by TC T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• If after several years of training you're still weak, there's a good chance you need to rethink your ideas about squats and deadlifts; that you've got no love for the upper body squat; that steroids misled you about a basic training principle; and that you work muscles instead of movements.
• If after several years of training you're still fat, there's a good chance you need to rethink your ideas about eating 6 meals a day and doing fasted cardio.
• If you're still skinny, there's a good chance your ideas about post-workout nutrition are 10 years old and your definition of recovery days needs an adjustment.
Convention dictates that I write an intro to this article, but this article is about defenestrating convention and tweaking your strength-building or fat-burning or bodybuilding perspective a little to the left or to the right, so screw a drawn-out intro. The title says it all.
1. You Do Conventional Squats and Deadlifts.
Forget squats. Forget deadlifts. Oh, I can almost feel all that angry air being displaced by the throbbing veins on the temples of the collective weightlifters of the world! Go ahead, throw me in prison for heresy like they did to Galileo. Listen, unless you're a powerlifter, you don't need those movements. For one thing, these movements are so blasted technique-driven that the average lifter needs a full-time squat or deadlift coach to constantly monitor and adjust his form.
Moreover, it's damn hard for the average person to get into the right squat or deadlift position without devoting more hours to mobility work than one of those grizzled Indian yogis in tattered homespun rags. I mean think about it. When was the last time you saw somebody doing squats or deadlifts – outside of Dave Tate's gym – where you didn't shake your head, spit a loogie at a stray dog, and mentally make a list of the things that person was doing wrong?
And, as far as exercises go, they're rather inefficient. Whenever you do a conventional squat or deadlift, particularly the squat, the resistance is so far away from the hip (the pivot point or axis of rotation) that the back has to act like a fulcrum to lift the weight. The limiting factor isn't necessarily the strength or power of your legs, but the health of your spine and the strength and endurance of your spinal erectors.
What I’m suggesting instead is that bodybuilders, at least, transition to trap bar squats and deadlifts.
The trap bar allows you to step inside it, thereby shortening the distance between the resistance and the hips, which reduces the force on the spine and allows the quad dominant and hip dominant muscles to express their true strength. The trap bar lets you move more weight over a greater distance a lot faster, which is the very prescription for strength and power.
The trap bar also requires a lot less technique. You can truly just grip it and rip it, and you can turn it from a trap bar deadlift to a trap bar squat just by making a simple mental adjustment. Pull through your heels using the glutes and hamstrings and it's a deadlift movement. Push through the balls of your feet with your quads and it's a squat.
Finally, a trap bar squat is much, much easier on the knees than a traditional squat. When the weight is on your shoulders, you're sort of like the poor, miserable circus bear riding a bicycle for Scooby snacks – the bear is the weight and the bicycle is your knees. In other words, your knees have to balance all that weight and any perturbations at the top are magnified when the knees – so far away – have to compensate for them. Not so with trap bar lifts; the weight is right there, just a couple of feet below the knees and balance and all that patellar grinding isn't an issue.
So, unless the conventional squat and deadlift are part of your sport, or you have some romantic affection/affiliation with them, replace them with trap bar lifts. You'll instantly feel true love, and you'll soon be stronger, bigger, faster, and healthier.
2. Your Definition of Recovery Days is Too Damn Literal.
No one ever actually makes improvements from training. Instead, they make improvements from recovering from training. Rest is essential. Sleep is essential. Having virgins from Mt. Olympus gently massage fragrant balms and emollients into your sore muscles while Aphrodite strums her harp is essential, too. Yawn. You've heard all that stuff before. However, too many people take the concept of recovery to an extreme. Unless you ran an ultra-marathon while carrying an Atlas stone or got saddled with cleaning the **** out of Zeus' horse stalls or any of the other seven labors of Hercules, you don't need to spend days off by emulating a corpse in a Barcalounger. Instead, practice active recovery techniques like Prowler pushes, kettlebell swings, sledgehammer work, or even riding a bicycle up some hills.
Weight training involves both eccentric and concentric movements, but it's the eccentric movements that can cause damage to the muscle, and it's essentially the eccentric activity that you need to recover from. Movements like the ones I listed above, though, are considered non-eccentric or mostly non-eccentric movements. As such, you can do them on your recovery days or off days to further your physique-honing progress.
I'm not suggesting you do these movements on every off day from the gym, but there's no reason you can't do them twice a week. For instance, if you work a two-day on, one-day off split, practice active recovery on the two off days and rest in a Barcalounger on the seventh day.
3. Your Ideas About Peri-Workout Nutrition Are 10 Years Old.
It's likely you learned most about the way you eat and what you eat before and after your workout from a 10-year-old copy of Muscle & Fitness. You probably remember it; the cover featured a hot, adoring girl in a thong holding onto a bodybuilder, one hand copping a feel of his massive pec and the other pulling on his shorts as if she's about to shove some money or at least some valuable Arby's coupons down there, which, come to think of it, pretty much describes all the covers. Anyhow, the magazine instructed you to eat a protein meal about an hour before you work out and then eat again about an hour after the workout.
Fair enough, but let's look at what happens when you do it that way. The pre-workout meal would raise insulin levels and the nutrients you ingested would piggyback onto the hormone and be ferried off to muscle cells. That's good, but unfortunately, insulin levels are likely pretty much back to normal by the time you start your workout, allowing the antagonistic hormone glucagon to start robbing muscles of amino acids so it can convert them to glucose that the muscles need for fuel. Other catabolic hormones like epinephrine and cortisol have also been summoned from the depths and they begin robbing the body of more energy, often from protein itself, and the harder the workout, the greater this breakdown of protein.
Sure, Testosterone, GH, and IGF-1 have been summoned, too, but their numbers are too small and their appearance is too transient to fight back. Insulin could fight back, too, but it's in short supply now, also.
After the workout, this Luddite of a lifter goes home and pours a protein shake down his gullet, but by this time, his muscle cells are pretty much deaf, dumb, and blind to any rise in insulin. As a result, insulin can carry amino acids to the doors of the muscle cells and knock as loud as it wants to, but insulin will turn the TV down real low and pretend no one's home. Without a place to go, many of the glucose molecules end up going to the homeless shelter known as Fatty Town for storage. And sure, while protein won't be stored as fat, it'll get the bums rush to the liver, which is a kind of purgatory for unused amino acids. There they'll sit, reading pulp fiction and religious missives and bumming smokes until they're summoned.
The net result of this type of workout nutrition is that there's probably little to no anabolic stimulus or resultant muscle growth, and there might even be some fat storage. However, we now know how to manipulate all these hormones and nutrients to a much greater degree. The enlightened lifter still has a protein drink before his workout, but it's a bit more sophisticated than what was used in the past. This modern drink contains unique di- and tripeptides that are directly absorbed into the bloodstream, along with a healthy bolus of easily digested functional carbohydrates. Insulin starts to surge, of course, and the glucose and amino acids are carried to the muscle cells.
Fifteen minutes prior to the workout, the modern, nutrition savvy lifter ingests another blend of functional carbohydrate and quick-acting protein. This is to ensure that insulin is still flowing and working at peak capacities. During the workout itself, our modern-day lifter continues to sip on this same protein/carb blend. By now, during what would normally be the most metabolically devastating part of the workout, his insulin levels are high and the antagonistic hormones like glucagon and the catabolic ones like cortisol and epinephrine are all locked in the basement, afraid to come out. Instead of being besieged by bad chemicals, the muscles are in effect being foie gras-ed – being force-fed nutrients so anabolic processes can be carried out.
After the workout, our modern lifter fixes himself another small protein drink or "pulse," and since his muscle cells are still sensitive to insulin, the just introduced di- and tripeptides are quickly carried off to the still greedy muscle cells. The net result of this evolved approach is super high protein synthesis, low levels of catabolic hormones, and increased fat oxidation. And, if you were somehow able to weigh the muscles of this evolved lifter, you'd see that his muscles are actually heavier than they would be if this lifter had followed the old Muscle & Fitness approach.
The message should be clear. Throw away all those old magazines and practice state-of-the-art peri-workout nutrition.
4. You Eat 6 Meals a Day.
I know, the subtitle above has you making sad little mewling noises while scratching your head (and your round little belly). Everyone's been telling you to eat six meals a day since the day you got interested in creating a buffitudinous body. This bit of advice is so pervasive that it's even trickled down into to mainstream beauty parlor magazines like Glamour and Better Homes and Gardens.
The premise was to never really allow yourself to get hungry and to keep blood sugar levels "steady." The trouble is, there's no evidence to suggest that it works, and there's plenty of evidence that it doesn't work. All you have to do is look around you and see that even in the gym, pudginess rules.
It has to do with insulin, of course. In normal, healthy people, glucose is taken up by the bloodstream and moved into the interior of cells where it's burned as fuel. This process is mediated by insulin, which is produced by the pancreas after you eat a meal. However, in diabetics, glucose builds up in the blood as the cells aren't able to utilize it properly, which is a condition called insulin resistance.
Type II diabetics are plagued by insulin resistance. That means that they can't adequately handle the amounts of glucose in their blood. They've eaten so much or eaten so poorly that the cells are reluctant to utilize sugar, so the stubborn but valiant pancreas keeps producing more and more insulin to no avail. As long as the beta cells of the pancreas are able to throw enough insulin at the cells to overcome the resistance, you're okay; blood glucose can stay in the healthy range. Over time, though, insulin resistance builds up, and it can lead to pre-diabetes or type II diabetes because the beat up cells can't keep up with the increased need for insulin.
Unfortunately, you may already be teetering on the brink of insulin resistance because you've been keeping insulin levels perpetually elevated, courtesy of that "6 meal a day" chestnut that's considered bodybuilding dogma. While your cells were once keenly sensitive to insulin, they've now grown dopey and sluggish like a punch-drunk fighter.
So, if the word "beefy" describes your physique, if you eat carbohydrates indiscriminately, and it would take the combined Navies of the U.S., Australia, and Malaysia to find your missing jetliner of a set of abs, you're probably at least a bit glucose intolerant and insulin resistant.
To change this, consider eating 3 or 4 meals a day instead of 6. Have a large breakfast with protein, smart fats, and functional carbohydrates, and the same for lunch. Have a mid-afternoon protein "pulse," followed by a dinner of protein and healthy fats. On workout days, do the same thing, except replace your lunch with your peri-workout nutrition plan. Lastly, consider using something to increase insulin sensitivity so that you can eat more (carbohydrates included) while getting leaner and simultaneously more muscular.
5. You Work Muscles Instead of Movements.
A few years ago I visited one of those unsettling body exhibits that features long dead, desiccated Chinese convicts that were in desperate need of some Nivea. While I walked through the exhibit with a perpetual grimace, I couldn't help noticing how the musculatures didn't look anything like the classic Grey's-anatomy style drawing you see in every chiropractor's office. The muscles seemed hopelessly intertwined and interconnected and it dawned on me how ridiculous it was to assume that you could actually isolate a muscle in an exercise. Any movement you make involves an orchestra of muscles.
This is why splitting up workouts by body part seems inefficient or at worst, deleterious to your progress. In a traditional workout scheme, you might work chest one day, shoulders the next, and then triceps the next. Since those workouts involve multiple muscles, you'd be training triceps and, to a lesser extent, the anterior delts, three days in a row! If you train back one day by doing bent-over rows and you train hamstrings the next by doing Romanian deadlifts, you're actually training the hamstrings two days in a row because bent-over rows involve one long static hamstring hold.
If that doesn't fit the definition of overtraining, I don't know what does. However, push-pull workouts avoid all that by grouping all the muscles involved in pulling (backs, biceps, rear delts, traps, forearms, hamstrings) and all the muscles involved in pushing (chest, triceps, quads, lateral and medial delts) together. By separating the body parts by function, you're also able to hit the gym more often because your muscles stay fresh.
6. Steroids Misled You About a Basic Training Principle.
Hypertrophy is not a localized process; at least it isn't those of us who don't suckle at the teat of the goddess Steroidia. Instead, it's systemic. What I mean by that is that for the most part, given sufficient stimulus, muscle growth happens all over your body instead of in one teeny location. As such, doing work that puts a big load on the whole body – putting a big load on the spine – will cause more growth in your biceps than working the biceps directly. To put it another way, doing trap-bar deadlifts will generally do more to make your arms bigger than doing curls.
That wild wag Charles Poliquin has often written that in order to gain an inch of circumference on your arms, you need to gain about 15 pounds of muscle, and he's pretty much right. If it were otherwise, you'd surely see guys walking around who trained nothing but biceps and as a result were inverse T-Rex types that had huge arms and tiny little bodies and ate cans of spinach instead of Iguanodons. But you don't.
Now a biceps specific program will surely add some size to your arms as long as you're doing everything else right, but the results would generally pale in comparison to what you'd get if you did a program that was biased towards the deadlift or some other big total body movement. Likewise, a biceps-specific program would help if you've been doing the big movements all along but need a bit of an area-specific catalyst.
Steroids, however, make your whole body ultra-responsive to any kind of mechanical stress. If you're using sufficient quantities of steroids, anything works. The trouble is, all those countless body-specific routines issued through countless bodybuilding mags by thousands of top-level bodybuilders did us all a huge disservice. They made many of us concentrate on curls and kickbacks and shrugs and anterior delt raises and leg extensions and the like when we should have spent a lot of that time putting big systemic loads on our spine with compound movements.
7. You've Got No Love for the "Upper Body Squat."
Reason #6 explained how muscle growth is systemic rather than site specific or localized, and that doing work that puts a big load on the body like trap-bar squats or trap-bar deadlifts ultimately causes more growth than working directly on your biceps, triceps, delts, etc. Well, if the squat and the deadlift are the lower-body big systemic movements, the loaded pull-up is the upper-body big systemic movement. While the pull-up doesn't do much for the legs, of course, it will work a whole bunch of upper-body muscles like the lats, the brachialis, the brachioradialis, the biceps brachii, the teres minor, teres major, deltoids, infraspinatus, rhomboids, levator scapulae, trapezius, pectoralis major and minor, and even the triceps brachii. In short, it has exceptional mass-building attributes.
I even read something on the Scientific American website that explained that if a long-limbed person who weighs about 220 pounds does a pull-up, he exerts about 981 joules of energy, which is "the same amount released by a quarter gram of TNT." And that info just relates to the standard, bodyweight pull-up. What I'm stressing is the loaded pull-up. Plenty of people have relative strength that's off the charts, which allows them to do an impressive number of pull-ups, but the muscle-building is going to come from adding load by wearing a weighted belt, vest, or even holding onto a dumbbell with your feet.
8. You Think "Fasted Cardio" is Your Ticket to Fat Loss.
Sure, it seemed to make sense. You leave on your Pooh bear pajama bottoms, slip on your Crocs, and do your aerobic exercise first thing in the morning, usually on the treadmill or a stationary bike. Since you haven't yet eaten, glycogen levels are low and the body has to resort to burning fatty acids for fuel. As a result, you can see the fat just melting off you, or so the story goes.
There are two aspects we need to look at. The first is the actual efficacy of the strategy. Does it work? Most studies do indeed suggest that you burn more fatty acids in a fasted state, but the numbers are all over the place, the most recent one I looked at suggesting fasted cardio burned about 17% more fatty acids than non-fasted cardio. But let's look at it through a calorie-lens instead because that's something we're all familiar with. A few years back, Alwyn Cosgrove pointed out that 30 minutes of steady-state, non-fasted cardio burns about 300 calories, and if you do that three times a week, you'd of course burn 900 calories. If you do that for 26 weeks, you'd burn up 23,400 calories, which equals roughly 6.6 pounds of fat...over six months.
However, Cosgrove conjured up this hypothetical situation where we were asked to assume that doing fasted cardio would burn 30% more calories, even while readily admitting that there isn't a single study that's shown it to be that effective. Burning 30% more calories would help you burn a measly additional 0.07 pounds per week, which adds up to another 2 pounds of fat over that same six-month period.
Not too impressive, is it? But it's at least something, so we need to look at whether there's any reason we shouldn't do fasted cardio. For that, we need to look at it from a "muscle health" standpoint. As Christian Thibaudeau has pointed out, cortisol levels are highest in the morning, and if you don't eat, it stays elevated. If you then do fasted cardio, cortisol levels rise even higher, and that's one of the best ways to lose muscle. Furthermore, if levels get high enough, cortisol gets all cocky and goes out for a day-long joy ride, spraying graffiti on the wall of the liver, tripping old corpuscles as they try to cross a blood vessel, and knocking amino acids off the shelves in the muscle grocery store and as a result the body spends the day in a muscle-wasting state.
Thibaudeau prefers instead to do his morning cardio in what he calls a "post-absorptive" state, which is a state where you're not fasted, but neither are you actively digesting food. He does this by drinking a mixture of di- and tripeptides that are absorbed pretty much right into the bloodstream with very little if any active digestion. That way, he keeps cortisol down and forces his body to burn up glycogen and fatty acids.
So yes, fasted cardio will burn more fat than non-fasted cardio, but the total number of extra calories burned is pretty anemic. However, fasted cardio will also elevate cortisol levels and burn up precious muscle, unless you do it while in the "post-absorptive" state. Either way, though, fasted cardio isn't your ticket to fat loss. Your real, non-refundable ticket to fat-loss is a sensible eating plan (not 6 meals a day, either) with high amounts of protein, decent amounts of fat, and strategically timed carbohydrates combined with metabolically demanding push-pull workouts and smart peri-workout nutrition.