With the exception of the minute before a hard set of squats or deadlifts, I’m practically always wearing a smile at the gym. Here’s a Steve Pulcinella quote I read a while back that explains why:
“One of the things I like to get across is this is a party, not a war. You don’t come here to be angry, this is the place to come when you’re happy… I want to have fun. I want people to be happy in here. It’s like, ‘Let the party begin. Let’s work out.’”
Even when I crank up the Rage, and pull my hat down low, I’m usually wearing a smile and pink headphones; I’m not all that serious, and I like to chat with friends, spot people when necessary, and have fun. I frequently find myself being approached in the gym, either by students (at school) or members (at the gym) who ask some form of the a question regarding focusing on a specific fitness or physique goals. The exchange might look something like this:
- Them: “Harold, what should I do for _______________?”
- Me: *Takes deep breath* Deadlift. Or Squat. Or do Chinups.
- Them: But I really want _______________.
- Me: Right. So go do that.
- Them: Umm…okay.
- Me: Awesome, let me know how it goes.
Regardless of the specifics of the question, my answer will almost always include a compound movement, that should be trained for strength. Strength training with compound movements using body weight patterns and external load will almost always beat out machine use and isolation exercises. That is, of course, unless somebody decides to ask, “Harold, I want to spend lots of time at the gym, but don’t want to sweat that much, I don’t want to see good results, and I’d hate to get any stronger?” In that case, have fun watching Jersey Shore on your elliptical.
Now my answer varies depending on the situation and the inquisitor, and I’ve learned to quickly move past any holier-than-thou attitudes about coming to the gym with a plan. Usually what happens is that a variation of a compound movement is chosen to give them a specific feeling that they’re looking for, while satisfying my requirements of using as many muscles as possible and getting stronger.
Occasionally, when a recommendation is question before it’s attempted, I reply with a smart ass, “How about you try it first?” This has proven successful in allowing people to enjoy the evils of a variety of exercises. I highly encourage you to train with a program or template that provides specific goals and workouts each time you’re in the gym. The whole show-up-and-figure-it-out thing doesn’t work, and don’t try to rationalize this as ‘muscle-confusion’ or something from the infomercials. That’s bastardized exercise science. That being said, I’d like to share some of the exercises I’ve recommended in the past week, what they were in response to, and what responses I got.
- “Harold, what do you do for biceps?”
- “Um, I don’t.”
- “Wait, really? Why?”
- “Because biceps suck.”
- “So what should I do?”
- “Chin-ups? Dumbbell Kroc Rows? *Blank stares* Let me show you how to do a row with the landmine”
I chose the landmine row for several reasons. The fatter grip makes the forearm and bicep work harder, which was his goal in asking the question. Due to the path the bar travels, in an arc, it puts the biceps in a position to word harder; extra biceps. Lastly, since it’s a single arm exercise, you need to create anti-rotation tension in your trunk, and I wanted my friend to realize that ‘strength’ isn’t about using the chest supported row every day. Here’s an example:
On a separate occasion, during a finisher after an upper body workout, I was doing some overhead squats with my good friend and neighbor. During one of Steve’s sets, I was asked
- “Hey, Harold, what do you do for abs?”
- “Overhead squats.”
- “No, for your abs”
- Yea, I heard you. Overhead squats.”
- “Um…what else do you?”
- *Face palm*
After a quick conversation with this fellow, who was apparently only concerned with his lats and and abs for the day, I settled on a straight arm body saw. He told me it was too similar to the barbell roll out, until I made him try it. Same movement, different exercise.
The last example is actually from my own workout. I was having a conversation with myself, and asked the question, “Hey Harold, what do you suck at that you want to work on?” I wanted to work on staying tall and bracing my core, and the immediate answer was front squats. I spent the first workout on that lower body workout trying to reduce my suck-factor for the lift. In the video below, I’m front squatting to a box, so I can make sure I’m achieving the same depth each time, but also because it reminds me to push my hips back.
There’s a big difference between isolation and emphasis when it comes to exercise selection, and it’s often overlooked by lay people. Typically, choosing exercises that emphasize specific movements will provide better full body results than exercises that isolate a specific muscle. In the cases above, exercises were selected to provide the desired results, while still providing a workout that makes your whole body happy.