The Power of Split Training
Thanks to Mark Lamendola for writing this very insightful post on the best way to train and reach peak fitness while blasting through/avoiding training plateaus. If you'd like to read more posts from Mark you can check out his blog, Mind Connection Brainpower eNewsletter, as well as our Heart of the Athlete interview with him here. Enjoy!
Apparently, some people have no idea what to do about and lose sleep over their risk of waking up one morning looking bulky like a contender for the Mr. Olympia title because they "lift" weights or just because they workout. So a typical scenario is "Andy" will ask some athlete (who doesn't look like a Mr. Olympia contender) what he or she does for abs/strength. Translation: "I eat too much and don't train, so I have this big belly. What do you recommend?"
The athlete will typically mention something like hanging leg raises or say something like, "I never target abs. They get hit with every workout, especially leg training." This will sometimes lead to a discussion about hard compound exercises like squats and deadlifts. At which point, "Andy" will probably say something like, "I don't want to get big. I just want to get toned." Translation: "I am too lazy to do what you recommend, and I am looking for a shortcut that won't require any real effort." Another common training copout is, "I don't have any weights and don't want to join a gym," as if either of these is required to work a given muscle group let alone grow muscle.
Here it's important to remember that most athletes train with weights because doing so is convenient and very productive for the time spent, not because they make you big! Even classic exercises like duckwalks, burpees, and push-ups use only your body weight and can produce significant metabolic stress, time under tension, and muscular damage while also giving you that in the full range of motion. In the spring, when we get a heavy crop of dandelions, I for example cut back on my normal leg day training because I am out there squatting dozens of times to dig them up. Those that come up again, I spray with vinegar. That first round (the squatting and digging) is brutally effective leg training.
Are you one of those people that confuses "exercising" with "training? Just know that simply being active doesn't challenge your body to produce the adaptive response (like as seen in progressive overload). Training means you are deliberately and methodically inflicting metabolic stress, time under tension, and muscular damage to specific muscle groups in the "red line area" to stimulate the adaptive response. The red line area" refers to automotive tachometers, which have a red area at the extreme end of the RPM scale. The engine (your body) isn't designed to operate at that high of a speed and if you push too far into the red, you'll blow the engine. If you were the engine builder, you could modify the engine to handle more RPMs, effectively shifting that whole red area up. Instead of starting at 5800 RPM, it might now start at 7200 RPM. That's similar to what you are trying to do with training and improving your "red line".
There is some non-debate about the split routine done 5 or 6 days/week, or a whole body workout done 3 times/week. The hands-down winner is the split routine. This was actually the single greatest innovation in training of all time. The reason goes back to that red line. If you were able, somehow, to put your entire body through enough exercises to red line everything (a very long session), depending on our age and existing fitness, you may need a week or more to recover to make any gains before training that way again. With the split routine, you can push a given muscle group well into the red line area and expect quick results and recovery. By the time you come back around to that muscle group, you have your gains. You've also saved time on workouts because they are shorter and more flexible, plus you can count on being active almost everyday because you have just divided workouts up over 5 or 6 days.
The "problem" (or just the part that takes getting used to) with the split routine is that, instead of pacing yourself through a very large number of exercises in a single long session, you focus on a much smaller number of exercises to really "blast" a given muscle group. This is why you see split routineers walking funny on leg day, but "whole body" types seem unfazed. With a "whole body," the typical work for legs is very easy to make a joke of. It often involves the leg press (not a good exercise, unless for physical therapy) and maybe hamstring curls; it's pretty much a warm-up. Doing a real leg day on a split routine session precludes you from also effectively working chest, shoulders, back, biceps, and triceps.
NOTE: The "whole body" approach is good for a beginner and good for someone who hasn't trained in a long time. But after a few months or less, it is simply not producing further results strength and growth results for most people, of which they should transition to a split routine.
As for getting "toned" vs. "bulky", that is based on the assumption that muscles don't atrophy; that somehow they just go a little slack and need some tightening. Sorry, but that's not the case. When you fail to use what muscle you have, body sees no need to maintain the energy-using lean muscle mass, so it breaks down and reabsorbs it. The only way to stop the break down and reabsorption process is to trigger the growth process. Consider yourself lucky if you can easily grow muscle it won't always be like for many reasons. One is that as the growth significantly slows WAY down once it reaches a certain point; that's why we don't keep getting big gains so that we shoot right past Ronnie Coleman (without some juice and great DNA, that is). Even worse, at some point, age will take away every single muscle growth gain you make and limit what gains you can make gaining forward. Yes, you want to stay ahead of age for as long as you can. And, at the very least, you aren't going to do that by being lazy about training. So don't worry about being bulky, that's the least of your worries.
So here's what goes for the typical American man:
Age 40. Weak core, especially abs. Hips start to tilt forward. Back pain is no stranger.
Age 50. Atrophied glutes, aka "pancake butt". Visible loss of posture.
Age 60. Physical exertion is tough. A task like rotating your own tires is physically impossible.
Age 70. After a few falls, a cane seems like a good accessory.
Age 73. Outside help needed for daily chores. Walking is tiring.
Age 74. A walker is needed.
Age 75. Takes up residence in a nursing home.
Age 76. Dead.
A few years ago, an 83 year old climber scaled a mountain of some significance. Age 83, that's not a typo. So for him, the whole pancake butt and walker thing has never happened. He will die at some point, but not due to a loss of mobility.
FINAL THOUGHTS FROM MARK: I don't understand the "easy way out" mentality. There is no easy way out. Whether physical training or an advanced degree, you have to put in the effort to get the result. I have immense respect for accomplished athletes in all sports, for that reason. Nobody became accomplished due to luck or their genes. Hard work and smart planning, yes. Making excuses, no.
DR. COHEN REPONDS: Right on. Have a purpose. Mine is muscle mass, functionality and balance for life.