Sunday, April 3, 2016

AN ARGUMENT AGAINST BEGINNER PROGRAMS AND ABBREVIATED TRAINING


This needs to be said...again.
The pendulum is always swinging in the world of weight training (and really, in the world in general, but that’s not what this blog is about).  Phases come and go, round and round, the “eternal recurrence”, as it were.  I’ve read about and witnessed this swinging first hand, and I feel a need to try to combat its current location, to get it moving closer to center again.


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I really just want to make a joke about having "really CUT abs"


Too many beginner trainees have drank the koolaid that they NEED to perform a very abbreviated training program with high frequency in order to make “optimal progress”.  I am a noted fan of abbreviated training, and frankly I have recently become one of its biggest COUNTER advocates due to how extreme the mobilization of this training approach has become.  Whereas before there was a concern of overtraining, I now say we have reached a critical degree of UNDER training.
Why is abbreviated training even a thing?  Because it was the last desperate attempt of trainees who had tried EVERYTHING else and gained no success on those methods.  However, this is something we need to keep in mind; they tried everything else FIRST.  After years of slugging away at the iron, high reps, low reps, high volume, low volume, 3 days a week, 5 days a week, 2 a days, etc etc, someone got fed up and developed an idea that was “so crazy it just MIGHT work!”  3 movements a day, 15 reps per movement, 3 days a week.  It was insanity, it broke all the rules…and it worked.


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But mostly it was just insanity
But why?!  Because, despite not progressing with all the above training, the trainee WAS building up a solid foundation of work capacity, ability, coordination, basic strength and even just the tiniest bit of hypertrophy.  The body was fully primed for growth, it just needed a program to realize it.  That’s what abbreviated training does; it realizes the strength that has already BEEN built.
It caught on like wildfire among “hardgainers”.  Been training for years and not seeing results?  Go get yourself some abbreviated training and watch the numbers climb!  But, like any message that gets passed around, eventually it got distorted and the origins forgotten.  Soon, the element of “training for years” was lost.  The idea became “if it works for hardgainers, it works for everyone!”  The era of the beginner routine was born.


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Beginners sure looked different back then


Allow me to analyze the double speak of the internet that I still cannot understand.  We give beginners these beginner routines because beginners are so ready for rapid adaptation that we have to have them train as frequently as possible to elicit the most growth, yes?  This is why a beginner should train 3 days a week doing the same movements each time, versus training a movement once or twice a week.  The latter progresses far too slowly compared to the former.  Am I understanding the argument correctly?
So wait…the beginner is ready for rapid adaptation, no?  So wouldn’t that mean that, regardless of frequency, they would adapt rapidly?  So then how does the program determine rate of progression?  Wouldn’t a beginner’s body rapidly adapt to ANY program, and in turn this means that the beginner (assuming they push themselves) could progress just as well training a movement hard once a week versus 3 time?

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Keep reading, it gets better

Oh wait…so it’s not the beginner that is actually the key to rapid adaptation, it’s the program instead.  The program magically unlocks the beginner’s potential.  You see, if you have a beginner squat 3 times a week and add bar to the weight each week, THEN his beginner gains turn on and he gets stronger, but if you were to have him only train it once a week where he goes for as many reps as possible, he would actually not get strong because…wait why?  Does one program CHANGE the biological makeup of the trainee? How can a program even dictate progress in any capacity? The program does none of the training; that is the job of the trainee.
In one instance, we are told that beginners are magical, and that for some determined period of time they will have “beginner gains”, but in the same breath we are told that these beginners have to train as frequently as possible to “max out their beginner gains”, or else they go to waste.  This cannot exist in a logical universe.  Either beginners get beginner gains and they can apply this however they want and programs don’t matter, or programs DO matter and the beginner is just like any other training specimen. 


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Pictured: The beginner, as the internet believes it to look


As an example, if you put a beginner on 5/3/1, each time the squat rolls around, they will be stronger on it than they were before.  Many are quick to point out that the training max progresses “too slow”, and that a beginner will advance in strength so quickly as to make it non-applicable…but what kind of sense does that make?  Wouldn’t that be evidence of the program WORKING if the trainee following it is getting so strong that they are surpassing the very program?  How could it be that a program is failing if the beginner is getting “too strong” on it?  This is evidence of programs being entirely inconsequential, with beginners having some sort of magical quality that allows them to progress irrespective of the program…which begs the question; why even HAVE beginner programs?
Ultimately, the reality is that anyone believing in “beginner gains” doesn’t understand getting bigger and stronger.  All beginner gains are is a beginner’s body rapidly adapting to a new movement. It’s learning how to move in a specific way, learning how to recruit more muscles and motor units to move BETTER, and this in turn results in more weight being moved.  A high frequency program allows a beginner to get more practice with a movement more frequently, which results in seeing more poundage on the bar due to being a BETTER lifter, but it’s not somehow transforming the biology of the trainee to add muscle at a faster rate than someone else who is doing a bodypart split or 5/3/1 or Westside or anything else for that matter.  Getting better and getting stronger are two different things.

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Pictured: When stronger beats better


This is why the rush to put people on beginner programs and to steer them away from programs based on solid principles is the act of a snake oil salesman.  An abbreviated training program creates the ILLUSION of rapid progress. A beginner observes the numbers on the bar increasing rapidly and believe that they are rapidly getting stronger, and when they compare it with the “rate of progression” of other routines, they are convinced that their method is a faster (and therefore better) approach.  In reality, all these programs do is make the lifter better AT THE EXPENSE of getting stronger.  The high frequency, high intensity, low volume approach affords minimal opportunity to train at a variety of rep ranges or volume necessary to actually create muscular growth.  The demonization of additional training limits one’s ability to improve their conditioning.  The extreme focus on recovery via longer rest periods, more sleep, and more food EXTENDS how long one is able to continue NOT getting bigger and stronger.  It’s a self-contained formula to ensure one remains on these programs for as long as possible, avoiding all of the aspects of training that actually GET results.
In truth, these feared “intermediate programs” are simply GOOD programs.  They are based around sound principles and logical/sustainable progression.  The beginner/internet crowd simultaneously places them on a pedestal and tears them down in their claims that a beginner should not run them for fear of making “non-optimal progress”.  However, these programs simply provide an avenue for one to progress at whatever rate they are able TO progress at. Rather than being preoccupied with maxing out one’s ability to get BETTER at the movement at the expense of becoming stronger, these programs include avenues to practice the lift, get stronger at the lift, build muscle, improve conditioning, and address ALL the qualities that are necessary to get bigger and stronger.  A beginner following what the internet dubs an “intermediate program” may not see the weight on the bar advance at the same rate as someone following a “beginner program”, but they will definitely get bigger and stronger faster. You can quote me on that. 
What the internet dubs “beginner programs” DO have a place, and at one point in history they occupied that place well.  These programs are excellent for peaking weight room numbers that had been lost due to periods of inactivity; this is why Bill Starr built his program for football players (which was eventually repackaged by Rippetoe, copied by Mehdi who swore he got his from Reg Park, frankensteined by Blaha, etc etc).  Bill Starr’s 5x5 was a shotgun blast to quickly rebuild some lost strength with the understanding that the athletes were engaged in some ADDITIONAL training (off season football workouts), and therefore volume needed to be kept low to accommodate training demands of the athlete.  Keeping everything else fixed and only adding weight everytime one trains is an excellent way to recapture lost numbers by rapidly redeveloping the skillset under increasing loads.  However, we are talking about conditioned athletes who simply lost some numbers due to having to shift their focus to a different physical ability; not lifelong couch potatoes with zero musculature and coordination.


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Don't train like the Captain of the football team when you look like the Captain of the Chess team
I honestly have no reservations at someone wanting to run a “beginner’s program” for 2-3 months just to get their feet wet, mainly because I don’t think you can do a lot of damage in that short of a timeframe.  2-3 months isn’t even a blip on the radar of a dedicated ironhead.  However, where I take exception is with these “career beginners”, who stay on these programs for a year plus, believing they have the milk their beginner gains to the max in order to make “optimal progress”.  If you want to use this as a running start, that’s your prerogative; in 10 years, the guy who did 3 months of Starting Strength before switching to 5/3/1 won’t be any further ahead than the guy who started with 5/3/1.  However, I can say with certainty that the guy that did Starting Strength for 12 months, resetting everytime the weight got heavy, eating 4000 calories a day, doing zero conditioning, avoiding assistance work, and falling victim to all other lifting clich├ęs will be well behind the trainee that decided to quit worrying about “beginner routines” and just shut up and lift. 

7 comments:

  1. Great stuff. My sole reservation about recommending that a rank beginner do 5/3/1 or WS4SB is the fact that they often aren't good enough at the technique to safely push max reps/weight. HOWEVER, that is by no means the fault of the program. I use 5/3/1 (okay, "Bigger, Faster, Stronger" but same thing) with the HS kids I coach in the weight-room. THEY do max reps safely and correctly because they have a coach.

    The reason I think Starting Strength & Co. programs get recommended is because, 1. they're easy to recommend and 2. they don't actually push the trainee, so they require less coaching.

    Re: 1. there's nothing as easy to recommend as "ok, go do the same exercises 3x/wk and add 5-10lbs each time until you can't, then start over again." For some reason, people think that just because they lift weights, they're immediately qualified to coach and advise others, and that's the lowest effort way to feel like a coach without actually doing or knowing a goddamn thing. I know you've run into this in /r/fitness so I won't rant too long on that.

    2. because these programs don't really push the trainee, they don't really need to know how to do the lifts to still go to the gym. Hence why you get people talking about 145lb squat "plateaus." They've neither learned to do the lift correctly nor learned how to push themselves past 60% effort. If you want to push it, you have to actually know how to lift, and that means either spending a lot of time figuring out yourself (as you and I did) or getting someone to teach you. Neither of those yield instant gratification, so most people don't do them.

    If you're a beginner, like literally every single other skill or ability that exists, you're going to have to spend time, money, or both to learn that skill. People who want easy free answers on the internet will get what they paid for.

    I don't know a single goddamn person who has ever been objectively good at lifting in under a year, hell make it two years, without receiving some amount of coaching. If you're lucky, your HS sports coach knew what they were doing and you were mature enough to shut up and listen to them. If you aren't lucky, you paid someone to teach you and keep you on the right track. Everyone else spent a lot of time trying and learning, not expecting to be Jesus of the Barbell in a year.

    Will

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    1. This was an excellent reply. Lots of good stuff in it. I do need to clarify that I consider a beginner lifter a different animal from a beginner athlete, and one of the issues (which I've spoken of before) that you brought up well here is that a lot of folks just jump into lifting period. That you are able to run something like 5/3/1 with high school athletes shows the significant difference, and though coaching is a substantial variable, so too is simply the ability to BE an athlete, which a lot of couch jockies just plain don't have.


      You're absolutely right that these programs remain popular due to their ease to recommend. This allows so many beginners to "establish cred" online and be looked upon as an authority simply by having AN answer on how to train. This is doubled with the constant employment of the "No True Scotsman" argument whenever anything goes wrong.


      You're stalling on the program? That can't be, because you don't stall on the program when you run it correctly. You therefore must not be running it correctly. Got fat? You must not be eating right, because when you eat right with the program, you don't get fat.


      Zero critical thinking or ability required, and meanwhile you're now "in" with the forum group.



      Man, I just really like your reply, haha. It's something that can be talked to for a long time. Thanks for bringing up all those points.

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    2. Fuck yeah man. Honestly, it bites for me particularly because I basically had the dream scenario. Former big league football player football HC, took weights class with him all 4 years, on good terms, had an awesome weightroom (4 power racks, platforms, bumpers, GHR, hammer strength machines, etc), BUT I was TOO FUCKING FULL OF MYSELF TO LISTEN TO HIM. In college and now as a post-grad, I still hit him up when I'm back in town, get a lift there, pick his brain about coaching stuff, but back then it was all "hm, coach wants me to squat buuuuut bench and biceps sounds like more fun, I can always throw in some leg press later." I loved lifting, benched 225 as a 140lb junior, and built the foundation of a lifelong habit and semi-career, but christ, who knows where I'd be if I'd actually been willing to receive his coaching then. Kills me.

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    3. It's life. It's all futility. I look at what I write now and I KNOW that 17 year old me wouldn't have listened to any of it. I'm not going to convince anyone to do things my way, and I'll only get those that already agree with me to agree harder, but at least the revelation happened at some point. Some folks will go their whole lives before they learn.

      Sometimes the hard way is the only way to learn. It's a shame how much of this game gets played when we are young and stupid, haha.

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    4. It's also what makes coaching high schoolers so goddamn frustrating, haha.

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  2. Emevas,

    Really enjoying this series of posts.

    I think that anoher piece in this beginners programming is that a lot of beginners goals are different from the goals of abbreviated training. Or on the surface they appear to be.

    A lot of guys join a gym to improve aesthetics. I think that a program that is high volume and balanced on key lifts plus a lot of effort getting a diet dialed in would impact on aesthetics for a lot of trainees.

    I was watching old time strong men and happened across a group of youtube videos on gymnasts and the guys that train on bars outdoors. The difference in athletes and the obvious strength in both groups was amazing.

    I have abandoned abbreviated training and now use Matt Krocs (thanks for that) higher volume different rep schemes and increasing progression. I can tell you that 5 sets of chins at 10 reps with only 2.5 kgs is far more brutal than the 2 sets I used to do with 20kgs attached.

    A high set finisher of squats at bodyweight smashes me far more than 3 sets of 5 and long rests at much higher weight.

    By the way, 8 cups of veges a day, steamed and raw seems to promote recovery.

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    1. I appreciate the comment Paul. Abbreviated training gets pushed onto so many trainees who don't want or need it. Glad that the Kroc programming has worked out for you. It's amazing what a little more volume and some intensity of effort can do, along with some veggies.

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