When I was a kid, I believed in ghosts, aliens, and honest politicians. I learned better, but even as an adult I still find myself needing to re-evaluate old beliefs very often.
When I started this blog back in 2015, I had no idea it would take off the way it has. At the time I was working at an advertising job I absolutely detested, and could only spare about five or ten hours a week to work on what I then thought of as a mere side project. And yet, in a few short years, I’ve gone from completely unknown, to reaching over ten thousand readers a month, and having written a few articles that have drawn readership in the six figures.
But more to the point, I had no idea just how many things I would end up being wrong about. I had already been studying fitness for around a decade before that, and while I was sure I would learn a lot of new things, I certainly didn’t expect that some of my core beliefs around fitness would end up being completely upended in just a few short years.
In the spirit of education and self-disclosure, here are eight subjects on which my opinion has completely changed since I started this blog. I’ll write a full article on each subject at some point but for now, this will do as a summary.
1. What Causes Muscle Growth- I Now Believe Volume is Paramount
Once upon a time, I was convinced that training intensity could substitute for volume. By intensity I mean a few things- lifting heavy weights, training to failure, or “metabolic intensity,” i.e. keeping rest periods short. I believed that as long as you made your workouts super intense and brutal, you could keep them short and infrequent and get the same or better results from one or two hours of exercise a week that you would get from six or ten hours of a week of more traditional training.
Not anymore. I’ve seen the research, and it paints a very clear picture: if you want to maximize muscle hypertrophy, it’s pretty much the more sets per week, the better, at least up to very high volumes.
How high? Around 10-20 sets per muscle group per week for novice trainees, and 20-30 sets per muscle group per week for intermediate to advanced trainees. That equates to somewhere between like 80 and 200 total sets per week, depending on exercise selection- more compounded exercises will train more muscle groups at once, whereas people doing a lot of isolation work will need more total sets.
Brad Schoenfeld provides a great breakdown of one of these studies (authored by him) in this article. He also points out that volume is less important for strength than for hypertrophy- a finding that has been replicated in other studies. This review of the research by Menno Henselmans shows why more advanced trainees benefit from more volume.
2. I’m No Longer a Big Fan of Training to Failure
This sort of follows off the last item- I used to believe in doing a few sets to failure. Now I favor doing a lot more sets, but only taking them about 80-90% of the way to failure- or put another way, stopping them 1-3 sets short of failure, depending on rep range.
There was a time not that long ago when a lot of the research seemed to support training to failure- not that I was looking directly at the research back then. In hindsight, a lot of these studies either were poorly designed, or had small sample sizes and the not to failure group actually did better than the group that trained to failure, but the difference between the two fell juuuuust barely short of statistical significance.
It turns out it’s better to not train to failure, and just do more volume. Easier too, albeit more time-consuming.
However, a lot of the thinking behind training to failure stems not from a misunderstanding of the science, but from a no pain, no gain mentality that assumes that the benefit of training will be directly proportional to how hard it is. This is wrong- pain and fatigue are not good proxies for results.
I will add though, that I still think it’s worth going through a brief phase of training to failure, early in your development, so you learn where failure really is. A lot of people think they’re going close to failure when they really only get halfway there. So from that standpoint, I’m glad I used to train to failure. I just wish I’d stopped sooner.
3. I Now Favor Longer Rest Periods
I used to think it was better to keep rest periods short to maximize metabolic intensity and the hormonal response to training. I now believe that it’s better to rest longer and let yourself recover, so you can train with more volume and with better form. In fact, a lot of the rationale behind short rest periods come from the same asinine pain=gain mentality as training to failure.
There are now several studies like this one showing that longer rest periods are better for strength and hypertrophy, with the benefit of long rests usually looking bigger for strength vs hypertrophy. This appears to be because short rests blunt the anabolic signaling response to exercise, and long rests allow for more muscle protein synthesis.
I still sometimes don’t rest very long out of sheer impatience- that’s a bad habit I’m working on getting over. Or it may be a sign that I just didn’t push myself hard enough on the previous set.
4. I No Longer Thing It’s Best to Train In the Morning
I used to believe it was best to train in the morning because morning workouts burn more fat, and because your testosterone levels are higher in the morning.
In fact, while morning workouts do burn more fat in the short term since your glycogen levels are depleted, they don’t burn more calories, so in the long run they don’t burn more fat.
As for testosterone being higher- yes, but cortisol is also waaay higher in the morning. Your testosterone to cortisol ratio is actually better later in the day, around late afternoon to early evening. Plus, your core body temperature is higher later in the day. Here’s a good explanation of these factors. As it turns out, time of day does matter quite a lot- I just had it backwards.
5. High-Carb vs Low-Carb. Uh, It’s Complicated
I believed in the standard low-fat dogma before I got into fitness, but by a few years ago I had hopped onboard the low-carb bandwagon and bought into the idea that insulin was the cause of many of the diseases of modern civilization, particularly obesity. I even believed that insulin made people overeat- funny enough, insulin is actually an appetite suppressant.
I haven’t turned back to being a high-carber though. Indeed, I think most people should cut back on carbs. I now believe the carbs vs fat thing is a) not as important as a lot of people make it out to be, and b) subject to a lot of inter-individual variability to the extent it does matter. Specifically:
- Low-carb is usually, but not always, better for helping obese people lose weight. Obese people with decent insulin sensitivity and no metabolic syndrome may be better off with more carbs.
- The leaner someone is, the more carbs they should eat.
- The more muscle someone has, the more carbs they should eat.
- The more active someone is, the more carbs they should eat.
- Women do better on a higher-fat diet than men, since female bodies burn fat more readily than carbohydrate relative to men.
- Based on my experience, the ketogenic diet, due to its appetite-suppressing effects, is a better fit for people who tend to overeat, and terrible for people who tend to under-eat.
6. Inflammation Isn’t (Always) Bad For You
Once upon a time, I read a few articles- I forget where- suggesting taking an aspirin post-workout to reduce inflammation. Because inflammation is bad, right? It certainly seems like it is.
From Wikipedia: Redness and heat are due to increased blood flow at body core temperature to the inflamed site. Yep, one component of inflammation is increased blood flow, which you obviously want since it means more nutrients getting to your muscles.
In fact, inflammation is part of your body’s anabolic signaling mechanism, which is why anti-oxidants and other anti-inflammatory drugs and supplements taken post-workout actually reduce muscle growth.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation is bad for both your health and your gainz. So what you want is a very low baseline level of inflammation, and large but brief spikes after each workout.
7. I Don’t Change My Workouts or Swap Exercises Very Often Anymore
I used to believe you should change your workouts every month or so to prevent your muscles from adapting to them. After all, if you do the same workouts for too long, you stop feeling sore- that means they stop working, right?
This comes from- you guessed it- the dumb bro mentality that the more it sucks, the better it must be. You should be chasing results, not soreness or fatigue.
The truth is, muscle confusion is bullshit. Adaptation is the goal, not something to be avoided. I’ve made better gains since I stopped changing exercises so damned often, and now I’m more jacked then I’ve ever been- and my workouts hurt less. I still change exercises occasionally, mainly to prevent repetitive stress injuries. Not nearly every month though.
8. Branched Chain Amino Acids Are Garbage
A lot of supplements are garbage, but BCAAs stand out as being the most overrated of them all, and the most likely to be erroneously recommended by otherwise knowledgable fitness pros.
BCAAs are the three amino acids that act as signals for your muscles to turn on the anabolism switch. Anabolic signaling- that’s good, right?
Sure, but your body still needs the actual raw materials for muscle growth. It needs all of the amino acids, not just those three. Taking BCAAs on their own is like trying to turn on a device with no batteries, or turning the key in a car whose gas tank is empty.
As a health and fitness writer, coach, and student for life, I never stop learning new things. It took years of full-time work to learn all this stuff, but my clients get to skip that learning process and benefit from this knowledge immediately. Want to get in on that? Holler at your boy on my coaching page.