Want muscle? Then you must speak their “language”. Talk to them right and they’ll grow. Speak a foreign language and you’ll be scrawny for life…
What if I told you that you could gain more muscle mass with less training? Or retain more muscle mass with less training? And even gain/retain more strength…
The nuts and bolts of what you need to know…
- MUSCLES ONLY KNOW TENSION – while they do RESPOND to metabolic stress and muscular damage, you cannot have one (stress or damage) without the other (TENSION)
- Barbells, dumbbells, the TRX, kettlebells, are all just “tools”.
- Just as you would when constructing an object, you must pick the right tool for the job when constructing your body – would you use a hammer to paint your house?
Ever since I began to climb the fitness ranks – from trainee (training myself), to trainer (using my knowledge and experience to train others), to now having my own no nonsense brand and being a well-known figure in the fitness industry (based on the amount of views I get per month), more and more people have sought out my “professional opinion” regarding trends and fads that pop up within the fitness industry.
Many people wonder what I think, and if I use kettlebells? Yeah, I use them to solve specific issues with specific individuals. In some cases, they’re simply more practical than other forms of resistance at my disposal. How about the TRX? Same deal.
But for every trending topic that is brought to my attention, the common theme I notice is that some diehard fan of whatever it is, is looking at me for validation that they’ve found the Holy Grail, just so they can justify to themselves that they have something special…
They want me to acknowledge that they’ve found something far beyond anything that has ever been created, which will undoubtedly help them accomplish the fitness goals they’ve yet to achieve using more conventional methods – like a barbell!
My goal here, and now, is to present the underlying mindset or theme, of how I go about answering these questions for two reasons:
1. So people STOP wasting my time by coming to me for validation and asking for my professional opinion as to whether or not the trending topic they’ve latched onto is going to change the world.
2. So these same people can come to their own conclusion, based on the principle that I use to come to the EXACT SAME END RESULT. If you understand how I come up with my answers to these questions, you won’t need to ask me because you’ll be able to come up with the same answer, and thus will know what answer you’ll get from me before you even ask!
First And Foremost, Muscles Respond To Tension
I remember when both the TRX and kettlebells came into popularity, and people began to form cult-like subcultures, trying to impose these tools on anyone who didn’t know better, in attempt to build their subculture in such a way that it created a “this many people can’t be wrong” attitude, for validation. TRX junkies would say the thing like, “the TRX is for athletes, and the most advanced form of performance, and if you want to be an athlete then you should use the TRX.”
The same can be said for kettlebells. “Bro, have you tried kettlebells? They’re amazing – all my clients are rapidly losing weight ever since I started using them. They’ve changed the way I train.” Just another example of someone being recruited into the cult, and my first response is not so much “that’s impressive,” but rather “if that’s true, and you couldn’t get the job done with more conventional tools like a barbell, then you suck as a trainer.”
Anytime someone comes to me for my opinion regarding these tools, they’re generally let down when I try to explain why I’m not fully on board with them, and why I won’t be adopting their principles as my own and completely change the way in which I do things. If I did, that would suggest that everything I knew and believed previously would be of significantly less value, and that anyone I’ve worked with previously was short changed because what I now know would trump what I knew when I was training them – and this simply is not the case.
What I’ve known for a very long time now is this (and THIS is VERY IMPORTANT for YOU to now know) – MUSCLES ONLY REALLY KNOW TENSION. This here is the underlying principle to which I always make my judgment when I’m asked for my professional opinion regarding a certain trending topic within the industry. When someone asks me about the TRX or kettlebells, or anything else for that matter, I ask myself – “does this tool allow me to subject a specific muscle to a certain degree of tension?” Or sometimes the question is reframed slightly to come to a better conclusion – “how much tension can I subject a specific muscle to using this tool?”
A muscle doesn’t know if it’s being loaded with a barbell! It has no clue if the resistance is coming by way of bodyweight, using the straps of a tool called the “TRX” to provide stability! Hell, a muscle cannot differentiate whether or not you’re swinging a kettlebell or a dumbbell – yeah, that’s what people used before kettlebells were readily available to them. MUSCLES ONLY KNOW TENSION!
Are Free Weighs Better Than Machines?
A common theme in the strength and conditioning realm is that “free weights are better than machines.” But the same people that latch onto this belief are stunned when they see guys at the gym pack on a great deal of muscle using the Smith machine for their presses, squats, rows, or even deadlifts. Who would deadlift in the Smith machine? I don’t know, maybe Chris Cormier! Google it (“Chris Cormier Smith machine deadlift”), if you don’t believe me, and take a look at how shocked some people are on some of the message boards that come up (it’s actually quite amusing).
How can this be? How can someone build a world class back relying on Smith machine deadlifts as a staple in their routine? BECAUSE MUSCLES ONLY KNOW TENSION!!!! Chris built that back by subjecting those muscles to very high levels of tension, using whatever tools he found to be most effective in allowing him to apply such tension – he just happened to find the Smith machine extremely valuable in that sense.
What most people don’t understand when I try to inform them of this principle is, why then do the majority of coaches advocate free weights over machines? The reason is, most of these coaches ARE NOT BODYBUILDERS, nor do they train them. The one area in which free weights reign supreme for the athletic population is in regards to how the nervous system must coordinate movement when using a free weight, as opposed to a machine which is locked into its path. Obviously in the world of sports, no individual/athlete is locked into a set pattern, therefore performing movements that are, are of less value, since they do not accurately reflect the real situations that such individuals would be in. They need to move three-dimensionally, so therefore it’s of greater value to training three-dimensionally. But for those who are simply looking to build muscle, or lose fat, it’s all about subjecting the muscles to (high levels of) tension.
Pick the Right Tool for the Job
All of these gimmicks (TRX, kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells etc.) are just tools at the end of the day, no different than those in which are in a toolbox in the garage. And much the same way that you’d select the right tool for the job at home, you should select the right tool for the job in the gym. While a hammer is a pretty versatile tool that you can use for a lot of different household tasks, you wouldn’t rely on it for things that require fine precision, like painting your house, would you?
The right tool, in this case, is the one that enables you to perform a given task to the best of your physical capacity (assuming the goal is to get the greatest return on your investment of time and effort). In some cases the kettlebell may be the best tool – some may have an easier time learning a swing holding onto the handles of a kettlebell, as opposed to one end of a dumbbell. Others may have an easier time subjecting the muscles at their hip, knee, and ankle joint by performing a squat through a full range of motion while holding onto the TRX straps for stability, as opposed to loading a barbell onto the back of their neck.
It’s all about choosing the right tool for the job. For me, I know barbells and dumbbells allow me to subject my muscles to high levels of tension, through full ranges of motion, and through stress and repetition I’ve built my body up to meet the goals I’d set out to achieve. But, there are other tools that offer unique benefits that a barbell or dumbbell simply can’t provide, such as a cable apparatus, and there are specific situations in which I’ll opt to use a cable apparatus to subject specific compartments of whatever muscle it is I’m trying to place under tension…
If you’d like to see how to use cables in a routine to enhance tension, watch this chest workout:
The goal is always to subject the muscle or part of muscle, to the highest level of tension possible, and whatever tool allows me to do that, is the one that I choose.
But Vince, What About Metabolic Stress And Muscle Damage?
Brad Schoenfeld’s work suggests that there are 3 primary mechanisms that trigger muscular growth, those being: mechanical TENSION, metabolic stress, and muscle damage (1). Anyone familiar with Brad’s work knows that it is all heavily science based – and these are the people that are generally quick to lash back and say, “Muscles don’t ONLY know tension, they also respond to metabolic stress and damage.” While this is true, what these same people are failing to realize is that TENSION is a prerequisite to BOTH metabolic stress and muscular damage. Without the tension you cannot create either of the two – stress is the result of extended time under tension while damage is the result of repeated bouts of high levels of TENSION.
What I want to know from you is, what tools do you like to use? What sort of specific situations challenge you, and leave you wondering what would be the best tool for the job? If your goal is to build your quads, maybe the leg extension is a valuable tool for you, even though it receives a ton of harsh criticism due to the shearing force that is applied to the knee joint – but what other exercise, or tool would enable you to place the quads under high levels of tension in the fully extended knee position? Place your comments below!
Which exercises place the MOST tension on the quads?
1. Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24 (2010): n. pag. 10 Oct. 2010. Web.
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