The Thinking Man's Guide to Getting Stupid
On any given day and in any given gym, odds are pretty good you can find a dude in a stringer tank, beanie, and oversized headphones hitting the leg press in between mirror selfies. You can almost see the inevitable hashtags: #beastmode #riseandgrind #legday #nodaysoff... The unintentional—and unfortunate—downside to this display of raw "alpha maleness" is that it’s helped turn thinking trainers away for the benefits of simple, stupid effort. We may not want to admit it, but Beast Mode Bro is on to something.
Movement Specialists and Gardener's Carries
Just as distressing to anyone concerned with good, quality training sessions should be the commensurate rise of the "movement specialist" and the "corrective exercise" guru. The problem? Movement specialists seem to spend very little time making anyone move, and sometimes the biggest issue that needs to be corrected is that someone is—to be blunt—fat and weak. Mobility is great, but no one's dying because they need to spend more time on a foam roller.
There's a time and a place for movement proficiency and technical precision; for sensory–driven work and a focus on form and feel. This kind of work makes up a good portion of the workouts I give to clients or even do myself. But confusing that with output—with just getting shit done—is one of the biggest limiting factors in intelligent program design. I joked to a friend a few weeks ago that farmer's carries had been replaced by gardener's carries: light weight, smiling faces, and impeccable form. Sure, sometimes less is more, but sometimes more is more.
We seem to be either too dumb or too smart for our own good, and our clients are suffering for it. Maybe we can find a smarter way to get a little bit stupid.
The Problem With Squats
Everyone loves squats; they're hard to top when it comes to sheer "bang–for–your–buck" muscle stimulus. And while that's their greatest benefit, it's also their biggest flaw.
A good squat challenges nearly every one of the body's major muscle groups. If my goal is performance driven—squatting more, jumping higher, pushing an opponent off of the line, or even making me more "functional"—then that's a good thing. Training the body as a system reflects what I want to improve.
The right answer depends on the question being asked. So what if I just want bigger, stronger quads?
The right answer depends on the question being asked.
More often than not my squat fails because something other than my quads gives out. The system has fatigued, but the target has not. A good squat depends on a chain of muscle working together, and the weakest link will naturally be the one to fail. It's pretty common for that weak link to be one of the smaller muscles tasked with stability and control; a spinal erector a hip abductor, for example. Looked at from this perspective, the squat falls short as a quad-developer.
Beast Mode Bro loves the Leg Press. It's simple, doesn't take a lot of finesse or technique, and he can put a lot more weight on it than he can on his quarter squats. And while it's tempting to laugh at all of this, these are the same reasons we should love the leg press: there's less to control, and less to screw up. And you know what usually goes first on a hard set? My quads.
Where the squat demands—and improves—strength, stability, intramuscular coordination, technique, and control, the leg press really just challenges one of those attributes: strength. And as with the squat, that's both its strength and its weakness. A hammer is a great tool... unless you need to tighten a bolt.
While it's tempting to laugh at all of this, these are the same reasons we should love the leg press: there's less to control, and less to screw up.
When Being Smart is Actually Dumb
Insisting that squats are better than leg presses—something I was absolutely guilty of years ago—is like insisting that a hammer is better than a wrench. Judging a tool is doomed from the start. Instead, we should be judging its application.
How you use a tool, and which one you reach for, will depend almost entirely on a combination of goals and limitations, ranging from a client's skill level and injury history to the facility's space and equipment considerations.
Freed by Constraints
I've started to mentally categorize exercises by the degree of freedom they allow, or conversely, by how much they limit or constrain movement options. Looking at things through this lens offers an interesting perspective, as you realize the trade–off involved. The more freedom an exercise allows, the more control it requires, while the more limited and restrictive an exercise is, the more strength it enables.
Understanding and classifying exercises in this manner allows for a fairly intelligent application of some of the "dumber" exercises out there; the ones that don't require a ton of finesse and control can be used to target the remaining adaptations (typically strength, hypertrophy, or muscular endurance). Put another way, there's a certain freedom that comes from limiting your movement options. Complexity and output have an inversely proportional relationship; when all I can do is push or pull, I can probably push or pull more.
With that in mind, here are a few movements I've fallen back in love with (Hey, I grew up in a bodybuilding gym, and as a result I'll always be a bit of a meathead).
The above list is anything but complete, and yet each one of the exercises listed represents the same idea: limited options and maximal stress. They won't all work for everyone, but they represent a principle that should. Those big, basic, uncomplicated lifts can be an important part of nearly anyone's programming, playing either a foundational or a supplemental role in their development. Don't be too smart to get a little bit stupid.
(I can't resist sharing the following true story: a dude walked into the gym one day clearly having slammed more than his fair share of preworkout. I glanced over as he finished loading the leg press up, and shifted my attention back to my client. Suddenly we both turned and stared as he grabbed his phone—apparently FaceTiming with a buddy—and screamed "LEEEGGG PREEEESSSSS!" as loudly as he could before knocking a few reps out. There's stupid and then there's stupid.)