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The Best Tool for the Job

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”

Abraham Lincoln

Let’s try a little thought experiment: walk into any sporting goods store, gym or fitness studio. Look at the multitudes of equipment on display – treadmills, rowers, machines for every body part imaginable, bands, balls and more. The options you have at your disposal are endless.

So with all these possibilities which one do you choose? Do you aim for as much variety as possible, shocking the muscle in a hope to make it adapt? Or do you try and give your everything to one tool for a few weeks or months and see how it pans out?

The answer to this question really boils down to one factor: what is your training goal? Until we have clearly defined your purpose for training, it doesn’t really matter what training tool or methodology you use, they all work to some degree.

To make this easier for everyone, lets start breaking down the most common goals that people have when they start training at the gym. Most people come to the gym with the simple goal of looking better naked. This can be broken further down into most people are pursuing both fat loss and muscle gain, simply in different ratios. Some people want to lose a fair bit of fat and gain a little bit of muscle, some want to gain a lot of muscle and lose a bit of fat. Neither of these goals are superior to the other, they are just different.

Strength is another common goal. Most people want to feel stronger, so they can get through their day without straining, play with their kids without getting tired and open any jar that gets in their hands. Mobility, stability and flexibility follow soon after this. We all want to be pain free and move without restriction’s in our day to day life. This is quite often a secondary goal, but nonetheless is an important one. Now that we have identified the main goals, lets look at the requirements for each and the best tools to use.

As stated a few paragraphs ago, fat loss is the primary goal of most gym goers. When we look at what actually causes us to lose fat, the answer is very simple – create a caloric deficit. This is the only way to lose body fat and we need to acknowledge the importance of nutrition in this aspect. If someone is not controlling their nutritional intake in some way fat loss will be limited at best. Another way to frame this is that you cannot out-train a bad diet.

Since we are going to address nutrition in the forthcoming articles, let’s look at the other ways we can stimulate fat loss. This is done by increasing energy output, which means exercise and moving more.

Now as already discussed, we have already identified that you cannot out-train a bad diet (unless you are willing to do 3-4 hours per day), but we do know that activity can help drive a change in energy balance. With that in mind, the best option for most people is to start with any physical activity they enjoy. Adherence is the most important variable when looking at the efficacy of any exercise program and it doesn’t matter whether it is walking, sport, structured exercise or any other activity, it all helps contribute to a caloric deficit. The first advice here is to find what you like to do, can commit to do and start there.

That helps if you are looking to just make progress. We are however looking for optimal progress. We want everyone to get the best results in the most efficient and expedient way possible. Here is the order of hierarchy that we have found to be most useful for fat loss.

  1. Strength training – This is what surprises most people. The general assumption is that cardio burns more fat then strength training has been proven to not be true (1), yet most people automatically go for the treadmill when trying to drop fat. We recommend performing full body strength training 3-4 times per week as the perfect starting off point for amazing results.
  2. NEAT – This is an acronym for Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, a fancy way of saying walking around and incidental activity. We recommend this in second place before any form of structured training because it has been found that as people reduce their caloric intake, they also concomitantly reduce their activity levels as well.  Since NEAT accounts for around 30% of our daily calorie expenditure, this can be fairly significant! Setting yourself a step goal (using a pedometer or your phone) is a great way to ensure this doesn’t drop off.
  3. Long Steady State Cardio – Here is a another recommendation that shocks most people. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is the most popular recommendation but one we don’t agree with. This is because after doing HIIT, your ability to do structured weight training (our No 1. recommendation) is totally compromised! Doing heavy squats the day after sprint intervals simply does not work because you are generally too fatigued to get anything out of the strength training workout. Doing steady state cardio also helps promote parasympathetic recovery (the rest and digest part of the nervous system) which allows us to train harder in other sessions and is easy to measure in terms of intensity, keeping it consistent.
  4. Metabolic Circuits, HIIT, Strongman workouts, yoga, pilates and all other forms of exercise – To get one thing clear, nothing is wrong with any of these types of exercise. If you enjoy them, then keep doing them! However, as we are looking at using the best tool for the job, these exercise modalities either tax recovery too much or do not provide a great enough stimulus for fat loss.

Lets now move onto the next goal, building muscle. This process is called hypertrophy and there a few things that contribute to it. In fact there are 3 factors responsible for initiating the muscle building response to exercise and by exploring each one in more detail, we can identify the best tool for the job. The 3 factors are mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress (3).

  1. Mechanical Tension

This is the most common tool used for growing a muscle. It is tension induced by force generation and stretch under load, all of which are done by resistance training. It is more commonly referred to as volume.

For this to be applied practically in the gym, we need to think of volume the combination of the total number of reps performed per workout, the load lifted for each set and the range of motion from which the exercise is performed through. When we apply logic to this principle, the barbell is the tool that has the most potential for overall load, while dumbbells have the best compromise between load and range of motion. We can also identify that using unstable training tools like Swiss balls and other devices is probably not the best tool for hypertrophy because it violates maximising load.

2. Muscle Damage

This has also been theorised to grow muscle through a number of different mechanisms which will take another whole book to adequately explore. We can however hypothesise that increasing amounts of volume will lead to higher amounts of muscle damage (as anyone who has done a high rep squat workout can attest to). This again shows us that the best tools for the job of hypertrophy are again the humble barbell and dumbbell.

One caveat to this is that some will interpret this as a license to go out and do some crazy drop set workouts and inflict as much muscle damage as possible. This goes against the first rule of maximising mechanical tension, as drop sets quickly reduce your ability to use a heavy enough load to generate high enough levels of mechanical tension.

When we look at how we can maximise muscle damage we can again see the 2 best tools are barbells and dumbbells, for the combination of load and range of motion possible.

3. Metabolic Stress

This is the process by which we subject our muscles to stress through chemical signals from workout strategies designed to “burn”. There is some evidence to suggest that this component of training is not essential for muscle growth, it can still play an important role.

Training for increasing metabolic stress can be done in a number of methods, with the most common being supersets (performing 2 exercises one after the other), drop sets. And higher rep training. For this application of hypertrophy training, machine training is generally the best as it requires the least amount of stability and it is generally safer (drop sets with something like squats can pose quite a high risk). Barbells and dumbbells are the next best option for this.

We have now established that barbells, dumbbells and machine based training are the best tools for the job of hypertrophy, the next tool is strength. There are 3 main ways we develop strength, so lets dive into these and see what tools will work best.

Strength can be defined as the ability to apply force. There are many, many small derivations of this we can explore but for the sake of brevity we will only investigate the 3 main methods that are used in the gym in the pursuit of strength.

  1. Maximal Effort Method

This can be basically summarised as lifting a maximal load against maximal resistance. This is generally the most effective way to develop strength as it uses the highest amount of load, which is generally how we demonstrate our strength. We can do this with the maximal amount of weight to be lifted for 1 repetition, 3 or 5 reps. The best tool for this method is the barbell, as it allows us to use the highest amount of load safely. Dumbbells are not ideal for this as the balance required makes the risk outweighs the potential reward.

2. Repeated Effort Method

This method involves lifting as non-maximal effort to failure or to a close proximity to failure. This will help improve strength as it will help improve a muscles size and for all intents and purposes, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. We prefer programming our repeated effort efforts to not approach failure, as this generates too much cumulative fatigue. We will expand on this concept in the methods chapter. The best tools for this can vary greatly, as we will not be lifting maximal loads or approaching failure.

3. Dynamic Effort Method

This approach to training involves lifting or projecting a non-maximal lead with the highest possible speed. This will help increase strength levels by improving what is called the rate fo face development, which is exactly what it sounds like, the ability to produce force quickly!   This helps develop strength by allowing us to recruit our muscles more efficiently and demonstrate more force. The best tool for this purpose is barbell with sub maximal loads, so we can perform the same movements we will be demonstrating our strength with at speed. The next best options are our bodyweight (jump squats and clap push ups) and items like medicine balls that allow us to propel force.

Finally, let’s address flexibility and mobility/stability. These are objectives that all gym goers genuinely need, not only to get out of pain, but to continue to train for the long term. It I s also not uncommon for people to approach these goals with the same mentality as any other goal, of using the newest toys and unnecessary variety to achieve the same outcome.

First of all, we must define each of these terms so we are all talking the same language. Here are the definitions we will use going forward:

Flexibility: This is best described as the extensibility, or length of a muscle or muscle group.

Mobility: We define this as range of motion around a joint.  This is what most people think of when they are saying flexibility but they are 2 different concepts and need to be addressed differently.

Stability: We define this as integrity in the presence of change. Many people confuse stability with rigidity, for example holding a plank. In this definition that we use, this may  mean having a stable spine while the hips and knees change position in an exercise like a back squat.

Now we have a good understanding of what each quality is, we need to look at the factors that govern them and how we can improve them to select the best tool for the job.

Achieving flexibility is something where we need to define EXACTLY where we are looking to get more flexible. Having a vague goal of ‘be more flexible’ doesn’t really help us narrow down what needs to be done and what the best tool is. What most people have in mind when they want to improve flexibility is generally mobility, so once we have identified whether we are chasing stability or mobility, picking the right tool is easy.

For flexibility the best tool is basic stretching, but the caveat to that is it still needs to have a progression. Like all types of training, your body does adapt to the load that you place on it and we need to push harder to keep making improvements. We have found that going from unloaded stretches to loaded stretches (stretching using weights or other ways to add load) gives the best progression and maintains the flexibility for the long term.

When was are looking at mobility we need to consider the joint that needs mobility, what directions it is lacking mobility and if strength is needed to maintain a position. With that in mind, what works best here is using different mobility drills to create a change in someone’s movement (an example of this is foam rolling, which doesn’t change a persons tissue quality, but creates a temporary change in the pliability of the nervous system) followed by a loaded strength movement. What the mobility drill does is create a ‘moment of opportunity’ which we then capitalise on by performing full range of motion strength training, which develops both strength and stability at the end point of the newfound range of motion.

For our final quality of stability, we need to look at where stability needs to be generated. As a general rule of thumb there are certain joint complexes that crave stability (foot, knee, lumbar spine, scapula) and others that need mobility (ankle, hip, thoracic spine, shoulder). What we have found to be best for addressing stability deficits is placing the body in positions where stability is required to maintain a position and then implement proper diaphragmatic breathing. What this does is it allows for the correct usage of the core musculature and for this to happen at a subconscious, or reflexive level.

While we are on the topic of core stability, what we are always driving at is for our core to work automatically, without any conscious control or volition. This is what true authentic stability is, it is the ability for the body to do what it needs to be pain free and strong. This is why breathing is the most important thing to address when dealing with stability.

Once we understand what tools are the most useful for our goals, we can really separate the wheat from the chaff and focus on what is going to give us the biggest bang for our buck, be the most efficient and allow us to be free from distraction. Now we have looked at how to identify the best tool, now we can look at what we are going to do with all these tools, which is movement…

Stay tuned for more!

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