*A version of this article appeared on Bryan Krahn’s website as a guest post.*
Knowledge is a slippery slope.
A small amount can turn any novice into baton twirling know-it-all. Give sedentary Jerry a little knowledge about how to lose body fat or build muscle, and in a few months of seeing results, he’ll turn into armchair Arnold, espousing to his friends the “best” way to build muscle or burn fat even though he’s been at it for less than a year.
Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Long before every “bro” with some knowledge had a fitness website or social media account, “knowledge” was controlled by muscle magazines. Magazines that told readers that the “secrets” to getting jacked lay somewhere between the cover and the ad-filled photos of muscle-bound behemoths.
Fast forward a couple of decades and anyone with access to the WiFi can tell you they hold the “secrets” for all who stumble upon their page. In some ways this is good. And in others, it’s more harmful than eating Tide Pods.
Yes, there are aspects of bodybuilding that you can consider “true across the board.” But there’s one bodybuilding secret that bodybuilders rarely talk about. That secret is context.
Your First Online Program, But Not the Results You Imagine
What was the first workout program you clipped out of a magazine or grabbed online? Do you remember it? I remember mine. It was a Jim Stoppani program on bodybuilding.com. This program sounded sick. Hell, I thought it would be “the one” that transformed me from a frumpy fat kid into a swole superhero.
The program was great. But it didn’t work for me. And it was frustrating to see other people post their results online, they were getting results while I was left still not looking like Captain America after 6 weeks.
Who hasn’t felt like that? You download a program thinking you’re going to look like the guy pitching it, but after the prescribed number of weeks, you don’t look like that guy at all. This my friend is probably the biggest mistake people make when they start working out. People fail to realize the context of where they’re starting.
Here’s the truth:
if you haven’t stepped foot in a gym in a decade (or longer), you’re not gonna see jaw-dropping results in a matter of weeks.
That’s something I didn’t realize when I first attempted to get in shape more than a decade ago. But hey, you couldn’t tell young, dumb, and full of chutzpah 20-something me that he wouldn’t be a be a beast by the end of Summer.
Life, though, is rarely about getting it right the first time. Life’s about making mistakes and learning from them — then sharing your story so hopefully someone else can avoid or course correct before they make the same mistakes.
Enough about me, let’s talk about Arnold real quick.
Arnold: The GOAT
The dude is a legend. Gym rats, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts have looked up to Arnold in some capacity for decades. And his training protocols and theories have been copied, tweaked, and analyzed for more than 40 years.
But when you study some of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, you discover very quickly that their secret wasn’t what they lifted. It wasn’t “how” they lifted. And as much as you might want to think, it wasn’t about the diets they followed or the supplements they slurped down.
No, the greatest bodybuilding secret in bodybuilding is context.
When you dive into the history of bodybuilding and the training styles of some of the greats, you quickly discover that no two people followed the same protocol. They all did similar things, hit muscles from different angles, played with time under tension, applied rest pause sets, drop sets, giant sets, pyramid training, supersets. They did it all. And all of the stuff worked.
And it all still works today. But one thing that’s often forgotten with the bodybuilding greats is the context of their lives at the time.
Arnold didn’t get married until 1986, six years after his final Olympia, and his second retirement from bodybuilding. Mike Mentzer never married. Dorian Yates got married later in life. And though many bodybuilding greats had families, they didn’t have said families until after they’d hung up their banana hammocks in the rafters.
Without those responsibilities it’s no wonder they could dedicate hours and days upon days to the gym. What the hell else did they have to do?
Arnold loved training six days a week, and he had the ability to do it. Sadly, that “live in the gym,” “the gym is life” mentality is something that still seeps into our world today. That thinking is nothing more than black and white thinking. Looking at things as black and white makes thinking easy. But the vast majority of life happens in the gray. And it’s in “the gray” that context is King.
Here in the Real World
Let’s say you’re a busy father/mother of three kids, aged anywhere from 5-15. Not only do you have to work a 9-5, but you have other human beings you’re responsible for besides yourself. You cook for them, take them to baseball/basketball/cheerleading practice, and you have to make sure they do their homework. That means making it to the gym five days a week for 90-minutes each day (probably) isn’t something you can do.
But you’re determined to lose fat and build muscle. So where do you start? What’s the best training plan for you?
Here’s where it gets confusing. You’ve read articles that say:
- to build muscle you should train twice a day;
- you need to focus on high-reps for gains;
- to get stronger you should keep weights heavy and reps low.
Then some yacko on Instagram tells you that if you do HIIT all you need is 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day.
Good Lord, man. How is anyone supposed to be successful at losing fat or building muscle if there’s a dozen things they “should” be doing? What’s better? What’s best?
And to top it off, you found this bullshit article you’re reading now, where I’m telling you that all of that stuff works. By now you feel like tossing your hands up in the air and screaming, “SERENITY NOW!”
Another Bodybuilding Secret: It “All” Works
Bro, chill. Put your arms down and take a deep breath.
Yes, all of this stuff works. What it takes to build a body like Arnold is possible. But here’s the thing, if you’re starting in your mid-30s with four kids, a hectic job, and a myriad of other responsibilities it’s gonna take you a lot longer to reach to your goals. And the sacrifices Arnold made may also not align with the values you have for your own life. Arnold’s training techniques work. But they may not fit into the larger context of your life.
- If your job requires you to travel 3 to 4 days a week and you’re always in hotel gyms, you won’t be able to train as Arnold did.
- If you work a 9-to-5 and your kids have extracurricular activities a few nights each week, it will be harder for you to be at the gym every day.
So what if all you can commit to is 30 to 35 minutes two to three times a week? Does that mean you’re screwed when it comes to building strength, adding muscle, or that you’ll never be able to lose body fat? Nope, not at all.
What it might mean is that low rep, heavy weight training with long rest periods of 2 minutes or more isn’t going to fit in the context of your life.
Shorter workouts might be what works best for you. If that’s the case, then focus on higher rep (10-12, 12-15, or even 20+ plus rep) low weight exercises with shorter rest periods (60 seconds or less). Or, hey, you could stick with the gold standard of 8 to 12 reps per exercise with 60 seconds rest. But keep your total exercise selection to no more than 3-4 total exercises.
Exercise selection will matter here, too. Squatting past parallel is a great way to induce a significant amount of muscle damage to your quads. But bodies are different. And some people can’t squat that low due to their physical make-up. Not everyone can or should go ass-to-grass.
And as much as I love squatting with a barbell, you don’t need to squat to build muscular legs. Leg extensions, hack squats, and the leg press get the job done too.
Got a bum shoulder?
Know this: you’re not broken. But, for now, pressing might be something you don’t need to focus on. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to bench press. But in the context of where your body is health wise, you might want to focus on doing boring crap that helps the muscles around your shoulder get stronger. Exercises like band pull-aparts, face pulls, scapular wall slides, and rows of all kinds.
Guess what? Context applies to nutrition as well. Bodybuilders have had rules around what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat since the sport started. And the truth is, every diet “can” work. But if it doesn’t align with the context of your life, it won’t work.
What works for me may likely won’t work for you or your cousin or Cloey in the cubicle next to you. John Beradi, the founder of Precision Nutrition, understands that context matters more than anything.
Questions Help You Find the Answers (even if the answers aren’t ones you want)
When it comes to your workouts, yes, sometimes you do need more volume to grow. Sometimes you do need less. But espousing a “one-size-fits-all” style of training is the worst thing any bodybuilder or fitness professional can do. That mindset doesn’t look at each individuals context. And that context will be different for every person.
What you do in the gym is highly dependent on a lot of things:
- Are you trying to lose fat?
- Build muscle?
- How many days can you commit to while still making sure you have a life?
- How experienced are you?
- Where are you currently starting from in terms of movement quality?
- Do you have an injury history?
- Do you even know how to hold a dumbbell?
That last question may sound silly, but there are people I’ve worked with who didn’t know the basics. Starting them out with an exercise or program that’s anything but basic is a massive disservice to them.
At this point, I could tell you “this is why hiring a coach is a good idea; by working with a coach who will look at the the context of your life, you’l get a plan that fits every facet of your life so that you can achieve your goals without living in the gym.”
And that statement is true. As a coach I take a huge weight off my client’s shoulders and help put them on the right track. But I’m not here to plant seeds in your mind for hiring me as a coach. You don’t “need” a coach to dig through your own mental biases to get to what matters most.
You will, however, need to ask yourself some questions. Questions that I will give you at the end of this article.
Examine Your Current Context
However, there are a few basic questions you can examine that’ll help you get a better understand of the context of your life. But you will have to deal with your ego. And sadly, context isn’t something your ego is a fan of. Your ego is an emotional monster who likes big, fancy dreams over hard facts. So you’re gonna have to put that bratty brain of yours in timeout so you can answer the questions below.
- What’s more important to you right now, fat loss or muscle building? (Yes, you can only choose one.)
- Have you lifted consistently, and I mean like no fewer than 3x a week, for 3-6 months?
- How would you describe your current level of sleep: like a baby with 8+ hours a night; toss and turn and maybe get 6-7 hours a night; who the hell has time for sleep?
- What responsibility do you have that takes up the most of your time?
- When do you expect results to happen, next week, three months from now, or six months from now?
- Do you have a concrete deadline like a wedding you need to get lean for or is it something more arbitrary?
- Do you have any life-changing events in the next 3-6 months that you’re beginning to feel stressed about?
As I said at the beginning, knowledge is a slippery slope. And it seems to be more ubiquitous these days. But unlike the muscle magazines of the past where you had to wait a month for new content, which allowed you a few weeks to go to the gym and get some work done, you’re bombarded with new “knowledge” multiple times a day now. Everything you read about works (in one way or another).
Blood flow restriction works. Understanding the line of pull can help you build more muscle by placing the appropriate tension on the muscle you want to engage. A healthy gut biome can improve digestion, which can lead to better nutrient absorption. Supplements can be game-changers. TRT can save you from the pits of Hell and skyrocket your quality of life.
Half reps, quarter reps, drop sets, monster/giant sets, Olympic lifts, fasted cardio, fed cardio, intermittent fasting, and every other freaking thing that anyone with a blog can whip up and target with SEO, it all works.
But why it works isn’t because there’s some magical properties to these things. It’s because it fit the context of that bodybuilder/athlete’s goals or lives.
Mike Mentzer battered his body with high-intensity training sessions, and then rested for up to a week between workouts. Arnold trained almost every day, sometimes twice a day. Dorian Yates followed Mentzer and trained at ultra-high intensities. Both Ronnie Coleman and Phil Heath loved hitting muscle groups twice per week.
These men succeeded at bodybuilding because the way they trained fit the context of their lives (remember, many of them weren’t married and didn’t have families).
Of course, finding what works best for you along your journey isn’t easy. But discovering what works best within the context of your life is what will ultimately help you be more successful.
The Questions I Promised Earlier
Find what works within the context of your life, then go and execute those plans.
As promised earlier, here are the questions you’ll need to address to better understand the context of your life right now and whether your focus should be on fat loss or building muscle:
——> If your belly laps over your belt loop, focus on fat loss and not building muscle (but keep lifting weights, good things happen with lifting).
—–> If you’re ripped enough to see the outline of your abs at all, you can afford to focus on building muscle. Shredded is cool. But, as Bryan often says: more muscle is never a bad idea. (Or however he phrases it)
How to know if you’re consistent or inconsistent:
———-> Do you have dedicated days you go to the gym? Or do you have those days in your calendar and do you treat them like a meeting you can’t miss?
———-> When’s the last time you wore two different pairs of underwear in the same day? If you haven’t done that in awhile, there’s a good chance you haven’t hit the gym very consistently.
Examining your sleep:
———> What time do you go to bed? What time do you (generally) wake up? Are those hours more or less than 7 hours?
———→ 7 or more hours? Cool, you can proceed with working out.
———→ Less than 7 hours? Yea, before you try and hit the gym for 60 minutes 4-5 days a week, try getting 60 minutes of more sleep 4-5 days a week.
———> Do you commute for 30 minutes or more to work? Do you have kids who have activities outside of school? Do you have other commitments/responsibilities outside of work? Are you structured and planned with your day or always flying by the seat of your pants?
——> Longer commutes eat into your time to dedicate to exercise (use shorter, possibly more frequent workouts than longer and fewer workouts).
———> The more commitments you have means you’re going to have to commit to doing less than what you “might” want right now. Life comes in ebbs and flows. Go with the ebbs and flows. Don’t swim against the current.
———->If you fly by the seat of your pants, work on establishing some order in your life. Living by a schedule can help you eliminate the clutter you don’t really need to focus on and thus free up time you didn’t realize you had before.
How to manage expectations:
———-> Look in the mirror and tell your ego that it’s not about what someone else did in 12, 16, or 20 weeks. Focus only on how you are getting better every day.
Dealing with big stressors or life-changing events:
——-> Big event coming up? Start thinking and trying to live as if that event is ALREADY here. If you have a kid coming in 6 months, don’t start working out now thinking you’ll be able to do 4-5 days a week when it comes. Start getting your nutrition on point and stick to 2-3 days at the gym. That way when the baby comes, you’ll already be consistent with workouts vs beating yourself up because you can’t make it more.
————-> No event coming up? Then still focus on getting started with where you are. Don’t commit to 5 days in the gym if you can barely make it twice.