An Inside Look At 12 Common Bodybuilding Workout Habits

Elliot Reimers helps you to make sense of common and sometimes crazy gym practices. Grunting, belts, international chest day and muscle confusion. It's all here!

Welcome back to yet another edition of bodybuilding habits. Last time we took a close look at 12 nutritional practices that pervade the bodybuilding and fitness realms.

As much as I love science and being able to seek for objective truth (especially in a subculture littered with nonsensical advice and inane behaviors), the following exposition doesn’t need many citations to backup the claims made herein. Why is this you ask? Well, simply because scientists and physiologists alike don’t waste their time researching meathead behaviors because they just know when something is bogus.

It doesn’t take an elaborate double-blind, randomized study to disprove the concept of “etching details into your muscle.” It also doesn’t take much intellectual capacity to realize that pulling your pants down in the middle of the gym and hitting a “bicep shot” is not normal, humane behavior.

Then again, I’ve met my fair share of bodybuilders who don’t really think that proper gym etiquette applies to them, but frankly if they want to continue practicing baseless habits then that’s their prerogative. That being said, it won’t stop me from taking a rational look at some of the common gym habits bodybuilders and gym-goers seem to stick to. I guess that’s just the side of me that’s always wondering, “Why?”

One last thing before we move on…if you find yourself practicing many of the habits in this article and I write them off as being illogical, please don’t be ashamed or offended. Pretty much everyone who has spent some diligent time in the gym has been guilty of at least one of these behaviors. That’s the beauty of it all though—we have all been “bros” at one point or another. Once you wake up and see the light it’s like discovering a whole new world—one where brains meet brawn.

1. “Etching in the details”…[oy vey]

I’ve lost count of how many “brobuilders” I’ve seen that do ten different exercises for each muscle group and claim it’s helping them “etch the details” into their muscles. When I hear stuff like that, I just have to shake my head and laugh because it takes the idea of sculpting one’s body way too literally.

You may have heard people say that certain exercises “tone” muscles better than others, but the reality is that muscles do one of three things: grow (hypertrophy), shrink (atrophy) or remain the same. Muscles do not appear more striated or “toned” specifically in response to an exercise.

Here’s something to try that will prove the point—go into the gym for 3-4 weeks and do 9 sets of plain ol’ barbell curls. See how your biceps respond.

Now the next 3-4 weeks go in and do 3 sets each of dumbbell curls, barbell curls and machine curls and see if your biceps randomly appear more “toned” and detailed than noted from their change in the first 3-4 weeks. Report back with your findings.

The bottom line

You can in fact stimulate different areas of a muscle by performing different exercises, so I’m not saying it’s senseless to incorporate a variety of exercises for larger muscles. However, for smaller muscles it’s not really necessary to do ten different exercises to sufficiently stimulate the targeted area and induce growth.

Also consider that most of your musculature shape is predetermined, exercise and proper nourishment just provide a stimulus for growth (and adaptations of muscle fibers), not a site-specific change in shape or detail. If your muscles appear different, it’s simply because you either lost body-fat and can now see the muscles clearer or you ate enough to make the damn things grow, not because you decided to do dumbbell curls instead of barbell curls for a few weeks.

Pec dec flyes

2. Cardio is useful when bulking up too, you lazy ass

Almost every time I come across someone who says they’re trying to put on muscle they seem to immediately shun the idea of incorporating any cardiovascular exercise in their training regimen. Contrarily, when it comes time to shred off the fat they overemphasize the crap out of cardio and lift less frequently. Seems logical at first but ultimately this is another shortsighted habit many bodybuilders and gym-goers fall into.

There is a growing body of evidence that concurrent training—training that includes both aerobic and anaerobic exercise—is highly beneficial in terms of metabolic adaptations and performance improvements in the gym. [1]

Moreover, it is a well-established that cardio is indeed good for the heart (ya know, that other important muscle that beats in you chest) and will increase your oxygen uptake capacity, which in turn can actually benefit your weight training. Likewise, weight training can benefit your cardio by enhancing your power output, enabling you to increase the intensity.

Just keep in mind that when trying to build muscle, you don’t want to overdo the cardio as this can make it hard to take in sufficient nourishment to support muscle growth. Also, doing too much cardio can hamper recovery, which will impede your resistance training. Most people will find that a happy balance is to perform cardio on days that you don’t lift weights, or just doing a few minutes to warm up and/or cool down on days you do lift.

The bottom line

I find that the idea of doing cardio to stay lean while bulking isn’t really the primary reason to consider concurrent training because you could just simply eat a bit less and not do cardio. As aforementioned, I would rather suggest that people keep cardio in their regimen when bulking up more for overall health and performance benefits than anything else.

Even if it’s just a simple bike ride a few times a week, there is certainly merit to doing some aerobic exercise in conjunction with your weight-training regimen. Cardio helps keep your heart in good shape, can actually enhance recovery (when done in moderation), and positively influence nutrient partitioning.

3. Don’t use cutting as an excuse to lift lighter weights

A commonality among many bodybuilders looking to get shredded for a contest is that they fall into a habit of lifting lighter weights for more reps in hopes of “etching in the details” (see habit #1). The irony of this is that lifting heavy loads for a few reps is actually one of the best ways to build muscle and strength, and what builds muscle best is usually what maintains it the best.

This isn’t to say that there is no merit to utilizing other rep ranges with lighter weights, but consider that the stronger you are, the greater your capacity will be to use those lighter weights. You’re really only limiting your potential to grow and maintain muscle tissue by not getting stronger.

Also, there is little reason to believe that just because you’re trying to lose body-fat you are more susceptible to injury. I’ve heard guys claim that they avoid lifting heavy when cutting because they don’t want to risk getting hurt, and I just simply fail to understand the logic there; it sounds more like an excuse to not train intensely than anything else.

The bottom line

I can almost guarantee you that if you keep training with heavier loads when trying to cut body-fat you will maintain just as much, if not more muscle mass then you will if you abandon heavy weights in favor of higher reps and lighter weights.

I’m not claiming that you should never incorporate higher reps with lighter loads, but just iterating the point that your training intensity/style doesn’t necessarily have to change just because you are trying to lose fat. Let your diet dictate the fat loss and keep training heavy if you want to hang onto to your hard-earned muscle.

Intense dumbbell curls

4. Posing nearly nude in the middle of the gym…c’mon man, really?

This is one of those things that I personally haven’t seen too much of in the gyms nearby, but have heard plenty of stories and seen one too many videos of. I don’t care how good you think you look or how much you’re dying to show off your six-pack abs, bro…take it somewhere else. Don’t you think it’s a bit conceited and quite awkward when someone strips down to their undies in the middle of the gym? It’s called a gym for a reason, not a strip club.

Let’s be straight about something here, if you’re a competitive physique athlete and you go to a secluded section of the gym that is actually meant for posing practice (or the locker room), that’s all fine and dandy; go about your business. Also, if you want to pose in your normal gym attire I don’t see much issue with that no matter where you do it as long as it’s not blocking someone else from doing his or her workout.

Consider this, would you not be a bit distracted if a morbidly obese person walked into the middle of the gym, looked in the mirror, pulled off their shirt and pants and started hitting ab (or in this instance, belly) poses? If the answer is yes, but you think lean, muscular people should be allowed to, then you have just created a double standard.

The bottom line

Posing is a part of physique competitions and therefore it takes a lot of practice to perfect, but this doesn’t necessitate the need to be doing that in the middle of the gym where other people are trying to focus on their workout. Many gyms actually have separate studios/areas where people can go to work on their posing, so it’s only proper to use them instead of the main gym for practice/checking yourself out.

If you’re a bro looking to show off your “hot bod” then go to a beach, I hear there’s a lot of chicks at them and they’re eagerly awaiting guys like yourself. And if you’re a babe looking to do the same, a beach won’t be necessary because the male species has a predisposition to imagine you nude regardless.

5. Failed logic: training for longer than 60 minutes equals elevated cortisol which leads to muscle loss

Many gym goers find that their time in the gym is limited, but often for the wrong reason. You see, there is a hormone produced in response to stress by the adrenal glands called cortisol, and many people have a predisposition to assume that anything stress-related is bad news. Not surprisingly, since weight training is a form of physical stress, it causes cortisol levels to rise; but the logic here is not as simple as A+B=C.

The stress induced by weight training is actually a positive factor in the grand scheme of things, often referred to as eustress (the opposite being distress). Studies have shown that individuals who exercise regularly have an attenuated response of distress (negative stress) at other times of the day [2].

Longitudinal studies also show a positive linear correlation between lean body mass gains and an increased cortisol response to resistance training. [3,4] Many people tend to focus only on the acute effects of cortisol and quickly write it off as being detrimental to body composition since it may increase proteolysis and inhibit glucose uptake into skeletal muscle, but these effects are insignificant in the long-term.

The bottom line

The reality is that if you’re training hard (enough), you probably won’t last much more than 2-3 hours max in the gym anyway, all the more reason not to fret over the acute elevation in cortisol. About the only time I could see training duration become an issue is if you’re in the gym for 4-5 hours at a time and completely overtaxing yourself. Then again, that’s not really a cortisol issue so much as it is an issue of you not having a life outside of the gym (seriously, most pro bodybuilders don’t even spend that kind of time in the gym, go do something else for awhile).

That being said, there is no reason that individuals who prefer to take their time and train longer than 60 minutes should be afraid of cortisol hampering their progress. In fact, they’re likely to reap positive strength and body composition benefits in the long-term.

Machine curls

6. Grunting etiquette 101

Normally I don’t really care what ghastly screeches come out of people’s mouths when they train since I tend to believe that’s just a natural reaction when pushing one’s self physically. However, this doesn’t mean that the gym is now a playground where the louder you grunt the more street cred you earn.

The rule that I always like to go by is simple—if the weight that you’re using on an exercise can turn people’s heads and make them say, “Damn, that dude is strong,” then you can usually get away with some obnoxious grunting (unless you train at Planet Fatn…er, I mean, Fitness).

But I don’t think it’s really necessary to grunt and moan, “Ooooo it burns!!!” When you’re doing some machine-assisted, single-arm bicep curls because frankly nobody cares how painful the pump is, bro.

It’s pretty easy after awhile to spot someone who is grunting for show versus grunting because they are genuinely pushing their limits. If you find yourself in the former group, save the prima donna stuff for elsewhere. If you’re in the latter group, let it out, if that’s your style that is.

The bottom line

Grunting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and like noted above, in some circumstances it’s just a byproduct of pushing yourself (which is often a good thing when training). This is a part of bodybuilding culture that people should be prepared for when they set foot in a gym, but don’t assume that those who work the hardest are the one’s grunting the loudest (and vice versa).

If you’re deadlifting 700lbs (or whatever your PR weight is) and the bar is bending, than go ahead, make some noise. Just don’t overdo it and pretend like you’re in some sort of extreme agony while doing some pansy BOSU ball isolateral crap; I don’t care how muscular you are, it just isn’t necessary and makes you look foolish.

7. Tracing the origins of International Chest Day (aka Monday)

Is it not a tad bit peculiar how everybody coincidentally ends up training their pecs on Monday? Given that most people begin their workweek on Monday, it does make a bit more sense that they would want to work their chest when they’re fresh and ready to go for the week.

But if you’re freshest on Monday because it’s the first day of the workweek, it would actually make the most sense to place your toughest workout (or most lagging bodyparts) on this day. For many people, this would probably mean training back and/or legs on Monday, not chest and biceps.

I have an inkling that the reason so many people adhere to International Chest Day is that they figure if they miss a workout later in the week it won’t be a big deal because they at least got their “beach workout” in already. Also, most gyms are busiest on Mondays, so what better time to show off your “pectacular” (pun intended) strength than when everyone is waiting for a bench to open up.

The bottom line

Do realize that there is nothing wrong with training your chest on Monday, but nevertheless it is an odd phenomenon that seemingly everyone is following a training routine that places their pec workout on this day.

If you genuinely feel that Monday is when you’re freshest and most likely to not skip a workout, I think it’s most pragmatic to have your toughest workout on this day (and if your chest workout is your toughest day, then you haven’t done a legitimate leg or back workout). Hopefully someday we can call Mondays “International Squatting Day”...I’m not holding my breath though.

Barbell squats

8. Why do people that never squat or deadlift wear lifting belts?

This is one of my favorite nonsensical habits that I see rather frequently in the gym. Here’s the thing, lifting belts are meant to aide performance and core stability on compound movements that actually involve the core muscles (e.g. squats, deadlifts, military press, etc.); they’re not for fashion or cinching your otherwise plump waist.

The idea of wearing a belt around while training, say, your arms (which I see all the time) makes as much sense as someone wearing squat shoes and training their chest. Heck, take it up a notch and just wear your lifting belt everywhere in your daily life, I mean why limit it’s beautiful fashion appeal to just the gym?

Alright, back to seriousness here, I’m in no position to say what anyone should or should not wear in the gym. Just bear in mind that wearing a lifting belt when you’re not doing any exercises that even remotely involve your core muscles makes pretty much no sense (at least functionally speaking).

The bottom line

The reality here is pretty clear-cut; there really is no functional purpose for lifting belts on movements that don’t involve your core in some capacity. So if you find yourself doing dumbbell curls and wearing a lifting belt, you’re basically stating that you like the fashion appeal of lifting belts (and if that’s the case...well then you might as well just wear it everywhere). Also, if you’re wearing that lifting belt because you think it will somehow “tighten your waist”, you’re living in lala land.

The two most pertinent occasions to use a lifting a belt are when you’re squatting and deadlifting; in those instances belts can be great since they help stabilize your core and may help you handle a bit more weight than usual.

9. The truth about “confusing” your muscles

Ah yes, one of my favorite quips in the gym is when I hear someone say that you need to, “Confuse the muscles by changing up exercises.” The logic behind that is a bit shortsighted mainly because your muscles don’t really care if you do the same exercises so long as you’re constantly progressing.

What this means is that the real way to “confuse” your muscles is to simply be progressing in some capacity. If you benched 225 lbs last week, then next week if you load up 230 lbs, that will “confuse” your muscle just fine. Your muscles won't grow much at all no matter how many different exercises you do if you’re not challenging yourself and progressing.

Progression is confusion; varying exercises is simply a way to change up the angle at which you target certain muscle groups (and break the monotony of doing the same exercises over and over).

The bottom line

If you keep progressing on your exercises in the gym there is little reason, let alone scientific validity, to believe that your muscle won’t continually adapt and grow. Focus on increasing intensity, volume, frequency, tempo, etc. and you’ll be fine.

Now bear in mind that this isn’t saying that you shouldn’t utilize a variety of exercises either; this is simply stating that you should not constantly change up exercises in lieu of progressing because no matter how many different exercises you do if there’s not some form of progression in your workout you’re wasting your time.

Exercise variety is great to keep your training routine from going stale, but just don’t forget to monitor your progression.

10. Calves, core and forearms—why do people train them so differently than other muscle groups?

Ever notice how so many people train their calf, core and forearm muscles like they’re training for a marathon? It is a bit odd that people abandon all the knowledge we have about how to stimulate muscular hypertrophy when it comes to these muscle groups.

I’m willing to gamble that if you go in the gym and ask a typical gym-goer (or even competitive bodybuilder) what their advice is for growing their pecs they’d recommend heavy bench pressing, say between 5-10 reps per set. Ask that same person what they do to grow their calves and it’s probably some hi-rep, low-intensity nonsense, like 50+ reps with a resistance their grandma could put to shame.

They also probably only do bodyweight crunches for abdominal work, and I’d surmise they once again do tons of reps in hopes that it will somehow “tone” the muscle and specifically burn fat off that area.

As noted earlier, toning is a nonsensical term (in fitness culture at least) and the body doesn’t spot-reduce fat specifically from an area that you’re training.

The bottom line

Just think of it like this, if you were looking to beef up your quads, would you go do a bunch of bodyweight squats and lunges? I’ve never seen someone with tree-trunk legs that only did bodyweight leg exercises for tons of reps; it just throws all common sense out the window to train that way for muscle growth.

The unique thing about the muscles of the calves, core and forearms is that they are involved in many exercises as secondary and supporting movers. However, this is no reason to believe that you need to train them with pansy weights and marathon sets in order for them to grow.

In fact, once you start training these muscle groups in more traditional, hypertrophy-specific rep ranges with a challenging resistance you’ll notice quite an improvement in growth. So quit training your abs everyday of the week for 100s of reps with just your bodyweight thinking that they will magically “start to pop” more, because it ain't gonna happen.

Woman performing dumbbell rows

11. Girls do cardio; guys lift weights—an ill-conceived dichotomy

Walk into most any gym and you’ll notice a generous segregation among the male and female patrons--with most of the guys pumping iron and most of the ladies huffing and puffing away on the treadmills. Moreover, when the ladies do meander over to the weight area, it’s usually to do some “toning” exercises with ludicrously hi-reps and featherweights (which as we touched on earlier is just nonsense).

This dichotomy is pretty much the result of our societal and cultural ideals of the perfect body and misinterpretations by laypeople on how to achieve those looks. It’s sad to think that so many females practically torture themselves with chronic calorie-restricted dieting and copious amounts of cardio everyday when they really just need a sound weight training program and some cardio to achieve that “toned” body they’re after.

The irony is that a lot of males that chastise cardio could stand to do more of it (see Habit #2), and the majority of females that think weight training will make them “bulky” need to get their doughy caboose off the elliptical and start hoisting some iron.

The bottom line

Ladies, don’t fear lifting heavy-duty weights, it will not randomly cause you to look like the Incredible Hulk. Guys, if you want your abs to show, then quit avoiding cardio; if you do it in moderation you won’t dwindle away to skin and bones. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention that diet plays a major role in fat loss and muscle gain, but this just iterates the point that some cardio can be great for accelerating fat loss and intense weight training is really what many women need to “tone” themselves.

It’s unfortunate that this dichotomy among males and females will likely pervade gyms everywhere for years to come simply because of the standards instilled from media and society. That being said, it does seem like more women are becoming educated on this topic and starting to incorporate a diligent weight-training program in their routine. I also see my fair share of bros that do some cardio these days so that’s a step in the right direction as well.

12.  Don’t forget to train those toothpicks you like to call legs, bro

It’s only fitting to end with the good ol’ leg-day skipping syndrome that plagues so many gym-goers. All too often I come across people who have forearms bigger than their thighs (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit) and it just makes me wonder how they can be so educated on training (their upper body) and dieting but completely overlook the importance of training the lower half of their body.

Maybe it’s just the bro in all of us that figures since pants cover up our legs that it’s a waste of time doing some grueling squats, but one day someone is going to see those toothpicks you call legs and laugh hysterically, overriding any sense of accomplishment you have for building a decent upper body.

Actually, the thing I love most about this habit is there actually is some sound science that refutes the idea of skipping leg training, even if your priority is having a chiseled upper body. Studies show that those who do high-intensity compound moves like squats and deadlifts actually exhibit a greater growth hormone response to training (due to the increase in oxygen demand) and generally have higher levels of testosterone (since they activate more muscle fiber then isolation movements). [5,6] I guess this is why they always say that nothing builds a pair of balls like some intense squats.

The bottom line

Aside from the fact that it just looks plain silly to have arms bigger than your thighs, there are many reasons not to skip your leg training. In fact, once you start training your legs with some heavy compound moves, you’ll probably see an improvement in your overall musculature and strength.

When the summer rolls around, just think how awesome it will be to wear short shorts around and show off your massive tear drops. Everybody knows that chicks dig a set of killer quads so don’t be a wuss, get that butt of yours under the bar and start squatting.

Wrap-up

Former president of the United States Theodore Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

I feel that quote nicely summarizes the take-home message in regards to the topics discussed in this iteration of bodybuilding habits. Some of the habits in this article may be rather inane when we take a step back and look at them rationally, but they’re still better than doing nothing at all.

However, I would hope that after reading this people take a moment to introspect a bit on what they do in the gym and ask whether it really makes sense or if they’re just following the dogma perpetuated by meatheads and media outlets.

Hopefully one day I will walk into the gym and no longer see a meathead wearing a weightlifting belt on arm day, or a girl that looks borderline anorexic doing hours of cardio, or a guy suddenly whip his pants and shirt off in-between sets to flex in the mirror…or heaven forbid someone training their legs...maybe even on a Monday! I mean c’mon, legs?! On a Monday?! Who would be so (in)sane to do such a thing!?

References:

1. Dolezal, Brett A., and Jeffrey A. Potteiger. "Concurrent resistance and endurance training influence basal metabolic rate in nondieting individuals." Journal of applied physiology 85.2 (1998): 695-700.

2. Kraemer, W. J., Staron, R. S., Hagerman, F. C., Hikida, R. S., Fry, A. C., Gordon, S. E., & Häkkinen, K. (1998). The effects of short-term resistance training on endocrine function in men and women. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 78(1), 69-76.

3. West, D. W., & Phillips, S. M. (2012). Associations of exercise-induced hormone profiles and gains in strength and hypertrophy in a large cohort after weight training. European journal of applied physiology, 112(7), 2693-2702.

4. Simmons, P. S., Miles, J. M., Gerich, J. E., & Haymond, M. W. (1984). Increased proteolysis. An effect of increases in plasma cortisol within the physiologic range. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 73(2), 412.

5. VanHelder, W. P., K. Casey, and M. W. Radomski. "Regulation of growth hormone during exercise by oxygen demand and availability." European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology 56.6 (1987): 628-632.

6. Kraemer, W.J., Noble, B.J., Clark, M.J., and Culver, B.W. Physiologic responses to heavy-resistance exercise with very short rest periods. Int. J. Sports Med. Aug;8(4): 247-252, 1987.