Everyone should engage in strength training. Everyone. Barring some medical reasons or disabilities that could prevent us from doing it, there is no reason not to do it.
Strength training, sometimes called weight training, if it is done with dumbbells, barbells or other free weights – has enormous health benefits, and really there’s no point in me telling you this. You can read about it on Wikipedia , Mayo Clinic website, Everyday Health, and pretty much any other website with useful health information.
Here I’ll give you just a quick summary:
My main topic here is: why we ought to separate strength training from gym culture.
Well, first of all, I think way too few people engage in strength training. And then of those who start doing it, too few persist. For both things, one of the main culprits is gym culture. If you are a regular gym goer, kudos to you. I admire your persistence and cherish your efforts and dedication. You’re doing a great service to your body and you’re improving your health.
But, this article is not for you. It is for those people who are turned off from strength training due to predominant gym culture. Here we’ll explore certain negative aspects of gym culture and how it can cause people to lose interest in strength training. Then we’ll explore the alternative, that is – how to engage in strength training even if you’re not sold on all that gym mentality.
1) A lot of people believe that gym is the only way, or the only proper way to do strength training
Gym environment can be intimidating. It’s not for everyone. Too many curious eyes and too many sweaty bodies. Especially nowadays, during pandemic, for many people going to gym is not an option at all. Safety first, you don’t want to catch the virus. But even during “normal” periods, some people simply don’t like the gym environment and everything that it entails. And that is completely fine.
What is not fine, is that gym culture has somehow imprinted this notion into our psyche, that going to gym is the only way, or the only proper way to go about strength training. So people who don’t like gym, they completely give up strength training, because they believe that doing a couple of exercises at home won’t have any real effect, so they think: why bother. As I’ll show later, of course there are other ways to organize your strength training, both outside the gym, and also in the gym environment, though without being affected by certain negative aspects of gym culture.
Also – I am not saying that all the gym goers have such a mentality – I am just identifying tendencies that are affecting a lot of people, the tendencies that need to be identified before that we can overcome them.
2) Gym culture is too focused on tangible results, often short term results
Gym culture is all about tangible, measurable results. Lose X inches from your waist, gain Y kilos of lean muscle mass, reach Z percent body fat, lift A kilos on the bench, etc. While being focused on results is very practical and can help us track our progress, the problem of this mentality, is that chasing such goals becomes everything. If such goals are the only reason you do strength training, your motivation will eventually plummet, and you’re at a very high risk of giving up when you reach a plateau where no further progress can be made. This philosophy is often nearsighted, and looks only at short term, while often neglecting the actual main goal of strength training: long term maintenance and improved functionality of your musculoskeletal system as well as improvement of your general health and metabolism. For strength training to achieve this goal it needs to be a deeply ingrained habit, something you do like brushing your teeth, but also a habit that is sustainable and that will not eat up more and more of your time and energy the further you progress in it. The difference between gym culture, and holistic, health focused strength training is that the first approach is industrial… its all about sets, reps, goals, bulking, cutting, and in various other ways molesting your body, so that you force your muscles into growing, while the latter is all about invigorating your body, listening to it, and giving it the kind of exercise it needs to function optimally.
Perhaps I am romanticizing this approach a bit, but I was impressed when I noticed in a certain novel, published more than 100 years ago, the language that was used to describe the attitude a character had towards weightlifting… he was doing it to feel the blood rushing through his body, to feel alive, to make his arms stronger (yes arms, not biceps, triceps, as he was looking at his body holistically, not as a set of individual muscles…), to feel more tough, etc…
Of course upon completing his exercise he didn’t rush to eat something protein rich, or some kind of shake. He ate normally, which was enough to provide him nourishment for his body, including his muscles.
3) Gym culture brainwashes us into overeating
First of all many gym goers come across this idea that you need to be in a caloric surplus in order to build muscles. This is simply not true. As long as you eat enough protein, and also have enough energy reserves in your body in form of fat tissue, you can build muscles, even if you are in a caloric deficit. To build muscles, you need building material, that is protein, and energy… Whether that energy comes from the food you eat, or from your own energy storage in your fat tissue – that is completely irrelevant.
Only people who are very skinny, need to be in caloric surplus in order to build muscle, because their energy reserves are limited.
Second, the amount of protein you need to consume in order to build muscles is often exaggerated. There is no ill intent in such recommendation… all they want with it is to make sure you get enough protein for optimal muscle building. But the problem with this advice is that it was originally aimed at professional bodybuilders… They are competing against other bodybuilders, and they do it for money. So for them, it’s necessary to be absolutely sure they are not even at the slightest disadvantage, as they are doing it competitively. Their philosophy is: better safe then sorry.
But following such an advice for regular people whose careers do not depend on it is an absolute overkill. First of all the volume and difficulty of exercise professional bodybuilders do is way more than what an Average Joe will do. Second, the guidelines are overkill even for pros, let alone for regular people.
Anyway, some studies have shown that taking more than 0.8 grams of protein per pound (1.76 grams per kilogram) of body mass gives no further benefits. The bodybuilding guidelines for building mass recommend taking 0.7–1 gram per pound. IMO, 0.8 grams / pound is the absolute maximum you should ever consider taking and still total overkill.
On the other hand The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.36 grams of protein per pound (0.8 grams per kg) of body weight. This is for average people, not for athletes. This is perhaps a bit too modest.
My personal recommendation, if you are planning to do strength training is to take around 0.5 grams per pound (1,1 grams per kilo) and that should be completely enough for the overwhelming majority of people. You really don’t need more than that.
This is my recommendation because this is sustainable in the long term and gives you enough protein, without forcing you to eat excessive amounts of meat, or soy, or protein shakes. In fact, I would recommend protein shakes to exactly nobody, because first of all you don’t need that much protein, and second, even if you do, you can get it from food. The only exception would be those who do it for money.
So, what your diet should be when you do strength training? Well if your diet was good to begin with, you probably don’t need to make any changes at all. And, when you look at it, it makes sense – strength training is a tool, something that shall complement your life and enrich your lifestyle, not take over your lifestyle… If it causes you to spend way too much time thinking about what you eat, you’re not doing it right. Remember, you’re a human being who wants to be healthy and invigorated by exercise, not a pile of meat that is being fed so that it can grow.
4) Bulking and cutting is a crime against your body, against nutrition and against common sense
One of the things that work well for professional bodybuilders, and yet is a total disaster for pretty much everyone else is bulking and cutting. Pretty much whoever goes to gym is being brainwashed into doing bulking and cutting cycles.
It’s an approach to nutrition where you are encouraged to eat in caloric surplus throughout the year, so that your muscles can grow, and then spend some time in caloric deficit so that you lose excessive fat that you accumulated together with the muscles.
There are many problems with this approach:
a) as long as you have some decent fat storage, being in caloric surplus is simply not needed to build muscle
b) bulking is often done without much concern about the quality of food as long as quantity is large (so-called dirty bulking)
c) even if you’re doing a clean bulk, paying attention on the quality of food, you’re still putting too much emphasis on the growth of your muscles, feeding them properly, as if you’re feeding a farm animal… it can easily turn into obsession about food, where you get worried if you accidentally skip a meal (oh my poor muscles, how can they grow now)
d) when you enter the cutting cycle, you’re trying to lose weight… it basically means that each year you spend some time dieting… this comes with all the negative side effects of dieting such as slowing down of the metabolism, increased risk of triggering eating disorders, yo-yo effect, etc.
e) cutting and bulking easily takes over your life… if you’re not a competitive bodybuilder, don’t do it
f) since it takes too much mental effort, it’s not sustainable
Instead of cutting and bulking, you should have your normal, balanced nutrition, that is adequate for you in terms of calories, protein and other nutrients. If you combine such nutrition with strength training, chances are, your physique will over time get very close to your natural best look, and you’ll certainly have better physique than large majority of people. And not only you’ll look better, you’ll also look healthier, you’ll have muscles that are tougher, not just bigger. Because slow, natural growth leads to better results than short term “pumping”.
5) Gym culture produces memes that are sticky, contagious and hard to unlearn (aka Bro science)
There is often some truth in bro science, but even if true, the information you often hear in the gym is simply unneeded and doesn’t make that much of a difference. But it does give you some cognitive burden, in sense that you’re paying too much attention to too many things. Things like timing of meals, protein combining, pre-workout meals, post-workout meals, supplements, types of workout, the number of sets, reps, etc…
Some of that information is really important, like what structure shall your basic training regimen have, and how and when should you increase the load, etc. But most of the rest is simply thinking too much about stuff that is not so important.
The info you really need to have is how to exercise properly and how to avoid injuries, dehydration and overexertion. Most of the rest is typically much thinking about not so important stuff.
The problem with that is when you learn some info like that it’s hard to unlearn it and you start paying attention to details that don’t make that much of real difference.
6) Gym culture is obsessed with supplements
Supplements are fine. Feel free to take some after doing your own research. But the problem with gym culture and supplements is that gym culture typically brainwashes you into thinking you really need them, and that you’ll be seriously disadvantaged if you don’t take them. This is simply not true. Unless you’re aiming for competition and world class results, you can get all the benefits of exercise without taking supplements, given that your nutrition and liquid intake is good.
Some stuff is probably worthy considering though… such as vitamin D, magnesium and perhaps creatine (which by no means is risk free).
But I repeat again… you can get all the benefit of exercise without supplements if your goal is simply developing and maintaining a healthy, functional body.
So, what then???
Now you probably wonder… if gym culture is so bad, what’s the alternative? What kind of approach would be better?
First of all try to emancipate yourself from all that previously mentioned brainwashing.
Try to be very individualistic when it comes to your training. Your body, your decisions. Do some good research and find a suitable training program for yourself. (or if you have the necessary know-how you can design your own program). Or consult a personal trainer about it.
You can exercise at home, or at gym.
The important thing is that you make a habit of it. This is way more important than short term results. For this reason it’s probably a wise idea to very slowly increase the weights and workload in general.
You want to learn how to do each exercise properly, with perfect form. You want to make habit of it. After the training is done you should typically feel better than before the training… you should feel invigorated and your muscles stimulated… Not destroyed. I am against “no pain no gain” philosophy, because it’s very tempting in short term, but it’s typically unsustainable.
So you should listen to your body. When you feel that you’re really tormenting your muscles, it’s time to stop. Remember you’re giving yourself a training, recreation, stimulation. You’re not molesting your muscles to force them to grow.
I personally think that good training regimen at home might have some advantages over gym mainly because you save some time. When gym starts eating away your time that you need for your friends, family and other hobbies and pursuits, this is when it becomes unsustainable, and this is when people typically quit.
If you do decide to go to gym, IMO, everything over two times a week is too difficult to sustain.
Two times a week will not give you the best training and stimulation, but when your body is already developed it is completely enough for maintenance.
IMO for the long term, two times a week is the best frequency.
Regarding nutrition if your nutrition is fine, you don’t need to make any changes.
No need to add more food because your goal is not to just add muscles, your goal is also to change the ratio between fat and muscles in your body. To do it, you need to grow your muscles from the energy stored in your body, and not from extra food that you add to your diet. So forget about bulking.
If your current nutrition is disaster, I’d recommend first taking care about nutrition, that is finding a nutrition that’s sustainable to you and that over a long time asymptotically leads to your desired weight. Developing some decent food habits. And when you have sorted out the nutrition, then you can simply keep eating like that and start exercising.
That’s pretty much all when it comes to what I think is right regarding strength training. Of course many of the points mentioned could be further elaborated, but that is beyond the scope of this article.