Sean Hyson

Fitness Distilled

July/August 2015

What I DIDN’T Learn in 2012

posted on December 23, 2012
written by Sean Hyson

I’ve noticed that a lot of trainers who blog like to culminate a year with some kind of summary of everything they’ve learned over the course of it. I guess they’re just brighter than I am because I can’t think of many I things I learned outright in 2012.

Not taking anything away from him, but I’d bet that strongman legend Mariusz Pudzianowski’s programming never got much more complicated than “lift heavy, repeat.” It worked well.mariusz

I don’t want to write about new ideas in this industry simply because they’re new. Or, to put it more accurately, because they’ve been re-spun as something novel. I don’t think there is much of anything that is really new. And if there is, it isn’t any better than the old stuff.

I don’t mean to be cynical, just honest.

I don’t want to write about something only because it’s buzzworthy. Yeah, that would get me more hits on this site, but... I can’t bring myself to do it. My job at the magazines is to report the new stuff (or what’s purported to be new). On this blog, I want to tell you what I personally believe or don’t believe in, and how I’ve seen it affect people.

If there’s one lesson I’m taking into 2013, and I suggest you do as well, it’s that WE ALL NEED TO RELAX.

Fitness isn’t that big a deal. It’s not as complicated as it seems. And so many of the things we’ve been warned about and encouraged to do simply don’t matter that much. Just think about it. If they did, there wouldn’t be a million different experts offering a million ways to get in shape, and all of them showing at least some positive results.

Here are some random thoughts on many of the big ideas in fitness, “new” and old, that I’ve contemplated this year.

1. Block periodization.

I’ve tried it for powerlifting and it works. But not better than a number of other things I’ve tried. It’s a little complicated and time consuming, and, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t the miracle Eastern Bloc secret solution for mind-blowing strength gains that some coaches are selling it as. If you want to stick with simple linear periodization, some kind of basic percentage-based cycle system, undulating periodization, or Westside, that’s just fine. You can probably do it for most of your life and see continuous progress, IF you believe in it and put in the work. Fancy science never trumps those two factors.

2. A “complete” workout needs just three lifts.

To have balanced, efficient training long term, I think you need three exercises in your workouts. You should almost always have time for at least that much. First, you need a main lift that uses a barbell and works a push, pull, squat, or deadlift movement. Then you need an exercise that works the opposing muscle groups that the main lift trains in order to balance them out. Finally, you need to do something for a weak point, or an area that your performance on the first two lifts hinges on.

So, for the upper body, we could be looking at: bench press, row, shoulder press

For lower body: squat, good morning, side plank

If you like full-body training, go with a lower, upper, and then ab move: deadlift, overhead press, cable woodchop

Hate those exercises? Fine, pick your own. A year or so ago, I might have looked at your choices and winced, and tried to argue that there are better ones. In certain instances, I might be right, but it’s more important that you perform exercises you can DO WELL and will WANT to do often. That does more for your progress than lectures on getting more “bang for your buck” in the gym.

Jim Wendler, the creator of the 5/3/1 phenomenon, calls this approach “the triumvirate”, and it reigns. If you only have time for one exercise, of course you should do your main lift. If you have time for two, do the accessory one next. If you have more than an hour, feel free to add two or three or four more exercises, but remember this: whatever exercise you do—and EVERY exercise you do—needs to be done for a reason.

If I ask you why you want to throw in some lateral raises at the end and you hesitate in your answer, DON’T do them. If you’ve got three shoulder exercises in there already and you only do two for your legs on leg day, DON’T do them. Want to know how to build an effective workout? Think about what you need to make progress and address those needs one at a time.

What justification could there possibly be for this?shakey

Goal: “I want to bench more weight”

Needs: “To improve my press off my chest”

The Workout

Exercise: Bench press. Reason: Main lift I want to improve.

Exercise: Dead bench press (press off pins an inch or two above chest level). Reason: It helps me get stronger at the bottom of the lift.

Exercise: Dumbbell row. Reason: It trains the muscles that balance my chest, shoulders, and tri’s.

Exercise: Triceps pushdown. Reason: It trains the triceps, which help lock out the bench press, and it makes my arms bigger, which I think is cool and also helps me press stronger.

Exercise: Biceps curl. Reason: It trains the biceps, which helps balance the triceps work, and it makes my arms bigger, which I think is cool.

Exercise: Face pull. Reason: It targets the opposite movement pattern of the bench press which helps prevent imbalances and bad posture and it can save my shoulders from injury.

Exercise: Smith machine bench press. Reason: ???

It’s pretty clear which exercise I’d cut from the workout. Not because the Smith machine “sucks” or any similar propaganda, but because it’s not serving a clear purpose. If you want “pump up your pecs”, build a workout that does that and do it on a different day. If the goal is to build the bench press, focus on how you’ll do that. Anything that doesn’t fit in with the pursuit of that goal has to get the axe. Even if you have the time for it!

3. Workouts should last an hour.

How many times have you been told that your training sessions must be kept to an hour or less? That your cortisol levels will rise after the 60-minute mark and you’ll start burning up muscle?


Yes, there’s research that shows that levels of your muscle-building hormones decline after about an hour, but that doesn’t really mean anything. “Levels” of this and that are ALWAYS in flux in your body. One thing affects them and another thing affects something else that offsets it. It’s very hard to create a meaningful change in your body. Training longer than 60 minutes when you feel perfectly fine and have the energy isn’t going to harm a thing.

Training at a brisk pace is good for keeping your head in the workout, burning fat, and building your wind, but it doesn’t ensure that you’ll get out of the gym soon. If you need to do a lot of different exercises to meet your needs (as discussed above), you may have to “stay late”. If you’re in a busy gym and have to vie with others for equipment, it’s going to delay you. If you’re strong and need to work up gradually to heavy weights, that will be a factor too.

Oh, cortisol. I’ll never fear you again.corti

I used to worry about the “scourge of the long workout”. Then I noticed one day this past summer that my training went almost 2 hours. I felt incredible and weights were flying up. Why on earth should I have cut it short? And which do you think is worse—training long and risking higher cortisol or being in such a hurry to beat the clock that you have to cut three exercises off your list? Or cut your rest periods way down when you need them?

(No, really. I’m asking. Because I don’t know. And honestly, I don’t think a correct answer exists, so just go with it.)

I’ve had many long training sessions since and yet PR’s keep falling. Unless I’m the exception to the rule (and I don’t think I’ve ever had the honor of falling into that category), I’d say it’s bogus.

I’ll end it here because this post is running long and, God forbid, it may have an effect on my cortisol levels if I continue it.

I’ll be back before the end of the year to address a few other things I didn’t learn this year.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all. And thanks SO much for reading this year.


  1. Gravatar

    24 Dec, 2012


    Thanks again for the for the straightforward post. I have been lifting on and off my whole life, since I was a kid running to the store to buy Arnold's first lifting book. At 47, I workout with body weight exercises (based on push, pull, legs, and core), yoga, swimming, karate, some running, some bootcamps, and inevitably, will be back on weights...I just can't stay away from them. I had sustained a bunch of small injuries this year, so have allowed my body to heal. My point is that I truly value someone like you who can cut through all the "fitness yimmer yammer" and give us the straight scoop. With this blog in particular, it just reaffirms what I already know and helps me ignore all the extraneous BS.

    One more thing before your cortisol levels get too, your opening statement about relaxing is shared by my karate and yoga instructor and seems to be the key thing that keeps me from true success in either activity. I'm working on that...REALLY!!!

    I know when you right these blogs, you never really know how it will be received, but I think you hit a homerun with this one. Thanks again and happy holidays!


  2. Gravatar

    24 Dec, 2012



  3. Gravatar

    26 Dec, 2012


    Thanks Sean! I needed this article. Do what you LIKE for as LONG as you need too. Good stuff

  4. Gravatar

    27 Dec, 2012


    Another informative and enjoyable read. Too many people see programs online and do them without question then wonder why they have DOMS in specific areas without actually looking into it.

  5. Gravatar

    28 Dec, 2012

    Brad Catura

    Sean, an excellent post. It truly doesn't matter what you do for exercise as long as you enjoy it and do it. Whether it be TRX, crossfit, or the track. Just go there, relax & have fun. Do it for life!

  6. Gravatar

    29 Dec, 2012


    Regarding cortisol, it is necessary when lifting hundreds of pounds and putting your body through vigorous exercise. So what if it rises after the 60 minute threshold? I always found this as a non-sense justification of stoping yourself early even if you are feeling it that particular day. Another case of over-analysis in this field.

  7. Gravatar

    30 Dec, 2012

    Ines Subashka

    Great post! I really enjoyed reading it! :))

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