The typical big box commercial gym can be a very uncomfortable place. At any given moment, it is likely that you are able to see every move your fellow exercisers are making, and it is also likely that they can see your every move as well. With the help of mirror-covered walls and wandering eyeballs, you are extremely vulnerable to constant criticism in the minds of each and every person around you!
“I wish she would just get off the lat pulldown machine.”
“Why is that man bending over and picking up a bar? Isn’t that going to hurt his back?”
“Curls in the squat rack?! What an idiot!”
Now of course we would never actually say any of these things, but there is no doubting that we think them from time to time. Over and over again we disapprove of the workouts of others. Why? Well because we’re human beings and we exercise, and naturally we like to think that the methods, variations, exercises we choose to perform are smart, right? Would it make sense for us to perform movements in the gym that we knew were ineffective, or possibly even dangerous?
When I observe what others are doing with their time in the gym, I commonly get the urge to ask one simple question:
“Why are you doing that?”
Think about it. Visualize yourself in the weight room. You just finished a set of four heavy standard dumbbell flat bench presses. You set down the DB’s and hunch over to rest until you’re ready for the next set. During this time, the guy on the bench next to you pops the question.
“Hey man, why’d you just do that? What was the point of those?”
This would be quite an unusual situation, and it would undoubtedly catch most of us off-guard. But if you really attempted to answer that question accurately, could you do it? The majority of the population might respond with a vague but satisfactory statement such as:
“I’m doing these to work my chest, shoulder, and triceps.”
This is in no way a bad answer! In that one statement, the person being questioned answered accurately by listing the primary muscle groups that that particular exercise is designed to train. Great!
But what if we took the original question and elaborated on it? Maybe we can get a little bit more specific and pick out some of the more minor details that go beyond laying down with dumbbells and pushing them up into the air. For example:
“Why did you perform 4 repetitions? Why are you using dumbbells instead of a barbell? How many more sets are you going to do? How long are you resting in between sets? What goals are you training to reach? Do you even have any goals?”
Suddenly, your conversation with the stranger just got a lot more complex.
Now you have been forced to think about the actual reasons for why you chose to drive to the gym today and why at some point in your workout you chose to lay down on a bench with dumbbells and push them off your chest. So let’s think about it!
We’ve already established that the primary reason for this exercise (dumbbell bench press) is to fatigue the muscles of the chest, the shoulders, and the triceps. So why the four repetitions? The knowledgable person would know that they chose a low number of reps because they are most likely training for the purpose of building strength, and therefore they are performing a low number of reps with very heavy weights. Dumbbells over a barbell? Well, the unilateral nature of using dumbbells will make it more difficult to stabilize each arm throughout a full range of motion. This in turn will place more stress on all the little stabilizer muscles that surround the shoulder joint, as well as promote a proper balance on each side of the body (each side must work equally as hard to complete the rep). How many sets? Since the person is performing such a low number of reps per set, they are going to perform a higher number of sets (five or more) in order to elicit a solid training effect. Rest periods? Once again, this person is training for strength, and therefore the rest periods are going to be longer than usual (90 seconds or more) with the purpose being to recover enough in order to keep the weight high. Goals? The immediate goals here are probably to increase upper body pressing strength. More specifically horizontal pressing strength.
So what have we accomplished here? Wouldn’t it be easier to just program six sets of four reps with appropriate weights and move on?
Of course it would be easier to do that, but if you’re serious about getting better at any given activity, you’ll have a significant advantage over competition if you understand the rationale and application for doing what you’re doing. Don’t just copy a program from a bodybuilding book and expect to get jacked if you perform that same program for multiple months. Find out what your goals are and then figure out the most efficient path to lead you in the right direction of that goal. Have a purpose every time you step in the gym. Take the time to educate yourself on the basic human movements that we perform each and everyday. Learn from those are smarter and more successful than you. Arm yourself with knowledge that will help you improve and distinguish between good and bad advice. There is a ton of great information out there, and also a ton of horrible information. It’s up to you to use your filter and be a skeptic. Whenever you’re in the gym, ALWAYS be prepared to answer that very simple but also very difficult question:
“Why are you doing that?”
If you can’t answer it, it might be time to re-evaluate your program. Have a purpose!