Watch the Matrix and you'll see that Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is presented with two options for his fate; the red pill and the blue pill. Each pill represented something larger than Neo himself in the script. He must choose between living a dangerous life free from the tyrannical control of the machines (red), or a beautiful existence within the boundaries, or prison, generated by the machines (blue). If you've seen any of the movies you know how the story goes. If not, he chose "red" and went on to become the One who saved the world in a epic trilogy.
But we aren't here to talk about the Matrix in such depth (although I'm totally down). We are here to talk about exercise. But for the purpose of today's post the background needed to be set. I needed you to have the setting and backstory in-place so that you can better understand where I'm going with this post.
In the minds of most exercise enthusiasts and hopefuls, when it comes to resistance training there are only two choices, two pills, as well. To them, these choices are polar opposites, like freedom and prison, and even more troubling: these are the only two choices one could make.
On one hand we have the prescription for low weight and high repetitions. Let's call this the "blue-tone" pill, or at least that is how the fitness consumer sees it.
On the other we have the recommendation for higher weight and lower repetitions. Let's call this the "red-bulk" pill, or at least that is how the fitness consumer sees it.
These two options are usually all that is presented to the fitness trainee when they begin an exercise program. It could be their friend at the office that says "You should really just go light and do a lot of reps, it'll tone you up". Or, a trainer they just met for a complimentary session that is trying to explain "we need to increase your strength and muscle mass for you to be able to burn fat more efficiently, so we are going to go heavy and do fewer repetitions".
This sort of dichotomy is downright wrong. It paralyzes anyone who doesn't understand the science behind resistance training. What's worse is that this sort of thinking only furthers the chasm between the two training modalities. There are already too many people afraid that heavy weights will make them bulky, and even more people who think that doing infinite repetitions at absurdly light resistances will "tone" a muscle. (Hint: muscles don't have a tone function).
This article isn't so much about the science of muscular adaptation, although that is a discussion that should always be had. We could easily dive down the well and find ourselves talking about how different loading parameters (percentages) cause different adaptations in the body.
We could describe how really heavy weights (in the 1-3 repetition range) don't automatically contribute to muscular growth so much as they improve strength performance and neural recruitment capabilities. We could dive into the science that shows that anything below certain thresholds of load (below 70%) aren't capable of stimulating enough tissue breakdown to trigger an adaptation in muscle size and tonus.
But we won't.
We'll leave the debate and the physiology behind us with this following definition, which is nothing more than a long-winded explanation of the SAID principle :
"If someone chooses the correct load for a particular training effect (power, strength, hypertrophy, muscular endurance, speed) and stacks their sets and rest periods in the correct way (maximum force output, maximum muscle breakdown, anaerobic threshold, aerobic endurance), then they can achieve whatever they want in fitness (strength, muscle-gain, fat loss, improved performance)."
With that said, what if we aren't limited to these two narrow-minded approaches to fitness programming?
What if we could actually focus more on the quality of our efforts instead of simply quantifying the repetitions, the load, and the sets?
What if your dichotomy actually is a trichotomy (not a word, but I'm totally using it in this context?
Our two pill equation should really be a three pill contemplation. That third pill (I imagine it a yellow one), the "maximum return on investment" pill, is the real secret to success. It requires a little bit more focus on the details of each exercise, but it breaks you free of the trappings of the other two, more limiting, options. It allows you to see your chips stack up week-after-week.
Our third option requires us to stay tuned into our workouts. No matter what we are doing we are trying to do it with maximum attention to detail. Those squats that you bang out mindlessly need to be shelved in favor of sets of repetitions that are active in nature.
What is active?
It is pushing your feet through the floor and creating tension in your legs by contracting the muscles of your legs and trying to drive your mid-foot and heel through the floor.
It is activating those abductors and adductors and pushing the knees out, but not too far out, and owning that position from the top to the bottom and back up again.
It's taking a deep breath and bracing your core while simultaneously pulling the bar down onto your back, or the kettlebells into your chest. In either, those elbows should be driving towards the rib cage.
Your eyes focus forward and slightly downward; as if you are looking at a spot on the floor ten feet out in front of you.
It's feeling each and every repetition and not just "getting it done".
Which is the exact flaw in the other two mentalities of training. The red pill wants you to move as much weight as you can without much care for endurance, hypertrophy, and sometimes, form. The blue wants you to "feel the burn" and avoid the strain of heavier loads, avoid the "risk" of bulking up, and mostly avoid progress.
Neither pill, or method, is sending you down the right path. Sure, there are a ton of powerlifters who are crushing life in their sport. There are also a ton of incredible beach bodies and runway models who haven't strained to lift anything a day in their life. But these folks are the outliers who train with highly specialized programs for specific reasons.
For the rest of us in this world we need to put our eggs in a better basket. We need to take a better path that actually leads to results without obliterating our body with excess load or selling us a lie that toning a muscle can actually occur. The path isn't hidden either. It's been there all along.
The right path, the path least discussed, and certainly less traveled is that of "maximum return on investment". It demands that we put our brain to use and not just our body. It demands that we engage our cores, squeeze our glutes, and actually feel our joints move through space. It asks that we slow down our repetition speed, raise or lower our weights to bring us to true fatigue, and get more out of each contraction.
You can absolutely find this path. It just takes a willingness to reject what you've been told. Stacey from accounting isn't an exercise physiologist and Jeff from acquisitions hasn't done cardio in twelve years. Don't ask advice of those who aren't in the position to give it.
You wouldn't take stock advice from a twelve year old would you?
You wouldn't let your best friend diagnose your health in lieu of a medical professional, right?
So, listen to someone who has spent the last decade training actual people in-the-flesh. Almost sixteen thousand hours of being a personal trainer, group exercise instructor, master instructor, and diet consultant are behind each of the words you are reading on this screen. The person writing them has spent more hours in a gym in ten years than most humans will spend in their entire life.
I've even written a book for trainers, titled "Day by Day: The Personal Trainer's Blueprint to Achieving Ultimate Success" that will be available on Amazon by December 27th 2018.
There is a specific way you can leave the world of red and blue behind and begin a new, and more successful, fitness journey in the world of yellow. There is an actual process you can follow to ensure that you get the "maximum return on investment".
1. Do 5 Sets of Everything you Program with a Rep Scheme of (10, 6-8, 4-6, 8-10, 15-20)
*A classic pyramid program that allows you to go down in repetitions(with an equal increase in load) before driving really high in repetitions and lower in weight.
This variety of repetition ranges challenges you to utilize loads that cause a variety of breakdowns. This set up allows for you to go heavy and go light and also go in between. This variety challenges all fiber types within muscle groups and ensures that you are experiencing a variety of metabolic pathways.
2. Focus on the Action at Hand
Are you pushing or pulling? Are you squatting or deadlifting? Focus on finding the correct form and owning it repetition-after-repetition.
Don't zone out and start count. Engage yourself with the concepts of what you are trying to do. Are you doing a pullup? Then, focus on what it takes to lift your chin to the bar and only that. Your minds-eye needs to be present. Doing 10 repetitions with minimal effort sounds cool on paper, but you'll be stuck at 10 forever if you don't begin finding ways to make it more challenging. Load, tempo, volume, density, and pure focus on the task-at-hand are perfect ways to elevate your game.
3. Feel your bones move and your muscles squeeze
Your bones rotate around joints and your muscles can lengthen and contract real tight. You should be aware of both in the overwhelming majority of your workouts.
Imagine you are doing a push up. You should actively pull the floor apart with your palms as you lower your body to the ground so that your back muscles do the work. Your core and glutes should be rock-solid as you inhale on the lowering phase. Once at the bottom you should drive your entire palm into the ground with more emphasis at the base-of-the-thumb. Actively pushing the floor away, you'll eventually return to the top with a powerful exhale as you feel your chest, triceps, and deltoids squeeze tight.
And that's the secret to stepping out of the Matrix. That's the secret for finding your own freedom and escaping the prison of dichotomous thoughts. Stop letting yourself believe that you only have two options when it comes to your resistance training. You can go heavy and you can go light. You can do very few repetitions and you can do a lot of repetitions. Both have their place in everyone's program.
The key though is to get your maximum return on investment by focusing inward on your body and getting the most out of each and every repetition, set, exercise, and workout. In due time you'll blow past your own expectations and enjoy the results you've been chasing.