I often get asked questions about exercise, which is cool because it gives me a chance to rant about one of my favourite subjects. Unfortunately, a lot of the questions are variations of “Which is better, X or Y?” The reason I say unfortunately is because my answer is almost always “It depends,” which isn’t a very satisfying answer, but it’s usually the most accurate one.
What are your goals?
I’ll give an example. A female friend of mine once asked me if lighter weights for more reps were better than heavier weights for less reps. Apparently her yoga teacher had told her that. My answer was, of course, “Well, it depends.” What are you training for? What goals are you trying to reach? In the fitness world, most things have their place – with the exception of men wearing Skins without courtesy shorts.
Take a powerlifter for example. He competes in a sport where he tries to lift the heaviest possible weight in the deadlift, squat and bench press for a single rep. Are lighter weights better for him? Of course not. The majority of his program will need to be sets of five or less reps. But the same doesn’t apply to a triathlete. He’ll probably go into the gym and do sets of fifty reps, not sets of three.
Full Facet Fitness
There are several physiological attributes that we all possess in greater or lesser degrees. These are things like strength, speed, and endurance. We need to understand that fitness is not a single attribute, it is multifaceted. Will heavy squats make you fitter? Yes, in the sense that they will improve your attributes of strength and power. Will it improve your 10km time? Not really. The reverse is also true. Running 10km every morning will make you a better distance runner, but it won’t make you better at heavy squats.
There is something called the Principle of Specificity. Trainers like to refer to it for two reasons. Firstly, we think using big words makes us sound smart, and secondly it’s a very important principle that often gets forgotten. Especially when someone is trying to sell you something. For example, I have no problem with kettlebells. What I do have a problem with is some of the claims made about them. Any time something is claimed to be perfect for improving everything, you should raise a sceptical eyebrow. It’s my opinion that kettlebells are a very poor tool for getting a big deadlift. But if someone asked me “Are kettlebells good?” then, once again, it depends on the context. Are you trying to improve your deadlift? Or are you just trying to improve your anaerobic capacity and maybe drop some bodyfat? It’s like asking is a hammer a good tool. What do you need it for? It’s an excellent tool, if you need to bang something into a wall, but if you need to put together a bookshelf from Ikea, then a screwdriver is probably a better one.
Where are you going?
So, understanding that different tools work better for different needs, the other big problem is that a lot of people don’t have a clear vision of where they’re trying to go. To completely mix metaphors, it’s like getting into your car and starting to drive before you’ve decided where you’re going. You just end up going around in circles. I look at some people’s programs, and I can’t even work out what they’re trying to achieve – they’re all over the place. When you ask them what their goals are, it’s usually something like “Oh, I want to squat 180kg. Oh, and I want to get under 10% bodyfat. Oh, and a mate and I want to run our first marathon in October. Plus I’ve just started doing kickboxing, and it’s really fun.”
All of those goals are fine, but if you try and work in several directions at once, you’ll get nowhere. It’s easiest to work towards one goal at a time. That doesn’t mean that you have to, it just means you’ll achieve a goal more easily. If I had an athlete who wanted to squat 180kg, then we can do that. If they wanted to get under 10% bodyfat at the same time, then that makes it harder, but still achievable. If they want to train for a marathon at the same time, then I start getting sharp, stabbing pains behind my eyeballs. There’s nothing wrong with ambitious goals, but trying to do everything at once, across several attributes, usually leads to very little progress on any of your goals.
So we need to prioritise our goals. If you desperately want to improve your squat, then spending two hours a day running is not going to help. In fact, it’s going to really, really hurt it.
The Novice Effect
Now, something I haven’t mentioned yet is the Novice Effect. Simply put, it means that the worse you are at something, the easier it is to improve it. If I take an adult male who has never squatted before, I can turn his 50kg squat into a 100kg squat in a month or two. But it’s going to take him a lot longer to turn it into a 200kg squat. As he gets stronger he’ll need to put increasing amounts of effort into making progress.
My point here is that the more ambitious your goal is, the less you’re going to be able to screw around with other stuff. People don’t win gold in Weightlifting at the Olympics while also winning the marathon. I’ve been stronger than I am right now, but to get there I had to concentrate on my strength, to the detriment of my conditioning. I deadlifted 230kg at under 85kg, which was a goal of mine, but when I did, my run times were pretty pathetic. However, once my deadlift had gotten up there, it was easier to maintain it while I got my conditioning back.
So it’s not impossible to squat 180, be under 10%, run a marathon and do some kickboxing on the side, but don’t try and hit all of the these goals simultaneously. I’ve worked with some absolute beasts, who really could do it all, but they got there by years and years of consistent progress. They put in the hundreds of hours of work, and now they’re reaping the rewards.
To wrap up, before you start a program be clear about where you want to end up, and how you want to get there, and make sure it’s realistic.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net