More Things I Didn’t Learn This Year
written by Sean Hyson
This is the follow-up to my last post.
4. The anabolic window.
When I started at Men’s Fitness nearly 10 years ago, the concept of “nutrient timing” was pretty new and gaining momentum. There was some research out of the University of Texas that said drinking a combination of protein and carbs right after training was necessary to maximize the muscle-building effect of the workout. What I’ve never been able to get a straight answer about is just how much of each I need to spoon into that shake. Some experts say a two-to-one carb to protein ratio is ideal. I’ve also heard three-to-one and even four-to-one.
Frankly, I don’t care anymore.
Consider this: when I met coach Jason Ferruggia, he told me that he never placed much importance on drinking shakes. His brother, Jared, who trained his way up to 250 pounds and deadlifted just under 600 (all natural), couldn’t stomach protein drinks at all. The two of them would go across the street from their gym to a Japanese restaurant after training and wolf down sushi rolls. Obviously, they were getting protein and fast-digesting carbs in combination, but I doubt they had much of an idea of how many grams or what the ratio was.
I think the lesson here is that the protein/carb combo IS important, but the exact amount isn’t. Unless you’re following some strict diet. As far as the anabolic window—this notion that you only have 45 minutes or so to consume your protein and carbs before your body isn’t able to absorb them as well in your muscles… I don’t know what to make of that, either. If Kiefer and John Meadows have taught me anything, it’s that timing is important and you do seem to be able to get away with eating more sugars close to training time than at other times. But whether you back-load right away or later that night, I don’t know if you’re going to see any difference. Just eat.
Some guy wrote me an email trying to debate me about when to eat carbs. Your biggest, most decadent meal, he argued, should come 24 HOURS AFTER your workout, because that’s when (he read) the body maximizes protein synthesis.
My answer was something along the lines of, “Dude, I don’t know. Try it and see.”
I hate to sound so cavalier and make it seem like nothing really matters, but so much of it doesn’t. Maybe these ideas about carb cycling, back-loading, fasting, and so on are just hubcaps on the wheels of your car. They make a difference to you, but not in your ability to take the journey. You don’t NEED hubcaps for the wheels to turn. You can still drive a long way, provided you stay in the car.
What DOES matter is calories. If you skip the anabolic window, eat fewer grams of protein than your body weight in one day, or don’t drink the designer shake your nutritionist recommended BUT you still eat more CALORIES than you burn in a week… I’m pretty sure you’re going to gain weight. As long as you were eating whole food and not candy bars, I think that weight will be muscle. Would you have gained more muscle if you did it “by the book”? Maybe. But do you really care? A gain is a gain. And just how fast and how much do you think you’re going to gain anyway? If I can gain a pound of muscle in a week doing things “wrong” but in a way that suits my schedule and doesn’t stress me out, I’m cool with that. Would I really gain an ounce more if I was so much more regimented, and would that make me any happier?
So it’s the main ideas you already know that make the difference, not the many methods that interpret them. Lift weights and eat a lot and you’ll grow. That’s really all I can tell you for sure.
5. You need to “switch it up”.
The idea that you need to change your workout regularly is something I bought into completely in my early training years and then did a 180-degree turn on. Now I’ve turned back around again about halfway. (How many degrees is that?)
When you train with too much variety, switching your exercises, sets, reps, and rest every session, you NEVER know if you’re making any lasting progress. There’s no baseline to measure things against, unless you took body measurements. You can’t tell if you’re getting stronger, and past a certain point, I don’t even think you’ll see aesthetic differences because you’re not letting yourself progress on anything. To make progress, you need practice, and that means repeating workouts to improve at the skill of doing them.
This is where the mainstream fitness world with all its exercise classes and pink dumbbells goes wrong. In an effort to make workouts “fun”, everything is designed for the short attention span. There’s no insurance that you’re actually learning how to perform exercises, pace yourself, adapting to the feel of heavy weights, etc.
On the other side of the spectrum is what Crossfitters call “the specialist”. This is your powerlifter or bodybuilder who does the same workouts every week without changing a thing. I did this for a few years. I wanted to get good at a few core exercises, so I kept drilling them over and over. What happened was I DID get good at them (or at least better!), and, honestly, I never really got bored. But I also got sore elbows, a bad hip, and a host of weaknesses that resulted from neglecting other exercises. If you squat with the same stance with the same bar and use the same technique every week for two years, I can almost promise you your max will go up and then you’ll feel really lousy.
So workout variety IS a necessity, but not because your body needs to be “shocked” or your muscles need “confusion”. Your joints need rest and you simply have to attend to other exercises to keep yourself balanced and healthy. This is where the mainstream fitness world has it right.
And it leads to my next point.
6. You don’t need fancy programming, you need to set PR’s.
I talked about block periodization in my last post. I tried it for about a year. The first six months seemed miraculous and the second six were mundane. Just like so many other programs I’ve tried. It just goes to show that there’s no perfect program and nothing works forever.
So what the hell am I supposed to do?
Whatever the hell it takes for you to set PR’s. That’s really all there is. But this doesn’t mean constant maxing out. It means having a few different skills that you work on in each session (variety), and figuring out how to improve them in some quantifiable way on a regular basis.
So work on adding weight, adding reps, doing the same amount of weight and/or reps with less rest between sets, holding the stretched position longer, controlling the eccentric better, or whatever else you want to play with. Play little games with yourself and see that these numbers improve every few weeks (whenever you repeat workouts). If you’re adding weight while the reps and rest stay the same, you HAVE to be getting stronger. If your calories are increasing and your weights are going up, you HAVE to be getting bigger. If your rest periods are decreasing and you’re doing more total reps than you could when you started, AND your calories are decreasing, you HAVE to be getting leaner.
See? Simple. No more guesswork.
Here’s how I do it:
I want to be strong on the main lifts, so I do four workouts a week. I have a squat day (although I’m not currently squatting, so I do single-leg squats and other quad-focused exercises), a bench day, a deadlift day, and an overhead press day. I switch up the exercises but always use a lift that’s very similar to these main ones. For example, an overhead press day might be done with the strict military press one week, the log press (done as a push press) another week, and an axle clean and press yet another time. I’m not doing the same thing every week so I’m getting variety, but I’m not getting SO MUCH variety that I lose a step with any one lift. They ALL get better and they all carry over to each other.
I may do higher reps on one exercise and low reps on another one in one week. The next week I could go low reps but use short rest periods. Other times I’ll go really heavy and do a near max. It doesn’t matter. I know I have to train in multiple ways to keep gains coming while staying safe, so I simply rotate through.
Then I go into assistance work. This can be done heavy but since most assistance exercises are really bodybuilding exercises—dumbbell rows, lunges, situps, etc.—I think you get more out of them (and less risk of injury) by just using moderate weights and short rests. Get a pump, put some work in, and you’ll see results. These exercises often get rotated, but the pace is usually quick and my focus isn’t as extreme. In other words, if I don’t have time for something, I just skip it and don’t feel bad about it. I also don’t push myself to screaming failure too often on these.
That, in a nutshell, is how you get variety enough to stay healthy while getting practice enough to be big and strong.
Another idea that ties back into the previous one. There are high-frequency training advocates and high-intensity advocates. They’ve got you either training the same muscles six days a week or one.
As I alluded to above, frequency is important for training movements, not muscles. If you want to be a great squatter, you should be doing some kind of squat weekly. If you just want big legs, I think you could leg press one week, do hack squats another, leg extensions, and so on and maybe not squat for a long time or ever if you don’t want to. As long as you’re setting PR’s and training your legs (ahem, and EATING), you will see bigger legs develop.
I’ve really noticed this with calf training. Nowadays, I do some calf work at the end of my leg workouts, so that’s twice a week tops. It’s not a priority, as I can’t think of any great reason to train calves hard, I don’t really enjoy it, and I feel I don’t have much time to give them. I keep it simple and cycle through a few different exercises using the total rep method. I pick a weight I can do about 10 reps with and perform 20 total the first time. When I repeat the exercise, I go for 25 or 30, and so on up to 50. Occasionally, I’ll do some drop sets at the end for an extra “burn”. Very old-school; not very scientific.
And yet my calves look bigger than they did last summer. Even when I skip them, which is fairly often, when I come back after two or so weeks, I rarely have trouble beating my last performance. Maybe they NEEDED that extra recovery? Maybe training frequency isn’t that important?
Wait, then I guess intensity isn’t either? Because I’m not exactly Henry Rollins in there when it comes to calves.
What is important then? What does work? Getting to the gym regularly, having some kind of plan (flawed though it may be), setting PR’s, and eating according to your goals.
That’s about all I’ve learned.