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Stop Thinking Personal Training is Black and White

by Jim Kielbaso | Follow on Twitter

With personal training, it’s hard to know what to believe…

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When I got into personal training in the early 90’s, I thought everything was black and white.  These days, I see things in shades of grey.

There aren’t cut & dry or rights and wrongs anymore, and I don’t get upset when I hear people talk about training programs.

I’m much more tolerant of differing opinions, and I like hearing both sides of an argument.  One thing I can’t stand, however, is a know-it-all without reasoning behind them.

I like to weigh the pros and cons, understand the different options available to me, and make a decision based on that.  I’d rather present all of the information than give a short answer that’s a half-truth.

Here are some things I’ve changed my mind about through the years. There’s more than one side of the story for all of these, so we need a thorough understanding. These are things I used to see in black and white, but now see in shades of grey.

Free weights vs. Machines

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Your muscles don’t know or care where the resistance is coming from.  It could be 100 pounds of iron or 100 pounds of marshmallows.  All your muscles understand is tension. There’s not one shred of evidence suggesting free weights build muscle better than machines.

Though I love free weights, I also like using machines.  I certainly don’t like all machines, but there are good ones out there.  I also like to use bands, balls, bodyweight, suspension training, etc.  It’s funny to listen to guys talk about the superiority of free weights, yet they use pulldowns, low rows, glute/ham raises, etc.

Your nervous system might recognize the difference and get better at one or the other.  That’s fully expected, and it definitely makes a difference if you’re a competitive strength athlete.  I’m just not as concerned with demonstrating strength on a particular exercise as I am with developing total body strength.

Sometimes, machines are the right way to get things done.  I have a few NFL guys who don’t squat because of back problems, but they can leg press.  A good leg press (like Hammer Strength or Pendulum) is gold when someone with back problems needs to keep training.

I’ve asked some “anti-machine” people what they think of leg presses.  They’ve all said they’ve never used them, but they still don’t like the leg press.

Huh?  How can you dislike something you’ve never used?  It’s hard to have an intelligent conversation with someone this closed-minded.

Maybe a hand or foot injury that prevents you from using free weights.  With machines you can have a broken hand and still work your chest with a fly.  With a broken foot, you can still get plenty of hip work done with a multi-hip machine.

I have my athletes use plenty of free weights, but I also like my bi-lateral row, glute/ham raise and Keiser squat rack, which are all machines. Let’s end the debate and use everything that works.

 The Research Says….

I’m a research junkie.  Yet, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that research never proves anything.

For a long time, I didn’t get that.  I thought a good study would prove a theory to be true or false.  It was black and white, right?  I’d read a study and take what it said as gospel…until I’d find another study that contradicted what the first one said.

What I realized is that studies merely provide evidence to help substantiate a theory.  One study doesn’t mean something is true or false.  If that were the case, there would never be a need for multiple studies on a topic.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t value science.  I value the entire process of examining a theory, but it has made me take it with a grain of salt.

Research gives us good information, but we can’t just look at one study and be done examining a topic.  Be a critical thinker and looker deeper to get the full picture, not just the one someone wants to sell you.

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Black and White won’t alway give you a clear answer

One Set vs. Multiple Sets

In general, doing 3-5 sets per exercise produces only slightly better maximal strength gains than single set training.  Some of the research shows that 1 vs. 3 sets produce equal results, but more studies show slightly better strength improvements with multiple sets.

That’s cool and no big surprise.  However, these results take 3-5 times more time and work to achieve than performing one set.   Often, the results aren’t worth the extra time and effort.

I’ve read all the studies that compared 1 vs. 3 sets over the course of 12 weeks.  After three months of training, the 3-set group improves their max squat strength by 5-10 pounds more than the 1-set group who might not even squat.  Is a 5-10 pound improvement worth the extra time?

A lower volume program is a good choice when you got 30 minutes, 2-3 days a week in the gym.  If you can get similar results in a third of the time, strongly consider it as an option.

I love using them with multiple set programs.  I’ll have an athlete do multiple sets of exercises like bench press or trap bar squats, then finish off with one set to failure of other exercises to save time and add variety.

Training to Failure

It’s obvious to avoid overtraining, but some people in the field are turning us into babies.  With comments like “training to failure teaches athletes to fail,” all I hear is “waaah, waaah, it’s too hard!”

While you don’t need to go to failure all the time, don’t be scared of pushing yourself. There’s no evidence suggesting overtraining as long as you’re recovering properly.

If you’re training hard, you need plenty of recovery. I don’t mean a “light” day, either. I’m talking about taking a day OFF.

Humans can recover from a great deal of hard work and stress as long as they’re getting the proper recovery which includes time, sleep and nutrition. If you’re not going to take care of yourself, is it really the fault of the training program?

Spinal Flexion

If you’ve been following Stuart McGill’s push to rid the world of spinal flexion exercises, then you’ve heard about this one.

Spinal flexion exercises like the crunch are easy to overload and get stronger with, but they’re not that “functional”. McGill’s pig spine research suggests repetitive flexion may cause long-term damage to our intervertebral discs.

Been doing hundreds of crunches and sit ups daily? Then you definitely need a change.  It’s not needed to eliminate all spinal flexion, but we can cut down and exchange for stabilization exercises.  We should create more balance in training so that crunches and sit ups aren’t all we do.

McGill isn’t the only spine expert in the world, Robin McKenzie, a physical therapist from New Zealand developed a system of self care for the neck and low back that helps alleviate pain and disk issues.  He agrees that many disc issues are aggravated by flexion, and performing a few extension exercises will help put the discs “back in place”, helping to repair and remodel the disks.  In fact, people could benefit from a few self-care techniques each day, which would negate the deleterious effects of a sit up.

If you want to eliminate the flexion exercises, I can’t blame you. But maybe we need to learn better ways of self adjustment and care. If you don’t completely buy into McGill’s theory, consider including extension exercises or self-manipulation to keep things balanced.

Olympic Lifts

The clean and snatch are controversial, and WAY overused in the general fitness.  These are complex lifts that carry risk.  Weighing the risks vs. benefits, they don’t seem like the best option.  There are plenty of other ways to develop explosiveness that are safer and easier to teach and implement. Too many people have gotten hurt doing these, with no need to risk injury simply trying get in great shape.

For athletes, it’s important to have the ability to transfer power from the lower to the upper body.  Yet, exercises like an explosive trap bar squat produce the same, if not more, force than the clean.  It’s also a lot easier to do well while lowering the risk of injury.

Unless you’re a competitive athlete or Olympic lifter, there’s no reason for Olympic lifts.  Doing them as a metabolic conditioner, like in a lot of trendy workouts, is a mistake.  There are plenty of alternatives that are safer and deliver the same results.

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Shades of Grey

In truth, I wish there was more black and white information since it would be easier to know what to do.  But know that the human body is not black and white, and I hope you can appreciate the grey area in these topics. The next time you hear someone spouting off like things are black and white, remember this article and realize that the truth is probably a shade of grey.

Photo credits: Saint Huck, The World According To Marty, M-Haftek, dno1967b

About the Author
Jim Kielbaso

Jim Kielbaso is the Director of the Total Performance Training Centers in Michigan and is the co-founder of www.UltimateStrengthAndConditioning.com.; He is a former college strength coach and the author of Ultimate Speed & Agility.