By Rob Clarke Driven Sports
So far you’ve heard me throw around phrases like “genetically elite” so I’d like to discuss that in slightly more detail before leaving on a lighter note about the average gym grinder.
Ideally you should manage your training a little closer than simply rocking up to the gym each day. Of course some people have the ability to do this; to show up, train what they feel like and look great. But honestly, how many of these guys really exist? How many just want you to believe they lead nonchalant-training lives, when in actual fact they eat and lift much more meticulously then they let on? And how many are using synthetic means to give themselves a serious edge? I trained at my old gym for over a decade (have recently moved) and in that time I’ve only ever met one guy (out of thousands) that meets these criteria. I’ll call him Alex. This train of thought has reminded me about him and I thought I’d discuss him as an informal segue into the final summary of this series.
Survival of the fittest
Lyle McDonald recently penned a colossal series of articles leading up to a discussion on US Olympic lifting. Part of it was about the methods of the Russian strength coaches between the 50’s and 70’s where their athletes dominated Olympic lifting. In it he details what he casually refers to as a “grinder system”. This describes the way the strength coaches put a lot of athletes through the exact same paces: astonishingly intensive workouts with high volume and high frequency. For the majority of these guys fed into the grinder, even the ones with excellent genetics, such training makes mincemeat of them. Training at such a high intensity so frequently far exceeds their recovery capabilities. But the law of total probability states that there’s usually one that it doesn’t absolutely destroy. And in fact, the ones that aren’t destroyed tend to respond pretty fantastically to it. They were the ones that won the Olympic medals. And because the coaches had access to so many men to feed into their system, they had quite a few successes. Because of this their methods were praised in result of somewhat of a survivor bias.
I’d like to draw a comparison here between the Russian grinder system that Lyle describes, and the typical grinder system found in most gyms across the country – including mine.
The gym grinder
The volume of poor information and complete broscience stirred around in gyms today is vast. And it’s not just about training but also nutrition. If I started giving specific examples then this article would probably double in length. But trust me when I say that some of the advice I’ve overheard being passed on defies belief. Because of such misinformation you’ll have probably noticed that the majority of the patrons at your gym rarely ever change the way they look or improve their strength levels. Of these people, some will then consider themselves “hardgainers” and either give up completely or possibly start using performance-enhancing drugs (PED) – the latter being an act that more than makes up for the misinformation and poor guidance.
But some persevere. Of this group of new lifters that receive and take on terrible advice, just like in the Russian grinder, probability dictates that at least one will respond incredibly well. The gym grinder follows the same principle. There’s always one, and in this case, it was Alex.
An example exception
Alex was incredibly weak for how strong he looked. His tendon insertion points were almost perfect, and his muscle bellies were thick, so while he weighed around 185-190lbs he looked more like 220lbs. The kind of guy that looked like he worked out before ever entering a gym. His natural calorie partitioning ability was seemingly perfect. He managed to maintain a body fat around 8% despite heavy drinking and “social” drug use on the weekends. He worked long night shifts repairing rail tracks so his sleeping pattern was seriously screwed up. His nutrition was bad at best and more often than not could be described as horrific by bodybuilding standards. I recall the day he lived on three snickers bars and a protein shake after working out.
To give a specific example of how lost this guy was, I once saw him doing pull-downs supersetted with the side lateral shoulder machine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this combination, but I enquired as to his reasons and he told me it was a back superset – he believed that the side lateral machine was helping him train his “laterals” – while pointing to his lats (latissimus dorsi). This illustrates that he simply did not “get” or have any real mind-muscle connection.
His form on everything was awful; cringe-worthy at times. When he would bench, be it barbell or dumbbell, he displayed his overpowering left side clearly for all to see. The bar would be ridiculously crooked on each rep by about 4-5”, and he would lockout his left arm what felt like 2-3 seconds before he locked out his right (pic shown not actually him). During his tenure at the gym, he trained almost every single day. Each workout could last hours, and it wasn’t because he spent a lot of time chatting. His volume was extraordinary, and it seemed like almost every set he did was taken to absolute muscular failure. He had no set program or plan and simply worked out whatever he felt like on the day. Basically he would do everything that this series of articles has so far warned against. And he looked great in spite of it.
Oh, and to piss you off just a little bit more I don’t think he ever trained his legs, save for the 1-2 sets of leg extensions and leg curls he would do before or after an arm workout every once in a while.
He was an incredibly honest man about everything, most of which I refuse to make public for NSFL (not safe for life) reasons, and one thing he was adamant about was that he was PED-free. And I believe him. Last time I heard anything about him was years ago when he had apparently given up working out, quit hit job and joined a travelling carnival. None of this paragraph, or the paragraphs preceding it, is fiction.
That was a bit of a tangent, but the concept of the grinder is an important one to introduce as it goes quite a long way to explaining how elite sports athletes rise to the top of their games. I have an article penned on this topic that I will publish at a later date.
And the consensus is…
As for the ideal frequency, it should be clear now that you want a setup that doesn’t target body parts too frequently for too long a period of time, because that would exceed your body’s own recoverability. Alternatively, you don’t want to sell your potential progress short by not activating the anabolic processes sufficiently in any given period. What this shapes up to be is a frequency of hitting body parts 2-3 times in any 7-8 day window. It should also be obvious that should you switch your frequency to the three-times-per week option that you need to reduce either intensity, volume or both to compensate.
I should also specify that this does not mean that every single body part needs to be trained with the same frequency. For example, you could easily be training your quads at a lower intensity three times per week while targeting other muscle groups with a lower frequency and slightly higher intensity. Or with varying volume or load. Obviously this is more complex programming for your workout schedule, but is easily manageable providing you strategically plan out your intentions in advance.