Ask Charles Staley #14 – Truth or Fiction?
Like all fields of human endeavor, bodybuilding has accumulated a vast collection of maxims— brief encapsulations of truth which are intended to serve as memorable (and often humorous) reminders of the proper way of doing things. So, I thought I’d take a look at some of these time-worn exonerations and see if these “kernels of truth” are worth their weight, or better left unsaid.
One short disclaimer: I was not able to identify the authors of these statements, in every case, but wanted to give credit whenever possible. In some cases, I have identified the person thought to be author of a given statement. Any oversights and/or inaccuracies are not intentional.
“No pain, no gain”
This is perhaps the most classic, most oft-quoted maxim from the world of bodybuilding. It refers to the fact that you have to venture beyond your comfort level while exercising in order to gain beneficial results.
Unfortunately, taken literally, this maxim could be more harmful than helpful. It doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to hurt yourself during a workout. It does, however, take a reasonable measure of smarts plus common sense to get results from your training. I also happen to think that most weight training-related injuries are not acute, but long-term damage that you aren’t aware of until it’s too late. I recently saw a photo of extreme fighter Frank Shamrock performing what he called a “power clean” with a grip that was at least 12 inches too wide. In 10 or 15 years I’m sure he’ll wonder why he’s in too much pain to lift anymore.
“No brain, no gain”
An intelligent counter-point to the above, and I agree: hard training is all but worthless if not conducted intelligently.
“They’ll bury me big”
Translation: “I don’t care if I die in the process, I will do anything to get freaky huge!” It’s unfortunate how so many people will risk their health, career potential, relationships, and pretty much everything else for the one in a bizillian chance that they will ultimately win the Mr/Ms Whatever contest. Self-actualized people, on the other hand, train because of the rewards inherent in the process, not for a result which will probably never come.
“Go heavy or go home”
The idea that heavy weights must always be used irrespective of everything else is a mistaken idea, even for competitive lifters. Few athletes have the discipline to maintain correct technique with truly heavy weights. This may explain why Jimmy “the Iron Bull” Pallechia is so popular. A much more refined approach, especially for bodybuilders, is to find how to get the most results with the lightest weights. Case in point: when Olympic weightlifter Joel Senate came to me early this year, I increased his front squat by 26 pounds in 4 weeks by using only lunges— and the most additional weight we used was 20 pound dumbbells!
“If the bar ain’t bendin’ you’re just pretendin’”
More of the same. I actually think it takes a lot more discipline and fortitude to lift a moderate weight to exhaustion with optimal technique than it does to lift big weights with sloppy form
“Refuse to Lose”
Sounds nice as long as you’re winning.
“Tough times don’t last— tough people do”
“Difficulty is relative to your preparation”
I believe the author of this is Dan Millman. I find this to be profound, and illustrative of a methodological approach to training. It isn’t true in the literal sense— some people can never be successful competitive bodybuilders, for instance. But if you’ve identified challenging and realistic goals for yourself, this maxim can serve as inspiration when you have a hard time getting geared up for your next workout.
“Train, don’t strain”
This seems to suggest that you needn’t work hard during exercise. The very definition of training is the regular, planned application of stress for the purpose of causing a desired adaptation. Of course, beginners or de-conditioned people don’t need to push particularly hard at the beginning, so at the most I’ll say that this is wise advice for beginners.
“Stimulate, don’t annihilate”
This one was often used by Lee Haney on his television show. In order to make progress, you must expose the body to slightly higher levels of stress that it is used to experiencing. I think Haney has captured the essence of this truth quite nicely.
“Train for shape, and size will follow” (Sigmund Klein?)
The reverse makes more sense. Nevertheless, your muscle shape is genetically pre-determined. You can’t train for shape, no matter what anyone tells you. However, as a muscle becomes larger, it’s shape does change (because now the girth of the muscle is a greater percentage of its length), but that change is pre-determined. Nevertheless, literally every month, you’ll find an article about “peaking” your biceps in some muscle mag.
“It’s all you!”
Whenever I hear someone yelling this in the gym, I always look over to see someone struggling to pull a bar off of his partner. As my colleague Dr. Sal Arria likes to point out, most people can easily lift a 45 pound bar with two pinkies. So the next time you tell your partner that you hardly helped him at all, think again.
“I don’t want to get too big” (In my best Jerry Sienfeld)
Is this really a problem for people? This statement comes predominately from females who put shoulder pads in their blouses. Go figure. Could you imagine enrolling in a course or beginning some new endeavor saying “I’ll do this as long as I don’t become too successful.”? Don’t use fear of success as an excuse for not training.
“Strength built quickly is lost quickly”
In the strength training community, it is generally accepted that high intensity strength training will increase strength quickly, but this strength tends to be “unstable,” or quickly eroding. High volume strength training increases strength slowly, but strength gained in this manner tends to be more “permanent.” These two observations support the concept of periodization, where a high intensity “peaking” cycle follows a high volume “foundational” cycle of training in order to exploit both types of adaptations. Incidentally, if you have strength trained for many years, you’ll be able to take a few months off, and be able to maintain your strength and body composition quite well. Beginners can’t afford to do this however.
“Quality before quantity”
This is a beaut of a universal truth. It applies to a workout just as much as it applies to a year or an entire athletic career. Let’s say that you can perform about 6-7 pull-ups, but would love to be able to do 3 sets of 10 someday. Most people simply try to add reps (quantity) every workout, which usually leads nowhere because it doesn’t make you any stronger. A better approach would be to use lower reps (i.e., higher quality)— say down to 2-3 reps per set (which may require that you use additional weight hooked to a belt), and then gradually, add sets. After 3-4 weeks when you can do in the neighborhood of 10-12 sets of 2-3 reps, try one all-out set for reps and see what happens. I know you’ll be happy with the result!
“First isolate, then integrate” (Paul Chek)
This is an eloquent statement which applies to the periodization of training. First make the individual muscles strong (concentrating on the weakest ones), then use exercises and patterns which require these muscles to work together in primal movement patterns. As a twist on this, it may not be lack of strength which limits your performance, but inadequate flexibility, endurance, or proprioception. The basic idea is that each muscle must have optimal performance parameters before it can bear its share of the load in complex exercise patterns or sport skills.
“There is no joy in victory, no sorrow in defeat”
This simply means that you shouldn’t get too caught up in your successes or your failures. If you win, it’s time to step up to the next level. If you lose, you need to re-group, learn from your mistakes, and make a new plan of action. Most people do just the opposite— when they win (or make progress), they shrine off the training program that got them there, and vow to do nothing else for the rest of their lives. When they lose (or fail to make progress), they just shrug it off, and continue to do the same thing that led to failure, but expecting a different result.
“Train slow, be slow”
I disagree— slow movements will not hurt your speed any more than fast training will hurt your slowness. If anything, movements performed at a slightly lower speed may have an adverse effect on speed. Since no barbell movement can come anywhere near the speed commonly used in most sports, why take the risk? I always smile when I see martial artists and boxers performing fast punches with dumbbells— these “punches” are much slower than unweighted ones, so they don’t make you any faster. And since the weights are so light, they also don’t make you any stronger!
“If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you strong”
Or, it might injure you. This is a totally inappropriate statement when applied to training.
“Pain is weakness leaving the body”
I don’t know where this originated from, but I like it, and it really has a degree of truth, doesn’t it?
“Train big, eat big, sleep big”
A good philosophy for people wishing to gain weight and who aren’t too wrapped up in their current job.
“There’s no such thing as overtraining, only undereating and undersleeping”
Another way to state the previous maxim. However, it is possible to have a training schedule which cannot be recovered from, particularly if there is insufficient variation for long periods of time.
“God made Nautilus machines to keep geeks off barbells” (Mike Burgener).
I’m sorry, but I always slip into a grin whenever I hear this one— a guilty pleasure. However, if we’re willing to be honest, machines can have a place in everyone’s training. The problem is when people use machines as “the path of least resistance,” because that’s what they are when overused or used for the wrong reasons. Many fitness enterpeneurs have taken the machine psychology a few steps further and have made a lot of money doing so— for example, remember “toning tables”?
“Real athletes sit down between their sets; everyone else sits down during their sets”
A slam against bodybuilders from the weightlifting community. Weightlifters, bodybuilders, and powerlifters have more in common than they usually realize, however.
“Real athletes lift standing up”
Another tear-jerker from the weightlifting community. It refers to the fact that the Olympic lifts (snatch and clean & jerk) are performed in a standing position. It’s also a subtle dig against bench pressing, which admittedly has questionable transfer to most athletic and everyday activities.
“Bodybuilders… Big for Nothin!'”
Few bodybuilders have so much mass that it impairs their everyday functioning, so this statement has no relevance in my mind. The vast majority of people would do well with more muscle, not less.
“7 days without a workout makes one weak.”
Convenient play on words, but it only applies to beginners. Otherwise, an occasional week off helps more than it hurts. For example, my Olympic weightlifters normally train between 46 and 48 weeks a year.
“The difficulty of an exercise is proportional to its value” (Eric Burkhardt)
There is enormous truth in this. How rarely I see people squatting, or chinning, or performing step-ups. How common it is to see people making a career out of what they already do best— limber women who concentrate on stretching, thick-chested men who do nothing but bench press.
“If you’re in the gym more than an hour, you’re not training, you’re making friends” (Charles Poliquin).
Charles is dead-on with this statement. If you are genuinely training, it’s hard to spend much more than an hour at the gym. I find it remarkable that people who use the gym for serious training are considered “hard core,” while people who use it for socializing and reading the morning paper are considered much more rational.
“Agonize. Don’t socialize”(Eric Burkhardt)
Another nice way to say the above.
“If in doubt, add more weight”
No logic here, but what else is new? I’d rather say “If in doubt, congratulate yourself because at least you have some inkling that maybe you’re doing it wrong”!
“Do as many as you can, and then three more”
An old coaches maxim to get across the idea of maximal effort. However, I must emphasize that your exercise technique should be the same from your first to your last rep. If any aspect changes— speed, range of motion, posture, etc.— it means you hit failure and then found some way of altering your technique in order to complete more reps. The possible exception to this rule is when using Tellekinetics, which in effect, is a scientific form of cheating. For more info, please go to
“You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe”
This is from Dr. Fred Hatfield, president of the International Sports Sciences Association. He’s referring to the fact that you must have a superior “base” (read: leg strength) in order to be able to exploit your upper body strength. In fact, many top bodybuilders throughout the years have preached heavy lower body work for both lower and upper body gains.
“Squats are king of all exercises”
No exercise is the King of anything. Squats are a valuable tool for lots of people. However, they cannot be properly performed by others. Over-glorifying one exercise causes others to be ignored. Think of exercises as tools, which have utility when used appropriately in the right situations.
“Just do it”
I see everyone just doing it…improperly. Odd how such a non-descript little saying became so popular.
Weight training is not unique with regards to the kinds of proclamations we’ve looked at in this article. Other fields of endeavor have their own pearls of wisdom as well. The trick is to separate the truth from the fiction; to use what is useful and discard the rest.