These Questions are Stealing Your Gains

Which Exercises are Better?

Example: Is low-bar squat or high-bar better? Will the safety bar or cambered bar do more for my squat? Is parallel more productive than full ass-to-grass?

Here are some better questions.

What are the meaningful differences between these training variables (if any) and how will those differences impact my immediate and long term goal?

Let’s start with your competitive setup.

For your main lift, you should be aiming for a  comfortable and intuitive setup where you have good purchase on the weight at the bottom position and can transition to lock out in a fluid and efficient manner. That’s going to mean different things to people with different builds. Regardless of your build, remember you get good at how you train!   You can have the longest femurs in the world and still learn how to high bar squat. There are plenty of Olympic lifters who fit that mold. Similarly, us stumpy potatoes can mimic a wide, hip dominant type squat just as well as we can put our heels together and touch the ground with our butt. The thing we will have the most skill and efficiency with will invariably be the thing that we drill the most. So don’t sweat the small stuff.

 Oly lifters have to accomodate a high-bar, narrow stance setup regardless of their build. Success doesn’t depend on finding their best potential set-up but, rather, on dedicating themselves to getting good at whatever setup they must use. You get good at how you train!

For variations in training, specifically ones that are meant to target weak areas, don’t  waste time trying to invent the wheel from scratch. There are a few basic  variations that are good for  lifters of just about any skill level to keep in rotation because they keep you well-rounded and prevent the development of weaknesses in the first place. These are common variations  that provide variety by changing grip or stance, incorporate pauses or play with range of motion. To you newer guys who are still miles away from being competitive, remember that nothing is weak because everything is weak. Being new by definition means that you are untrained and you can’t have a weakness if your entire game is uncoordinated and inefficient. 

Incorporate a wide array of exercises to build as well-rounded a physique as you can and aim for technical Mastery every time you get your hands on the barbell. Just like any High School coach who’s worth a damn will repeat ad nauseam to his players, “it’s about the fundamentals stupid!”. When you do get to the point where you are developed and efficient enough for individual weaknesses to show themselves, the variations that you pick will still be part of a relatively short list.

Assuming that you actually have a weakness and the solution to your problem isn’t many more cycles of good programming followed through to their conclusion, the likelihood is that there won’t be any real meaningful differences from one variation to the other. The list of exercises that effectively target weaknesses at the start, midway up and at lock out are pretty well established and, even though you could get creative and find endless variations that will target those areas just as well, you aren’t getting any medals for your creative efforts.

 Even if you’re actually strong, you still don’t have the right to a preference over a lift until you’ve actually tried it and measured the outcome. Pick one, commit to training it until you get good at it, take notes for future blocks.

Understand that the differences between one or the other might actually be arbitrary but can still be useful in providing a novel stimulus if your practice with one has gotten stale.

For example, board presses and band presses both attack lockout strength, the difference between starting halfway up or being able to build momentum into the resistance may not directly affect how you increase lockout strength in the short term, but transitioning from one to the other after several blocks may provide a novel stimulus that kick-start the adaptive process. 

Isolation exercises?? Forget about it. If you are doing something for your ornament muscles (bis, pecs, etc.) and progressing it over time, they will grow. Just as many pythons have been built off of ugly cheat-curls as super-slow-supinated-incline-cable-zottman curls. You will eventually have preferences and that will fuel your decision making later on, but you can’t have a preference until you do it. Pick a few exercises, commit and don’t make a SINGLE value judgment until you’ve worked through it.

To Failure or no?   

This one gets me the most. Trying to make an absolute statement about training to failure is like asking “how long is a piece of string?”. I’m definitely going to need more information, brother.

 Now we know damn well the training to failure is an effective method for  spurring muscle growth.  We also know that the stress of few sets to failure is different than the stress of many submaximal sets. So,  if you remember that we are adaptive organisms who stop responding to the exact same workouts done the exact same way, it stands to reason that the efficacy of one over the other will largely depend on how familiar we are with it as a stress. 

Read that as, “don’t try to guess which will work better without looking at your last 3 months of training”.

 We also know that our training does (if you’re doing things right)  move between different phases over time and each phase has different priorities. Regardless of your end goal, there should be large periods of time dedicated to broad work with higher volumes and a variety of exercises and that should be contrasted with similarly large periods of increased focus,fewer exercises, lower volumes and harder efforts. Something as simple as incorporating failure set or amrap set in one 6 to 12 week phase and then  removing them in favor of more practice with plenty of reps in the tank can be all you need to keep growth rolling forward without having to mess with every other variable in your training.

 The idea of one being better than the other is absurd. It depends on where you are at and what stimulus you have stopped responding to.

 When I hear the  scientific-literature-obsessed talking heads in the fitness community talk about “the optimal set”, I can’t help but roll my eyes. It’s such an obvious attempt to take something relatively complex and dumb it down to a single variable so you can easily give cookie-cutter recommendations with absolute certainty to a wide variety of lifters. It’s an effort to make your life easier, not to get closer to the truth.  

I’m sure you’ve heard the wisdom  from those who keep their nose buried in PubMed articles that ‘it seems that 4 reps in reserve or less is the sweet spot for  a training set’. Again,  we need to know what the project is to know how long our string should be. How does this fit into higher frequency programs? 

**DEEP BREATH…..How does this fit into programs that don’t look at individual sets as the driving stress for growth but, rather, look at the aggregate amount of work over a day, week and month as something that can be raised or increased to make each week of training sustainable while still providing an adaptive response over a longer timeline?……..EXHALE**

 I quote Sheiko quite a bit because his programs are extraordinarily successful and fly in the face of a lot of what the “what do the data say?” crowd puts out. Any Sheiko template that you look at will have plenty of examples of entire workouts that stay at an RIR 6 or above. You might have a bench press workout that only gets as high as 75% for repeating triples, you might have a deadlift workout that only gets his high as 80% for a double. Are these workouts useless? Are they non-optimized? 

No, they do exactly what they are supposed to do in the context of the broader program. And the questions surrounding ‘which is better’ don’t mean anything unless you start there.  Understanding that all of these  programming approaches have huge success stories behind them and that they all require adherence to  their own specific principles in order to function properly is the point of all this. If you start with a one-dimensional question like ‘which is better, going to failure or not?’ instead of evaluating the type of program that you’re going to be running FIRST and then making decisions, you are going to be  making maneuvers in your training that will likely fly directly in the face of what your particular approach requires.

High or Low Volume?

This question is  in the same vein as the question regarding training to failure. Volume, first of all, is completely relative. if you’ve trained with a super specific Eastern Bloc powerlifting team you might rarely get to 5 reps on an individual set, high volume might be seven or eight sets of three or four reps. On the other hand if you’ve  ever called yourself a powerbuilder or gone through any period of running typical Western periodization schemes, high-volume might be many repeating sets of 8, 10 or even 12 repetitions.  What is appropriate for you in any given point in your training is largely dependent on the style of training that you  adhere to. Know the mission statement of your program before asking these questions because those who practice spinning back kicks in their Jiu-Jitsu class have missed the point.

Your decision to choose a higher or lower volume approaching to your training is going to be just as impacted by your own psychological and social factors as it would be by what might actually give you the best result (assuming we could even predict that). High frequency programs that utilize a ton of low rep sets to accrue volume, such as the Sheiko templates I continuously cite, take a long time to get through and accrue a lot of fatigue throughout the week. You might find that you don’t have the time or the mental fortitude to be able to make it through these workouts and you might favor something that either has more variety or that compartmentalizes the week’s training into a single day.  

They all work. All of those approaches can get you to where you want to be. It is exponentially more a matter of your ability to navigate those styles of training than it is a matter of one being better than the other. It’s like Ed Coan said, “it doesn’t matter what you do, just make it work”. Quibbling over the scientific literature that has done a poor job of following the best lifters in the world and finding out the protocols that got them that way is a cheap way of absolving yourself from responsibility. It’s not the program, it’s your execution of the program.

Everybody should be going through some higher and lower volume phase over time. Volume is one of the easiest things to manipulate to progress training forward when you start to get stagnant. Reducing volume is the easiest way to gain recovery and that is really helpful once you start handling percentage is and low rep ranges that you are unfamiliar with. If you’ve been getting a lot of work in with  reps above 5 and percentages under 80%, then your efforts in climbing the weight up into triple, double and single territory will greatly benefit from dropping the volume down. Similarly if you’ve only been running through short workouts that allow you to handle the heaviest load possible (before calling it a victory and leaving the gym early) an extended period of higher-volume work that forces the weight down and exposes you to much higher tonnage is certainly going to be the thing that gets you out of that rut. 

Again, your volume approaches are going to be different depending on the schools of thought that you follow ranging from bodybuilders to true-blue powerlifting specialists, so read up from the most decorated people in that particular field and make sure you keep high fidelity with their principles before you give yourself the right to have an opinion.

High Frequency or Low Frequency?

The question around frequency is actually a worthwhile one. It’s just that people ask it for the entirely wrong reason. As I’ve already beaten into the ground, asking bluntly which approach to training is better (as if there is one path that’s going to take you to the Olympia stage or to worlds where the other one is just going to leave you spinning around in the corner) is silly.. There have been plenty of world champions built on a high frequency approach, mainly because it allows the lift to be treated as a skill and gives you the most amount of touches to develop technical expertise. In powerlifting, it’s also an extension of Olympic lifting data that was collected from the Soviet studies 50 years ago and more. A lot of high-frequency powerlifting approaches are essentially Olympic lifting training grafted onto powerlifting. It certainly works well enough, as long as you follow its own set of rules.

 If you were to add up all of the lifters from the top 100 list on, I would wager that more of them take a low-frequency approach,  as in training each lift twice a week or less.  100 Years of strength training has shown that you can certainly develop all the size and strength in the world on a low frequency approach. The difference is going to be that more volume and effort is going to be done on one particular day as opposed to spreading it out throughout the week. Sure, technical mastery in some broad sense isn’t going to be as high but how much technical mastery do you actually need for lifts that are as simple and straightforward as the squat, bench and deadlift? 

That’s not to say that they’re not technical, obviously that isn’t the case, but I like to say that they’re technical the way that making an omelet is technical. There is certainly a right and wrong way to do it but most people can figure it out with a little bit of practice. We’re not perfecting the snatch and we’re not training for a triple axel. The key thing here is stressing the  muscles that are involved in our competitive lifts so that they grow and stress our nervous system so that it can make more use of the muscle we build. It turns out that there are just a ton of ways to do that.

 I mentioned before that a more important decision on taking a high frequency or low frequency approach is going to depend just as much on you, your schedule and your psychology than it will on whether one is actually more effective than the other. Of course, there are other variables: a high frequency squat and deadlift approach would be absurd to somebody trying to train for a strongman competition and a single, weekly 2.5 hour squat marathon might not be the way to go for somebody who has to be on the football field 5 days per week. The decision between high and low frequency is certainly an important one but it doesn’t hinge on the efficacy of either. Take inventory of what you enjoy doing, what fatigue looks like from either program and how much time you have to spend training throughout the week. Then weigh the differences.

You need to know what the string is for before you ask how long it should be. 

One thought on “These Questions are Stealing Your Gains”

  1. Thanks for this, I am guilty of this paralysis by analysis. I am intrigued by the ideas used by Sheiko and how he gets impressive results yet uses what appear to be quite sub max loads (i.e as you mentioned some are grater than 6 RiR)

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