5 Essential Questions About Your Training 

5 Essential Questions About Your Training

When was the last time you thought “why am I doing this exercise?” “Why is my program structured this way?” Maybe you borrowed from a bodybuilding magazine 20 years ago and never returned it. Maybe you never questioned why it’s always been done it this way. Or maybe you carefully consider every choice in your training, nutrition, and recovery. Maybe you’re on autopilot somewhere in between.

When building a training program and selecting exercises, training intensity, and load, we consciously or unconsciously make important choices. In making wise choices, we further our progress. When we carelessly play to the whims of our ego or inconsistent motivation, we can stray from an optimal path. Whether our goal is building muscle, developing strength, or fat loss, each of these 5 questions should be considered.

1. What’s The Risk vs Reward Ratio?

What’s the risk of choosing an exercise relative to its reward? What’s the worst thing that could happen if you try this weight? This isn’t about avoiding any and all risk. The couch is a safe place from all immediate risk. Never leaving the couch only ensures the gradual decline of your health and quality of life. You didn’t get hurt, but you one day wake up weak, depressed, fragile, and wishing you made changes years ago.

What’s the total sum of all the good things that will happen from your training choices compared against the worst possible catastrophe? If you’re in the habit of regularly accepting catastrophic downside, reconsider your decision making matrix. If you never accept even the slightest risk no matter the vast potential rewards, you have an equally serious problem.

You best manage risk by:

  • Mastering exercise technique, especially before heavy lifting
  • Considering injury history when choosing exercises (The best predictor of future injury is past injury)
  • Using appropriate range of motion (depends on the exercise)
  • Consistently approaching failure
  • Strategically but sparingly training to and beyond failure
  • Checking your ego at the door
  • Optimize nutrition and sleep to maximize recovery

Promising 23 year old bodybuilder Ryan Crowley tore his pec tendon off the bone during a workout with Larry Wheels. After heavy sets to near failure in an effort to keep up with the absurdly strong Wheels, Ryan chose to max out an incline bench press at 220 kgs. His pec tendon ripped during a slow negative.

Crowley is a bodybuilder on a mission to grow as large as possible. What was the potential reward of doing a one rep max having already fatigued himself and dealing with a lingering shoulder injury? The upside: a cool video for social media and a new one rep max on an exercise few care to max out on. The downside: go watch the video if you dare.

2. What’s The Time Cost To Benefit Ratio?

Few lifters have the time each week to train every possible exercise. None have the capacity to recover from that volume of training. People have careers, families, and varied demands on their time. We need to make tradeoffs within our training time and recovery limits.

To build muscle we should maximize muscle recruitment by prioritizing large compound lifts like pressing, rows, squats, and lunges. Then layer in stable high mechanical tension work like leg press and machine rows to recruit and fatigue more muscle fibers. Then isolate priority areas for deeper fiber fatigue with single joint isolations like curls, tricep extensions, and shoulder laterals.

High level bodybuilders and strength athletes know they can’t simultaneously make huge progress on all fronts. They understand the need to temporarily dial back workload in other areas to enhance training time and recovery capacity for weaker priorities.

For most general population, just find something you enjoy that keeps you in the gym and strengthening a lifelong habit. Serious bodybuilders and strength athletes are already locked in and highly adherent, so we aim to optimize exercise selection.

Take for example one of the least useful yet commonly abused machines in any gym, the seated calf raise. Calves are hard enough to grow without using limited training time on suboptimal exercises. Your calves have 2 major muscles, the gastrocnemius(gastroc) which originates above the knee and the underlying soleus attaching below the knee. When your knee is bent 90 degrees on the seated machine, your gastroc is relaxed leaving the soleus to do almost all the work.

Standing and straight knee calf work uses both muscles together, optimizing benefit relative to time spent, especially for the gastroc which contributes more to the visible size of your calves. Your gastroc also has a higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers than your soleus, having greater potential to grow. This adds up to choosing exercises which maximize the training of your gastroc. Only if calves are a massive priority and you’ve allocated significant training and recovery time to hit them with several exercises, multiple times a week, would you then include seated calf raises.

3. What’s The Reason For This Exercise?

Everyone has time limitations. Everyone has limited capacity to recover from training, despite individual variance. Every exercise must serve a purpose.

Your coach must be able to justify why each exercise appears in your program. We often hire coaches because when left to our own devices we fall back on what’s convenient, easier, and what we like. When choosing exercises, ask yourself “Am I doing this because it’s the best choice for my goals or am I avoiding something important that I don’t like.”

Did you default to leg press again because you’re managing system fatigue and sparing lower back stress or are you avoiding Bulgarian squats despite your need for more single leg work? It’s easier to smash leg press sets than to grab heavy dumbbells and tough your way through Bulgarians.

Are your exercise choices best serving the muscles you want to growth or the performance and strength you need to enhance? Are you always leaving calves and rear delts to last yet swear they’re weak points that won’t grow? Restructure your program to prioritize work for areas you’re prone to neglecting. Start your workouts by training weak points in need of attention.

If your routine has been on autopilot for too long, analyze if your current program and choices are serving your goals. If not, adjust or rebuild your program.

4. What’s The Training Effect Relative to Fatigue?

Is your chosen exercise, training strategy, or overall volume optimizing training effect relative to the fatigue it creates. The article https://generationiron.com/truth-about-training-to-failure/ explains the nuanced management of failure training against fatigue. Failure disproportionately creates fatigue vs training effect, so it’s best used surgically. Lifting heavy and doing volume of tough sets also accumulates fatigue. We want to ensure we’re doing the best exercises and volume to build muscle and strength.

Imagine the powerlifter who’s goal and priority is to build bigger quads. He has a powerful posterior chain and can squat heavier on low bar than high bar. So he again chooses 3 heavy low bar working sets of 5 reps with one rep left in reserve. The load and intensity means he’s resting 3+ minutes between sets to be able to come back strong for the next set. His goal is muscle building but he’s still using pure strength training principles because it’s what he knows and is strongest with.

Not only is he missing out on a better quad growth exercise, his 5 reps don’t create as much mechanical tension or metabolic stress in his quads. The long rest breaks take extra time out of his workout. The heavy sets add fatigue. He has less time and training intensity left for subsequent exercises. He doesn’t get a pump in his quads and again feels frustrated in his poor quad development progress. Had he instead chosen high bar squats for 3 working sets of 10 reps, at a weight appropriate for 2 reps in reserve, he could have smoked his quads with great pumps and tension, taken shorter rest breaks, then gone on to leg press and leg extensions.

Are you striking a balance between the intensity and volume needed to craft an inspiring physique? Feeling your system crushed after each workout with minimal progress? Try more Lee Haney and less Dorian Yates. Feeling like you could still go a few rounds with Jake Paul? Channel more Dorian in your workouts.

5. What Role Is Your Ego Playing?

Setting your ego loose in the gym isn’t necessarily bad thing. Letting it control you is. Instead channel your ego to dominate your training within the structure of your plan.

How often have you seen a guy or been that guy (dudes this one is on us as women rarely fall prey to this behavior) who sees someone in the next rack with a little more weight on the bar. Never mind how the next guy is doing half our range of motion with crap form. We toss today’s plan, throw on more weight and max out.

What did that accomplish? We showed off a little and impressed the group of kids doing curls for the 4th day in a row. Except no one else cared or noticed. We soothed our ego, beat up our joints, and lost the day’s training effect. Sounds like a great deal…..

If what other people are doing in the gym takes you off plan, you need to leave your ego at the door. Walk in with a plan and execute it. This avoids unplanned and unnecessary maxing out and added injury risk.

Remember that most of what you see on social media isn’t reflective of good training principles or the consistent behavior that built legendary physiques. Calum Von Moger didn’t built a physique so godlike he played a young Arnold in a movie by doing 400 pound 1 rep tandem bicep curls with Chris Bumstead.

All this social media driven stunt did accomplish was tearing Calum’s bicep, which threatened his young career(he was fortunately ok several weeks later, good enough to fall off a cliff and sustain more serious injuries a year later). Was it ego or the need for novel media content driving these stunts? It certainly wasn’t a normal day of progressive training at the gym.

Are your entrenched training practices and philosophies serving you? Optimizing for best results, or floating on autopilot? Accepting absurd levels of risk while allowing your ego to call the shots? Are you using your time and recovery capacity wisely? Leaving progress on the table because your system is crushed from relentless hardcore intensity, leaving you hurt often? Run a diagnostic on your approach to training to find room for growth, or just to reaffirm you’ve on the right track.

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Andrew Coates
Andrew Coates is a trainer who is focused on strength development for everyday people and young athletes. He is the cohost and writer of The Fitness Devil podcast.