The most overrated everything in fitness

I’ve wanted to write this article for a long time.

There are a lot of bad ideas floating around in the fitness industry.  Some of them are repeated by well-meaning coaches who just don’t know better and haven’t kept up with the science.  Others, quite frankly, are being pushed by people who know damn well their advice isn’t that good and just want to make a buck.

These ideas are like vampires- they suck the gainz out of you, and they refuse to die. 

First, a clarification: this article is about the things that are most overrated by credible fitness experts and serious trainees.  So the Master Cleanse Diet and Dr. Oz’s miracle green coffee extract are exempt from consideration.  In fact, most of the items on this list are things I used to believe in myself.

Without further ado, here are the eight things that I consider to be most overrated by otherwise serious and knowledgable fitness professionals. 

Most overrated supplement: Branched-Chain Amino Acids

Branched chain amino acids are a group of three amino acids that play an important role in protein synthesis and anabolic signaling.  Their branched structure makes them crucial for building proteins since it gives them more points at which to connect to other amino acids.  The three BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine and valine, with leucine widely being considered the most important by a good margin.

BCAAs are crucial for building muscle tissue- the research is clear on that.  But supplement companies sell BCAAs on the claim that taking a few grams a day of them will cause you to gain more muscle- or prevent muscle loss while fasting.  The thing is, the research has consistently and strongly contradicted these claims. 

Does leucine build strength and mass in the elderly?  Apparently not.  What about competitive athletes?  Nope

What about a mix of all three BCAA’s, taken by young, untrained men?  Again, no.

This study states that leucine increases anabolic signaling, but not net muscle growth.  In other words, it tells your body to build muscle, but doesn’t enhance its ability to actually do so.

Your body needs branched-chain amino acids, but it needs them in conjunction with other amino acids.  If you’re fasting, BCAAs will do little or nothing on their own- even if they work, they’ll at best cause your body to re-synthesize protein using amino acids created by breaking down your own muscle tissue.

On the other hand, if you’re eating enough protein, you’re getting enough BCAA’s already, and taking more won’t help. 

Bottom line: save your money.

Most overrated piece of exercise equipment: Barbells

Oooh I know I’m going to take some flak for this one, but hear me out.  Now, I don’t think barbells are terrible, and I do use them for some exercises.  But for most barbell exercises, you’re better off using either dumbbells or, in same cases, a resistance band or cable machine.

Barbells have three big shortcomings:

First, they don’t give you complete freedom of movement.  The funny thing about this is, barbell apologists love to argue that barbells are superior to machines precisely because they let you move the weight freely in three dimensions, whereas machines force you into following a set movement path.  And they’re correct.  But when I point out that dumbbells are superior to barbells for that exact same reason, they look at me like I have tentacles growing out of my head.

Yes, the barbell is fully mobile in three dimensions, but your hands are locked into being the same distance from each other, and remaining lined up with each other.  It would be better if your hands could move independently of each other.  You know what lets you do that?  Dumbbells.  Or cable machines, as long as they have separate cables for each hand.

Second, barbells don’t allow for shoulder rotation.  Let’s try a little experiment: hold your hands up around head height.  Now stretch them up over your head.  Now back to face height.  Now reach forward with them, or throw a slow-mo punch.  Now bring them back to either side of your head. 

Notice how your arms rotated there?  When you held them close to your body, your shoulders were internally rotated, so that the palms of your hands were angled inward, maybe even towards each other.  When you stretched your arms out, your shoulders rotated outwards, such that your palms were facing forward with your arms over your head, and downward when your arms were stretched forward. 

This is how your arms naturally move, but barbells prevent it.  What allows you to rotate your shoulders?  That’s right: dumbbells and cables.

Third, with some exercises the barbell limits your range of motion by running into your body.  For instance, with the bench press, the motion bottoms out when the barbell touches your chest, whereas with dumbbells you might be able to add a couple more inches of useful ROM at the bottom. 

Or take the overhead press: with a barbell you have to keep the bar in front of you, while dumbbells could just be lifted to either side of your head.  Overall I consider this a lesser problem than the first two issues, but it still forces you to use a less than optimal movement path for some barbell exercises.

Here’s why I think people love barbells: they make you feel strong.  They fit the stereotypical image of a huge, strong dude pumping iron in the gym.  Plus, you can lift more weight with barbells than with dumbbells.  If you can bench press 200 pounds, your dumbbell bench press is probably in the 140-160 range, meaning you’d use two 70-pound dumbbells.  The barbell loaded up with plates certainly looks more impressive, and the guy lifting it looks stronger than the guy lifting the dumbbells.  But he isn’t. 

Now having said all of that, there are some barbell exercises where none of these problems apply.  Squats, some curl variants, most deadlift variants, and the j-curl, for starters.  So I do use barbells for a few things, but they’re nowhere near being the centerpiece of my programs, and they’re not the One True Piece of Gym Equipment as many bros think they are. 

Most overrated exercise machine: Universal exercise machines

Now I know I just talked up cable machines, but now I’m going to have to qualify that a bit: specialized cable machines are amazing, but universal cable machines, not so much.

To explain why, I first need to explain something about how most exercise machines work.  For any given exercise, your strength will be higher at some points along the movement and lower at others.  For instance, when you do a bench press or similar movement, you’re weakest at the very bottom of the motion, and strongest towards the top.  For chin-ups it’s the opposite; the top of the movement is the hardest.

Now ideally, every exercise you do would be equally difficult at all points- meaning the resistance would always be matched to your strength at every part of the motion.  Most modern machines do indeed match the resistance to your strength, through the use of a cam.  The cam varies the resistance at different parts of the exercise in order to match the exercises resistance curve to it’s strength curve.

Since different exercises have different strength curves, different machines need to use different cams.  And that brings us to the issue: one machine can’t have an ideal resistance profile for all exercises.  If one machine can be used for decline chest presses, triceps pull-downs, upright rows, pull-downs, shoulder presses and crunches, it won’t have a good resistance profile for any of those exercises.

Now that’s not to say that every machine needs to be specialized for just one exercise either.  There are cable machines that are designed for a range of closely related exercises- for instance, one which can be used for the level, incline and decline chest press, shoulder press, and one-armed press with ab twist.  That works, since all of those exercises share a similar strength profile.  So semi-specialized cable machines are fine, but universal cable machines are sub-par.

And that’s not to say their flexibility has no value- look, I get it.  Universal machines give you more bang for your buck.  They save money and space.  Maybe you want a Bowflex machine so you can work out at home.  You could do a lot better, but also a lot worse.  Just know that you won’t be getting an ideal workout with those machines.

Most overrated exercise: The deadlift

Hoooo boy.  If talking shit about barbells didn’t drive people off, I expect this will.  Deadlifts are a massively overrated exercise. 

Yes, you can lift a lot of plates with the deadlift.  You can lift more weight than with any other exercise.  See my earlier point about ego.

Surprisingly, none of the points I made earlier about barbells in generally apply to the deadlift- the deadlift’s shortcomings are unrelated, and can’t be solved by just replacing the barbell with dumbbells. 

Point number one: safety.  The deadlift is one of the the easiest, maybe the easiest lifts to get hurt doing.  Good form will mitigate but not eliminate that risk, and it takes time to learn good form and figure out which stance works best for you.

Point number two: it’s too fatiguing.  You can’t deadlift for very much volume because it produces so much neural fatigue.  And no, the high neural fatigue doesn’t mean the deadlift is a more effective exercise. 

The heavy fatigue is a problem because the main muscle worked by the deadlift, the erector spinae (lower back), is slow-twitch dominant.  That is, your lower back needs high volume and high frequency, yet the deadlift is hard to do more than once a week.

Final point: the deadlift is more or less a concentric-only exercise.  The weight is usually not lowered in a controlled fashion; it’s lowered very quickly or more commonly, dropped.  All other things being equal, concentric-eccentric exercises are far superior to concentric only exercises. 

Of course powerlifters still need to deadlift, since it’s part of their sport.  Deadlifting makes you better at deadlifting.  But that’s all it does, aside from giving you the ego boost of lifting the heaviest possible barbell.

Last note: this applies to conventional deadlifts, but not all deadlift variants.  Variants that use lighter weights and controlled eccentrics, like Romanian and stiff-legged deadlifts, can have their uses.

Most overrated type of workout: Group fitness classes

Yoga, Zumba, Jazzercise- all of these are presented as a great way to get “toned” and “conditioned” without needing to do traditional weight training.  But are they?

Here’s how Zumba is described on its official website: A total workout, combining all elements of fitness – cardio, muscle conditioning, balance and flexibility, boosted energy and a serious dose of awesome each time you leave class.

Sounds great, right?  So what does Zumba actually consist of?  Well, let’s see…some Latin music plays, and you dance to it.  You shake your booty, pump your fists, squat down and do some pop-locks.  So…pretty similar to dancing in a night club, except you won’t be drinking a bunch of Long Island Iced Teas while you’re doing it, nor getting laid afterward.   

The class itself is also sort of like a night club, in that it’s full of dancing people, and unlike a gym, in that it’s not full of barbells, dumbbells and exercise machines.  Which, in fact, is why group fitness classes are popular.  Not because they’re effective, but because they’re economical. 

Group fitness classes allow a lot of people to be crammed into a small area.  They also have very low costs, since they use little or no equipment.  That makes them an amazing deal for the gym- big returns for very little investment. Hell, it’s almost like printing money.

Yes, they can be fun, and if that’s what it takes to motivate you to go to the gym, then there is some value in that, at least until you build your gym habit and don’t need to worry s much about motivating yourself.  But the vast majority of fitness classes are designed first and foremost to maximize bodies per square foot, with fun and lack of equipment as secondary priorities.  The fitness rational “proving” these classes are effective is made up after the fact.

Most overrated workout schedule: Bro splits

“Bro splits” are the popular name for training splits in which each day is assigned to a very specific body part.  As an example:

Monday: Back

Tuesday: Chest

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday: Shoulders/Calves

Friday: Biceps/Triceps

Saturday: Rest

Sunday: Quads/Hamstrings

Bro splits are popular among professional bodybuilders because bodybuilders are aiming to achieve very specific bodily proportions, and that requires using a lot of isolation exercises to target individual muscles.  For the most part, it works for bodybuilders, but how about the rest of us?

Anyone with a basic knowledge of human muscular anatomy can see one problem right off the bat: the body doesn’t really work this way.  The biceps and back are mostly used in the same exercises.  The chest and triceps are mostly used together.  Calves are generally used in conjunction with thighs, except in the calf raise.

Compound movements will always use muscles that are used on different days of that bro split.  So bro splits don’t really make sense unless your routine is mostly isolation movements, which is often the case for bodybuilders.

Problem number two: the need for frequency.  People with a somewhat more advanced knowledge of how muscles work may be aware that as your muscles grow, they start to need more volume and more frequency to grow even further.  A beginner trainee might do just fine working each muscle once a week, but many intermediate-level trainees need to stimulate each muscle three times a week to keep growing.  Advanced trainees often need to be hitting each muscle five or more times a week.

And no, you can’t make up for low frequency by absolutely destroying each muscle just once a week- you’ll get your best results by working a muscle more often, working it to fatigue, then stopping and letting it recover.  Steroids and superior genetics can change this equation quite a bit, but that’s precisely why you shouldn’t think that training like Ronnie Coleman will make you look like him.

What bro splits are good for is fine-tuning individual body parts to achieve specific proportions.  That’s what bodybuilders- and sometimes actors-use them for.  But they’re not very effective for overall mass building, nor for fat loss.

Assuming you’re not a bodybuilder getting ready for competition, you have several better options.  You could split your workouts up by movement pattern- push-pull-legs, in other words.  You could follow a daily undulating periodization model by having strength days and hypertrophy days, possibly combined with an upper-lower split.

You could do full-body workouts, with strength work at the beginning and hypertrophy work later in the workout.  You could do full-body workouts with one or two body parts emphasized by working them at higher intensity.  Or you could really dive into the weeds, ditch the idea of training splits altogether, and go into muscle-specific programming.

Those are all good options.  Just don’t do bro splits if you’re not a high-level bodybuilder.

Most overrated dietary strategy: Eating as much protein as humanly possible

The U.S. government tells us to eat at least 50 grams of protein per day.  Since you’re here, you probably already know that that’s way too low.

On the other hand, if you read weightlifting-focused fitness sites- especially those geared towards men- you may be under the impression that you need to be eating over two hundred grams of protein per day.  I’ve seen serious, credible fitness coaches recommend as much as two and a half grams of protein per pound of lean body mass per day.

Come to think of it, back in school I took a nutrition class, and the teacher told us about an amateur bodybuilder (who was also a student of hers) who came to her complaining of chronic fatigue despite eating plenty of calories and protein.  When she asked him what he was eating, he said he was wolfing down sixteen chicken breasts a day.

You heard that right- eight chickens a day, 2,920 chickens a year.  This guy was singlehandedly keeping a small chicken farm in business, and probably giving himself a food allergy in the process.  Excuse me while I retch for a minute.

But let’s look at a recommendation that falls on the more modest end of the high-protein spectrum.  John Romaniello, who you may know I myself have hired as a coach, says to eat 1.35 grams of protein per pound of goal lean body weight for body recomposition, and 1.5 grams per pound of goal LBM for a pure bulk. Let’s look at what this means in practice.

For me, at 165 pounds and 12% body fat, that works out to 203 grams of protein per day for recomposition, assuming my goal (for this training phase, not my whole life) is five pounds of muscle growth.  It works out to 233 grams per day for a bulk, assuming I plan to gain 10 pounds of muscle. 

203 grams of protein is two Subway footlongs with double meat, plus two small protein shakes, per day.  To reach 233, I’d need to add another mid-sized meal in there somewhere.  For a hardgainer like me, this is absolute misery; any meal with more than fifty grams of protein is so filling that it can easily take me thirty to sixty minutes to finish.  On the other hand, that could be a plus for someone who tends to overeat.

Alright but is it worth it?  Does eating all that protein let us put on more muscle?

Science says no. No controlled study has ever found a benefit to consuming more than 1.62 grams per kilogram of total bodyweight per day, or .74 grams pr pound of bodyweight.  Most studies find no benefit to going over about .6 grams per pound of bodyweight.  A systematic literature review and meta-analysis found no evidence of any benefit for going over 1.8 grams per kilo of bodyweight, and very little evidence for benefits being 1.6 g/kg.  

Source: Bayesian Bodybuilding, website of one of the study authors

What about your training intensity or level of experience?  Higher volume/intensity does raise your need for protein, but that’s taken into account by the study- 1.62 grams/kilo is how much you need if you’re training like a beast.  Most people need less.

Steroids might change that equation, but their effects are complicated and poorly-researched, and I have to admit that’s not something I’m an expert in.  If you’re a new steroid user planning to gain 20 pounds on your first “enhanced” bulk, then yeah, 300 grams of protein might be good for you. 

Otherwise, most natural trainees should stay in the range of .6 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.  Again, anything over .74 doesn’t seem to help with muscle growth, and will likely help with satiety if you’re cutting.  And of course, that leaves plenty of room to adjust your protein intake based on personal preference.

But eating three or four hundred grams of protein per day?  That’s madness, and the science firmly and unequivocally refutes it.  Contrary to popular bro wisdom, one gram per pound of bodyweight per day should be your maximum, not your minimum.

Most overrated progression strategy: Constantly changing up your workouts

This is the single biggest mistake I see people making, and uniquely among the items I’m writing about, it seems to be equally common in trainees of all levels, from rank beginners all the way to fitness pros.  Except it’s not a single mistake-it would more accurately be described as a few closely related mistakes.

First, there’s changing your workouts on a frequent basis- usually once a month.  As in, changing the order in which exercises are performed, or the rep scheme for each exercise.

Second, there’s changing the specific movements you do- switching out the squat for the leg press, for instance  This is even worse than just changing your workouts without changing the underlying exercises. 

Third, there’s changing the whole style of workout you use from month to month.  For instance, switching between high-weight strength training with long rests, lactic acid style circuit training, light weight circuits with almost no rest for maximum metabolic intensity, density circuits, single set to failure, etc.

And finally, there’s constantly varying the order in which workouts are performed.  Instead of A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D, it’s A-B-C-D-B-D-A-C. 

The idea behind all of this is that since your body adapts to your workouts after a while, you need to keep changing things up to give your body a fresh stimulus.  But that’s a misunderstanding of the adaptation process.

When you start doing a new exercise, you’ll make rapid strength gains.  That’s because your nervous system is adapting to the exercise, not because you’re gaining muscle mass.  After a few weeks, the strength gains will slow down, because your muscles have finished making the easy neural adaptations.  This is when hypertrophy really gets started. 

People think the slow-down in strength development means they’re plateauing, when the truth is exactly the opposite- muscle growth really kicks in after neural growth reaches diminishing returns.  Your muscles pick the low-hanging fruit before they settle in to the hard work of getting big.

Changing your workouts, or the order in which they’re performed, also makes it hard to gauge your progress.  Switch up the order of your workouts, and your gym performance will always be thrown off by variations in how much rest you’ve gotten.  Move an exercise from the end of your workouts to the beginning, and you’ll get stronger at it just because you’re less fatigued at the beginning of your workouts.  Start doing something new and of course you’re going to get better at it, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting bigger.

The fact is, you’ll get your best long-term results by using really well-designed workouts right from the start, and not switching them more than needed.  There is a lot of research and experiential support for daily undulating periodization, where you do high-rep and low-rep work on different days.  But that still means having set workouts that you stick to and rotate between in a set order, not randomly changing stuff up every week in the name of “muscle confusion” or related broscience concepts.

So why do people do this?  Changing stuff up provides an illusion of progress.  As long as you keep changing your workouts, you’ll always be making progress on something.  It also provides variety, which a lot of people enjoy.  Hell, I like variety. 

More to the point- why do coaches have their clients do this?  Well, many of them honestly don’t realize that changing stuff around all the time is such a gainz-killer.  And what about the ones who do?

Being charitable, we could assume that they’re doing it to motivate their clients.  The clients get more variety to keep things interesting, and the continual strength “gains” give them a sense of progress, which they may very well find motivating even if it is an illusion.  The clients also get to learn about many different styles of workout, and that’s something too.

Being less charitable, many coaches are over-complicating things in order to create more work for themselves and justify charging more.  It gives them a reason to completely reinvent their clients’ programs every month, which adds perceived value to the coaching program and lets them justify charging more. 

Bottom line: don’t change stuff unless you don’t have to.  Mixing high and low intensities, as with daily undulating periodization, is cool, but don’t completely replace your workouts with new ones every month, don’t change the order in which you do them every week, and don’t randomly switch up variables like weight, reps and exercise order in the name of “muscle confusion.” 

Cut the crap and focus on what works

Stick with exercises that let your body move in a way that is natural to it, with a full range of motion and a resistance curve that matches your strength curve.  Pick good workouts- with weights, not half-assed dancing- and stick with them until you stop making progress for an extended period of time.

Eat a clean diet that’s high in protein, but don’t go overboard and start injecting whey into your veins.  Just say no to supplements that have been debunked by a mountain of research.

Focus on the basics.  Do the hard stuff, stick with it, and make your gainz.

And if you want to learn how to really lose fat and gain muscle the the same time- without living in the gym and eating sixteen chicken breasts a day- enter your name and email address into one of the forms at the top, bottom or right side of this page to join my newsletter and receive my free seven-day body recomposition course.

2 thoughts on “The most overrated everything in fitness

  1. I LOVE the article!! Finally some common sense that’s based on scientific information, rational understanding, and practical application. I have been a competitive bodybuilder and athlete much of my life. I’ve had the honor and privilege of meeting and training with several elite athletes from a variety of disciplines. I’ve also been a longtime student of exercise science and nutrition. Unfortunately, in an environment that is so deeply rooted in ego and bro science most are too busy strutting and training their egos to notice they are injured, stagnant, and chronically in pain. I whole heartedly admit I have been one of the afflicted. What is so disheartening about this situation is to see so many suffer unnecessarily injuries and simply ignore them. Often leading to devastating injuries that seriously hamper their potential or end their careers. I’ve paid my own pound of flesh in the process of ignoring my own experience and feeling.

    To quote Frank Zane: “Thickness and density should not be synonyms for intelligence.” Clearly it is necessary to evaluate oneself taking into consideration what is TRUE about the level of development one currently has and who they really are. I am not you, you aren’t me. We may have similarities and be on a journey together. But disregarding how we are each unique as well as deadening our feelings; which includes ignoring pain and inflammatory response so as to impress others and experience a false sense of being ‘badass’ almost guarantees I will never achieve my genuine potential. Bro science, while mostly well intentioned, really has more to do with insecurity and monkey see monkey do mentalities. I assert that it’s an extension of ingrained brutality and numbness that is supposed to serve as a poor substitute for genuine aliveness and the wisdom of the body and beauty of emotional experience. Thank you Mr Fawkes for questioning behavior and systems that are passed off as knowledge. People should be invited to question and test for themselves. Athleticism, sport, bodybuilding… present an opportunity for self expression and art; soul expression. Who would have ever suspected that by actually knowing thyself one could make gainz?

    1. That’s high praise Jonathan- thanks for the well thought-out reply! To be clear, I’m not always against broscience, and there have been some times when the bros turned out to be right and the scientific consensus had to be revised- the idea that incline bench pressing specifically works your upper chest comes to mind.

      Ultimately, it’s about looking at the evidence. I value research over anecdotes, but personal experience matters too, especcially when there are gaps in the research. Most importantly, there’s a world of difference between broscience that directly contradicts scientific research, and broscience that pertains to issues that scientists haven’t studied yet. I almost never pay any heed to the former, but the latter has value, and there’s a lot of truth to the old aphorism that athletes and bodybuilders often start trying new things a decade before scientists get around to testing them.

      I’m curious, how did you find this article? Google?

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