If you’ve been into strength training for a while, you probably know that there have been research-based breakthroughs that have exposed many training ideologies as more myth than fact where seeing results is concerned.
Knowing that cardio doesn’t kill muscle tissue, or that standing on a bosu ball while you do your biceps curls won’t make your core stronger isn’t what I’m talking about.
These are rules meant to be broken ages ago.
It gets more detailed when we’re talking about intermediate or advanced trainees who already have a handle on their foundation and are looking for hacks to get their gains to the next level.
It takes a trained eye to spot the little things, and that’s why I wrote this.
It’s become just commonly “accepted” to mindlessly apply many of these rules without asking questions or considering your individual case.
But critical thinking is half the battle when it comes to seeing gains in the gym without plateauing.
Rule 1: Stop Squatting with a Predetermined Foot Width
If you’re looking for the deepest, most pain-free squat variation, you’ll have to do some trial and error. Instead of blindly following the “keep the feet shoulder width apart” directive that you’ll see in training books everywhere, keep in mind that your ideal squat position actually depends on your hip anatomy.
Related: 4 Reasons You Can't Squat to Depth
No two pelvic girdles were built the same. Some hip sockets are out wide, and some hip sockets are narrow and front facing. Taking things a step further, some hip sockets are deeper nested than others which can prevent a very deep squat.
You have to practice lightly loaded squat variations with different widths until you find the one that promotes the best depth and least pain, while keeping your spine neutral. For some lifters, that may mean using a wide stance with the toes pointed outwards. For others, it may mean a narrower stance with a more forward facing toe position. Take the time to figure out what works for you.
Rule 2: Stop Avoiding the Knee-Over-Toes Squat Position!
For years it was preached that enduring shear forces on the knees is a bad thing, when in truth, we deal with that every day in real life. If we have an available range of motion to train, we should train it.
The truth is, avoiding the idea of the knees passing over the toes in a squat or lunge only puts a ceiling on how much you can train your dorsiflexion, since the shin never goes beyond vertical with such restrictions.
If you’re a taller lifter like me, it just makes things even worse. Enforcing a vertical shin position only limits the amount of depth a long legged lifter can achieve, and ultimately kills their training effect.
It’s a reason why a training tool like wall squats are something I don’t care for, since it doesn’t take a lifter’s leverages into account. The wall blocks the knees from travelling forward, and ultimate cuts off a lifter’s available range. For a visual, consider the video below.
Rule 3: Stop Assigning One Workout Per Muscle Group
If you want to grow and get stronger, then you’re going to have to train more. Most people recognize this, but few people realize that this transcends each individual workout.
Instead of packing as much volume as possible into one workout, think about doubling up the same workout by making it appear twice (or more) during the same week. As long as your recovery and nutrition are on point, adding cumulative volume to your training week can go a long way for making muscles larger and stronger.
If you’ve got chicken legs, why not schedule two leg workouts at the beginning and middle of your training week? If you’re afraid of soreness, just strategize.
Make the first workout geared towards hinge pattern, hip dominant movements (think RDL’s, Hip thrusts, Pull throughs, low bar box squats, and conventional deadlifts), and make the second workout geared towards knee dominant patterns (like deep front squats, leg presses, walking lunges, leg extensions, and split squats).
Applying the same logic to back workouts may have row and fly patterns on day 1, and vertical patterns like pulldowns and chins on day 2. You get the idea.
Rule 4: Stop Going for Strength Gains in Every Exercise
I’m a believer that there are some movements out there that don’t deserve or require PR attempts.
Release the hounds.
I don’t care what anyone has to say about it – training for size and strength doesn’t have to be about performance round the clock. I don’t know anyone with a 200 pound rep max face pull, and I doubt that someone who did have that rep max would be noticeably better at pressing or pulling in the big lifts versus another equally conditioned lifter with a weaker face pull.
That’s extreme, but my point is, some movements should be reserved for practicing patterning while lightly loaded – especially if it’s intended to target a smaller, intrinsic muscle group. If you’re doing a movement like this correctly, it shouldn’t take much to really give it a workout.
In my books, a rear leg elevated split squat, or Turkish Getup, or dumbbell fly with 200 pounds of load, starts to defeat the purpose if all kinds of compensatory mechanisms are kicking in to make the movement successful. Use those movements for range of motion, patterning, conditioning, and more.
Moreover, it’s not nice to your joints to never give them a loading break – and that’s something that deserves a lot of thought.
Rule 5: Stop Staying Married to Your Program!
The one problem that comes with constantly following training programs is that it can build dependency on one. That can refer itself to remaining completely novice as a lifter with no intuition when it’s time to throw a workout together on your own.
Taking this a step further, it makes it harder to listen to your body and respect the fact that if you’re having an off day, you may not hit the percentages asked of you in your strength training program for the day. Or reach the same volume.
If your shoulder or knee is bugging you, being able to back off on the volume or sub the movement out for something else that won’t aggravate and potentially injure you is invaluable to your growth as a lifter.
Most of all, being able to train intuitively is very liberating from a mental perspective. If you’re a serious lifter, it’s easy to get down if you have a bad workout or miss a PR.
When you can recognize, however, that beyond a certain point, your training pursuits are a hobby (given you don’t compete in anything), you don’t have to take that anguish home with you, and you can look forward to your next workout with no baggage. Most of us who lift have day jobs, life stresses, and erratic sleep schedules. Even the most elite athletes in the world have off days, so we can expect to have some too.
As a challenge, try going to the gym for just two weeks, not following any structure at all, while training towards your goals. The intent should be to feel great while getting a solid, safe, and effective workout in. If you can’t do this, it may speak to just how much you’re really learning from all the training articles and videos you’ve read and watched online.
The moral here is simple: Make your training your training. Like I mentioned earlier – everyone’s different.
Programs are often scientific and educated, but they’re still made by someone else who doesn’t know you personally and directly. Learn what works for you and what doesn’t, and get to the point where you can design your own structure – even if it involves picking and choosing sweet points from several great programs you’ve used before.
Don’t be a prisoner of the printed page. Fluffy fitness advice is fluffy fitness advice, and the true universal answer to most training questions and queries out there is: “It depends”.
As trite as this may sound, it’s true.
We need to stop force feeding ideologies, lifting methods and empty rules into our training, because it’s like forcing a square peg into a round hole. We can only do that so much before something will give, and it won’t be pretty.