Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The belief factor in your training

The internet is filled with websites full of training information, routines, diet, and everything under the sun you can think of regarding how to build a bigger/smaller/leaner/stronger you.  If you admire a particular IFBB pro bodybuilders chest or arms or wheels, I can just about bet you money that he has a website and on that website he probably talks about the routine he uses including exercises, sets, reps, weights, etc. 

If you are a powerlifter and want to get a bigger total you'll have no problem finding plenty of websites that will tell you how you can get more out of your squat, bench, and deadlift including improving technique, cycles to peak for meets, and what assistance exercises to use. 

If you want to lose weight you will be overwhelmed with the amount of information available to you on the net. 

So the obvious question from me is, if we know some simple truths about weight loss, strength gain, and muscle mass building why is there so much information and why are there so many people walking around confused about what to do? 

Truths -

Some basic an accepted "truths" we know from decades of lifting and eating are....

To lose weight, have a calorie deficit.  This can be done by simply eating less or a combination of eating less AND doing more (cardio).

To gain weight/mass have a calorie surplus. 

To focus more on building mass in training, use your heaviest working sets in the 8-20 rep range and get stronger in that repetition range. 

To focus more on building maximum strength use sets in the 1-5 rep range.  Especially sets of 1, 2, and 3. 

(just as a note, sets of 5-7 gives you a bit of both but doesn't build single rep strength quite as well as singles, doubles, and triples, and doesn't build mass quite as well as sets of 8+ in my opinion)

Gray Areas -

Here are some gray areas that get heavily debated a lot and are really more personal decision type stuff IMO............

Carbs - I've lost fat eating carbs and lost fat on completely cutting them out.  I personally like having some carbs because they are a big part of the basic workings of physiology.  Glycogen is the best fuel for explosive training and strength.  I have this strange theory with zero evidence to back it up, that glycogen can and is used by the body for fat burning.  Different article...

Frequency - This is comprised of one camp that says you need to train 5-6 days a week, and the camp that says you can do just fine with 2-3 days a week.  I think this is a personal issue.  Some people WANT to train 5-6 days a week.  I personally am in the latter camp.  I think you can lift 2-3 times a week and cover everything just fine.  If you throw in 1 day or hard conditioning and another day or two of easier conditioning you've got it all covered. 

Volume - Again two camps for the most part.  High volume and low volume.  Some guys say do a lot of sets and some say you can get by just fine with a couple.

To failure or not - Either go to failure (meaning you can't do another rep) or to stay away from it.  I personally think at some point you're going to HAVE to do some "to failure" training.  I feel strongly about this.  You can do a crap load of volume but you can't just keep adding volume forever and ever.  At some point you're going to have to train hard and go balls out.  This doesn't mean you have to train like this all the time, and I don't recommend that.  But if you've been stuck for a while and you are a high volume guy then it's probably time to drop some volume and go all "Heavy Duty" for a while.  This will probably get you over a hump and then you can resume your high volume stuff. 

The real missing ingredient - The power of your belief

Ok so above you have the "facts" (yes I know they are not truly facts), if you will, and then the not so facts.  Throw out the gray areas and stick with the facts.  Now what are you left with?  Some basic principles that you already know work.  The rest of the stuff varies greatly from training philosophy to training philosophy. 

So why do some programs work for some people and not for others? 

My personal opinion is that it is related to ones belief in particular program. 

Allow me to elaborate.................... 

Placebo is a hell of a drug -

Back in the day when supplements were mostly scams (not that they aren't now) we had all sorts of crazy ads claiming crazy results from taking their products.

"Brian gained 37 pounds in 30 pounds and lost 19% of his bodyfat!" 

Yes I'm making a bit of a joke here but if I could dig up some old muscle rags I bet I could find an advertisement that isn't too far off from that.  So then average joe bucks up the money for this product, starts taking it and indeed starts making some solid gains.  Not what the advertisement promises but indeed some gains.  What I have generally found is that when average joe gets his order in, is that his excitement level and motivation level is high.  He trains balls out, he eats really well and does all of the other right things associated with a good training plan.  Why?  Because he believes in X product and wants to get the most from it.  I believe that if he could have summoned up the same motivation level without product X he would have achieved the same results or very similar results.

So average joe BELIEVED in the product he paid good money for, thus he put a solid plan into action and he got stronger and bigger.  He now believes in product X (until it's reformulated and becomes "new and improved") and that it works for him.       

When you believe in something strongly, you can and will find evidence to support your belief all over the place.  People tend to seek out others who will verify that their opinion is correct.  So average joe will scour the net looking for everyone else who has used product X and gotten bigger and stronger with it as well.  He will dismiss the opinions of those who say it does not work.  Because it obviously worked for him, so they must be stupid and wrong.

This same scenario applies to training methods as well.  If you love training plan X and used it because your buddy used it and got massive and swole, you will have a strong belief that it will work for you as well.  And you will train your ass off using it.  And guess what?  You will make gains, and thus your belief is reinforced.  People who tell you it does not work will be labeled as stupid. 

This doesn't mean that training X isn't a good or great training program, but no training plan works without someone putting in the effort to make it work.  So your BUY IN to a program or philosophy or template or whatever is really the most important part of making a program work.

Those pesky facts again...

Now of course you have to plan appropriately.  No amount of placebo can overcome poor ass planning.  If you're goal is to get bigger and you're eating below maintenance level in calories you're not going to get bigger.  This is a philological fact.  Growth requires energy and energy is calories.  If your goal is to lose weight/get leaner and you're overeating each day then it's not going to happen.  You don't use Pilates to get stronger for football or powerlifting.  You don't want to do heavy partial lifts if your goal is to get better at Yoga.  You need to plan appropriately for your goals based on some simple anecdotal facts and then work those gray areas to your liking.  When you get everything lined up in a way you believe will work, then you can pour your energy into it and results will come. 

So without proper planning AND proper belief, results will not be what you expect them to be or should be.  Train and eat appropriately for the goals you are trying to achieve.  Then pouring your belief and energy into what you are doing will be easy and your plan will be effective.  The two are a handshake mechanism.  Make sure they are connecting properly.  When that happens you'll know it because your belief in that program will be strong. 

Now I feel like watching Star Wars for some reason.


  1. Paul,
    Since you mentioned rep ranges, what rep range would you recommend for the big lifts for someone who is trying to maintain strength while getting leaner and improving conditioning?


  2. I'd stay with singles, doubles, and triples Sean. 90% max and something in the 82-88% would be even better. Expect some strength loss when your calories are low. But you can maintain a pretty good base level just hitting some solid singles with the big 3 or 4 lifts then going higher on your other lifts if you are doing any.