lot of heavy lifting isn’t going to help. In fact, it may make the issues much worse. If this is you then you need a combination of the two to allow you to keep training despite all the old battle scars you may have.
3-5 big exercises per session, for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. Whatever mass is gained in the pursuit of improving performance in your sport is acceptable, as long as strength goes up in accordance with weight gains.
One big exercise per session. Use a maximum of 3 sets of 3-5 reps. Rest as long as possible. A major reason for mass gain is accumulated lactic acid in the muscle, which drives growth hormone production. Avoid anything that even starts to resemble a heavy conditioning circuit.
Prescribe as many bodyweight accessory drills as needed with a focus on core work. Bodyweight drills don’t need to be performed for low reps. In fact, a focus on higher reps will be useful, as most who fall into this category are involved in some type of endurance activity and muscular endurance is important.
Pick two big exercises that don’t compete, such as front squats and pull ups, and prescribe them for 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps each. Pick another exercise and use a hypertrophy range of 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.
Prescribe as many bodyweight accessory drills as needed, focusing particularly on those that improve range of motion, such as handstands, pistols, and core work. The addition of functional range of motion and flexibility will do wonders, and the core work will help stave off the back complaints suffered by so many in middle age.
For the majority of other sessions, get out of the gym. Make sure to spend enough time on sport skills and/ or participating in athletic activities. If you want to be athletic, then you needs to train like an athlete, and that means more time playing and less time training in the gym.