4 Overrated Training Variables

Here are four overrated training variables.

A mark of a great coach isn’t solely in what they include in their toolbox, but also what they don’t include. Simple is often times better, but many coaches and fitness enthusiasts like to stuff every program and method inside their repertoire.

They like to jump on the latest buzzword or training method and thus, their checklist for a training program gets wildly complex with no rhyme or reason.

So, let’s go over some training variables you can ditch in your own training.

1. Time Under Tension

Most people don’t understand muscle growth and thus, dumb terms like time under tension is born. I’ll admit, this term isn’t all wrong, but the way people view and apply it is completely off. To understand why, let me explain the basics of muscle growth.

Your muscles don’t grow from time under tension per se. It grows from mechanical tension that gets translated into a chemical signal for your body to construct new muscle proteins. The keyword I want to hone in on is mechanical tension which is much different from time under tension.

Mechanical tension has little to do with time and more to do with individual muscle fiber producing force. When your muscle fibers contract slowly towards the end of the set, all muscle fibers within that muscle are recruited and the contractions velocity slows down, thus every rep performed in this state is hypertrophic irrespective of the time it remains in this state.

This is why no matter how you manipulate many variables like rep range, tempo, and load within the set makes little to no difference. If you reach the same proximity to failure, the set produces the same growth regardless of how much time under tension there was or how much constant tension there was.

Higher rep sets are longer and technically have longer time under tensions, but all research confirms they produce the same muscle growth as lower rep sets with the exception of sets that are too low (1).

Time under tension is often misapplied. People will cut range of motion or do deliberately slow concentrics to increase time under tension and think they’re growing more muscle. However, reducing range of motion grows less muscle in nearly every exercise confirmed by research, so this is a scenario where more time under tension is worse for your gains.

Furthermore, slowing down the concentric reduces the total load or reps you’re lifting which reduces mechanical tension.

Lastly, people will focus overly hard on their muscles, so they can feel that tension longer, but that doesn’t do much which brings me to my next point.

2. The Mind-Muscle Connection

The mind-muscle connection is referred to as an internal focus. You focus on the internal muscle that you want to target or is being targeted.

Whether you do it to increase the time under tension or to simply make the muscle work harder, this is generally a futile effort in more advanced lifters. Here’s why.

The motor neurons that recruit your muscles and the sensory neurons that you feel are 2 different things. Sometimes, they line up naturally and other times they don’t. You can feel sensation in a certain muscle and it’s not actually producing much mechanical tension.

 

Thus, internally focusing reduces your work output and can unfavorably change recruitment patterns. This reduces total work performance and can even compromise muscle growth. Your brain’s motor cortex is already a highly efficient specimen. If you select the proper exercise for a muscle and execute the proper technique (external cuing), your motor cortex will optimize the muscle recruitment pattern.

For example, one study compared internal against external focus on conventional deadlifts (2). The external focus group had better posture, stability, and less bar path variability. When you focus too much on the mind-muscle connection, you’re interrupting your brain’s already optimized recruitment pattern.

You don’t need to feel the muscle more. Instead of spending time focusing so hard on certain muscles, learn biomechanics, choose optimal exercises for that muscle, and focus on executing them well. Chase technique not muscle sensation.

For example, aiming for certain arm paths will bias certain pec divisions more during presses. Same goes for certain back divisions during rows. But there is no need to focus on specific muscles.

3. The Pump

We all grew up watching the beast Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was iconic and is well known for talking about the muscle pump before it even became a thing in the literature. He would describe how the pump feels better than sex and you should be chasing the pump every session.

Unfortunately, as amazing as Arnold was, he’s way off on this one. The pump doesn’t grow muscle. I might’ve just shattered your world view of muscle growth, but hey, hopefully, you’ll learn more after all this and not place your devotion to men you don’t even know.

Anyways, the pump in research is called metabolic stress. Metabolic stress is the accumulation of metabolite by-products. It’s what gives you that burning sensation within your muscles. Metabolites include lactate, phosphate, and hydrogen ion. This is not to be confused with lactic acid which is something different.

Metabolites provide lots of interesting mechanisms like swelling the muscles and causes reactive oxygen species, both of which don’t grow muscle. However, metabolic stress lowers the threshold for high motor units to be recruited.

So metabolic stress is the natural by-product of high rep training which allows those higher motor units to be recruited typically seen in the first few reps of lower rep sets.

To be clear, this pump doesn’t grow muscle, but rather is one way to make muscle growth possible via mechanical tension. So you should push hard during high rep sets, but you should never create a program around how much of a pump you can get. Doing so, can easily lead to less muscle growth.

For example, high intensity interval training, short rest periods, partial reps, and training to failure, all increase metabolic stress, yet all of these methods have the potential to grow less muscle.

Furthermore, blood flow restriction training causes massive metabolic stress, yet research finds it grows a comparable amount of muscle as traditional strength training.

So the pump is a good feeling to get. It’s a normal feeling to get. But you don’t go chasing it and the level of metabolites you feel doesn’t correlate with much. It’s mostly just for looking temporarily beefier for Instagram selfies.

4. Muscle Damage

When you were in high school PE class, the coach would teach you about the basics of muscle growth. They would talk about you have to tear muscles for them to grow back stronger. Then, they’d ramble about some dumb life analogy on how struggles make you better.

In fact, many personal training certifications teach the same thing. Yet, this is not substantiated by research. Research finds undisputedly, the only pathway to get the chemical response of new muscle growth is from a mechanical stimulus. A metabolic stimulus as we mentioned doesn’t directly grow muscle.

And believe it or not, muscle damage or tearing of the fibers doesn’t either. Muscle damage can correlate with soreness, but people don’t understand that soreness is a feeling.

As insensitive as it may sound, facts don’t always care about your feelings though. Muscles have neurological patterns ingrained in the brain that controls them. The more accustomed you are to a movement, the more effective it can coordinate that movement.

However, when you are doing something, you’re not accustomed to, your muscles can’t coordinate as well and thus, experience these micro tears. It’s called muscle damage and it can make you quite sore. However, more muscle damage doesn’t mean more muscle growth.

If you’ve never swam before, struggling across the deep end of the pool will make you quite sore, but swimming isn’t getting anybody buff. Furthermore, training at longer muscle lengths causes more muscle damage.

So certain training protocols or training with exercises you’re not accustomed to may cause more muscle damage, but it doesn’t correlate with more muscle growth.

In fact, muscle damage is inherently not a positive thing. By definition, muscle damage is muscle breakdown. Some studies show muscle damage increases the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis, but with no net gain in muscle growth. This means that muscle damage signals for repair, but not additional muscle growth.

Chasing muscle damage is also not a reliable metric of your training program. A sorer or more damaging workout isn’t necessarily a better workout. In fact, muscle damage in excess limits skill execution and performance/recovery markers, so muscle damage in excess is clearly detrimental.

Don’t Chase Feelings, Chase Performance

So as you can see, many common training variables are overrated. Remember, we live in a world where content is pumped out daily, so everybody will be making content on everything. Don’t grip on to every concept so tightly as they may simply be ineffective or overcomplicated.

But now you know better. You don’t have to necessarily optimize for time under tension, you don’t have to leave the gym painfully sore, and you don’t have to buy supplements that promises a filthy pump.

All these things have their own application, but most lifters shouldn’t be overly concerned about chasing these variables.

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References

  1. Schoenfeld, Brad. “Strength and Hypertrophy ADAPTATIONS between LOW- vs. HIGH-LOAD RESISTANCE Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28834797/. 
  2. Chan, Alan, et al. “Effects of Attentional Focus and DUAL-TASKING on Conventional DEADLIFT Performance in Experienced Lifters.” International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science, www.journals.aiac.org.au/index.php/IJKSS/article/view/5665. 
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Calvin Huynh
Calvin Huynh is a trainer, online coach, writer, and joyful ruler behind AwesomeFitnessScience.com. His content has reached various top sites and he has worked with a variety of clients ranging from top CEOs, hardcore lifters, everyday desk workers, and stay at home moms. When he’s not working, he spends his time going to church, dreaming of unicorns, and eating whole pints of ice cream on a comfortable couch somewhere in Southern California.