Irrefutable science that later proved to be dead wrong
Muscle myths. In progressive resistance training, every era has had its irrefutable truths, its settled science, its indisputable contentions about certain aspects of training that later turned out to be dead wrong. There are no absolutes, there is no finality in true science. A scientist seeks repeatable success and is open and receptive to new and better ways. A fundamentalist defends an entrenched position and rejects additional input. Fundamentalist orthodoxies exposed to sunlight wilt and wither. Irrefutable science is no science at all.
Fundamentalists masquerading as scientists have held sway over resistance training philosophies since the end of the second world war. An unbelievable number of “unassailable contentions” have later been exposed as complete bullshit. The champions of faulty methodologies embrace censorship and insist those who question be ex-communicated. These champions of the entrenched bristle at questioning.
Some of the muscle myths of yesteryear seem laughable today, if you laughed back in the day, you could get kicked off a team, lose your full-ride athletic scholarship, or lose your job as a coach. Here are a few muscle myths of yesteryear, just the first eight to come to mind, the list could have easily been twice as long.
Resistance Training Muscle Myths: the irrefutable settled science of its day
- Musclebound: in the 1950s and 1960s, weight training for High School and college athletes was frowned upon. The settled science maintained that adding “unnatural” weight-trained muscle slowed a man down, tightened him up, made him unathletic and musclebound. It was not until the weight-trained Pittsburgh Steelers began beating the hell out of opponents in the early 1970s that the ridiculous musclebound myth died. When an athletic man takes up weight training, he creates a larger, stronger version of his current athletic self. When an unathletic man takes up weight training, he creates an enlarged version of his unathletic self. A muscled-up unathletic man is musclebound.
- High reps get you ripped: this myth was widely and universally embraced by all the experts up until the 1990s. The logic seemed irrefutable: 10-15 rep sets melt away the body fat that obscured the muscle from view. Low reps built “bulk.” High reps were great for burning away excess fat. The fact is, upping reps from 5 to 12 does zero, zip, nada, insofar as making a man leaner. Higher reps need be accompanied by a tight diet and regular cardio. Resistance training, by itself, does not create leanness. Cardio, coordinated with diet, is the eternal ticket to low body fat. Weight training is secondary, if not superfluous, when it comes to attaining single digit body fat percentiles.
- Nautilus mythology: barbell and dumbbell users were told by Arthur Jones that his philosophy and his monstrous, overbuilt devices, were going to cosign our primitive tools, barbells and dumbbells, to the resistance training trash heap. Nationwide, Nautilus Training Centers sprang up in every shopping mall. Imperious young men and women, in uniforms with clipboards, staffed these facilities. Twice weekly, the Nautilus trainee would drop-by and do a single set to failure on each of the thirteen Nautilus machines. This would renovate the body. After a few years, folks figured out nothing was happening. The original Jones’ philosophy called for going to positive failure, then immediately performing 2-5 forced reps, this followed by “negative reps” until the trainee could no longer control the negative. The forced reps and negatives were dropped, and the watered-down version of Jones’ three-phase protocol produced zero results.
- High volume was sacrosanct: for 30 years, from 1950 until 1980, irrefutable science proclaimed that unless a muscle was exercised every 72 hours, that muscle would degrade, weaken. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at his peak, was performing 700-sets per week. He trained twelve times per week, twice a day, two hours per session, six days in a row. The powerlifters of the 1970s slashed training volume. These men followed where results led. These power pioneers were squatting and deadlifting 700-pounds for reps and bench pressing 500 for reps - there was no way they could handle that kind of poundage three times a week. These pioneer power-men reduced the training volume and progress skyrocketed. Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman used these same power tactics (adding forced reps) to build unprecedented muscle size. Monstrous increases in strength are always accompanied by monstrous increases in muscle size.
- Ab work melts the fat off the abs: this is the biggest myth in all of fitness-dom. Millions and millions of dollars have been made selling “ab-buster” devices on TV. The fraudulent sales strategy never changes, i.e., perform abdominal exercise and melt away the fat that lies atop the abs. Spot reducing is a physiological impossibility. Preferentially performing a particular exercise will not enable you to preferentially determine (with specificity) where body fat is drawn down from. If spot reducing worked, why have women with fat on the back of their arms do hundreds of reps in the tricep pushdown? The way to obtain a fat-free waistline is to lower your overall body fat percentile. This is accomplished by skillfully blending cardio and nutrition. Want ripped abs? Lower your body fat percentile.
- Pre-fatigue: among the original Heavy Duty training strategies promoted by the Mentzer brothers, Mike and Ray, and their mentor Arthur Jones, was this idea that, for bodybuilding purposes, the most effective muscle building strategy was to pre-fatigue a target muscle. If, by way of example, the Heavy-Duty bodybuilder worked shoulders, normal procedure would be to start with compound movements, overhead pressing, followed up by isolation shoulder exercises, say lateral raises. Pre-fatigue insists you start with lateral raises. Work the laterals until the delts are totally exhausted – now perform the overhead press. The still fresh triceps and upper pecs will enable even more growth-producing reps. This strategy failed to take into account how radically the poundage-handling ability was destroyed; the isolation burnout that preceded the compound movement caused strength to plummet so precipitously that the entire effort was rendered completely ineffective. This once-revolutionary tactic is deservedly extinct.
- Exercise machines are equal to free-weights: this is another myth that people want desperately to believe. It would be wonderful if the seated leg extension delivered the same results as deep barbell squats. We want to believe that lat pulldowns are a good a free-hand pullups, or that seated cable rows are every bit as good a back developer as barbell rows, deadlifts, or power cleans. I want the smooth-as-silk seated machine press to be as effective at building chest mass as heavy dumbbell flat benches. Machines eliminate the 3rd dimension of tension, the need to control side-to-side motion. Free-weights, barbells and dumbbells, cause muscle stabilizers to fire while machines, with their frozen grooves, allow stabilizers to lie dormant. Ergo, machines are always less effective than the free-weight exercise they mimic.
- Weight training can double as cardio: for decades, bodybuilders labored under the false premise that weight training, done lighter, faster, longer, more often, would act as both a muscle builder and as an effective form of cardio exercise. As it turns out, by going faster, lighter, longer, all the muscle building aspects normally associated with weight training are destroyed. Hypertrophy, the triggering of the adaptive response, requires an expression of 100% effort. There are no 100% efforts when going light and fast. By trying to make weight training do double duty, strength training and aerobic training done simultaneously, the results associated with weight training are ruined. Weight training is not much of a calorie burner. Fast weight training as a form of cardio exercise, is a vastly inferior compared to other aerobic modes. Don’t mix modes: augment intense, hypertrophy-inducing weight training with sweat-inducing, body fat oxidizing cardio. Separate and distinct – do not try and create an ineffectual hybrid.
When someone, something, some entity, presents their particular brand of training (or nutrition) as based on “irrefutable science,” when they insist their approach is so advanced it renders every other system obsolete and destined for extinction – be a cynic, not a sucker.
About the Author - Marty Gallagher
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher Biography for a more in depth look at his credentials as an athlete, coach and writer.