8 February 2019


by Ian McCarthy 0

The solution to this, although often a slow and difficult paradigm shift for those who tend to be goal-oriented, is simple: with a clear goal in mind, use your best judgment to make a plan you think is most likely to cause you to achieve that goal,


Let’s open with an analogy: if you’re going to build a house, you need to start by laying the foundation – because if you don’t, the remainder of the structure, no matter how sturdy in its own right, might collapse. By the same token, if you find yourself wanting to improve a bodypart which, to put it very simply, doesn’t respond well to training by default, it’s best you start – perhaps ironically – outside the gym, by developing an understanding of what that bodypart/muscle actually does. This is a rare moment in which I think even the average trainee (to clarify what I mean by this, envision anyone from the perpetually-overslept university student to the person with a family, full-time non-fitness related job, and no intentions of competing) can benefit from hitting the books; although there is absolutely no question that each of us can learn an enormous amount through direct experience in the gym (indeed, this may well be our primarymeans of learning how to improve our approach to fitness and physique goals over time), taking a look at functional anatomy texts gives you the opportunity to substantially improve your technical knowledge of the functions of any given muscle. Since making good gains very directly involves addressing those functions, this is a prime example of “book” or “theoretical” knowledge having real potential to carry over into better “real world” progress.

With the case made for this being a worthwhile effort, I’d suggest checking out exrx.net, in particular their Exercise & Muscle Directory, freely available here: http://www.exrx.net/Lists/Directory.html.

Fortunately, their directory is laid out in an extremely intuitive manner (it is literally as simple as “Want to know what the hamstrings do? Click “hamstrings.”) and presents information very efficiently, which allows you to improve your knowledge in this area with a minimal commitment of time and energy; learning the primary functions of any given muscle should take you no longer than a couple of minutes.

I would note that in this particular context, it’s probably sufficient to focus on each muscle’s main, or primary, functions (a function simply being what a muscle does; in the case of skeletal muscles, this is organized in terms of joint actions, or the particular manner in which a muscle moves one bone around a joint). For example, if you understand that the lats perform shoulder extension and abduction, you’re off to a good start (and if you don’t understand what this means, spend more time on Exrx!). Similarly, knowing that the pecs perform shoulder adduction and shoulder flexion can make a big difference – but is the same true of internal rotation of the shoulder? Even as someone with a reputation for overthinking, I tend to say “not so much”.


In short, it can be genuinely beneficial in even a practical sense to have a modest technical understanding of the functions of, at the very least, muscle you’re trying to prioritize – and developing such an understanding requires a very minimal commitment to exposing yourself to freely-available online resources.



While the forceful pushback against ‘broscience’ over the past half-decade or so has undoubtedly done tremendous good, I fear the sledgehammer-like, rigid, non-nuanced nature of much of that movement (for which, to be fair, I am largely personally responsible!) has resulted in some unfortunate collateral damage, in that some legitimate, de facto evidence-based nutrition, training, supplementation, and lifestyle techniques, perceived as ‘bro’, have been thrown aside without appropriate, objective consideration. I’d suggest that a prime example of this (and indeed, one which I think, if properly understood, is actually completely uncontroversial), is that of the umbrella of training techniques exemplified by slogans like “going by feel”, “getting a good squeeze”, “getting blood into the muscle”, and so on. While there is no question in my mind that these concepts can be taken too far – for example, it really doesn’t matter how good an exercise feels if you’re using light loads (relative to your strength) and never get close to failure – I think the underlying idea, which I’d frame as something like the following, is excellent: seek out exercises which feel good to you, precisely because that subjective perception probably doesn’t arise for no reason; it’s likely reflective of the fact those exercises suit your personal anthropometry (in overly reductionist terms: they ‘fit’ your bone & muscle structure).

… and I really, really struggle to see how any can argue that is a bad or wasteful recommendation.

So what does this mean in practice? To put it in one word: experiment! For example, if your chest has always been a weak point, and you’ve really, really tried to improve it through lots of heavy barbell pressing, but you’ve found that the predominant effect seems to be that your triceps and shoulders get absolutely hammered, experiment with dumbbell presses, machine presses, and cables (I’ll come back to this) – and if something feels ‘off’ to you (when performed with correct form), don’t do it; if something feels ‘okay’, consider including it in your training as a secondary or alternate exercise, and if something feels amazing, make it one of your staple exercises.

Yeah, it’s really that simple. Ultimately, I don’t buy for a second that the subjective perception that each of us gets while performing any given exercise simply arises randomly or otherwise isn’t ‘real’; indeed, the entire point of pain, or discomfort, from an evolutionary perspective, is to indicate tissue damage, or the potential for damage. Personally, I don’t see merit in throw that well-established fact away as soon as I walk in the door to the gym.



This is obviously a good piece of general advice, but I think it’s particularly relevant in the context of bringing up weak bodyparts, as I’ve found that a bodypart being underdeveloped often corresponds to poor form being used on exercises for that bodypart. For example, it is extremely common to see folks using ridiculously excessive loads and sloppy form on back exercises – think pulldowns or rows – and it’s not hard to see why: using poor form is what allows you to use those excessive loads, creating an illusory sense of strength and stroking the ego of those who care, in my opinion, far too much about how much weight they’re able to lift while appearing to have a seizure. More to the point, those who use the combination of poor form and heavy loads in this manner very often have underdeveloped lats, and this is similarly easy to explain: although the lats are certainly involved in such exercises almost regardless of form, they’re probably not going to be maximally stimulated when the hip extensors, back extensors, and other muscle groups are so heavily involved, and perhaps even the primary contributors to the exercise as a whole. Overall, I think it’s evident just on the basis of experience that sacrificing form for weight (at least to a substantial degree) is, at the very least, not betterthan using appropriate (not necessarily light, though!) loads with proper technique.

Note that everything I’ve said so far in this section has been about effectiveness, not safety. This is probably reflective of the fact most training-related debates seem to fixate on effectiveness more than anything, but let’s not forget that if you get injured, the effectiveness of your training as a whole can be radically diminished. As such, I think we should all value safety over efficacy, and should only do exercises, or use techniques, with a higher risk of injury if those exercises or techniques are clearly more effective. Since lifting excessively heavy weight with poor form is obviously less safe than using lighter loads with good form, while not being obviously more effective, there’s simple no good reason to get sloppy, and every reason not to.

Keep in mind you don’t benefit one iota by not being honest with yourself regarding the weights and form you’re using. To be blunt: if you’re rowing 150-pound dumbbells and think you’re the fucking man (or woman), but your back still isn’t responding in the way you want it to, who loses? Just you. So from the perspective of wanting you to improve, I strongly encourage you to be ruthlessly honest here, and be willing to reduce loads as much as is necessary to nail your form; I can honestly say I’ve seen people have to cut their loads in half to get their form right. But guess what? In time – once they’ve mastered good form and worked their way up to using weight closer to their starting point – they make better progress than they did previously.


Although the scientific literature on training frequency really only supports the claim that training a muscle two or more times per week is superior to training it once a week (all else being equal), it’s been my overwhelming experience as coach and lifter that properly-implemented high frequency training, which I define as training a muscle group three or more times per week, is one of the very best ways to improve a bodypart as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, giving comprehensive guidelines for high-frequency training demands an (or even a book chapter) of its own, but here are some of the most important principles:

  1. Ensure that the particular frequency you choose is appropriate for the relevant muscle(s). For example, it’s been my experience that the pecs tend not to fully recover if trained more often than three times per week (perhaps as a result of them not being used much in daily life, thus making them slower to recover), whereas it’s not uncommon to be able to train the glutes every day without issue.
  2. Keep daily volume moderate, or even low. There are certainly exceptions to this (the glutes once again being an example), but combining high-frequency training with traditional daily volumes (something like 4-12 sets per bodypart, per day, often favoring the top end of that) is a recipe for overtraining and overuse injury. Instead, stick to 1-4 working sets per bodypart, per workout, and if you do 3-4 sets, it’s likely ideal you use more than one exercise (once again, to try to sidestep overuse injury).
  3. Vary exercise selection, number of sets per exercise, reps per set, and proximity to failure across the training week. This allows you to maximally stimulate the entirety of a muscle (keep in mind many muscles have different heads and perform more than one function; eg the pecs, biceps, triceps, hamstrings) and perform more total weekly volume, while still recovering – as you’re not constantly hammering the same loads, intensities, and movement patterns. And hey, it’s more interesting, which isn’t a trivial issue!
  4. Be especially attentive to how you’re feeling (subjectively) and performing (objectively), and don’t fear making changes on the fly. Remember: you’re training a muscle 3-7x a week here, so recovery demands are going to be higher almost by definition, and if you get sloppy, there’s a real risk of you hurting yourself.



With the bulk of this article deliberately practical, I’d like to close by talking about mindset, which I find unusually relevant in the context of trying to improve a weakness. I’ll start with a question:

When it comes to getting what you want in life, which of these do you personally think about more: what you want, or what you have to do to get what you want?

If the first, you probably have what the psychological literature calls a goal, or outcome, orientation. In essence, being goal-oriented means that when it comes to questions of motivation and what you focus on day-to-day, you primarily concern yourself with, well, getting what you want (put more academically: you focus on the actual achievement of your goals). This is in contrast to being process-oriented: primarily concerned with the process involved in getting want you want (alternatively, the process which leads to achievement of your goals).

To be sure, being goal-oriented is completely understandable: you want something, so you fixate on it! This seems to me a very natural and human act. However, if you truly want to maximize your success, it’s extremely important to recognize – and act on – the fact that when you have a specific goal, fixating on the goal itself doesn’t help you achieve it, for a very simple reason: you can only achieve through action. Thus, focusing on a goal means not focusing on the only thing that can allow you to actually accomplish that goal: your behavior.

Indeed, on top of being distracting, being highly goal-oriented can be actively destructive. Fixating on something you haven’t achieved, or don’t have, has the potential to degrade your self-esteem, diminish your motivation, and ultimately act in a manner which, ironically, makes it less likely you’ll get the thing you’re fixated on in the first place.

The solution to this, although often a slow and difficult paradigm shift for those who tend to be goal-oriented, is simple: with a clear goal in mind, use your best judgment to make a plan you think is most likely to cause you to achieve that goal, and from that point on, focus with great intensity on that plan – the process – itself. At the same time, try to view the goal itself as almost incidental, almost irrelevant; ironically, this empowers you to further focus on the actions which maximize the likelihood of you achieving that goal. As a massive bonus, this overall approach will let you have more fun (as a result of being more mindful of what is actually happening in your life, as opposed to what might happen in the future), and position you to experience less disappointment if you ultimately fail (precisely because becoming process-oriented means decreasing the relative significance of the goal itself).

In short, just as the person who doesn’t know what they want won’t get it, the person who obsesses over what they want won’t get it, either. Meanwhile, much as the tortoise beats the hare, the person who spends most of their time with their head down, working, will have much more to see when they finally look up.

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