Note From Bryan:
It’s been a heck of a month. Writing, coaching, and trying to take care of clients during US and Canadian national holidays. That means no blog from me today.
Instead, enjoy this guest blog from fellow coach and bro Robbie Farlow of Side Quest Fitness. Robbie is one of the hardest working young coaches you’ll ever meet, and more importantly — he’s a great guy. At least, for a ginger.
In this post Robbie tells you one of the lesser talked about secrets amongst high level bodybuilders. Additionally, he teaches you how to apply that secret by first examining your life.
Hope you enjoy Robbie’s work. Catch you in a few days.
Knowledge is a slippery slope.
Today, it’s also (for better or worse) everywhere. And even a small amount of “know-how” can turn a novice into a baton twirling know-it-all.
Want to see this in action?
Look no further than anyone who’s looking for the reason why they can’t get rid of belly fat — a little knowledge of the subject (bodybuilding or nutrition) and suddenly sedentary Jerry becomes armchair Arnie as he espouses to his friends the “ideal” way to build muscle or burn fat.
Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Long before Bodybuilding.com, and the plethora of fitness-based websites, “knowledge” was held by muscle magazines. Injected with visual steroids of muscle bound behemoths, muscle mags told readers that the “secrets” to getting jacked lay somewhere between the cover and the ad-filled backpage.
Today, however, anyone with access to WordPress can weaponize their “knowledge,” and claim to hold the “secrets” for all who stumble upon their page. In some ways this is good. In others, it causes more harm than good. Yes, there are some aspects of bodybuilding that you can consider “true across the board,” but there’s one secret that bodybuilders rarely talk about. It’s also a secret that fitpros rarely talk about on blog posts or their sexy Instagram shots.
The secret is context.
Do you remember the first workout program you cut out of a magazine or grabbed online? I remember mine. It was a Jim Stoppani program I found on bodybuilding.com. It sounded like it was gonna be the one that finally turned me from a frumpy fat kid into a superhero.
But it didn’t work for me. And it was hella frustrating to see other people get results, all while wondering why I was still a (weak) skinny-fat 20-something instead of walking around looking like Captain America.
Who hasn’t felt like that? You download a program thinking you’re going to look like the guy who’s pitching it, but then, you don’t. This is one of the biggest mistakes people make when they start working out: they fail to realize the context of where they’re starting.
Look, if you haven’t stepped foot in a gym since the Clinton years, you’re not gonna look like what you think you’re gonna look like in a matter of weeks—or hell, even months. That’s something I didn’t realize when I started this entire journey. But here I was young, dumb, and full of chutzpah thinking I’d be a beast by the end of summer.
Life is never about getting it right the first time. It’s about making really dumb mistakes and learning from them, and then sharing your story so hopefully someone else can avoid your own dumb decisions. Or at least that’s how I envision the story of my life.
It’s safe to say that anyone who has ever lifted a single weight in their life, at one point, looked up to Arnold in some capacity. The dude is a legend. His training protocols and theories have been copied, duplicated, expounded upon, and analyzed for more than 40 years.
When you study some of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, you discover very quickly that their secret wasn’t what they lifted, how they lifted, the diets they followed, or the supplements they shoved down their throats every morning.
No, the greatest bodybuilding secret is context.
Angles, time under tension, rest pause, drop sets, giant sets, pyramid training, supersets, all of the stuff works. All of it. But when you dive into the history of bodybuilding, into the training styles of some of the greats, not everyone followed the same protocol.
Everyone had their opinions, what worked for them. And a lot of it will work for anyone today still. But one thing that is often forgotten with many of 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, as far as I know, never married. Dorian Yates got married later in life. And though many bodybuilding greats did have families, when many of them donned their banana hammocks, they did not. So yeah, they could dedicate hours and days upon days in the gym because what else did they have to do?
Arnold loved training six days a week. And that “live in the gym,” “the gym is life” mentality is something that still permeates in our world today — “lift three days and do cardio two days a week,” “you need to do more volume to see growth,” “lower reps, higher weight is the way to go,” “low weight high reps is how you build more muscle.”
We live in a world where people want it to be black and white. But the vast majority of life happens in the gray. And it’s in this gray area where context is King.
Let’s say you’re a busy father or 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 have to cook for them, take them to baseball practice, and you have to make sure they get their homework done. Hitting the gym five days a week for 90 minutes each day might not be something you can commit to.
But you’re determined to lose fat and build muscle. Where do you start? What’s the best training plan for you?
You read an article about how to build the most muscle you should train twice a day. Then another one on high-rep training. And yet another article told you to focus on getting stronger and keeping weights heavy and reps low. Then some yacko told you that all you need is 30-minutes a day if you do HIIT.
Good Lord, man. How is anyone supposed to actually lose fat and build muscle if there are thousands of different ways to get there? What’s better or best?
And then you found the bullshit article you’re reading now, where I’m about to tell you that all of that stuff works. Now you’ve tossed your hands up in the air and feel like screaming, “SERENITY NOW!”
Calm down my friend. Put your hands back by your side and take a deep breath. Yes, all of this stuff works. But the reason that there are different methodologies is context. Before you can understand the context to how you want your physique to look you have to understand the values in your own life.
What it takes to build a body like Arnold is possible. But if you’re starting in your mid-30s with four kids and a hectic job, it might take you a lot longer to get to where you want to be. And perhaps, the sacrifices that Arnold made don’t align with the values that you have in your own life. Arnold’s training techniques work, but they may not fit into the greater context of your life.
If you’re a businessman or woman who travels three to four days out of the week and you’re always in hotel gyms, you’re not going to be able to train like Arnold. If you work a 9-to-5 but your kids have extracurricular activities three nights of the week, the likelihood that you hit the gym every day of the week is slim.
Maybe you can only hit the gym for 30 to 35 minutes, does that mean you’re screwed when it comes to building strength, muscle, or burning fat? No, not at all. But it might mean that low rep, heavy weight training with longer rest periods (2+ minutes) isn’t going to fit in the context of your life.
If that’s the context of your life, what might be best for you is higher rep, low weight exercises with short rest periods (less than 60 seconds). Or, you could stick with the gold standard of 8 to 12 reps per exercise with 60 seconds rest, but do fewer exercises (no more than 3-4 total exercises) overall.
Exercise selection matters here, too. Squatting below parallel is a great way to induce a significant amount of muscle damage to your quads. But not everyone’s body is made to go ass-to-grass. And as much as I love squatting, you don’t need to squat to build muscular legs. Leg extensions or the leg press will get the job done.
Got a bum shoulder? Cool, don’t worry bro, you’re not broken. But it means you might have to tell your ego that pressing isn’t something you need to focus on. It doesn’t mean you’ll never get to bench press. But right now, in the context of where your body is, you might want to focus on doing boring crap that helps your shoulder grow stronger like band pull-aparts, face pulls, scapular wall slides, and lots of dumbbell rows.
This whole context thing applies to nutrition as well.
Every bodybuilder in history has had rules around what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. And in this age of constant content, everyone hops from one thing to another. At least in the day of magazines you had another month to wait before something new came out that you can try. Now though, you’re only seconds and a google search away from the “latest greatest” diet.
Every diet “can” work. But it won’t work if it doesn’t fit into the context of your life. Again, no two people are the same. What works for me may not work for you or your cousin or Connie in the cubicle next to you. Even John Beradi, one of the most renowned nutritionists on the planet understands that context matters more than anything.
With workouts, sometimes you need more volume. Sometimes you need less. The problem becomes when we, and I know I’m guilty of this too, espouse that a “one-size-fits-all” style of training. What we miss in that mindset is that context matters the most. And 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?
Okay, that last question was a bit silly, but there are people I’ve worked with who don’t know the basics. And if they don’t know the basics, starting out with an exercise or program that’s anything but basic is a massive disservice to them.
At this moment in this article, I could toss in a sentence like, “this is why hiring a coach is a good idea; through working with them they can better understand the context of your life and help build 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, a coach like Bryan or myself can take a huge weight off your shoulders and help put you on the right track. But I’m not here to plant seeds in your mind for hiring 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. Oh, and don’t worry, I’m gonna provide a few solutions at the end of the article to get you pointed in the right direction.
Here are a few basic questions you can start with to better understand the context of your life.
But one big caveat is that you’re going to have to put your ego to the side. Context isn’t something your ego wants to accept. It’s emotional and likes big, fancy dreams over hard facts.
So put that bratty brain in timeout for a few minutes 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 here, brah)
- 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?
Knowledge is more rampant today than it’s ever been. But unlike the muscle mags of yesteryear where you had to wait a month for new content—thus affording you a few weeks to actually go to the gym and get some work done—you’re bombarded with new “knowledge” seemingly every day.
And yea, a lot of this stuff works. Blood flow restriction works. Understanding line of pull can help you build more muscle by placing the appropriate tension on the muscle you want to work. Having a healthy gut biome can improve digestion and that can lead to better nutrient absorption. Supplements can be game changers. TRT can take you out of the doldrums and re-invigorate your quality of life while helping you lose fat and build muscle. Half reps, quarter reps, drop sets, monster sets, overloading the shortened phase or lengthened phase of a muscle, Olympic lifts, fasted cardio, fed cardio, intermittent fasting, eccentric training, plyometrics, and every other freaking thing that anyone with a WordPress can whip up and target with SEO, all of it works.
But why it works, and why a bodybuilder chose to do those things, isn’t because there’s some magicalness to their exercise selection or diet.
It’s because it fit the context of their goals or lives. Mike Mentzer crushed his body and then rested for nearly a week between workouts. Arnold trained nearly every day, and sometimes twice a day. Dorian Yates followed Mentzer in many ways and trained at mega-high intensities. Ronnie Coleman and Phil Heath loved hitting muscle groups twice in a week.
These men succeeded at bodybuilding
It all works. Finding what works best for you along your journey isn’t easy. And maybe that’s ultimately what helps the successful stand out: they’re able to find what works within the context of their lives and then they execute.
How to know whether to focus 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 are 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.
About the author: Robbie Farlow is a bro (and uber-nerd) who loves all things video games, pop culture, and of course, bodybuilding. He’s an online fitness coach who helps men and women make their 30s better than their 20s and their 40s better than their 30s. (And I suppose any other age bracket better than the prior).
Robbie writes about fitness and self-improvement with a dash of nerdy flair at his site, SideQuestFitness.com. Want to read more from Robbie? Head over to his site OR click here for a free gift.
Tell him Bryan sent you.